Cosmos (2014) Episode 1: Best and Worst
March 11, 2014
After my recent run as a cut-rate media critic with the 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty, I knew I wasn't going to be able to resist taking on another television show. Fortunately, the highly anticipated Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has premiered only a few weeks later. Time to cut my media-writing chops on some higher quality fare.
I want to do something different with these than a simple recap. A review would be fun, but every media outlet on the Internet seems to have a review of the new Cosmos series already, so adding one more seemed like a wasted effort. Instead, I've decided to take bit of a skeptical eye to the proceedings, watching each episode and identifiying the high points and the low points -- the Best of and Worst of the new Cosmos, if you will. So without further ado ...
Episode 1: "Standing Up in the Milky Way"
THE BEST MOMENTS
First off, the host. I've liked Neil deGrasse Tyson ever since the days when he hosted NOVA ScienceNow, and I listen regularly to his Star Talk radio podcast; so I knew going in that he would probably slip nicely into Carl Sagan's role as narrator of the series. He did not disappoint. While he's not quite the noble poet of science that Sagan was, he has an affable way of making scientific ideas accessible and entertaining to the lay person, which is exactly what this series needed in 2014 on FOX. This isn't Tyson as the fierce science advocate, though; instead, this is Tyson playing the straight man to the wonders of the universe.
Second, I'm really fond of the visual narrative motif built into the Spaceship of the Imagination. I think most people can agree that the Spaceship is one of the cornier moments of the original Cosmos; so if it had to come back for this sequel, why not make it a more functional part of the narration? The visual cue of Beneath/Past, In Front/Present, Above/Future is a elegantly simple way to help cue viewers in a series that is so often going to be jumping back and forth. Not paying close attention to every word Tyson says? Well the shot is moving "Below," so whatever they're about to talk about must be science history. Subtle but effective.
Finally, some of the FX visualizations during the "Cosmic Address" segment were pretty cool. The Spaceship flying past the Mars Rover; the visualization of the inside of Saturn's rings; the dark, icy rogue planet -- honestly, I just enjoyed the whole tour of the universe. Opening with the whole concept of scope -- and how being tiny doesn't mean we have to be insignificant -- set a fine tone for things to come.
THE WORST MOMENTS
I think the weak point of the first episode was definitely the animated Giordano Bruno story. The whole sequence fell flat for a number of reasons.
First, I'm not overly fond of the animation style. It feels cheap and low budget compared to the awesome visual effects served up in other parts of the show. The style they're going for is hand-drawn animation, but the actual animating was obviously computer-generated. The whole thing just didn't mesh well, and I spent too much of the time being actively aware of the animation as opposed to engaging the story being told.
Second, it felt too long. Had they covered Bruno's story in one segment, it wouldn't have been so bad; but belaboring the story through a commercial break just put too much of the episode's focus on what is in many ways just a historical footnote. While Bruno's ideas were indeed ahead of their time, they were -- as Tyson himself pointed out in the show -- just lucky guesses. Why not spend that time talking about Galileo instead? He was not the man who had a vision of the universe, but the man who really did see it through his telescope. That would have been a story worthy of half an episode. And since Galileo was also persecuted by the Church, they still could have gotten that "old dogma vs. new discoveries" angle they made sure to highlight in Bruno's story.
In addition to the animated sequence, I would be remiss if I didn't take a little time to gripe about the commercials. I know this isn't PBS in the 1970s and that the producers don't have the luxury of a commercial-free broadcast; but that doesn't stop me from cringing every time I had to hear "Cosmos is brought to you by the Samsung Galaxy." I can't wait until this is on digital download so it can be watched without the ad breaks!
Now It's Your Turn
What did you think of Episode 1? Am I spot on in my observations, or did I get it backwards? Let me know! And I will be back next week to tackle Episode 2.
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