I really enjoyed the first two seasons of The Universe, a TV show cablecast on The History Channel. I was anticipating that season three would be just as informative and engaging as the first two, but surprisingly that is not the case. Having covered all of the standard topics in the first two years, this set of shows relied on more fanciful and speculative episodes. In the past The Universe presented the know facts and used that as a jumping point for speculation, but too many of the season three episodes that relied more on theory than any direct evidence.
The first season of The Universe mainly focused on our solar system and season two took us beyond our local neighborhood to look at some of the impressive objects that exist in the universe and to examine some of the unsolved problems that astronomers are still struggling with. In season three however they show seemed to run out of ideas and was grasping at straws a few times. Even when they did come up with a solid idea they often had to pad the show with speculative or uninteresting segments that really did nothing to advance viewers knowledge of the cosmos around them.
One of these speculative episodes was the second in the season, "Parallel Universes." Various theories were put forth, such as the idea that a galaxy could be so far away that it would be impossible to get any data from it (basically farther away in light years than the age of the universe... any light from such a place would not have had time to reach us.) While that seems possible, it also falls in the "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" category of unanswerable questions. A more fanciful, and patently ridiculous, hypothesis is that if the universe is truly infinite, and some theories that hypothesize that are presented, than there has to be an exact duplicate "Earth" somewhere. The flaw is that you can use that argument for anything: There has to be a place where donuts have no calories, there has to be a planet where Tractor Pulls are part of the Olympics, and an Earth where season three of The Universe was much better.
This season has an episode devoted to "Sex in Space," just how sex and child birth, along with the emotional aspect of mating, would be handled. It is not exactly the most stimulating problem in the galaxy. There's also "Alien Faces" which looks at what extraterrestrial creatures might look like. While it's all fun to think about that, the big problem is that there's only one set of data to look at, creatures on Earth, and while we can guess what creatures with significantly different evolutionary environments might look like, it comes down to the fact that it's just a guess.
Even when the topics are more down to Earth (no pun intended) the episodes felt like they were padded. One potentially interesting show was "Edge of Space" that looked at the small shell around our planet where satellites orbit. They discussed the problem of space junk, everything from booster rockets to chips of paint that are traveling at high velocities and can damage or destroy a space vessel. Problems such as cosmic rays and radiation and the unpredictability of solar flares are discussed, which is all fine and good. But they also spent a good chunk of the show hypothesizing that someday people would sky dive from space. As the program explained it, they'd don a special suit and blast off in little more than an open chair strapped on top of a rocket. When they reached 125 miles high or so, they'd jump off.
There were some good episodes in this season. "Deep Space Disasters" and "Cosmic Phenomena", which looks at the Aurora Borealis and meteor showers among other things, were interesting programs that didn't stray into the realm of science fiction like some of the other did. It's just too bad they couldn't all have been like those.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The third season of 12 hour long episodes arrives on three Blu-ray discs in a double width case.
Like the first season, this set 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 problems however. 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 and the blackness of space wasn't as even as it should be. Overall this is a fine looking set but the impressive images aren't nearly as reference-quality as they should be.
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.
This season they don't offer much in the way of bonuses. The only things that are included are a photo gallery and a text piece "Universe Facts."
While there were a few good episodes in this set, they weren't enough to make up for the duds. It really seems like the creators have run out of ideas after covering most of the planets and other observable cosmic entities. With too many shows relying on theory with little solid evidence to back them up, a few episodes played out more like science fiction than real science. Even so, fans of the earlier seasons should make this a rental so they can see the worth while episodes.