Narrated by one Professor Brian Cox, the BBC's five part mini-series, The Wonders Of The Solar System originally aired on television last year but has now, rightfully, found its way to home video thanks to this spiffy new Blu-ray release. First things first - how much you get out of this series will depend entirely on how much you appreciate Cox's personality. He comes across as much younger than his forty-three years would have you believe and has almost a hipster vibe to him. Those expecting a scholarly man with a beard and glasses talking from behind a pedestal might be taken aback by his insatiable enthusiasm for the material and his sometimes playful demeanor. He's taking this material seriously, but he's not afraid to have some fun with it. Spending the entire series clad in a jeans and a t-shirt (and why not? He's trudging around all over the place, he might as well be comfortable doing so), Cox regales us with stories and theories and expositions relating to how the solar system works and why the solar system is, in a word, awesome.
Broken up into five distinct chapters, the series lets Cox, in his own personable way, elaborate on his favorite aspects of the solar system and then bombard us with interesting facts while the visuals on display compliment his lectures (for lack of a better word) perfectly. Yes, there is quite a bit of CGI used throughout the series but the producers of the series have obviously gone to great lengths to use as much real footage as possible to tell these stories, and so aside from the computer animated bits that do pop up, we're also privy to some breathtaking cinematography shot both out in space and back here on Earth. Of course, there's a fair bit of footage of Cox running around and popping up in interesting places to explain things, but it's all well and good as it stays in context and doesn't go off track. There are times where this borders on a personality piece, but it never quite crosses that line.
Here's a quick look at the five parts that make up the whole of Wonders Of The Solar System:
Empire of the Sun:
The first episode illustrates how the sun was originally formed way out there in space and then goes on to explain how and why it works the way that it works. This, in turn, leads into a pretty advanced explanation of how the Sun affects not only our planet Earth, but each and every one of the other planets in our solar system.
Order Out of Chaos:
The second episode is the most visually unique as it narrows its focus a bit and explores the origins of the rings of Saturn, and the geysers of one of its moons, Enceladus. The explanation of how the rings formed and how the geysers came to be is quite fascinating even if it sounds like it might be a little bit on the dry side, while the footage used to illustrate the stories is fantastic.
The Thin Blue Line:
The third episode hits closer to home as it examines the intricacies of Earth's atmosphere and what makes it work the way that it works. The entry explores and expands upon different dangers that threaten the atmosphere and then goes on to explore the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, which has an atmosphere very similar, and at the same time, very different from our own.
Dead or Alive:
The fourth episode is also very impressive on a visual level as it examines the different surfaces and unique geography of the different planets. We learn how their size affects their topography and how volcanic eruption has played a part in their formation. We even journey to the moon of Io, which lies in Jupiter's orbit, to learn how its rivers and lakes of lava make it unique in the solar system.
The last episode discusses how life may or may not be able to survive and flourish in some rather extreme environments on the different planets. We learn about mankind's incessant search for extraterrestrial life and how this has been guided by looking for water on other planets. With the prime candidates being Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa, this is where the episode spends most of its time.
What makes this series interesting and quite clever is how the producers place Cox in a spot on Earth that closely resembles whatever he might be talking about. When talking about water on other planets, he does so from a riverbed for example, or when discussing volcanic eruption in outer space, he see him in a volcanic area on Earth. This grounds the series in reality and makes it easier for audiences to not only understand the sometimes very highbrow concepts he's explaining, but also to relate to them. He's put in a position that any one of us could be put into, and this makes him easier to appreciate as he delves into subjects that many of us may have ignored in high school science class. Cox doesn't slow things down at all as far as the content is concerned, but enough time and effort was put into writing his delivery that any reasonably intelligent viewer should have no trouble whatsoever grasping what is explained to us throughout the series' five parts. He also manages to work a bit of humor into his dialogue, which he delivers in a consistently conversational tone, giving the illusion that he's speaking directly to you as you're hanging out with him rather than reading off of a teleprompter.
The science of space is never going to be something that appeals to a mass audience the way something more easily digested will, but Cox and his crew have done as good a job as anyone in making it not only accessible but interesting for the average viewer. While it certainly requires a stronger attention span than say, a sit com or an episode of Family Guy, it's also much more rewarding. If you pay attention, you'll learn something.
Wonders Of The Solar System arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080i 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen high definition transfer. The transfers are generally very good, with plenty of shots looking razor sharp and showing amazing detail and color reproduction. Periodically other shots do appear soft and not quite on par with the other material in the set but these are thankfully few and far between. The source material is always very clean - the show was shot on HD video so there are no problems with print damage, dirt or debris to complain about. Color reproduction is generally quite strong and quite vivid while black levels remain fairly deep and don't break up at all. There is some jitter here and there as well as a bit of aliasing now and then, but even during these moments the image is more than watchable enough. Overall, the picture is quite strong, even if the 1080i factor is bound to annoy some.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, with closed captioning provided in English. There are no alternate language tracks or subtitles offered. There isn't a ton of enveloping audio here in terms of effects and what not, but the score is spread out quite effectively and it really does a fine job of enhancing the material quite a bit. The rear channels do spring to life whenever there's a lot of activity going on around Cox, but this is generally a fairly front heavy mix. It works well, however, as it delivers the contextual narration in a clear and concise manner. It's never hard to understand Cox as he explains the ideas and what not that the show elaborates on. This won't be your 'go to demo disc' but it certainly sounds quite good.
Aside from some simple menus and episode selection, this two disc set is contains two brief bonus documentary featurettes, the first of which is What On Earth Is Wrong With Gravity? (49:07), a documentary that explores how gravity works, by using a style similar to the one employed in the main feature content . The second documentary featurette is entitled Do You Know What Time It Is? (59:08) and it explains how the measuring of time has developed over thousands of years and how it relates to space. Both of these bonus documentaries are presented in standard definition and both are hosted by Brian Cox, who once again manages to find interesting locations to use and intelligent ways to explain the various concepts he discusses.
Once you get accustomed to Professor Cox's odd style and sometimes slightly manic enthusiasm for the material, it's hard not to find yourself getting sucked in by Wonders Of The Solar System. It's just generally really interesting stuff and the strong audio and video quality offered by the Blu-ray release make it even easier to enjoy and appreciate. Recommended.
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.