History´s hit series, "The Universe," is back for a fifth season and the slight creakiness of the still enjoyable fourth season is becoming an increasing concern.
The format remains the same as ever. Each episode (approx. 45 min.), narrated by Erik Thompson, introduces its subject of the week then covers as much ground as possible on the central topic. The series balances nifty computer graphics with snippets of interviews with a variety of scientists. The series is designed to keep cable viewers from clicking the remote, so the talking heads are never allowed to hold court too long before we race on to the next slick special effect. With the last few seasons, some of the regular guests, particularly Alex Filippenko of UC Berkeley, have increasingly become part of the proceedings with their appearances augmented with digital effects as well. As you might imagine, the coverage remains fairly superficial, but having said that, I suspect most viewers will learn quite a bit from each episode. A sense of whimsy and humor helps to kindle viewer interest as well.
Season Five is the shortest one yet, with just eight episodes compared to 12 from Season Four. The episodes are also beginning to feel a bit more gimmicky as the show relies more and more on the effects to make the show feel more like the CGI spectacles that pack theaters. "7 Wonders of the Solar System" is probably the episode guiltiest of these, relying on the tired countdown format and situating viewers in a spaceship that shoots around the solar system from the 7th coolest thing in the solar system to the 6th, all the way up to the first. What finished number one? I won't spoil it, but it's not "Stairway to Heaven."
Some of us may be a wee bit disappointed that Dr. Amy Mainzer isn't featured as much as in the last few seasons, but she's still there from time to time. They've also added a few new scientists to the lineup, but it's still Filippenko that serves as the anchor for the show. The silly "Ask the Universe" feature (where an e-mail question is answered by one of the experts) is back, but at least they didn't repeat Season Four's obsession with the History Channel's favorite theme, the destruction of the Earth. Not that they don't still deal with – there's simply no way to get a program aired on History without, at some point, integrating a CGI sequence of cities being obliterated – but the only episode where it's the primary theme is actually one about the death of Earth's best friend not-forever, "Dark Future of the Sun."
"Sun" may be the best episode of this season as it lays out in detail the various scenarios that can play out once the sun enters its Red Giant phases. As one scientist puts it, anyone who's still around may have the pleasure of both being burned alive and frozen to death. And the idea that we might save ourselves by dragging giant asteroids to Earth to pull us gradually further out in orbit is pretty darned cool.
Still, it feels like they are increasingly falling in love with their digital light shows and some of the commentary is occasionally comical: "The Earth relies heavily on the sun." Now you know.
There are two discs in the Season Five set, each with four episodes running approximately 45 minutes each.
"7 Wonders of the Solar System"
"Mars: The New Evidence"
"Secrets of the Space Probes"
"Dark Future of the Sun"
The episodes are presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The interlaced transfers are up to the same standards as previous seasons, perfectly solid but nothing mind-blowing. Most viewers will be satisfied with the look.
The episodes are presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. The sound mix is clean and all dialogue (both interviews and narration) is clearly audible. No subtitles are provided.
It feels like the producers rely more on their digital light shows each season. Combine that with the decreased production schedule (only 8 episodes) and it's fair to wonder if "The Universe" is slowly grinding to a halt. For now, however, it remains the most entertaining program on the network aside from "Pawn Stars." Hmm, Chumlee explaining helioseismology to home viewers? That might pump up the ratings.