A while back, I did a roundup of some of the great documentary programs. The greatest, for my money, was and remains Carl Sagan’s 1980 series Cosmos: a Personal Journey.
It represented a vast, scientifically accurate and humanistic and empowering vision of science, history and the Universe. It was presented by Carl Sagan with a kind of serene pleasure that was both childlike and oddly transcendent. As I said before, its scientific accuracy has held together incredibly well considering how old it is. Its visual effects have that old artistry I’ve always liked, with the talents of astronomy artists like Rick Sternbach and Adolf Schaller behind it, and the music of Vangelis and many Classical and Electronic artists besides.
I love the classics like this one, and so my first reaction to hearing there was to be a remake of the series was one of dread. I thought remaking Cosmos would be like remaking the Lord of the Rings or Forbidden Planet or Lawrence of Arabia: they pretty much nailed it the first time.
What made it even worse was that I learned that one of the motive forces behind this new Cosmos was Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, American Dad, and all-too-recently Academy Awards host – a man who combines juvenile vulgarity, shameless misogyny and a terminally boneheaded sense of humour into a toxic swill that always has me staggering away to throw up somewhere.
Admittedly, there was some good news: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of this new Cosmos, distinguished astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, is a well-respected public science educator, and advisor to presidents on scientific matters though one wonders as to the point when the president in question was George W. Bush. He is also a huge fan and – although I didn’t know this until I watched the new Cosmos‘ first episode – protege and friend of Big Carl himself. Tyson is well-known as articulate, passionate in a excited-little-kid kind of way, and shares Carl’s understated but unyielding adherence to science and disdain for superstition.
So, he’s a worthy successor to Sagan’s legacy. And as I sat down to watch the first episode at last, I was relieved to see that MacFarlane was credited as ‘executive producer,’ which could mean he could be kept at a safe distance. Equally, the fact that Anne Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow and banner-carrier of his legacy also had the executive producer credit meant that the project had, at least, her blessing.
On with the show, then. It didn’t take long before my fears began to ease. The first episode of Cosmos II is much like the first episode of the original: a guided tour of the universe to put humankind and the Earth in their proper context in time and space. It revives two of the standbys of Cosmos I: the Cosmic Calendar – condensing the history of the Universe into one year to provide perspective – and the Ship of the Imagination, a framing device Carl used to allow the viewer to ‘visit’ various cosmic phenomena. The ship looks good. A bit underwhelming but sleek and understated.
And the CGI, in the Calendar and elsewhere looks…good. Cosmos I didn’t have the option, and used bluescreen backgrounds of models and matte paintings. I like that old style of practical effects, and Cosmos II uses high-quality CGI that looks real and rich and artistic, which is still altogether too rare for my taste. Dr. Tyson also does a better-than-average job of acting like he’s really there.
In addition, Cosmos II does something neat with regards to dramatizing historical events and characters. Cosmos I used live actors in small vignettes to introduce the viewers to characters like Kepler and Tycho Brahe. II’s first episode relates the tragedy of Giordano Bruno using clips of a stylized animation. It looks like the same style used to good effect in the History Channel series Ancients Behaving Badly and it looks nice – expressive and neat to watch.
It’s not perfect; being broadcast on network TV instead of PBS means the episodes are shorter than the original Cosmos, and there are moments where it seemed like they were trying to cram too much info into what was essentially a guided tour of the Universe – this also makes me suspect there are going to be fewer episodes. And what the point really was of using Bruno as the ‘martyr’ of early science instead of Galileo is unclear to me. Dr. Tyson therefore sometimes seems as if his monologue is getting digressive and too wordy. That said, you could have said something similar about the first episode of the original Cosmos. Carl spent a lot of it trying too hard to sound poetical.
The other thing I was worried about was that this was going to be a ‘fan’s’ version of Cosmos, the same way the new Star Trek or Doctor Who look beside their predecessors. But Tyson gets it right. His first episode begins and ends on the same seaside cliff where Carl Sagan began and ended Cosmos decades ago, and he doesn’t let you forget that the original Cosmos was great and important, and that Sagan himself was one of the giants of popular science. Tyson’s recollection of meeting Sagan actually made me tear up a little, as did the genuine love for science you can hear from him as he speaks. He also uses many of the same turns of phrase that Sagan used – the most classic being ‘we are all made of star stuff’ – and not trying to invent new ones for their own sake.
What we have here isn’t a remake so much as a successor to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the right host, and with Sagan’s widow Anne Druyan, Trek veteran Brannon Braga and composer Alan Silvestri behind him, this promises to be a wonderful new incarnation of that voyage. I was wary of the fact that this was going on network rather than public TV, but given the decline of educational network TV, it needs a shot in the arm, and it hasn’t compromised any of the convictions or principles of science or Sagan and Tyson’s views on the matter, as far as I can see. If anything Tyson’s a lot more clear about the dangers of superstition than Sagan was.
So, let’s go again, shall we?