TV REVIEW : 'Nova's' 'Universe' Gets Deep Inside Athletes' Skins


Lending new meaning to the term wide world of sports , "The Universe Within" profiles four world-class athletes from the outside in--from the surface that the human eye can see, then inside, where micro-cameras and computerized animation take over.

Call it the thrill of victory and the agony of watching a stomach churning.

What would have made this installment of PBS' "Nova" truly remarkable is if the producers from WGBH's science unit, Japan's NHK and Sweden's Sveriges Television had managed to actually take us inside the bodies of long-jumper Mike Powell, ice climber Rob Taylor, speed skater Bonnie Blair and retired track-and-field champ Karen Hatchett. Instead, we see animation that turns antibodies and sperm and a host of bodily elements into sometimes awesome spaceships and missiles out of "Star Wars."

We also see various snippets of the kind of electron microscope video first seen in the seminal program "The Miracle of Life."

Traveling through a simulation of Powell's leg muscles or Blair's digestive system as she munches on a pre-race peanut-butter sandwich is all very interesting (Blair's liver, for instance, becomes a giant GM plant in space), but the Taylor and Hatchett stories are infinitely more dramatic, humanly and biologically.

Taylor tells of his foolhardy attempt to climb a giant icicle on an unexplored ridge of Mt. Kilimanjaro, of the fall that resulted in a terrible mangling of a leg, and of how he was saved by local tribesmen and a doctor. Inside, though, we see a complex, deep-space battle between invading bacteria and the body's ingenious defense system. You will never think ofT-cells the same way again.

Hatchett's is a quieter yet just as violent adventure, as we watch her through her pregnancy. In fact, the real adventure is that of the one lonely male sperm among millions that finally manages to penetrate the strong walls of the female egg. Then the body becomes a very special machine as we see in rare footage how the mother's system feeds the fetus, pumping nutrients into the womb like a huge turbine. Nurturing has never looked this way before.

* "The Universe Within" airs at 7:30 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15.

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