The Universe: Seasons One and Two
In case it escaped your notice, the universe is a mighty big place, and History Channel's literally awesome series The Universe is similarly wide in scope. Season One of this series starts "close to home," relatively speaking, working through various planets, and then starting to explore the nearer reaches of deep space. Season Two is able to build on that spatial foundation and get really far out (literally), as it explores not only actual places, but concepts that are forming current theories in physics and astro-physics.
As with virtually all History Channel documentaries, the series is impeccably well-researched and features a host of expert talking heads interspersed with some jaw-dropping visuals. In the first season, all of the planets of our solar system either get their own individual episodes (as in the case of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn) or are lumped together by general proximity (The Outer Planets and The Inner Planets). But the series ventures beyond mere space geography to touch on subjects like the search for intelligent life beyond our planet (never mind the naysayers who claim there is no intelligent life on our planet), how life itself started with the big bang (and how that bang continues to this day) and, in its literally furthest-reaching episode (at least distance wise), galaxies beyond our own homey Milky Way.
While the first season especially has its share of older source videos (i.e., the moon landings, etc.), there's a host of newer footage from such relatively recent planetary expeditions like the Mars Rover. Likewise, while some information will be well-known to most (e.g., why eclipses happen), there's an engaging amount of new information imparted and usually in entertaining and easy to understand allegories, as when Jupiter is compared to a protective older sibling saving little brother Earth from space-age bully asteroids through its gravitational "Frisbee effect."
The series excels at giving visual representations of sometimes complex ideas. For example, when explaining the burning capacity of the sun, video of trees being felled are shown as the narrator describes how many billions of cords of wood would be needed to equal the sun's flaming fury. Unerringly good visual presentation is the hallmark of this series, as well as some unusual choices for expert commentary (such as the frankly babelicious solar expert who demonstrates principles of nuclear fusion by playing pool).
There's an abundant use of excellent computer generated imagery as well as unbelievable source film of the planets themselves. Some footage of events like solar flares and barren moonscapes is quite simply stunning. There's also such an abundant use of detailed information that re-viewing is virtually required, something enjoyable due to the excellent visuals.
In a series like this that is virtually chock-full of information, it's hard to single out a single episode for special accolades, but Season One's "The Search for ET" and its related Season Two episode "Alien Planets" stand out as two of the most compelling and thought-provoking of the series, as they explore the chances that we may find life beyond our solar system. Starting with yet another excellent visual metaphor, in an attempt to show how close the nearest life may be to us, "The Search for ET" 'shrinks' the sun to the size of a marble on the sidewalk of Manhattan, which places Earth a few feet away. That would make the nearest possible intelligent life, metaphorically speaking at this scale, in Washington, D.C., which, while geographically true, may leave some more acerbic critics of our political scene laughing that anyone should suggest intelligent life, metaphorical or otherwise, exists in our nation's capital. The exploration then goes into the history of how life evolved on our planet, before it branches out into what other lifeforms may be like, whether that be cute little green creatures a la our Spielbergian fantasies, or perhaps something more sinister. "Alien Planets" recounts recent discoveries of planets that might be able to support life, while also imparting some fascinating information about what life on those distant worlds might be like.
Though in Season One there is a somewhat redundant emphasis on gloom and doom elements (deep space threats to the earth, the eventual burnout of the sun in a mere 5 billion years, not to mention "The Big Rip," expected in only another 50 billion years, when the universe will have expanded so much that it will rip itself to shreds, including us helpless humans), bringing to mind the History Channel's ubiquitous Nostradamus specials, The Universe is a compelling and thought-provoking look at the vast spatial wilderness in which we all find ourselves. There's a noticeable up-tick in visual gimmickry in Season Two of The Universe, with more CGI, quick cutting, and various special effects that give it more of a "big bang" (sorry), viscerally speaking. While Season Two doesn't quite emphasize the scarier elements of the vast unknown that surrounds us, it also doesn't shirk from some of the more frightening aspects of dealing with this unknown, as in our recent efforts at creating black holes with particle accelerators, or even the end of the universe itself.
This is such a consistently engaging series that one hopes that The Universe doesn't end anytime soon.
The Planets suffers somewhat by comparison to The Universe, not only for its less whiz-bang visual presentation, but also for its older vintage, which, while only a decade or so ago, finds it presenting material that is already out of date. This is brought abundantly to the fore in the very first episode, which spends a lot of time on telling the story of how Pluto was discovered and became an "important planet" in the solar system. Of course, Pluto has been recently demoted from its planetary status, which doesn't completely deprive the information of its import, but which does point out how things can change in the blink of an eye in astronomical circles. The Planets does manage to cover a wealth of information throughout its eight episodes, attempting to answer a lot of cosmic questions, not the least of which are how these giant orbs got here to begin with, and how they may meet their ultimate fates. While these episodes make for a sort of curious companion piece especially to the first season of The Universe, which covers a lot of the same material, there's such an abundance of information contained in them that the repeated elements probably won't be too boring for most viewers. The Planets does benefit greatly from a greater reliance on expert commentary. In fact repeated mention is made of the literally thousands of scientists who were consulted in the making of the series. The Planets was no doubt state-of-the-art in its day, but seems somewhat dated now, especially when lined up side by side with the superior The Universe.
How the Earth Was Made
This consistently engaging standalone piece will probably not be the favorite documentary of religious fundamentalists who claim that our planet is only a few thousand years old. In fact, this documentary might be doubly annoying to these types as it deals with the (dare I use this term?) evolution of man's thinking about his home world from believing that it was in fact relatively "new" to finally figuring out that it's actually billions (yes, billions with a "b") of years old. How the Earth Was Made, as is the case with most History Channel fare delving into matters that span vast millennia, isn't as specific as the more in-depth episodes of The Universe or even The Planets. That said, this generalist piece manages to cram an amazing amount of information into its 90 or so minute running time, offering some nice CGI recreations of the planet's earliest eras, when it was still being pummeled regularly by space detritus, through its long arid phase, to its relatively more recent water-filled era that helped to support the truly amazing and abundant variety of lifeforms that now inhabit it. If How the Earth Was Made is perhaps less awe-inspiring than The Universe, it nonetheless offers a wealth of interesting information packaged in a consistently engaging visual style that helps keep the viewer's interest.