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Wonders of the Solar System
DirectorMichael Lachmann, Paul Olding
Release Date(s)2010 (September 7, 2010)
Studio(s)BBC/Science Channel (Warner Home Video)
The interesting thing for me about science is that, with very few exceptions, almost any question you ask about the physical world has a answer... and science can eventually puzzle out what that answer is. And the longer you study science, the more you start to see how it all fits together – the big picture comes into focus.
The BBC’s Wonders of the Solar System is that rare documentary series that manages to almost effortlessly connect those dots for the average viewer, and entertain you in the process. Much like the BBC’s Planet Earth or Life, as you watch these 5 episodes, you’ll be so dazzled by the visuals that you’ll forget you’re actually learning something. The series is hosted by Brian Cox – University of Manchester professor, particle physicist and ATLAS team member at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, who was also the science consultant for Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. His is a wonderfully laid-back style, so you never feel like you’re being lectured at. Instead, it feels as though he’s a friend or colleague, giving you a sneak peek at something cool he’s been working on.
Cox takes you around the Earth, showing you all its beauty, and then explains that the very same physical laws that make waterfalls, thunderstorms, canyons and volcanoes possible on our planet, created all the stunning planets and vistas of the solar system, from the roiling surface of the Sun, to the icy rings of Saturn and everything in between. All the while, you’re seeing those gorgeous sights via state-of-the-art CG animation (created using the very latest scientific findings for accuracy), as well as actual NASA and ESA images, all of it in full HD. And the series’ tone and score combine with these visuals to deliver a truly immersive experience. Hypnotic is not quiet the right word for it. But if you watch these episodes in a darkened, big-screen home theater environment, you’ll feel as if you’ve actually taken a journey, and a rewarding one at that.
The series does occasionally repeat itself a little bit. You’ll see Cox’s visits to Barringer Crater and the Atacama Desert in multiple episodes, for example. But the series does cleverly use the footage a bit differently each time, showing you something specifically relevant to the topic of each episode. It’s a nitpick, to be sure, but it’s my only real criticism.
The video quality is excellent on the whole, especially the CG-realized vistas and planetscapes. The footage occasionally exhibits a bit of visible compression artifacting, and some of the HD source material is of slightly lesser quality, but on the whole the imagery is gorgeously presented. Audio is offered in enveloping 5.1 DTS-HD, also of excellent quality, with English SDH available for those who might need it.
Extras on the 2-disc set amount to a pair of bonus documentaries – two episodes from the BBC’s long-running Horizon science series that are also hosted by Cox, including What On Earth is Wrong with Gravity? and Do You Know What Time It Is? Both are also quite good, presented in standard-definition anamorphic widescreen. It’s also worth mentioning that all 5 episodes of Wonders of the Solar System are presented uncut, so they’re a good 15-20 minutes longer than the versions that Discovery’s Science Channel has been running recently.
When you finish with this series, you’ll be pleased to know that Cox and the BBC are even now filming its sequel, Wonders of the Universe, due to air sometime next year. Personally, I can’t wait. (And note to the BBC: When that series comes out on Blu-ray, I’d love to see two other Cox-hosted Horizon episodes included as extras – The Six Billion Dollar Experiment and Can We Make a Star on Earth? Both are well worth watching and I’d love to have them on disc.). In any case, Wonders of the Solar System is an absolute delight, and only the Blu-ray format brings it fully to life. If you have kids even mildly interested in science, this is a great one to watch with them. Don’t miss it.
- Bill Hunt