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The Universe: The Complete Season Three

One episode skirts the knife’s edge of cosmology, threatening to tip over completely into sci-fi loopiness and suck the whole show down with it into a wormhole of insanity.

The Universe

Distributor: A&E
Cast: Erik Thompson
Network: History Channel
US release date: 2009-05-26

Slogging my way through the somewhat abbreviated and recursive third season of The History Channel’s The Universe, I started to wonder: has the program -- usually so reliably intriguing – finally exhausted all points of interest on the subject of space? Or have we just reached the limits of cosmological knowledge, with the technology and science available to us presently?

And if the former holds true, does that mean that space is, in fact, finite? And if the latter, does that mean what’s out there past the horizon is just maybe too crazy for us to want to contemplate?

It’s all hard to figure, and makes for a disjointed and at times unsatisfying viewing experience. On the one hand, this season finds the series spinning its wheels a bit, revisiting favorite topics like death from above (again, episodes dedicated to rattling off laundry lists of doomsday scenarios), space travel (real and theoretical), and perennially sexy topics like black holes, dark matter and the speed of light. It’s like the show is scraping the bottom of the barrel for some last exciting detail previously missed, grasping at straws (or cosmic strings) for something new.

On the other hand, the more interesting episodes of the season find the series sailing off, for good or for ill, in to realms of speculative science that actually seem to verge on outright science fiction. Outlandish and not a little bit crazy -- sometimes exciting, sometimes silly -- these topics run the gamut from wondering about what alien life might look like; to the logistics of having sex in space; to the existence of parallel universes and dimensions.

Alien Faces and Another Earth tackle the possibility of the existence of other life-bearing planets, and what life might look like on one of them. The theories and speculation use Earth-based models of planet development and evolutionary biology to stock these hypothetical planets with all sorts of vaguely recognizable features and life forms.

Which is all fine -- or would be, if the series didn’t talk of these planets and life forms as if they already existed, and had been explored and cataloged. It’s rather bizarre and off putting to listen to a Harvard based professor speak of a myriad of alien creatures by specific species name, describing their behaviors and psychologies in great detail.

Sex in Space is kind of a hoot, doubling as both a moral screed against NASA’s prudishness (for their “notorious” abstinence policies regarding astronauts on the Shuttle and Space Station), and as an advertisement for the “2suit”. The latter is a prototype of a garment being developed by one Vanna Bonta, a breezily lusty science fiction novelist and poet with a keen interest in weightless intimacy. The demonstration of the 2suit in (non-explicit) action is a small masterpiece of physical comedy, and is a high (or low) point of the series, depending on what you are looking for in space, I guess.

The excruciating Living in Space, on the other hand, is a plodding and dry, bullet-pointed list of what life would be like on a Mars colony two or three centuries from now, and goes a long way to proving that the future, and life on other planets, will probably be just as, if not a lot more, dull and pedestrian than life on Earth is now.

More exciting is Space Disasters, a typically alarmist and sensationalistic list of all the potential catastrophes awaiting us in future space travel scenarios (hint: watch out for electrical fires and anti-matter meltdowns, in that order).

These five episodes – though totally speculative in nature and content – are relatively light lifting compared to the flat out bizarre and impenetrable nonsense of Parallel Universes. This episode – the most intriguing and infuriating of the bunch – skirts the knife’s edge of cosmology, threatening to tip over completely into sci-fi loopiness and suck the whole show down with it into a wormhole of insanity.

Repeated blasts of borderline crazy theory – bubble universes, multiverses, “membranes” vibrating on “strings”, and refracting replicas of this universe spilling out to infinity – are so far beyond what we normally consider to be astronomy, physics or cosmology that they seem to verge almost on religion, dispensing with anything like rational science and relying on faith. Intriguing, sure, but probably outside the purview of the program, at least as it was originally conceived.

However, the benefit of this episode is to make the show’s previous visits to the fringes of the universe seem normal by comparison. And perhaps this is the point. Black holes, dark energy, time travel via wormholes – they all seem pretty routine and pedestrian in comparison. And it might offer a glimmer of hope for the future of humanity.

I mean, it doesn’t make me feel any better about our universe being ripped apart by accelerated expansion of dark energy, but if there is a slightly different version of our universe existing with it contiguously, or multi-dimensionally, or whatever – if there’s another version of me, and you, and everyone we know, out there, and if we live on in it, then I think I can at least warm to the idea of multiverses.

So, it’s strange – though in parts it feels sort of cursory and slapdash, like a big pile of leftovers from the glut of Season 2 (compare 18 episodes then, to the 12 of Season 3), still I think this might be The Universe ’s most ambitious season so far, sailing off bravely or recklessly (or both) into uncharted waters, willing to entertain and explore notions that are far beyond the realm of general human thought. In a way, it’s no different than what the astronomers of the 16th and 17th century were doing when combating the ignorance and myopia of the accepted astronomical knowledge of their times. The next Copernican revolution could be just around the corner.

Perhaps all the really exciting and interesting extras were reserved for the DVD set in some alternate parallel universe, because those presented here are virtually nonexistent. The only thing of real note is four screens of bullet-pointed text rattling off facts about the Solar System, most of which aren’t news to anyone with a passing interest in astronomy. A collection of 25 or so images of various cosmic bodies – mostly galaxies, and most of them actually stunning – round out the “bonus” features.


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