Above us, but not over our heads
The origins of the universe, black holes, asteroids, space travel, the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence: none of these subjects is exactly unexplored on television. Channel 4 surveyed the skies with its four-part Universe less than two years ago, and earlier this month Equinox had a go at explaining the significance of gamma-ray bursts from imploding death stars.
The 1999 BBC2 series The Planets was a model of its kind, and in January, two Horizon programmes explored our knowledge of (and chances of flying to) Mars. But given BBC1's late scheduling of its monthly low-budget Sky at Night series - its most recent showing was at 1am - it's something of a breakthrough for the channel to find prime-time room for Space, an ambitious six-parter about current knowledge of the cosmos that begins this Sunday.
"Space's subject matter is in many ways more abstruse than The Planets. But because it's for BBC1 it has to be simpler in terms of the level of information," says producer Richard Burke Ward, who began work on the series 18 months ago. "I believed it was better to fire people up with enough insight and illumination to make them go and find things out for themselves, rather than blind them with indigestible lumps of science."
This is why the experts seen in Space are there, says Ward, "not so much to educate in the sense of adding a huge burden of information - we felt the presenter and our graphics could do that more efficiently - as to communicate the passion and wonder of the process of discovery. In some cases they're passionate talkers, in other cases they've got something eventful to show us."
Actor Sam Neill is Space's presenter. Why him? Ward wanted a celebrity who "had to be convincing, not come across as just reading lines" and with "a sort of gravitas". Also required was considerable acting ability, because a central concept in the series is a "virtual space zone", in which the presenter is filmed interacting with computer-generated graphics added at a later stage.
"We were lucky that Sam Neill, with his Jurassic Park experience, had done a lot of acting to nothing before," says visual effects supervisor Derek Wentworth. "He was pretty good at imagining things that weren't there."
Ward is keen to emphasise that Space's computer graphics "were constructed in dialogue with the experts. We spent six months researching how an exploding star would behave, what it would look like if you were able to plunge into it. A researcher drummed up a file about 200 pages thick." Nevertheless, adds Wentworth, "getting across the factual science" can be a problem. "Black holes, for instance - nobody knows what they look like. We had a couple of sessions with the experts, who dumbfounded me with all manner of equations. We ended up going with something more exciting that got the point across."
Richard Burke Ward echoes this. "In previous space series, the graphics have been relatively static - shots of balls in space - and I wanted to move away from that. In this series you'll notice the graphics are very kinetic. The aim was to give people a feeling of being there, being on the ride.
"Everybody at some stage in their life has looked up at the stars and wondered what on earth's out there. I just wanted to take people to find out. It's great family viewing, it can appeal to any age."
Whether Space really will appeal - and capture an audience that might otherwise be lured by the more earthbound delights of Big Brother or Coronation Street - remains to be seen. But if there's an increasing curiosity about outer space in the classroom when the autumn term begins, perhaps Space can be judged a success.
A book, 'Space: our final frontier',by John Gribbin is available (BBC pound;19.99). A video will be available in August, and a DVD is promised for later in the year.Websites The BBC's space site (www.bbc.co.ukspace) promises support material for the series and has links to other sites. Nasa's comprehensive web presence includes 'Structure and Evolution of the Universe' pages at http:universe.gsfe.nasa.gov. The British Astronomical Association is at www.ast.cam.ac.ukbaa