The Planets review – so staggering you go ‘whoa!’ every few seconds
Towards the end of the opening episode of The Planets (BBC Two), the new solar system opus presented by Prof Brian Cox, I found myself questioning whether this was feelgood, or feelbad, television. Cox has already made headlines with his suggestion that the future of humanity may lie in stretching our living quarters from Earth to Mars, which, I suppose, is a feelgood idea, if adventures and Matt Damon are high on your particular list. The wonder of Cox’s arguments, which take in the staggering, incomprehensible vastness of time and space, provides the kind of television that made this particular viewer stop and say “whoa” every few seconds.
And there is extreme joy, indeed, to be found in the miraculousness of life existing on Earth at all. When Cox dangles his hand in a rock pool on a volcano in the middle of the ocean, he marvels at all the chance events that took place over billions of years to produce these tiny creatures. Whoa, I thought, being due for another “whoa”.
“But it can’t last,” he continues, switching gear to a tone that speaks blithely of apocalypse and destruction. “Earth will, ultimately, follow the fate of the other rocky planets.” The sun, he informs us, ages relentlessly, and will engulf the planets closest to it during its red giant phase. Earth and Mars may escape, if luck so dictates, but really, the future is only bright in that it will be fried into inhospitality.
Cox’s enthusiasm is so contagious that not even a conclusion as doomy as certain oblivion tips this into scientific misery porn. He must be one of the few people alive who can describe what are essentially enormous gassy, rocky moments of chance with the poetry of a teenage goth, and make it work. “Mercury is a small, tortured world,” he intones, and from what we have seen of it, he’s not wrong. The fact that we have pictures – from working out how to travel to, then orbit a planet that reaches 480C (896F) at midday, and -170C (-274F) at night – is such a testament to human ingenuity that it caused multiple “whoas”, even if I may not have got every facet of the elliptical chat. It may be darker than a final season episode of Game of Thrones, but those craters sure have a more coherent handle on story.
Most of the astonishment running through this first episode is taken from that huge question of chance, and what might have been if events had played out even slightly differently. Mercury is described with more poetic flair as “an embryo ripped from its promising position before it could mature”, kicked towards the sun, losing much of its crust and mantle in a big galactic dust-up. At least, that’s one theory. Venus appeared similar in size and composition to Earth, but turned into “a vision of hell”. Why did Venus get the rotten luck, when Earth has been consistently teeming with complex carbon chemistry for 4bn years?
Cox is able to bring all these questions to his audience – and he never speaks down to viewers, even if that does lead to the occasional interlude where the wonders of the universe blur into a list of temperatures, orbits and timescales so huge they’re impossible to truly grasp – because of what people have learned and achieved. Through its enormous scope, its look at an existence so mind-blowingly far beyond people, what The Planets really highlights is how brilliant people can be. In the 1950s, astronomers thought Venus so similar to Earth that they believed they might find signs of life; it wasn’t until Venera 13 penetrated its “highly reflective clouds” that people could see a photograph of its lifeless surface. Spacecraft are invented and built at the peak of human understanding, with the full knowledge that if they achieve their purpose, they will break and die in the line of duty. Whoa, indeed.
Philomena Cunk has, in some small way, made it harder for programmes like this to exist, not least because she once described Cox as “sounding all stoned and depressed”, and it has been hard to hear him otherwise since. But Cox is the Attenborough of the solar system, not only bringing gravitas to what he describes, but inviting viewers to share in his awe at it. It is feelgood television, then, after all.