The History Channel had something incredible when they began to air The Universe. Fans of space and space exploration could stop watching the stars for an hour at a time, watching interviews and (nearly) state of the art CGI that would provide them with mind-boggling answers to the questions they only dreamed of asking. Of course, the real strength of the show was the fact that you didn't have to be an astronomy geek to appreciate what it had to offer. No, all of the information was presented in a way that was both entertaining and easy to understand. The first three seasons of the show were truly edutainment at its best, evenly presenting the facts with speculative theories about the past and future of... well, everything. However, the fourth season is when The Universe finally jumped the shark. Forgetting that the core audience was supposed to be everyone, the facts were pushed aside in favor of 'fun' speculative discussions that easily could have been Star Trek convention fodder - Teleportation and warp speed being only a couple of prime examples to illustrate my point. The fourth season was only a mere 12 episodes (chopped down from the 18 that made up the seasons before it), but most of it felt like filler. As a result, I had hoped that the fifth season of The Universe, reduced to only 8 episodes, would have wisely cut the fat. Instead, the final season of The Universe is more disappointing than one could have imagined.
The season begins by attempting to educate us on the 7 Wonders of the Solar System, detailing the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, the impressive geysers on Enceladus (the sixth largest moon of Saturn), and a humongous volcanic mountain on Mars. That's all well and good, but this first episode is basically informing us of what we already knew about this series as a whole - It's run out of ideas. Most, if not all of these major concepts have already been discussed in previous seasons. This first episode isn't the only offender of the bunch either, as Magnetic Storm, Mars: The New Evidence, Asteroid Attack, and Dark Future of the Sun also serve as bloated variations of what we've already been told.
It's the remaining few episodes that are really grasping at straws though. Losing focus of who the core audience is yet again, we're treated to more sci-fi what ifs with the subject of Time Travel. It's interesting to hear through interviews with astronomers and astrophysicists how such a thing could be possible, but exploring this possibility feels out of place for a show like The Universe. As I said in my fourth season review, I think speculation and theory are the most vital building blocks for any kind of science. Without them, the human race never would have felt compelled enough to seek the answers that we know to be fact today. That being said, this is supposed to be an informative show that uses educated hypotheses to tell us of the universe's creation, as well as its inevitable end. Dedicating an entire episode to time travel is irrelevant, no matter how interesting the subject matter may be. Furthermore, Secrets of the Space Probes informs us of how we've been using technology to gain further insight into the many mysteries the universe holds, and Total Eclipse is probably one of the least fascinating episodes of the series to date.
I'm glad that the people behind the show realized that they couldn't keep cranking out 18, 14, or even 12 episodes at a clip. I'm a firm believer that less can most certainly be more, and The Universe would have had a lot to gain by following the same. The fifth and seemingly final season, really adds nothing to the series in its entirety. Each episode is certainly entertaining enough in its own right (except for Total Eclipse), as the interviews with experts combined with impressive CGI works just as well as it ever did, but with most of the episodes double-dipping into a lot of the stuff The Universe already covered, it just feels like something odd was going on behind the scenes. Was History trying to pull in the ratings one last time with what's probably its most successful property, inevitably looking at another season's worth of home video sales? Was the show under a contractual obligation to provide another season? Perhaps the answer is out there and I'm just not looking hard enough, but whatever the reason is, I'm glad that the fat lady has finally sung.
The Universe - The Complete Season Five makes its way onto Blu-ray with a 1080i, 1.78:1 presentation via the AVC codec. This show looked pretty impressive when it aired on History HD, and this Blu-ray is a decent upgrade from broadcast, although not a substantial one. Colors are lush, contrast is spot on most of the time, there are no majorly distracting artifacts or edge enhancement to speak of, and detail is superb. However, there's some noticeable banding on occasion, and black levels have a tendency to look a little brighter than they should at times. Other than that, this is a pretty stellar video presentation, at least as far as a release from History is concerned. This isn't top-tier high-def material, but fans of the series won't be disappointed, as long as they don't have unrealistic expectations.
The only thing this season set has to offer is a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. Everything sounds fine and dandy - The dialogue is always clear and distinguishable, and the music is a bit more realistic sounding than I expected for a track sporting only two channels. The big problem I have with this track isn't in its technical representation (because it represents the source very well), but with the sound mix itself. The Universe is probably the best series History has had to offer in a very long time, if not ever, so you would think they'd bump it up a notch and provide some surround sound. Unfortunately that's not the case, but again, for those of you that are fans of the series as is, you won't find a bad representation of the source here.
In terms of supplements, this set never even leaves the atmosphere, let alone soar the cosmos. Despite bonus features appearing on seasons 2, 3, and 4 of The Universe, there are no unaired segments that have found their way to this collection. This is seemingly the last season of the show (as I see a full series set is due out later this year), so you would think History would have wanted something to celebrate the series in its entirety. It's truly a shame that no such offering exists.
Despite the fact that our universe is filled with more mystery than we could ever hope to completely understand, the biggest mystery of all is how the History Channel couldn't produce 8 episodes of The Universe with fresh topics to explore. Most episodes by themselves are entertaining enough, but they do little to complement the series as a whole. If you've watched most of the first four seasons, then it's pretty safe to say there isn't much you're going to learn from the fifth and supposedly final season. Those of you who can't stand to leave your collection incomplete by missing a season of a television series you love, no matter how disappointing it might be, will most likely want to pick this up. Personally, I'd wait for a price drop though. Quality of both video and audio are slightly better than broadcast, but unfortunately, there are no extras bidding this show farewell. For those of you that aren't familiar with The Universe or don't own any, or all of the previous seasons on Blu-ray thus far, I would only suggest you rent The Universe - The Complete Season Five, merely for the sake of saying, "I've seen the entire series."