Wonders Of The Solar System: Empire Of The Sun review

Ryan checks out the BBC's latest big budget documentary series, Wonders Of The Solar System...

Pub trivia fact: presenter Professor Brian Cox was the keyboard player for 90s synth-pop outfit D:Ream, whose biggest hit, Things Can Only Get Better, provided the soundtrack to Labour’s euphoric election victory in 1997. Professor Cox brings a certain rock ‘n’ roll sensibility to Wonders Of The Solar System, a three-part series that explains the secrets of space while dramatic music and, in one instance, tunes by Oasis, clatter and drawl in the background.

In this first episode, we’re given an account of the Sun, and how this mighty ball of energy affects life on our planet. And because this is a BBC-funded science documentary, the Sun’s workings are illustrated via grand panoramic shots from helicopters, soaring music and trips in submarines.

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The story begins with a total eclipse on the river Ganges in India, and it’s here we learn another fascinating pub fact: that, by a bizarre celestial coincidence, our Sun is both 400 times larger and 400 times further away from the Moon, which explains why, between four and seven times per year, a solar or lunar eclipse darkens our skies.

Professor Cox also demonstrates, via a simple experiment involving a thermometer, umbrella and tin of water, that the sun radiates eleven times more energy per second than an American city uses in a year. Later, we discover that the solar radiation from sun spots have a palpable effect on the water flows of our rivers. It’s all fascinating stuff, and its lavish visuals a far cry from the austere days of Open University science programmes, with their flip charts, tank tops and flowing beards.

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In fact, Wonders Of The Solar System, along with the BBC’s other big-budget science programme Virtual Revolution, which charted the history of the Internet, point to a disturbing trend in the corporation’s factual programming. Where it was once acceptable – and perhaps even preferable – for television presenters to be somewhat plain looking, the new generation of TV chefs, antiques experts and science boffins are, by contrast, impossibly gorgeous.

It used to be perfectly acceptable to look like Fanny Craddock or Delia Smith and be a bit, well, plain-looking, but these days it’s a given that you’ll be a flirtatious, bodacious, finger-sucking minx like Nigella Lawson. By the same token, the bottle-lensed science presenters of old – Johnny Ball, perhaps, or poor old Judith Hann – have been widely replaced by more photogenic types like Aleks Krotoski, who spent a great deal of time in the Virtual Revolution striding about in wheat fields and looking resplendent in a flowing blue dress.

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Professor Brian Cox, with his indie-boy hair and perfect white teeth, educates us with a winning smile and a glint in the eye. By 2020, I suspect that all television presenters will look distractingly like models or rock stars.

Nevertheless, Cox’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, and while a physics professor talking about science in jeans and t-shirt may sound like a school teacher’s toe-curling attempt to get down with the kids, his casual approach to explaining science is refreshing rather than condescending.

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And while the documentary suffers from the languid pacing of many mainstream science documentaries, it’s refreshingly lacking in repetition, and imparts its facts and pub trivia with the kind of conviction and brio that leaves you wanting to know more.

Wonders Of The Solar System: Empire Of The Sun is shown again tonight, Tuesday March 9th, at 7:00pm on BBC2 and Wednesday, March 10th at 12:10am on BBC HD. Episode 2, Order Out Of Chaos airs Sunday, March 14th at 9:00pm on BBC2.