Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is the most brilliant science documentary ever made, outshining its competitors like a retro-PBS supernova. It's also hands-down one of the weirdest shows in TV history, which has a lot to do with why it's so awesome. Carl Sagan was the kind of oddball every human should strive to be, a person who measured his own imagination against the yardstick of the natural world. Whether he's imitating whale songs, talking to a citizen of the 2D "Flatland" world, or reacting to the wonders unveiled by his "ship of the imagination," Sagan's perspective as a scientist and a storyteller is spectacularly unique.
The show has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the last year, both because Netflix added it to their Instant collection and because Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane announced he is remaking it with Sagan's widow and co-writer Ann Druyan. Neil deGrasse Tyson—who is deeply influenced by Sagan—will host MacFarlane's version, which premieres on Fox in 2013.
It is clearly time, darling Masterminds, to revisit all 13 episodes of Sagan's seminal show before it's remade. While celebrating Cosmos, this review series will also ask why Sagan's touch has been so lost in modern educational programming. For example, how do shows like Pawn Stars or Ice Road Truckers find their way onto the History Channel of all places? What, was actual, real history in all its fascinating, multi-millennia glory seriously not good enough for them? Dancing plagues? Ancient mega-libraries? Geniuses in love with pigeons? No, you'd prefer to just run insane stuff about aliens visiting the Pharaohs? A pox on you, History Channel!
The Science Channel is a much less egregious offender, but it still lacks subtlety: for instance, it runs shows actually entitled Killer Robots and Large Dangerous Rocket Ships. Can't you just hear the executives at the pitch meeting saying, "we like it, but could you make it dumber?" The message seems to be that science by itself is not interesting enough. Quasars? Galactic collisions? A full library of genetic information in every cell? In the words of Sagan himself, "you don't have to make stories up, you don't have to exaggerate. Nature's a lot better at inventing wonders than we are."
With those sage words in mind, let's relearn the wonder of science through Cosmos, one episode at at time.
Episode 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean
Summary: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean is, without hyperbole, the best introduction to both the universe and human history ever aired on television. If aliens ever stop by to ask what our deal is, we should just play this episode for them. After bathing the viewer in the Cosmos theme song, written by the composer Vangelis of Chariots of Fire fame, Sagan delivers an opening speech so elegant he may as well have "Science's Shakespeare" tattooed on his forehead (though it's better he doesn't). He states his thesis for the entire show, that "our future depends powerfully on our understanding of this cosmos, in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky." He then releases a dandelion seed into the wind, which transforms into his "ship of the imagination," the awesome spaceship used throughout the show. Extreme heart explosion.
The episode then launches into a road trip to Earth that begins halfway across the universe. We observe oddities such as the ring galaxy, which Sagan describes as "a splash in the cosmic pond" and pulsars, stars that keep such perfect time that when they were first discovered, they were misinterpreted as an alien signal. Once introduced to Earth from this new perspective, Sagan embarks on the second lesson of the episode: all of human history. He gets serious nerd cred for beginning with the Library of Alexandria, where the polymath Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth using sticks and sunlight 2,200 years ago.
To demonstrate the need for both spacial and historical perspective, Sagan concludes with a model of the Cosmic Calendar. If the universe's age is imagined as a single year, then humans would have only cropped up during the last hour and a half of December 31st. Extreme brain explosion.
Best of Carl Sagan's Facial Expressions: Minute 16, in the ship of the imagination, and minute 42, in the Library of Alexandria. Truly enjoyable.
Best "Saganism": "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." Extreme mind/brain/soul explosion!
Episode 2 Teaser: Crabs that look like Samurais!