I discovered two science programs on Netflix — no, not Bill Nye’s new series, although that’s kind of cool. Watching them again, I’m reminded of the difference between PBS and commercial television, and how hard some people think they have to work in order to try and keep people watching.
Nova is still the gold standard when it comes to science documentaries. They play to the PBS style of decorum and dignity as they present their material, although they’re not above goosing things in order to attract eyeballs. I still remember the episode where they were talking about the coming switch of our magnetic poles; the trailers gasped, “Are we due… for a FLIP!” Turns out, yes. In fact, we’re overdue. And what happens when we get such a flip? As one scientist puts it, “a statistically significant increase in cancer rates, and some of the best auroras you can imagine.”
Outside of PBS, though, the producers don’t seem to have that dignity. One particularly laughable show currently streaming on Netflix is Deadliest Space Weather. In each half-hour episode (as opposed to the hour format PBS uses that gives subjects more depth), the show highlights the most extreme weather in the solar system. Most extreme winds! Most extreme pressures! Most extreme meteor storms!
And, as if that’s not enough, they then use the best special effects their limited budget can buy to show credulous viewers what would happen if, oh, the conditions of Venus SUDDENLY TRANSPORTED TO EARTH!!
Well, yeah, if the atmosphere suddenly became thicker and heavier than the bottom of the ocean and spontaneously began to rain pure acid, I suppose the Eiffel Tower would be kind of toast. But what, really, is the likelihood of that happening? Why are you giving this so much time and energy?
The sad thing is, there are interesting facts among all the dross. I didn’t know, for instance, that the surface winds of Venus blow barely above five miles per hour but, because of their thickness, they have the force of a hurricane. I didn’t know about the twin cyclones that regularly appear at Venus’ south pole. These are interesting things, and I wanted to know more — no, I don’t want to see what happens if we spontaneously thicken the Earth’s atmosphere and turn up the heat to 900’C!
All in all, Deadliest Space Weather is worthy of being given the Rifftrax treatment.
Far better, though, is How the Universe Works. Although written for commercial television (apparent given its pauses for commercial breaks), it spends more time on its subject, and doesn’t do ludicrous things like show a special-effects apocalypse every ten minutes. Their material tends to the more extreme, but they stick to the facts, offer interesting explanations, and generally don’t insult the audience’s intelligence.