Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Opening hearts and minds: Cosmos old, new, borrowed and blue

As a young and impressionable teenager I recall staying up once a week after the adults in my home had gone to bed in order to watch an amazing piece of television: Cosmos, a magical journey in thirteen episodes that resonated deeply with my own personal hopes and dreams. Now that Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has completed its first run it's worth comparing and contrasting the two series, serving as they do as reflections of the society and culture that created them.

Both versions were launched with aggressive marketing campaigns: I was surprised to see even here in Auckland a giant billboard promoted the series in as hyped a media operation as any Hollywood blockbuster. But then I assume the broadcasters have to get returns for their massive investments (dare I call it a leap of faith?) Both the original series and the updated / reimagined / homage (delete as appropriate) version have greater scope, locales and no doubt budgets than most science documentary series, a few CGI dinosaur and David Attenborough-narrated natural history shows excepted.

The aim of the two series is clearly identical and can be summed up via a phrase from Carl Sagan's introduction to the first version's tie-in book: "to engage hearts as well as minds". In addition, both the 1980 and 2014 versions are dedicated to the proposition that "the public are far more intelligent than generally given credit for". However, with the rise of religious fundamentalist opposition to science in general and evolution in particular, there were times when the new version obviously played it safer than the earlier series, such as swapping Japanese crabs for much more familiar species, dogs. As before, artificial selection was used as a lead-in to natural selection, exactly as per Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Another example to put the unconverted at their ease in the Neil deGrasse Tyson series is the use of devices that rely on the enormous popularity of science fiction movies and television shows today. Even the title sequence provokes some déjà vu, reminding me of Star Trek: Voyager. But then one of the directors and executive producers is former Star Trek writer-producer Brannon Braga, so perhaps that's only to be expected. In addition, the temple-like interior of Sagan's ship of the imagination has been replaced by something far more reminiscent of the Enterprise bridge. I suppose the intention is to put the scientifically illiterate at their ease before broaching unfamiliar territory.

Talking of science fiction, an echo of the space 'ballet' in 2001: A Space Odyssey can be seen with the use of Ravel's Bolero for the beautiful sequence in episode 11 of the new series. Unfortunately, the commissioned music in the Tyson programme fails to live up to the brilliant selections of classical, contemporary and folk music used in the Sagan version, which were presumably inspired by the creation of the Voyager Golden Record (a truly 1970's project if ever there was one) and with which it shares some of the same material. At times Alan Silvestri's 2014 score is too reminiscent of his Contact soundtrack, which wouldn't in itself be too distracting, but at its most choral/orchestral is too lush and distinctly overblown. Having said that, the synthesizer cues are more successful, if a bit too similar to some of the specially written material Vangelis composed for the 1986 revised version.

I also had mixed feelings about the animated sequences, the graphic novel approach for the characters seemingly at odds with the far more realistic backgrounds. Chosen primarily for budgetary reasons over live-action sequences, the combination of overstated music, dramatic lighting and quirks-and-all characterisation heavy on the funny voices meant that the stories tended to get a bit lost in the schmaltz-fest. I know we are far more blasé about special effects now - the Alexandrian library sequence in the original series blew me away at the time - but I'd rather have real actors green-screened onto digimattes than all this pseudo Dark Knight imagery.

Back to the content, hurrah! For readers of the (distinctly unpleasant) Keay Davidson biography, Carl Sagan, champion of Hypatia, has become known as the feminist ally who never did any housework. He has been left distinctly in the shade by the much greater attention paid to women scientists in the new series. Presumably Ann Druyan is responsible for much of this, although there are some lost opportunities: Caroline Herschel, most obviously; and Rachel Carson wouldn't have gone amiss, considering how much attention was given to climate change. As with the original series, the new version made a fair stab at non-Western contributions to science, including Ibn al-Haytham and Mo Tzu in the new series.

As to what could have been included in the Tyson version, it would have been good to emphasise the ups and downs trial-and-error nature of scientific discovery. After all, Sagan gave a fair amount of time to astronomer, astrologer and mystic Johannes Kepler, including his failed hypothesis linking planetary orbits to the five Platonic solids. Showing such failings is good for several reasons: it makes scientists seem as human as everyone else and also helps define the scientific method, not just the results. Note: if anyone mentions that Kepler was too mystical when compared to the likes of Galileo, point them to any modern biography of Isaac Newton...

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an excellent successor to Sagan but at times he seems to almost be imploring the audience to understand. But whereas Sagan only contended with good old fashioned astrology, his successor faces an audience of young Earth creationists, alien abductees, homeopaths and moon landing hoax theorists, so perhaps his less relaxed attitude is only to be expected. Despite the circa 1800 exoplanets that have now (indirectly) been detected, the new series failed to mention this crucial update to the Drake equation. Indeed, SETI played a distinctly backseat role to the messages of climate degradation and how large corporations have denied scientific evidence if it is at odds with profit margins.

All in all I have mixed feelings about the new series. For a central subject, the astronomy was at times second fiddle to the 'poor boy fighting adversity' theme of Faraday, Fraunhofer, etal. Not that there's anything bad about the material per se, but I think a lot more could have been made of the exciting discoveries of the intervening years: dark matter and dark energy, geological activity on various moons other than Io, even exoplanets.

The original 1980 series was a pivotal moment of my childhood and no doubt inspired countless numbers to become scientists (British physicist and presenter Brian Cox, for one), or at least like me, to dabble amateurishly in the great enterprise in our spare time. I'm pleased to add that I'm one degree of separation from Carl Sagan, thanks to having worked with a cameraman from the original series. But we can never go back. Perhaps if we're lucky, Tyson, Druyan and company will team up for some other inspiring projects in the future. Goodness knows we could do with them!