EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos – A Spacetime Odyssey: “Standing up in the Milky Way” (Episode 1)

Kevin Long
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Thanks to Ganesha, I became aware that a sequel to Carl Sagan’s seminal “Cosmos” was going to premier last night (Sunday), on Fox of all places. My first impression was, “What, has Seth McFarlane run out of off-color gags?” But, no, that'll never happen. Seth is actually one of the producers of this, oddly enough. Also, Brannon Braga, “The Man Who Killed Star Trek,” is a producer. Disconcerting. On the other hand, it starred Neil DeGrasse-Tyson as our host/narrator, so, you know, not entirely without promise.

For those of you interested only in the bottom line, here’s my one word review: “Meh.” For you interested in a bit more insight, read on:

Firstly, it’s important to understand what a huge impact Cosmos made on my life. I was a 12-year-old kid in an Accelerated Christian Education school, struggling with his faith. If you grew up in a home that had a NASA engineer in it, and went to a school that taught you the sun was *NOT* nuclear, well, you can imagine the cognitive dissonance I was trapped in. I’d heard about “Cosmos” in Starlog magazine, and thought I’d check it out, despite already knowing who Carl Sagan was and already not liking him much. (This wasn’t an ACE anti-science thing, I just thought he was kind of an attention whore, what with his frequent appearances on Carson, and elsewhere). It looked interesting.

It WAS interesting!

Despite being a somewhat bland, somewhat annoying host with a voice born for parody, Carl made a show that was a cathartic experience for me. It explained aspects of science I’d never been taught, some I’d never understood (Such as evolution, which I’d continue to reject for another 18 years, but which I now UNDERSTOOD for what it was, rather than the ACE misrepresentations and strawman arguments against it), and it took science – something I’d always been fascinated by – and elevated it beyond mere fascination to a sense of awe. This, despite its barely-better-than-Doctor-Who production values, its ponderous direction, and sometimes-clunky political statements about Nuclear War. (Remember Nuclear War? How quaint!) It also introduced me to Vangelis – specifically Movement 3 of “Heaven and Hell,” which I’m listening to as I type this – and although this clearly wasn’t the intention of the program, it actually strengthened my faith in God.

And oh my God, how pretty it was! That dandelion space ship that made no attempt to conform to any law of physics or practicality, that gorgeous, soaring synth music and a grab bag of bits and bobs from other places and composers. It was a show I could just sit back and drink it all in, or I could just zone out and enjoy the buzz without really thinking about it. It was an awesome experience.

Nor am I the only one. Half a continent away, my wife’s family gathered ‘round the TV and watched the entire thing, my mother-in-law having been a huge fan of PBS science. My wife is a professional musician, and it was her first exposure to Vangelis as well. Her reaction was much like mine: how strange, and how magical, how effortlessly imposing and pretty! It’s odd to know that my wife and I were being introduced to the same composer by listening to the same piece of music at the same time fifteen years before we’d actually meet, isn’t it? Again: Kind of magical. Kind of miraculous. What wonders hath been wrought?

So it is impossible to understate the impact of the show on my life.

That said, I was even then conscious of the fact that it wasn’t entirely effective in reaching its stated goals. Its ambitions were beyond reach – or at least some of ‘em were – and even SCTV made fun of this (In its “Battle of the PBS Network Stars” sketch). This became more apparent on my two revisits to the series, on VHS in 1991 and on Netflix streaming last year. Still, even if it wasn’t a complete success, it was MOSTLY a success, and it was an icon, and I don’t ask much of the icons in my life, simply that they make me a better person in some way. They don’t need to be perfect. Cosmos certainly did that.

But 33 years is a long-ass time, and Kevin’s world 2014 isn’t much like Kevin’s world 1980. I’ve seen newer and better PBS shows (God bless Nova!), there are countless glitzier-but-generally-dumber shows on our bevy of pseudo-science channels like The Discovery Channel and The Science Channel and The Learning Channel, all of which are largely bereft of discovery, science, and learning. (But, hey, Mythbusters is cool, right? So we should all pretent that justifies it, right?) Special effects aren’t anything special anymore, and we’ve long-since passed the point Harlan Ellison predicted about “Being able to do Star Wars every week on a TV budget.” Your average video game has more gee-gosh-wow imagery per minute than all 13 hours of the original Cosmos. This is not hyperbole: The kid is playing Xenoblade on his Wii-U as I type this.

My point being that long after everything else fades from memory, the lasting impact of the original Cosmos is its inherent sense of awe and wonder. It’s much harder to do that today.

…and the new Cosmos has music by Alan Silvestri.

Yeah, chew on that. The original show had a pioneer of electronic music doing stuff that was, well, pioneering, and yet beautiful. Strange and new, and yet pretty. Imposing and yet reassuring. After watching the first episode, I played 30 seconds of “Movement 3” for the kids. “Oh, that is SO much better!” one of them proclaimed. What does the music have to do with show? Nothing. And yet everything. If you don’t understand that, then I can’t help you, there’s just a hole somewhere in your soul.

So rather than take us to the shores of a gorgeous new sonic ocean and dare us to swim in it, we’re given a generic soundtrack by a C-list composer that lacks any real impact at all. And rather than the stately visual delivery of the (Admittedly meager) effects of the original show, we’re treated to generic CGI dazzle – a quick scoot through the solar system, a whistlestop at the Big Bang – nothing we haven’t seen a hundred million billion jillion kerzillion times before in the intervening twelve thousand fifty three days since I was twelve and my wife was fourteen half a continent away. And instead of the gossamer starship of the imagination, we’re given a dullsvile slab of blandness of a ship that looks like it was a rejected design from “Flight of the Navigator.”

Oy.

There is no awe here. I admit the first shot, of Tyson standing on the same cliff in the same spot as Carl, when he in started the first episode two thirds of a lifetime ago made me suck in air though my teeth – a kind of half-gasp, and the promise that this was going to be cool. And then it wasn’t.

Mostly it goes through the motions of the original show, though it’s dispensed with the live reenactments of historical events in favor of rather poor animation. We learn the story of an excommunicated priest executed a decade before Galileo for positing a non-heliocentric universe, and that those lights in the sky were other suns, other worlds. This was kind of interesting, I’d never heard of him before, and the story as told shows him as a faithful Christian who’s railing against the small minds of dogma. As he’s being burned alive, however, someone – presumably McFarlane – shows him rejecting the cross/God, for which there’s no evidence. Just a bit of propaganda thrown in the mix. Not that the original show was above propaganda (Nuclear war! Cold war= Bad!), but it never just bitchslapped faith like this. It never took that kind of cheap shot. I think Carl himself wouldn’t have approved the cheezy animation, and the non-documentary tone of those pieces. (Getting pelted with rotten tomatoes at Oxford? Really?) Still, the new show manages to get a dig in at Aristotle (My most hated of all philosophers, and arguably the greatest and most destructive dipshit of antiquity), so it’s not all bad.

On the whole, it was dull, derivative, and mostly-indistinguishable from any number of lesser productions running on the pseudo-science channels. It was just ‘meh.’

You want to know the one moment that really made an impact on me? It had nothing to do with science, it was personal. It was Tyson talking about visiting Sagan when he was a 17 year old kid, and Sagan spending the day with him, then making sure he got to the bus stop safely, and offering to let Tyson stay the night at his house if the roads were unsafe. It gave me a window into the Sagan I never had before, and made me start to re-think many of my generally negative opinions of the man who openly lied to congress, then bragged about it after the fact. Wow, he was human after all, and maybe even a nice guy! Who knew?

But apart from that almost-incidental few seconds, this was pretty disappointing. Or at least it would have been if I’d heard about it more than three hours before it aired.

I’ll continue to watch the show and review it, if anyone wants me to. All real credit must go to Ganesha, however, who told me about it. Feel free to comment here, or on Ganesha’s thread here http://www.republibot.com/node/6091

 

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Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who has written three full-length anthologies, and is at work on several other projects. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here and his Smashwords page here. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his books are here, here, and here. Check out his site, and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support! ANd, hey, if anyone knows how to embed these links so they don't take up twenty miles of space, that'd be keen, too!

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