Human Universe, BBC2 - TV review: Visual clichés aside, Cox's love letter to humanity is an ego boost for our species


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The Independent Culture

Brian Cox – the physicist, not the actor – has a new BBC series out. The five-part Human Universe (BBC2) is about cosmology, just like the first awe-inspiring-yet-accessible documentaries which made his name. Unlike Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe, however, this is cosmology with a human slant.

Future instalments of this five-parter propose to tackle big questions such as "Why Are We Here?" (episode 2) and "What Is Our Future?" (episode 5), but this introductory first episode, "Apeman Spaceman", had a Kinks/Bowie referencing title, as if to remind us that rock'n'roll Coxie is less stuffy that your average science professor. Before finishing a PhD thesis in "Double Diffraction Dissociation at Large Momentum Transfer", Brian Cox toured as a keyboardist with Eighties hair-metal band Dare and later the New Labour soundtrackers D:Ream.

The music industry's loss is the BBC's gain, however, and this series looks set to be another triumph. Here he sought to explain how, in the cosmic blink of an eye, humans have achieved what no other species has done before or since: we escaped the confines of our home planet and ventured into outer space. Like all true science nerds, Cox is unutterably excited by the glamour of space travel. He all but squealed when filming took him to the Kazakh Steppe to witness the return of three cosmonauts who were being collected by the Russian Space Agency after manning the International Space Station for the last six months.

As a collective ego boost for our species, this was a feelgood watch for everybody, but it should also be admired as a feat of concision. Cox manages to compress the entirety of human history – all 200,000 years of tool construction, agriculture, metropolis building and space travel – into an entertaining hour of television.

That's not to say it didn't sometimes rely too heavily on visual cliché. The shots of wizened African tribeswomen and solemn Mongolian herdsman staring off into the middle distance were our cue to think deep thoughts for a moment. They seem to have replaced those swirling galaxies as Cox's go-to. Happily, Human Universe also gave some of these individuals the opportunity to become more than exotic set-dressing.

While Coxie explained the "Universe", it was interviews with people like East African sailor Abdullah Ahmed Mohammed that delivered the "Human" part: "The sea is my wife," he explained while staring off into the middle distance. "It is my whole life."