Another recent repackaging of popular History Channel programs previously made available on their own, Earth And Space bundles How The Earth Was Made (which was previously only available in standard definition but is now available on Blu-ray on its own) with the complete first season of The Universe the results are pretty interesting, but those with the earlier releases of this material need not worry, the content on the discs appears to be exactly the same. For those not familiar with this stuff, however....
How The Earth Was Made:
Originally debuting as a special entitled, you guessed it, How The Earth Was Made, this was eventually spun off into a series of its own right after that special aired on The History Channel in 2007. With the first episode showing two years later in 2009, the focus wasn't as strictly 'geographic' as it was in the special, instead the series covers both the natural formation of the planet and how its population has affected this.
Two seasons have been broadcast so far, with the entire contents of the first season (excluding the aforementioned special) included in this collection. This first season travels the globe and takes a look at different topographical and geographical oddities and explains what makes the different locations uniqe in addition to how they were formed. The episodes that make up How The Earth Was Made are:
San Andreas Fault: The eight hundred mile San Andreas Fault in California is under constant surveillance by geologists due to the fact that, should it decide to move, it could split the state and destroy large portions of California's landscape as we know it. This episode explains how that fault line came to be and why we need to worry about it.
The Deepest Place On Earth: What is the deepest place on earth? The Mariana Trench which is a massive rift way out in the Pacific Ocean that was caused by movement of the Pacific Plate. Very few scientists have been able to study this phenomena in much detail, but those who have share some of their interesting findings in this episode.
Krakatoa: Indonesia is home to some very interesting volcanoes, many of which are still quite active and have the potential to lay waste to the country should they decide to erupt. Here we learn about the eruption that took place in the late 1800s and which caused a massive tsunami to occur and how there's a very real possibility that this could happen again in our lifetime.
Loch Ness: Most famous for its prehistoric denizen, Loch Ness is also interesting for how deep it is and for how it was formed. When a glacier moved across this particular part of Scotland, it carved a massive hole in the earth and that's how the lake was formed. Is it possible this glacial evolution helped a prehistoric creature to survive there all these years since? Only Werner Herzog knows for sure, though sadly he has nothing to do with this episode.
New York: New York City is the biggest city in the country and it sits atop rock that connects it all the way across the world to Africa. Here we learn how glaciers made their way across the top of the earth and carved out the unique geography that is now home to the five boroughs that make up New York City.
The Driest Place On Earth: South America's Atacama Desert is, according to the record books and scientific findings, the driest place on the planet. Reportedly over fifty times more desolate than America's own Death Valley, this desert is still home to a unique species of life. Here we learn how this desert was formed and how these life forms exist.
Great Lakes: Throughout the middle of the border between the United States and Canada lay the Great Lakes, some of the largest fresh water deposits in the world. Formed by glacial movement and plate shifts, scientists have found, through research conducted throughout the lakes, that this part of the world may have at one point in time been an ancient sea.
Yellowstone: This national park attracts thousands of tourists every year thanks to its massive population of animal life and its beautiful geography. What many of these tourists probably don't realize is that the park is basically sitting on top of a volcano and while this volcano is where much of what makes the area unique comes from, it's still active and liable to explode at some point.
Tsunami: This episode explores the co-relation between what happens on the land and how that affects what happens in the sea as we learn how land shifts and landslides can and do result in massive tsunami's that wind up just making things worse for anyone or anything that lay in its path. We often think of land and sea as completely separate entities but this episode shows that they're much more closely related than we often take the time to think about.
Asteroids: The semi-famous Barringer Meteor Crater out in the deserts of Arizona isn't the only place on the planet to have been formed into its current state by giant rocks falling from outer space. Here we learn how asteroids have been helping to shape and change the earth for centuries by showing off what evidence is left from various asteroid related incidents that have occurred over the years.
Iceland: This island country is unique in that it was formed by undersea volcanoes and ice and as such has a really interesting geographical history. This episode explores what makes this country unique, how the various factors that played a role in shaping it helped it evolve, and what the ever changing state of the planet may mean for the country.
Hawaii: Like the last episode, this one takes a look at how the chain of Hawaiian island was formed out in the Pacific Ocean and how that has resulted in some beautiful locations throughout the different islands. We also learn about how things could possibly change for Hawaii as plates continue to move and volcanoes continue to stay active.
The Alps: The final episode of the first season explores how the most famous mountain range in all of Europe was formed when two of the Earth's plates collided and forced things upward. Interestingly enough, scientific studies have found fossils high up in the alps of what are believed to be the remains of ancient sea creatures, pointing to the fact that much, if not all, of our planet was at one point completely submerged.
Part geography lesson, part travelogue, How The Earth Was Made is pretty interesting stuff, particularly if you enjoy learning about geography and history. It plays things fairly safe and doesn't get too high concept for the most part, but the visual side of things is well done and ensures that you've got plenty of interesting material to look at while the various scientists, geography experts and historians provide context for the material.
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 episodes that make up The Universe portion of this collection:
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 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.
The Outer Planets: This episode explores those planets further from the sun - Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Some focus is given to the Uranus' moon as well as that planet's unique gaseous surface, to Neptune's multiple moons and unique surface texture, and to Pluto's unusually long multi-century orbit.
The Most Dangerous Place In The Universe: As if plain old regular space weren't scary enough on its own, this episode explains the dangers inherent in deadly occurrences such as black holes, powerful gamma rays, and outer space collisions. There's a fair bit of time explaining how these instances occur and what makes them so deadly making this one of the more interesting episodes of the season.
Search For ET: Mankind has long speculated that there is life on other planets and scientists and nutjobs alike have tried to prove it for as long as the history books have been written. This episode explores the genesis of SETI and the work that they do in this regard and also explores the space program's research and efforts to find extra terrestrial life in our own solar system.
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 arrives on Blu-ray the same AVC encoded 1080i 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen high definition presentation that it was given previously. 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. How The Earth Was Made is presented in the same aspect ratio, though it's a also a 1080i presentation - it really doesn't look much better than The Universe and the video quality is basically the same. Sometimes the CGI bits look soft, but much of the outdoor footage is crisp, clean and very nicely detailed.
The only audio option offered for both The Universe and How The Earth Was Made is an LPCM 2.0 Stereo track. There are no alternate language dubs or subtitles provided. 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, but you can't help but wonder if a 5.1 mix might have made some of the more dynamic aspects of the series a bit more interesting. Some good left to right activity brings some life to the proceedings here and there and the scores always sound quite good, epic at times even.
The only extra on this release, aside from chapters and episode selection, is a bonus featurette entitled Beyond The Big Bang. At ninety minutes in length, this is a pretty in-depth look at theories that explain how the Big Bang shaped our universe. It fits in well with the feature material here.
If you have the previous releases of How The Earth Was Made and The Universe: The Complete Season One then this release won't mean much to you but it does offer up some interesting material bundled together at a discounted price and that counts for something. If you don't have this material and want it, you might as well go this route and get more for your money. 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.