From September to December, 1980, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage aired on PBS and became the most-watched production in the history of American public television (it was dethroned by Ken Burns’ The Civil War). The series’ host was the eloquent, if somewhat offbeat, Carl Sagan. Sagan opens the first episode, “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” from a northern California cliffside, and, for my money, earned his record-setting viewership with his first monologue alone. “Recently,” he concludes, leaning against a crag while his hair blows around, “we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep. And the water seems inviting.”
A new series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, airs Sunday nights on Fox and National Geographic. Episodes are likely to open with Neil deGrasse Tyson, our replacement spacetime guide, throwing out bits of astro-existential inquiry in low tones, low-lit by a rustling campfire. Before long, he’s surfing the universe (or is it a multiverse!*) in his “Ship of the Imagination” (which, despite resembling the sleek, over-chromed royal craft from The Phantom Menace, is considerably more stylish than Sagan’s ship of the same name, which looked exactly like that star that ascends from Whoville).
As of this writing, we’re five episodes into the new 13-part series, and we’ve covered, in varying degrees of detail, evolution, comets, black holes, and the light spectrum, plus the introductory episode. Though it’s a little misleading to suggest each episode is so singularly focused. Tyson’s narration meanders back and forth from the local to the cosmic, and spends not a small amount of time biographing members of the scientific pantheon. These retellings of The Great Discoveries are usually cartoons, and, while informative, can be silly (apparently, Edmond Halley was fond of the expression “Hell’s bells!”).
The effect is a kaleidoscopic show that tries to pull itself together in the last ten-or-so minutes and deliver its takeaway—what makes black holes so fascinating to us today, or how dissecting light rays enabled our study of celestial objects impossible distances away. In my experience, sometimes “the turn” here works, and something complex is made clear; sometimes it doesn’t, and we feel like we weren’t given all the puzzle pieces (that’s you, Episode 4); and sometimes the revelation doesn’t feel like much of a revelation at all (though I imagine this is always the case in the show’s creators’ wildest dreams).
Yet no matter the punch of the punch line, the end of every episode feels abrupt. At least my fellow cosmonauts and I never fail to have a “That’s it?” moment (maybe we just feel like we’re given short shrift in our weekly forays back into the land of commercial breaks**). At its best, Cosmos is beautiful, fun, and serves as a reminder of what might be humanity’s longest running project. “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” Carl Sagan says on the cliffs. At its worst, it can be melodramatic, and still kicking around, ankle-deep, in the shallow end.
*See episode 1, “Standing Up in the Milky Way”
**In its original run on PBS, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was presented in hour-long episodes, commercial free.
David Greendonner (’12) is an MFA candidate at Western Michigan University where he teaches writing and is the managing editor of the literary magazine Third Coast.