A Traveler's Guide To The Planets originally aired on the National Geographic Channel but it now finds its way to home video thanks to Vivendi's Blu-ray release. What is the show all about? Despite the fact that the title makes it sound like something written by Douglas Adams, it's actually a really interesting look at what makes the various planets that make up our solar system unique and therefore interesting. It's all presented in a very matter of fact manner that makes it easy to digest in layman's terms and it's visually impressive, thanks to its clever use of archival footage, CGI animation and talking head interviews, that it generally always looks really cool too.
If you're not a science fan and don't currently have an interest in the planets that we share a sun with, this probably won't change your mind and if you're an expert on what the solar system has to offer then there's a very good chance you won't learn a thing - but the reality is that most of us probably lay quite comfortably somewhere in the middle of those two extremes and this show is geared to us. The forty-five minute episodes that make up this series are presented in the following order:
Saturn: The ringed planet is up first, as we learn about the different methane streams that help to make up the planet along with massive sand dunes and ice formations. We learn about the moons that rotate around this planet, which is a billion miles from the Earth, and we learn how 'robot pioneers' have been used to photograph the planet and educate us about its geography and topography. One of the most unique planets that we know of, this introductory episode is a nice mix of art and science, showing off as much of the planet's natural wonder and beauty as is realistically possible while poking and prodding at our brain's frequently enough and with enough solid information that this is quite a treat to watch.
Jupiter: The second segment explains how parts of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, are hotter than the sun and how the planet is seemingly under constant barrage from mammoth storms of various kinds. We learn about Jupiter's moon of 'fire and brimstone' and how it's basically a planet of volcanoes and we then travel to the icy seas that experts think have the highest probability of life outside of Earth. If you weren't interested in Jupiter before you put this disc in, you will be once it's over. The show plays it off as the ultimate tourist destination in that it has something for everyone and they certainly make a very good case for that. Interesting stuff!
Mars: The red planet is a mysterious one with canyons and volcanoes and, as the series puts it, all kinds of interesting features. This is a planet we believe was once covered in water and which is now more desolate than the red sands of Arizona. Some amazing travelogue footage courtesy of satellites and robots ensures that this episode will be nothing short of amazing on a visual level, and of course, our team of experts gladly elaborate on the reality of mankind on day actually making it to Mar and speculate, not unreasonably, that it will happen in the lifetime of someone currently living on Earth right now (maybe not the ninety year old lady next door to you, but possibly the eight year old kid down the street).
Venus And Mercury: For some reason the front of the second disc in this set says that this episode is on that disc. It's not. It's here on disc one. Regardless, the episode shows us that Mercury may not be quite as desolate as we sometimes think and how Venus is actually 'real Hell' despite the fact that scientists believe it was at one point very close to Earth despite the fact that it's now more or less a pressure cooker. There's an environmental message to this one, mild as it may be, which warns us in no uncertain terms to behave ourselves as far as our oceans are concerned. We're not doing very good job of that right now, but here's hoping that changes and our planet doesn't become a wasteland.
Pluto And Beyond: Pluto is the smallest planet in the solar system but that doesn't mean it gets short changed in this series. There's plenty of interesting speculation as to what Pluto actually looks like as we learn how further examination of what we know about Pluto has lead to revaluating much of what we know about the solar system. From there, this episode speculates about what lies out there past Pluto, what it might be like, and if we could ever hope to make it out that way in the future. There's more speculation in this episode than others, but the series does make some interesting points and ask some interesting questions about how Pluto came to be and look like the planet that it is.
Neptune And Uranus: The last episode asks why Uranus is on its side and speculates on how and why Neptune has remained viable planet despite its distance from the sun, and how it's managed to have the highest and fastest winds in the solar system. Dubbed 'The Ice Giants' this voyage to the most 'remote and intriguing planets of all' is a pretty solid way to end the series. This episode doesn't deviate from the formula that made the first four as interesting as they are, and why should it? The topography and history of these planets is very different from the others and so we're hardly in danger of repeating ourselves here and this exploration of the outer reaches of the solar system is just as fascinating as the ones that came before it.
A Traveler's Guide To The Planets arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080i 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen high definition presentation. How does it look? It's okay. It's not perfect, but it's okay. Colors look nice and bright though the CGI animation used to illustrate various points can sometimes look rather fake. This is more to do with the animation than the transfer, likely, but it's hard not to notice it. Interview segments with the very human experts who contribute their knowledge to the series don't show the greatest detail and sometimes actually look a little flat (though on the flipside of that coin, other segments show excellent detail) while the stock footage taken from various space missions conducted throughout the years varies in quality from clip to clip - which is perfectly understandable. This is a presentation that presumably looks better in high definition than it does on standard definition (though without the standard discs to compare it to this is just an educated guess) but it's not really reference quality so much as it is erratic. The very nature of the series dictates that it has to be to a certain extent, but generally things look decent enough and remain completely watchable.
The best audio option provided for this set is a standard definition Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, though a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is also offered. Subtitles are provided in English SDH only. The narration, which makes up the majority of the audio, comes at you cleanly and clearly from the front of the mix while the instrumental score used throughout the series is spread out very nicely through all five channels. Your subwoofer will kick in when it's asked to but that isn't all that often. Levels are well balanced and the narration and interview clips are always easy enough to understand, but it's a shame that no lossless audio options was offered. There aren't a lot of sound effects used here, but there are some and they are, like the score, spread around fairly well and show some good directionality. But this is a Blu-ray release and this is a standard definition audio mix, so some are bound to be (understandably) disappointed.
There are two bonus episodes in the special features section - The Sun (3:59) and The Moon (2:53). Menus are obviously included and each episode includes chapter selection. Credits for the series are included on each disc and there are trailers included for a few other National Geographic DVD and Blu-ray releases.
National Geographic's presentation isn't perfect but it's decent enough and the two bonus episodes are welcome extras and it makes sense to include them here, even if they are way too brief. As to the series itself? If you're interested in astronomy and have an understandably and natural curiosity about the planets that share our solar system, then there's a very good chance you'll appreciate this series. While more archival footage and less CGI animation would have probably helped in some areas, this is, on a whole, quite a well put together package. It's interesting and educational, never boring and frequently fascinating, and it's easy to recommend it to the science/space/astronomy fan in your household.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.