The Planets

This review is sponsored by

Details At A Glance

Category Television Documentary Series Theatrical Trailer(s) No
Rating Other Trailer(s) Yes, 1 - Dolby Digital Train
Year Released 1999 Commentary Tracks No
Running Time 390:00 minutes Other Extras Menu Audio and Animation
RSDL/Flipper RSDL x 2
Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Selection then Menu
Region 2,4 Director -
Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring -
Case Double Brackley
RRP $59.95 Music Jim Meacock

Pan & Scan/Full Frame No MPEG None
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1 Dolby Digital 2.0 
16x9 Enhancement
Soundtrack Languages English (Dolby Digital 2.0 , 192 Kb/s)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
Macrovision ?Yes Smoking No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

Plot Synopsis

    One of the great untapped sources for DVD programming is television, especially as far as Region 4 is concerned. At the forefront of this potential are a stunning sequence of programs from predominantly the British Broadcasting Corporation, especially the nature programs from the likes of David Attenborough, as well as a number of comedy series. Thus far the good old Beeb has been testing the waters with a limited range of releases in Region 2, generally to some acclaim. Amongst those announced so far, it would seem that The Planets is the most eagerly awaited - although Walking With Dinosaurs is also generally eagerly awaited. Thankfully, the Beeb has taken the positive results from its initial releases to heart and has announced an expanded release schedule in Region 2. Of course, BBC stuff is distributed in Australia by Roadshow Home Entertainment and we will hopefully see a significant number of these releases flowing through to Region 4 as time goes by.

    The Planets has only recently been seen on television in this country and has been a popular seller on (shudder) VHS tape, so makes a logical first-up release of educational material in Region 4. And what a release it is! All eight episodes of the series on two dual layer DVDs, and widescreen, 16x9 enhanced to boot! And just in case you were wondering whether you just read that correctly, yes they are genuinely widescreen: a significant proportion of recent television programming is being produced in widescreen format in anticipation of widespread introduction of widescreen, high definition television in the near future in the major television markets. Oh, and in case you are wondering, this is not a series of programs about the piece of music composed by Gustav Holst (which naturally enough does get a run during the episodes) but rather a look at the origin of the solar system and the voyage of discovery and exploration undertaken by man in that solar system. The actual episodes on offer are (using the blurb off the cover slick):

    This is a fascinating look at our slightly insignificant part of the universe, which in the cosmic scheme of things may actually be quite a dreary place. To the generally inquisitive minds of Homo sapiens however, it is a place of wonder and mystery that we have been trying to understand from the day we first stood on our two feet, scanned the horizon and decided to do everything in our power to completely stuff up our little oasis in space. This is the sort of infotainment that demonstrates that when it feels like it, television can be a medium of high quality thought and education. The scope of the series is beyond this mere synopsis, but suffice it to say that if you have ever gazed up at the stars and wondered about our place in the universe, then you need to add this gem of a double DVD to your collection immediately. It comprises archival material, some very historic and extremely rare interviews with some of the great minds involved in the unlocking of the mysteries of the solar system and some of the best visual effects work you are likely to see, to bring to life the entire story of The Planets.

    I will admit to being something of a space buff - I have a voracious appetite for anything to do with space and the unlocking of its mysteries. Thus when a series includes archival material that I have not seen, I know damn well that I am watching something quite special. This is. Whilst this should make it into every school in the country as a reference material par excellence, just get a hold of it for the sheer spectacle and entertainment value.

Transfer Quality


    Okay, lets make it very clear that some of the source material here is very rare and often exhibits significant flaws. Thus the resultant transfer will contain inherent problems that even the best remastering and restoration is not going to fix. However, when the material includes such gems as film of the testing of V2 rockets at White Sands, New Mexico after World War Two, or film from the Soviet space program, or film of the kamikaze Ranger missions to the Moon, you readily make the allowances.

    The transfer of the entire series is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and it is 16x9 enhanced.

    Having said that the transfer does contain inherent problems in the archival material, I must nonetheless express some disappointment with the newly prepared film material. To be blunt, I was expecting this transfer to be a lot clearer and a lot sharper than it actually is. The main problem as far as I am concerned amongst the new film material is the rather prevalent tendency of grain - this is certainly a lot grainier in parts than I was expecting. At times the grain is bad enough to be a little distracting, although that is the rarity rather than the norm. At times, the recent film material is indeed quite sharp and nicely defined and comes up very well indeed. Still, the consistency of the grain is a little distracting overall and I really wish this were a lot clearer. Part of the problem will of course be the result of the different shooting locations and different personnel and this is nowhere better evidenced than some of the interview sequences. Part of the problem too is the fact that the new material is interspersed with visual effects work that in general is superbly rendered, very sharp and detailed, and the archival material which is very variable: this results in a lot of unavoidable discontinuity in the style of the transfer and this may influence the perception of the transfer too. Despite the grain problem however, shadow detail is generally good, and the whole picture never descends into anything that is unwatchable. Coupled with the grain problem is the fact that there does appear to be some low level noise at times in the transfer - again nothing major that detracts from the transfer too much, but still a little disconcerting.

    Naturally the colours are all over the place, with archival material displaying a whole range of palettes rich and poor and recent film material displaying a lot of vibrancy. And exactly how vibrant do you want colours to be when they in some cases have been transmitted from distances upwards of one billion kilometres? Then there are the stunning colours in the visual effects work, with lots of subtle detail in some of the stellar colours. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be really done about this inconsistency of presentation: it is simply an inherent problem with the various sources of the material. Still, there was never any tendency to oversaturation except just a hint in the opening titles sequence to each episode. Overall though, there is nothing too much to really complain about here.

    There are no readily apparent MPEG artefacts in the transfer. Regrettably, there are some noticeable film-to-video artefacts present - some quite noticeable shimmering throughout which does detract somewhat from the video transfer. As we should expect from such a recent transfer, there are no significant film artefacts at all in the transfer.

    This set comprises two RSDL format discs, with the layer change coming between episodes two and three on disc one and episodes six and seven on disc two. A rather obvious solution perhaps, but good to see it nonetheless.

    Unusually for a Roadshow Home Entertainment disc, there is a choice of subtitles available. That however ends the positives. The discs have been mastered with no timing information at all, so all you get is PLAY displayed on your player. As a result, I have no idea how long the discs actually run for, and I have had to accept the stated time of 390 minutes as being correct. Far more annoying is the fact that whilst the episodes have been chaptered, numbers have not been assigned to the individual chapters in the conventional manner - you can only navigate during the program by pushing the skip button. These two items make it a little difficult to navigate to an exact spot in the episodes, which would be most useful as I suspect that no one is going to sit through the whole six hours plus in one sitting, and even guessing how many episodes you can handle in an evening is a little haphazard. Not a damning problem I know, but I did find it all mildly annoying.


    Okay, so I am slightly disappointed by the lack of a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack here, which would really have made some serious impact!! But there is nothing too much wrong with what we did get.

    There is just the single audio track on the DVDs, an English Dolby Digital 2.0 surround encoded soundtrack.

    The excellent narration was clear and easy to understand throughout, as were the interview dialogues - although some of the accents made it a little difficult to follow exactly what was being said at times.

    Okay, a Pioneer player user here, which makes me supposedly more sensitive to audio sync problems than others. Well, there did not appear to be any problems here apart from one brief segment midway through episode 7 (of course, without timing information or chaptering information I cannot tell you exactly where). It was just about in the category of was it or wasn't it out of sync, so I would suspect that most will have no problem here, and in any case we are at worst talking about two minutes tops out of over six hours of programming - it could just be that I was damn tired by the time I got to that part of the DVD!

    The specially composed musical score comes from Jim Meacock and is generally quite nicely done. However, the bulk of the musical score comes from well known classical music with a space or celebration theme, most notably the aforementioned Planets Suite from Gustav Holst. Overall, a very nicely supportive soundtrack.

    Whilst this is a surround encoded soundtrack, with some minor surround detail, there is fairly limited use of the surround channels to be honest and this really came across as quite a frontal sound picture. Not that this is anything to complain about, since it suits the documentary narration style quite well. However, given the opportunities afforded by asteroids and planetoids crashing into each other, rockets launching, rockets crashing, meteors plummeting and so on, the lack of at least some subtle bass was very much noted and missed. Other than that though, the soundtrack was clean and clear, if lacking a little in space, and nothing too much to complain about.


    Apart from some minor menu audio and animation, absolutely nothing at all. And to be honest, this is the way it should be in this sort of programming as far as I am concerned. Two well filled discs in any case give little scope for anything else. We do however get the Dolby Digital Train trailer on both discs, though not in the usual 5.1 sound, but rather a very anaemic sounding 2.0 sound that makes me question why they put it on the discs in the first place: if this was the first time I had heard one of these trailers I would be raising serious questions as to what is so great about Dolby Digital sound!!


R4 vs R1

    Shortly to be released in Region 1, it would appear that the release will be identical to the Region 4 version, except for apparently being on four single layer discs rather than two dual layer discs. Combine that with the inherent inferiority of the NTSC system, and we once again have a Region 4 winner.

[Ed. It appears as if the Region 1 version will be cropped to 1.33:1 instead of being in the correct widescreen aspect ratio, another reason to prefer the Region 4 version.]


    Despite my disappointment with the slightly grainy nature of the video transfer, The Planets is superb stuff that deserves your consideration for inclusion in the collection. Hours of education and entertainment here. And at a reasonable price too: the (shudder) VHS tape sells for $49.95 so we only cop an extra $10 for the double DVD, which seems a little fairer than usual.

    A somewhat slightly disappointing video transfer.

    A decent audio transfer.

    No extras but who cares?

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ian Morris
17th April 2000

Review Equipment
DVD Pioneer DV-515; S-video output
Display Sony Trinitron Wega 84cm. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Audio Decoder Built in
Amplification Yamaha RXV-795. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Speakers Energy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL