Wonders of the Universe – where the biggest wonder is how a BBC budget expands to fill this televisual vacuum

Wonders of the Universe is a series which should really be aimed pretty much at me. I grew up watching lots of science-fiction so probably had more of an interest in science concepts, particularly those related to astronomy, than the average person in the street and I was a regular viewer of landmark series such as Cosmos by the esteemed Carl Sagan (more of which and whom later). As someone who checks out the Science and Environment section of the BBC website at least once a week it would be safe to assume that I would be in the target audience for such a new series presented by rising TV-star-man-of-the-moment, Professor Brian Cox. And yet his earlier series – Wonders of the Solar System – passed me by. I’d heard it was good but missed the first episode, vowed to catch up with it on iPlayer, forgot, fell further behind, vowed to get the DVD, never bothered and then suddenly there’s a second series. With all manner of awards being handed out to both the series and its presenter the BBC Press Office started to really hype this new series (“astronomy is the new rock ‘n’ roll”, we were told) promising even bigger and better things. I mean, the universe is bigger than the solar system so bigger equals better, right? Well, I wish I’d seen that first series now as it may perhaps have saved me the bother of wasting my time on this dismal second.

I can stare just off camera for hours and hours. I'm really good at it.

I pride myself as being immune to hype. In fact, I usually take an instant grudge against something which is hyped. However, I guess when there’s something that I actively want to like that is being hyped even an old cynic like myself can be easily swayed. And so it was that I approached this series with a willingness to see it succeed, thinking that we were long overdue an intelligent mainstream science/astronomy series which promised to tackle big questions and dish out the answers. Little did I know that I’d be in for an hour of vacuous nothing dressed up in pretty visuals.

In retrospect the start of the programme should have given the game away but it was hard not to be carried along by its epic sweep and grandeur. We journey above the cloud line with the sun sinking low on the horizon for some stunning visuals and then, what’s this, it’s Professor Cox standing on top of a snowy mountain peak staring wistfully off into the distance as a helicopter swoops around him showing off the background of a jagged range and dark, cold lakes. In your face Sir Patrick Moore! Cox can climb mountains. I’ve no idea why yet, but there must be some good reason for this, I think. I mean, they wouldn’t just plop him on top of a mountain for no reason at all to make the opening sequences look dramatic, would they?

The first hint of anything going wrong is at the end of this impressive sequence of expertly filmed landscape shots when Cox addresses the camera and delivers the whole raison d’être for the series. After what we’ve just seen this needs to be something that will kick ass and throw down the gauntlet for what is to come (“the universe ends tomorrow and I’ve got one hour to tell you everything you need to know to escape into a pocket dimension”). Instead we’re informed that we should be interested in this series because, “We are part of the universe”, err, yes, we’d sort of gathered that, go on, “so its story is our story”. It’s like having a huge build up by an orchestra only for the cescendo to be someone with a lisp blowing a kazoo and as a reason to keep watching it’s unbearably weak – we’re part of the universe. Just in case you hadn’t noticed.

Nevertheless, there’s no let-up in the photogenic vistas paraded before our eyes with spectacular glaciers and windy deserts flashing by before Cox takes us to Peru. There’s also no let-up in the amount of staring wistfully into the distance by Cox who seems more at home doing this than anything else in life. He must have believed really hard when he was younger and staring wistfully out of his classroom window that one day he had the potential to stare wistfully on a greater stage – mountain tops, glaciers, deserts and now an ancient calendar device built into the hills of Peru. This latter is something that is genuinely interesting – an ancient device to calculate the calendar by the postion of sunrise across a series of manmade hills on the horizon but it’s more “Wonders of the Earth” than of the Universe, the sort of thing which would have made an excellent segment during a 1980s episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World but which just seems to be holding back the proceedings here.

Just when you’re beginning to wonder if you’ve tuned into the wrong programme, Cox suddenly starts mentioning a few generalisms about the universe which act as the excuse for lots of fancy CGI graphics, which mainly seem to centre on things blowing up for some reason. It’s as if we’re considered idiots who can’t be expected to look at a beautiful image of a galaxy but who need to see a sun tearing itself apart and fragmenting across space, unleashing untold destruction in its path in order to stop ourselves from mindlessly switching across to a soap on the other side.

But this brief drama is short lived. Dear Professor Cox doesn’t want us getting too excited just yet so he pulls it right back for us and calms things down by jetting off to a Costa Rican beach. He wants to demonstrate how mind-meltingly vast the passage of time has been and it seems that he can only do this by getting on that jet to Costa Rica to show us some turtles laying eggs on a beach. With a rock soundtrack playing. Umm? Okay we get that there has been a lot of time which has gone by since the start of the universe, but are we somehow able to get a handle on that by seeing some turtles fallumphing up and down a beach? What is he thinking?

But there’s worse to come. As some arty time-lapse photography segues us back into the world of glaciers Cox wants to demonstrate another seemingly random point which can only be demonstrated by him getting on another jet and travelling to Patagonia in Argentina where he spends some time telling us all about glaciers. His point here is that time doesn’t flow backwards and he is able to point out this amazing and hitherto unnoticed phenomenon by showing us bits of the glacier falling off into the sea and pointing out that we never witness the ice jump out of the sea and reattach itself to the glacier! He even kindly has the editor roll back the film to show us what this might look like. Good grief. At this stage we’re twenty minutes into the hour long programme and, other than some CGI explosions of stars, we’ve seen nothing of the universe while being forced to watch Cox traverse the globe under dramatic backdrops to point out ever more obvious pieces of nothing with increasingly bizarre examples. What next? Pointing out that there is a thing called light by observing a total solar eclipse from the rim of an active volcano as a tiger fights a gorilla in the background?

It’s time for some more astronomical material though and it comes as a relief, even though you know deep down that it’s merely the cue for some more CGI explosions. And, yes, there they are. Cox, presumably still in Argentina, is waving a photo. It’s quite an interesting photo as it depicts a tiny dot which he tells us is the oldest object ever photographed in the night sky. Fair enough. Several minutes later though, as the narrative moves on, this photo returns in rather bizarre circumstances. Apropos of absolutely nothing it reappears pinned onto a barbed wire fence. In the middle of the Argentinean countryside. At twilight. Flapping in the breeze. With melancholy music laid over the top. It’s as if the director, Stephen Cooter, has gone insane.

But the jetsetting in pursuit of forced analogies and bewildering demonstrations of things which don’t need to be demonstrated have been as of nothing so far compared to what is just to come. I’m not the sort of person who starts barking about wastes of the license fee. I happen to think the BBC is a national treasure, provides a generally great service and is fantastic value. However, I would find it rather hard to defend whatever tens of thousands of pounds they spent on sending Professor Cox and a film crew out to the Namibian desert to demonstrate to us all that not only does time move forward (yes, we know you’re still reeling from that one) but things decay as they get older. So, what’s in Namibia that can possibly force us to believe this impossible concept? Well, there’s an old mining town. An abandoned mining town. And, in the habit of abandoned mining towns which exist in the middle of a desert it ain’t looking too pretty anymore. So, there you go, money well spent as obviously only this abandoned Naimibian mining town among all the places and things on Earth could demonstrate something getting older and falling into decline.

But wait! There’s more. They’re not going to fly Cox all the way out to Namibia for just one thing are they? Hell, no. He’s going to get two demonstrations out of the same location – excellent value for money. He’s telling us that things decay because of entropy and he shows us entropy by building a sandcastle. There’s no way that, say, a Blackpool beach sandcastle could have shown the same thing? No, it had to be pure Namibian desert sand for the sandcastle to work. Despite my numbness at the banality of the proceedings I am still interested at this point. Cox has been doing a lot of talking about the “Arrow of Time” and how scientists have a way of calculating why time works the way it does and I’m interested in just why entropy works and decays things. However, there are no interesting answers to these interesting concepts and questions as Cox just vaguely tells us that entropy works “because it’s overwhelmingly more likely that it will”. And this is sadly typical of the kind of non-answer he keeps feeding us. It’s like he keeps teasing us with some knowledge about how something important works and when we ask him how he shrugs his shoulders and says, “It just does”.

I assure you that it was vitally important for me to travel to Namibia to build this sandcastle.

Namibia does get to serve up a third example for Cox in the shape of the Skeleton Coast as he skims along the shoreline in a helicopter pointing out shipwrecks and forcing his analogies to breaking point by comparing one decaying shipwreck to how our sun will eventually decay. At this point he may as well just say, “That’s a shipwreck and ship begins with the letter ‘s’ and by a bizarre coincidence our very own lovely little sun begins with the letter ‘s’ as well. Oh, and I’ve just noticed that the sun is a star and that begins with ‘s’ too”.

It takes about forty minutes for him to stop this Grand Tour of the Bleeding Obvious and then we start learning about the death of every star in existence and the eventual heat death of the universe, where everything will stop moving at absolute zero temperature and time itself will cease to exist as nothing can move. Now this is genuinely interesting but even to someone like myself who is hardly an expert on such matters it just raised more questions than answers. What about the alternative Big Crunch Theory which states that the gravity of the universe will eventually pull everything back into the opposite of a Big Bang? And when Cox tell us that all matter will cease to exist and even Black Holes will cease to exist he doesn’t for one second explain how or why. Frustrating. Perhaps if he hadn’t spent forty minutes faffing around watching turtles and building sandcastles there would have been time to actually explain things a bit better but, oops, we’re out of time.

And so, just when we’re actually tantalisingly close to being told something new and educational it’s all over. What we’ve been served up has been a mess of a programme. At an hour long it could easily have been cut in half and the natural history lessons and little features on abandoned towns and shipwrecks would be the first victims in any culling of the contents. This is perhaps one of the first examples of the BBC making a programme purely for reasons of financial return. Educational? No. But look at the pretty pictures and isn’t it nicely shot and artfully directed. It’s almost as if selling the series to other national broadcasters and selling copies of the DVD are more important considerations than educating and informing. Make it look nice and people will buy. Just make it interesting and only geeky science fans will watch it.

And then there’s Cox himself. I’m sure he’s a very nice fellow. In fact, I’d be fairly solidly certain of this as he seems so dewy-eyed and gushing about everything he has to say, like some sort of ernest Sunday School teacher in a happy clappy church. But he’s just so unbelievably wet. I remember him first popping up on my screen on The Sky at Night on my very rare recent viewings of this programme. Presumably they needed some new blood and with Patrick Moore being 384 it’s a fair point. Sex the programme up with a young man with very slightly longer than normal hair to appeal to da yoof. At some point I missed along the way though he seems to have been appointed by the BBC as the figurehead of All Things Science. I can see their thinking. Anyone on Earth is going to have broader appeal than Moore but his shallow presenting style is not one that engages with me. He has the eternal look of a teenager in a classroom staring at a girl just out of his league across the classroom and writing little love poems about her. So, as he sits on a fabulous beach, or gazes at some incredible vista, or stares off from a mountain top into the distance and gushes something along the lines of, “The universe is really amazing. Really, really amazing. I really love the universe, I do”, you quickly become aware that this is someone who isn’t going to educate but who is there to look vaguely attractive to the widest possible demographic and that even mature women (possibly the demographic least interested of all in science programming) will want to mother him or something.

The late and great Dr Carl Sagan.

While Cox has the feel of someone selected by a computer for presenting, or by some cynical BBC committee, there was once a different way of doing things. Back in the days when presenters on Blue Peter didn’t have to be slightly older brothers but were allowed to be paternalistic, friendly uncle types who were just damned good at engaging with people you could get presenting jobs by not having a pretty face and a perfectly white smile. It was back in this age that the BBC broadcast an American PBS show called Cosmos. It was presented by a scientific polymath called Carl Sagan. He was vaguely weird looking but he got the job because he wrote the series, he was an undisputed genius and he was a brilliant and wonderful communicator of ideas. I loved the series and watched it every week. I haven’t seen it now in going on thirty years but I can still remember to this day nuggets of information I learned from that series and I can still remember the exact way in which Dr Sagan cleverly demonstrated some brain-boggling concepts to my young mind. In fact, I’ve just noticed that it’s available after all these years on DVD and has now come down to half price. I’m going to buy that series and watch it again. I’m undecided if I’m going to waste any more of my time on Professor Cox though. Perhaps his highly unfocused, rambling and uninformative opening episode was just an error before the series settles down and starts actually telling us something in a way that is backed up with answers that respect the audience’s intelligence and capacity and desire for learning. Or perhaps not. Either way, I dearly wish Dr Sagan were still with us and teaching us. These days though they’d probably force him to present his brilliant scripts from a handglider while swooping over an African ravine against a sunrise on the summer solstice. Sadly, substance has lost its battle with style.

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4 Responses to Wonders of the Universe – where the biggest wonder is how a BBC budget expands to fill this televisual vacuum

  1. David James says:

    From Brian Cox’s Twitter:

    ‘For those that don’t read the credits – #wonders is a BBC / Discovery co-production, which is one of the ways we afford the locations!’

    Fail.

  2. Hmmm. Interesting point, but a bit of a smokescreen I think for two reasons.

    Firstly, Cox doesn’t say how much money Discovery have pumped in or what percentage of the budget they’ve paid for. I think it would be foolish to assume that it was anywhere near 50%. This has been marketed as a BBC production and is premiered on their channel with a huge blaze of publicity. Discovery will probably just get some repeat rights and I think that their input is almost certainly quite minor. The first couple of series of the revived Doctor Who are technically co-productions between BBC Wales and the CBC in Canada but their input is miniscule. Even if it was a 50/50 split here it would still be a waste of money in my opinion to use the locations used and, as it’s unlikely to be anywhere near that, we can assume that the license payers are still fitting most of the bill.

    Secondly, and most importantly, it really doesn’t matter where the money has come from. The point is that sending Cox to Namibia to build a sandcastle and look at a slightly ruined building is just pointless. Sending him to Costa Rica to watch some turtles is pointless. Sending him to Argentina to watch glaciers to demonstrate that time diesn’t run backwards is *overwhelmingly* pointless. He could have turned on a tap and then reversed the film of it to show that we don’t ever see water jumping back up into a tap. I’m not sure why he needed to do this same experiment with a glacier other than that it would look pretty.

    And this is what it boils down to. All of those locations are unnecessary and distracting from what should actually be the point of the series. Because he wastes so much time on natural history sidetracks he doesn’t have time to explain some of the big astronomical concepts he’s talking about. So is the series a science programme or just something that looks pretty. Obviously, I think it’s the latter. Cox himself has admitted that the mountaintop shot was a mistake and that he wouldn’t do it again. However, he has also criticised the BBC for remixing the sound for the series from the second episode onwards after a number of complaints from the public that they couldn’t actually hear what was being said because of the bombastic music. Here’s his quote: “My view is that it should be a rather more cinematic experience. At the end of the day it’s a piece of film on TV and it’s not a lecture”. That says all you need to know about his vision for the series. Light on education and heavy on cinematic experience. As a piece of well-crafted eye candy the series does succeed. The photography is stunning and it is a triumph of television camerawork, cinematography and editing. As an informative piece on its subject though it fails dismally.

  3. Frank says:

    Nice review. I encountered the series this weekend, and I agree, it’s full of fluff. However, this is great for the average person, this CG explosions and beautiful landscapes may motivate then to explore and lear a little more about a topic. In some way it reminds me the lectures given by Neil deGrasse Tyson in the USA. He is a great communicator, but he is very broad.

    In the States, we desperately need people to brake away from the stupidity thought by religious schools, and this pretty graphics may help. So, all in all, I hope it becomes mainstream.

    Peace,

  4. Thanks, Frank. I guess you’re right in that it opens it all up to people who might not otherwise have been interested. It’s sad though that TV aimed higher in the past and seemed to succeed with shows like Cosmos which were more in depth and challenged the viewer.

    The problem with Cox in the UK is that the BBC saw him work in a series and have now made him ubiquitous and he’s barely off TV. The latest series he did, Wonders of Life, is about evolution. It’s not a subject he’s in any qualified on and yet they have him present it when there are others who could do the job better. Still, as you say, if it helps turn people onto these subjects then that really has to be a good thing. It’s just a pity that it can’t be better TV into the bargain! I hear that there is a new series of Cosmos being prepped Stateside with all the original surviving writers working on it. That looks like one to watch out for!

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