'The Universe in 3D: A Whole New Dimension' is simply a compilation of three episodes of A&E Network's 'The Universe' series (which aired on The History Channel, as well as its sister station, H2), with the added bonus that one can watch them in 3D (2D versions are also an option, should one so choose). I have no idea what the selection process for this release was, but I can tell you that all three episodes (which can be watched back-to-back or separately) are taken from 'The Universe's sixth season, which aired in 2011. Each episode runs a little short of 45-minutes in length.
The first episode is 'Crash Landing on Mars' and it creates a fictional scenario about mankind's first trip to the Red Planet in order to answer some scientific questions about how we'd deal with certain problems that came up. The storyline laid out is one that – were it ever to happen – would probably guarantee we didn't send another crew into space for 100 years, as these astronauts crash land, run out of air, get stuck in the sand, get swept up in a sandstorm, and even have one of their suits punctured before finally establishing a safe base on Mars. This episode (and all episodes, in fact) makes use of a lot of CGI-rendered animation, along with interviews with some scientists and scholars, as well as some live-action footage. The episode is narrated by Erik Thompson, and features comments from Matthew Golombek (from NASA/JPL), Pascal Lee (from the Mars Institute), Robert Zubrin (from The Mars Society), Alex Filippenko (from the University of California, Berkeley), Greg Laughlin (from the University of California, Santa Cruz), and Michael Mischna (from NASA/JPL).
'Worst Days on Planet Earth' is an episode that counts down the most disastrous events in our planet's history. Sadly, my first romantic relationship did not make their list. Included here are the impact that caused Earth's moon to form, as well as the ice age and a few mass extinction events (including the asteroid that may or may not have been fully responsible for killing off the dinosaurs). The number one 'worst' event isn't one that has occurred, but the one that's yet to come. This episode is also narrated by Erik Thompson, and features comments from Alex Filippenko, Michael Mischna, Greg Laughlin, Laura Danly (from the Griffith Observatory), Dan Durda (from the Southwest Research Institute), and Don Brownlee (from the University of Washington).
'God and the Universe' is probably the most interesting of the three episodes, although no doubt the most controversial, tackling the unanswerable question of whether the Universe could have happened purely by chance or if there's a grand design. Once again narrated by Erik Thompson, this episode features comments from both those of faith and those of science, consisting of Alex Filippenko, Laura Danly, Paul Davies (physicist and author of 'The Mind of God'), Robert R. Cargill (from the University of Iowa), Clifford Johnson (from the University of Southern California), Father Robert Spitzer (from the Magis Center of Reason and Faith), and Leonard Mlodinow (who co-authored 'The Grand Design' with Stephen Hawking).
I was unfamiliar with 'The Universe' as a series before checking out this trio of episodes, but as far as educational television goes, these are pretty interesting segments that relay a lot of scientific information in easy-to-understand layman's terms. The biggest mystery here is why, out of all the episodes that could have been converted, these particular three were chosen. A&E released another 3D three-episode Blu-ray a little over a year ago, with three randomly picked episodes from Season 6. They also released a single-episode 3D Blu-ray back in 2011. One wishes they would just take the time to convert an entire season (there are non-3D season sets on the market), but again, perhaps they're still testing the market to see if there's still appeal as far as 3D releases go.
The big appeal of this release, of course, is the fact that the episodes have been upconverted to 3D. Even with that in mind, it's hard to fathom a reason anyone but the most die-hard science nerd would want to watch any one of these episodes more than one time. I suppose if one makes a living as an educator in science, this might be a nice release to pick up to show to one's students…assuming one can procure a 3D TV set-up and several dozen pairs of glasses. Otherwise, while each of the episodes are interesting and educational enough to keep your attention, they're hardly memorable enough to want to have in your permanent library.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Universe in 3D' arrives on Blu-ray in one of those eco-friendly keepcases with missing plastic on both the front and back cover. A slipcover matching the artwork of the slick slides overtop of the case. There are no inserts.
The 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray is front-loaded with promos for A&E Network's upcoming 'Houdini' miniseries, their Big History series, and their Ancient Aliens releases, along with trailers for The Darkest Hour and Knowing. The main menu consists of a computer animated image of the title, while boxes float from the right to the left of the screen, each showing video of footage contained in the three episodes contained on this release. Menu selections run across the bottom of the screen.
A&E has provided both 3D and 2D versions of all three episodes contained on this release. The quality of the 3D is decent, with the best depth and sharpest imagery coming from sequences that have been computer animated. The 'talking head' segments show some surprising depth as well, particularly for an upconvert. Most of the other footage is hit or miss, with some of it showing quality depth and others being rather flat and murky. In terms of the 3D, there's very little that comes out of the screen, which makes sense since these episodes were never originally intended for the format. Overall though, these are upconverts that are pleasing to the eye.
Should you chose to watch the 2D versions, you'll get a very similar type of experience, minus the third dimension. Again, the CGI-rendered footage looks the best, and the rest tends to vary depending on what is being depicted. Both the 3D and 2D versions appear to have some very minor aliasing and banding issues, which will probably only be noticeable by those who have particularly large TV screens or a discerning eye. For the most part, though, the video quality is quite pleasant.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track here almost seems like a bit of overkill, as despite the massive universal events depicted on-screen, the audio never quite has the 'oomph' one would expect. The rear speakers are almost always active (sans the 'talking head' bits which are front and center speaker-wise), but not always noticeable – only really giving one an immersive feel during the various explosions that happen during the CGI footage. No issues as far as popping, hissing, dropouts or other audio problems.
While no other language tracks have been provided, this disc also contains a DTS-HD sound check to test your audio equipment. Subtitles, while not given as menu options, are available in both English SDH and Spanish using one's Blu-ray remote.
Although there is a 'Special Features' option on the main menu, the 'Also from Lionsgate' selection under this option will just take viewers back to the front-loaded promos/trailers on the disc, with no extra trailers available. The 'Special Features' option also allows one to access their bookmarked scenes, but essentially there are no bonus features on this release.
As one who has always had an interest in science (particularly astronomy), but never the intellect for many of the concepts, I found 'The Universe in 3D' to be informative, with some added fun given the fact that the episodes have been upgraded to 3D for this release. While none of the shows are the type of thing most viewers are going to want to watch more than once, if you have a 3D set-up, this title makes for a nice rental if you're into these types of educational television shows.