DirectorVarious (hosted by Carl Sagan)
Release Date(s)1980 (February 25, 2001)
Studio(s)KCET/PBS (Cosmos Studios)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
“The Cosmos is all that is, or was, or ever will be...”
Over the course of his lifetime, Carl Sagan was many things. As a scientist trained in both astronomy and biology, Sagan was a longtime consultant for NASA. He briefed the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon, and worked diligently on the Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo missions to the planets of our solar system. He was a teacher, a researcher and a best-selling author.
But, in my mind, Sagan’s greatest achievement was his life-long effort to take difficult scientific concepts and make them accessible to the public at large. Sagan lifted the veil of mystery and danger that seems to surround science in the minds of so many these days. It’s one of the great failings of modern scientific endeavor, that even while making discoveries of the greatest relevance, many of today’s scientists haven’t the foggiest idea how to convey the importance of their work to the rest of us. Carl Sagan not only brought the rest of us along on his many travels through the Universe, he was kind enough to loan us his own sense of wonder to view it with.
Nowhere was that sense of wonder more apparent, than in his 1980, Emmy and Peabody award-winning television series, Cosmos (which he hosted, and which was accompanied by a book of the same name that went on to become the best-selling science book ever published in the English language). Over the course of its 13, hour-long episodes, Cosmos took us on a unparalleled journey from the tenuous strands of our own DNA to the farthest reaches of the known Universe, from the very beginning of time to the present day and beyond. And now, thanks in large measure to his wife and collaborator on the series, Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s record of that journey has become accessible to a whole new generation of viewers on DVD. Presented on 7 discs, the Cosmos: Collector’s Edition is a treasure. It contains the entire 13 episode series as follows...
I. The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean – Series host Dr. Carl Sagan takes viewers to the edge of the Universe aboard a “spaceship of the imagination”. Through the magic of special effects, we witness quasars, exploding galaxies, star clusters, supernovas and pulsars. And, back on Earth, we visit a recreation of the ancient Library of Alexandria, seat of learning on Earth 2,000 years ago.
II. One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue – Sagan uses a “cosmic calendar” to make the 15 billion year history of the Universe understandable, and frames the origin of the Earth and the evolution of life. We see the steps from the first microbes to modern humans and learn how the development of life on Earth has important implications for the possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe.
III. The Harmony of the Worlds – A historical recreation of the life of Johannes Kepler, the first modern astronomer, provides insights into humanity’s understanding of the Moon and planets.
IV. Heaven and Hell – We descend into the hellish atmosphere of Venus to learn about the dangers of pollution and runaway greenhouse effects. And we travel through the solar system to understand the effects of cosmic catastrophes.
V. Blues for a Red Planet – Sagan examines the possibility of life on Mars, takes us to its very surface and looks at humanity’s historical perspective of the Red Planet in both science and science fiction.
VI. Traveler’s Tales – The 17th Century sailing expeditions of the great Dutch explorers are compared with the Voyager spacecraft’s modern journey to Jupiter and Saturn.
VII. The Backbone of Night – Sagan takes us back into history to examine how the ancient Greeks struggled to understand the nature of stars in the Milky Way. And he looks back at his own childhood in Brooklyn, to a time he was asking himself the same questions.
VIII. Travels in Time and Space – We examine the changes in the patterns of constellations over millions of years, journey to the planets of other stars and consider the possibility of time travel through the eyes of a young Albert Einstein.
IX. The Lives of the Stars – Using computer graphics and stunning photographs, Sagan examines the way stars are born, live and eventually die as supernovas or black holes. He then takes us 5 billion years into the future, to witness the last perfect day on Earth.
X. The Edge of Forever – A series of fantastic trips helps us to understand the birth of the Universe, the development of galaxies and the very edges of space.
XI. The Persistence of Memory – Sagan takes us into the human brain to examine the question of intelligence and the nature of thought. And we examine another of Earth’s intelligent creatures - the whales.
XII. Encyclopedia Galactica – Sagan asks the question, “Are we alone?” He takes us to the farthest reaches of space to visit the worlds of hypothetical alien civilizations and examines our modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
XIII. Who Speaks for Earth? – In the final episode of the series, Sagan retraces the Universe’s 15 billion year struggle to awareness through the development of intelligent life. He then discusses the danger we pose to ourselves through nuclear war and other folly, and argues that our responsibility for survival is owed not just to ourselves, but to the very Cosmos from which we spring.
Intrigued yet? It’s amazing to me how well the series has aged. The science contained in these episodes is, by and large, still valid today. Only occasionally has something that’s being related onscreen been made obsolete by new discoveries. And thankfully, this series has been updated very cleverly in these situations. A special “science update” subtitle track is available as an option on these DVDs. If you turn it on, text will occasionally appear onscreen telling you that a new discovery or theory has arisen, and explain what it means for the information you’re seeing and hearing in the episode. For example, when this series was produced, it hadn’t yet been conclusively determined what ended the reign of the dinosaurs. In one of the episodes, Sagan refers to the possibility of a comet colliding with the Earth. If you have the update track on, you’ll see text that explains that recent discoveries have yielded fairly conclusive evidence that a large asteroid was the culprit. In addition to the “science update” subtitle track, a few of the episodes also have video updates as well. These appear at the end of the episodes in question, and were shot prior to Sagan’s death. They feature Sagan (or Druyan), who explains in more detail the latest discoveries and information relevant to the episode. Finally, from time to time, original video footage contained in the episode has been replaced with more compelling visuals – shots of stars and nebula have been updated using images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, for example. The spirit of the original moment in the episode is always retained.
In terms of video, these episodes vary somewhat in quality. The new footage is obviously first-rate, but you have to remember that the series was originally produced using a documentary style combination of film, analog video and other sources. Despite that, however, the video has been digitally remastered and enhanced. It looks quite good overall. It’s a little edgy at times, the analog video looks a little soft and you’ll see some moderate grain from film sources. But color and contrast are generally fine. This is never going to serve as video reference material - it’s not meant to. In any case, while the video quality averages from awesome to adequate, the average is very good.
The audio has also been remastered and remixed, and is available here in English Dolby Digital 5.1. Again, it isn’t going to blow anyone away, but the series’ score (including both contemporary and classical pieces of music) is worth hearing in 5.1 sound. To that end, a separate 5.1 track is also available which features just the music and sound effects – a nice touch. And so that Cosmos on DVD can be appreciated by audiences the world over, the discs have been encoded for Region 0 (playable in all regions), and include subtitles in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese and English for the hearing impaired. Again, a nice touch.
There aren’t really any extras other than what we’ve already mentioned (the video and subtitle update options and the 5.1 music and effects track). But all of that is enough for me, given the nature of this material. The extras you do get definitely enhance your appreciation of the series and the subject matter.
Since our humble beginnings in the dawn of prehistory, humanity has always looked over the next hill, across the widest ocean and up to the farthest star... in wonder. Let’s hope we never stop doing so. Cosmos on DVD is a fitting tribute to a man who dedicated his whole life to that ideal. Highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt