Cosmos Recap: Gentlemen, Start Your Starships

  It's Not Carl Sagan -- But What Is?

Carl wore a tie, NeilWelcome 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.

cosmos ships

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.”

cosmos giordano bruno
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.

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  • beautifulmutant

    “We are all made of star stuff.”

    SPOILER ALERT. Jeez, how about a warning next time. :)

    • Gretchen Miller Neuman

      Carl’s words.

  • Amy Ziegfeld

    “The Eames Brothers”

    Actually, Charles and Ray Eames were husband and wife, not brothers; Ray Eames was a woman.

    • doktorzoom

      How embarrassing! I had heard them called the “Eames Brothers” ages ago and never knew anything else about them — correcting now!

  • Mort_Sinclair

    I thought the episode was brilliant, even, at times, magnificent. High school seniors in my classes were thrilled and engaged. Great stuff! And Neil deGrasse Tyson is a national treasure.

  • Gretchen Miller Neuman

    That is the difference between a University of Chicago undergraduate education and a Harvard.

  • BaldarTFlagass

    “We are made of star stuff” still induces goosebumps when it’s said by Tyson
    Didn’t Saganthat off from that Joni Mitchell/CSNY song?

    • Ambignostic

      Stoners gotta stick together.

  • BaldarTFlagass

    I think it would be more effective if the part of Neil deGrasse Tyson were played by Angry Samuel L. Jackson.

  • Ambignostic

    Thanks for the link to the AV Club comments. I really enjoyed that Bruno segment, chiefly for the Deathly Hallows style animation. Now that I’ve read the valid critique, I’m pissed.

  • Guppy06

    where Sagan’s ship was a little glowing dandelion seed that made you think “public TV budget,”

    Compared to what, Buck Rogers? And they had stock footage and Wilma Deering (mmm…) to fill up time with.

  • Mike Pesarchick

    A fine program overall, but I was disappointed with the obligatory Catholic Church bashing masquerading as the tale of Giordano Bruno, as if the Church was and still is anti-science. This is not so! Bruno was executed, after being given numerous opportunities to recant, NOT for his views on extra-solar planets but for denying the Trinity. I’m glad that Cosmos, in the interest of fairness, also at least pointed out that Bruno’s “scientific” views also were mocked and rejected by Protestants in Germany, Switzerland and England.

    To be more fair, however, it would have been good if Dr. Tyson and the show’s writers had pointed out, in the subsequent discussion of the Big Bang, this seldom-reported fact: the creator of the Big Bang theory was Monsignor Georges Lemaitre, a Roman Catholic PRIEST, astronomer and physics professor at a CATHOLIC university in Belgium. I don’t recall that he ran into any trouble with the pope.

    It also would have been fair, and nice, if the show’s writers had pointed out that Copernicus was Catholic-educated and even had a doctorate in canon law. His “day job” was working as a cleric for his uncle, a bishop in Poland. He studied to be a priest, but never took his vows and continued on with his clerical career and astronomical studies — unhindered by any church “thought police.” He was never persecuted by the Vatican for his heliocentric theory; in fact, Pope Clement VII praised the theory when it was presented to him in 1533. Criticism and mocking of Copernicus came from Protestants of his era, not the Catholic Church. Would have been nice if these inconvenient facts had not been left out!

    It also might have been nice had Cosmos pointed out that the supposedly anti-science Catholic Church operates research universities around the world, and even operates its own advanced optical and infrared telescope at the Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona.

    I’ll look forward to future episodes of the new “Cosmos,” but hopefully without the Catholic Church bashing and ignorance of the Church’s many contributions to science and education over the past 2,000 years, specifically the idea that morality should be a central component of any science, and that in reality, science and religion are not mutually exclusive.

    • Penny Dreadful

      It’s about time somebody spoke out in defense of the church! Catholics have been persecuted for far too long.

    • SecludedCompound

      Sounds like we’ve got a Papist here, folks!

  • Dragoon21b

    The thing I can’t help but find interesting and honestly just a bit sad…is that it’s pitched at about an 8th grade level…it’s not that the concepts aren’t good and that it might get people thinking again, but when you have to downshift intellectualism just to reach an audience I can’t help but worry for the species

    • Christopher Dwyer

      Yeah, I had the same thought, like I was hoping there were a grownups’ version on some cable network or something. But then I saw a few clips of the original on the youtubes, and that’s pretty much the level Sagan was on, too. So there’s that.

  • sunbeltyankee

    There’s a reason it’s pitched at the 8th grade level. That’s because that is the age (13, 14) when young people start to get interested in, and start to pursue, their obsessions. Think Gates, Jobs, starting at that age in their garages or basements. They were about 13 when we landed on the moon. The whole point of the series is to stimulate a sense of discovery. Go find Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s last few StartTalks or interviews on NPR and he will reiterate this. The country needs some fresh intellect and it’s going to come from the generation that are adolescents now, not from us, however clever we may think we are..

  • Lynn Vannucci

    Glad you volunteered.