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Featured TV on DVD Review: The Universe: The Complete Series

April 25th, 2011

The Universe: The Complete Series - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

This is at least the fourth time I've reviewed a DVD / Blu-ray release for The Universe, but strangely despite reviewing the show three times in the past, I've only reviewed the first and the last season. (The first two discs of season one were a double-dip.) Now that I've gotten a chance to see everything the series has to offer, is it worth picking up? And since the Megaset has been released on DVD in the past, is it worth paying a second time to upgrade to high definition?

The Show

Let's first start with links to the previous reviews. The first ten episodes of season one were reviewed here and the last four were reviewed as part of the Earth and Space box set here. Finally, season five was reviewed here.

And now for most of the episodes that are new to me. (I left out a few that were too average to deal with.)

Season two starts with one of the better episodes of the season, Alien Planets, although it's kind of funny how much of it is out of date less than four years later. At this point, finding an Earth-like planet would be old news. (Not exactly old news, but not groundbreaking either.) Cosmic Holes has a silly name, but it deals with the fascinating subjects of wormholes, black holes, and white holes. Since wormholes could theoretically provide a way of traveling faster than light, there is a lot of interest in studying them. Alien Moons looks at the "minor" members of our solar system and how they have gone from mostly ignored to being at the center of the search for extraterrestrial life and perhaps even colonization. Dark Matter sits on the cutting-edge of astrophysics. Astrobiology was a little too sci-fi, a little too much speculation vs. science. Space Travel also had a lot of speculation, but despite the subject, it felt more grounded. (Also it has Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku, who are excellent teachers.) Constellations deals with how people used to use constellations to navigate. It also talks about the zodiac, which is far less interesting. Unexplained Mysteries has too much speculation and not enough evidence for my taste. I was worried Cosmic Collisions would be too much like Shark Week, but it's a lot more interesting, looking at different collisions that happen in our galaxy and could happen in our solar system. Colonizing Space is not bad, but I've seen most of this before. Nebulas are beautiful, but we can also learn a lot from them. Wildest Weather in the Cosmos and Biggest Things in the Universe are full of extremes, which are fun to learn about. We all experience Gravity, but this episode shows how that common force has massive effects. Cosmic Apocalypse equals "Shark Week". I use "Shark Week" to describe any show that sensationalizes a danger to draw in viewers while pretending to be about eduction. It's a pet peeve of mine. There is also a bonus episode called Backyard Astronomer that would be helpful for amateur astronomers just getting started and who wanted to take a tour with a small telescope.

Season three starts with Deep Space Disasters, which deals with threats to space explorers. It's not bad, but it does hit the "Shark Week" boundary a few times. Parallel Universes can get a little too deep into speculation, but it is still interesting. Light Speed is such a common constant, but it causes some serious problems with space travel. How do you talk to a space probe exploring the moons of Jupiter when it is millions and millions miles away? Sex in Space? Really? The show tackles what aliens could look like in Alien Faces, but since the answer is "Anything" the end result is too much speculation. Deadly Comets and Meteors and Stopping Armageddon are more "Shark Week" episodes in a season with too many of them. The search for Another Earth and what evidence we need to find to see if there might be life there. Strangest Things explores the weirdest things astronomers have found, like giant clouds of alcohol in space, as well as speculation on what weird things we could discover in the near future. Cosmic Phenomena looks at cosmic radiation and how it effects us on Earth, both the good and the bad. The Bonus features for this season includes a couple dozen facts and an image gallery. The gallery is particularly cool in High Definition.

Season four starts with Death Stars, which as the name suggests, it's a "Shark Week" episode. It also references Star Wars in a gratuitous manner. The Day the Moon Was Gone is more "Shark Week" material. Talking about how the moon helped life on Earth survive is one thing, but talking about the destruction that would occur if the Moon magically disappeared is another. It Fell from Space looks at an asteroid impact that was tracked when it hit the Earth in 2008 and what it tells us about future impacts. The story from detecting, tracking, witnessing, to recovering the asteroid was great. Much of the episode was "Shark Week" material. Next up is the ten Biggest Blasts in the universe, or to be more accurate, the ten most violently energetic events that can happen in the Universe. It's a little gratuitous at times. The Hunt for Ringed Planets talks about Saturn's rings, which are the most famous, how they form, how we detect them, and why they are important to study for space exploration. 10 Ways to Destroy the Earth is more "Shark Week" material. Noticing a pattern? Way too many weak episodes this season. The Search for Cosmic Clusters looks at star clusters, which tell us a lot about how stars are formed. Space Wars looks at war in space and how it would be fought. And it is another case of a weak episode following a good one. Since we likely need liquid for life, Liquid Universe looks as the search for liquid. Pulsars & Quasars are two of the most unusual objects in the sky. Science Fiction, Science Fact looks at technology from Science Fiction that may become fact relatively soon, and the consequences of those technologies. One of the barriers to space travel is the energy needed. Extreme Energy looks at ways of solving that problem. After alternating good and bad episodes for most of the season, the final four episodes are all hits. There are two short extras on this season, Meteors: Fire in the Sky and Comets: Prophets of Doom.

The Extras

In total there are a couple bonus episodes, a couple shorter clips, an image gallery, trivia, and one episode is shown in 3-D for those that have made the leap.

The Blu-ray's technical presentation is as good as one would expect with this type of show. The computer simulations and the interviews filmed specifically for this show are great, while the archival footage can be quite weak at times. But you can't blame the show for the quality of the source material they have to work with. The audio is rather weak. That's not to say there are problems, it's just doesn't use the surround sound speakers.

The Blu-ray costs 20% more than the DVD, which makes it the better deal, all things considered.

The Verdict

The Universe: The Complete Series struggles during season four somewhat, but overall it is still worth checking out. The Megaset does cost quite a lot, so if you own any of the previous releases, compare prices. But if you don't, the Blu-ray is a good deal over the DVD.

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