History Channel // 2009 // 564 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // February 20th, 2010
Explore the edges of the unknown.
In its fourth season, The Universe is sadly becoming more uneven, ranging from episodes that are fascinating to ones that come off as ridiculous pandering to the Ax Men crowd. In its best moments it's still one of the most enjoyable scientific educational shows on TV, but his season has some of the silliest and least entertaining episodes in the series' history. If you're a fan, it's still worth getting this set for your collection, but this is not the season for newcomers.
Here are the 12 episodes in The Universe: The Complete Season Four, collected on four discs:
* "Death Stars"
Can dying stars, even those light-years away, threaten all life on Earth?
* "The Day the Moon Was Gone"
If the Moon were to suddenly disappear from its orbit, the effects on Earth would be disastrous.
* "It Fell From Space"
Meteorites, comets, asteroids, and even manmade space junk can have an enormous impact on Earth.
* "Biggest Blasts"
A countdown of the most powerful explosions in the universe.
* "The Hunt for Ringed Planets"
For centuries, astronomers thought Saturn was the only planet in our solar system with rings, but now they're discovering how common planets with rings can be.
* "10 Ways to Destroy the Earth"
Scientists and writers speculate on possible ways the Earth could be destroyed.
* "The Search for Cosmic Clusters"
Clusters of stars play a significant role in creating solar systems, planets, and even galaxies.
* "Space Wars"
How will warfare in space look like? Scientists and writers speculate on what the future in weapons and tactics could be.
* "Liquid Universe"
Liquid is the rarest form of matter in the universe, and, when it does appear, it can take extremely strange forms.
* "Pulsars & Quasars"
Collapsed stars that emit radio pulses at precise intervals and galactic cores that spew columns of superheated matter for millennia are some of the peculiar denizens of the universe.
* "Science Fiction/Science Fact"
What elements of sci-fi lore are closer to fact than fiction? Which ones are probably just pipe dreams? Scientists and writers speculate.
* "Extreme Energy"
There is a constant amount of energy in the universe. Some remains as energy, some is in the form of matter, and some is in forms not entirely understood even by the most advanced scientists.
The best episodes, not surprisingly, examine actual scientific phenomena and explain them comprehensively to viewers who may only have a cursory grasp of physics or astronomy. The episodes on pulsars and quasars, ringed planets, and liquids in the universe, for instance, are the best of the season and rank with the best the series has presented in the past. Interviewees, mostly astronomers, astrophysicists, and other scientists (led, as always, by the ever-delightful Dr. Amy Mainzer) are skilled at taking even the most complex topics and explaining them in compelling terms, Add some impressive CG work that provides easily understood visuals and the episodes, at least, are a real pleasure for anyone who is interested in astronomy.
The key problem is that nearly half the season is wasted on pointless speculative drivel that is just ridiculous and embarrassing. The three episodes in which scientists and sci-fi writers are asked to speculate on topics that could only possibly interest a roomful of stoned-out Stargate fans are truly the nadir of this wonderful series. There isn't any real scientific content in these episodes at all -- they're just an excuse for the CG artists to draw space battles, explosions, and repeated shots of the Earth being destroyed. Maybe the same viewers who enjoy shows like MonsterQuest might find this interesting, but anyone who actually wants to learn about astronomy should skip these episodes with extreme prejudice. Similarly, though "Death Stars" and "Biggest Blasts" are not quite so inane, they do tend to rehash topics from other episodes (even some from this season) except in a hyperbolic and sensationalistic style that is designed to scare the bejesus out of viewers. Judging by these episodes, you'll be convinced that the Earth/life on Earth/human life on Earth/our galaxy is doomed, irrevocably doomed-forever. That kind of sensationalism may fly on shows about Nostradamus, but for this series, it's just silly. It's especially disappointing since many of the early episodes back in the first season tended toward that kind of alarmist tone before the series settled down and became more scientific. Perhaps it's time for History to pull the plug on The Universe, if these are the kind of episodes we can expect in the future.
Technical specs are typical History-non-anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer, Dolby stereo mix, both nice if not dazzling. There are a couple of extra featurettes on the fourth disc-"Meteors: Fire in the Sky" (9:32) and "Comets: Prophets of Doom" (3:17)-that appear to be excerpted from longer and older shows. They're not all that compelling.
Then again, the same could be said of too many episodes on this set. Which is a shame, because while some of History's programming has fallen into mediocrity, at least The Universe was there to provide decent non-fiction television. Now, it's in danger of becoming as trivial as some of the nonsense History is choosing to show. There are enough good episodes here to be worth a look for fans of the show's previous seasons, but if you've never seen the show before, it would be a better idea to start with those instead.
Guilty of too many bad episodes.
Review content copyright © 2010 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 564 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated