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THE UNIVERSE: SEASONS 1-3
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Narrator:  Erik Thompson
Director:  Douglas J. Cohen
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  A&E
Features:  See Review
Length:  2115 Minutes
Release Date:  September 29, 2009

Shows ***1/2

Is there any subject too big for Blu-ray to contain?  How about…The Universe?

A&E gave us a taste of the History Channel’s popular science series that mixed fact, speculation, and an over-the-top sense of proportion to the scariness and vastness of everything when they release the first season on Blu-ray a year ago.  Now, they’ve unleashed the full power of the medium, bringing us all 43 episodes from the first three years on one terrific 10 disc set that will keep any fan busy for days, if not weeks.  In fact, I’m rethinking my description of “over-the-top”…can anything be too much when talking about the universe?

The first season, which we reviewed back when it was released alone, is a good beginning, staying mostly within the confines of our own galaxy and discussing our neighbors in space.  We learn a great deal about the moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and more.  Mars has fascinated mankind for centuries since it’s the planet closest to us and can often be seen at night with the naked eye.  Could the red planet have once housed life?  Is Mars a key to our past, or to our future?  Or are we reading way too much into it?

If reading too much into something was an Olympic event, this series might have more gold medals than Michael Phelps.  Every dire possibility is discussed, analyzed, and sometimes depicted using solid CGI renderings.  For instance, when a star gets squeezed out of existence, it can send a powerful flash of energy in a straight line across millions of light years.  What would happen if our humble world ever got in the path of one?  Well…as the saying goes, we’d never know what hit us.

Season Two goes even further, looking at the moon and the way it has fascinated humanity throughout the centuries, and even peeks at moons orbiting other worlds.  Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is known to have ice on the surface.  If we cut through the ice, and found water underneath…who knows what else might be there? 

And the second year proceeds from the factual looks at constellations and nebulae to the grim analyses of things running into each other…after all, everything in the universe is constantly on the move, and a lot faster than we realize.  There are some accidents waiting to happen that a phone call to your insurance agent is not going to fix.  Or how about the fairly recently discovered existence of dark matter, that makes up about 96% of our universe?  What is it, what can it do, and what MIGHT it do if it ever came into contact with us?

I particularly enjoyed the episodes on humans reaching space.  Our efforts are chronicled and mapped out, as future possible voyages are considered, including the increasingly real notion of setting up camp somewhere outside our own world.  There is even consideration of the need and potential ability to travel at speeds faster than light, something that has been a staple of science fiction for decades and something that would probably have to exist if we ever want to explore further than our own solar system.

Light speed gets more consideration in the third season, but even more intriguing is the look at the theories of the existence of parallel universes.  That’s a little much for my small brain to consider, but the thought and science behind the notion is fascinating, and who knows…maybe there is another me out in another dimension, writing a review of The Universe for another website as we speak.  Whoa…I think I hurt my head…

The ideas of living in space are considered, as well as the possibility that somewhere out there, there might be at least one other plant that is like ours.  Who’s to say?  But if you need a break from all the heavy thinking and living in fear of cosmic events that we can’t possibly stop, relax and have fun with the episode that ponders the concepts of how humans can have sex and reproduce in outer space.  I wonder what lucky soul at NASA drew that assignment?  Or how you can volunteer?

The Universe is a fascinating and entertaining series…unlike some public television programs, this show never gets mundane and monotonous.  Using real footage mixed with clever CGI, this History Channel makes the science and speculation come to vivid life, and it can be forgiven if it sometimes seems to push its points too hard…the passion is part of what makes the show as entertaining as it is educational.  And hey, at least if that cosmic flash does come around that turns our world into an ash in about a nanosecond…well, we can’t say we were never warned.

Video ***1/2

The Universe mixes modern footage with archives, and utilizes CGI to give us looks at events in space we couldn’t hope to view or record with current technology.  The results can be a little uneven, understandably, but far more about this high definition presentation is worthy of praise rather than criticism.  Something about space and Blu-ray makes a perfect visual marriage, and A&E has done a terrific job bringing this series to the hi-def format.  The colors and contrast are well handled and executed, and the level of detail makes everything about the universe…even the scary parts…come to life in the comfort of your own home theatre.

Audio ***

The stereo tracks are fine…there are occasional effects that lend some dynamic range to the mixes, and the spoken word interview footage is clean and clear and balanced nicely against the bigger moments.

Features **

The full length documentary “Beyond the Big Bang” is included, as well as a featurette on backyard astronomers and a slide show of facts about the universe.  You know…in case you don’t have a full stretch of 35 hours open and available in one sitting.

Summary:

Three years of quality programming in one 10 disc Blu-ray set…how else are you going to bring the expanse of The Universe together?  A&E has done an impressive job with this high definition set that will captivate, entertain, provoke thought (and maybe in some cases, arguments), all while making you appreciate the vastness of space and what may or may not be waiting for us around the next cosmic corner.

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