"The Universe" is certainly an ambitious title for a relatively low-budget documentary series, yet The History Channel has managed to churn out five seasons' worth of episodes since 2007. Seasons 1-4 have already been covered by DVD Talk---and, as the respective reviewers will tell you, most of 'em are worth looking out for. Like the universe itself, The Universe started with a bang and explored subjects like dark matter, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, mysteries of Earth's moon and detailed looks at our solar system's planets. Relatively well-rendered CGI was paired with amazing photos and source film clips to create a truly engaging and entertaining experience...and, for the most part, it kept the momentum going for quite some time.
Unlike the universe, unfortunately, The Universe is not without its boundaries. The series began to run out of steam during its fourth season and the trend continues here: not only is this fifth (and final) season the shortest with only eight episodes, but it seems as if the subject matter is also drying up. Many episodes also tend to run a bit long even at just 43 minutes apiece, as several of them just don't carry enough weight to fill their respective running times. Additionally, The Universe always had a habit of mixing pure speculation with doom-and-gloom apocalyptic scenarios (asteroid attacks, the sun's eventual death, etc.), which is fine in small doses. But the "Chicken Little" subject matter is more pronounced during this fifth and final season, and it gets old quickly. In fact, the only episode that seems to warrant such a topic is the series finale, since our solar system will undoubtedly end in the distant future.
While The Universe: Season Five is undoubtedly its weakest hour, a few decent episodes are still tucked away here. Season opener "7 Wonders of the Solar System" (a guided tour of the solar system's most awe-inspiring locations) is the best of the bunch, while "Magnetic Storm" (a look at solar storms which could create global blackouts) and "Total Eclipse" (a study of the Earth's location as related to the moon and Sun) also pull their own weight. Even the far-reaching "Time Travel" manages to speed along during the first half, but it promises much more than it actually delivers. Even the aforementioned "doom-and-gloom" episodes (including "Magnetic Storm", of course) have their moments, but only if you're a sucker for low-budget disaster movie CGI.
In any case, all but the most ardent astronomy buffs should learn a thing or two during The Universe: Season Five, which is still presented in an accessible and relatively entertaining way. Unfortunately, that's where the good news ends: those expected a well-rounded DVD package will undoubtedly walk away disappointed with this release. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
(8 Episodes on 2 single-sided discs)
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, The Universe: Season Five has not been enhanced for 16x9 displays---and that's practically unacceptable for a 2011 release, though it's par for A&E's back catalogue. It also suffers from noticeable interlacing, softness and mild amounts of edge enhancement along the way, in addition to muddy black levels and occasional compression artifacts. The Universe has also been released on Blu-Ray, and one would hope that it offers a substantial improvement over what we're stuck with here.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is low-key but still has its moments. Separation is fine and the talking-head interviews come through clearly, while the infrequent music cues don't fight for attention with the narration or dialogue. Closed Captions are offered during the main feature, which is definitely a plus.
There's no doubt that The Universe: The Complete Season Five has its moments, since it often manages to balance fact with speculation in a reasonable entertaining manner. Unfortunately, it's easy to see why this season is the last, as there simply isn't enough new material to carry 8 episodes (let alone the 12-16 of earlier seasons). To make matters worse, A&E Video continues to phone in their DVD releases: not only is the technical presentation barely on par with SD broadcast standards, but there aren't any bonus features to dig through after the show's over. While The Universe: Season Five shouldn't be completely passed over, it's not worth adding to your personal collection unless you're either a die-hard astronomy buff or a completeist. Rent It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.