Case Number 14919: Small Claims Court


The Planets
History Channel // 1999 // 400 Minutes // Not Rated
How The Earth Was Made
History Channel // 2007 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
The Universe
History Channel // 2007 // 705 Minutes // Not Rated
The Universe
History Channel // 2008 // 846 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // November 5th, 2008

The Charge

An exploration of our solar system and beyond.

The Case

Like a lot of History's "megaset" collections, The Universe: Collector's Set pulls together a sizable package of History DVDs devoted to a particular theme, which in this case is astronomy. For fans of a specific topic, it's well worth considering collections like this one, as they usually contain a wealth of great programming. In that regard, this set is no exception, but some of the decisions History made in packaging it leave a lot to be desired. This package of shows, while well-chosen, is not the slam-dunk it could have been.

The Universe: Collector's Set compiles the two season sets for the series The Universe into one package. In addition, it also includes all four discs of a 1999 BBC/A&E series called The Planets and the separately released special How the Earth Was Made. Here are all the episodes compiled on all fourteen discs:

Disc One
"Secrets of the Sun"
"Mars: The Red Planet"
"The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threats to our Planet"
"Jupiter: the Giant Planet"

Disc Two
"The Moon"
"Spaceship Earth"
"The Inner Planets: Mercury and Venus"

Disc Three
"Saturn: Lord of the Rings"
"Alien Galaxies"
"Life and Death of a Star"
"The Outer Planets"

Disc Four
"The Most Dangerous Place in the Universe"
"Search for ET"

Disc Five
"Alien Planets"
"Cosmic Holes"
"Mysteries of the Moon"
"The Milky Way"

Disc Six
"Alien Moons"
"Dark Matter"
"Space Travel"

Disc Seven
"Unexplained Mysteries"
"Cosmic Collisions"

Disc Eight
"Colonizing Space"
"Wildest Weather in the Cosmos"

Disc Nine
"Biggest Things in Space"
"Cosmic Apocalypse"

Disc Ten
"How the Earth Was Made"

Disc Eleven
"Different Worlds"
"Terra Firma"

Disc Twelve

Disc Thirteen

Disc Fourteen
"Life Beyond the Sun"

For astronomy buffs, the meat of the set will be the nine discs that include both seasons of The Universe. The series is by and large impressive, mixing good scientific research and interviews with top astronomers and other scientists with computer reenactments and archival footage and photographs to explain various astronomical topics. The shows are well-written and organized so that even complex scientific principles are easy to understand, without necessarily seeming dumbed-down. If anything, the second season is even more ambitious, as it covers far more abstract concepts like wormholes and dark matter that are much harder to explain simply. True, at times the show does sometimes come off as Astronomy for the Maxim Crowd. The episode on Jupiter, for instance, explains how the massive planet can "slingshot" comets and asteroids out of the solar system. To illustrate this point visually, the producers have chosen footage of young, scantily-clad women throwing Frisbees. There are a couple of other instances of bikini shots scattered here and there, though of course, it's all in the interests of science. The show's producers must have been especially thrilled to find an astronomer (interviewed in the "Alien Planets" episode) who's also a purple-haired leather-skirt-wearing belly dancer. Also, the first season in particular tends to go overboard with the threats to life on Earth as we know it. Every other episode, it seems, involves an asteroid or comet or meteor or supernova or some such item striking the Earth, or passing by the Earth, or even just coming near the Earth. Luckily this only occurs in the first few episodes, and is all but gone by the second season. Despite its occasional lapses, The Universe is a solid series that astronomy buffs should have in their collections.

The other series are also good, if not quite as dazzling. The Planets was a co-production between the BBC and A&E back in 1999. In contrast to the snappy and flashy The Universe, The Planets is more sober, thoughtful, and, ironically enough, historically detailed. That also makes it considerably less accessible. The shows are denser and more talk-heavy, and require much more concentration. Also, they're not organized in easy-to-digest episodes like The Universe is. Only two episodes, "Giants" (about the four outer gas giant planets) and "Moon," take a topic and stick to it all the way through. The rest of the episodes meander and weave through various topics, starting in one place and ending up in another that may not seem to have a direct connection. It's not a bad series, and it actually fills in some of the holes that the other show leaves, making it a perfect companion piece. Viewers should be aware, though, that it's a show that might be harder to follow than The Universe.

As for How the Earth Was Made, it's also a pretty good show. Sometimes it falls victim to the History curse of sensationalism, especially in its later minutes, but overall it's an immensely absorbing program about the forming and growth of the Earth. It has some fascinating revelations about what pre-life Earth was like, and the sections on the first evolutions of life are also worth watching. It doesn't exactly fit the astronomical bent of the other two programs, but it's good enough on its own terms that you won't quibble much.

The technical aspects for all three shows are also generally acceptable. Since The Planets is the oldest of the shows collected here, the transfer isn't quite as sharp as the others. Sometimes it seems murky and grainy, and the computer effects are a bit less impressive. The others, on the other hand, are more recent and look and sound stunningly crisp, with only a few moments of artefacting here and there. All the stereo 2.0 mixes are good, although lacking some oomph. All the extras from the original releases have been included (except for The Planets, which didn't have any). The Universe Season One set comes with "Beyond the Big Bang," a 90-minute special on the history of astronomy and physics. It's entertaining, though it does sometimes lean a little much on cheesy re-enactments. The Season Two set comes with "Backyard Astronomer," a collection of 20 three-minute instructional vignettes that amateur astronomers can use to learn what exactly to look for in the night sky. How the Earth Was Made includes 10 minutes of additional scenes and outtakes, which add a bit more detail to some of the topics covered in the show. It also includes a 50-minute special, "Inside the Volcano," exploring how and why volcanoes form. It's not really astronomical, but those whose interest in geology was piqued from its mention in this and various other discs might find it illuminating.

So is this set worth it? Here, History has committed some inexplicable blunders. First, they released this collection just weeks after the release of The Universe's Season Two set. Presumably, if you've already bought that one, you're probably enough of an astronomy buff to have bought the first season as well. It seems a bit unfair to tempt fans to hold off on buying that one to wait for this anthology instead. Far worse is that this box has a list price of $199.95. If you were to add up the individual list prices (not including any discounts) for all of the DVDs collected in this set, the total would only be about $160. There are no new extras or additional content here, so it's hard to understand where the extra $40 goes. Anyone who already has all of the DVDs collected here needn't bother with this one, and everyone else will find it more economical to get the sets piece by piece. If the list price for this massive box were lower than the total for the individual parts, it would be worth it to get this one. It has both Universe season sets and adds the very good Planets series and the How the Earth Was Made disc as nice bonuses. Until History lowers the price, though, it's not worth it. Though The Universe: Collector's Set is a well-chosen collection that astronomy buffs will enjoy, History is guilty of grossly overcharging for it. Pick this collection up if you find it for less than $160. Otherwise, get the individual pieces instead.

Review content copyright © 2008 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice, The Planets
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile, The Planets
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 400 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Planets
* None

Scales of Justice, How The Earth Was Made
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, How The Earth Was Made
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, How The Earth Was Made
* Deleted Scenes
* Inside the Volcano

Scales of Justice, The Universe
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, The Universe
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 705 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Universe
* Beyond the Big Bang

Scales of Justice, The Universe
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, The Universe
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 846 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Universe
* Backyard Astronomer

* IMDb: The Universe

* IMDb: How the Earth Was Made

* IMDb: The Planets