The 13 Trippiest Moments from Carl Sagan's Cosmos

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

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.

7) Flatland

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.

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