‘Wonders Of The Universe’: Episode 1 review

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Following on from 2010’s acclaimed Wonders Of The Solar System, Professor Brian Cox ramps up the expectation level with this new series, looking at the whole universe and its relation to us, our lives and the fundamental questions we have about our existence. Happily, the expectations are not only met but easily surpassed. This is documentary filmmaking at its stunning best, both visually and conceptually.

The opening episode looks at time, telling the story of the universe from beginning to end. The joy and tragedy of life and the grand cycles of existence are portrayed in an hour that flashes by in an epic heartbeat. While parts of this programme could, perhaps, be viewed as a little depressing – the fact that even the last stars in the universe will one day go out is not necessarily a notion that leads to cheeriness – Wonders Of The Universe is no eulogy for lost time. It is, in fact, a celebration: a very human combination of science and philosophy that shows there is beauty in even the bleakest moments of decay.

There are moments of reflection, of course – and the gorgeous vistas and melancholy music are perfect for such moments – but there are also great moments of genuine, take-a-deep-breath awe, such as the scenes of a giant glacier slowly breaking up in southern Argentina. There’s even the odd moment of surrealism, as Brian delivers a piece to camera about turtles laying eggs on the Costa Rican coast whilst one of them huffs-and-puffs across the beach past him like an elderly MP leaving the House of Commons.

Like its predecessor, one of the real wonders of the series is how science is presented as incredible and commonplace; breathtaking and yet easy-to-grasp at the same time. It’s the premise that science is something for everyone – something that encompasses and encourages any and everyone with the desire to make sense of the universe around them – that is part of this programme’s greatness. The message is clear: there is magic in the world, but it’s a magic that can be explained by rationale.

Wandering the most desolate and beautiful parts of the world looking rather like a raver on his way home from a night at the final party before the heat death of the universe, Cox is the perfect presenter for this most perfect of programmes. He balances his infectious, wide-eyed passion for physics with a willingness to impart knowledge in its simplest, purest forms. He’s equally at ease explaining the second law of thermodynamics using a sandcastle in the Namibian desert as he is describing it in terms of the giant star GRB090423 collapsing in on itself with the light of a million billion suns. His enthusiasm and knowledge are as integral to the programme as the dazzling photography and the humanist philosophy.

Perhaps the only real sadness is that the universe’s fundamental truth – nothing lasts forever – applies to this series as much as everything else. There are only four episodes of Wonders Of The Universe; cherish every single one.

Airs at 9pm on Sunday 6th March 2011 on BBC Two.

> Buy the DVD on Amazon.