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Explore the Wonders of the Solar System – on the BBC!

There’s no shortage of “science programmes” on the telly, but generally they’re pretty poor. They’re either dull and boring (mentioning no names… cough… Horizon… ) or wacky and “woo-hoo! science is cool kids!” over the top (mentioning no names… cough… Bang Goes The Theory). Finally, FINALLY, there’s a science program on TV that is Just Right.

The BBC’s new series “Wonders of the Solar System“, which airs on Sunday evenings on BBC2, and is repeated later in the week.

The presenter of the series is Professor Brian Cox, who is rapidly becoming known as “the cool, good looking scientist”. Magnus Pike he ain’t; ex pop star he is (remember D:REAM? “Things Can Only Get Better?” yep, he was one of them). Brian is the new Face Of Science – passionate about his subject but not preachy; knowledgeable but not arrogant; good-looking (my female friends tell me) but not too pretty to be taken seriously. In fact, if Harry Potter and his friends had a cauldron and poured into it all the ingredients for the perfect TV science presenter, Brian Cox is what would take shape in the brew after a good stir.

The first program of the 5 part series aired last Sunday night, and was like a breath of fresh air blowing through the BBC’s science schedule. Within a couple of minutes of it starting it was pretty clear that, unlike sooooo many science programs that profile the solar system by just lazily taking the viewer on a planet by planet trip around the planets, it’s treating the topic in a much more thoughtful and thought-provoking way. It ticks all the 21st century “science programme” boxes – yes, the visual effects are beautiful and very well done, and yes there are lots of zoom-outs and bright flashes – but there’s a lot of frankly beautiful, almost poetic description in there too. Brian Cox is desperately in love with the universe, and with physics, and it shows. He could, I swear, make the physics of cleaning a toilet sound fascinating and magical and wondrous. The guy feels absolute and genuine joy when he’s talking about the universe, he revels in being a part of it, and if you’re an astronomy or space enthusiast it’s impossible to watch this program, and listen to him, and not feel like you’re suddenly a seven year old again, reading your first astronomy book and learning about the wonders of the universe for the first time.

( If I had one criticism – which is nothing to do with the content of the show, or its presenter – it would be that, again, the BBC is trying its hardest to drown out the narration with the background music. This is becoming increasingly common with BBC programs, both factual and entertainment, and seriously, someone at Auntie needs a slap, because it’s getting to the point where it’s distracting at best and ********** annoying at worst. There’s no point in having someone as knowledgeable as Prof Cox narrating so wonderfully if you can’t hear what he’s saying because THE MUSIC IS SO LOUD!!!!!!! )

Reaction to “Wonders” has beeb overwhelmingly positive – the comments on Twitter on Sunday evening and Monday morning were so gushing in their praise that Brian Cox must have blushed. I have personally found that it has fired the imagination of people who usually have no interest in the subject; people I know who wouldn’t normally look at a “spacey” program on TV are excited by it. For example, people at work who usually make fun (kindly!) of my passion for astronomy and space exploration have told me “I can see why you love it so much now!” and “That program was really interesting!”, etc etc.

I don’t think it’s aimed primarily at people like me who already know a lot about the wonders to be found Out There; it’s more for a general if not absolute beginners audience. I think “Wonders” will open the eyes of a lot of people to the wonders of the universe. It will also make Brian Cox a household name, which is no bad thing.

If anything it was a bit too good; I’m giving one of my Outreach talks this afternoon in Kendal Museum – “Earth”, for National Science and Engineering Week – and I now feel more than a little “Ha! Follow that!” pressure, to be honest! It’s bad enough that Brian Cox is knowledgeable and likeable, but he’s suddenly made people think that scientists can be sexy. Guess I’ll shatter that illusion for them!  🙂

Hmmm. This might be a problem, actually. I have literally been stopped in the street half a dozen times this week, since “”Wonders” aired, by people I know who just wanted to tell me (Universe knows why!) how much they’d enjoyed it. So now, knowing that many of the people in the Museum today will have seen “Wonders” I’m going to have to stand there knowing that the bar has been raised. Oh great, thanks Brian… 😉

The BBC’s generations-old flagship science program, Horizon, looks seriously dated and dour compared to “Wonders”. With its boring stock footage, droning narration and poor production values it is very definitely yesterday’s show. “Wonders” has the potential to inspire and excite a huge number of people. I think this could be quite a moment, to be honest.

It’s a shame Horizon has gone that way. A lot of space- and science enthusiasts grew up with Horizon being a regular ‘science fix’, and we looked forward to the specials after a probe’s planetary encounter. They were THE science documentaries to watch. I remember playing video-taped V2 and Magellan Horizons and photographing the screen to make slides for using in my talks (pre Net and Powerpoint and USB sticks and Smartboards and digital projectors… cripes, how did we manage?!). Following the slow death of Horizon has been quite sad. I think Brian Cox just gave it an injection to put it out of its misery.

So, if you haven’t caught up with this series, seriously, you have to go to the BBC’s iPlayer (sorry, US readers, obviously that doesn’t apply to you, but the series will be airing on BBC America I believe later in the year) and watch episode 1. Episode 2 is on BBC2 on Sunday evening, and it promises to be as good as, if not better than, ep 1.

Has the UK finally got its own Carl Sagan? Time will tell, but the signs are promising. But there’s definitely a new science sheriff in town, and his name is Professor Brian Cox.


9 Responses

  1. I was disappointed by it. Background music is very annoying true but the worst offenders to my mind were the graphics effects. There are many, many movies of coronal loops on the sun taken by satellites which when viewed are mind boggling. But what is shown? Computer graphics. There was only one instance of satellite imagery, that of the solar wind from the stereo mission, and very poor footage at that, compared to what exists. Actual imagery will always beat computer graphics hands down. Maybe it’s because our lad is an astrophysicist, not a solar or planetary bod. Also, while fully in rant mode, this series is already showing the plague of modern documentaries – that of infatuation with the presenter. Examples are cut to long, lingering full face close up of presenter saying “This is just so incredible!” or some-such. Well, I know what he looks like, let me see what he is looking at, to see what is so incredible. Grr. And the special effects of swapping so quickly between shots that you can’t actually decipher what is being shown. The episode may not have been as staid as Horizon became but, to my mind, this series is one more step in the dumbing down and celebretization (if there is such a word) process of everything.If it doesn’t get better tonight then I’m not renewing my telly tax.


  2. Gauche of me to say so, I know, but I’ve never been able to warm to Prof Cox. (I haven’t seen this series yet, but a couple of other documentaries he’s presented.)

    I like a passionate science presenter as much as the next bloke, but the good Prof has always turned me off.

    It’s not just that he’s decidedly… erm… well… effeminate (not that there’s anything wrong with that*). But he has a tendency to go all dreamy and gooey and starry-eyed and wistful (as he contemplates the wonders of the universe or whatever) that’s just so over the top it’s always struck me as downright twee. (In a teenage-girl-who’s-just-received-a-valentine-from-the-school-heartthrob sort of way.) Uggh.

    Of course, it could just be that I’m a miserable old sod.

    Either way it won’t stop me from looking forward to the series when it reaches my side of the planet.

    Thanks for the heads up.

    * Seinfeld joke

  3. Heh, well I’m glad it’s not just me, then, I was starting to think I was the only one… 😉

    Seriously – insofar as it gets more people turned on to space and planetary science — especially kids at that impressionistic age — it can only be a good thing.

    I personally won’t be watching it. Some of the reasons are touched on above. I won’t enumerate the others because (a) if you can’t say something nice,.. (b) everyone’s a critic, and I’m certainly not the target eyeballs for this programme, (c) it’d make a very long and boring list! However one particularly egregious sin, for me, is that there’s no distinction between the CG and the actual images. The uninformed viewer has no way to know which is which. (The flyby of a totally imaginary Sedna in the first episode springs to mind.) It looks and sounds fantastic because the BBC and the co-producer (is it the Discovery Channel? I forget; it’s in the end credits) have obviously firehosed money at the thing. But where oh where is the _science_? ( Sorry, the sub-GCSE-level demonstration of calculating solar energy output with the bucket and umbrella doesn’t count! )

    I have no objection to programmes like these being made and broadcast — they serve a valuable need, and clearly (despite my opinion at the two previous posts) most people really love it. (Check the UK press reviews, for instance.) What annoys me is that even those crude, flared-tie OU programmes that (I’m sure, from the jokes) we all watched as kids are gone, apparently forever.

    Incidentally — there’s a lot of classic Horizon on YouTube, and some fairly lengthy excerpts from WotSS, too. Makes an interesting contrast.

  4. I can’t say I agree with the posters above, I think its a fantastic series and Prof Cox is very easy to listen to. Yes there are things I wish it didn’t do, like use quite so much CGI and have so much incidental sound effects, whooshing sounds when CGI-zooming past space objects being a pet hate. But to threaten to not pay the licence fee as a result, well that’s just daft.

    I really don’t get complaints about close ups of the Prof and over the top gushiness. Having looked for just that sort of thing in last nights episode I can’t say I saw anything that matched that description.

    While I agree that real space photos will always trump CGI, sometimes the real thing just doesn’t get the full message across and something else is required to fully explain to the viewer the message. Some times CGI is required, sometimes a few stones, a stick and a somes lines in the sand will suffice. The thing is, getting the message to a viewer and aiming it at people who may not know the basics.

    The result is that those who are already proficient with the goings on out there, will find it lacking in meat, that’s not because the programme is bad, just its tried to hit a broad audience and these that know most of this stuff already are in the minority so why should they expect this sort of programme to be aimed at them?

    If you are not the target for the programme, what is the point of moaning that you don’t like it? Go find something that is aimed at you!

    I for one will continue to watch the series, I don’t mind that only a little will be new to me, sometimes its great to be reminded of how wonderful our solar system is in an easy to watch format that neither patronises nor baffles.

  5. i quite like loud music, actually

  6. Well – the music is definitely TOO LOUD and does disturb the narration.
    Prof Brian Cox is definitely very good looking!!
    If only I had had a science teacher like that….I may have become something other than one of those dreamy arty types who love to gaze at the sky in awe and wonder and write music and poetry!
    Surprisingly for some no doubt, there is room on this crowded planet of ours for pure scientists, pure artists and those who like the idea of an intimacy between the two. 😉
    It’s an excellent series!

  7. Well its gone the other way- the minority have complained, the music is now changed and is so quiet to be rendered pointless, the drama and impact of the music is redundant. Shame.

  8. The sad thing is that I’m sure there’s room for hardcore, low production cost TV for those of us who already *know* what a black hole is (say) or the theory of supernova production of metals and so on — basically, the amateur astronomy / armchair Scientific American-reading audience — as well as the Brian Cox approach. There’s definitely a big space for the latter. It doesn’t appeal to me, but then I’m not the target.

    To misquote Pink Floyd, we’ve got 13,000 channels of shit on the TV to choose from, and none of them can spare £500 and 30 minutes of airtime to allow a couple of genuinely enthusiastic people to fling some of that enthusiasm over the airwaves once a week. Can you imagine what a UMSF-TV show would be like? *awesome!* The audience would probably be small, to start with at least, but the ad space would I think produce more income than, — well, the majority of what you’d get if you stuck a pin into a Freeview TV schedule listing.

    Throw up a few creative-commons or public domain images (or even track down the rights owners for e.g. UMSF work and ask permission — I’m sure 99.9% of them would say yes in a heartbeat if asked), perhaps do a few interviews with some academics in the field for context, et cetera,… hrrrrrm…

    I’m almost starting to convince myself this could work. It’d only need one or two people on it full-time. Dammit, where’s that “how to write a business plan” guide gone?

  9. Love it love it LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!he’s the cat’s pyjamas

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