Documentary shows have become quite popular over the years and it's safe to say that the medium has evolved substantially. From somewhat meager beginnings the genre has expanded incredibly and the door has been opened for some groundbreaking pieces of work. Shows like Planet Earth, Blue Planet, and NOVA have changed the way we view educational television. No matter what you're interested in there's a documentary series to fit your personal tastes, and in the case of The History Channel they probably offer more than you could possible ever watch.
In 2007 the History Channel launched a new series that focused on one of the biggest subjects of all, The Universe. The show proved to be popular with audiences and if you're a fan you probably already watch the third season which is currently airing. The series has also enjoyed some success on DVD with both years readily available. Even though that's the case, A&E has decided to take both seasons and present them along with How the Earth Was Made and The Planets as a 14 disc collector's set. The end result is a release that has a lot to offer newcomers, or fans who don't already have The Universe in their collection, but it's not exactly double (or triple) dip worth due to the substantial price.
The manner with which this set presents the DVDs has The Universe's first year as its opening number. The first season of The Universe features 14 episodes spread across four discs. In the episodes here you can expect to find a wide range of topics, but for the most part most of the season remains focused on our little corner of the galactic neighborhood. With material revolving around the Sun, Earth, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the remaining inner and outer planets, this first season is chock full of information.
The first season of The Universe moves slightly beyond the standard it sets for itself and begins to look for other subjects for discussion. There are episodes here that focus on the search for extraterrestrial life, the dangers of space, other galaxies, and the lifespan of a star. With a plethora of images from the Hubble Telescope as well as archive footage, interview segments, and CGI simulations, The Universe is a visual treat. It keeps up with the best that History Channel has to offer and its production values are solid all around. Then again, with a show like this production values mean nothing if the information provided isn't worth beans. Thankfully this show has quite the collection of experts, interesting tidbits, facts, and all other manner of solid scientific jargon to accompany its entertaining aesthetic.
For the second season of The Universe the production team didn't really shake things up. After all, if it ain't broke you don't fix it, right? The production values are still high, the talking heads are still well educated and entertaining, and the information is every bit as compelling. What changes with the second season is the shift in focus from mainly known, factual sciences to allowing for some fiction to be thrown in as well. More conversations about aliens, alien worlds, possibilities of our future, and the hypothetical nature of deep space travel take place. It's a little campier, but it still glistens from its production and it remains relevant and fascinating for all eighteen episodes.
In both seasons of The Universe there are several outstanding episodes that really stand above the rest. My two favorite episodes were the second season's "Cosmic Apocalypse" for its scientific musings about the end of all things and the first season's quest for alien life in "Search for ET". No matter how you slice it, The Universe is a fantastic documentary series that deserves to be in just about everyone's DVD collection. It's a solid piece of entertainment with an appropriately balanced amount of science, information, and speculation. The show's a lot of fun and the material never gets dull.
Moving on from the main focus of this collection the next item is The Planets, which is a mini-series that was released back in the 90's. The Planets came about from a collaboration between A&E and the BBC, and overall eight episodes were produced. When you line this particular show up next to The Universe it stands out with its extensive archival footage from NASA (not quite as vast as When We Left Earth featured, but still an impressive amount), balanced cover of the space race, and abundance of information about our galaxy. I felt that the content was a tad drier and less sensationalized, but it was still educational and entertaining. If you're up to date with space faring documentaries then this may already be in your collection, though considering it was released on DVD back in 2000 chances are very good it may have slipped under your radar.
The final piece of The Universe Collector's Set puzzle is How the Earth Was Made. This documentary came out last year and rather than looking at other planets or examining finer points of the galaxy, such as the other shows on this set do, it looked at the creation of Earth. It sticks with one theory and runs with it throughout the documentary and the information comes at you fast enough with only a little bit of dramatic flare. I felt that this particular show was at home in this collection, but in the grand scheme of things it just wasn't as interesting as the rest of the package.
The Universe Collector's Set is packaged with galactic goodies that space geeks will fall head over heels for. If you haven't seen The Universe yet then you're missing out on one of the better space and science documentaries of the past decade. The unfortunate thing about this collection is the show has already been released twice before. Chances are good if you were the least bit interested, then it's already in your collection. If that's the case I can't recommend double dipping into this set, but if you've held off, or are new to the series, by all means consider this highly recommended.
The shows found in The Universe Collector's Set are presented on DVD in the same manner with which they were already pressed and released. The first two seasons of The Universe and How the Earth Was Made come with non-anamorphic widescreen transfers and The Planets is available in fullscreen only. Naturally this is disappointing considering just how beautiful some of the shots in these shows can be, but it's how History Channel presents most all of its DVDs so it's not very surprising.
With regards to the video quality, The Universe receives a sharp, clean, and impressive transfer. The show has a very crisp look and the production presents a lot of fine detail. Virtually no grain or compression artifacts can be found on these discs, and the same can be said for How the Earth Was Made which also benefits from a recent production. The Planets, however, contrasts both due to its older filming. This show is riddled with grain and the video is very soft. You have to take it with a grain of salt considering its age, but when compared to The Universe its flaws are exacerbated.
The Universe Collector's Set hits DVD with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo as its main source of audio output. All around the quality is on par with what you'd expect from the genre, and there's precious little need for a bombastic soundtrack. What's here is clean, concise, and no frills. The Planets does suffer the most from a reduction in quality, but some slightly muted or muffled audio isn't exactly a deal breaker. All around this is a suitable presentation and the set really didn't need more.
With the exception of The Planets there is a decent spread of bonus material available on this DVD set. The first season of The Universe includes a bonus episode called "Beyond the Big Bang". This is basically billed as the fourteenth episode of the season, and it's no less interesting than the rest that the show has to offer. The second season has a little featurette about backyard astronomers, which plays out somewhat different than an episode. This one is more of a supplemental in nature, but sadly there are none that pertain to the series itself. Finally, How the Earth Was Made features a fantastic documentary entitled "Inside the Volcano". This is a meaty inclusion that's carried over from the original release, and it's worth noting that there are five addition bonus scenes as well.
If you love science, space, and documentaries this collection is a no-brainer. The Universe Collector's Set features some amazing stuff. It's an interesting, entertaining, and well produced look at our galaxy and the rest of the cosmos. The first two seasons of The Universe are undoubtedly the biggest reasons to come to this set, but the inclusion of The Planets and How the Earth Was Made complete the package. Consider this set highly recommended, but if you're looking to upgrade your present collection there's little reason to fork over the extra cash.