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Cosmos Revisited

I just found that The Science Channel is rerunning Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which I haven’t seen in ages.  I happened to catch the first episode tonight, though they’re apparently not showing them in order; episode 11 was on just before it.  Anyway, I was looking forward to seeing its seminal special effects again.  But eventually I began to realize that some of the shots I was seeing looked a little too elaborate to have been done with the traditional cel animation techniques they had in 1978-9.  And the clincher was when they showed an accurate image of Neptune that wouldn’t have been available until 1989. So I looked it up on Wikipedia, and it turns out this is an updated edition with new computer-animated effects.  I have mixed feelings about that.  The shots of Sagan’s dandelion ship’s tour of the cosmos, the shots of the camera soaring through the galactic disk, are spectacular and breathtaking.  But I wanted to see the old effects, and I’m not sure which shots are old and which are new.  I’m a fan of old-style special effects.  They were more deserving of the adjective “special” when they were harder to create, when it took more ingenuity to devise methods for achieving them.  Also, a lot of the astronomical FX work in the original version was done by Rick Sternbach, who’s now well-known for his work in the Star Trek franchise and is someone I’ve corresponded with and talked with online.  So I’m kind of sad to see that some of his work and that of his colleagues has been replaced, even though the updated stuff looks great and is in the spirit of the original.  But what original FX shots there are, like the Magicam shots of Sagan walking through miniatures of the Library of Alexandria and the “Cosmic Calendar,” still hold up pretty well.

Sagan was an interesting narrator.  He’s famously caricatured for his heavy Bs in “billions,” but there was a lot more to his distinctive delivery than that. Watching and listening to him again, I’m inclined to describe his delivery as a cross between Rod Serling and Jeff Goldblum, a pairing that kind of boggles me to think about.  But his passion for the ideas he conveyed was clear, and it’s understandable why this series made such an impact with him as host.

It’s also intriguing how much use Sagan made of science-fiction concepts to express scientific and historical ideas for a mass audience — a starship taking us through the universe, a trip back in time to stand in the lost Alexandrian library, all realized with cutting-edge visual effects.  He was really on to something there.

Of course, there are some things we know about now that were unknown when this was made, like dark matter, or like better estimates of the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy (3 million light-years, not 2) and the age of the universe (13.7 billion years, not 15).  Also, I realize now that there was an unfortunate Eurocentric bias in Sagan’s account of history.  He talks about the knowledge of Classical civilization being lost for over a millennium until Western Europe was ready to rediscover it in the Renaissance, but overlooks the fact that it was only the West that lost that knowledge — the peoples of the Mideast and the Muslim world retained it and added substantially to it throughout that time, and it was from them that Western Europe eventually relearned it.  The Dark Ages were a strictly local phenomenon.

Not that I blame Sagan for that.  It’s pretty much what American schools have taught for generations, a strictly European view of the world.  Heck, I had to go back to college and make a point of studying world history in order to learn about the parts that didn’t happen in the West or in the presence of Westerners (i.e. most of it).

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  1. December 1, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    I remember watching Cosmos as a young child and being thoroughly captivated by its visuals, its science, and, especially, its humanity. True, there are some discrepancies, but it’s remarkable how well the series has aged (visually and in terms of both its science and its message) over *thirty* years. What really sells the series is how Sagan is able to meld science into the “human equation” — projecting it as a basic human need and desire; in essence, it is part of who we are. His passion for the subject matter truly is contagious.

    And I agree about the newfangled effects. They’re pretty. They work. But I prefer to see the series as it was first produced … with the subsequent “Cosmos Updates” that followed a decade later.

  2. Thierry Millie
    December 2, 2009 at 2:58 am

    While I have not heard of Carl Sagan before the movie “Contact” I have heard of him thru books of Mr Richard Dawkins or even Star Trek. I’m very interested in seeing this Cosmos series now (^_^)
    About the Dark Age, you are right about the fact that at the same time the Orient was the new Rome and that they were the keeper of the knowledge and they added many things to the equation.
    But as far as I know the ultra-simplistic thinking that we (Europeans) forgot everything in the Dark Age is far fetch. It is a nice story to think that everything was “reborn” during the Renaissance but it has something too simplistic about it, almost as if it was a well designed advertisement campaign. Maybe it’s simpler to teach it like that. Because when you really search about it it’s not as black and white as it seems. I’m not saying it’s not true that the Renaissance was a wonderful awakening time. Just that we probably have not forgotten all that much during the Dark Age. It is my understanding that the real Dark Age was at the beginning and that it didn’t lasted that long… For example In Spain scholar from the Orient and all Europe were sharing and improving science and philosophy even as the Crusades were raging throughout Europe and ultimately upon them. This people have kept and planted seeds of “knowledge” that later gave birth to the Renaissance.
    By the way according to Douglas Rushkoff(Life Inc.), pre-Renaissance was a good time for people in Europe (which is more or less what I could read in other books) Well, before the Plagues anyway. (In his book Douglas Rushkoff has an interesting idea why the plagues came to be…)
    He says that during pre-renaissance time in Europe, people were living longer and better life than most of the rest of the more modern “life”. If that is true,(and that is a bif of there) the Renaissance could be viewed as an extension the bourgeoisie’s rise to power with the side effect of improvement of sciences and philosophy.
    I guess I’m saying beware of people who are selling you black and white stories. !lol!

    PS : Scifi is at it’s best when it conveys the “awakening of the will to know more” about one subject or another. Be it science or philosophy. (That’s why I like Star Trek in the first place (^_^) well, except for the last movie unfortunately)
    Maybe that’s what Mr Sagan understood well if I interpret correctly your analysis.

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