Last year was a particularly good one for lovers of astrophysical documentaries. Firstly, we had Stephen Hawking’s Universe, a grandiose, yet speculative voyage through the mind-meltingly vast and incomprehensibly complex nature of nature itself. Then, almost as if we are forced, by law, to pay a corporation to make interesting factual programmes for us, we got an unexpected treat in the form of Wonders Of The Solar System from the BBC, presented by the incongruously boyish and immediately watchable Professor Brian Cox.
Both series were fantastic and were buoyed by the infectious enthusiasm of their respective hosts, whose abilities to craft such subjects into utterly compelling TV admirably brought the sometimes bookish and monocled genre of astrophysical documentaries once more to the forefront of the country’s consciousness.
Nowadays, Cox is everywhere you seem to look. His (sort of) rock star credentials and foppish good looks are mentioned (to his clear and respectable unease) in every interview the poor man has had to endure to promote his follow-up series, BBC2’s epic Wonders Of The Universe.
This pheromonal attention does Cox something of a disservice, as every time Graham Norton or some such embarrasses him by telling him how lovely he is, you can almost see him squirming, just wishing that one of these interviewers would eventually just ask him a question about science.
Yet, if the promotional appearances get more people watching the programme, it would all have been worth it. This is because, in case you haven’t guessed yet, Wonders Of The Universe is really very good, indeed.
This new series is the sequel to Wonders Of The Solar System in the most classic sense, in that it’s bigger, broader, and probably much more expensive than the last. And it needs to be, as, where in the last series Cox took us on a journey through the familiar spinning orbs of our local area, here he shows us just how insignificant our little solar system is when presented with the enormity of space and time indefinite.
In Destiny, Cox begins the series by tackling one of the slipperiest subjects of all, the concept of time itself.
Cox’s abilities as tour guide of the incomprehensible are proven beyond refute in an early scene with a Neolithic sun calendar, in that we are only conscious of time as a subjective passage of days and nights in our own little corner of the cosmos, and it is in these terms that we are led to a broader understanding of the overarching ideas being hinted at.
This is a common theme throughout the programme, with glacial shifts and nocturnally proliferate sea turtles all used to gradually convey a scale of time way past most people’s ken. Through these stages Cox has led us from days to years, centuries to millennia, and before you know it, we are dealing with timeframes in the hundreds of millions of years, then into the billions. In relating the enormity of time in familiar terms, we are never left behind, and Cox deserves plaudits for treading the line between familiar and abstract notions so expertly.
Cox has a deft ability to simplify a concept without patronising an audience, which is an invaluable and essential trait here. Without even breaking a sweat, he has successfully implanted the Arrow of Time (which sounds quite Hyrulian), the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the concept of entropy into the unsuspecting brains of a load of viewers who may have only tuned in to look at a few pretty computer graphics.
Before the hour was up, he had explained the decay of order and structure using a Namibian diamond mine and some sand, and the ratio of the universe’s fleeting lifespan compared to that of the immense length of its inevitable demise, using nothing more than an old, knackered boat. To those who haven’t seen the show, these analogies may seem so reductionist as to be verging on the intellectually offensive. But the notions expressed are left crystal clear without ever resorting to either a dumbing down of intent or a need for a master’s degree to be able to comprehend them. And to convey ideas so succinctly to the layman is a skill Cox displays with exuberance.
He is not adverse to chucking in a few facts that make your brain cry and your nose bleed, though, with his explanation of the number of years it will be before the universe eventually dies being a definite case in point. (If one atom represents one year, then there wouldn’t be enough atoms in the entire universe to convey the length of time it will taken the universe to die. Ow. Brain hurts.)
Visually, too, the programme is extremely impressive. The CGI used to illustrate the points being made were never ostentatious, always welcome, and consistently beautiful.
The programme did, unfortunately, have a penchant for swooping Middle Earth helicopter shots of Cox standing somewhere unlikely and cold, though. And although they did help to create a sense of scale, some were clearly just there because they looked all nice and stuff. This show is also a little guilty of ‘narrator walking about, staring into distance looking thoughtful’ syndrome, a conceit recently and cheekily highlighted in Charlie Brooker’s How TV Ruined Your Life.
Niggles are, however, almost non-existent. Pretty much a joy from beginning to end, this first episode did what all first episodes should do, in that it left you wanting much more. And in a subject normally only open to those with brains the size of the planets they ponder, this is a profound achievement and is something of which everyone involved should be very proud.
Like Hawking, it is Cox’s clear love of his subject matter and his desire to share this love with anyone who will listen that elevates what could otherwise have been just another daytime Discovery distraction into something much more.
As it stands, the programme is a triumph. A testament to what the BBC can do when it’s not wasting money churning out Saturday night dross, it may also mark the official arrival of astrophysics’ David Attenborough.
Wonders Of The Universe airs Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC2.
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