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.