Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
Weiss: Carl Sagan, the poet of ‘Cosmos’
First Published Mar 06 2014 10:11 pm • Last Updated Mar 06 2014 10:11 pm

"Cosmos" is coming. The 13-part documentary series about the universe and discovery — a reboot of the 1980 PBS series — premieres Sunday night on Fox, the National Geographic Channel, and a host of other networks. It’s a big-bang promotion, designed to make people watch.

And they should. I’ve only seen one episode, but it’s gorgeous, a loving, CGI-filled homage to the original series and its host, Carl Sagan, produced by Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and longtime collaborator. As in the original series, the first episode takes viewers on a journey in a "spaceship of the imagination." It condenses cosmic time into one calendar year, to show the brief duration of human history.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

The message, in both cases: We are small, but we think big, and we could use a huge personality to guide us. Thirty-four years ago, that was Sagan. The series’ original subtitle was "A Personal Journey," and it really seemed that way, the astronomer-poet-philosopher in his red turtleneck, leading us through his own thoughts and fears, in his Jonathan Livingston Seagull-esque ‘70s cadence.

"Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth," he said. And "this cosmos, in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky."

It was both dated and eternal, and so what if it came from the era of the film strip? "They could have had little Styrofoam planets like we used to make in kindergarten, but with Sagan talking about them, it would have been fine," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

I had asked Thompson to recount the cultural climate when the first "Cosmos" aired, drawing record ratings for PBS — at a time when there was much less on TV — and inspiring a generation of stargazers. He confirmed that this was a particular moment in time. The early excitement of space exploration had started to wane, but there was a keen interest in extraterrestrial life, one of Sagan’s fascinations.

And of course, there was the backdrop of the Cold War, which loomed explicitly over the series. In the final episode, in a dream sequence, Sagan watched from his spaceship as the Earth went black, engulfed in a nuclear war.

Times are different now. Things feel decidedly less grand, more inwardly focused; when we’re all looking down at our phones, we’re less likely to gaze at the sky. We have existential threats, but they’re slow-motion and diffuse (unless they’ve planned an episode on Kim Jong Un).

And it’s unclear whether this new "Cosmos" will feel as urgent as the original. It’s a brilliant move to take the show to Fox’s broad audience; executive producer Seth MacFarlane, of "Family Guy" fame, deserves the credit for pushing this through Hollywood. Still, there’s a risk that network suits will wind up softening the message.

The first new episode makes glancing reference to climate change and the tyranny of religion over scientific inquiry. But nobody’s grabbing you by the lapels or whispering doleful poetry in your ear.


story continues below
story continues below

This is not a knock against host Neil deGrasse Tyson, who follows in Sagan’s footsteps in many ways. He’s an accomplished scientist and savvy communicator, a guy who could demote Pluto from planet status and still remain beloved. (In "Cosmos," he gives Pluto a wistful name-check.) Tyson knows how to work the medium; while Sagan philosophized from Johnny Carson’s couch, Tyson regularly holds court on "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show." He might be the best ambassador we have today for the wonders of science and the possibilities of TV.

But it’s unclear whether anyone today can be an evangelist like Sagan — because of the way people listen, and the way Sagan spoke. Watching original episodes, I couldn’t help but think of the climate change movement, the frustration I’ve heard from its foot soldiers, who are trying to convey a sense of urgency, and sometimes feel that people don’t hear.

Perhaps what they need, more than anything, is a Carl Sagan to communicate for them, voicing their foreboding not through shouts or rants, but through gorgeous images and elegant words. This was Sagan’s gift, and it’s hard to reproduce. He knew how to talk about doom. But he knew how to wrap it in wonder.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter JoannaWeiss.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.