National Geographic // 2010 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kent Dixon (Retired) // July 10th, 2010
From Mars' monstrous mountains to Saturn's glittering rings, the sights are out of this world.
Like most children, beyond seeing the moon in the night sky, I'm pretty sure my earliest experience with the planets involved either balloons and paper mache or uncooked macaroni and glitter. Likely for the great majority of us, our own planet is overwhelming and awe-inspiring enough, let along wrapping our heads around the fact that, at least in a planetary sense, we are not alone.
Man has looked to the heavens as long as we've populated the Earth, wondering what those lights in the night sky are all about and considering our own existence, wondering if we're truly the only ones out here in the infinite void of the universes. Beginning with JFK's push for the moon in the '60s, we've had a nearly insatiable desire to reach out beyond our blue planet and get to know the other planets in our celestial family. A National Geographic miniseries that ran for three nights in February 2010, A Traveler's Guide to the Planets took a closer look at our seven fellow planets and other mysteries of our solar system; using high-tech telescopic images, CG representations and input from a wide array of astronomers, biologists and other experts.
All six episodes of the show are now available on DVD and Blu-ray, spread across two discs as follows:
Instantly recognizable by its nine rings and sixty-two known moons, Saturn, second only to Jupiter in size, is nine times the diameter of Earth. With an atmosphere composed largely of hydrogen and helium, Saturn shares a similar to Earth's but significantly more dense.
Familiar to even the ancient Romans, who named the planet after the Roman equivalent of Zeus, Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system and was likely discovered earliest of all the planets. Like Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, Jupiter is a gas giant composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. Jupiter is so large that all the other planets in our solar system could fit inside with room to spare.
Often described as the "Red Planet," Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and is notable for its red color palette, resulting from a predominance of iron ore on its surface. Despite its harsh temperatures and nearly non-existent atmosphere, Mars is the most like Earth and once had a significant volume of water on its surface. But what happened?
* Venus and Mercury
The two closest planets to the Sun, to characterize Venus and Mercury as "inhospitable" would be a gross understatement. Temperatures on Mercury range between 800 degrees Fahrenheit on the light side and minus 275 on the dark side, while light side temperatures on Venus can be hot enough to melt lead.
* Pluto and Beyond
The subject of some mistreatment and controversy, Pluto, once counted among the nine official planets in our solar system, was reclassified as a "dwarf planet" in 2006 dropping it off the recognized planetary roster. Pluto and its largest moon Charon seem to orbit around each other as a binary pair, rather than one body exclusively holding gravitational control over the other. Beyond Pluto lies the Kuiper Belt, an asteroid field that seems to serve as the junk yard of the solar system, where all the materials left over from the formation of the planets have collected.
* Neptune and Uranus
Neptune and Uranus, like their siblings Saturn and Jupiter, are also gas giants. While they both possess gaseous atmospheres like Saturn and Jupiter, both Neptune and Uranus are also very different as their atmospheres include a considerable amount of frozen water, ammonia and methane. Whereas Uranus' atmosphere is relatively tame, Neptune has a turbulent atmosphere with high winds reaching speeds of up to 2,100 km/h. Due to their distance from the Sun, these two planets also share the distinction of being the coldest places in our solar system.
Each episode follows the same formula: a broad introduction to the planet in question is followed by a more in-depth look at the planet using a mixture of CG sequences, expert interviews, archival footage and other material. Each episode includes some or all of the following segments: "Planetary Profile," "Getting There," "Climate" and "What to See;" each dealing specifically and somewhat self-explanatorily with one aspect of the planet. You may think you've seen one planetary documentary too many, but A Traveler's Guide is something different. Maybe it's the strong narration by experienced documentary narrator Bray Poor (Cowboys & Outlaws) pulling everything together, or the quirky score that feels like a cross between Twin Peaks and Darkman; the whole thing just works.
A major part of the series' success is due to the enthusiasm and genuineness of the scientists who weigh in on their planets of specialty. These people are as excited about exploring our galaxy and the possibility of visiting other planets as the average 8-year-old, and it's hard for that excitement to not pull you in from the start. Add to that some of the most amazing images of celestial bodies that any of us have likely ever seen, and more than a few "I did not know that" moments, and that makes A Traveler's Guide a solid series not to be missed.
Pardon the pun, but A Traveler's Guide to the Planets is out of this world in HD. The image exhibits amazing clarity and depth that grabs hold of the viewer and never lets go. From the deep reds of the Martian landscape and blues and greens of Earth, to the inkiest blackness of deep space, the presentation is top notch. The audio mix is relatively common documentary fare; blending music, narration and interviews, but also managing to remain balanced with no one element overpowering any other and married to the visual presentation beautifully. This release also includes two short featurettes about the Sun and the Moon, but these snippets pale in comparison to the depth and breadth of the content covered in the full episodes.
According to the series, the first human who will land on Mars is alive and walking around on Earth today. While that person may not be you or me, and we may never have the adventure of leaving our home planet, A Traveler's Guide to the Planets is one heck of a companion on a tour around the galaxy that will likely offer something to viewers of all ages.
Review content copyright © 2010 Kent Dixon; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: National Geographic
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Website