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. That said, each of the five seasons of the series has enough going for it that even the weaker material in the later seasons is definitely worth seeing. The series has a great knack for explaining very high concepts in terms that are easy to understand and with plenty of excellent visual aids. You don't have to be a wannabe astronomer or a science expert to enjoy this show - it's edutainment of the highest order. This collection compiles all five seasons of the series in one handy boxed set. Here's how it all breaks down:
Season One (3 discs):
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.
Beyond The Big Bang: This last season one episode takes us on a trip back in time to the original big bang and shows us what it might have been like while physics experts theorize on how it would shape the universe and, more interesting, what there may have been before the big bang.
Season Two (4 discs):
Alien Planets: Ever wondered how it is that astronomers actually go about finding planets out in the far reaches of space? This episode explains the technology and the theory behind how they do just that before showing off some of the more unusual planet types that have been discovered.
Cosmic Holes: Black holes and worm holes have long been a part of science fiction, but this episodes explains the reality of these odd space phenomena and how they affect the solar system and space travel.
Mysteries Of The Moon: This episode stats with a basic history of how the moon has affected our own planet before then looking at how it plays a part in our daily lives, affects change on the planet and then closing out with an interesting examination of transient lunar phenomena.
The Milky Way: The most famous black hole in history is the subject of this episode as we learn how it has swallowed stars and suns and created others. A sort of giant space recycler, we learn about its history and its impact on what floats out in space around it.
Alien Moons: Lo, Europa and Triton are just three alien moons that exist in our universe and this episode takes a look at the topography and geology of each of these moons, theorizing on how they were created and what impact they may have on the planets that they orbit.
Dark Matter/Dark Energy: Dark matter is thought to make up roughly 96% of the universe and yet most of us don't even know what exactly it is. This episode explains the theories behind it and how similar dark energy is growing the universe in ways you would never likely ever imagine.
Astrobiology: This episode explains how scientists combine biology with astronomy and physics to search for life out in the solar system. Lots of theories are explained here and back up with evidence from the biological history of our own planet Earth.
Space Travel: A solid overview of the history of space travel, this episode discusses the evolution of different aspects of the space program before going on to provide some interesting examples of how the effects of space travel and what we have learned from space travel have gone on to affect our lives.
Supernovas: When a star goes supernova, it essentially dies. This episode explains why that happens, what it means and how it affects the universe before freaking us out with stories about radiation, gamma-rays, and other undesirable effects from such occurrences.
Constellations: There are eighty-eight named constellations in our galaxy and here we get to learn about how they came to be named, their theological and historical significance, and how they may have been formed. We then learn how they helped civilizations that came before our own to travel.
Unexplained Mysteries: This episode is a bit more general and unfocused as it explores and explains some half truths surrounding the galaxy. We get to learn the realities around such phenomena as time travel and the possibility of alien life and how various scientific theories prove or disprove these phenomena.
Cosmic Collisions: With all that 'stuff' flying around out there in space, there are bound to be collisions now and again and this episode takes a look at what happens when they occur. It's not limited to just asteroids and random space rocks either, it explains what happens when planets collide. Interesting stuff.
Colonizing Space: Sci-Fi has told us its possible and in the 60s it seemed an inevitability but we've yet to really colonize space. This episode takes a look at why it hasn't happened yet but also explores steps that have been and are being taken to make that a reality.
Nebulas: The focus of this episode is obviously space nebulas, so sit down and take in some of the most amazing footage that this entire set has to offer as we watch stars be born and watch starts go supernovae through the aid of computers and real images.
Wildest Weather In The Cosmos: The Earth isn't the only planet that has to deal with nasty weather conditions and in fact, once this episode is over with you'll probably agree that what we have to deal with is nothing compared to some of what happens out in space. This episode explores how winds can reach thousands of miles an hour and how it can rain metal.
Biggest Things In Space: Scientists explain how a gigantic cosmic web holds all manner of things together and how various galaxies can actually be contained inside what is basically a gigantic bubble. Voids and radio lobes are explored and explained as are black holes.
Gravity: We learn not only how gravity affects astronauts while they're out in space doing what they do but also how they train to operate in zero gravity environments. We also learn how gravity played a role in the creation of the universe and the planets and how it continues to affect the evolution of the universe.
Cosmic Apocalypse: Closing on a somber note, this episode gives some insight into possible ways that the entire universe could wind up being destroyed. Pleasant food for thought? Not at all but learning about the fragility of the universe is pretty humbling.
Season Three (3 discs):
Deep Space Disasters: Disasters can happen in space just as they can on Earth and this episode explores how and why things do go wrong in the world of space travel and space exploration. Everything from mechanical malfunction to environmental problems are covered here.
Parallel Universes: The multiverse theory, that being that there are multiple dimensions, is explored here and we learn why certain scientists believe that there may be parallel worlds which are duplications of our own in existence.
Light Speed: Basically considered the fastest speed to measure in the universe, light speed is looking like it can actually be topped according to some of the scientists involved in this episode. We learn how this could happen and what it means to space travel.
Sex In Space: A follow up piece to the episode about colonizing space, this segment explores how human relations might differ in space should we be out there on a permanent basis and compares some of these theories to a typical Earth bound sex life.
Alien Faces: This episode explores how life on Earth has evolved over time and how similar evolution may have occurred with other alien races. Obviously much of this in conjecture but there are some interesting theories as to how evolution and environmental issues could impact other races.
Deadly Comets And Meteors: The title more or less says it all as far as this episode is concerned. Essentially we learn about the dangers that comets and meteors pose not just to Earth but to different aspects of the universe as a whole. We also learn how comets and meteors helped to shape evolution.
Living In Space: Another follow up to the colonization episode, here we learn how domed cities and underground cities could possibly lead to humans being able to one day survive on a permanent basis on another planet.
Stopping Armageddon: Scientists figure that it's only a matter of time before a gigantic meteor starts hurtling towards Earth to destroy us all. Thankfully some of them have used their noggins to come up with ways to stop that from happening, and this episode puts us all at ease by exploring some of those ideas.
Another Earth: Scientists explain the search for, as the title implies, another Earth - basically a planet similar enough to our own that we'd be able to move there without having to dig underground or build giant domed cities. It's maybe not as much of a stretch as you might think.
Strangest Things: Oddball moons and strange stars are covered in this random episode about space oddities. We also learn more about black holes and their impact and the dark matter theory and how it relates to some bizarre occurrences in the universe.
Edge Of Space: Space travel will likely eventually become a commercially viable industry and this episode shows us how we're getting closer and closer to making that happen. From there we learn how this could lead to space vacations and space hotels and how a space tourism industry could very well develop from all of this.
Cosmic Phenomena: A generic term for things that we can see that are caused by stuff in the universe, this episode looks at the aurora borealis, meteor showers, photosynthesis and other things that can only be described as, you guessed it, cosmic phenomena. Not all of this is good though - UV rays can kill us and solar flares could melt us.
Season Four (3 discs):
Death Stars: This episode examines what could potentially happen if a star millions of miles away from the earth were to burn out and how it might affect life on our planet. There's a whole lot of speculation in this episode, a lot of 'what if' scenarios and the penchant for creating an apocalyptic scenario comes off as rather sensationalist.
The Day The Moon Was Gone Along the same lines as the first episode is this second episode that pontificates on what would happen to us if the Moon were to get knocked out of orbit. In addition to that it makes some odd speculations about what would have happened to us if the Moon had never been there in the first place. Again, it all feels a little sensationalist but it's at least more interesting than the first episode was.
It Fell From Space: This third episode is the best on the first disc. It explains how and why meteorites, asteroids, and comets, fly around out there in space and sometimes crash into the earth. Interestingly enough, it also covers what could possibly happen to all of those abandoned space stations and rockets and other assorted creations that humans have left floating around in the cosmos. It is, again, an apocalyptically themed episode with plenty of talk about how we'll eventually get pounded by various space objects in the future, but it does back things up with a bit more fact.
Biggest Blasts: This episode takes a look at possible massive explosions that may tear our galaxy, and other galaxies, a new one. Oddly it recycles a fair bit from episodes seen on the first disc. Commentary from a scientist or two explains how and why they worry that these massive space explosions can and will occur, and why we should be afraid of them ending our world and possibly a few others at the same time.
The Hunt For Ringed Planets: This considerably happier episode, the first of the season, explains how astronomers long believed Saturn to be the only ringed planet in our solar system but how recent discoveries show that may not necessarily be the case. From there we learn how planets get rigs around them, what makes up the content of those rings, and how the typography of those planets takes shape. It's pretty interesting stuff and it's nice to know that these rings don't in any way appear to be able to blow up the Earth or send all of us to certain doom.
10 Ways To Destroy The Earth: With that happiness out of the way, let's get back to possible ways we can all die! Gamma rays, asteroids, changes in our orbit and plenty of other threats are out there and should have all of us living in fear, apparently. More doomsday scenarios are covered and dissected - it doesn't appear we have much of a chance.
The Search For Cosmic Clusters:
The third disc starts off on an interesting note as it explains how clusters of stars can come together to form solar systems and help create planets and galaxies. This is all handled through a journey on a virtual spaceship that takes us around the galaxy and shows us, through the wonders of animation, how this can happen. It's quite interesting and beautiful in its own odd sort of way.
Space Wars: Another episode that, at this point in time at least, is almost entirely science fiction rather than science fact, covers what war might be like a century from now. By propelling us a hundred years into a theoretical future, we meet up with a group of moon colonists who have had it with the folks back on Earth and who then launch an attack against us. Lots of lasers are used but so too are nuclear weapons.
Liquid Universe: Although our planet is largely made up of water, liquid is generally quite rare out there in the far reaches of space. We learn, through some scientific explanations, how there's a whole lot of gas out there and how liquid can effect a planet, how a certain moon actually has a lake made out of methane gas on its surface and how other planets have bodies made entirely out of liquid hydrogen. Interesting stuff that makes you appreciate the oceans, lakes and rivers we often don't think about just a little bit more than you might otherwise.
Pulsars And Quasars: This truly enlightening and fascinating episode covers what Pulsars and Quasars actually are, why they matter, how they affect the universe around us and how they were discovered. This is the mix of education, fancy graphics, theorizing and talking head interviews that the better episodes of the series really benefit from, making this episode one of the stand outs of this fourth season simply because it explains the reality of its subject rather than speculating on various aspects of it.
Science Fiction/Science Fact: This is another interesting episode that lets different scientists discuss elements popular and common in various aspects of science fiction and talk about how technology has or has not advanced to the point where some of these ideas could become a reality. It may sound like a fairly typical sci-fi guy discussion but it's approached intelligently and never gets so highbrow as to alienate anyone, while at the same time it never downplays things either. The end result is an interesting examination of where things could be headed and why.
Extreme Energy: The last episode of the season is another decent one, as it explains how everything in our universe relates to a form of energy. We learn how this energy can change form, become matter, and evolve and how some of it can affect the planets around it. Learning how all of this correlates to common, every day things we use and need like household electricity is actually pretty darn cool.
Season Five (2 discs):
7 Wonders Of The Solar System: As there are seven wonders on our world, so too are there seven wonders of the universe, or so says the Discovery Channel. Geysers, the rings of Saturn, land formations on Mars and other noteworthy anomalies that we know of are discussed as are their prospective origins.
Mars - The New Evidence: The search for life on Mars has been the subject of debate for as long as there has been a space program, if not longer. New evidence has surfaced in recent years that proves that it may be closer to science fact than science fiction, and it appears that the red planet did at one time support a serious ecosystem.
Magnetic Storm: The sun has the ability to cause massive magnetic storms that can have an incredible effect on the planets that are near them when they occur. If this were to occur near Earth, we would very likely find all of our communication systems taken down and anything relating to electricity inoperable. This episode explains what could cause this and possible effects it might have on our planet.
Time Travel: Einstein's Theory of Relativity supports the idea of time travel and this episode sets out to explain how that relates to recent developments and research that are coming closer and closer to making it a very real possibility. We also learn what could happen and about the consequences of time travel - watch out for SKYNET!
Secrets Of The Space Probe: NASA has a series of high tech space probes that are sent out to areas that manned space craft can't reach. This episode explains how and why these space probes are used and what we've learned from them so far.
Asteroid Attack: There are all sorts of asteroids floating around out there in the far and not so far reaches of space. Here we learn what causes them, effects that they have on the universe, what we've learned from studying them and how they can impact our planet.
Total Eclipse: Lunar and solar eclipses are covered in this episode as we learn what causes them and how they affect life on Earth. Interestingly enough, by studying eclipses, astronomers and other scientists have been able to learn more about other planets in our solar system - this episode details how that all works.
Dark Future Of The Sun: The series closes out with a grim one, as scientists and experts explain how and why our sun will eventually burn out and what will happen to Earth when that inevitability becomes reality. Spoilers! When it burns up, it's going to take us all with it and basically obliterate our planet. The good news? It won't happen anytime soon.
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: The Mega Collection arrives on Blu-ray the same AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen high definition presentation that it was given previously when released as single season sets. 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. If this isn't a perfect presentation, it's definitely a good one and it offers far better color reproduction and considerably stronger detail than what standard definition can provide. 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 first four seasons of The Universe is an LPCM 2.0 Stereo track. Season five changes things up a bit with a DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo Surround Mix. 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.
There are a few extra 'bonus documentaries' scattered throughout the first few seasons' discs starting with 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. Meteors: Fire In The Sky (9:32) and Comets: Prophets Of Doom (3:17) are also found here, but unfortunately these are very brief and don't go into much detail on their topics. The visuals are nice but there isn't nearly as much substance as you'll find in the episodes themselves. Backyard Astronomers (56:18) is a lengthy piece that isn't a whole lot more than a series of admittedly spectacular images that you can see on your own with some basic astronomy gear. The lack of any hearty substance is made up for with the excellent images and visuals, however - it's a treat to look at, so pop this one in your player, sit back, and trip. There are also some Universe Facts and Image Galleries spread out amongst the set.
Aside from that, this set also includes a bonus disc with the Seven Wonders Of The Solar System episode presented in Blu-ray 3-D with a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix. The content is the same as the broadcast version episode but the few out there equipped with 3D TVs and compatible Blu-ray players will enjoy this 47 minute trip into the third dimension of space.
If you've already got the individual season releases, then there's not much point in bothering with this set as it doesn't bring anything new to the table at all. However, if you don't have the previous releases and are interested in astronomy and enjoy lengthy and comprehensive documentaries, consider The Universe: The Mega Collection highly recommended. There's over fifty hours of content here, not including the extras, and it's all presented in solid HD quality. The series itself is fascinating even if it does periodically delve into doom and gloom territory. It's very well put together and contains so many great visuals and fascinating stories that you can't help but get pulled in by it.
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.