This episode on light, relativity and gravity paralleled the original in its thought experiment of “turning up / turning down” the gravity in New York City. In the original (“The Lives of the Stars,” I believe) that experiment was carried out not on New York, but on Alice in Wonderland’s tea party with the Mad Hatter. It was far less sophisticated animation, but more charming, and deeply sinister. There is no point in my saying that I prefer the bright, handmade imaginings of painters Jon Lomberg and Don Davis on the old Cosmos to the CGI work of the new series. It is, again, not for such as me.
The light leaving 1980 shows us a different world. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was a slower, more grownup affair – a Personal Voyage, not a Spacetime Odyssey. Sagan could make a show aimed at all ages, including adults, and those adults could be presumed to be willing to think as adults. With only mass media and a few underground networks for specialists, there was no one who could complain about Carl, outside of Jack Chick tracts and church on Sunday. There were fewer people in the public sphere who would openly boast that they did not believe in the age of the universe, in evolution itself.
The new Cosmos is full of spark, dash and energy because it is – because it has to be – a siege weapon in a culture war. That is why Tyson had to pause in this episode to note that, if the world were only around 6000 years old, the Crab Nebula would be as far away as we could see. Celebrity voices, fresh funding, new science and new animation are needed to catch a generation assaulted on every side by Youtube and Twitter and Facebook, a landscape of utterly levelled public opinion. Sagan, I think, would recognize the urgency.