'Cosmos' then and now: The 'personal voyage' of Carl Sagan, the Hollywood cool of Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Image Credit: Everett Collection; Daniel Smith/FOX

Like reboots of most anything, be it the Star Trek film franchise or the Hannibal television series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (premiering Sunday, March 9 on Fox) does not require familiarity with its original incarnation to be appreciated and enjoyed. Yet comparing the two shows, and their first episodes, is instructive. The first Cosmos, broadcast on PBS in 1980, had a different subtitle: “A personal voyage.” The person implied was the viewer — all of humanity. It was also the creative intelligence behind the series, astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who died in 1996. His widely watched series explored all of creation, and expressed all of himself — his mind, his heart, his hopes, his fears. Sagan wanted to use popular culture to evangelize science, exploration, and a worldview that was infinitely bigger than the world itself.

Inspiration for the series sprung from disappointment. In 1976, Sagan, then a member of the Viking Lander Imaging Team at NASA surveying Mars with robots, was dismayed by the lack of attention given to their historic, important work by the news media. At the time, the cultural narratives about space focused on the question of alien life and hospitable planets, and Team Viking couldn’t support reductive storylines about little green men or interplanetary manifest destiny. But Sagan was convinced the public was hungrier for knowledge — and more capable of appreciating complexity — than the press assumed. In the companion book to Cosmos, Sagan wrote: “I was positive from my own experience that an enormous global interest exists in the exploration of the planets and in many kindred scientific topics — the origin of life, the earth, and the Cosmos, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, our connection with universe. And I was certain that this interest could be excited through that most powerful communications medium, television.”

Cosmos was an artful education. The storytelling was hypnotic, if sometimes sleepy. The series had striking visuals — be they produced by special effects, recreations, location and nature photography — and a contemplative score by Vangelis (who also scored Chariots of Fire) that made memorable use of a Theremin. Best of all, it had Sagan — that open face, that friendly smile, that endearingly nerdy yet deeply humble air, that lyrical language, and that voice. He turned science into Romantic poetry.

The premiere episode of the original Cosmos has a stream-of-consciousness quality to it, but there’s actually some provocative structure to it. (Because you can watch it online, and in the spirit of radical Radical relativity, I am going to talk about the Cosmos of yesterday in the present tense.) It begins on the coast of Northern California – beachhead for This Island Earth in the infinite ocean of the space. Here, on the cliffs, Sagan boards his ship of the imagination, shaped like a dandelion seed head, and takes us into deep space, about halfway across the universe. Sagan then wanders home, somewhere on the outer arm of the Milky Way, stopping a few times to observe an exploding sun, a strobing pulsar, and a planet with civilization visible from a space — a speculative vision, expressing Sagan’s belief that we can’t possibly be alone in the universe. He cruises past Pluto (still a planet back then), Uranus, Neptune, Saturn, and Jupiter. He stands to greet Mars as it fills the viewscreen. It’s an emotional moment, whether or not you know Sagan’s personal connection to the Red Planet. As his ship sails over the monolithic volcano that we’ve named Mount Olympus or through the trenches of the Valles Marineris, you thrill to the point of tears from knowing that we, as a civilization, are even capable of seeing such sights and knowing such things. When Sagan reaches Earth, we see the planet, and ourselves, as he does: As an extraordinary yet infinitesimal part of the universe; as beings made of stardust, embedded with the secrets of creation. This re-orientation is both wondrous and terrifying. The word, actually, is awesome.

In the second episode, Sagan goes to Egypt and recounts how the ancient egghead Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth with remarkable accuracy from his home-base at the legendary Library at Alexandria. Sagan portrays the place as a government-funded research institute devoted to an interdisciplinary study, for no other purpose than the accumulation and expansion of human knowledge — an “enlightened” bit of public policy “shared by few heads of state then and now.” The Library did not survive Antiquity, and its contents were lost. Sagan skips ahead centuries to the Renaissance, and summarizes much of the scientific discovery since then as the rediscovery of facts lost 2,000 years ago, made by men of reason in an era where “free inquiry was valued once again.” Sagan is tacitly referring to Christianity, but the underlying critique is Sagan’s own era: He’s using the example of the Library as ideal, and to critique, by implication, Cold War America, which kept the majority of the country’s best scientists focused on weapons of mass destruction, thus stunting research and advancement in other areas. All of Cosmos, in fact, is nervy about the threat of thermonuclear war. (Sagan’s widow and Cosmos collaborator Ann Druyan spells out the politics in her intro to the first episode of the original series here.) What kind of culture — world — might we have if those same brains weren’t owned by the business of making bombs?

The final minutes introduces the cosmic calendar. Sagan compresses the 13.8 billion year history of the universe into 12 months and shows how human beings didn’t show up until late on December 31. Cosmos wants us to better appreciate what rare and fragile creatures we humans happen to be, even at the risk of making us feel totally insignificant. Softening the blow is Sagan’s personhood, which just exudes a sincere care for human flourishing. He made Cosmos an appealing invitation to rethink everything we thought we knew about creation, and then learn anew.

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Image Credit: Richard Foreman Jr./FOX

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was produced for a generation raised on manned space flight and heroic moon landings. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is produced for a culture that just mothballed its space shuttle program and struggles to see the practical purpose in leaving orbit, much less exploring other planets. The first Cosmos took as givens the intelligence and interest of its audience. The new Cosmos does not proceed with these assumptions. It all but states that the cultural conservation started by its predecessor has fizzled out. “A generation ago the astronomer Carl Sagan stood here and launched hundreds of millions of us on a great adventure – the exploration of the universe revealed by science,” says host Neal deGrasse Tyson, the renowned astrophysicist (and Gravity basher), opening the show from the same Northern California cliffs where Sagan intro’d Cosmos. “It’s time to get going again.” President Obama — who has filmed an introduction for the new series — would seem to agree.

And so the goal of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey:  To make science cool again. It has the brain-trust for it —  the exec producers include Ann Druyan, irreverent animator/filmmaker/Oscar host Seth McFarlane, and longtime Star Trek producer and sci-fi vet Brannon Braga. Their Cosmos is very Hollywood, from the subtitle (evoking the grandest of speculative sci-fi sagas, 2001: A Space Odyssey), to the digital special effects and eclectic range of storytelling devices, to the music (bye-bye moody-Moogy Vangelis; hello bombastic Alan Silvestri, whose filmography includes Back To The Future and The Avengers), to the spaceship of the imagination. Where Sagan chose a dandelion to represent his mind, Tyson is less metaphorical: He blasts off in a sleek, silvery retro-modern vessel that reminded me of other forms, like the iconic Trylon-and-Perisphere structures of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which tried to ferment futurism in the Depression-era masses, and Boba Fett’s turned-upright spacecraft from The Empire Strikes Back. Call this a mercenary mission to capture our imagination anew. Cosmos – Episode II: Revenge of the Saganites.

Providing the human face is Tyson. Sagan mirrored the brainy-meek leading man archetype of his time. (Think: Alan Alda; Woody Allen.) Tyson reflects his own era. He’s a proud geek who has inherited the culture. He is a worthy successor to Sagan, but he’s a slightly colder presence, and he points to the biggest disappointment of this Cosmos, one that exacerbates its (very few) other alienating qualities: It is a most impersonal voyage.

The structure of the premiere mirrors the structure of Sagan’s first episode, but with some notable, meaningful differences in aesthetic and purpose. Eschewing the artful meander of the original, the reboot is more muscular and blunt, leaner and mean, and sometimes, just mean. There’s poetry, but it’s Pulp, not Romantic.

Tyson immediately goes into space after his Northern California intro, just as Sagan did in the original. But instead of beginning the journey half the distance across the universe and working his way back,  Tyson begins his expedition on Earth and moves outward to establish our “cosmic address.” Where Sagan stopped to admire the desolate beauty of Mars, which then seemed to be our next destination as a spacefaring people, Tyson gives the same consideration — but with more doleful eyes — to a very real man-made object exiting the solar system: Voyager 1, carrying a salutation to alien races in the form of a golden record, its contents chosen by a committee chaired by Sagan himself, and boldly going where no man has ever gone, and may never go. The melancholy moment reminds us that to some degree, and hopefully only for now, our species has given up on its spacefaring destiny. This survey of space is very gee-whiz and feel-good; future episodes will hopefully do a better job explaining — and selling — what we might gain from a more aggressive exploration of our celestial neighbors.

When Sagan returned to Earth in his premiere, he told a legend about a society that once actively cultivated scientific investigation – an aspirational allegory for the kind of society Sagan wanted — and framed the history of science as that of a lost-and-found legacy. Similarly, Tyson tells a politically charged tale about the past, one that also puts the history of science in a selective context. It’s an animated sequence, narrated by Tyson, chronicling the life of a curious man of god from the 16th century named Giordano Bruno who dared to read scientific texts banned by the church, bought into the then-heretical notion that Earth revolved around the sun, and proposed that the Earth and the sun were among an infinite number of heavenly objects in infinite space. He was ultimately tried by the Inquisition and burned at the stake.

The flat, crude 2-D cartoon befits a tale of an intellectually immature society denying itself a proper 3-D (and more!) understanding of reality. But it also has the feel of cheap propaganda, all caricature, no nuance or rebuttal. (I suppose we have Mark Burnett’s The Bible — an equally shallow product — to thank for that.) Tied at the stake, a cross is raised to his lips to kiss; Bruno spurns it. And yet, even here, Tyson can’t resist taking a dig at this martyr of science, because after all, he was not man of reason, but a man of faith, albeit one blessed with great instincts and imagination. “Bruno was no scientist,” says Tyson, adding that his “vision of the cosmos” was a “lucky guess,” and as such, can’t be fully respected, because “he had no evidence to support it.” Better minds would later prove Bruno right, and so the victory belongs to them. It’s in this way, with carefully chosen words and an incessant insistence on the Scientific Method as the means of understanding all that is seen and unseen, that Cosmos prosecutes a complaint against Creationist dogma, and by extension, agitates for atheism. Which is perfectly fine. How about doing it in a way that doesn’t make anyone who holds to religious cosmology feel like a pitiless closed-minded Inquisition psycho? (Way to be the voice of reason in the culture, Cosmos.) Sagan was skeptical about religion, too, but his Cosmos represents a more civil and gracious way of participating in the cultural conversation (and fighting the culture war). This new Cosmos seems even more aware that Cosmos-centric thinking is as deflating as it is breathtaking. When he intros the section on proto-punk science hero Bruno, Tyson tries to assuage by pumping us up. “Feeling a little small? Well, in the context of the universe, we are small. We might just be little guys growing on a speck of dust afloat in a staggering immensity, but we don’t think small.” By asking us to connect with “natural-born rebel” Bruno, and by framing the search for scientific truth into a fight-the-power revolt, Cosmos tries to mitigate the chill of adopting a “cosmic perspective” by thinking of ourselves as counter-culture superheroes. It doesn’t really work. But this might be an impossible ambition, anyway. Even Sagan couldn’t quite pull the punch.

The premiere of Cosmos 2.0 concludes as Cosmos 1.0 did, with a section introducing “the cosmic calendar.” More time is given to the scientific rejoinder to Creationism, the theory of the Big Bang. In a bit of business too cheeky for Sagan, Tyson puts on a pair of glasses and allows himself to bear witness to the explosive event, to be blown away by its spectacle and its meaning. “I know that sounds crazy” Tyson says of the whole idea of the Big Bang, “but there is strong observational evidence that supports the theory,” and he goes on to cite the glow of radiation waves and the amount of helium in the universe. Translation: You don’t have to believe in this, but you should, because look. Proof.

The most powerful moment in the premiere has nothing to do with explosive acts of creation or exploding unprovable creation myths. It comes at the very end, when Tyson returns to Northern California and reveals his personal connection to Sagan, how the late legend dazzled him not only with his brain, but his compassion. I look forward to where Tyson and his ship of the imagination takes us in the episodes to come, and seeing how they might resemble and differ from the rest of original series. But I hope we will see more of Sagan in both its host and the storytelling. The truths, the ideas, the speculations, the passions Cosmos can share are important and expanding. Not a single one of them will register unless we feel that the show actually gives a hoot about us. The new Cosmos has smarts and spectacle. Now, more heart.

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