When I was a kid growing up in the 60's I wanted to be a scientist. Not because of the Apollo program going on at the time (though that was very cool) but because of low budget SF monster movies. In just about every one of those there was a scientist who would discover the monster's weakness. "It seems that Sodium Chloride is toxic to the creature." To which the damsel in distress would cry "But where can we get some of that?!!" "Simple my dear, Sodium Chloride is common table salt!" I wanted to be that guy who could throw around fancy chemical names and save the day. Then, somewhere in middle school or high school, my science teachers were able to take something that I thought was exciting and interesting and extract every quanta of enjoyment from it. They made science dry, dull, and excruciating. (Judging from my two son's attitudes towards their science classes, things haven't changed much.) We'd occasionally see a film in class, and these were no better. Filled with 'actors' that were even less entertaining than my teachers, it was hard to stay awake, much less learn anything. (Eventually I did rekindle my love for science and earned a degree in chemistry. That means I'm fully qualified to use terms such as hydrogen hydroxide when referring to water and sucrose instead of sugar. I have not yet saved the world from alien invaders however. Oh well, there's still time.)
So, what does all this have to do with The History Channel's recently released Blu-ray set for The Universe Season One? It succeeds where my science teachers failed. It looks at the planets, galaxies, and stars and makes them interesting. It presents some of the problems that scientists are currently studying and poses thought provoking questions about the subject matter. The HD image makes the subject matter look impressive too.
This first season of the show mainly focuses on the solar system, which makes sense since there's so much knowledge about our own corner of the cosmos. The first episode explores the sun, and really sets the standard for the following episodes. Aside from just giving the usual facts about our star, how big it is, how many 'Earths' could fit inside, how hot it is, etc., the show takes pains to explain the physics involved without getting too technical. Just how the sun generates its energy is clearly discussed, but then it goes beyond that. The show talks about a photo of light that is created during the fusion process, how it's absorbed and emitted over and over again for thousands of years as it makes its way to the surface of the sun, and then for the 9 minute sprint to the Earth. Pretty fascinating stuff.
The show also is up to date and includes the latest theories and findings. When talking about the sun, they present a quandary that has stumped scientists for a while: why is the outermost layer of the sun, the solar corona, so incredibly hot (about 1,000,000 K) when the layer underneath it, the photosphere, is relatively cool (about 6,000 K). A plausible explanation is put forth that is quite interesting. Likewise in the episode about Mars, they present recent photos that show an amazing transformation in one part of the planet. In images taken years ago, one slope looks normal and uninteresting, but when that same area was photographed within the last few years the slope had changed: there were channels in the slope that looked like water had been flowing down the hill. How and why this happened is still a mystery.
The show is filled with state of the art CGI along with some of the most recent photos and images from telescopes, satellites and interplanetary probes. Along with a narrator who holds the show together, each episode features several scientists from NASA and major universities. Very few of the experts are dull or dry, and most of them are able to express their love for their discipline in ways that really connect. When one scholar says that what he really wants to do is go ice-fishing on Europa (one of Jupiter's moons) to see what comes up and "licks the camera" it's easy to see that he's very enthusiastic about his job. These come together to create a fascinating look at the universe we live in. Engrossing, visually stimulating, and very informative, this is a show that is not to be missed.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The first season of 13-hour long episodes arrives on three Blu-ray discs in a double width case. Two discs are housed on each side of a 'page' attached to the spine, and the third snaps on the inner back leaf.
The series is presented with a very nice 1.78:1 1080i image. While some of the vintage footage and the older (and even more recent) interplanetary probe images are understandably not of HD quality the show overall looks wonderful. The CGI animation is especially colorful and bright but all of the video is tight and nicely detailed. There are a few minor problems. Banding is evident in more than a few scenes, mainly outer space animation which has light sources like planets surrounded by concentric rings of differing shades. There was also a touch of cross colorization in a couple of spots, but this was very minor. Overall this is a very pleasing looking set, and it comes across much better than the non-anamorphic SD DVD collection.
Being a documentary series, I wasn't surprised to discover that the set comes with only a stereo mix. There is a fair amount of music in the show and some of the audio effects really cry out of a 5.1 mix (stars exploding, comets crashing into Earth and other planets etc.) As it is the music is full sounding and the talking heads sound clean and clear. A nice though not impressive soundtrack.
The only bonus is an extra double-length episode that was broadcast
a week after the last episode for this season: Beyond the Big
Bang. It is the most impressive single episode, covering basically
the whole history of astronomy. Though it doesn't go as deeply into
details as some of the other episodes, it does give an excellent overview
and has a lot of information. With actors dressed up as some of the
most famous astronomers of the past as well as interviews from prominent
scientists of today, this episode wonderfully illustrates and explains
how we got here.
This series makes science fun and exciting and is well worth watching.
It is able to take complex ideas and make them easy to grasp as well as
putting a sense of wonder and mystery into out universe. The Blu-ray
presentation is very good too. Anyone interested in science or the
cosmos should really search out a copy. Highly Recommended.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do
not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.