What's In The Stream — Cosmos
When the weekend started, I’d intended to get a lot of work done on personal projects, but it soon became clear to me that I actually needed some time to just decompress. I’ve been running pretty hard both at my daytime work and my nighttime projects, and I just couldn’t manage to concentrate on any particular task for very long. So instead, I decided to indulge in some passive entertainment … and since I don’t have my DVDs unpacked yet (not to mention a TV to watch them on), that means Netflix on my iPad.
What have I been watching? Glad you asked! I’ve been wanting to say a thing or two about each of these shows … and this makes a perfect excuse. Today I’m going to wax nostalgic and (hopefully) eloquent on the first show that taught me how much I love science.
COSMOS: I was in high school when Carl Sagan first introduced us to the “spaceship of the imagination” and the history of (to steal a phrase from Douglas Adams, someone else who had a big impact on me in 1980) life, the universe, and everything. Almost everyone I know from my generation sites the show as a pivotal TV show in their youth. Imagine, if you can, waiting breathlessly each week for the next episode of a science documentary. Seems odd, but that’s how it was.
I’ve been hesitant to go back and watch Cosmos again for fear that it, like so many inspirational things from childhood, would not hold up well when viewed with adult eyes. Indeed, with there now being a half-dozen or more cable stations DEDICATED to programming descendants of Cosmos, it seemed likely that whatever was special about the original would be lost. But recently I relented and started watching the show again and IMMEDIATELY I was as captivated as I was back in 1980 — the show not only still stands up, it seems even BETTER for knowing how much the modern shows, with their better computer effects, big-name narrators, and even the roadmap laid out by Sagan in his show, fail to capture the joy, wonder, imagination, revelation, and sheer fun of the original — Cosmos still stands alone.
Perhaps Cosmos owes its winning formula to the fact that Sagan wasn’t just a host, he was a professor at Cornell University, and its episodes (not to mention the book from which they sprang) grew out of his own lifelong passion for science and benefitted from his many semesters spent learning how to share that passion with students who were no more clueless than the rest of America was. Sagan’s enthusiasm is infectious — even through the TV, and even 30+ years later.
On the other hand, maybe it was because the genre of “science-tainment” was so new that they didn’t know what they “should” and “shouldn’t” do in pursuit of making the show both informative AND entertaining. They went as far as they could, and then some. Not only did Sagan travel the world to film his narrative segments in the actual places he was talking about, they production company spent a pretty penny creating high-quality vignettes to illustrate the historical events that Sagan covers. The scenes in feudal Japan, 15th-century Holland, and other periods and places are put together as well as full-length movies and television dramas made at the same time. The special effects were hardly convincing, but they were good for their day. And every little piece of the shows was produced as if it was the KEY to understanding the world of the cosmos, not just a small background element.
Or perhaps it was because, unlike so many of todays science-tainment shows, Cosmos never talked down to its audience. Indeed, every episode challenges you to keep up, throwing scientific precept, historical perspective, and cosmological conjecture at the audience at a dizzying pace in order to allow Sagan to, within the span of each episode, go from a basic premise to the sum total of modern knowledge and, usually, on to projecting (quite accurately, in most cases) what the coming decades might hold in new revelations and discoveries. Most modern shows on the Discovery Channel might take an entire season to cover what one episode of Cosmos did … and they wouldn’t do it nearly as thoroughly or thoughtfully.
In the end, it’s certainly a combination of all those things, plus others (like Sagan’s own nerdy charisma), that made Cosmos the phenomenon that it was in 1980 … and the captivating, educational, and inspirational show that is still is today. I certainly don’t plan to wait another 30 years before watching this series again … and I HIGHLY recommend you set aside some time to watch it, too — PARTICULARLY if you’ve never done so before.
Yes, the fashion is painfully post-disco, the haircuts are laughably poofy. and the technology is kind of frighteningly quaint … but Cosmos transcends all that. It brings you aboard the spaceship of the imagination and shows you the wonders of the universe, the world, and of humanity itself.