Narrated by one Professor Brian Cox, the BBC's five part mini-series, The Wonders Of The Universe originally aired on television earlier this year but has now, rightfully, found its way to home video thanks to this spiffy new Blu-ray release. First things first - like the series that came before it (that being Wonders Of The Solar System) - 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 which take us out of our solar system and out into the further reaches of the universe where we learn how things work and why.
The four episodes contained on this single Blu-ray disc are:
The series starts off with a pretty heavy bang as Cox levels with us about his theories and ideas as they relate to how time affects the universe and by default those that inhabit it. This episode talks about how the universe could have been created and as such, how humans could have been created, and it discusses how an ancient Peruvian culture built a calendar in to the landscape and how the orbit of the sun correlates to time and how that affects things in the Milky Way. Some excellent examples are made on a smaller scale as to how the affects of time change things, which are then in turn applied to things on a much larger scale - the universe itself.
The second episode finds Cox trying to answer the age old question of human identity, chiefly, who we are and what our reason for being here is in the first place - and maybe most interestingly of all, how the heck did we get here? Religion provides answers for some but Cox's approach is, of course, entirely scientific. He starts by explaining how the life cycles of stars affect things in the universe and how this co-relates to religious beliefs such as reincarnation, making some interesting and completely poignant comparisons there. From there we learn how the Earth has sort of followed suit and recycled itself through the centuries and how the entire planet is made from only ninety-two elements which, like the examples he makes earlier on, are recycled more or less endlessly to result in our constantly evolving planet. Not so oddly enough, those same ninety-two elements are found throughout the entire universe, at least so far as we are able to tell at this point in the game.
The focus of this third episode is something that most of us take for granted and probably don't spend a whole lot of time really worrying about or thinking about - gravity. Cox makes some interesting points about gravity, however, and sets out to show us what a huge part it played in shaping the universe. We start by learning about weightlessness and its effects before then switching it up and seeing how that differs from gravitational forces - this sets up the basics and then allows Cox to talk about the effects that distance has on gravity, and how that in turn effects orbits and how density affects gravity, resulting in the phenomena known as the neutron star.
The fourth and final episode of the series deals with the effects of light on the universe. As is the norm with the show, Cox starts with things that we can understand without too much scientific expertise, and he discusses fossils and deserts and how light has affected these things. With our understanding of light now a little better than before, he takes a few steps out talks about how light affects color and temperature and how these properties can help us to better understand some of the fundamentals of our universe. Cox finishes off by explaining the importance of light to the evolutionary chain and then discussing how we've learned from that and how we've applied many of those principals to modern science and learning.
Overall, these four episodes are both interesting and engaging. Say what you will about Cox and his 'regular guy' approach to physics and astronomy but he does manage to be both entertaining and insightful. He does do a good job of keeping things at a level that reasonably intelligent viewers will have no problem digesting, meaning that you won't need a degree in astrophysics to understand the very highbrow concepts and ideas he discusses in this show. By tying in many of the ideas that explain what and how the universe works to things we can relate to here on our own planet, Cox keeps our attention and ensures that not only do we learn things, but we're then able to apply them in such a way that we can garner a better understanding of a lot of the day to day things around us we don't necessarily spend much time pondering.
Wonders Of The Universe 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 - the shots of the Peruvian landscapes are a great example, they look beautiful. 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 Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo 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 but the narration is clean and clear save for a few spots here and there where the background music is a bit high in the mix. A surround sound mix probably would have made some of the scenes a bit more fun and allowed for things to be shifted about the mix for emphasis but that didn't happen. What's here sounds fine and likely replicates the broadcast quality of the material - but a lossless option certainly would have been a boon to this Blu-ray release.
Aside from menus and episode selection, there are no extra features on this disc.
Wonders Of The Universe isn't going to be for everyone nor is it 'simply entertainment' but if you're curious about what surrounds our planet, how it got there, what it does, and how it affects you in ways you may not realize, well, Cox's program will go a long way towards satiating some of that curiosity. The Blu-ray release could have used some extras and should have had a better audio choice than it does, but the transfer isn't bad at all and this one comes recommended on the strength of the content.
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.