Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thoughts on the Cosmos reboot

Now that I’ve had a chance to watch all the episodes of the new Cosmos at least a couple of times each, I thought I’d lay out my first impressions. As with anything else, these are subject to change over time, of course.

My first concern when I heard this was coming out, and was being produced by Seth MacFarlane, was that it was going to be one of those ensemble cast science shows, with lots of walk-ons and cross talk, like some 1980s kids science show. My concern was that it was going to be Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane, and Ann Druyan wandering on in front of blue screen overlays of galaxies and binary star systems doing hand-offs like “Isn’t that right, Seth?” “That’s right, Neil. And you know, the most interesting thing about…” I was also concerned that Seth would be inclined to add a spoonful of sugar in the form of light-hearted comedic elements here and there. I’m glad they exceeded my expectations in that.

I’m glad Neil deGrasse Tyson took this on. He feels like the natural person to assume the mantle of Cosmos from Carl Sagan. He has the same vision, but he’s not just an ersatz stand-in. Tyson strikes me as a little more down-to-Earth than Sagan… a mixed blessing, which I’ll return to.

One place where I think they scored over the original was in Tyson making a number of explicit charges at various enemies of science. Sagan hedged on that a lot in the original series; he largely combined his criticisms to ancient examples in Ionian Greece and the late Roman Empire. Of course, the need to combat such people was far less necessary in the 1980s than it is now. The astonishing rise in the US and elsewhere of willful, even proud ignorance and denial of the evidence of the world around us in favour of pre-scientific explanations for things needs to be addressed, especially in an age of climate change and rapidly exponentiating convergent technologies.

There were things for me that didn’t quite hit the mark. I was hoping for an update of the threads of the original series. When the series started in the same iconic location as its predecessor, I was sure we were in there for that. And here and there, we were given that. But not as much as I’d hoped. I really wanted every episode to have an explicit “here’s what we’ve learned about this since Carl Sagan said that…” That would have given the audience, especially kids, a strong impression of the power of science and the kind of progress it’s made; making them consciously aware of the effort and the change, rather than just swimming blindly in a sea of it like fish. I didn’t see all that much of that. For example, there was a moment in the original series when a bunch of kids the same age as I was at the time were told by Cagan in his own childhood classroom that they would know in their lifetimes if there were planets orbiting other stars; something we suspected was the case but did not know for sure back in 1980. By the 1990s, we did know. I would have liked to have seen them recap that segment and then have Tyson talk about what he learned in the meantime and how those first few planets were in fact found. Things like that would have been a moving tie back to the original show and a powerful example of the progress of science from hypothesis through experimentation to knowledge.

There also wasn’t a lot of what really made the first Cosmos epic for me… that every so often, Sagan would say something so profound that it literally changed the world for me. When he revealed that most atoms heavier than hydrogen and helium have to be fused inside stars, and anything heavier than iron has to be forged in the moments of a supernova that casts them all back out into the galaxy, and that we are all therefore literally “star-stuff”, I was flabbergasted as a child. I still am. To realize the atoms in your body, and therefore you yourself, have an ancient pedigree far beyond your own momentary existence, was hugely profound, and both humbling and elevating at the same time. Likewise, when he characterized the rise of intelligence from otherwise inanimate matter as “we are a way for the universe to know itself”, I’ve never looked at myself, other humans, or even other conscious animals the same. These were huge, awesome moments in the original series that crashed on my mind like tidal waves and rearranged everything they touched. I kept waiting for something like that in the new series, but I was never touched in the same way. Something like the same points were made, and might have had the same impact on new viewers who never saw the original Cosmos, but I was hoping the new series would have one or two new mindblowers like that.

Another aspect that troubled me a little was that the emphasis seemed much, much more heavily set on the heroes of science. It came across like an Omnis Sanctus, and I thought they spent far too much time on such material. Don’t get me wrong; I do think it’s important to celebrate the people who made the modern world possible and talk about how such otherwise ordinary people can affect great change. It’s inspiring and empowering. But the original series managed it with a much lighter touch. Sagan spent maybe five minutes talking about how Anaximander worked out the circumference of the Earth thousands of years ago using just sticks, feet, and insight. Occasionally the original show spent time in re-enactments, such as a roughly ten-minute-long segment about Kepler’s tribulations and bravery in abandoning a much-cherished hypothesis when it failed to concord with observations. But never did an episode of the original series indulge itself in an episode-length animated retelling of a moment from scientific history. Such moments are important, but the first series managed them more deftly and succinctly. I believe they had more impact as a result, and they also provide much, much more time for examinations of how and why those moments turned out to be important to our lives. The new series seemed to take it for granted that we would know, and I think that was an oversight. There was a lot more wonder in the original series; time and room for speculation and possibilities; I say this as someone who has repeatedly re-watched it as an adult and know it wasn’t just because I was a child the first time I saw it. The feel of the new series, with its heavy focus on the personalities of science, was ironically rather earthbound, and seemed increasingly so as the series progressed.

Of course, I’m simply airing the small issues I personally have with the series. On the whole, it was truly excellent and a timely and powerful entry and worthy continuation of an institution from a generation ago.

1 comment:

cran berry said...

Neat! I haven't seen it yet, but I have a lot of friends I know who love it.

I know you must be busy, but I hope you have a moment to drop me a line. I'll be not too far from you in about two weeks. Hopefully something can work out!