Cosmos 2014: Standing Up in the Milky Way

I will be blogging each episode of the reboot of Cosmos.  As I have mentioned, in the insufferable way of former prodigies, Carl Sagan’s original book was in my hands when I was so young that I wrote in it with crayons.  In the early 1980s, when I saw the show for the first time, the world Sagan illuminated was limitless in its magic and wonder to me.  Now it is 2014, and nothing is illuminated to me.  I am no longer a dandelion seed in the sunshine, but a mote that has blown away into the darkness.  All hope that is in me is in the deep future, the far past, the distant reaches of space.  How will this new show touch me, in ways that the first one did or did not?

The new show is meant to be the new, not simply more of what it was.  Neil deGrasse Tyson is not Sagan, nor could he be – there was only one Sagan – but he is, I think, a worthy successor to the unofficial position of First Scientist of the American Public.  One major difference between the styles of Tyson and Sagan is one that you may not often see noted: the influence of marijuana.  Sagan, as his biographies make clear, was an inveterate stoner, and the vast, contemplative gentleness of his narrative voice owes at least something to that.  Tyson’s upfront, sharp, immediate presence does not owe itself to anything besides perhaps caffeine.  It is appropriate that the Ship of the Imagination in this reboot is not a drifting dandelion seed, but a sharp, silvery, metallic cell.

The majestic animation in this first episode would, I think, have pleased Sagan very much, especially in this sequence tying the discovery of astronomy to the discovery of writing.  The martyrdom of Giordano Bruno is retold in another stunning sequence that lacks much narrative subtlety.  What the animation loses there, it gains in its magnificent evocation of the Flammarion engraving to show the breathtaking infinitude of Bruno’s revelations.

The episode ends on a far more personal note than any of the original episodes could have, because it is a story of Tyson meeting Sagan himself, of how generously Sagan spent his personal time to encourage a seventeen-year-old boy from out of town.  Sagan, the great connector, would have understood the significance of that story, of the fact that Tyson even had a copy of Sagan’s day planner to show the day he had been expected.  There are a dozen more episodes to go, but already, the show kindles a little light for me, even in this demon-haunted world.