Cosmos (2014) Episode 2: Best and Worst
March 17, 2014
I think that even those in the skeptical community who were a little bit ... well, skeptical after Episode 1 of the new Cosmos will be walking away from Episode 2 satisfied. The series definitely seemed to find its stride last night. Personally, I was watching parts of it with a big ol' grin on my face. That doesn't mean we can't pick nits, though, so let's flex our knuckles and get crackin'.
Episode 2 "Some of the Things That Molecules Do"
THE BEST MOMENTS
The pattern of this second Cosmos is becoming clearer: follow the pattern of the original while not repeating all of its content so that the two series, if watched side-by-side or back-to-back, will be companions to one another, not mirrors. This means that last night we got the episode on evolutionary theory. Let's all be honest -- with Cosmos airing on FOX in 2014, we were a little bit wary of how the series might approach this topic.
Those fears were laid to rest last night, and that is the best part of this episode: how they did not hedge on evolutionary theory. This was a straight-up primer on how evolution works, one that not only didn't leave any room for the possibility of Intelligent Design or a Prime Mover or whatever, but that had moments where Tyson practically called out theistic critics. In the lead-in sequence, he noted that evolution "sounds like something out of a fairy tale -- but it isn't," referencing a popular Creationist put-down line. He also specifically name-checked Intelligent Design in his setup for the eye evolution segment. And then there was that line towards the end where he called the emergence of life on Earth "the greatest story that science has ever told." I can easily see a lesser science program airing on network television bowing to the pressure to leave the door open to at least the possibility of theistic evolution. Cosmos didn't.
Also, can we all agree that the "eye's point of view" split screen segment was frakking awesome? What a great, literal illustration of that old cannard about how part of an eye can't be functional or useful. While the FX in this show are largely going to be illustrative window dressing, this was a moment where the visual medium of the series lent considerably to the persuasive power of the concept under discussion. It was an especially smart choice because the show is targeting a non-science crowd, and they're the crowd most likely to have already heard the eye argument in some sermon or YouTube video but not heard the critical counterargument to it.
Finally, I have to say that I loved the moment where Tyson pointed out that our eyes aren't as good as fish eyes were millions of years ago. It not only emphasized the fact that evolution not perfect, but it also caught me off guard. In all my readings about evolution, I had never come across that fact before. So I learned something new last night!
THE WORST MOMENTS
Am I the only one who thought the visual for the Tree of Life was cheesy? Because I really did. The animations were sort of textured over the branches of the tree in such a way that they just looked ... off somehow. It looked as though they were trying to animate an illustrative chart from a middle school science textbook. Admittedly, part of it may be my overall issue with their choice of animation style (though the animation wasn't so bad this episode because it wasn't so prominently featured); but whatever the reason, I cringed a little whenever they cut back to it.
I also found the bit where Tyson was emoting in the Hall of Extinction to be a little unnecessary. I get that they were trying to place some emotional weight to the sheer magnitude of the Permian Extinction, but it fell flat.
I still hate the commercial breaks. Hate them, hate them, hate them. In this episode it was especially evident that the commercial breaks were not just breaking the show into segments, but were literally interrupting the flow of Tyson's narrative. In fact, the way it is edited around the breaks strongly implies that the producers intend for there to be no break at all in the flow of the show, and that when it makes it to DVD/digital download it will be edited in such a way that there won't be any indication of where the commercials originally interrupted.
Finally, I wish they'd spent more time on the tardigrades. Yes, Tyson was only using them to accentuate his larger point about evolution and the five extinction events, but I think they deserved more than the brief mention they got. Those little extremophiles are just plain cool.
Now It's Your Turn
What did you think of Episode 2? Am I spot on in my observations, or did I get it backwards? Let me know! And I will be back next week to talk about Episode 3.
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