I’ve been trying to figure out who, based on the defining factors that shaped Professor Brian Cox’s keyboardist-to-astrophysicist career pivot, might be our next Professor Brian Cox. We all know his origin story by now: Cox was a roving member of the English-Irish pop-rock band D:Ream, who are only now remembered for the adopted New Labour anthem Things Can Only Get Better. TCOGB was first released in 1993; Cox’s broadcasting career hit its stride in 2010, a gap of roughly 17 years. This means our ideal candidate will have released a single – which did well, but did not lead to a sustained top-tier music career – somewhere between January 2003 and December 2004.
Fame Academy’s David Sneddon is an early frontrunner, with his January 2003 chart-topper Stop Living the Lie. Justin from the Darkness and Paul from S Club 7 (who had left the band by the qualifying January 2003 period – this, to me, is very Coxian) are both in with a shout, as is Daniel Bedingfield. One of my personal preferences is Charlie from Busted, who in 2003 was ascendant, in 2004 was huge, and by 2005 had left to form Fightstar – a perfect microcosmic music career within our parameters. But looking at it realistically the only candidate is former Pop Idol winner Will Young, who has a nice soft voice, is very BBC Two-friendly (he’s already been on Gardeners’ World twice), and has a 2:2 in a boring subject (politics). If we can fast-track Will Young a PhD then we’re good to go.
Until then we’ve got Universe (Wednesday, 9pm, BBC Two), a new four-part series in which Cox looks at the sky a lot and says “wow”. You know Cox’s shtick by now – a pure sense of wonder rarely expressed on terrestrial television! Intellectual content made for people who can’t stand to watch another competitive dancing show! Talking … really … slowly! Although I can see the appeal, to me, personally, it grates. Maybe I’m just too dumb to have stars explained to me by someone dressed like the main character on a PS2-era action-adventure game. Maybe it’s because it feels like 17 minutes of curiosity stretched across an achingly long 58-minute show. Maybe, at the bone-deep level, I just want to watch someone from Made in Chelsea do the cha-cha. But Universe does not feel as if it’s going to do for space what Attenborough did for insects, though you can see from the production value that they really want it to.
The problem with space, of course, is it is far away and costs billions of dollars to document. Even when Nasa manage it, photos of solar flares always come back looking as if they’ve been done on high street CCTV just before a really good chip shop fight. Universe gets round this by lavishly computer-generating a lot of what we see on screen. Tendrils bloom through a murky abyss as Cox explains the “cosmic web” that pre-dates the stars; a rendering of a red dwarf burns in the darkness as Cox goes on about mass and gravity. But that workaround can lead to the same hollow feeling you get when you watch an overly CGI’d blockbuster: yes, the Avengers might have defeated the monster destroying New York, but how much of it was actually there? Although Universe is spliced with gorgeous drone shots of a planet you might be familiar with – hint-hint, you’re on it right now – a lot of it is just voiceover and an informed imagining of what space looks like. Your personal mileage is going to vary with how claustrophobic that makes you feel.
It doesn’t help that Cox’s voiceover keeps veering into “an impromptu performance of a poem derails the entire university house party” territory. Sometimes Cox talks about the sun as if he’s trying to lure you to sell your home and donate your proceeds to living on a farm with him, worshipping it. “But even gods are not immortal,” he says, really slowly, about 40 minutes into the first episode, and though I do admit I was looking at a text notification I’d just got at the time, I didn’t really know what he was on about. “Where there is light, there is darkness.” I know, I know: it is good TV channels are still making shows for people who have a vague idea what a trillion is, or how infinitesimally unlikely life on Earth even is. But I am clearly not one of them. Call me when Will Young has finished his Masters.