Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
Standing Up In the Milky Way
But before we begin in earnest it should be said, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a good documentary, as the episodes go on it may even be great. It’s beautiful, informative, engaging. If it existed on its own, independent of its predecessor, this would be a much different review. However not only does Sagan’s beloved Cosmos exist – the lineage is clearly very important to Tyson and the new show. You can see a reverence for that older project in every frame and in the ending of the episode Tyson describes, quite touchingly, his personal connection to Sagan. As a fan of Sagan’s Cosmos this is much appreciated.
However this reverence appears to miss the essence of what made Carl Sagan’s project so memorable, and instead focuses on cosmetic similarities. What made Sagan’s project great was his attempt to make science poetic. Sagan knew that the success of this project was not the accumulation of facts a viewer would gain from watching the program. Film and Television are notoriously tenuous strategies for education in terms of hard facts. What film and TV do do is instill attitudes and perceptions and cultural values. That’s what Sagan’s true genius was. Sagan took long periods to wax poetic about the nature of the cosmos and historical scientific figures and described thought experiments and conceptual metaphors meant specifically to blow your mind (the description of Flatland, the illustration of light speed, and his evoking of a googolplex come to mind). His intent was in large parts to show science not as something cold, calculating, or limited but rather something expansive, fascinating, and beautiful.
Tyson’s Cosmos keeps Sagan’s wonderfully hokey “Spaceship of The Imagination,” updates his graphics (which are stunning), keeps the same structure of the cosmic juxtaposed with the historic, but it loses the beautifully self indulgent monologues which transfixed me back then.
The most notable cosmetic change is the introduction of cartoons. In the old cosmos the sections covering historic figures showed actual historical locations and reenactments. Sagan walked through Egyptian ruins and along Babylonian coasts. Clearly at some point in the creation of this new Cosmos they decided that they did not have the budget for these excursions. So a decision is made to show these events via cartoons. The cartoons themselves are well drawn, exciting, and allow for a greater narrative tension in the show (even ending with some “dun dun dun” kind of act breaks). However what we lose is a physical connection to the real world. The old Cosmos showed you the physical world we all occupy in a new way, it connected the historic, the everyday, and the cosmic. The real part of that equation, that part we can look and see and touch, is gone.
It is my supposition that much of these changes have to do largely with agenda. This project does not exist in a vacuum, it exists, whether it wants to or not, as an element of a broad, and frankly ridiculous, culture war in America between science and religion in which Tyson is a key figure. The hints of this “war” crop up throughout the edges of this project. Tyson picks Giordano Bruno a 16th century philosopher and theologian, and focuses on his persecution by the church, showing the towering dark figures of friars and cardinals looming over him, thrusting the cross in his face as he burns at the stake, as Bruno claims that he just wants to know the grandness of God’s creation. Tyson thus shows these figures as harsh, violent, and close-minded, which they may have been, but he creates caricatures of them. Tyson thus engages with the cultural conflict much, much, more directly than Sagan ever did. Tyson has an agenda, not just to show science, but to show the limitedness of religion. Sagan simply wanted to show the beauty of science. People who may have been oppositional to his viewpoint didn’t need to be defeated - but enchanted.
The success of this strategy culturally is debatable. We still talk with perhaps greater frustration past each other than we ever have before – just watch Bill Nye debate Ken Ham. However the result for someone who is not interested in the debate and only looking to be delighted, entranced, and to have the scope of his imagination increased, I’ll pick Sagan’s Cosmos over Tyson’s any day.