History's “The Universe” has undergone many transformations in its six seasons, struggling to find its format in year one, hitting its stride in the next few seasons, and then creaking under the weight of its own success as it relied more on CGI effects and gimmickry in later seasons. I began to get concerned with the series after one too many countdowns to Armageddon with lavish digital depictions of asteroids blowing stuff up real good, but “Season Six” represents a return to form (and respectability), and may be the best season yet.
As ever, each 45 minute episode, narrated by Eric Thompson, introduces its topic of the week and covers as much ground as possible on the subject, balancing CGI spectacle with talking head information. The series producers are still obsessed with apocalyptic visions, but their treatment of “blowing stuff up real good” seems more focused and sober than in some past seasons. The episode “Worst Days on Planet Earth” could have been rather silly, but actually provides an informative countdown of some of the major events from the past few billion years that either threatened to destroy the planet or made living conditions pretty miserable.
It's now clear that the unquestioned star of the series if stalwart Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley, and he appears in every episode that I can recall. Laura Danly, curator at the Griffith Observatory, has also strengthened her role in the series, and is probably the next most frequently seen expert. Dr. Amy Mainzer was a breakout star from a few seasons ago but only appeared in one of the nine episodes that I watched. Former star Michio Kaku, now the ubiquitous go-to “astronomy dude” on network and cable TV, is long gone.
The producers aren't shy about showing up their obviously hefty budget, but where some of the CGI seemed a bit corny in Seasons Three and Four, it's better integrated into the show now and less frivolous (for the most part). Over the past few seasons, they've become quite obsessed with the notion of parallel universes and take every opportunity to depict the many models that show not only our galaxy as a tiny dot, but our entire universe as just a pinpoint in the grand structure. It's a mind-blowing thought, of course, but can get a bit redundant when you watch several episodes in succession.
“Our Place in the Milky Way.” “Deep Freeze” and “Microscopic Universe” are probably the highlights of the season, and I could have lived without “UFOs – The Real Deal” (no, they aren't selling us on little green men, but the very title is a sop to aficionados of the History Channel's most embarrassing favorite subject) and while tackling “God and the Universe” may be a noble effort, the treatment is necessarily superficial and really beyond the purview of science and, I would think, the series.
There are three discs in this Blu-ray set, each with four or five episodes.
Catastrophes that Changed the Planets
Nemesis: The Sun's Evil Twin
How the Solar System Was Made
Crash Landing on Mars
Worst Days on Planet Earth
God and the Universe
UFOs – The Real Deal
How Big, How Far, How Fast
Our Place in the Milky Way
Ride the Comet
When Space Changed History
The episodes are presented in their original broadcast widescreen format. The image quality on these high-def transfers is impeccable with crystal clear image quality and excellent detail throughout. I'm not the sort who cares much about seeing CGI effects rendered in high-def, but if you do, then this Blu-ray will not disappoint.
The episodes are presented with LPCM 2.0 soundtracks. The lossless stereo is just fine with clear dialogue; the show's audio design might rely a bit too much on low bassy rumbles of doom, but the mix does justice to it all. Optional English and Spanish subtitles support the English audio.
None, not even liner notes.
If I had been cooling to “The Universe” a bit, Season Six renewed my enthusiasm, and I watched darn most of the episodes in just a few nights. At times, this series has gotten a little too frivolous, but now the sense of humor contributes to the entertainment without undermining the educational value. “The Universe” is still expanding without betraying its roots, and the series has never been better. The difference between Blu-ray and SD used to be much steeper for this series – now the BD runs $44.95 retail vs. $39.95 retail for the SD and with the discount I'm looking at now, there's only a $2 difference (your mileage may vary) so there's no reason anymore not to go Blu.
Note: The ever-trusty Wikipedia entry for the series indicates that some of these episodes are from Season 7 – however IMDB shows these all as season six, and that's what's indicated on the Blu-ray set as well. See above for the 14 episodes included.