I don’t know how you make an hour-long programme that takes you slowly through 14bn years of history, but the BBC and Prof Brian Cox have done it with the first episode of Universe. Possibly it is a space-time paradox that only the good professor himself could solve. (Please do not write in if I deployed the phrase “space-time paradox” incorrectly. I am an arts graduate who begins this series not entirely sure whether solar systems are bigger than galaxies, and needs this programme very much, even if I cannot honestly say I enjoy it.)
The four-part BBC Two series, as you have probably guessed from the title, will eventually deal with just about everything astrophysical. But the opener is all about stars – especially our big yin, the sun. It is pegged to Nasa’s Parker solar probe’s mission, though mentions of this are brief bookends. In between, Cox does his thing.
After over a decade of watching him since The Wonders of the Solar System in 2010 made him a mainstay of presenting, you know what this means and whether it is for you or not. It means a pint of the professor’s knowledge poured into a hogshead of programming, then diluted to almost homeopathic proportions by lyrical meditations on our place in the solar system/galaxy/universe, CGI-rendered impressions of the phenomena and arty shots of spectacular sweeps of land or ocean – the latter always reminds me of the Victoria Wood sketch in which Julie Walters’s character describes how her mother is enjoying life in Spain. “Well, she likes the majesty and grandeur of the landscape, but she’s not too keen on the bacon.”
This, I find, is the intractable problem with Cox productions. They go so very slowly and ponderously that your mind cannot help but wander once the wonder has worn off. And the wonder wears off surprisingly quickly because it is insisted upon at all times. Stirring music accompanies every shot, swoops in to underline Cox’s latest evocation of the ancient past, relentlessly seeking to give voice to the ineffable. Why they are so scared of putting his actual knowledge on show, I do not know. You have what is surely the rarest of beasts – a personable physicist unfazed by the idea of making his subject accessible on camera – and keep trying to use him as a poet? Why?
This time round, we have reams of riffs on “the age of starlight”. “Everyone we love, everything we value, our supreme accomplishments as a civilisation were created and crafted by stars.” And Earth “is an arcadia where a star could breathe life into dust”. In an hour filled with drone footage of shorelines, endless CGI of cosmic webs and musical crescendos, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for the stuff that should actually be inspiring us with awe.
When he talks – with awe and passion – about the process of star formation and collapse, seeding the void with elements that initiate the birth of the universe, about the gradual building of life out of hydrogen, helium and nuclear fusion within the first stars … well, it’s wonderful in every sense. Amid all the padding and flannel, we get glimpses of the forces at work: the chemical reactions between protons that give rise to primitive cells in the ocean becoming receptive to light produced by one particular star out of the trillions that have ever existed and ultimately go on to photosynthesise the world as we know it into existence. Amazing. For the love of God and gas giants, tell us more.
Perhaps I’ve solved the paradox myself. Fourteen billion years of history in an hour goes slowly if you are frightened of it – or at least if you are a commissioning editor frightened of how much your audience will accept; if you think of facts and figures as medicine that needs a lot of sugar to help it go down, instead of a delicious meal in itself, made extra-palatable by the talented chef you have to hand.