TV-Review: Wonders of Life

In the last few years, Brian Cox has become somewhat omnipresent on british television. The rockstar-come-physicist-come-television star had first presented six Horizon documentaries between 2005 and 2009 for the BBC with his own two full-length series Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe following in 2010 and 2011. Together with comedian Dara O Briain, he was also the co-host of three Stargazing Live events and gave a televised physics lecture at the end of 2011. David Attenborough has said that if he would need to choose a successor, it would be Brian Cox. But is the popularity of the good-looking scientist just a hype? His new five-part series Wonders of Life shows that this is most definitely not the case. Mixing physics and biology for the first time, Brian Cox once again succeeds brilliantly in bringing a sense of wonder to the television screens.

For the well versed audience, Brian Cox has actually not very much entirely new knowledge to offer – but it is the way he presents the facts with an infectious enthusiasm in beautiful settings and with stunning examples that makes Wonders of Life interesting even for those who have already seen lots of similar programs. He is not only the presenter, but also his own writer, who has the uncanny knack to explain very complicated things in a manner completely understandable for non-scienctists without resorting to dumbing down the facts. He would not dream of patronizing his audience, but thinking and having an open mind is of course absolutely mandantory with Brian Cox.

Right in the first episode What is Life? he throws the viewers into cold water by asking the titular question and how the complexity of life has been perceived by humankind so far. This takes him first into tricky religious territory, but very soon he explains the beginnings of life from the perspective of physics and chemistry, before finally delving deep into biology. He could all do this from a sterile television studio, but wonderful and exotic sceneries providing living examples have always been a part of his series. This episode takes him to remote parts of the Philippines, a very special isolated lake in Palau with uniquely evolved jellyfish and also to a rainforest reserve for an encounter with some orangutans. The episode concludes with the now far too often heard, but necessary explanation of DNA, which in the unique way of Brian Cox sounds surprisingly fresh. To cap things off, Eric Idle sings his new version of the Galaxy Song from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life as the Galaxy DNA Song over the credits – unfortunately not the longer version which was used in the trailer, but it is still a nice ending for the series overture.

Episode two is titled Expanding Universe, in which Brian Cox tackles the evolutional development of the senses by taking a journey from the west coast of the USA into the country to find stunning living examples. From diving for a mantis shrimp with its extraordinary evolved eyes in the kelp forests of the island of Catalina, visiting a deep cave in Kentucky with primitive organisms with the first senses of touch, searching for catfish with a very special sense of smell in the Mississippi to finding scorpions in the mojave desert in the dark for their unique hearing method, Brian Cox finally arrives at the east coast in Miami to look for an octopus, demonstrating again the evolution of the eye, to which a good quarter of the episode is rightfully dedicated. The Mount Palomar observatory and Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the andromeda galaxy finally serve as an example of the evolution of human eyesight even beyond biological restraints.

In the third episode called Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Brian Cox leaves physics and chemistry mostly behind and fully becomes a naturalist by showing the evolution and diversity of complex life with lots of different animal species. This takes him deep into Africa and even to Madagascar, where he literally crosses paths with David Attenborough, who had been on the African island only two years previously – Cox even meets a lemur who is named after his fellow presenter. In Africa, he encounters some fierce predators as examples, but also visits a hand-reared, cuddly lion baby. True to his form, Cox also visits a brand-new large telescope to connect the biology of evolution to the grander scale of cosmology and also demonstrates the use of a cloud chamber as a particle detector.

In Size Matters, the fourth episode, Brian Cox talks about a rarely mentioned aspect of living organisms of all kinds: their size and how it affects their life in their environments. The venue for the search of examples is Australia this time, beginning with some of the largest trees in the world, a nerve-wracking, but fascinating encounter with great white sharks from the safety of a diving cage to one of the most common animals of the country, the kangaroo and its unique way of ambulation. But also much smaller species are not forgotten, a rinoceros beetle stands for surprising strength of very little lifeforms and of course the ability of insects to seemingly defy gravity is explained in a wonderful way. As a fitting conclusion, Brian Cox has a look at the amazing robber crab of Christmas Island as an example of the correlation between size and longevity.

The final episode is simply called Home and takes things to a grander scale, examining earth as the only known planet in the universe inhabited by life. Brian Cox travels to Mexico to show why life has been able to get a foothold on earth and what ingredients are needed for it. Freshwater wells in isolated caves on the Yucatan peninsula serve as an example for the need for water, which he explains with a bit of chemistry and physics on a restaurant table. Later he also demonstrates its unique behaviour with experiments and more examples like water-walking insects – the source of water on earth is also not ignored. Next Brian Cox takes a train journey to the high mountains of Chihuahua to show the impact of the sun on earth’s life not only with energy and warmth, but also in terms of colouration. The need for oxygen as an ingredient for life takes the episode to the evolution of photosynthesis, while the migration of the monarch buttertly finally serves as an example to one surprising ingredient of life: the need for enough time to actually allow evolution to occur.

Like Brian Cox’ two previous efforts, Wonders of Life was again co-produced by the BBC and the Discovery Science Channel, but in an effort to expand its international relationships, the BBC’s science unit had also cooperated the with the Chinese state television broadcaster CCTV-9 for the first time. This has, however, not the slightest impact on the contents of the series as some media outlets had feared, because Brian Cox has not watered down his science in the least – but if Wonders of Life will really be shown in its entirety on Chinese television still remains to be seen. The series was produced by the same team which had already made Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe – producer James van der Poole has already collaborated with Brian Cox before, as have the four directors Stephen Cooter, Michael Lachmann, Gideon Bradshaw and Paul Olding and even cameraman Kevin White.

The consistency in the production team provides the same look and feel as in the earlier series, but the style has actually been refined a lot. The often-lamented focus on Brian Cox himself and his looks have been dialed down a bit, but there’s still the occasional backlight angle or helicopter shot of him standing on a mountain, seemingly for old time’s sake. It is obvious that Cox does not want the series to be about him, but about how he can fascinate and inspire his viewers by spreading knowledge. As usual, he is very approachable and despite the necessary seriousness he still finds some time for a bit of humour and remains thoroughly likeable, going fully against the usual clichés of a scientist. The use of exotic locations may have been sometimes questionable in the previous series, but now he utilizes every scenery to demonstrate and emphasize his explanations to its maximum. None of his trips to the Philippines, Africa, the USA, Mexico and Australia seem unnecessary and every visit to a location has a special purpose and makes perfect sense.

The excellent camera work of Kevin White shows the beautiful locations from their very best side and this time the photography does not play around with colour grading, extreme angles and shaky camera moves as much as in the earlier series. Due to the focus on natural history, computer-generated special-effects are far less used in Wonders of Life, but the sequences that still appear look amazing. The unique way of dynamically labeling moving objects may seem a cheap gimmick at first, but proves to be very useful in all the episodes. The music consists mainly of the wonderful compositions from David Schweitzer, who not exclusively relies on broad, sweeping orchestral arrangements, but often changes into local music styles, complementing the visuals very well.

In spite of the high production values, Wonders of Life does not make the impression of being overproduced or pretentious. On the contrary, Brian Cox’ third full series of science documentaries literally stands with both feet on the earth, continuing his quest to explain and demystify his profession. He now firmly treads in the footsteps of both Carl Sagan and David Attenborough without being a replacement for them – with Wonders of Life Brian Cox has now fully become a valuable addition to the ranks of popular science presenters. More will be forthcoming – a fourth series, to be filmed this summer, has already been confirmed by Brian Cox.

Wonders of Life was shown on BBC2 on Sunday evenings beginning on January 27th for five weeks and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on March 4th. Airdates in other countries are still unknown at the moment. The BBC also has uploaded a couple of preview clips on their Youtube channel, including the trailer with the full Galaxy DNA Song.

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