Cosmos Recap: Gentlemen, Start Your Starships
Welcome to Happy’s recap of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot/update of Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking TV series. Maybe you saw our preview and watched the program. Maybe you missed the program and haven’t found the hour and change to watch it on the Cosmos website, with no commercials. Maybe you’re wondering, “Dok Zoom, why are you recapping a scientistical documentary program when all the other recaps here are of television what is fictional and has a plot?” Like the vast reaches of the cosmos, some things are not yet known to science, but at least if I’m recapping Cosmos I don’t have to keep track of all those characters’ names and why that one lady is crying and beating on the policeman there, have I even seen her before? Also, I volunteered.
The new version of Cosmos makes a smart choice in its initial location: the same California cliffs where Carl Sagan stood and introduced the original program in 1980; wisely, the new series also begins with the same clip of Sagan saying, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be… come with me…” and then there’s that dandelion seed floating off on the wind. Unlike Sagan, whose next lines were delightedly nerd-poetic (“There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice…”), Tyson is more down to earth, simply reminding us that Sagan launched us on a journey, and “it’s time to get going again” — and I can’t help but hear that as a bit of a nudge in the ribs to that Obama fellow who introduced the series premiere, but whose administration hasn’t exactly been pushing aggressively for greater manned space exploration.
And then it’s off to the new, improved “Ship of the Imagination;” where Sagan’s ship was a little glowing dandelion seed that made you think “public TV budget,” Tyson’s is a slick CGI toy that looks like a cross between Boba Fett’s ship and a chrome fried egg. The new series gets to show off its impressive visual effects budget with a quick trip from Earth, through the solar system, out to the edges of our Milky Way galaxy, and so on to the outer reaches of the known universe, and by god it’s a pretty trip, even though the mental work it’s doing — impressing the viewer with the vast scale of the universe — was artfully accomplished in Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten in 1977. But it works, and Cosmos uses the trip to establish our “Cosmic Address.” Where the original show sought to awe us with the wonder of it all, this newer Cosmos is a bit more insistent about telling us just how awesome this is — it’s the difference between the titles of the two series’ first episodes. Sagan’s was the rather humble “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” and he added that “recently, we’ve managed to wade a little way out, and the water seems inviting.” In 2014, we’re more assertive: this premiere is titled “Standing Up In The Milky Way.”
Once we’re back to Earth, Tyson narrates the animated story of Giordano Bruno, the first modern European thinker to disseminate the idea that the Sun is just one star among many, and that there might be any number of other planets like our own; for this, and for many other heresies (worst, denying the Trinity), Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. I have to agree with folks in the AV Club’s comment thread that the story — while a pointed, timely reminder that science shouldn’t be constrained by blind faith — also gets a number of things wrong; Bruno might have been allowed to live if only his cosmology were unconventional, but his theological heresies truly couldn’t be tolerated. And frankly, Sagan made a more important point in the original series’ first outing, which explained how Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated the circumference of the Earth with remarkable accuracy in the 2nd century BC. And where Eratosthenes was doing real science using only “sticks, eyes, feet, and brains,” Bruno was not, as Tyson points out, an actual scientist — he mostly had a lucky guess (or vision) that turned out to be true, once scientists began thinking of ways to test it.
The premiere’s third set-piece is an update of the “cosmic calendar” that Sagan presented in the 1980 version, imagining the entire 13.8 billion years of the universe’s existence as a single year, with the Big Bang at 12:00 a.m. on January 1, and all of recorded human history squeezed into the last few seconds of 11:59 on December 31. It’s was a terrific visual when Sagan did it in 1980, and it’s just as impressive today. Along the way, Tyson explains, sure, the Big Bang sounds nuts — but there’s evidence in the universe today that suggests it’s the best explanation for the origins of the universe. And of course, we get to the exploding stars from which all matter, all elements come from. And “We are made of star stuff” still induces goosebumps when it’s said by Tyson, even if his voice isn’t nearly as much fun to mimic as Sagan’s. And Tyson is just as earnest and engaging when he says things like “we still don’t know how life got started” — but that’s a source of excitement, not uncertainty. And just to give a sense of the scale of evolutionary time, the calendar is a useful visual aid for the sake of noting that while the first life emerges somewhere around “September 21” — 3.5 billion years ago — the microbes of “November” don’t lead to sea life until mid “December” — and “forests, animals, plants, dinosaurs and birds” only arrived in the last week of December. And so on. I was blown away by that calendar in 1980, and it still makes me grin. And of course it only serves to heighten the absurdity of creationist claims that the entire universe is only 6000 years old.
The best segment in the series opener is the shortest — back on those cliffs in California, and another audio clip from Sagan: “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” And then, in a lovely human moment, Neil deGrasse Tyson tells the story of spending an afternoon in 1975 visiting Carl Sagan in Ithaca, at the age of 17. For all the pretty special effects, what made Cosmos work best was the storytelling — the people doing the science, to keep a human scale on the project. Here’s hoping the reboot can remember that as well.