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Book Reviews

Author: Carl Sagan

Supplier: Fremantle Media


Price: £29.99 (5 discs, region 2, 805 minutes)

Carl Sagan’s hit television documentary series became the most watched public service television broadcast in the United States when it was first aired in 1980. Since then it has gone on to be seen by over 600 million people in more than 60 countries, and this is its first DVD release in the UK. I have to admit I had only ever seen snippets of the show, but of course knew of the legendary Sagan, so I was quite excited to get this chance to watch Cosmos for the first time. I wasn’t disappointed.

To call Cosmos a show about space is a gross understatement. Yes, space is the major driving force, but Sagan, along with fellow writers Ann Druyan (his wife), Steven Soter and director Adrian Malone, weaved a narrative that is, at its heart, about life. Where did we come from? Where are we going? How were we made? Is there anybody else out there? And how will we be remembered?

In his ‘spaceship of the mind’, Sagan visits Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, ventures to distant galaxies and pulsars, and sees the origin of the Universe. We also travel back through time, to watch the origins of life on Earth, and how from the most primitive amino acids we evolved. There are frequent dramatisations of historic events and characters, from Johannes Kepler to Milton Humason, the Library of Alexandria (quite impressively realised given the special effects of the time) to Jean-François Champollion (who translated Egyptian hieroglyphics).

Many of these historical dramatisations can be a bit lengthy, but there is always a point to them. They also make-up for perhaps what could be considered a dearth of strong astronomical material available in 1980, compared to today. Remember, the Voyager’s had only just reached Jupiter and were coming up on Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were still several years away, there was no Hubble Space Telescope, no understanding of gamma-ray bursts or knowledge of dark energy, no discoveries of exoplanets and the idea of inflation was only just being formulated. If Cosmos had been made today, in many ways it would have been a different show. There was room to go back and look at the past, and to see analogies to the present, or learn how certain key understandings of the Universe came to be.

Special effects played a large part in Cosmos, particularly in those scenes in Sagan’s imaginary spaceship, through which he traverses the Universe in his mind. For 1980s television they’re not bad, although you wonder how today’s special effects would have helped Sagan bring across his view of the Universe. I’m in two minds about this; yes, today’s special effects can be wonderful, but they can be so overpowering as to become shallow and miss the point.

The beauty of Cosmos; is Carl Sagan’s presence, his unique voice and dictation, his ability to evoke a sense of wonder in even the most cynical of viewers. You feel everything he talks about, from the exploration of space to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence to the future of life on our planet and elsewhere in the Universe, comes from the heart, that he really believes what he says. There has never been another television presenter capable of bringing across the wonder of space and astronomy as expertly as Sagan could. By comparison practically every programme on science and astronomy today is a pale imitation of Cosmos. Sagan’s show, in the fashion it was made, would never be produced the same way today. It takes its time, meandering sometimes with Sagan’s train of thought, not bombarding the viewer with facts every twenty seconds, but quietly and confidently sets out to reveal the mysteries of the Universe, with a knack of effortlessly and poetically getting to the nub of the matter. It also has one of the best soundtracks to be found on a documentary series, with Vangelis’ Heaven and Hell and Tomita’s Solaris and The Engulfed Cathedral, amongst others.

The final episode is a real tour de force, being informative, wondrous and poignant as Sagan explores the danger that we could wipe ourselves out, denying us our ultimate potential and a future in which we explore the Universe to its fullest extent.

As far as the DVD goes, this is the remastered version of the show, with a few extra effects and images to bring it up to date, including the science updates at the end of each episode that were filmed for re-runs in the 1990s. The science updates are a bit of a nuisance – rather than flowing on from the end of each episode, the programme stops and goes back to the menu, where you have to select the update. It is also missing episode 14 (filmed in 1989), which is an hour-long interview with Sagan himself.

It is a tragedy that we lost Carl Sagan to illness in 1996. I would have loved to have heard his thoughts on what we know about the Universe today. Judging by Cosmos, I think he would be rather enthused.

Keith Cooper

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