For as long as the world has gazed up at the stars, its people have been utterly and thoroughly entranced by the heavens. What was first perceived to be a spotted curtain of light bearing signs from above has been revealed to be a vast expanse of endless galaxies, unimaginable wonders, and inconceivable mysteries, many of which continue to baffle scientists and astronomers to this day. In 2007, The History Channel decided to delve into it all with a critically acclaimed documentary series called ‘The Universe.’
Packed with archive footage, loads of gorgeous CG renderings and sequences, and recent images from satellites, telescopes, and other multi-billion dollar machines, ‘The Universe’ delivers an uninterrupted barrage of facts, both challenging and familiar, that dissect the breadth and enormity of Earth’s stomping grounds. It even takes the time to examine the development of popular theories, the evolution of astronomy over the years, and the evidence that supports some amazing advanced theoretical physics. Moreover, the series doesn’t hurl dense information at the viewer or dumb down its material to pander to school aged children. Instead, it offers a comfortable balance of cold, hard facts and easy-to-understand, everyday explanations that allows each episode to barrel along at a nice but comprehensible pace.
Series creator Tony Long also takes his time dealing with each of his chosen first-season subjects. Over the course of fourteen episodes, ‘The Universe’ digs into the sun, Mars, deep space threats, Jupiter, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, other galaxies, stars, our solar system’s outer planets, the possibility of alien life, and, of course, the Big Bang theory (which has earned an extended episode on this release). While that may sound like a lot, Long and company do an excellent job of filtering and sorting the series’ pertinent details in a manner that keeps it all entertaining without undermining the integrity of the episodes. In short, you’ll find yourself retaining far more information and grasping far more material than you might expect.
As far as I can tell, the series’ only problem is that, despite covering a massive amount of essential and peripheral material, Long and The History Channel have set their collective sights on a subject with seemingly infinite possibilities. Every time the show explores one topic, a thousand more present themselves. Anyone who approaches ‘The Universe’ in search of a be-all, end-all documentary series will be disappointed at how many fundamental aspects of the universe are overlooked so our solar system can take center stage. However, since these fourteen episodes are merely the first season of an ongoing series (season two boasts eighteen episodes), such an inherent shortcoming is a blessing in disguise as it means we’ll be treated to more episodes in the coming years.
As it stands, ‘The Universe: Season One’ is an intriguing and engaging introduction to the vast expanse our planet calls home. I’m pleased to report that each episode has something for everyone, be you a fresh student of science or a life-long astronomy buff. I can’t say I’ll ever be as personally captivated by the universe as I am of the Earth itself, but this is an exceptional series that gives documentary fans a fitting overview of the heavens.
Featuring a sharp and colorful 1080i/AVC-encoded widescreen transfer, ‘The Universe: Season One’ looks spectacular at times, especially considering its humble television roots. The series’ palette is vibrant, its all-important black expanses are deep, and contrast is bright and inviting. Detail is also impressive as every scene leaves little doubt that you’re watching the show in high definition. Planetary craters, space dust, tiny stars, and countless other fine textures are crystal clear and have been nicely rendered. Some of the series' archive footage definitely shows its age (print damage, scratches, and contrast wavering abound at times), but it’s a negligible problem that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever watched a documentary before.
’The Universe’ suffers from a few technical issues -- aliasing, artifacting, crush, and, most of all, color banding make regular appearances -- but these minor mishaps rarely hinder the otherwise clean and stable presentation. All things considered, ‘The Universe: Season One’ may not have the visual polish of the best documentary series available on the market, but it comes close. Fans of the series should be pleased with the results.
If there’s any major downside to this release, it’s that ‘The Universe: Season One’ only includes a linear PCM stereo track. Sure, the series’ various voices are crisp, the soundscape is clean, and the music is dynamic, but the front-heavy track tends to limit the impact of the visuals. Instead of immersing myself in the experience or each episode’s musical score, I was continually aware that there wasn’t a soundfield to be had.
Documentary junkies will probably shrug their shoulders and accept the sonics as they are with few complaints, but I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by what could have been a more stirring and involving audio presentation.
There aren’t any supplemental features per se, but ‘The Universe: Season One’ does include an extended version of its fourteenth episode -- “Beyond the Big Bang.”
As a Blu-ray release, ‘The Universe: Season One’ may lack a mind-blowing video transfer, a lossless surround track, and significant supplemental content, but it still presents one of The History Channel’s most fascinating series with a commendable high-def presentation. If you have any interest in space, astronomy, or the many wonders of the universe, this series should be on your shelf.