Reviews

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
Amazon

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.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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