Wonders Of The Solar System: Dead Or Alive review

Professor Brian Cox continues to serve up fascinating material, as Wonders Of The Solar System continues to take us on a journey around the galaxy...

You possibly thought that you didn’t particularly care about the weather systems and canyons of Mars, or the volcanic activity of the moons around Jupiter. But as Wonders Of The Solar System has proved, Professor Cox is the consummate science salesman who delivers his information with silver-tongued fervour, and as he excitedly spreads out his photographs of the Martian landscape, it’s hard not to become entranced by his enthusiasm.

Making science sexy is a feat that few presenters have pulled off, but in Cox’s hands even vulcanology takes on an erotic dimension that borders on the pornographic, with loving, lingering shots of alien planets and the infernal activities on Io described, with lip-smacking relish, as ‘hot volcanic action’. Make no mistake, this is science top-shelf style.

It’s Cox’s repeated connections between the landscapes and phenomena here on Earth with those on unfamiliar worlds that makes a subject as potentially dry as geology come to life. We’re shown a Hawaiian volcano that has been erupting since Michael Jackson recorded Thriller, and we learn that Martians, if they existed, would regard our planet in much the same way that Americans view England: a similar landscape, but much, much smaller.

Elsewhere, we learn that asteroids swarm around our solar system like angry bees, and that the influence of Jupiter’s gravity could fling one of these vast killer rocks into our collective faces at any given moment. It’s therefore unsurprising that boffins in observatories are scanning the night sky with anxious eyes, no doubt with Bruce Willis’ telephone number on speed dial.

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I was also disappointed to learn of the tempestuous volcanoes on Jupiter’s closest moon, Io. Far from the cold, deserted mining planet depicted in Peter Hyams’s western-in-space movie Outland, it’s a world of immense heat and spewing lava. It’s therefore unlikely that Sean Connery will ever go there to hunt down bad guys with a shotgun.

Cox’s knowledge and charm goes some way to compensate for the fact that we’re watching a scientist enjoying a really pleasant extended holiday. While I sit in a storm-battered hovel, tapping away on an increasingly wan laptop, the professor is going for a refreshing stroll through the foothills of India, or cheerfully riding around in a helicopter. Even one of the observatories he visits is conveniently located on the ‘honeymoon island’ of Hawaii. Not that I’m bitter, of course.

But while rain is a constant source of gloom and lugubrious conversation in Blighty, it’s our planet’s precipitation that cleanses the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and harmful volcanic gases. Without rain, Earth would be a scorched ball of rock like Venus.

Scientists describe Earth as the Goldilocks planet, a world that is neither too large nor too small, with just the right conditions to support the abundance of life that is absent in other planets. By the same token, Wonders Of The Solar System is the Goldilocks science programme: where other documentaries have proved too dumbed-down or alternately mind-numbingly technical, Professor Cox has created a series that delivers its entertainment and sexy science in perfectly equal measures.

See our review of the previous episode, The Thin Blue Line, here.