For many of us of a certain age, the science series Cosmos has a huge and special place in our memories. For many, it was the inspiration to a future career as a scientist or engineer; but such is Carl Sagan’s brilliant way of communicating not just facts and figures but also philosophy and art, it inspired as many again to a future in words and ideas via roles in the media. And some, like Professor Brian Cox, managed to end up combining both and ending up as this generation’s nearest equivalent to Dr Sagan, making new shows to inspire the next generation of scientists.
When I first saw this, it was as a kid still starry-eyed from having seen Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the cinema and hungry for more. Cosmos delivered in terms of spectacle: its FX are dated now despite having been upgraded and recomposited to a degree over the years, but they were dazzling for its time especially for a pubic service documentary series. It left me with stars in my eyes all over again: but this time they were real stars rather than fantasy ones, and it turned out that the reality of space was far more astounding and amazing and awe-inspiring than the fiction.
Sagan brought this to life in a way that no one else has done, before and sense. Appealing directly to our imaginations, and allowing soaring flights of fancy rather than sticking merely to the dry facts, it’s a beautiful, lyrical poem to the majesty of the universe and the natural world that cannot fail to sweep up any open-minded viewer, now just as much as then. Even the original FX sequences are more artful and drop-dead gorgeous than any factual documentary FX have any right to be.
The first episode is “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean” which starts with Sagan introducing his ‘spaceship of the imagination’ modelled on a dandelion seed riding the solar winds, from the edge of the universe ever closer to home until we arrive above the earth, a spellbinding sequence for kids of any age. Then it switches to history, explaining how the ancient world knew that the earth as round and even suspected that it was just a body resolving around the sun, two millennia before Copernicus would reintroduce the idea to the West. Using early computer FX techniques, Sagan walks the halls of a (model) Library of Alexandria, before the focus at the end switches to an explanatory visual concept of Sagan’s own devising – the Cosmic Calendar – which is also used in the second episode “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue” focusing on evolution.
This is a device that which makes the vast age of the Cosmos understandable by mapping all of time so far onto a single calendar year with the Big Bang starting things off on January 1. By that measure, the Milky Way doesn’t show up until May; the Earth not until September. The first primitive humans not until an hour and a half before the end of December 31. Man mastered fire just 16 minutes ago; writing appeared just 13 seconds ago, which means that all of recorded history – everything we know about, every person we remember – has occurred in the final 12 ticks of the second hand. Sagan towers above the small patch of light representing this time on his computer generated calendar, and the camera pulls back to show just how far away the Big Bang is on that scale. It’s both humbling to be put in our place like that, and at the same time inspiring that we can nonetheless have achieved so much in such a short time since our début on the cosmic stage.
Some aspects of the series are inevitably dated, such as Sagan’s clothing fashions and some quintessentially 70s New Age ideas, and the lack of budget shows in some of the blurry 16mm location shooting that seem to have been done on the same equipment as contemporary episodes of Doctor Who: while the DVD has been remastered, it hasn’t undergone anything like the same restoration as that show. But it doesn’t overly matter, because the words and ideas are what’s important and they shine as bright as ever. The DVD also includes science updates: it’s both great to see how many more discoveries have been made since the series was initially made, and at the same time wonderful to see how little this contradicts the original episodes because of the quality of the show’s original scientific research in 1980 was so solid. One thing that’s changed greatly is that the 70s paranoia of Cold War nuclear annihilation that Sagan repeatedly comes back to in the show is no longer (currently) with us; but Sagan was also one of the first to start talking up the dangers of climate change, and it’s remarkable how many of Sagan’s warnings of atomic Armageddon transfer across seamlessly to this latest threat to the survival of our species. We have overcome the first hurdle, which is cause for hope; will we be able to clear the next?
As a kid, it was the FX and the “spaceship of the imagination” that enthralled me: I think I got restless through some of the more talkie, philosophical bits. But as an adult, it’s these bits that are by far the most fascinating, inspiring and emotional parts of the show now that I’m old enough to properly appreciate them. That doesn’t stop the kid in me still sailing off into space with Sagan at the controls of the dandelion seed spaceship, though.