Thursday, 9 October 2014

Cosmos: Standing up in the Milky Way

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is going to be very tough to beat as my favourite TV series of 2014.

The original series of Cosmos, subtitled A Personal Voyage, presented by Carl Sagan and first broadcast in 1980, was a magnificent documentary series covering many subjects under the umbrella of science. I first saw it, on DVD, only a few years ago, and it sits with the likes of Civilisation and The Ascent of Man as one of the best factual TV series I have ever seen.

The new series of Cosmos is an attempt to update the series, keeping the same broad format - 13 hour-long episodes on science topics, accessible to non-scientists of all ages, with a single presenter giving their personal take on the subjects being discussed. The presenter this time is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who makes no secret of his following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan, and at times he seems honoured and humbled to be doing so.

While there is a lot of overlap between the subjects covered by the old and new series, the emphasis is different, reflecting the fact that both science and the medium of television have moved on so much in the over-30-year gap that separates them. Visually, this is most obvious in the quality of the special effects - no matter how impressive the 1980 series would have looked in its time, the new series is stunning. In the choice of subject matter, the differences are most obvious when each series tackles subjects that are topical, even political, for their respective times.

Tyson begins the first episode, titled Standing up in the Milky Way, by introducing us to his Ship of the Imagination. This is also carried over from the original Cosmos, and is a bold, breathtaking departure from the typical documentary format. Instead of just moving from subject matter to subject matter, Sagan - and now Tyson - travel there in a spaceship that can go anywhere in time and space.

Hmm, a scientist with a ship that can go anywhere in time and space... where have I seen something like that before?

The only limit to this ship's capabilities is the limit of the human imagination.

Well, that and the series budget, I suppose.

It may be the realm of science fiction rather than science fact, but it illustrates the ideas on display perfectly and really helps draw you in to the stories Tyson is telling. Later in the series he uses the ship to show us the Earth's past and possible future, as well as going inside an atom and to the event horizon of a black hole.

But to return to this episode, the first thing the Ship of the Imagination is used for is to show us where we are in the universe, our "cosmic address." Travelling out from the Earth we see the Milky Way galaxy, the "local group" of galaxies, the whole of the known universe, before speculating that the universe we know is just a - metaphorical - single drop of water in a waterfall.

And no sign of the series budget being limited here.

Tyson then tells the story of Giordano Bruno as the man who, more than any other, helped enlarge mankind's imagination of the scale of the universe - the first man to propose that the universe is infinite (or unbounded) in size. He also stands for knowledge against ignorance in the way he comes up against the dogmatic church of his time, with the result that he was burned as a heretic.

This section, as with most of the historical-set narratives throughout the series, is done as an animation with a distinctive style. I don't know if this was because animation was cheaper than doing a series of mini costume dramas, or if it was purely a stylistic choice. This one works well in that format (perhaps better than some of the later ones), since the pseudo-reality of the animation allows Bruno to escape his prison cell by flying beyond the limits of the world in his imagination, an act that parallels Tyson in his Ship of the Imagination.

A direct lift from the original Cosmos is the idea of the "Cosmic Calendar" as a way of demonstrating the immense age and scale of the universe - the entirety of time from the Big Bang to the present is imagined as one single year, with every event in between compressed accordingly. Tyson uses the Cosmic Calendar concept to show where the creation of the sun and the Earth fall in this 'year', and the beginning of life on Earth, and finally how late the dawn of recorded human history comes relative to the history of the entire universe.

Finally for the first episode, Tyson pays a tribute to Carl Sagan, with a brief biography of Sagan's life and work as a scientist, and touches on how he was inspired by Sagan as a young man. This is quite touching, but also serves to show they are not attempting to ignore or replace the original Cosmos series. By acknowledging their debt to it, the makers of the new series confirm that this is a companion piece to Sagan's series.

Standing up in the Milky Way is a great prologue for the series, although - Giordano Bruno section aside - it is little more than an extended introduction to Cosmos. The best is yet to come.

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