Sunday, March 29, 2009

Discovery's 'Universe' promises to rule History

Property of History Discovery

Discovery Channel announced Thursday a new project that aims to do for outer space what "Planet Earth" did for polar bears. "Stephen Hawking's Universe" is a multi-million-dollar three-part special that uses the physicist's theories and expensive-looking CGI to tell you everything that scientists highly suspect about our galaxy and beyond.

"You got the greatest living mind in the universe and we’re taking his knowledge and presenting it to people with fabulous computer graphics," says Discovery president and general manager John Ford. "We start at the beginning of time, then go into whether time travel is possible, whether we are alone and some of the great questions."

Which sounds awesome for us astronomy buffs, and will probably be another content cash machine for Discovery. Can't you already imagine the "Universe" Blu-ray DVD selling like crazy on Wait ... it's already listed on there. How did ... oh, that's a DVD of the History Channel's "Universe."

See, Discovery's cable rival has a series in its third season that's also called "Universe" that likewise explores the mysteries of the cosmos in high-def with snazzy computer graphics.

But Discovery promises their "Universe," which comes out next year, is going to wipe the floor with History's "Universe."

"'Universe' is a good show, but it's a weekly series on a weekly series budget," Ford says, laying it down. "What we’re doing is a multi-million-dollar investment ... We plan it to be truly an immersible experience. When we take you to Mercury you’re going to feel like you’re on Mercury."

Damn straight.

1. Discovery has Hawking. And Hawking, man, he has a string theory about antimatter that History doesn't even know about.

2. Though Hawking will lend his theories to Discovery's project, he won't be narrating, which is ideal.

Hours of listening to Hawking's synthetic voice would, let's be honest, take away from the fun of whooshing between Saturn's rings. An actor who has played Hawking in previous projects will narrate instead. (It should be noted here that Hawking could sound like Ian McKellen nowadays if he wanted to. He reportedly still uses the same Speak & Spell robot voice to communicate because he considers it to be his trademark. It's odd that the GPS in your car uses more advanced voice technology than the world's most famous theoretical physicist, but there you go. Though even if Hawking's voice was used, the man still manages to project more warmth than "Planet Earth" narrator Sigourney Weaver.)

3. As Ford points out, they're going to spend a bunch of money.

History's "Universe" is pretty good, but the experts interviewed on the show seem like they're the people at their respective institutions who give tours to the fourth-grade classes on their field trips. Yet as hard as they try to talk down to History's audience, they don't always succeed and sometimes blurt out incomprehensible tidbits. The result is feeling like you're being condescended to by somebody who is legitimately way too smart for you (see Clip 1, below). How does Discovery spending more money on their project solve this issue? Dunno, but it can't hurt.

4. Discovery's "Universe" will be much shorter than History's.

As fun as History's "Universe" is to watch while doing crunches in your living room, the show seems like it's starting to run a bit dry of material despite having infinity to play with (see Clip 2, the "Sex in Space" episode).

"If we pull this off, this will do for the universe what 'Planet Earth' did for here," Ford says. "We hope to scorch the earth for anybody who wants to follow us, at least for a few years."

I love that the president of a natural-world cable network is willing to scorch the earth with his project's planned supremacy. At this point I'm picturing Ford with blue face paint rallying his CGI team for battle. Discovery vs. History. The universe isn't big enough for the both of them.

PREVIOUS: Buzz Aldrin's freaky space travel story

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