I’ve heard a fair amount of disappointment with the new Cosmos from fans of the original Cosmos.
I’ve been a fan of the original Cosmos since it first aired. I have the 20th Anniversary DVD set, and I watch them periodically, even today. I don’t watch the original Cosmos now to learn new things, or even to refresh things I’ve already learned. I watch it because it has a visceral, emotional draw. The music, the imagery, the way the ideas are presented.. the shape, the texture… I find the original Cosmos to be a beautifully produced piece of media, especially given the resources available. The WAY the story is told is at least as important as the story. I enjoy the story of the original Cosmos, but I also enjoy the way the story is told, and that contributes to its “rewatch value”.
Many of the complaints I’ve heard about the new Cosmos center on the use of animation to present historical events and hypothetical events of human pre-history. I’m not a huge fan of the artistic style of the animation… the broad lines, the sharp angles, and so on… but I certainly see that animation has a place in the Cosmos framework. It did in the original, and it does today. The difference is that in 1980, Cosmos portrayed things like the troubles of Kepler and the triumphs of Huygens in live action, where the re-imagining of Cosmos tells those stories in animation.
I can certainly see the benefit of animation over live-action… first, it’s WAY cheaper to produce than, say, a live-action seventeenth-century vatican scene, followed by a live-action burning at the stake. Second, animations like those in the new Cosmos are part of the modern media landscape. Twenty years from now, they may date the Cosmos we’re watching today, but the same can be said for Sagan’s turtleneck, and the styles of animation on offer in 1980. …and, yes, the original Cosmos was fraught with animations and miniatures photography which would be handled in CGI today. If you don’t believe me, watch it again.
I really think this new Cosmos is fighting far more of an uphill battle than its predecessor. In 1980, the Apollo program was still fairly fresh in the modern consciousness, and science was a more respected field of endeavor in the United States. Today, fundamentalist Christianity has gained a sizable plurality in the political arena, and its adherents are extremely vocal and unduly indignant. They have reshaped America’s intellectual landscape to a point where 40% of American adults claim to believe that the Biblical creation story is more or less factually true, and discount biological evolution out of hand. Cosmos faces a far more hostile audience with a far weaker grounding in fundamental scientific ideas than the original did.
For me, if the modern Cosmos team can grab and hold an audience, and not pass along false information, then I call that a win. I am in no position to cast stones. The new Cosmos is polished, clean, consistent, engaging, and, I think, not at all condescending.
…also, I think the animations provide a certain, “This is allegorical and/or hypothetical… it may contain factual truths, but don’t take the whole of this as literal fact.” cue. This is one place where a great many of the new Cosmos’ contemporaries fall flat. Other science shows use inflated language, Hans Zimmer-esque music, and overblown imagery, and leave the viewer, I think, with a distorted view of what’s actually happening in the universe.
There’s another thing that separates Cosmos from practically all other popular science-oriented media… Cosmos is aimed at the individual. The intent is to engage the individual audience member on a personal level, rather than shooting over her or his head with endless facts, or blinding them with over-the top flashy CGI and hyperbolic narrative. At every step along the way Cosmos says, “This matters to you because…”
And, to the folks who are disappointed that the new Cosmos hasn’t brought up this or that… the latest complaint I’ve heard is that Hubble was not mentioned in the episode centered on light… I think you’re making a mistake in denigrating the completeness of the new Cosmos without having seen it in its entirety. The writers may have decided Hubble matters more in another context. We’re only 5 episodes into a 13 episode series. Please cut them a little slack.
All in all, I think this re-imagining of Cosmos stands firmly on its own, while being respectful to the Cosmos “brand” so many of us know and love. I keep in mind, however, that this is a re-imagining, and not a shot-for-shot remake. I also remember that I am not the target audience. Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey is made for people very much unlike me. People who don’t get gravity and light and simple chemistry and biology… People who may have been told, for all of their brief lives, by people they trust implicitly, that they were put here by an invisible superfriend with a special purpose, as part of a perfect plan. I ask my fellow Sagan (and Tyson) fans to do the same.