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Bad Universe, Good Show

Last night, Phil Plait rained destruction and death from the skies into millions of homes across the United States. I am of course speaking of the debut of his 3-part pilot of Phil Plait’s Bad Universe television show on Discovery Channel.

About a year ago, Phil embarked on a mission to bring his book, Death From The Skies, into a television series. It was a super secret project that Phil kept pretty close to his chest. At the time, and up until the last few weeks, all that folks knew was that Phil was involved in some sort of project for television. I remember talking to Phil about it at TAM8 and saying to him “I know you can’t divulge the details, but my guess, is that the project is akin to something like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, but more parochial, concentrating on the realm of astronomy.” Phil did not say a word, and just kind of stared at me as a smile crept across his face. I wondered at the time if I had guessed closely enough, or if he was a bit taken aback with honor that I would suggest a comparison in any way to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  Now that the first episode has aired, I can look back and say it was probably a little bit of both.

Episode 1 of Bad Universe concentrated on asteroid and comets striking the earth, and the potential devastation that will occur when a large enough extraterrestrial chunk one day, inevitably, slams into us. The devastation is unmistakable and inescapable. Fortunately, we have people like Phil and others like him in science laboratories around the world working on the theories and the means to turn inevitable destruction into a survivable scenario. In a presentation style reminiscent of The Mythbusters, Phil travels the country to talk to these specialists and to put their theories of global preservation to the test. Explosive materials, ballistics, physical representations of asteroids and comets, and lots of cameras are the tools at work. The processes are purely scientific. The results are enlightening, and in some cases, downright encouraging.

I was left with only one lingering question at the end of the episode. Why was Syndey, Australia the thematic target of this cosmic annihilation? Doesn’t Phil know that I and the rest of the SGU and our families will be in attendance at TAM Australia this coming November in Sydney? My wife shot some awkward glances my way each time we saw those asteroid chunks raining down on Sydney, and the aftermath shots of Sydney were none too comforting either. Good thing my daughter wasn’t awake to start asking me questions about why we are heading to the city that is ultimately doomed. (I am half-kidding, of course).

Having gotten to know Phil Plait as I have over the past several years, the most enjoyable overtone to the entire episode was that Phil was being Phil. He was not trying to put on an unnatural persona. Phil was being himself, exactly as I’ve come to know him. The little comic-book-like graphics and titling fit in quite nicely with Phil’s personality and overall vision. He is a big-time fan of science fiction with a tinge of geekiness that makes other geeks (like me) appreciate his style, substance, and humor. I very much liked his contributions to the pilot episode of The Skeptologists, but Bad Universe is Phil Plait at his best in his natural environment.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of a career in astronomy. Astronomy was always my favorite science subject, and still is to this day. So when I see someone like Phil doing what he has done with his career, I feel happiness for him that he had the wherewithal to follow through on his dreams and interests that has ultimately led him to this 3-part mini series on the Discovery Channel. With Bad Universe educating the masses about the astronomical perils that lie beyond our sky, Phil is not only doing what he loves to do the most, but he is really good at presenting this material about a subject that effects every person and living creature on the planet.

I very much look forward to next week’s episode.

4 comments to Bad Universe, Good Show

  • Really fun, but I wasn’t too sure I was going to get to sleep last night.

    What OH What does Phil have against Sidney? (I’m told by Kitty Mervine) that the show is made by the same Australian team that did Mythbusters, which would explain why Sydney kept getting blown up.

    He says we need to “Do Something” but he doesn’t say what. Maybe a push for more funding of science? I also think that the general public will not understand the real odds of a city being blown up, he states right at the beginning that “this will happen”.

    The show does look VERY white and male. There was that one female PhD that worked as a team with her husband, but the show made me think when he said, “we need to do something” that the ‘something’ should be to get minorities and females interested in science as a career.

    The show seemed really really rushed, but that I’m sure was not Phil’s fault. They probably shot days worth of video and had to fit it all in an hour.

    They really captured Phil’s personality didn’t they? For people who don’t know him, he is exactly the same in person, high energy and passionate about astronomy. But I don’t remember him saying “Holy…” so much. What was that H word he kept saying?

    I really really would like to see next weeks episode, but still not sure if our planet will exist by then. Thankfully I don’t live near Australia, maybe I’ll get to finish the series then. LOL

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  • halincoh

    It was indeed so much fun to see Phil being himself. He’s a very good, very smart, very enthusiastic man doing very good things.

    One thing that he does EXCEPTIONALLY well is to explain the complex.

    The show indeed is one part Mythbusters, one part travelog, one part NOVA, one part cartoon.

    I think the missing component is there is not enough Phil doing what Carl Sagan did best and what Phil does best: communicate the complex to the masses. This is his strength. It should be the show’s strength. I think there should be more Phil and less Mythbusters. Mythbusters is GREAT! And whenever anything is obviously a version of the original it will suffer in comparison.

    I so hope this makes it. I also hope that over time, they find a more original voice. That voice should be Phil’s. Not a kaboom.

  • paulsanford

    I like Phil but didn’t like the show. The 24-ish excitement music was as overbearing as a sit-com laugh track turned to 11. It was as if the producers were desperately trying to make their nerdy host more exciting. Completely unnecessary! Nerdy is a good thing, although about half a dozen too many Holy Halyakala’s were a bit much even for this nerdy viewer.

    But the biggest problem is a more serious one: Phil did not adequately describe the extreme remoteness of a Toutatis impact, to the point that I would say he is guilty of a lie of omission. This was very disappointing to me as it goes against all skeptical morals. My kindest assumption is that Phil had a serious argument with the execs about this and lost. The book was careful about addressing probabilities at the end of each chapter after describing all the entertaining prospects of destruction. The TV show completely lacks this level of honesty. I fear the consequences of instilling fear in the type of people who rely on television for most of their information without being completely honest with them. The producers of the show, and perhaps Phil Plait himself, have been irresponsible on that score.

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