- Exhibiting Cosmos
Viewings of the thirteen-part 2014 Fox/National Geographic television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey are inevitably refracted through its 1980 predecessor, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, also of thirteen parts.1 Not only does the first series still possess an enduring life in popular culture, with astronomer and popularizer Carl Sagan a lasting, if now less prominent, icon, but the new series itself explicitly invokes its forerunner. In 1980, the “scientific epic” or “cosmic evolution” projected in the first series was less widely known and elaborated, and the first Cosmos played a substantial role in familiarizing a television and reading public with its universal historical account. That history and scope of the universe, and the media devices domesticating it—initially rendered through the earlier computer-graphic and -compositing technologies of the first series—resound through the second series. The continuities from the first to the second Cosmos, from personal voyage to spacetime odyssey, include revised subject matter detailing the impossible breadth (historical and spatial) of the cosmos through identical or similar devices used to survey it: among these, the “Ship of the Imagination” to traverse the universe; the cosmic calendar, contracting the entire history of the universe to one calendar year; and natural historical re-creations and human historical reconstructions.
Ann Druyan, Sagan’s coauthor and widow, and Steven Soter, his coauthor and onetime graduate student, have authored the new Cosmos, as they coauthored the original. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who narrates the new series, is likely the most prominent science popularizer of today, experienced in explaining science and technology to varied publics, from [End Page 738] his early “Merlin” column at the University of Texas, through his director-ship of the Hayden Planetarium, his appearances on talk shows such as the The Colbert Report (a counterpart to Sagan’s appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show), and his narration of earlier like-minded series, such as NOVA’s Origins.2 Given such connections and parallels, comparison and contrast with the old series—how the new reconfigures or departs from the materials of the old, and how the context of the old can be contrasted with the present—if inevitable, are also revealing of the documentary structure and cultural resonance of both series.
The “Ship of the Imagination,” transporting each series narrator through the universe, is perhaps the most vivid case of such continuity and reconfiguration. Among the many stations in their voyages, both Sagan and Tyson navigate their ships in view of a galaxy-rise, a vantage point from which the entire Milky Way dawns. In the ninth episode of the original production, “The Lives of the Stars,” the galaxy stands out of the window of Sagan’s ship. The ship is portrayed as a star-like floret or floret-like star externally, and designed to evoke an almost basilican structure in its vaulted, unadorned hull. The scene is relatively still, the stage-like illustration of the galaxy’s spiral arms partly risen over the horizon, marked by superimposition over lapping waves in alien waters. Apart from those waves, the only movement in the scene is the gradual tracking backward out from the window, drawing back to and beyond Sagan, who sits, his back to the camera, taking in the view. The music, a quieter moment from the third movement of Vangelis’s Heaven and Hell, combined with the vaulting interior of the ship, establishes a sense of almost hushed contemplation. In reviews at the time of initial broadcast in the fall of 1980, this cathedral-like quality, married to the vaulting rhetoric of Sagan, was both celebrated and deprecated as spiritual, as an attempt to evoke a sublime pictured in the ship’s window.3 In this specific scene, there is a theatrical quality, the still, painted Milky Way forming a backcloth behind the solitary studio-stage occupied by Sagan. Even granting the production values of the time, and the emphasis on special effects in the reception of the original series, the viewer was not so much transported to this distant planet as theatrically made aware of the possibility.
In “Sisters of the Sun,” the eighth episode of the 2014 series, the Milky...