The Universe has been popping up on The History Channel for a few years now and while the early episodes were pretty fascinating, those who have been following the series since then probably know that the more recent material isn't as strong. This collection of episodes, subtitled Our Solar System, gathers together some really strong entries from the series run and presents them in a two disc set. Those who enjoy scientific explanations of all that our universe has to offer should still find enough to enjoy here to make it worthwhile, as this is definitely some of the best content to have come out of the series so far. That said, the content that is included here was already issued on the The Universe - The Complete Season One collection, making this release rather puzzling, as it's basically a reissue of that first season sans the last four episodes.
Here's a quick look at the ten episodes that make up the two disc set (each episode runs roughly forty-five minutes in length):
Secrets of the Sun: Since the sun is essentially the basis of life in our solar system it makes sense to kick this release off with a look at how the sun was formed. We learn what it's actually made of, how it came to be, how it creates energy that in turns 'fuels' other planets, and what threats could eventually extinguish it. Additionally, this episode takes a look at solar eclipses, sunspots and solar flares and explains what causes them and why they occur.
Mars: The Red Planet: As most of us know, Mars is the planet in our solar system closets to the Earth in terms of the possibility of sustaining life is concerned. This episode explores the unique geology of that planet, including the Olympus Mons volcano, and gives us information on various NASA missions that were conducted in hopes of finding evidence of life on Mars.
The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threats To Our Planet: The most sensationalist episode in this collection explores the possibilities of our planet being destroyed by a rogue asteroid or comet. If those weren't dangerous enough, we also live with the reality of potential solar flares and gamma rays destroying the Earth. It's not all bad news, however, as this episode also spends some time explaining how scientists are working towards preventing all of his doom and destruction from happening, at least any time soon.
Jupiter: The Giant Planet: The largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter is ripe with sixty of its own moons. Here we learn how the planet may have been formed, what it's made out of, and how it essentially lies in the middle of its own miniature solar system. The prospect of life on some of Jupiter's moons are discussed, as are various topographical formations and ecologies.
The Moon: The first disc finishes up with a look at our own moon, starting with how scientists have deduced it to have been formed before then examining how it affects life on our planet. While it's something that we often take for granted, there's a lot of evidence to support the fact that the Moon has played a huge part in our evolution as a race. We also learn about NASA's efforts to learn more about it and build on its surface.
Spaceship Earth: This episode explains how our planet was formed during the birth of our solar system before going on to speculate as to how life on this planet began. Different evolutionary theories are discussed and elaborated on before the interviewees theorize on what could eventually lead to the end of life on Earth as we know it.
The Inner Planets: Mercury & Venus: The two planets that lay closest to the sun are, not surprisingly, the most hostile to life. Mercury is tough and covered with massive craters, a veritable scorched surface beaten by the sun's rays, while Venus is layered with toxic gas and acid rain. This episode explores their formation, their existence, and theorizes about whether any form of life could possibly survive a habitat like the ones provided by Mercury and Venus.
Saturn: Lord of the Rings: Saturn is famous for its amazing rings, and this episode explains to us how those unique rings were created and how they've affected Saturn's surface. NASA studies have uncovered more details about the planet and its rings, while scientists elaborate on how Saturn's moon, Titan, may be rich with petroleum gas, which
Alien Galaxies: This episode provides a look through the Hubble Space Telescope and shows us what lies beyond the reaches of our own solar system in the vast and far stretches of space. Scientists speculate on what may be out there, about how our own galaxy was formed, and about how our galaxy is only one of an infinite number that likely exist.
Life and Death of a Star: This final episode examines the phenomena of stellar evolution as it explains how stars are born and how the laws of physics collide and turn hydrogen gasses into the stars we see up in the sky at night. Theories of nuclear fusion are explained as we learn how stars are born only to die and both how and why this occurs and how we're able to see it from the Earth.
Strange marketing and release tactics aside, the content here is good, though why you'd want this release over the complete first season release (which, as stated, includes four more episodes) is anyone's guess as this two disc set brings nothing new to the table in terms of extra features or content. The episodes are all quite interesting and often feature some strikingly beautiful visuals to compliment the often fascinating content. You don't necessarily need to be an astronomy buff to appreciate what The History Channel has done with this series, as the ten episodes included in this set really do cover a lot of ground and not only that, they manage to do it consistently well.
The series does a great job of mixing computer animation with amazing high definition footage to ensure that the visuals are consistently impressive, while the narration is highbrow enough to sound official but not so heavy that it's difficult to understand. The series breaks things down in layman's terms without 'dumbing it down' and the show is all the better for it. Dry theories on physics and geology become interesting thanks to interviews with experts and remarkable photography and the end result is a rather fascinating collection of mini-documentaries on topics that most of us don't bother to take the time to stop and think about.
The Universe: Our Solar System 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, but on the flip side, there are sequences that are amazing in their clarity and detail. This is more to do with the animation used rather 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 generally look nice and clean while the stock footage taken from various space missions conducted throughout the years varies in quality from clip to clip - which is perfectly understandable. While it's likely that the content could have looked better, and the 1080i tag will definitely irk some videophiles, overall this is a good presentation. Not a great one, but definitely a good one and it offers far better color reproduction and considerably stronger detail than what standard definition can provide.
The only audio option offered is a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track, no lossless option is available. There are no alternate language dubs or subtitles provided. The quality of the stereo track is fine, but let's be honest, this is a Blu-ray release and people who are interested in the format generally want something more than just a run of the mill standard definition audio option like the one provided here. That gripe aside, you won't have any problems with the narration or the mixing of the levels. Everything is clean and clear and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. There's nothing inherently wrong with the audio, it's just disappointing that the History Channel producers couldn't be bothered to make the most of the format's capabilities.
There are no extras on this release outside of standard menu and chapter selection screens.
Again, if you already have the season one release, this offers nothing new. If you don't have the season one release, it's hard to say what makes this abbreviated re-release more desirable than the whole package already offered. The content here is good and the transfers are nice, if not perfect, but there is a better version of this material already readily available. This release is a fair bit cheaper at the time of this writing, so it's got that going for it, but otherwise, if you're interested in the series, skip this release and get The Universe - The Complete Season One instead, it just makes more sense.
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.