Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on May 3rd, 2011
“In the beginning there was darkness. And then bang, giving birth to an endless expanding existence of time, space, and matter. Now, see further than we’ve ever imagined. Beyond the limits of our existence. In a place we call The Universe.”
The History series lasted for five seasons. The show used modern space photography, computer-generated images, and demonstrations along with respected scientists to explore the various aspects of our universe. While more time is spent in our own back yard exploring our solar system, the series did take us to the outer reaches of space, going back about 13 billion years. That’s as far as we’re able to see. The show was narrated by Erik Thompson. Of course, there is plenty of narration by the scientists.
The episodes do provide a wealth of information. I’ve been a big astronomy reader over the years, but the subject is ever-changing, and shows like this offer many new and fascinating facts. Combine that with some truly spectacular images, and you get a series that just might be worth watching. There is a lot of repetition. You can tell where the commercial breaks were, and the show recaps after each break. Of course, watching the Blu-ray, it feels like an instant repeat of what you just saw. I know that there is care not to edit out stuff when releasing it, but I think we’d all forgive a quick snip of the regurge stuff. They also tend to be a bit more dramatic than they need to be, particularly on the doomsday scenario stuff. I thought I was watching the trailer of the latest disaster film at times. These guys sure know how to keep you awake at night. We all know by now from watching movies that “Earth has had its ups. Earth has had its downs. We never know what’s going to be around the next corner. And a lot of it’s bad.”
Secrets Of The Sun:
The collection begins appropriately enough with our Sun. The episode explores theories on the star’s origins and the processes that keep it burning so hot and bright. The episode looks at our star in comparison with other stars out there. Finally, the show examines the possible ways that our Sun will eventually die, likely about 5 billion years from now.
Mars: The Red Planet:
The next stop on our tour of the system is the planet that has held the most fascination for the inhabitants of Earth. Mars has dominated our fiction and our imaginations ever since the first observations. The episode examines those first ideas of Mars from the “canals” to the “face pyramid”. The various probes that have been sent to the surface are covered. There is a lot of talk of the possibility of finding water on Mars, which we since this episode have already done. That makes this a bit of a dated episode. It would have made this release a bit more special if they would have updated the information with some new footage.
The End Of The Earth:
Just in case the news isn’t depressing enough, this episode explores some of the potential hazards awaiting our planet from out there. The show examines various “doomsday” scenarios and, using some CGI, demonstrates the effect. Someone call Dean Devlin. There is some coverage of the things we can do to increase our chances of surviving some of these events. Much of the time is spent on those errant asteroids. Someone call Bruce Willis and have him get the boys together…just in case.
Jupiter: The Giant Planet:
The largest planet in our system is really a big ball of gas with a very small solid core. The planet is made mostly of hydrogen and helium and has such a low density that it would float on the Earth’s oceans, if it could fit, that is. The episode looks at the storms that have raged non-stop on Jupiter for millions of years. There’s also an examination of the way Jupiter actually protects us on the inner planets from many of those errant rocks. Maybe we won’t need Willis and the boys after all.
Of course, the most familiar object in our system is our own moon. The show looks at the possible origin theories for the heavenly body. It covers our exploration of the surface. There is also a bit on all of the effects the moon has on Earth, beyond just controlling the tides. There doesn’t appear to be any mention of werewolves, however. I guess you simply can’t cover everything in 42 minutes.
There’s a lot of overlap footage and discussion in this episode. Porsche must have paid for some product placement here, because the episode uses the car as an analogy to some of the concepts they talk about. Here’s were we also get our first global warming lecture.
The Inner Planets:
This one focuses on Mercury and Venus but was pretty much unwatchable to me. They use Venus as an excuse to talk almost non-stop about global warming. I like my science without the political propaganda, please.
Saturn: The Lord Of The Rings:
In what has to be the best title in the series, this episode looks at the most distinctive planet in our system. While we have discovered that other planets also have rings, none are as prominent and beautiful as the rings of Saturn. The episode examines the makeup, origin, and potential demise of the rings. There is also an examination of a couple of the moons that very well may contain the building blocks for life.
It appears that Solar System episodes ran out two episodes short of a full release. This episode looks at the closest galaxies to our own. The show examines galaxy formation and how galaxies interact with each other.
Life And Death Of A Star:
This one has at least some relevance to the topic at hand. The exploration of the life-cycles of stars does indeed include our own.
Fifty light years from Earth there is a Jupiter-like gas giant. It has a solar orbit of just four days. It’s called 51 Pegasi b. In 1995 it was the first exo-planet, that is, non-Sol planet, ever to be discovered. Since that time there have been hundreds. This episode looks at the tools and methods used to search for these new planets and how they learn so much about them. Of course, there’s talk of the odds of finding another Earth-like planet.
Fans of Star Trek and particularly Stargate know what wormholes are. They are corridors through the fabric of space that, in theory, would allow instantaneous travel across massive distances. The theory begins with Einstein, and while the science is sound, there has never been any actual discovery of a wormhole. The episode also talks about both black and white holes.
Mysteries Of The Moon:
It’s the closest extra-terrestrial object to the Earth, but there is still so much we don’t know about our own moon. The episode explores such riddles as strange lights on the lunar surface and the concept of lunacy. The episode also explores the very real contributions the moon provided in allowing life to form on the Earth.
The Milky Way:
We live in one of billions of galaxies in the universe. It’s a spiral galaxy called the Milky Way. And just as our own Sun’s name provides the general term of a solar system, so does the Milky Way lead to the very term of galaxy. The episode examines the galaxy and provides insight into the tools being developed to see it like never before.
The most promising hope of finding life in our own solar system lies in some very interesting moons. It centuries it was believed there were only about 32 moons in our system with an even dozen orbiting Jupiter. Now there are believed to be many more than that number just orbiting Jupiter.
Dark matter and dark energy make up 96% of the universe, but we don’t know anything about it. Because it does not reflect light, we can’t see it. So how do we know it’s really there? We can measure its effects. So far we haven’t really discovered any yet. But it wasn’t until the 1930′s when Hubble discovered there were other galaxies. Now we’ve confirmed billions of them. This episode explores that search for these dark realities.
Of course, the most important question in the universe is the age-old question: Are we alone? This episode takes a hard look at that question. It explores how life might have started on Earth. We get another look at the moons Europa and Titan where it is believed the best chances of life in our solar system might be discovered.
Scientist share their frustrations at just how little human exploring we have done. Man hasn’t left Earth orbit since 1972. This episode offers a look at what the future of space travel might look like and what obstacles must be overcome.
When stars die, they can do so with quite a literal bang. A supernova is the brightest thing in the universe. It’s a tremendous and sudden release of energy and can be used as a reference to measure the distances of other things in the universe. Betelgeuse is the closest star we expect will go nova any time now.
The episode begins with explaining how star distances are computated. We get a look at the more prominent stars in our night sky and the constellations they inhabit. In 1922 the stars were officially classified within their constellations, and each star is a part of one. There are 88 constellations at present. The episode also looks at the signs of the Zodiac, revealing a lost 13th sign.
This episode is a bit of a generic catch-all. Much of the material is covered in other episodes. Call it a greatest-hits episode.
Nothing appears to be covered more on this series than the idea of stuff hitting the Earth and causing extinction-level carnage. This episode is dedicated to the subject with a lot of destruction computer generated footage.
It is a fact that we will never be sure of surviving a single catastrophic event as a race unless and until we colonize space. Most of the episode looks at the most obvious starting point, Mars. The challenges are covered along with ideas on how we might overcome them. Even terraforming is addressed.
Named for the Greek word for clouds, these look just like clouds in space. But no two nebulas are the same. They can be brightly colored and have held our fascination particularly since the Hubble Telescope has brought us some incredible shots. These photos provide the meat of this exploration into the different kinds of nebulas and what they really are. In HD these are an absolute treat.
Wildest Weather In The Cosmos:
This is a fun show that looks at some of the most violent weather systems in the universe. Jupiter’s red-spot storm and amazing jet stream, the twin tornadoes on the Venus polar cap, Martian red-devil storms, acid rain, and seas of liquid methane are just a few spectacles explored here with plenty of computer-generated images.
Biggest Things In Space:
Most of the stuff here is explored elsewhere. It’s another greatest-hits show with a theme.
It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. Consider this a class on Gravity 101 with some amusing demonstrations.
Here we go again. This time we look at theories on how the universe will end. The debate continues. Will it all end in fire or ice? Both theories are explored here.
This is a rather fun episode. They create some theoretical planets and then extrapolate what kind of life might have evolved there. It’s like a Walking With Dinosaurs-style show with computer generated images of these proposed life-forms. Scientists talk about how these animals might live.
Deadly Comets And Meteors:
This is the obligatory “we’re all gonna die” episode with the same disaster footage.
Living In Space:
This element takes us into space with current astronauts and lets us see what life in space is like. The physical worries are explored, and the episode offers some possible solutions to these problems. The show also examines the kinds of spaceships we might one day build.
Here we go again, again. This time we look at the ways we might detect and stop a collision with Earth. Of course, that same impact footage gets used for the 50th time here.
This episode acts as a sequel to the Alien Planets episode. This time the focus is on Earth-like planets. Lots of guessing and probability stuff here, but it’s all we have.
The kind of odd phenomena explored here includes clouds in space made of…wait for it…beer. Microscopic black holes are believed to exist, and we’re actually trying to make them at CERN. Cool stuff to be found here.
Edge Of Space:
This episode isn’t quite what you might think. The edge of space referred to here is the one in near-Earth orbit. The episode looks at such future pastimes as space diving and space tourism. There’s footage of life on the space station where the Russians brought their first space tourist for a mere $33 million.
It’s another dangers episode with everything from deadly cosmic rays and other radiation bursts. There’s the non-dangerous stuff like Sprites, Elves and Blue Jets.
Deep Space Disasters:
What happens to the human body when it is exposed to the near-vacuum of space? That’s how we start this episode. This one looks at the deadly dangers awaiting future space explorers from radiation to micro-meteors.
This is absolutely one of the most fascinating episodes. The idea of alternate universes was once the stuff of extreme science fiction. Today string theory has presented us with the idea of a multi-verse instead of the comfortable universe. The idea is based on the mathematical principle that, given an infinite universe, anything that can happen has happened. There are four levels of alternate universes:
Level 1: These are extensions of our own universe. It is so far away we can’t detect it.
Level 2: This idea is that there is something called The Bulk in hyperspace where a collection of universes float like soap bubbles. They are not detectable from each other. Each of these can contain any number of level 1 universes.
Level 3: Copies that exist in the same place and time with an infinite number of combinations. The idea here is that every decision we make creates a new universe where we make the other choice. These universes operate in another dimension. The idea is based on quantum mechanics which has discovered particles that exist in more than one place at once.
Level 4: This is a universe so different from ours that the laws of physics are not even the same.
The fastest thing in the known universe is light. Einstein says we can’t go faster. This episode looks at light speed. Experiments have slowed down the speed of light. The association between light speed and time is explored.
Sex In Space:
As humans spend more time in groups out in space the idea of sex in space gets more likely. Some say it’s already happened, although it has not yet been documented. We have mated animals in space, and this episode looks at those results. A woman has invented something called the 2 suit which is a space suit that can be linked with another’s. This overcomes that equal and opposite reaction law that makes having sex in space quite difficult.
Michael Durr looked at Season 4:
To explain the show, The Universe takes a subject in each of its 12 4th season episodes and then usually focuses on an important facet of that which it will spend the bulk of the episode on. They talk to various cosmologists, astronomers, and astrophysicists who offer different ideas of the phenomenon or theories. They use CGI recreations of space and real world situations to simulate the events and bring up some possible conclusions that could result.
To illustrate this, let’s take the first episode: Death Stars. Death Stars can be described as stars that are about to enter their final cycle of life and go supernova. This supernova in turn can unleash massive gamma ray bursts or GRB. These GRB have the potential to reach many thousands of light years away and severely disrupt or end life as we know it wherever it would strike.
The episode focuses on one star in particular: the WR104, which is 8000 light years away from our planet and slowly dying. Furthermore, when it goes supernova it could emit a GRB which in turn could be in the direction of the Earth. This would most likely destroy life as we know it. Some scientists offer up additional theories and one of them uses a fire hose and some firemen to illustrate the splatter effect of a GRB.
The latter part of the show also goes into death star galaxies. It gives the specific example of 3C321, which is a system of two galaxies rotating around each other. The theory is that the formation could create a super-massive black hole at the center. They finish off the episode talking about another couple of death stars which are a little closer to home named Carinae and Betelgeuse.
The show is very informative. They present a lot of facts and involve the work of many established scientists and astronomers. The best tool they have to bring this information across is the gorgeous CGI work that they use in presentation. This shows planets and stars and illustrates various celestial phenomena such as supernovas or rings around the planet. However, the main problem with this show is that they have a large case of Hollywood fever.
By large case of Hollywood fever, I mean the show tends to sensationalize just about everything. Furthermore, when they sensationalize everything they tend to implicate that the planet Earth is going to be vaporized or eradicated of life. Keep in mind, that most of these ideas are simply theories or things that have a small percentage of happening. The time frame also is never mentioned. It could be 100,000 years away and this show will still go about it as if it was going to happen in the near future.
There is also the issue that they make a mockery of the production by using expressions that are supposed to incite fear. “Messenger of Death” was one of my favorites. There are even archers igniting a target with a fire arrow to demonstrate how serious they are. This isn’t an isolated episode either: The Day the Moon Was Gone and the blatantly obvious 10 Ways to Destroy the Earth are simply more of the same propaganda.
They even find ways to insert some doom and gloom into the most mundane episodes.
The Hunt for Ringed Planets finds time to deviate from their discussion of Saturn and talk about how Earth’s own ring (communication satellites) could potentially throw the world into chaos. If somebody was to take this whole manner seriously with their presentation, they would probably hurl themselves in front of the next bus. Or, if they were supposed to take some of this seriously, they would probably miss it because they are too busy laughing.
7 Wonders Of The Solar System:
I’m not sure how official these things are. Likely the list was made up for the show. This episode explores the 7 greatest wonders in our own Solar System.
7: Enceledus: This small Saturn moon contains geysers like those found here on Earth. They spout water and ice from under the surface. Of course, it all freezes instantly. It does indicate there is a body of liquid water somewhere under the surface of the moon. It also indicates that the moon is geologically active, a rarity among the moons in our system.
6: The Rings Of Saturn: When I was young it was thought there was only one ring. Probes have now identified several bands that are named by letters in the alphabet in the order of their discovery. The rings have been one of the most marveled-at planetary features in our system for centuries.
5: The Great Red Spot Of Jupiter: We know the spot has been there since at least the 17th century. It’s really a storm that has been raging for as long as we’ve been observing the planet. Winds in the storm reach 400 mph.
4: The Asteroid Belt: This collection of space rocks is leftover debris from the forming of our system. Though some are the size of a small city, the entire mass of all of these asteroids wouldn’t even form an object the size of our moon. The belt even includes a dwarf planet named Ceres. It’s the largest known asteroid and is spherical like a planet or moon. Some of the asteroids even have moons of their own.
3: Olympus Mons: It’s the largest known volcano in our system and it’s found on Mars. The base is 370 miles, and the volcano stands 13 miles high. So far, it is believed to be long inactive.
2: Surface Of The Sun: I really have to question this one. Every solar system has one, and ours is quite unremarkable as stars go. There is some incredible footage of flares and other solar surface features.
1: Earth: Of course, we have to include our own planet here. As far as we know it is the only place in our solar system that contains the perfect balances of temperature, atmosphere and water to sustain life. There are likely others out in the universe beyond, but life, at least to this degree, doesn’t exist anywhere else in this solar system.
Mars: The New Evidence:
In another review I talked about an older episode on Mars. The series has decided to do a new episode that includes the evidence gathered by the more recent probes. The discovery of water on Mars was huge and deserved special attention. There are also updates on other findings and more information on the meteorite of Martian rock that appears to contain fossils. The episode gives us a look at these recent probes and their data. There is also some welcome information on probes that are scheduled for launch over the next four years. There are new signs of potential life, at least in the Martian past. Stay tuned to this story, because it will only get more interesting. Of course, the real answers will not come until we send humans there to roam the surface independent of pre-programmed agendas.
Each season of The Universe features those episodes which talk about doom and gloom. I guess they believe the only way to keep their audience is to have some overdramatic entries that predict potential global catastrophes. This is one of those episodes. We’ve actually heard about these storms before on the series. There are computer-generated demonstrations of how bad things might get. Some experts predict that a solar magnetic storm could wipe out a third of the world’s population and return us to the days of no electricity for up to a decade. This is a scenario that would make Roland Emerich proud.
Now here’s an interesting episode. Any science-fiction fan dreams of the ability to travel through time. It’s one of the most reliable staples of the genre. This episode looks at the theories that predict that time travel is indeed possible, at least on a theoretical basis. The episode examines the paradox difficulties and looks at the theory that nature will always find a way to keep the integrity of time intact. Of course, there’s plenty of time spent on faster-than-light travel and the implications of such a flight. There’s even a computer-generated proposal of a bullet train to the stars. Various other theories get some time, including multiverses and wormholes. Next stop: Alpha Centauri.
Secrets Of The Space Probes:
Probes have been a fundamental method of exploring space since we first started. The episode offers an historical perspective of the early probes like Ranger and Mariner. Some probes do their work from Earth orbit like the telescopes that explore the deepest origins of the universe. Cassini found the first traces of water outside of the Earth. Of course, there is plenty of time devoted to the Mars probes over the years. The best part of the episode is the great collection of images from these probes that you get a chance to see in high definition.
Here’s another apocalyptic episode. Again, we’ve seen the stuff before even on this series. This time we look at the devastating results of an asteroid strike on the Earth. Of course, there are plenty of powerful computer-generated demonstrations of all of this doom and gloom. Ever hear of Apophis? No, not the bad guy from Stargate. This is an asteroid that has a 1 in 250,000 chance of hitting the planet in 2036. The episode demonstrates over and over and over again that this would be rather bad for us. We shouldn’t complain, though. When the asteroid was first discovered, the chances of a direct hit were only 1 in 36. Place your bets, anyone?
Apparently the concept of a total eclipse is unique on planet Earth. There is nowhere else in the solar system where it is possible to see one. It has to do with the fact that size and distance have matched so precisely that our sun and moon appear identical in size from the surface of the Earth. The sun is 40 times larger than the moon and is exactly 40 times closer to the Earth. On other planets, only partial eclipses are possible because none of the moons can completely cover the sun. Not only does ours cover the sun, but it does so exactly, which reveals the corona just perfectly during the period of totality. Now probes have been sent into space with discs mounted over cameras to reproduce a total eclipse on demand. The procedure allows the probe to photograph and study the sun’s corona.
Dark Future Of The Sun:
Once again the show delivers another doomsday scenario. Of course, this one won’t happen for a couple of billion years at the soonest. The show has done other episodes on the final days of the sun. I’m not sure there is anything new added here. Needless to say, any humans on the planet at that time are in pretty big trouble.
Each episode is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p image is brought to you through anAVC/MPEG-4 or VC-1 codec. The bit rate can climb as high as 40 mbps. It’s this brilliant picture quality that will drive you to want to own this collection. You would expect the CG stuff to be rather clean and high in detail. Even the vintage footage looks about as clean as I’ve ever seen it. Colors are bright and dazzling. Black levels are solid and provide incredible levels of shadow definition.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is strictly narration.
7 Wonders Of The Solar System: This is a BD3D disc of that episode. Quite a nice disc to fill out the collection.
It was incredibly infuriating and more than a little frustrating to see the clips of Obama talking to the employees at NASA last year. He talks about what we can do in reference to sending men to Mars, and then he gutted the entire program. All of the Bush initiatives to revisit the Moon and then Mars have been scrapped. There will be no replacement vehicle for the shuttle. After 2011 Americans will be relying on Russian craft to get us to and from the International Space Station that was built with more of our money than any other country.
When Apollo 11 sent the first humans to the surface of the moon in July of 1969, I had recently turned 8 years old. You can imagine what a thrill it was for this young boy that we were actually walking on the moon. I began to dream about how far I would get to witness humans travel. At 8 years old, reaching 50 seemed ancient and so I fantasized where we would be when I was 50 years old. In June I will turn 50, and we haven’t gone anywhere else in over 40 years. The director of NASA recently announced that his prime mission was now to find ways to make Muslims all over the world feel good about their contributions to science. A noble cause, certainly. It’s just not what I envisioned NASA to be doing 40 years ago. I will now not likely live to see men walk on another planet, let alone reach the interesting moons beyond Mars. This season of The Universe makes me question whether or not “the Universe ultimately makes sense”.