Wonders Of The Universe episode 4 review: Messengers

Professor Brian Cox concludes his Wonders Of The Universe series, and he predictably leaves us thirsting for more...

4. Messengers

Four episodes was never going to be enough, really, was it?

Just as Sunday nights were beginning to settle into their new role as edifier of the masses, Wonders Of The Universe comes to an end and, most certainly, a gulf will be left in its 9pm slot that will not easily be filled. Its resonance is startling for a series of such brevity, which goes some way in showing how almost unanimously well-received the programme has been.

There is undeniably an audience out there for high concept science documentaries and it is to this audience the BBC should be compelled, nay, forced, to cater. Every few years we are treated to an epic David Attenborough-narrated series and it is a great thing that, in these times of austerity, Auntie will still reach deep into its pockets to make a show like Wonders, but we are subsequently left wanting more.

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Sunday should be Documentary Day from now on. Perhaps a mass pro-documentary rally outside Television Centre is in order, as seems to be de rigueur nowadays, although those pesky anarchists would probably just end up ruining things and making a bloody mess, once again oblivious to their own ridiculousness.

Anyway, the episode itself was typically enlightening stuff. Focusing on the subject of light, Messengers reached farther into the history of the universe than any previous episode and its scale was appropriately vast. Our knowledge of the universe is gleaned from the light that emanates from the objects within it, Cox explains, and within this light is much more information than simple colour and appearance of form.

A typically gallivanting Cox began by travelling to Egypt, before hitting Tanzania and Victoria Falls, and some critics of the show have wondered whether the globe-trotting nature of Cox’s musings are really necessary, pleasant to look at as they are.

It has to be said that they may have a point, but on reflection, it must be conceded that Wonders Of The Universe may lose some of the ‘wonder’ of its title if filmed exclusively in a lecture theatre somewhere in southern England. Cox’s jaunts have either allowed him to use geographic analogies or examples to further explain his themes, or offer fascinating insights in and of themselves (the temple of worship to Amun-Ra in this episode, for instance), although travelling to Victoria Falls to see a rainbow? It’s good work if you can get it, that’s for sure, but who cares? It all looks so lovely.

If any episode could have worked with nothing more than a projector and a pointy stick, it would have been this one, though. The slideshow of images of distant galaxies was spectacular and Cox used these as a springboard to explain how, through a kind of light-wavelength Doppler effect, we have ascertained that the most distant galaxies are moving away from us. So, by extension of logic, we can deduce that they were once closer together at a single point. Big Bang, done and dusted.

The idea of glimpsing into the past every time we peer at these distant objects was also illustrated beautifully, once again utilising units of time with which we are familiar by way of comparison, and Cox’s fascination with the night sky practically poured out of the screen when he spotted Andromeda on the screen of his camera.

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Whether it is Cox’s enthusiasm that is most responsible for the show’s success is a moot point, but it is moments like these that undoubtedly stand out.

Cox used these, together with CGI sequences, to take us on a remarkable whistle-stop tour back in time along the light years, to a point where we can see galaxies as they were just after the beginning of the universe itself.

The CGI used in the show has been praised previously, but as we are now at the end of the series, some special mention must go to the team responsible. Despite their sensationalist (but understandable) use of accompanying sound, the graphics have been nothing less than brilliant throughout, never taking pride of place, but being all the more welcome as a result.

However, in an episode about light we are never really told what light actually is (from a photon-y perspective), and the sequence where Cox broke the sound barrier in a fifty-year-old jet seemed slightly unnecessary, if we’re being honest, entertaining though it was.

But, whatever, it’s hard to grumble at a programme that has been such a joy from first episode to last. Cox deserves plaudits for his work, as does everyone involved, although Cox would probably argue that it is the subject matter that is the real star and it would be difficult to disagree with him, given what we’ve seen over the past four weeks.

The Good Professor will be back next year in a new series, Wonders Of Life. Please Brian, hurry up and get it made, will you? Louis Theroux’s on next Sunday and he’s rubbish.

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Read our review of episode 3, Falling, here.

All the series reviews can be found here.

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