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4.4 out of 5 stars
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4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 21 March 2011
This series, and Brian Cox's informal presentation style, always seem to divide opinion, and as I write this there are six other reviews on here, half of them favourable, the other half not.

However, it's telling that the unfavourable reviews are critical of a) the globe-trotting Cox does during the series or b) the level at which the programme's narrative is pitched. Both criticisms are misguided, as it's clear that Cox's intention is not to provide a GCSE curriculum programme, nor to preach to the converted (i.e. astronomers and physicists), but to convey something in particular to the layman.

The clue is in the series' title, and it is wonders - and the sense of wonder at the universe - that Cox is keen to impart. The use of different locations and landscapes as visual metaphors is one part of this approach to the subject matter, and provides the viewer's eye with something to latch on to during what are sometimes reasonably lengthy explanations of nuclear reactions or the life cycle of stars. He could, of course, have increased the amount of CGI on display (and would have got criticised for that too, no doubt), or used more static shots of star fields or diagrams.

But television is a visual medium and it deserves the chance to make the most of the advantages it can offer over books or radio, i.e. supplying visual stimuli. To play to a medium's strength in this way is not showy, nor shallow. It is a direct consequence of choosing to use the medium of television in the first place. The programme chooses to take us to interesting locations because it is attempting to invoke a sense of wonder. And that's easier to do in exotic places than it is in an Open University style studio with a white board in the background.

If you are looking for a precise, and technically detailed, account of our current knowledge of the cosmos, then go read a book on the subject - it's the medium that is most apt for communicating that information. Expecting a TV series to do the same thing is unrealistic, and just a little bit lazy. For example, I loved Jacob Bronowski's 70s series on human progress, 'The Ascent of Man', and learnt a lot from it - but never in as much detail as I could from the books it made me want to go and read afterwards.

In short, if you are looking to be indoctrinated with enthusiasm for the subject matter, and be inspired to go and find out more for yourself, then this is as good a starting point as you could wish to have.
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The minority who did not like "Wonders of the Solar System" will not like "Wonders of the Universe", but the many more who did like it will enjoy this one too. It has been claimed that it has little serious science. This is true. For example, compare what was said about the arrow of time and entropy with the Wikipedia page on the subject, which contains much more information. However, this misses the point. Professor Cox has rightly described the series as a "cinematic experience". It combines state-of-the-art CGI, wonderful astronomical photos, soaring music, exotic locations, fancy camerawork, and the infectious enthusiasm of Cox himself. As for the science, there may not be much depth but the topics covered are very well done and explained with crystal clarity. Everybody watching these DVDs, whether a child or a pensioner, will complete their viewing with some understanding of topics ranging from the life and death of the universe and the formation of the elements, to gravity and light. Just as important it is likely to have inspired enthusiasm and a sense of wonder. For that we must thank Brian Cox. The impact he has made with both "Wonders" series can be gauged by the fact he is being called by many "the David Attenborough of astrophysics". High praise indeed.
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on 8 January 2012
I noticed that Amazon have lumped the reviews of all the editions of this documentary together, so you can't really tell the difference between the standard DVD release, the two disc Blu-ray edition or this. So, as the title states, this is specifically a review of the single disc Blu-ray release.

As the technical details at the top state, the single disc contains all four episodes , so total length is just short of four hours. The audio is English Stereo Dolby Digital and the video format is 1080i/16:9. It is not 24P or anything like that. There are subtitles in English, for the hard of hearing. That's it. So it is pretty much standard BBC Blu-ray format; say, the same as Ancient Worlds (Blu-ray) (although, with six episodes, that came on two discs).

The quality is good. It is very good. Many of the scenes are, even after multiple viewings, stunning. But really, it is no better than watching the series broadcast on one of the BBC's High Definition channels. And, again like Richard Miles' 'Ancient Worlds', there are no extras, no 'making of' mini-docs so often seen at the end of BBC natural history programmes.

I'm still happy to have it. This is a documentary series that I have watched half a dozen times already and I am quite sure I will watch it many, many more times. The photography and photographic effects such as the moody vignetting are, as I have already said, brilliant. Brian Cox's presentation is infectiously enthusiastic, the computer generated images really imaginative and quite stunning and the accompanying music very effective. I remember that there was criticism of the music at the time of broadcast, but I find some of the more 'rock-oriented' backing music highly effective, really adding to the impact of the visuals.

So - it is a wonderful documentary series. This Blu-ray edition, though, is simply a good, straight-forward copy of the broadcast series; no extras, no features, no special sound. Frankly, it doesn't need it.

Talking of the scenery; yes, some do border on visual hyperbole. The opening shots of the good professor perched perilously atop a mountain reminded me very much of an edition of Thus Spoke Zarathustra - our Brian as Superman? I have to say, he doesn't look very comfortable standing there. Using the demolition of a derelict prison in some South American city to demonstrate the creation of the heavier elements in dying suns seemed just a little OTT but, on the other hand, the shots of decaying diamond mining towns in Namibia were both beautiful and apposite.

Still - this series is called 'Wonders...' - that is the crucial word - "wonders'. Professor Cox explicitly states that he was hugely influenced by Carl Sagan and his Cosmos TV series/book. Cox even restates Sagan's famous (and, in my opinion, beautiful) quote "We are the way the universe knows itself". This is the way this programme should be approached. Brian Cox has been criticised for supposedly 'dumbing-down' the science - in one episode, he says "Now, I wouldn't normally show you a graph, but this one..." Why wouldn't you normally show us a graph Professor Cox? Because that is NOT what this series is about. This series is, to restate yet again, about the Wonder of the Universe, about that sense of awe that we all feel just looking up into the night sky.
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on 10 September 2011
Brian Cox is a good storyteller. He is excellent at communicating a complex subject in simple terms with very nice analogies. I particularly liked the episode named Destiny. The concept of entropy is explained nicely and the episode feels quite dramatic and terrifying, even though the time scale is so vast that at the human scale, it is like it will never happen.
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on 29 March 2011
This series had a reputation to live up to set up by the Wonders of the solar system program, so comparing this series to that one is inevitable. To be honest this series was not what I was expecting, the solar system series looked at objects in our solar system over 7 episodes, so I was expecting this series to be the same format but just extended to the universe at large, i.e. a program about red giants, black holes, new planetary systems, neutron stars, nebulae etc. But instead what we got were only 4 episodes depicting 4 general physics lessons that sort of mentioned all of the above objects in multiple episodes but in a different context. There was a lot of repetition, that would almost be ok in a sense to really drive key concepts into the mind, but each program just ended up feeling a bit muddled, and talking around the topic of the program with repeated footage from other episodes, rather than making a unique and direct program to explain the detail of the topic.

What was nice about the last series was that for every natural phenomenon suspected on a body in our solar system, Brian Cox visited the comparable location on earth such as geysers in Iceland to show what could be expected on other moons. This program continued the worldwide travel, but in a completely irreverent way. He goes half way around the world to an abandoned building and says "suppose this room was a red giant..." He went on a mach 1 plane flight to talk about speed limits, and gets out saying that actually light, which was the focus of the episode, is completely different to the sound barrier. He went on the zero G `Vomit Comet' flight in the episode about gravity, but really did not use it at all to explain gravity, and to be honest that's a fairly complex way to illustrate it if he did try. You get the impression that they travelled the world for a holiday. No wonder they could only afford 4 episodes.

The problem became apparent that they spent all this time and money in irrelevant circumstances but that they really should have invested more in graphical explanations of what they are talking about, instead of him just sitting in a desert talking about it. For example talking about the information we can interpret from light and light spectra, it desperately needed a graphic to show how different colours of light are emitted with a diagram of the atom and the energy levels of electrons. We needed a basic video depicting the Doppler Effect with waves bouncing off stars with augmented wavelength. We needed to see the common depiction of general relativity and how objects distort the space time grid.

As for the science covered, it will of course please and displease people in equal measure for being insightful and overly basic respectfully. I do wish he didn't make such an obvious effort to hide some of the science. He talked about the heavier elements being created in supernovae, and being here on earth, but didn't make that link of our sun being a second or third generation star. In the episode about light it would impress many people to know just how much information we get from light, the stars composition, its lifecycle age, its speed, etc but it wasn't discussed properly.

I have been highly critical of this series, I gave almost an oppositely praiseworthy review to Wonders of the Solar system. But I've just been a bit surprised how this series dropped from the heights of that program and even the recent Stargazing series. Yet I still urge people to watch this, I admire the ambition of bringing the concept of the wider universe to people who know little about it as it really puts things in perspective of really how big things here on earth are relatively insignificant on a universal scale. It's by no means a terrible series and easily dwarfs many episodes of Horizon in terms of explanation quality and scientific content. In short if you are unfamiliar with physics on a universal scale, you need to watch this, otherwise watch this for some pretty CGI animations of stars and nebulae.
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on 25 October 2011
This is a must see for everyone in my view. This chap lays it all out with remarkable clarity - I particularly enjoyed his explanation of entropy. If you come out of this believing in deities and astrology then you didnt understand it! A great purchase and one I can highly recommend.
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In this four-part series, Prof Brian Cox pulls out all the stops to stimulate the audience's interest in big - really big - science. The sweeping filming, the accessible script, the dazzling graphics and BC's passionate presentation all seek to hammer home the core message.
Science matters to all of us. We are all part of the universal picture. Ultimately, to reach our potential, humanity must engage with our surroundings and explore them... through scientific endeavour.
And `Wonders of the Universe' does all that in an entirely entertaining manner, without being the least bit tedious or pretentious or condescending. Each hour-long programme incorporates stunning cinematography shot in unusual locations to illustrate how cosmic concepts relate to everyday human life. When it's impossible to film a collapsing star, the programme switches to artful animation to represent the humungous forces of the universe in action. And every once in a while there's a real treat: genuine photos of actual stars, actual planets which can be impossibly moving. The last picture of Earth taken by Voyager as it left our solar system is deeply evocative. Prof Cox's explanation of how the spectrum of visible light reveals the elements contained in each star was another gem of neat info, ideal for those of us with magpie minds...

There are some segments which work better than others: the massive sun calendar in Peru featured an original piece of filming which perfectly demonstrated the human relationship to time. But I could've done without seeing the dratted turtles tugging themselves onto the beach once again - that particular phenomena has been over-documented, I fear. These illustrations worked, however; the first episode leaves the viewer with a poignant sense of the immensity of deep time. It was hard not to feel chilled by the understanding of entropy: not only is each individual human life incredibly short, but the actual opportunity for life to exist in the universe is extremely limited. Make the most of it: our stars will burn out soon enough, and the centre cannot hold...
The series goes on to explore how we are all made of the same stuff as the stars. Again, the subject is intimately related back to actual human life and beliefs - in this instance, how Hindu philosophy of creation, destruction and rebirth are mirrored in the recycling of atomic material. The sequence in a derelict prison is clever representation of how layers of elements are created under gravity inside stars; this programme gives a wonderful explanation for how we are all literally a part of the universe, made up of the stuff of stars.
In the gravity programme there's an inevitable zero-grav bit of mucking about on a weightlessness flight, and BC endures a centrifuge to explain how a force so weak can dominate the universe and the development of our world, and us. I prefer the excellent explanation of general relativity using a waterfall, and the spectacular story of the birth of the Crab Nebula. The visual representation of our galaxy and its nearest neighbour colliding was fabulous, but I also enjoyed the snippet that when the moon was still spinning its rocks would have been distorted by tides 7m high!

This short series tries to cover an enormous amount of ground, the universal fundamentals of gravity, energy, light, matter and time, and cram them into just four hours. A six part series would have been much more rewarding, I think, because some of the explanations didn't quite go deep enough to satisfy my curiosity. (Time's arrow only goes in one direction because of... entropy? OK. Explain that a little bit more, if you don't mind?). In common with many BBC factual programmes, this series leans a little bit too far towards describing science, without actually engaging with the hard numbers. If the producers should read this - c'mon guys, we can handle a little more info. Cut out six minutes of pretty filming and take the risk. Carry your audience with you...

Having said that, `Wonders of the Universe' is a perfect introduction to astronomy and physics for people who don't like science, those who would normally avoid factual programmes. It's perfect learning material for anyone who hates textbooks, and Prof Brian Cox has to be the ultimate posterboy for astronomy: he's just so darned likeable, intelligent and witty that you forgive some of the excessive, indulgent globe-trotting at our expense...
Definitely a series to watch more than once, and perfect for all ages.
9/10

Also recommended: Wonders Of The Solar System [DVD] [2010]
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on 15 June 2011
This series, like Wonders Of The Solar System [Blu-ray] is fantastic, Cox puts it so simply that anyone can understand. If you liked Wonders Of The Solar System, note this series is a lot more scientific, but there are still some amazing places mentioned! If you want a down to earth physics series then I strongly recommend Stephen Hawking's Universe [Blu-ray] [1997].
As the title says, bit of a let down as to the Blu-ray. If you watched this on TV, you may have noticed that for the first few episodes the sound pretty much blanked out much of what Cox was saying. They did change this for the TV series, but not for the DVD or Blu-ray (I have NO IDEA why).
Also, because they have fitted it all into 1 disc, the audio is not HD 5.1 at all, and there are no special features.
Despite the problems, I would strongly recommend this series to amateur and advanced physicists alike!
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on 15 October 2011
This is a fantastic DVD.I watched the series on television and just had to have them at home to watch again and show them to my children.If you want to learn more about the wonders of our universe and get a few extra lessons in astrophysics by a highly intelligent and very soft spoken professor without the usual stiffness of science programmes then this is a must have.
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on 31 January 2012
Professor Brian Cox returns after helping us explore our Galactic Backyard in 'Wonders of The Solar System' with his new series 'Wonders of The Universe' Complex theories on the evolution of our Universe are explained in an accessible way. Plus state of the art 3D animations add a true sense of depth, leaving the viewer truly 'awe-inspired' at the wonder of our Universe. I would strongly recommend this series to anyone with an enquiring mind who often looks up at the night sky and is filled with sheer wonder and a determination to explore... These series are something the BBC does extremely well
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