The real wonders of the solar system


The solar system is truly awe-inspiring – so much so that the phrase doesn’t do it justice. Words can’t compete with images like ‘earthrise’, which manages to convey just how tiny, fragile and wonderful the Earth is without any superlatives being necessary. So I was excited to watch my first episode of the BBC’s new series ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ on Sunday. And it was brilliant, until I became distracted by trying to work out which images were actually real…The show had wonderful shots of Mercury, Venus, Mars and other planets, but there was barely any indication of which bits were real footage and which were ‘dramatic reconstructions’. Sometimes it was obvious – shots of the surface of the sun in colour must be CGI (surely?) – but others left me guessing.

When real footage was announced in Brian Cox’s voiceover – like the view from a probe landing on Saturn’s moon Titan, for example – I was fascinated. It was all the more incredible because it looked so strange. But the rest of the time, I was wondering ‘does it really look like that?’

Perhaps that’s a pointless question, since I’m never going to see any of this with my own eyes. The CGI representations are really a kind of aid to the imagination. But it still seems a little misleading not to explain which images are educated guesses and which are real ‘field data’. And it takes some of the magic away – Brian Cox did a great job of conveying his passion and fascination with these alien worlds, but it was too easy to sit back and think ‘oh it’s all just computer-generated’.

It’s true that the concept of a ‘real’ image from beyond Earth can be pretty slippery – the recent pictures from Mars look so abstract that you can’t tell what you’re looking at. And they’ve been computer-enhanced and coloured, so perhaps they’re not so far from CGI after all. But as Sam Leith explains in the Guardian, somehow knowing that they’ve been sent across millions of miles from a machine that is really there makes you stop and wonder at them so much more.

CGI is a brilliant tool, but it’s now so convincing in programmes like this that we need some guidance to tell us what we’re seeing. The real images of the wonders of the solar system should be allowed to speak for themselves more often – they will always be far more impressive than anything our imaginations can conjure up.

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