Universe, episode 1 review: Brian Cox is slow-talking himself into self-parody

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Brian Cox presents Universe, a new documentary series on BBC Two - BBC
Brian Cox presents Universe, a new documentary series on BBC Two - BBC

This is TV boom time for people called Brian Cox. The Dundonian actor one is currently swearing up a storm on award-gobbling HBO drama Succession (available in the UK on Sky Atlantic). The Lancastrian physicist one, meanwhile, returned with cosmological documentary series Universe (BBC Two).

The namesakes should try a job swap. Some potty-mouthed outbursts might have perked up this enlightening but po-faced plod. Professor Cox’s four-part space odyssey began with an episode titled The Sun: God Star, a hymn to great luminous bodies and the part that they play in creation. He told the story of our solar system from its Big Bang origins, right through to when it will go dark in 10 trillion years time. Please update your iCal accordingly.

This was science on a brain-boggling scale, with colossal collections of atoms burning bright, imploding spectacularly and forming planets. When Cox spoke of the universe as “vast, terrifying and incomprehensible”, I found myself nodding in agreement. There were impressive shots of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe flying into the Sun. These were intercut with scenes of Cox walk-and-talking in a variety of global locations (on a beach! atop a mountain! beside a campfire!). It sometimes felt like a pastiche of a Cox programme, with our hero sitting cross-legged in a black hoodie, whispering awestruck about trillions of this and billions of the other.

He had the classic documentarian’s habit of talking… really… slowly to sound profound. Cox also went big on the Biblical language. This was “the greatest story ever told” and the stars said: “Let there be light.” Nevertheless, production values were high and the enthusiastic Cox remains adept at communicating highly complex theories in an accessible manner. However, stretched across a ponderous hour-long show, his schtick began to grate. Some of the CGI visuals were Doctor Who-standard and felt strangely hollow, like a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster.

As the neo-classical soundtrack swelled, the whole thing was straining far too hard to feel epic. Before he found fame as a sort of spaced-out Attenborough, Cox was the keyboardist for Nineties pop group D:Ream. Any aspiring musicians in search of a name for their own band would’ve found plenty of ideas here. Cosmic Web, Collapsing Clouds, Solar Corona, The Mass Ejections – the script could easily have been mistaken for the bill at a prog-rock festival.

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