by Gary Nugent

Do you remember Carl Sagan's Cosmos series from the early 1980s? I've often wondered why this series has never been repeated, even on satellite tv which is king of old-series-regurgitation (the series is available to watch on Netflix though). Covering all aspects of the natural world, from evolution to extraterrestrial life, Cosmos has not been equalled. And the miniseries' creator and narrator, Carl Sagan, was, arguably, one of the foremost scientific geniuses of the 20th century, a fact often belied by his desire to present the mysteries and joys of scientific exploration to the masses.


The beautiful intro to the Cosmos television series. Carl Sagan talks about the universe and our place within it.

Born in New York City in 1934, Sagan was a pioneering scientist who participated in virtually every NASA interplanetary expedition during his lifetime. A professor at Cornell University, he determined that Venus was a greenhouse-hell of heat while Mars was essentially a cold, barren desert. He was instrumental in placing a "message plaque" on the Pioneer 10 mission in 1971, which illustrated the location and appearance of its human creators (an idea that evolved into the plaques and phonographs that were included on Voyagers 1 and 2). He also predicted that Titan, one of Saturn's moons, contained the building blocks of life before the two Voyager spacecraft confirmed it in the late 1980s.

And yet, despite all of his scientific innovations and discoveries, Sagan will always be remembered foremost as a great communicator - a man who was not content with merely delving into the mysteries of the universe, but who felt the need to reach out to the public and convey his unbounded enthusiasm for science and also to talk about his hopes and fears for our civilization.

Reaching Out

Starting with a series of books written for the average reader (the first being The Cosmic Connection in 1973), Sagan proved himself a master of parable and metaphor, illustrating complex scientific theories and arguments in everyday vernacular. More books followed, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dragons of Eden. In 1977, he extolled his opinions in the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. In the early 80's he wrote his only novel, Contact (a movie version of which was released in 1998), which chronicled one of Sagan's pet projects, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI).

Like most tenured academics, Sagan's efforts often focused upon gaining government funding for expensive scientific programs, but his desire to live outside of the Ivory Tower, to make a connection with the person on the street, was undeniable, and probably unmatched by any scientist in history (Patrick Moore aside). Sagan's death from pneumonia on December 20, 1996, a complication arising from a two-year battle with bone marrow disease, robbed the science world of one of its most creative researchers and articulate spokesmen.

Public appearances, books, and television were the tools of his cause. the crowning achievement of which was Cosmos. First appearing in 1981, this was a television event only surpassed by Ken Burns' The Civil War some years later. It has been estimated that Cosmos has been seen by over 700 million people, and it succeeded through Sagan's storytelling instincts.

Black Hole

So why did Cosmos apparently disappear into a black hole after its initial screenings? Originally produced by PBS with corporate sponsorship, the home-video rights were obtained by Ted Turner, winding up at MGM during his brief tenure there. But the rights were later passed over to Warner, who gained control over the entire Turner library during a complicated cash-and-movies deal with MGM in early 1999. Cosmos used to be available on VHS tape, but only in the American NTSC video format (who remembers the ads in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy?). The only problem was that Cosmos wasn't even on VHS anymore - it had been out of production for about a decade. back in the day on eBay, an original boxed-set of seven videotapes in good condition (with Sagan's companion book) traded for a whopping $400 and up. The laser disc version was even more rare when it was produced. A set of these went to auction and were sold for around $1,000.

Rights to the Cosmos series were fully acquired by Carl Sagan Productions (which was set up by his widow, Ann Druyan) and the series was finally released on both VHS tape and DVD in 2000. Yes, the series has been available for quite a few years now, but if you're not old enough to remember it, or have never had the opportunity to see it, it is well worth going out of your way to acquire a copy (or watch it on Netflix). The Collector's Edition has been digitally remastered; the 13 1-hour episodes have been restored and enhanced and some new footage has even been added.

Cosmos Reborn

The VHS Boxed Set contained 7 NTSC VHS tapes (if you don't live in the U.S., you'd need a video player that can play NTSC tapes), each with Hi-Fi Stereo audio quality.

The DVD Boxed Set contains 7 discs. This is a Region 0 release - a fully international release - so it will play on any DVD player anywhere in the world (but will require a television that can display NTSC material - any TV less than 10 years old should suit). In terms of video, these episodes vary somewhat in quality. The new footage is obviously first-rate, but you have to remember that the series was originally produced using a documentary style combination of film, analogue video and other sources. Despite that, however, the video has been digitally remastered and enhanced. It looks quite good overall. It's a little edgy at times, the analogue video looks a little soft and you'll see some moderate grain from film sources. But colour and contrast are generally fine. While the video quality ranges from excellent to adequate, the average is very good. It goes without saying that the picture quality on the DVDs far surpass those of the VHS tapes and they won't wear out after repeat viewings. The audio has also been remastered and remixed, and is available in English Dolby Digital 5.1. The series' score (including both contemporary and classical pieces of music) is also available on a separate DD 5.1 track - a nice touch. The discs provide subtitles in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese and English for the hearing impaired. Again, a nice touch.

The VHS boxed set cost $119.95 while the DVD Boxed Set when first released cost $129.95 - it can now be had for $66 brand new from Amazon.com (though you'll pick up second hand copies much cheaper on eBay - see the bottom of this page). As far as I'm aware, the VHS boxed set is no longer available unless you can find a set on eBay.

What to Expect?

Cosmos is science in bite-sized servings, with each of its 13 episodes addressing a separate element of natural history or scientific discovery.

Intrigued yet? It's amazing how well the series has aged. The science contained in these episodes is, by and large, still valid today. Only occasionally has something related onscreen been made obsolete by new discoveries. And, thankfully, this series has been updated very cleverly in these situations. A special "science update" subtitle track is available as an option on the DVDs. If you turn it on, text will occasionally appear onscreen indicating that a new discovery or theory has arisen, and explain the implications for the information being presented in the original episode. For example, when this series was first produced, it hadn't yet been conclusively determined what ended the reign of the dinosaurs. In one of the episodes, Sagan refers to the possibility of a comet colliding with the Earth. If you have the update track on, you'll see text which explains that recent discoveries have yielded fairly conclusive evidence that a large asteroid was the culprit.

In addition to the "science update" subtitle track, a few of the episodes also have video updates as well. These appear at the end of the episodes in question, and were shot prior to Sagan's death. They feature Sagan (or Druyan), who explain in more detail the latest discoveries and information relevant to the episode. Finally, from time to time, original video footage contained in the episode has been replaced with more compelling visuals - shots of stars and nebulae have been updated using images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, for example. The spirit of the original moment in the episode is always retained.

Retrospective

When I originally wrote this review, it had been 20-odd years since I'd last seen this series and, despite it's age, it still has a lot to offer the casual viewer as well as those already interested in the subject matter. It's refreshing to see a presenter who's so in love with his subject, that his infectious enthusiasm sucks you right in - the kind of presenter that's rarely seen these days in the bland world of sound bites and "look-at-me-I’m-so-cool" presenters. Offhand, I can only think of two other such personalities: David Attenborough and Patrick Moore. It's a shame that none of the terrestrial channels have shown Cosmos again - there's a whole generation out there who have missed out on one of the best science series ever to have appeared on television. And, since the likelihood of the series being transmitted in the near future is just about zero, I'd heartily recommend that you get your hands on one of the boxed collector's sets.

This is TV as it should be - interesting, no ads, music that doesn't sound like it was composed on a second-hand synthesiser, and filming techniques that won't make you seasick (no wobbly camera work, no close-ups of someone's right nostril, no filming the presenter in wide-angle from his feet; in short, none of the "arty" techniques so often employed these days in documentary making, in an attempt to 'jazz up' what the producers obviously feel is boring material). Phew!...I'll stop ranting now...Cosmos - buy it, you won't be disappointed!

Cosmos Episodes

I. The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean - Sagan explains quasars, exploding galaxies, star clusters, supenovae and pulsars through the magic of special effects. Back on Earth, there's a recreation of the ancient Library of Alexandria, seat of learning on Earth 2,000 years ago.

II. One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue - Sagan uses a "cosmic calendar" to make the 15 billion year history of the Universe understandable and discusses the evolution of life from the first microbes to modern humans.

III. The Harmony of the Worlds - A historical recreation of the life of Johannes Kepter, the first modern astronomer, provides insights into humanity's understanding of the Moon and planets.

IV. Heaven and Hell - A descent into Venus' hellish atmosphere to learn about the dangers of pollution and runaway greenhouse effects. And a journey through the solar system to understand the effects of cosmic catastrophes.

V. Blues for a Red Planet - Sagan examines the possibility of life on Mars and looks at humanity's historical perspective of the Red Planet in both science and science fiction.

VI. Traveller's Tales - The 17th Century sailing expeditions of the great Dutch explorers are compared with the Voyager spacecraft's modern journey to Jupiter and Saturn.

VII. The Backbone of Night - How the ancient Greeks struggled to understand the nature of stars in the Milky Way. Sagan also looks back at his own childhood in Brooklyn, to a time he was asking himself the same questions.

VIII. Travels in Time and Space - How constellations change over millions of years, there's a journey to the planets of other stars and the possibility of time travel is considered through the eyes of a young Albert Einstein.

IX. The Lives of the Stars - Using computer graphics and stunning photographs, Sagan examines the way stars are born, live and eventually die as supernovae or black holes. Then it's 5 billion years into the future, to witness the last perfect day on Earth.

X. The Edge of Forever - A series of fantastic trips depicts the birth of the Universe, the development of galaxies and the very edges of space.

XI. The Persistence of Memory -The human brain is examined in relation to intelligence and the nature of thought. Another of Earth's intelligent creatures are examined - the whales.

XII. Encyclopedia Galactica - Sagan asks the question, "Are we alone?" He journeys to the farthest reaches of space to visit the worlds of hypothetical alien civilisations and examines our modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

XIII. Who Speaks for Earth? - In the final episode, Sagan retraces the Universe's 15 billion year struggle to awareness through the development of intelligent life. He discusses the danger we pose to ourselves through nuclear war and other follies, and argues that our responsibility for survival is owed not just to ourselves, but to the very Cosmos from which we spring.

Update: Next year Seth MacFarlane (of American Dad and Family Guy fame) is bringing back Carl Sagan’s classic PBS science series Cosmos which, this time, will be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Said MacFarlane: "I’m dismayed at the rejection of science that’s reemerging in America. There’s nothing out there that glamorizes science the way Cosmos did."

When asked if he thought science had become politicized, he answered: "It’s absurd. Neil [deGrasse Tyson] made a great comment on Bill Maher’s show: "The good thing about science is it’s true whether or not you believe in it." Science doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. It just is."

According to the show's producers, the new series will tell "the story of how human beings began to comprehend the laws of nature and find our place in space and time. It will take viewers to other worlds and travel across the universe for a vision of the cosmos on the grandest scale. The most profound scientific concepts will be presented with stunning clarity, uniting skepticism and wonder, and weaving rigorous science with the emotional and spiritual into a transcendent experience."

There's more information on MacFarlane's Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey here. The show is scheduled to air in 2013.

Finally...

I'll leave you with this video: