Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking

Succeeds in translating what could easily feel like a dry graduate lecture into vivid color.

How does one go about visualizing the mind of scientist Stephen Hawking on television? A liberal dose of computer-generated imagery helps, allowing the theoretical physicist to hold forth on issues like the existence of aliens, time travel and the Big Bang while bringing those fantastic concepts to life. All told, it’s pretty fascinating stuff — and succeeds in translating what could easily feel like a dry black-and-white graduate lecture into vivid color.

Sprinkling in footage of Hawking (but letting a narrator, British thesp Benedict Cumberbatch, do most of the talking on his behalf), this four-part series will pair two installments on successive Sundays. The first salvo includes the question of whether aliens might be out there — imagining them through the use of “Walking With Dinosaurs”-type CGI — then proceeds to the possibility of time travel.

Spoiler alert: Traveling to the past apparently can’t happen, according to Hawking, which given its paradoxical implications, he calls “a disappointment for dinosaur hunters” — as well as fans of the “Terminator” franchise — but “a relief for historians.”

What really makes “Into the Universe” work, though, is Hawking himself, who attacks these ideas with the enthusiasm of a science-fiction aficionado, while laying out the theoretical case and science in clear yet authoritative terms. Happily, one needn’t have an advanced degree to hop onboard.

Coming on the heels of “Life,” another scintillating and ambitious nature documentary, Discovery’s flagship channel appears to be on a bit of a roll. Sure, the network cranks out plenty of fluff, but lately there’s enough programming with a strong scientific foundation to distinguish the channel’s brand from contemporaries — where creating smart TV is its own brave frontier.

“Although I cannot move,” Hawking says at the start of each hour, “in my mind, I am free.”

Not merely free, but able to instill an audience with a genuine sense of wonder.

Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking

Discovery Channel, Sun. April 25-May 2, 9 p.m.

  • Production: Produced by Darlow Smithson. Executive producers, Ben Bowie, John Smithson, Susan Winslow; directors, Martin Williams, Nathan Williams.
  • Crew: Series editor, Iain Riddick; music, Sheridan Tongue; series VFX producer, Mike Davis. 120 MIN.
  • Cast: Narrator: Benedict Cumberbatch.