The 13 Trippiest Moments from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos
Billions and billions of the most psychedelic segments of public television ever filmed. Well, only 13, actually. Still.
I don’t mean to generalize, but if you’re reading this site there’s a good chance you already know that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is a work of genius. Originally broadcast on PBS in 1980, it took the popular astronomer’s grand yet accessible style and translated it into a thirteen-part series that made science interesting and fun, kind of like a Mr. Wizard for adults (though not in the way you might be thinking). Sporting an attractive selection of outerwear, Sagan whisked the viewer away on a fluid, whirlwind trip that incorporated astrophysics, biology, math, history, chemistry and literature. It was a groundbreaking piece of TV that still feels exciting and cinematic, and has influenced documentary programming ever since. As one may guess, everything spins around Sagan, and his personality is what keeps the show from being a snooze: as since immortalized by Symphony of Science, his sonorous tones pulsed with life and beckoned earnestly to the viewer.
It could easily have come across as condescending or fluffy, but it somehow managed an in-between tone exactly right and is surprisingly watchable to this day (supposedly it has also required relatively few science updates since it first aired, which alone makes it remarkable). So much depends on Sagan’s tone, and though his famously soaring odes to the wonders of the universe threaten to descend into New Age pap, they never really do. Whether he’s getting a milkshake in a Brooklyn restaurant, talking shop with fellow scientists or reclining seductively in the grass, his intellect and romantic charisma save him from complete silliness. Most of the time.
But though the messages and facts of Cosmos remain compelling, the show was also very much a product of its time. This is most evident in its use of special effects, re-enactments, models, and animations to convey complicated ideas (which is undoubtedly part of what’s motivating Seth McFarlane to helm the new version). Through computer magic, Sagan became something like a nerdy television version of God, jumping around through space and time, changing size and even duplicating himself.
Sometimes all of these elements combined with his general grandiosity to create something a little…weird. You can forget that, especially when taken out of context, some of the scenes from this show almost drown us in strangeness, often with a soundtrack of either Kubrickian classical or Kraftwerkian electronic music (courtesy of Greek composer Vangelis). To me, this is just part of the charm (it helps that I’m a fan of classic Doctor Who and thereby undeterred by obvious chromakeying) but it could understandably be a bit of a stumbling block for those with a low weirdness threshold. Here’s a list of some of those moments where Sagan and company blew our minds, and he never even asked for a thank you.
13) The Spinning Platonic Solids
Cosmos was often as much about the past as it was the future, frequently examining the lives of famous intellectual figures from history. It can be difficult to represent some mathematical problems, but Sagan provides some key visual aids that help in his story about Pythagoras and Plato. We are introduced to these shapes in a semi-surreal moment when we see them spinning in space like hallucinations in a bad horror movie, then rotating in front of a fisheye lens. Carl cradles a dodecahedron like he’s going to take a bite out of it as he contemplates the square root of two and the flaws of the Pythagorean school. Just business as usual, officer. Psychedelia often stems from unusual combinations and juxtapositions, and the cutting between the cave, Kepler and the Greek guitars make for the kind of heady but flavorful stew at which this show excelled.
12) The Encyclopaedia Galactica
Will there ever be a comprehensive guide to everything in our galaxy? Does one exist already, and if so, is it still textual as opposed to fully holographic or something? Sagan may be romantic, but he’s also a pragmatist, and in the show’s penultimate episode he deals with the possibilities of alien life by rightly insisting on extraordinary proof. All the same, he gets to peruse such a guide himself, and although the results are a little visually drab, the idea that humanity might either possess or even be permitted to flip through something like this one day is pretty staggering. The concept returns in the finale…but we’ll get to that later. I can’t be the only one disappointed that Earth’s entry didn’t say “Mostly Harmless”.
11) The Creepy War of the Worlds Montage
It’s a great shame that Sagan passed away before the landing of the Curiosity rover this year: no doubt he would have been thrilled to see its color panoramas of Mars (though I’m sure he would have had a few choice words about the end of NASA’s manned space program). “Blues for a Red Planet” explores the human fascination with our big red cousin, opening with a look at the role Mars has played in human popular culture, specifically when it comes to H.G. Wells’ seminal classic. Because this is Sagan, we don’t just get a straightforward reading, but an ominous, operatic rendition, complete with creepy fishlike eyes and Richard Burton’s floating head (wait…nevermind.). As 19th century people go about their little lives, Holst marches on the soundtrack and gears turn and the camera spins around crazily. Sagan takes up the reigns again before any Martian carnage can be inflicted, so it’s short lived, but still slightly disorienting. Then, after a look at Percival Lowell’s Santa costume, we head to the planet itself, checking out its surface and marveling at its many wonders before returning back to “a blue and cloudy world” that…hey now, I know where that is! Oh, Carl.
10) The Snowballs of Saturn
Though not a children’s show explicitly, Cosmos did occasionally resemble a pre-Magic Schoolbus in the way it invited its viewers to imagine and ask questions, however basic. What do the rings of Saturn look like up close? The answer we get here: kind of like giant dissolving alka-seltzer tablets, apparently. These, we are told, are “the snowballs of Saturn”: sounds like a lost Kilgore Trout novel. Regardless, it’s neat to watch this hypothetical close-up view of what one might see in an interstellar fly-by, decades before the Cassini-Huygens mission would do the job for real. I wonder if there’s any warning against standing too close to that viewing window.
9) Samurai and Heike Crabs
Of the many tangents Sagan embarks upon throughout the series, this one, appearing in the second episode (“One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue”), is one of the most baffling. A legend regarding why the shells Heikegani crabs kind of look like samurai armor, it eventually connects back to the episode’s larger theme of evolution by pointing out how circumstances can gradually influence genetic changes in animals. However, it’s a bit of a long road to get there, and until we do it kind of seems just a bit random to go from the outermost reaches of space to a tale of warlords in feudal Japan. Yes, we are told that this is a story about “one little phrase from the music of life on Earth”, but isn’t everything? I’m sure people tuning in to watch this show had a vague feeling that it would be an epic journey (or “A Personal Voyage”), but I’m pretty sure most of them didn’t know they’d be watching Samurai slash through people only two episodes in. Regardless, it’s a curious tale that does play into important ideas of growth and response. Also we get to hear about crabs with human faces, and if that’s not a Japanese horror movie waiting to happen I don’t know what is.
8) The March of Evolution
When that same episode gets around to discussing evolution proper, things get even wackier. Against a plain black background we see the dance of life (or, more accurately, the shape-shifting slideshow of life) in the form of amorphic chalkish graphics. Then, as if the off-screen audience of Teletubbies were heckling him, we see it again, though this time it’s all sped up and far more fluid. As in other places, the music hammers home the theme that this is all an elegant dance, the intricate and glorious procession of our universe at work. I suppose Sagan could have used any piece of music, though I also suppose syncing this up to, say, Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees wouldn’t be quite the same.
Carl Sagan went on record several times as a proponent of marijuana use, so it’s not completely out of the question that he may have been under the guidance of a particular substance while producing some of these programs. Exhibit A would be the various orgasmic faces he makes while traveling the galaxy inside a dandelion seed (more on that later). But Exhibit B could be the rather quirky, drawn-out delivery of his Flatland routine. Borrowing ideas from Edwin Abbott, Sagan, sitting at your average architect’s desk that happens to be covered in fruit, shows us how to conceive of higher dimensions and what “interdimensional amity” might look like to us (he also describes one of the shapes as “an attractive, congenial-looking square”, inadvertently also describing a fair amount of Cosmos‘ core audience). It’s a cogent analogy that’s fun to watch, sober or not. To further illustrate this, Sagan takes a stroll on a giant CG ball and then gives a lecture while apparently floating down through angelically glowing treetops. This latter scene, while not flashy, is all the stranger because it’s never really acknowledged that he’s moving or why. I mean, I’m pretty sure he’s in a boat, but we never see it. This enforces the idea that within the world of Cosmos, Carl’s powers are unlimited.
6) Sagan Revisits His Childhood
“The Persistence of Memory” takes us inward rather than outward as Carl explores biological complexity, whale sounds, books (a word he somehow manages to pronounce without using any vowels) and the human brain. No, I mean he literally explores the human brain, walking into a giant specimen like a contestant on Knightmare and poking around the neurons. That’s weird enough, but things go even further down the rabbit hole when we discover that Carl’s actually inside his own brain. Woah. We are walked into the “memory center”, an archive of shelves stacked with binders that are full of not only women, but all of Sagan’s personal recollections, each a different color. He picks a black one said to contain “one of my earliest memories”, which turns out to be a baby-Carl’s eye-view of his mother preparing lunch in an idyllic 1940’s kitchen. The scene is meant to be wholesome, I think, but it’s so placid and cheery that it comes across as accidentally sinister, like David Lynch took over the studio for two minutes before fleeing into the night, fingers twitching maniacally. “That was a long time ago”, Sagan says, shaking his head. You think he’s going to pick another one, but he doesn’t, depriving us of more glimpses into his backstory. Another binder contains the genetic code for different pieces of information, though it looks more like you could easily figure it out with either a Calc. major or a garden variety decoder ring.
5) Sagan Creates the Constellations
One of my favorite episodes of Cosmos has to be number eight, “Travels in Space and Time”, not just because time travel is one of my favorite subjects but because of the fascinating and effective illustrations of a wide variety of topics, from relativity to Da Vinci to the Doppler effect. At its best, Cosmos was a synthesis of the factual and the poetic, and there’s no better illustration of this then the sequence in which Sagan picks up a handful of sand in throws it into the night air, in which it transitions, 2001-style, into images of the stars. As we see different visions of the constellations and projections of how they may look in the future, the soundtrack shifts from incongruous bagpipes to some awesome Rick Wakeman-esque synthesizer music. Then Carl walks out into space and talks about the stars as if they’re floating above him. Naturally, this is is followed by a trip to Tuscany, and then a bizarre montage of water droplets moving in slow motion. Man, this show was awesome.
4) The Spaceship of the Imagination
I’ve blown the metaphorical wad of this one a little bit by already showing you some clips with Carl’s much-loved “Spaceship of the Imagination”, but the introduction of this craft is something to see on its own. Described as being “the size of a dandelion seed” and seeming way too large for its sole occupant, this is a thing of beauty, flexible and amorphous. It sets the stage for the first half of Cosmos‘ premiere, as the ship starts at the far reaches of the universe and slowly brings us back home. There’s not much in the way of technology or controls in the ship, just a simple seat, panel, pentacle-shaped galaxy map table and a window, but as we learn in the course of the show, it can change its features depending on the moment: one memorable shot has Sagan parting his hands to open the floor like a glass-bottom boat (it also looks kind of steamy in there, though maybe that’s just a lens flare issue). Of all the many things I wish that Sagan had lived to witness, is it weird that this sequence makes me imagine him playing around with the galaxy map from Mass Effect?
3) The Cosmic Calendar
Also in that first episode is another Sagan’s key concepts, the Cosmic Calendar, which provides a memorably odd demonstration that seems like a cross between Land of the Lost and an early Genesis video. A way of imagining the immensity of universal history, the CC uses months to represent the progression of creation: if the Big Bang was January first, then humans didn’t even show up until “the last second of December 31st”. That’s pretty amazing, and it was recently featured on an episode of Q.I., so it must still be held as accurate. There’s a lot of craziness that comes thick and fast here, as Sagan becomes temporarily made of lasers, then walks under his own giant finger, then appears superimposed over a model, which is a really weird effect and cements Sagan as the Mr. Rogers of the Mind. Though the tone in this segment is one of wonder, Sagan does warn that we may only exceed our earthly limitations if we don’t destroy ourselves first. It’s a really good thing to watch if you foolishly forget how unadvanced and insignificant we really are. This also raises the question what Carl Sagan might have thought about the closing two lines of The Galaxy Song; I’m guessing he would respectfully disagree.
2) An Apple Pie
Every episode of Cosmos opens with the same sequence: a movement through the universe, with gold-colored stars, white titles and eerie keyboard music. Usually Carl’s voice will fade in after the opening credits with some narration introducing us to the general theme, but “The Lives of Stars” goes very much against that with a montage closer to an experimental Robert Nelson short film than a documentary. This has to be one of the most surreal intros to an educational show on record. A Granny Smith apple hanging in space, veiled by a gust of cosmic wind. Then a dramatic and slow moving series of events with little immediate relevance.
Dough covered in sugar!
Dough rolled out by what appears to be a blackened tree branch!
Then the pastry is baked, and taken out of the oven by chefs, and served by a butler in an ornate dining hall, and it’s only then that we finally see Sagan, sitting at the head of the banquet table. His explanation is one of the most famous lines of Cosmos history: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” I’m pretty sure that technically means everyone’s grandmother has godlike abilities but nevermind that. After all that trouble, Carl doesn’t even taste the pie, instead using it to demonstrate how small atoms are, though he does assure us that it looks “crumbly, but good.” It takes us quite a bit longer to actually get to stars, the real meat of the episode (there’s a shout out for b-list element praseodymium), and though we do eventually, that opening remains a gloriously bold non sequitur and a great summation of why this show is still so awesome. I mean that literally, as in “inspiring awe”.
1) Montage of Humanity
Despite its complexity, most episodes of this show are generally pretty upbeat: Sagan, after all, is attempting to educate and encourage. But the finale, “Who Speaks for Earth?” gets hella heavy as it tackles what everyone’s been thinking since Hiroshima: mainly, what if we fuck up and kill ourselves? Attempting to meditate, Sagan takes his ship deep out into space but is accosted by nearly a full minute of televison transmissions from throughout the past century. A (fictional) inhabited planet that he had seen before suddenly goes dark. Then our own world goes dark as well, as pessimism infects even the Ship of the Imagination. It’s a sobering thing to contemplate, especially when we’re told that the number of nuclear weapons on Earth has the potential to make a a “World War II every second”. Yeesh.
As an antidote to that, Sagan turns, as he usually does, to the vast achievements of humanity, and this sparks off an extended, hypercut, uber-montage that revisits all of the previous episodes, jumping from Tyco Brahe to schoolchildren in modern New York to religious festivals in India. It’s kind of like a public access version of Cloud Atlas spliced with Koyaanisqatsi in hyper fast-forward, and I’m not entirely sure Tom Hanks isn’t in there a few times somewhere.
“These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do, given 15 million years of evolution,” our host says, and that’s the best hope we have. And so we end as we began, with the image of Sagan and his dandelion seed on the shores of a beach. Whatever Neil, Seth and Ann bring us in a couple of years, we can only hope it features that same sense of hope and fragility.
And maybe the occasional televisual mindfuck.