Wonders of the Universe (US - BD RA)
Jonathan tries to ignore Brian Cox and enjoy the pretty space pictures...
Who are we? Why are we here? Where do we come from? These are among the most enduring and profound questions we can ask, and it is an essential part of human nature to want to find the answers. We can trace our ancestry back hundreds of thousands of years to the dawn of humankind, but in reality our story extends much further back: it starts with the beginning of the universe. Our universe began 13.7 billion years ago, and today it is filled with over 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars and a breathtaking array of wonders. In this new series, Professor Brian Cox tells the epic story of the universe and shows how its story is also our story. (From the BBC synopsis)
This is my first encounter with Professor Brian Cox, and the first science series I’ve watched from BBC aside from their Earth features. Maybe I’m spoiled by their wonderful nature series and the delightful narrations of David Attenborough and John Hurt. Brian Cox doesn’t impress me as a presenter. It’s obvious that the man has a lot of awe and enthusiasm for the subject matter, and I’m sure he is very knowledgeable, but it doesn’t translate into an entertaining and memorable presentation. His narration is often filled with vague repetitive metaphors and oversimplified descriptions. He uses a lot of classroom style examples like blowing bubbles to demonstrate protons, or shaped sand castles to represent universal order. For some, the simple execution will make the material easier to understand, but anybody looking for detailed scientific explanations and a thorough education on the subject matter will be sorely disappointed.
What I did enjoy about the show was the photography. This is a gorgeously filmed show, and while I have a tendency to bicker about the vignette effect at the edges of the frame (it is insanely overused here), the locations and digital recreations of astronomical events make for delicious eye-candy. For example, we see demonstrations of what the Big Bang may have looked like, or beautiful arrays of stars spread across impossibly crisp images of nebulae. I imagine one could find a lot of pretty desktop wallpapers when watching this series. The makers of the show try to match the scale of the material with burgeoning instrumentals and ominous tones. It works pretty well alongside the material, but it made me wish Brian Cox wasn’t talking over it with forced dramatic pauses. There are also trite humanistic messages tied into every scientific theme that threatened my gag reflexes. I wanted to do an episodic breakdown for the review, but most of the material blurs together due to its vague and sometimes monotonous nature. Footage is often reused in more than one episode as well. I understand that the universe is a big subject to tackle, but this broad approach and a lack of focus are serious detriments to its informative value.
Once again, BBC has released a 1080i/60 video transfer, but unlike Outcasts, common interlacing issues scarcely rear their ugly head. I only noticed a couple brief instances of jagged panning shots and one minor combing effect. Video and audio stays synchronized. The 60 frames-per-second are a bit distracting, as much of the live action footage appears to be filmed at 24fps, while the digital effects move much more fluidly than the rest of it. As far as detail go, the transfer looks great. Starlit skies are sharp and the fascinating, almost prism-like mixes of colours in the nebulas are represented with a depth and clarity that standard definition could not pull off. There was some occasional blocking in the digital space footage where the bright stars or surface of the sun fade into the blackness of space, but you’re not likely to be distracted by it unless you’re looking for it. Invidivual grains of sand are sharp
As with Outcasts, BBC has chosen to give Wonders of the Universe a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 track. This may have been a choice to save disc space, because this four-hour series is crammed onto a single BD-50. Much of the show is narration, and the music isn’t dynamic at all, so the material doesn’t really call for a fancy uncompressed surround mix. There are no real issues with this audio track given its modest aspirations.
There are none.
The gorgeous photography and awesome digital space effects are the highlight of Wonders of the Universe. Brian Cox didn’t keep my interest as a presenter and narrator, and the vague humanist approach to the material won’t satisfy anybody looking for hard science. I can’t recommend it as an overall experience, but chances are if you liked the earlier series, Wonders of the Solar System, you’ll find something to enjoy here. The audio presentation is apt given the material at hand, and the video transfer, despite being interlaced, looks great. There are no extras to be found.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 30th August 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH
Easter Egg: No
Director: Stephen Cooter, Chris Holt
Cast: Brian Cox
Length: 232 minutes