Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Star Guide

Sometimes it can take an awfully long time to catch up with a programme you originally missed...

The dawn of the 1970s was a time of scientific optimism, the Apollo missions were still new and inspiring - Moon bases and manned journeys to Mars were surely just around the corner. Personal jet-packs and household robots would be in the shops by Christmas.

But my own recollection of this time is that the gaze of our collective consciousness faltered and dropped from the stars to our own uncomfortably shuffling feet, pretty quickly.  Further moon landings were mothballed, Vietnam and Watergate filled the news and replaced a generation's optimism with cynicism, the energy crisis, Cold War and economic instability quickly made the future seem a lot less shiny and exciting.
As it always has, cinema served as the barometer of the public mindset.  Disaster movies, gritty crime dramas with morally ambiguous anti-heroes and grim post apocalyptic science fiction became the order of the day.

Science was no longer a gleaming rocket ship poised to soar skywards, but the dull glint of missiles aimed earthwards. Our friend the atom had become a symbol for mistrust and all-encompassing oblivion.

I'm reticent to credit Star Wars with too much, but the influence of this film's unfashionable brand of simple excitement and derring-do in space can't be underestimated.  This adventure in a far-away galaxy a long time ago helped many to feel curious and excited once again about our own place in the universe.

Scientist Carl Sagan had never lost that wonderment, and at last the lay of the entertainment and technological landscape enabled him to share his knowledge and enthusiasm on a scale never dreamt of before. 
I was hoping to be able to describe Sagan in a sentence, but a quick look at his vast wikipedia page shows how difficult this would be.  They do have a good go at it though:

Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996): American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science populariser, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences."

The man who assembled the pioneer probe plaque and Voyager golden record:
to describe our world to any potential extraterrestrial intelligence which these messages might reach had his sights not only on the stars but was equally passionate about our home among them.
At last those stars aligned to also enable him to transmit information to Earth - and the resulting 1980 television series, Cosmos: A personal Voyage, has been seen by 500 million people across 60 countries. It remains the most-widely watched series in American public broadcasting history. 

Documentaries using state-of the art visual effects techniques are now run of the mill, if not mandatory, but Cosmos broke new ground in employing the computer motion-controlled camera technology developed for Star Wars, as well as state-of-the-art animation and miniature work.

Carl Sagan discusses where he will eventually appear inside this painstaking model
 of the Great Library of Alexandria with the visual effects team
Within the vast scope of its 13 episodes, Sagan didn't just talk about history: lavish recreations of feudal Japan and post-renaissance Europe brought the past into our living rooms as vividly as the effects conjured sub-atomic, microbiological and macro-cosmological spectacle.

I caught glimpses of Cosmos in the early 1980s, I think it was shown on a Sunday afternoon, and although exactly the kind of thing I was interested in, I was rarely home to see it.

And in a nerd's vinyl collection, we have...

It stuck with me though.  I actually bought the soundtrack album, mainly for Vangelis' Heaven and Hell: the haunting main theme of Cosmos, but loved it for the plethora of music from different eras and cultures.
The 'companion to the series' book, also written by Sagan, was devoured by me more than once and now I really wished I'd stayed in on those Sunday afternoons.

Seeing Cosmos became something of a minor obsession for a while... I remember coming across the VHS box set and seriously contemplating parting with just under $100 for it.

Time passed. Cosmos became a distant curio from the dawn of a pink and grey era, surely obsolete in our cyber-age. The Wellington public library clearly thought so when they sold the series for three dollars at a recent book sale.  For less than the price of a cup of coffee I finally had a DVD box set of a programme I'd wanted to see for over 30 years.

Carl in his conversation pit
So has it dated?  Of course it has.  Hair, fashions and typography jangle horribly in some segments, as does the sainted Sagan's tendency to hog the camera, lingering on his own silent wonderment of the celestial vistas we'd rather be looking at instead. Rose was quick to christen his extremely beige spaceship of the mind set the 'conversation pit', while Sagan's utterly unique pronunciation of the word 'human' (Ooman) is a quirk which is impossible to 'un-notice' once heard.

One the standout special effects from Cosmos - travelling along the medial
 longitudinal fissure between the two hemisphere of the human brain.
But despite all this Cosmos is still a fascinating, visually impressive and staggeringly ambitious piece of television which amply succeeds in it's aim of communicating the wonders around and above us.  Carl Sagan is an engaging guide who seems to find the balance between a passion for science and humanity in every point he makes.

Most surprising of all is that the science itself appears (from my limited perspective) to have dated little in the many years since.
Sagan passed away a year before he was able to see the excellent film adaptation of his novel Contact, but his impact remains (literally, in the case of the Martian crater named after him).

Sagan took ribbing from people like Johnny Carson in good humour.

Another of his catchphrases from Cosmos: 'billions and billions' (lampooned by everyone from Johnny Carson to Frank Zappa because of Sagan's heavy emphasis on the 'b') has actually become a unit of measurement.  At least four Billion equals one Sagan. The joke's now on us, fellow Oomans.

No comments:

Post a Comment