In 2007 the History Channel launched a new documentary style series that took on a topic with more content than could ever be discussed. The Universe debuted to masses and became an instant success thanks largely in part to its quality production, but mostly due to an audience hungry for more. With shows like Planet Earth being all the rage, History Channel took that idea and expanded upon it, showing us detailed features of planets within our own solar system and even those beyond. The first season was a hit on DVD, and just about a year later it's time to check out the second collection of episodes.
The thing about The Universe that appeals to me the most is the manner with which it's presented. With state of the art computer graphics and several scientists and astronomers, popular and unknown, getting together to talk about each subject, the show takes on a life all its own. It's worth noting that while most of the science here is fact, some of the content is purely hypothetical and mostly speculative. This isn't a be-all, end-all omnibus for the universe, but rather entertaining and well thought out series that presents documentaries on a variety of topics. It's educational, insightful, and offers just enough bits of information so that every viewer will take something away. Also worth noting is the fact that it's not sensationalized in the least, which is a rarity for television such as this.
In the first season of The Universe the material focused largely on our own galaxy and the planets that revolved around our sun. The first half of the season covered our planets at length, but went on to look beyond our sun's gravitational pull in search of alien life. That's where the second season begins and it visits the subject from time to time, but another big theme from this season is the exploration of special events and matter.
The Universe begins here with an episode called "Alien Planets", which looks through a laundry list of interesting world's discovered within the past decade. Scientists look through specific ones to see which could possibly sustain life and hypothesize on the percentage of planets out there similar to our own. There's little denying that Earth is a rarity from what we can tell, but there's at least some hope out there that similar planets exist and that they would be capable of supporting life. This topic is visited later on in the season with episodes entitled, "Alien Moons", "Astrobiology", "Colonizing Space", and "Unexplained Mysteries". These are entertaining episodes, but most of their time is spent more in the fiction realm, rather than the scientific.
All together, the eighteen episodes here form a very entertaining series and there really isn't a "bad" episode in the bunch. Sure there are some that didn't peak my interesting quite as much as others, but despite that I found the whole season to be entertaining. In my opinion some of the better episodes involve the discussion about science such as "Cosmic Holes" examination of the pair of Colliders on Earth attempting to create mini black holes. The "Dark Matter" episode is great as well with its look at a perplexing science, and "Space Travel" was another entertaining one, which theorizes alternate means of traveling through space via different forms of propulsion, warp, or something theoretically faster than light. To top it all off, The Universe's second season ends on a happy note in an episode known as "Cosmic Apocalypse". Okay, maybe happy isn't quite the word I should use because this episode looks at how the universe could potentially end. Maybe the universe will be destroyed by a quantum fluctuation, be sucked into a black hole, or simply end in a galactic burn.
All in all, The Universe is a wildly entertaining documentary series which succeeds largely in part due to some fascinating science, great commentators, and high production values. The first season was fun to watch, but the focus on the known planets and science made it feel almost too familiar. Thankfully the second season breaks that mold somewhat and explores more modern science, the hypothetical, and the more imaginative. All around this season is better, and it's a welcoming release that has a well-deserved place on the DVD shelf.
If you purchased the first season and are wondering how the second holds up packaging wise, then you should know that the second season is entirely different. All five discs, featuring the eighteen episodes, have been packed into a steelbook case which is a far cry from the first season's cardboard sleeve and mini cases. This puts the two seasons at odds with each other, but taken alone this set looks very nice.
The first season of The Universe landed on DVD with a, unenhanced 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. While the lack of anamorphic support disappoints, it's not entirely surprising due to History Channel's constant stream of non-anamorphic releases. Aspect ratio aside, the image quality here is impressive with some superb images, both filmed and created by computers. With very little in terms of archival footage to feature here, grain is nary an issue and the episodes are balanced well so that compression artifacts aren't a problem either. The bottom line is that the second holds up the standards set by the first and helps solidify the fact that History Channel can produce some fine looking programs.
Documentaries are well known for not needing a 5.1 surround mix to get the point across. The Universe hits DVD with its original 2.0 stereo Dolby Digital recording and it is a very competent presentation. The sound is crisp, clean, and free of distortion so there is no loss of quality on the soundstage. On the front channel everything sounds good, but with nothing in the way of separation the experience remains relatively static. No subtitle tracks are available for this release.
The only feature available in the second season of The Universe is a featurette that looks at backyard astronomers. Clocking in at just under an hour, this inclusion isn't anywhere near as interesting as the show itself, but it is entertaining enough to be considered worth watching when you're done with the set. It's nice that this season includes supplemental content, as it was missing on the first season, but something more along the lines of interviews with the commentators or production featurettes would have been far more interesting.
The second season of The Universe is a great success for the History Channel. It picks up where the first series of documentaries left off and really varies the content to explore science and life beyond our galaxy and comprehension. If you are interested in astronomy, science, or even science fiction, then this is a show that will make its way through your standard viewing rotation. It's an insightful, thought-provoking, educational, and entertaining program that is arguably one of the best things to come from the History Channel in recent years. Check it out, you won't be disappointed. Highly Recommended