EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: “Some of the Things That Molecules Do” (Episode 2)

Kevin Long
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Last week I mostly bitched and moaned about how the Cosmos of 2014 wasn’t as good as the Cosmos of 1980. I expressed my disappointment at the music, the pacing, the lame design of the “Spaceship of the Imagination,” and the general lack of wonder and awe. I expressed confusion at the purpose of even MAKING this show in a world dominated by pseudoscientific channels like The Discovery and Science channels in a nation of scientifically illiterate folk who reflexively oppose funding for PBS and can’t tell the difference between “Nova” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” I also expressed my hopes that the show would get better once the obligatory preamble was out of the way.

I’m happy to say that’s the case.

Oh, it doesn’t start off promisingly. We get a primer on the evolution of the dog, descended from the wolf by largely unnatural selection. Most of my kids walked out during this, because while it’s interesting, it wasn’t portrayed in a very interesting fashion. Also: Nova. Nova did this exact same thing in far more detail and with far more interest like a decade ago.

From this, however, the show segues into natural selection. Evolution. Now, most of us probably know how that works, but I went to an Accelerated Christian Education school (Actually three of ‘em) and one of my kids went to one for a year and a half. During that time, we were subjected to gross misrepresentations of the theory, strawman arguments as to why it didn’t work, and some “Facts” that were simple ignorance at best, or outright lies at worst. So: much of the country may really NOT understand how evolution works. One of my parents was a NASA engineer, and never accepted it, and I’m not convinced it’d ever really been explained. It’s still a contentious issue, particularly among the hard right attending low churches, who (And I say this will all possible respect because I’m a Christian myself) tend to be a bit reactionary when it comes to science.

Case in point: My kid’s school argues that Evolution isn’t real. From this they extrapolate that the sun is not nuclear. Pause to let that sink in for a minute. We didn’t evolve somehow equals “The sun is not nuclear, and the millions and millions and millions of bits of evidence that prove it is are wrong, and must be ignored.” Why? Because a nuclear sun would last for billions of years, which would argue in favor of evolution. Ipso facto….see what I’m getting at here? Reactionary to the point of ludicrousness.

The new Cosmos wisely decides to sidestep the misconception that we evolved from apes by making a joke of it. We see an ape slinging poop, and acting generally ape-like. “No one can embarrass you like family,” he says. Then he jumps into the similarities between humans and trees. Trees being stately and seldom gibbering about and slinging poop.

He points out that big chunks of our DNA are the same as trees, and that in fact all animals contain essentially identical DNA for processing sugar. This is because processing sugar is an ability life developed BEFORE it speciated into the kerjillion-and-one forms of life we see around us today. Even poop throwers and people who assume the sun is powered by coal or something dopey like that.

See what they did there? Kind of avoided the head-on approach (Which Sagan probably would have taken), made a joke out of it, then looped around from behind to make the exact same point a direct attack would have made? Yup. As I said, the show got better. We then see an example of evolution-in-action discussing the random mutations that gave polar bears more survivability in the last major ice age glaciation over brown bears. There is also an extended, clever and very entertaining segment about the evolution of the eye. Tyson says that many people find this notion of evolution disturbing and diminishing, but he, himself, finds it “A profoundly spiritual existence.” I’m on board with that.

We’re also taken on a tour of “The Halls of Extinction,” which go on about the five major extinctions in the last Billion years. This segues into a discussion of extremophiles, with one specific example that has survived ALL the major extinctions. This, then segues into a discussion of the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, and an entirely gratuitous – but very cool – trip to Titan. After that, we flash back to earth four billion years ago, before life began.

Tyson admits up front that no one has any idea how life began. (Though my A.C.E. coreligionists and I disagree about the method, we do both agree in essence on this point: “God did it,” though I’m willing to admit the mechanism for how He did this is still up in the air) He says there’s no shame in not knowing, and maybe someone watching this show will eventually figure it out. That’s what science does: Says “I don’t know,” and then tries to figure it out.

The episode ends with some animation from the original Cosmos and some voiceover narration by Sagan, and then we’re done.

OBSERVATIONS--------------------------------------

This was a world better than the original, and it addressed nearly all of my “Why bother?” concern from the original. It was genuinely good, though perhaps still not as earth-shattering as its predecessor a generation ago. Unlike the first episode, this one feels like it’s fit to carry the name.

I do still have a few caveats, however: The music is still basically generic space adventure crap, though a couple scenes had interesting pieces in them. The opening title sequence is a textbook example of why no one does opening title sequences anymore: Long, slow, and boring.  The non-CGI animation (All flash stuff) is still pretty sub-par and distractingly cheap. Not as bad as the crappy faux-woodcut stuff from episode one, but still unimpressive. The dog stuff was a slow start, though it’s probably a good jumping-on point for someone who never watches Nova, and knows nothing about this kind of thing. It gives them a mundane handle to grasp, which then pulls them on to more fantastical stuff. My biggest concern, though, is that the people a series like this could most help are exactly the kinds of people will will avoid it like the plague.

Still started slow, though.

BOTTOM LINE---------------------------------------

I liked it.

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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!

 

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