Episode I: Standing Up In The Milky Way
The highly anticipated follow-up to the 1980 science journey Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is finally here. The late Carl Sagan‘s widow, Ann Druyan, has been trying to encourage the production of this project since her husbands death in 1996 – an endeavour which seemed fruitless, as most networks failed to recognise the broad appeal of the idea. Luckily, with the help of Neil deGrasse Tyson (the host of the programme, as well as a student of Sagan) and Seth MacFarlane, both of whom are highly influential in the science and film industries respectively, they finally succeeded. MacFarlane was influenced by the original series and immediately recognised the benefit of bridging the gap between science and entertainment. He reportedly mentioned to Tyson that “I’m at a point in my career where I have some disposable income … and I’d like to spend it on something worthwhile“.
I for one am incredibly thankful for this. Like MacFarlane, I was influenced by the original series growing up. I first experienced this programme in high school, when my first year biology teacher had the decency to refrain from showing up. As a result, our substitute teacher rooted around in the cupboard for something to keep the class occupied. As this was a time before the wonders of online streaming and integrated video systems, the TV stand was rolled in (a sight familiar to most students of the 90s and early 2000s). I admit that at first I was not encapsulated, however several years late I gave the first episode another spin – and this time, a little older and wiser, I was hooked. There was just something about the way Sagan worded things; the way he turned scientific rhetoric into epic poetry. The series quickly became one of my all time favourites, deserving a watch once every few months since. In fact, in my first year of university, I ripped the audio tracks from the original Cosmos and listened to them almost every night as I went to sleep. It was very soothing, even without the visuals, as Sagan’s voice is like silk for the ears. I consider Carl Sagan to be one of the greatest scientists of the modern era, as well as one of my favourite TV presenters (on par with the great David Attenborough).
It is very fitting that Neil deGrasse Tyson should take up the mantle of his late mentor. Tyson is a very respectable choice, both as a scientist and orator, and he does Sagan’s memory proud in this new series. The first episode deals with a tour of our cosmic address, which is a fresh, updated throwback to the first episode of the original series, The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean. Additionally, Tyson tells the story of Giordano Bruno, a Renaissance Italian with a controversial view on the universe, as well as exploring the cosmic calendar (another throwback to the first episode of the original series).
The first aspect of this series that I would like to draw attention to is the fantastic intro sequence. The visuals for this sequence are…out of this world (that’s probably the first of many puns and poor wordplay. Just run with it). The animation for this sequence is impeccably done; it is undoubtedly the pinnacle of modern CGI, as it creates a thoroughly believable (if a bit “cinematic”, scientifically speaking) depiction of beautiful features in outer space, complete with elegant transitions and connections between these scenes. I particularly liked the morphing of the rocky planet into the eye. The music is lovely, encapsulating the tranquility of space and the beauty of knowledge in a soft melody. The piano subtly dips into several phrases from the original series theme song as well, which is a very nice touch.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey opens with a quote from Sagan, and Tyson standing on the exact spot where his mentor opened the original series. This new series plays the nostalgia card often, but in such a way that it doesn’t seem forced. In fact, it simply makes me more excited. Once again, I must point out the incredible visuals: even the subtle backdrops behind Tyson are spectacularly done – it almost seems real. The “Spaceship of the Imagination” (another popular throwback to the original series) is of an innovative, interesting design which incorporates some unique components through which Tyson helps visualise the information he is offering.
Each section is well worth watching – there is never a dull moment. The information is presented in such an accessible, entertaining way that it almost views like an episode of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica – but it is definitely filled to the brim with interesting, powerful information. Humbling information. In a way that no other programme has been able to do so far, Cosmos really enlightens us on the sheer scale of the matter. In contrast to the original series, Tyson starts with Earth and works his way out, whereas Sagan did the opposite. This approach was a better choice visually, as each time the scale was increased, my jaw dropped. As we reached the edge of the observable universe, the seamless transition from Earth to there seemed infinite – yet so close. It is a miraculous sight to see.
The story of Giordan Bruno is well animated, in a rather comic book style. However, it is much more elegant than the likes of, say, the 90s Amazing Spiderman show. Despite the two-dimensional nature of the animation, it has a sense of depth that works very well.
However, this section is the weakest of the programme. While dramatic and entertaining, it seems a little on the nose. It’s a little cheesy. It definitely draws attention to important questions, and I am all for approaching the barbaric, hypocritical crimes of the so called religion of peace, however I feel the issue should have been challenged in a method that is less Shakespearean and more…well, Sagan-y. Saganesque? Whatever. It paints the Catholic church as stereotypical, mindless antagonists (which may well be true, however the issue is much more complex than this sequence makes it out to be). Although, perhaps I am simply nitpicking. It is dramatic, it is entertaining, and the whole point of this show is to combine science, a little bit of history and entertainment.
The segment on the cosmic calendar, while covered entirely in the original series, is a marvel to behold in this updated version – if only for the unbridled awe of the animation. It has a magnificent “WOAH” factor. Once again, the calendar helps indicate the sheer scale, now focusing on time rather than space. The section on the formation of the moon is brilliant, both visually and scientifically. Seeing these things animated really helps provide context on the matter, while inspiring awe unlike anything I have ever experienced. The landscape and setting of this section are nothing short of stunning, visually. In the last sections of this sequence, Tyson briefly describes the entire history of mankind, touching on several key figures and events, important inventions and important facts. Once again, the scale of the matter was illustrated in vibrant colours – it shows how young a race we are, and how far we have to go as human beings.
The final segment is actually very touching. Tyson speaks of how he first met Sagan, and tells a wonderful story about the unparallelled kindness of his mentor. I’m not going to lie, it brought a small tear to my eye. Sagan was an inspiration to scientist and citizen alike, and I can only hope that this new series does for a new generation as it did for mine, and many others before me.
Unfortunately, the series has seen a lot of negative feedback, mostly from conservative Christians. Isn’t that usually the case? In a similar fashion to the response we witnessed after the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate (click here to read the article regarding that), a bunch of people get offended and confrontational when presented with facts, which is a scenario they can’t handle, apparently. Luckily, their stupidity is apparent from the get-go, so most intelligent people know simply to ignore them. Here are a few of the crackers:
— Mike Peters (@MichaelCPeters) March 10, 2014
Regardless of what #Cosmos says, I believe that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Remember, TV gave us big time wrestling too…
— Mike Peters (@MichaelCPeters) March 10, 2014
Even by just watching the first episode, this series already lives up to its predecessor. While I can’t say I prefer it to the original – Sagan holds too much sentimentality for that – this comes at a very close second. Now, I am not a scientist. Far from it. I’m a historian. In other words, I try my best to remember things people did ages ago. Then I tell other people about it. I’m kind of a scientist so long as I don’t have to deal with numbers, large calculations, equations or anything that involves real effort. But I wanted to be a scientist. This programme inspires me. This programme makes me wish I was intelligent enough to get out there and do something worthwhile. I can only hope it does the same for other people. Please, I encourage you to at least watch this trailer. If that doesn’t get you interested, then I don’t know what will.
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known”