Firstly, no matter what you do, please watch the UK version. This review will be for the UK version presented by Brian Cox.
I've been a fan of Brian Cox's presentation style since his days with Horizon. He has a calm, soothing and humble approach to explaining everything in the simplest manner possible, yet careful enough to not miss out on important details. Oh yeah, his smile is quite something. Over the years, he has gone far beyond Horizons, with many awe-inspiring series dealing with astronomy and natural history.
Brian Cox is back with The Planets. While it's not as grand in scope as, say Wonders of the Universe, The Planets brings the biggest budget yet, and some of the most sophisticated CGI techniques I've seen in a series of this genre. Well, the Cosmos probably outdoes it.
The Planets, of course, is about the planets of the Solar System. However, the title's a bit of a misnomer because it's actually about more than the planets. It includes the asteroid belt, the Kuiper belt, and related dwarf planets like Pluto and Ceres. And, of course, some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The science here is all on point, as you'd expect, though there are some missing details. For one, Europa doesn't get quite as much screen time as it deserves.
But I'm not here to talk about the science of the show. There's plenty of content out there in various media which covers the Solar System in varying detail. What sets The Planets apart is its presentation. The visuals have two concepts intercut - one shows Brian Cox travel to the most exotic locations on our very own planet, where he describes and narrates his yarn. Of course, these are not just random locations, but always features context to the narrative. These locations are incredible, and the cinematography captures them in the best light possible.
Intercut with Brian Cox's soothing voice and mannerisms are elaborate CG-driven spectacles that showcase the planetary body (note: "planetary body" is a technical term that includes planets, dwarf planets and large planet-like satellites; and not just planets) he's talking about. It makes for an incredible engaging experience that invokes a combination of awe and wonder through the close and the remote.
Then, there's the mood and pacing. Like Brian Cox's previous shows, The Planets slows things right down, to a meditative level. It aligns perfectly with his voice. While there's palpable excitement in everything he does say, it's also delivered with a certain calm quality I keep talking about. The editing, camera movement - both shots in our planet, and other bodies - are all perfectly in sync, allowing the audience ample time to truly process and contemplate the awe at display. That is not to say the show is "slow" - absolutely not, you're bombarded with intrigue throughout - it's just presented in a pace that allows you to absorb and feel everything.
Each episode features its own narrative, designed with as much finesse and care as a feature film. At the same time, there's no postmodern hodge-podge, each episode linearly moves further out into the Solar system, as you'd expect. It's this balance of artistry and science that emanates through the series. The writing and narration is pretty much perfect, but so is how the episodes are structured. Each sequence is structured for impact, and some of the moments and endings are as emotional as anything I've experienced in any audiovisual media. It's all tied together by wonderful music.
The Planets is a marvel, a must watch for everyone on this planet. Even if you know everything there is to know about the Solar system, you would never have experienced in quite this manner.