EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: “Unafraid of the Dark” (Series Finale)

Kevin Long
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If you’ve ever read Homer’s “The Odyssey,” you’ll know that it took Odysseus a full decade to find his way home after the Trojan War. This sets up an old joke that probably isn’t true: Once upon a time (1968) a review allegedly said that “2001: A Space Odyssey” had that title because it took it forever to get where it was going, and by the time you got there it was hard to really say the trip was worth it. Ouch!

Still, I find myself wondering about the title of this series: “A Spacetime Odyssey.” Not “Journey” or “Voyage” or “Adventure” or “Quest” or “Travel” or even “Travail,” but Odyssey. The obvious inspiration was Kubric’s film. I mean, it’s also got “Space” in the title, right? But I can’t help but wonder why that title precisely. I mean, on one hand, what’s in a name? “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet,” but not if you called ‘em Stenchblossoms. On the other hand, however, names tell us a lot about what a storyteller intends to do, or at least where his interests lie.

A third of a century ago, Carl Sagan named his show, “Cosmos: A Personal Journey.” That pretty much tells you what it was about: The Universe as seen by Carl. It’s a good title. Actually, it’s a REALLY good title, so good that you kind of don’t notice it. “Cosmos” and “Personal” are pretty much the exact opposites, and that whole series was about taking things that were huge and unfathomable and making them human-sized and, well, fathomable. And while I agree with Dave Thomas of SCTV that “It wasn’t quite as effective as Sagan had hoped,” it was still pretty effective. It was darn good. I’m not a huge fan of Sagan – in fact, I don’t like him much – but when day is done I will readily confess that his series was a watershed for its time, a benchmark for science programming, and that it personally affected and improved both the way I think logically, and how I view the universe. And – clearly accidentally – it shored up my then-waning faith in God. Why? Too long to go into, but if I’d ever met Sagan, I’d have told him that, and I’d have been interested in his reaction. Would he have said “Well that was unexpected,” or “I’m happy for you,” or “Too bad,” or asked how he happened to do that? I’ll never know, but that’s a conversation I’d have enjoyed having with him even though I don’t hold him high in adoration like everyone else seems to.

Forgive me, I’m rambling. Finales are delicate places. Knowing when to stop and where and why are things TV often has trouble with. I think Sagan got it right, but what about the new show? This brings me back to the title: Sagan’s show was all about making the universe understandable. The new show is a lot of things, but one it is most definitely not is ‘Personal.’ The show, particularly the last two episodes, have felt very agenda-driven. While the original is certainly more agenda-driven than I remember, the new one wears its colors on its sleeve without any pretense of objectivity. Comparing global warming deniers to Hitler? Comparing global warming acceptors to Ghandi? I can’t imagine Sagan at his most Senate-baitingly vitriolic trying to pull that crap. This doesn’t even have anything to do with whether the world is getting warmer, colder, or turning purple with stripes, it’s about vilifying people with a different opinion. This isn’t personal, it’s polemic.

Another thing the title implies: While Carl’s voyage made thirteen interesting stops, and occasionally revisited itself, or flashed forward, or what have you, it was a journey from start to finish, there was a beginning, a middle, and an end to it, a progression, and a conclusion. To me, anyway. The new show has actually felt far more rambly. Take any episode from #2 to #11 and you could dump them in any order and it would make no difference. It feels meandering, poorly thought out. I don’t get the sense of ‘arc’ here.

Now, this could well be my perception, and feel free to make comments below if you disagree. I’ve been wrong before, frequently, and I’m always pretty good about admitting it. But if *I* had to pick one real, central difference between this show and the original, it is simply this: Pretention. The original show was bringing the universe down to our size, or, if you like, bringing us up to the universe’s size. The new show seems to be about bringing us up juuuuuuuuuuuuuust enough to allow us to look down on others.

Am I wrong? Well, this episode starts out with a warning about “The next time the mob comes to destroy knowledge.”

The weird thing about this assertion is that it comes out of nowhere, and it more-or-less comes to nothing. We’re shown the Library of Alexandria, and warned about the angry hoi palloi who burned it, and then – bang – we jump to some interesting stuff about Dark Matter, about which we know nothing, and the vastly-more-interesting-and-even-less-known Dark Energy. We’re told about how the universe is not just expanding, but that it’s picking up speed. This is pretty fascinating! This is cool stuff, and I – and pretty much anyone, I imagine – would want to know more.

Then, as there really isn’t all that much more to know at present, given the limitations of our technology and theoretical understanding of physics, we briefly discuss what the world was like a billion years ago (Kinda’ lame) and what it will be like a billion years from now (Who knows?), both of which are blown off so quickly as to make one wonder why they even brought it up. Then we get an overview of the Voyager program, and a quick – neat – CGI rundown of their amazing discoveries. (I was in high school when they passed Jupiter. I was wrapping up college when they passed Uranus. It was amazingly exciting hearing about cryovolcanoes and new moons for the first time!) Then we’re told bout “The Sounds of Earth,” an LP record pressed on gold, to be found by any aliens on the remote chance they might stumble across our probes some day. We’re told about the heliopause and supernovas, but all of this is kind of a ramble. It doesn’t really build in a way that seems to cohere. The story doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts, oddly.

We get an extended recording from Sagan doing his “Pale Blue Dot” riff, which is admittedly one of the finest things he ever wrote. Oddly, about half of this is shown with just three streaks of light on the screen, effectively dead visual space, which is one of those things you’re never supposed to do on TV. This is followed by some mushy-headed one-worldism which is kinda’ dated stuff that tastes like cold war leftovers.

We have a brief recap of the basic rules of science, and a mention of it being holy, and a mention that people have sinned against science as well. We also have what I consider the best Tyson bit from the whole series: He asks, “How big a universe do you want to live in?” Are you comfortable with it as it is, or do you think you have all the answers. This is intended as a backhanded slap at people – closed-minded in general, but more specifically I have no doubt it was aimed at Christian Literalist Funamentalists – who find the reality of the universe intimidating, and would rather hide inside their little book of three thousand year old stories, rather than, you know, vote Democrat and accept Global Warming and Evolution. No surprises here: the show has taken the odd poke at said group whenever it got the chance, but here they did it nicer and for the first – and only – time in its short run, it actually seems to understand the problem: some people simply can’t handle the bigness in the same way that some people simply can’t tolerate the smallness. “That’s ok, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Tyson says, “But for me, I want to know everything.”

A lot has been said about Tyson as a host, and how he kinda’ doesn’t pull it off. I think that’s valid. He’s not an actor, he’s not a GREAT speaker, he’s not an iconic presence, and he’s forced to interact with a big green wall and pretend it’s all kinds of amazing visuals that he can’t actually see. I get it. But this moment was the first time that he felt human to me. Less the prophet of Secular Humanism, and more the guy I’ve always suspected him to be: a man who simply wants us to be as excited about the universe as he is, and who gets rather pissy when people don’t share that enthusiasm for whatever reason. And rather than take jabs at people who can’t think outside the box, as has been done for thirteen weeks now, he tries to coax them out of the box by telling them it’s ok, it’s not that scary. It’s maybe a little bit scary, but you can probably handle it. At least a little bit of it. For the only time in the series, he’s encouraging, and understanding.

For that couple of moments – just a couple – this show is like a sunset on Mars: it’s a dead world, but for a few minutes every day, when the light is at the right angles, and hits the wispy clouds just right, you can get a sense of what it was like in its glory days. Likewise, for just a couple of minutes there, we actually got a glimpse of the real “Cosmos” buried inside all this pretentious and politically self-conscious “Odyssey” crap. And for that short time, it’s pretty great.

And then it ends, and we’re back in the pale Fox imitation of Sagan’s old show.

Which brings us back to the warning about the mobs coming to take knowledge away. It was only mentioned in the intro. It was never revisited. It appeared to have nothing to do with the rest of the episode. Why was it here? “The Mob” is put forward as something to be feared, but then it’s dropped. This is a beef I’ve had with the whole series: Things seem to change direction once or twice or more times through the episodes, leaving clear periscopes of earlier drafts of the script. The show meanders, it wobbles, its foundation is not strong, it frequently feels like it has no idea where it’s going, nor any clear way to get there. Some good stuff happens along the way, Episode 10, for instance, or Tyson’s unexpectedly human moment tonight, but it’s almost by accident. The rest is Discovery Channel factoids, random slurs, crappy animation, and a weirdly condescending viewpoint.

Earlier today I had a discussion with a guy I know about an article a preacher wrote in which he complains about the 48% of his church that still doesn’t believe in evolution. I asked who this was intended for, and the guy I was talking to said he felt it was intended for people like me, who know better. My reaction was that it’s exactly the kind of thing that would simply increase the divide between those who believe in such things and those who don’t, since people who don’t won’t listen, and it will just make them feel more isolated. The guy said that now that I pointed it out, it was probably a case of preaching to the choir. I said, “Worse than that, it’s preaching to the choir about how awful the audience is.” It’s the kind of thing that won’t help anyone, it can only hurt.

I’m not sure Cosmos II: Armed and Fabulous ever really knew who its audience was, or what it intended to accomplish apart from getting a few awards for Fox, but if it was intended to be inclusive, if it was intended to further science by explaining it in nonthreatening terms, if it was intended to basically welcome more people to bask in the glow of the candle that illuminates a demon haunted world, then it failed. Mostly, it just seemed to be poking fun at people who feared the candle, rather than encouraging them, rather than telling them they can have all the benefits of the candle without losing who they are, or the most important parts of what they believe.

There are successful moments, of course, but these mostly serve to showcase the flaws of the series as a whole, and at the same time to showcase the successes of the original show which, as I said, both improved my appreciation of science, and shored up my faith in God. That wasn’t its intent, but it’s a pretty significant accident, isn’t it? To give something to someone without taking anything away?

But then Carl, even though I don’t like him all that much, was a scientist on PBS trying to make science accessible. This show was a network series by a guy who’s claim to fame is an atheist talking dog who continually tries to sleep with his best friend’s wife, and a pansexual alien based on Paul Lynde.

So in the end, the conclusion shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone about which version was better.


Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who’s had two of his short stories complimented by Larry Niven. He (Kevin, not Niven) has written four full-length anthologies, and is at work on several other projects. His personal website is here and his Smashwords page here. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his books are here, here, and here. His most recent book is here: http://www.amazon.com/Bones-Angel-Kevin-Long/dp/1499324138/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1401922876&sr=1-1&keywords=the+bones+of+an+angel and he just got a facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=100008371740774 Check him out, follow him, buy his books. They’re only $1.99. How can you lose?