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DVD Review

DVD cover

Carl Sagan's Cosmos


Presenter: Carl Sagan
Fremantle Media
RRP: £29.99
Certificate: E
Available 20 July 2009

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) was a thirteen-part television series written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter, the series was directed by Adrian Malone. The initial reception to the show was uniformly positive, both as a program which popularised science, but also as a documentary. The show won Three EMMY’s, a Peabody award and was nominated for a further award - given its achievement this seems a lot less than the show deserved.

Each of the original shows was just under an hour long. The aim was to explain our understanding of the universe, its birth and eventual destruction, as well as to chronicle the story of mans attempts to understand the world around him and his place in the greater picture. To this end Sagan drew on philosophy, science, history and even religion. It really is amazing that Sagan was a scientist and not a presenter, given that his delivery is perfect for the subject matter.

All the time Sagan acts as our guide as this story of wonderment, success and tragedy plays itself out. Throughout he remains as beguiled and enthusiastic as the audience. When the show was originally made the cold war was still in existence and so whilst the series is a look at factual matters it is also Sagan’s plea for a greater understanding between the peoples of the earth.

Science does not stand still, and ten years after the original transmission of the show the content was updated. Here, in this five disc DVD collection, the ten year updates are included. The show is presented in its original aspect ratio of 4:3 with a 2.0 stereo audio track, with optional subtitles. One of the unforgivable things about the subtitles is the occasional mistake which completely changes the information. In the first update Sagan clearly says that proteins cannot reproduce themselves, when the subtitles claim that they can.

The shows have been digitally rematsered, restored and enhanced so that the picture is about as good as it is going to get. Although free of damage and artefacts, the overall picture remains soft and slightly diffused, which is to be expected from a show which has been converted from NTSC.

The power of Cosmos lay not in its special effects - though they remain impressive for their time, especially the recreation of the library of Alexandria - rather it was the power of the almost poetic narration, delivered with a genuine enthusiasm and humanity by Sagan himself, a respected astronomer, who would become an audience favourite for his popularisation of science. Prior to the creation of Cosmos, and continuing throughout his career, Sagan would continue to produce both academic and popularist works, including the novel Contact, which was turned into a film, starring Jodie Foster in 1997. The general body of his work, like Cosmos, reflected Sagan’s essentially optimistic and humanistic outlook.

Cosmos was neither the first nor possibly the most enduring of the wave of documentaries which exploded onto the screen in the seventies and eighties. Great Britain produced The World at War (1973) and America: A Personal History of the United States (1972) and America produced The Civil War (1990) and, of course, Cosmos (1980). These programs helped open up art, history and science to the common man and it is arguable whether the History Channel would have existed were it not for these trail blazers.

It would be a futile attempt to try and describe the individual thirteen episodes (The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean, One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue, The Harmony of the Worlds, Heaven and Hell, Blues for a Red Planet, Travellers' Tales, The Backbone of Night, Travels in Space and Time, The Lives of the Stars, The Edge of Forever, The Persistence of Memory, Encyclopaedia Galactica, and Who Speaks for Earth?) as the show took a non-linear and eclectic approach to its subject matter, almost a history of everything - little wonder that on its original release it was accompanied by its own book. Suffice it to say, as far as it could, it covered all the pertinent information about the rise of scientific man and his exploration of his surroundings.

For all its age, it’s amazing just how enjoyable and informative the show remains. True, with the advent of CGI, some of the bells and whistles of a modern presentation make Cosmos look a little dated, but few modern shows can boast the breadth and depth of information, or the enthusiasm with which Sagan imparts it.


Charles Packer

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