I can’t remember the last time I sat down to watch an educational series that was not only thoroughly engrossing for me (and my wife), but also had our kids clustered around watching, asking questions (constantly) and getting into a bit of a miff because it was over. If it was going to happen, it would be a BBC series, but even Planet Earth and Life (much as my wife and I love them) didn’t engage the kids the same way that Wonders of the Solar System did.
I think there are three factors at play here. The first is Brian Cox (a particle physicist and professor at the University of Manchester). As the host, Cox adds a geeky hipster vibe (he has a history in several rock bands that may have something to do with that), taking pretty much all of the stuffiness out of the subject matter. In addition, his obvious enthusiasm, excitement and sense of wonder with various spectacles he has occasion to witness are disarming. He is able to explain some very complex principals in simple terms, using whatever is at hand -rocks, diagrams scratched in sand with a stick and objects on his table in a restaurant- instead of relying solely on computer animation. The result is that a complicated subject is not only accessible to children without being condescending to adults, but the viewer is actually drawn into the subject instead of passively watching. Thus the myriad of questions from the couch vicinity. Cox also avoids the temptation to insert too much doomsday hyperbole to create drama, especially around potential cosmic disasters, a rather annoying habit I often see in programs of this nature. Here’s a clip to give you an idea of what to expect.
The second factor is the fact that the series relates much of what is being explained back to Earth, and makes great use of terrestrial backdrops to make a point instead of relying purely on CGI. For example, instead of an animation to explain the concept of a total solar eclipse, Cox is on location in India with a film crew in tow to witness the spectacle first hand. In fact, although there are plenty of segments featuring CGI as well as real footage of planets, moons, the sun and other solar objects, a great deal of time is given to Cox’s ventures on Earth. When he crisscrosses the globe to watch the Aurora Borealis, stand on the edge of a volcano, chase tornadoes, descend into the ocean depths in a submersible, drive through the desert, push the upper limits of the atmosphere in a fighter jet or go caving, each of these treks serves to illustrate a point. This approach makes the science relatable, adds visual interest and gives Cox plenty of opportunities to be wowed.
The final factor is production values. BBC is renowned for producing educational series that set the bar for quality and Wonder of the Solar System is no exception. It looks phenomenal on Blu-ray, even the CGI elements are well done and movie quality, and apparently no expense was spared on travel. Even the music works to punch things up, with guitar riffs making it seem more like an indie soundtrack than a typical documentary score. In fact, the background music was prominent enough in the mix when the first episode began that I double-checked my sound system, thinking that the kids might have been messing with things.
When all was said and done, our only complaint was that the series seemed too short (it’s five hours spread over 5 episodes). But there is hope. A sequel series, Wonders of the Universe, is due in 2011. Amazon currently has the Blu-ray version of Wonders of the Solar System on sale for $24.99.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy.