The 13 Trippiest Moments from Carl Sagan's Cosmos

By Andy Hughes in Daily Lists
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 9:01 am

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.

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