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Cosmos (Sagan) vs Cosmos (Tyson)

After watching the first couple episodes of the new Cosmos, I decided to check out the original and compare them.

I don't remember whether or not I saw any episodes of the original Cosmos when they first aired in 1980. The next year, we moved to a house out in the country with no TV reception, and I didn't watch more than a dozen hours of TV in a year for the next ten years. So if I didn't see it when it first aired, I never saw it. However, I did have a first edition copy of the Cosmos book, which I imprinted on through several re-readings as a teenager. So re-watching the original has been a somewhat odd experience, akin to re-watching TOS Star Trek for the first time in decades. But unlike Trek, Cosmos has held up quite well. You'd think it wouldn't -- the show was made before Hubble, before the Mars rovers, before exoplanets, heck, even before the Voyagers had gotten to Saturn. But Sagan's charisma, his enthusiasm, and the beauty of the writing lets it transcend any such concerns.

Sagan had a hard-on for the ancient Greeks, and his discussion of guys like Democritus gets rather hagiographical -- he's eager to hold them up as "early scientists" and overlooks how they were fundamentally philosophers interested in finding paths to eudaimonia ("the good life"). Any bits of physics that they happened to get right, Sagan holds up in triumph, while all the mystical and philosophical argle-bargle that those bits of physics were originally embedded in, he steadfastly ignores. But apart from that huge blind spot of Sagan's, with its attendant overfocus on white guys from Greece and ignoring of brown people from everywhere else, there were very few cringe-inducing moments in the original Cosmos.

The lack of cringing comes at least in part from how the original makes no bones about being "a personal voyage" -- if it's hagiographical in spots, it's because those guys were Sagan's heroes. It isn't afraid to spend five or ten minutes in a Brooklyn cafe while Sagan reminisces about his childhood fascination with the stars, or an equal amount of time sitting in a rural Greek cafe while Sagan waxes eloquent about Empedocles and what he regards as a golden age of science in ancient Greece, before things went wrong with Plato, Aristotle, and the tyrants they worked for. It may be quite thoroughly wrongheaded (Greece was never the bastion of democracy and equality that he claims, they had slaves all the way through, not just at the bad end, etc), but it's his interpretation, and while I wanted to argue with him, I was never cringing or headdesking at OMG so wrong.

The new Cosmos, in contrast, is a lot more polished and slick... and a lot more cringe-inducing.

First, huge chunks of the new Cosmos are straight up adaptations of the original. The first half dozen episodes of each show have cover the same ground, using many of the same metaphors and explanatory structures. The "cosmic calendar," the "tree of evolution", even the goofy "ship of the imagination" (complete with shots of the host "piloting" it through inner or outer space) are all lifted more or less unchanged, straight from the original. At the same time, though, the specific examples used, and the "history of science" segments, have all been changed. For instance, to discuss evolution, both shows start with a bit about artificial selection, but the original turned to Heikegani crabs, while the new uses the transformation of wolves into dogs.

The old Cosmos, as said, was very hagiographical, very white and male. The new is a lot more interested in turning historical personages into relatable people -- we hear about Newton's personal feud with one royal society member and how it created delays in the publication of the Principia, for instance. And while white guys are still the most numerous figures, it does at least mention Arab and Chinese contributions, and devotes one episode to the story of three women (Anne Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and Cecelia Payne) who classified the stellar types, measured their distances, and determined their composition, respectively.

The original Cosmos benefited from being co-written by Carl Sagan, a scientist with the soul of a poet, who could use soaring language to talk about the wonders of the universe, and make it work. The new show tries to soar in the same way, but can't quite pull it off, and there are moments where the writing falls with a cringe-inducing thud.

The new show airs on a commercial network, and suffers greatly not just from the vastly reduced time per episode (40 minutes vs an hour for the original PBS series), but from the brain-damaged meme that commercial TV must end each and every segment on a moment of dramatic tension in order to carry the viewer through the commercial break.

But the biggest cringe-worthy thing about the new series is it's approach to the science history segments. Video is all about movement, but all we have for most of history (if we have anything visual at all from the era in question) are static pictures or paintings. The original Cosmos was an early adopter of the "historical re-enactment" approach to this problem -- instead of showing some 17th century portraits of Kepler, they hired an actor to play Kepler. It does this fairly well -- there are only a few reenactment sequences, interspersed with plenty of old-style "tromping about in the ruins/historical landmark buildings" bits... and they're limited to the actors miming things while Sagan does a voiceover narrative. Since Sagan, like Tyson, can make a shopping list sound riveting, it works. But since 1980, reenactment, done poorly, has become the default approach to documentaries of all kinds.

So like the old, the new Cosmos tries to do something different, using animated sequences instead of live actors. In concept, this is superior -- you can draw an animated version of Newton who looks like the portraits we have of Newton, instead of giving people the impression that he looked like that guy from central casting. But in execution, the animated sequences of the new Cosmos are completely. full. of. FAIL. Because while the dialog in the animated bits ranges from pedestrian to clunky, every single one of the voice actors used in the animated bits appear to have been hired from the "unemployed for a reason" end of the skill spectrum.

And then, bizarrely, when they need, not a scripted sequence, but just a static picture of an historical person to appear next to Tyson in the control room of the Ship of the Imagination, the new Cosmos turns to hiring live actors, rather than showing photographs or portraits. I have no idea what they were thinking there.

Both shows attempt to teach science to the vastly ignorant American TV audience. Both have hosts with gobs and gobs of charisma, immense teaching skills, and enthusiasm for science. Both are worth watching. But sadly, I don't think the new show is destined to become a classic like the original one has.

I am still in the middle of watching both shows, and may have further thoughts as the series progress.

This entry was originally posted at http://glaurung-quena.dreamwidth.org/14106.html. Comment over there, please.

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