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The Universe: The Complete Season Two

(2007) *** Unrated
846 min. The History Channel.

/content/films/3476/1.jpgIf you're looking for the right kind of distraction for that precocious, scientifically curious youngster in your family, look no further than the History Channel's The Universe. Designed by creator Tony Long to incorporate hard-science academia, stimulative speculation and entertainment value, the series is pitched perfectly for gifted grade schoolers. Of course, there's enough information here for adults to appreciate, too, though they're liable to bristle at the show's constant barrage of questionable metaphors.

Part of The Universe's youth-oriented appeal is in its flashy editing and plentiful CGI special effects, broadcast in high definition. Many have fairly criticized the series for its dearth of actual astral photography, but the three-dimensional renderings--approached from various angles--certainly help to give a more dynamic perspective on each cosmic occurence.  Each season, the show tackles a cluster of "sexy" science topics, with an emphasis on mystery and powerful phenomena. The second season's episodes are "Alien Planets," "Cosmic Holes," "Mysteries of the Moon," "The Milky Way," "Alien Moons," "Dark Matter/Dark Energy," "Astrobiology," "Space Travel," "Supernovas," "Constellations," "Unexplained Mysteries," "Cosmic Collisions," "Colonizing Space," "Nebulas," "Wildest Weather in the Cosmos," "Biggest Things in Space," "Gravity," and "Cosmic Apocalypse."

Helping to tell each week's story is a roster of accessible and energetic professors, researchers, and national cheerleaders for science. The series' go-to guy is the excitable Alex Filippenko of U.C. Berkeley, but some other frequently reoccuring faces include Michelle Thaller of NASA and CalTech, author Dr. Michio Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tyson of the American Museum of Natural History, and Laura Danly of Griffith Observatory. The cosmologists are encouraged--if not forced--to use physical demonstrations (usually incorporating balls or apples) and play along with overarching metaphors used by a given episode. In "The  Milky Way," for example, the analogy is that of the Milky Way as a construction site, with our solar system located in the suburbs of the bustling city center of the galaxy.

TV fans may have already noticed a thinly veiled attempt to piggy back on the techniques of the hit series House, which employs (wittier) metaphors to explain medical mysteries, often illustrated by CGI fantastic journies into the body (in turn, House took inspiration from CSI and its ilk). What can get maddening are the unnecessary, obvious, time-wasting metaphors, like these from within the span of two minutes in the "Dark Matter" episode: "standard candles" compared to 100-watt light bulbs ("The more distant ones will appear fainter, and the more nearby ones will appear brighter") and telemetric research compared to a casino's CCTV cameras ("Most of the time, they don't find anything interesting. But occasionally they find what they're looking for"). From an episode that has already expended fifteen minutes witnessing the tedious waiting game in the search for dark matter, the latter feels downright insulting to the ol' intelligence.

On the whole, though, The Universe can be an exciting and enlightening tour of places no human can (yet) visit. The shows provide solid context--how our thinking has evolved, and what we're hoping to learn in future--and cover fascinating "races" of discovery within the cosmological community, such as that theoretical research into dark matter, a kind of "whatdunnit" mystery. The series gives repeated cause to consider the delicate conditions that make Planet Earth possible, our humbling lack of knowledge, and our thrilling progress toward goals like the elusive "theory of everything" equation. Wide-eyed children of all ages can enjoy pondering the potential for cosmic rays emitted by supernovas to alter evolution, or whether the end will come in fire ("The Big Crunch" ) or ice (a "Cosmic Ice Age"). As questions go, they don't get much bigger.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 4

Audio: Linear PCM 2.0 Uncompressed

Street date: 7/7/2009

Distributor: A&E Home Video

A&E sends The Universe: The Complete Season Two home in mirrored Blu-ray and DVD editions. The Blu-ray is easily the more spectacular, in 1080i high definition. The image is sharp and vibrantly colorful, sometimes too much so. The season opener, "Alien Planets," sports oversaturated color that turns the skin tones of some of the talking heads orange; thankfully, that effect lessens in later episodes. A hallmark of the series, the CGI looks especially brilliant in HD. Sound comes in an effective (though not immersive) Linear PCM 2.0 Uncompressed mix.

The season's eighteen episodes are spread across four Blu-ray discs. The fourth disc also includes a bonus program--"Backyard Astronomer" (56:18, HD)--made up of vignettes running a few minutes each: "Viewing the Planets," "That Star Is Dying," "Phases of the Moon," "Behold the Milky Way," "The Constellations," "Navigating by the Stars," "Viewing a Solar Eclipse," "Seeing Asteroids & Meteors," "Night Sky - January," "Night Sky - February," "Night Sky - March," "Night Sky - April," "Night Sky - May," "Night Sky - June," "Night Sky - July," "Night Sky - August," Night Sky - September," "Night Sky - October," "Night Sky - November," and "Night Sky - December." Like the rest of the series, these vignettes will particularly appeal to burgeoning school-age astronomers.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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