Bad Universe Review

by Fraser Cain on August 30, 2010

We’ve hinted that it was going to be made, and then we warned you that a sneak preview would be aired on August 29th. Well, now I’ve seen the first episode of Phil Plait’s Bad Universe, and I’m here to solemnly judge it.

It was great!

Of course, I’m totally biased by the fact that I’m a good friend of Phil’s, a business colleague, and forum co-administrator. With his success, I can ride his coat tails to stardom, so take everything I say with a scattering of intergalactic space dust.

Based on Phil’s “Death from the Skies” book, Bad Universe is a TV show where Phil presents the sad truth that the Universe is trying to kill us, while clearing up all the nonsense supplied by the “mainstream media”. If the first episode is a good indication of what’s to come, Phil will travel the globe meeting scientists, presenting evidence, blowing stuff up, and describing the ways the Universe could take us out of the picture. It’s already entertaining material, but Phil’s got a really natural, geeky style of presenting science that makes his enthusiasm infectious. There is absolutely no difference between Phil in real life and the guy you see in the show.

This sneak peak first episode that aired on August 30th was titled “Asteroid Apocalypse”. Phil and planetary scientist Dan Durda started out by detonating a massive amount of explosives, carving out a 20-meter crater in the New Mexico desert. Then they smashed different types of asteroids to see how they’d be damaged by a nuclear strike (not much). Phil builds a comet from scratch out of the raw ingredients (carbon, water, organic materials, dirt and carbon dioxide) to see if a laser can redirect its approach (not really). Finally Phil and Dan smash an impactor into a sphere of rock to see if an asteroid could be knocked out of a dangerous orbit (maybe?). It’s explosion after explosion, after laser beam, after high-speed collision. Now that’s Science!

Throughout the show, there’s a mixture of realistic computer graphics and hand drawn cartoon animation. I really liked the visual style, especially when new scientists are introduced – we get a flash of their superhero personas. It was also nice to see brand new animations custom made for this show, and not the recycled graphics we’ve seen in other shows before.

The asteroid episode was a good choice to start with, especially when you’ve got the connections and clearance to detonate hundreds of kilos of explosives – the Mythbusters effect in action. I wonder how they’re going to make the science so visual and visceral when describing alien invasions, or getting sucked into a black hole.

Enough raving, time for some complaining. The Bad Universe is a great idea for a show – that’s why there are so many science documentaries about killer asteroids – but I really think that concept constrains Phil in what topics he can explore. He’s at his best railing against egg balancers, Apollo moon landing deniers and astrologers. It’s really hard to weave in the everyday media mistakes and pseudoscience charlatans into a show that’s all about blowing stuff up. I understand that Discovery Channel wants to capitalize on a compelling topic, and ride the coat tails of his recent book, but I’m hoping he can widen the scope before the show wraps up.

This feels like the best show Phil could sell, not the best show Phil could make.

Anyway, nice work Phil (and production team), I can’t wait to see the next two episodes.


Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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