Written by: Sam Henry Miller
Somewhere, amongst the insurmountable atoms that comprise what we understand as the known universe, exist a specific, relative few… If one were to reverse-engineer these disordered few into a particular set of molecules, compounds, cells and ultimately tissue, a man would emerge. If that man could catch Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, he would perhaps shed a tear. Because what that man would glimpse, for just the briefest moment in time and space, was his legacy resurrected. And then back to stardust would proudly dissolve: Dr. Carl Sagan.
Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey is a reboot of Carl Sagan’s 1980s documentary series, hosted and narrated this time around by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Coupled by a Seth Macfarlane production credit, an Ann Druyan writing credit and scored by Alan Silvestri (of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump fame), well, one can expect big-bangish things. Like its predecessor, the series explores the essence of everything from the micro to the macrocosmic; from the observable beginning to the extrapolated end.
To its greatest advantage, the technologically superior Cosmos boasts cinematic-grade CGI and music, pleasurably stylized animation and high definition photography. It is with these tools that the series’ anecdotes, theories and analogies are imbued with an aura of wonder simply inconceivable 35 years ago. This form, in a sense, mimics Cosmos’ content and theme: that the limit of our ability to imagine should not leave us despondent, but rather enthralled and famished for truth.
Unfortunately, the series’ pilot launches like a rather un-enthralling appetizer. One would be justified to construe Tyson’s tone as condescending as he details the rudiments of our solar system from his “Ship of the Imagination” (a flat-out lazy, albeit slick-looking, plot device for omniscience). However, dismissing the episode from (and for) this point would be a sorely misguided mistake. Tyson, like Sagan and the fundamentally educational impetus of Cosmos, are not afraid to begin basic. After all, our giants, at some terminus down a line of shoulders, must’ve stood on simple sod. Apropos, simplicity is too often regarded as stupidity. Yet quite to the contrary, simplicity in most sciences and rhetoric is elegance: an expression of the most complex, abstract and analogue languages made universal. So Tyson’s “Ship of the Imagination”, is, at the least, forgivable cheesiness.
Once Tyson’s ship passes the moon and reaches the limit of our known universe, the episode shifts gear and gathers a noticeable amount of momentum. Through distinctively low-key-lit and angular animation (similar to the film The Prince of Egypt about the martyr Moses), we’re told the story of Giordano Bruno, a defiant sky-gazer who dared to challenge the theocracy of his era. Perhaps the most poignant moment of this historical anecdote occurs when Bruno proposes (like Copernicus before him) a blasphemous solar-centric model of the world. He boldly proclaims to a jeering gaggle of Oxford scholars, “Your god is too small!”, and—spoiler alert—he burns for it. The segment is overall well-written, but may provoke one to ask, “Bruno, who?” Why not tell the tale of Copernicus to re-animate and express the story of scientific strife through the enlightenment?
Because with Bruno, Cosmos enables itself to mold a lesser-known, hearsay story into a scientific counter-allegory for Jesus. Bruno’s revelation comes to him not from the scientific method, but rather from a dream; the Vatican Council are illustrated decidedly villainous just as the Romans would be in Christ’s tale; and Bruno is pictured on multiple occasions in the crux body-formation of the martyr Christ. This manipulative means of telling Bruno’s story is effectively done to a dogmatically-converse end: to purport that all extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, even those that appear scientific in premise. “Question everything,” is in fact the slogan for the series.
The episode concludes as it begins, but vastly less pretentious. Some gratuitous CGI and explosive special effects are used to express the idea of the ‘cosmic calendar’: basically an analogy we utilize to comprehend humanity’s occupancy within space-time. Highlighted here is the immense scale of the universe, the insignificance of humanity—but perhaps most astutely, the vastly underrated understanding of humanity’s ability to project thought into reality. Through Tyson’s booming baritone, we’re compelled to dream just how far we can extend our influence with science.
And this brings us full circle: from the opening corniness and pretention, to the manipulative martyrization of Giordano Bruno and the CGI-suffocated sequences of the ‘cosmic calendar’. It is all done for the sake of inspiration, which is the prime directive of Cosmos. We can forgive this creative treatment perhaps because astronomy is still so disproportionately undervalued in society and because science relies on education: the constant, selfless, relinquishment of information that belongs to no one but the hope of our civilization’s fruition.
At its core, Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey’s mission is simple—one of which the pilot episode absolutely accomplishes: to make The Cosmos cool again, to emphasize the value of education, and to see the world, once more, through Sagan’s eyes.