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Review: Wonders of the Universe, BBC2 UK

March 8, 2011


There is a universal law of entropy in television series branding. Let’s call it the 1st Law of TV Dynamics. It states that even the best formula for a successful TV programme will eventually decay in the audience’s mind. What was so recently fresh, surprising and new will soon seem less so. The challenge for all successful TV brands is to stay fresh and relevant whilst retaining those elements that brought success in the first place.

This is the difficult balancing act that Professor Brian Cox must now perform in his new documentary series – Wonders of the Universe – on BBC2. This series follows the phenomenal success of Cox’s first outing on BBC in 2010 with The Wonders of the Solar System. The first series was a wonderful demonstration of the public appetite for science communicated in an engaging way. Cox combined academic credibility with a freshness, cool and humour that kept the audience rapt. But his secret weapon was passion. Lots of it. This guy really cared about the stuff he told you – and you listened.  This wasn’t a smiling politician, or a celebrity selling their latest book. This was someone telling you something amazing about your world. And he meant it.

I am a big Brian Cox fan. I have watched this highly intelligent communicator redefine the image of a popular science presenter in little more than a year. There is a lot of very tiresome reportage on Cox out there. Most of this is fixated on his former life as a musician, or on his good looks (gents, you really have to get over the fact that your partners find him attractive ;-)). In a way, this is inevitable. Cox himself is well aware of the power of these factors to his communicative brand. But such a focus does Cox little credit. I have watched him perform in TV documentary, in peak-time chat show format, and also in front of a live lecture audience. This is a man who is able to respond flexibly to the needs of different media, and at different levels of information detail, whilst retaining his own particular personality. I’ve tried to achieve a similar trick at certain times in my life. It looks easy, but it’s not. He does it better than most I’ve seen.

So here he is – back with the brand that shot him to science superstardom. Will this cement his reputation? Or – to use one of those tiresome music references – will this series prove to be his “difficult second album”?

For me, things didn’t begin too well. The Wonders of the Universe seems a trickier premise for a series than a journey around the Solar System. The

Brian Cox - Wikimedia Commons

kind of concepts to be touched upon – stellar time, entropy, mind-boggling distances – don’t seem to lend themselves so easily to earth-bound analogy. Episode 1 began at an irritatingly slow pace – an endless succession of sumptuous locations and fancy graphics that didn’t seem to address the central question in the audience’s mind. What what this series going to be about? The universe – as Douglas Adams once observed – is Big. Really Big. Any programme with this as a subject is going to need a focused narrative. Shot after shot of a wind-blown Brian, standing God-like on the rocks wasn’t really helping. Tell us the story Brian! Tell the director to watch a few less rock videos, and just start talking!

Eventually he did. The main focus for the episode was cosmic time, and the beautiful and devastating Second Law of Thermodynamics. In all of Physics, there can be no more brilliant metaphysical bombshell than this. If I had my way, I’d sit every artist, actor, poet and novelist down with a stiff drink and make them listen to this simple law. All the glory, wonder and futility of human life is contained within it. Yet here was Cox whisking us around South America and Namibia like a deranged travel rep. The Patagonian glaciers were stunningly beautiful. But did they really convey the slow progression of deep time? Or just some ideas for a student gap year? Next thing, he’s sitting on a beach in Costa Rica with an egg-laying turtle. The intention is to convey ancient processes. But one couldn’t help the comparison with a thousand other nature programmes, rather than a more universal concept. The first series had lots of travel too. But it managed always to retain a direct relation between the landscape and the point being discussed. I felt it was lost here – becoming an unfocused travelogue, rather than a novel means to communicate wonder.

Proxima Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbour. This Red Dwarf star will outlast most stars in our universe - a career that may exceed even Madonna. (Wikimedia Commons)

The best part of the episode for me was the explanation of entropy. The location was an abandoned diamond mining town in Namibia – spookily deserted since the fifties, and overrun with sand in a way that would have had Shelley reaching for his pen. Cox uses a child’s sandcastle to explain the nature of universal entropy – the inevitable progression from order to chaos that must be our fate. It was the professor at his best: passion, simplicity and clarity. But this was all too rare in the episode, and sadly missed. In his defence, the subject matter was a bit downbeat. Cox himself tweeted on this point, saying: “I promise that next week wonders will be happier! The creation of the elements”. I hope so.

Brian Cox seemed at times to be a little uncomfortable in this episode. Perhaps he sensed, like I did, that he was too-often posed as an attractive brand, rather than allowed to do what he does best. A great failing of television for me is the obsession with market research, and its tendency to make programmes a response to perceived audience likes, rather than creating fresh moments of curiosity that the audience can be stimulated by. The first series did just this. It didn’t follow a formula. It created one. Yet this episode seemed constrained by what the first series had created. I couldn’t help hearing an executive’s voice in my head saying “67.3 percent of viewers want to see Brian looking handsome! Less of the science – where’s the hairdresser!”.

I hope I’m wrong. Cox is too good a communicator to become a victim of his own brand. But the 1st law stands. He is no longer new. He has to ensure that our familiarity with the brand of Brian Cox doesn’t become decay.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. John B permalink
    September 8, 2011 8:11 pm

    I loved the series, especially once I got used to the somewhat slow tempo. Not everybody knows a lot about physics, and I bet a bunch of them really appreciated the methodical pace. And, after a few minutes of reviewing things I already knew about, he never failed to blow me away with an image, idea, or explanation. Light from the Big Bang rains down upon the Sahara! Quantum fluctuations evolve into galaxies! I’ll bet they managed to get a number of viewers roped in who found other science documentaries too dense.

    This was a very stingy review!

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