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Disappointing, often annoying and generally frustrating
on 16 March 2010
I had thought that I would be the ideal audience for this series; I enjoy scientific documentaries in general and in particular those covering astrophysics. The Universe Season 2 is not all that fresh, originally airing in 2007-2008, but I had hoped to learn something new in watching it, or at least be entertained by some nice visuals.
Sadly, things didn't go as well as I'd hoped. The writers appear to think that their subject matter is inherently boring for most people, so they have tried to dress it up and make everything seem spectacular so that people will watch it. The result is a mishmash of sound bites and dramatic phrases loosely relevant to each of the selected subjects. If you love adjectives like "huge", "monstrous", "destructive", "terrifying" and so forth, then this is a series for you (the script must contain as many exclamation points as some letters). These are usually combined with chains of animations of things exploding or zooming or otherwise generally flashing and zipping around. And just to make sure, everything is accompanied by loud, dramatic music, just to make sure that you get the message that this is captivating stuff.
The annoying thing is that some of the subjects are genuinely interesting, but these are rarely pursued in enough depth. We're usually fed banal analogies that cover the generalities but little more. The producers obviously consider the details beyond the intellectual capacity or interest threshold of the audience and rush on to the next thing that can potentially explode or destroy things.
Being released on Blu-Ray disc and boasting "strikingly realistic computer re-creations", I had also expected a lot more of the visuals. Instead they are a real hotchpotch, ranging from nasty animations made from photo overlays (with stars showing through the shadowed parts of planets), to some very nice (but extremely rare) sequences obviously coming out of some university's super-computer simulations. More often than not you get to watch one of a handful of sequences, apparently made for this series, that are used over and over as fill-in. For example, there's a sequence made concerning cyanobacteria creating the oxygen on Earth that is used every time bacteria is discussed (in any context). An animation of a pulsar is even used to illustrate emissions made by extra-terrestrial civilizations! You can also expect to see an animation of a star exploding at least once a minute, whatever the subject. Towards the end I stopped watching and just listened most of the time since the images rarely illustrate what is being talked about in any case.
Finally, there are some episodes (thankfully in the minority) that just don't contain enough material. These are brought up to the 45 minute running time by being filled with fluff. This can be in many forms, from endless recaps of what's already been covered to long, drawn-out explanations of really basic phenomenon (e.g. a long, excruciating description of how the phases of the moon are the result of its shadow. Puh-lease!).
If you're new to astronomy/astrophysics, then don't be too put off by my comments as this series is more likely targeting you than me. It attempts to show people that this really is an interesting topic, but can be a bit over-the-top in its technique. It must work, though, because there are already 4 seasons, proving that people are watching it. However, if you already have some grasp of these subjects, there must be better material out there to watch.
It's great to see that people are making shows about the universe and I hope they continue, but I can't help feeling disappointed by the result.