The cosmos has finally gotten its big break in show business. Of course it had to take second billing to Dr. Carl Sagan -- but then, who or what doesn't take second billing to this Renaissance/nuclear man, distinguished Cornell University astronomer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, extraterrestrial prognosticator?
The long-awaited premiere of his galactical vaudeville show, a 13-week star-studded science-informational series titled, like his simultaneously released book, "Cosmos" starts Sunday (8-9 p.m. and continuing for 12 additional weeks -- check local listings for premiere and repeats). It is a wholesomely hokey, gushingly gurgling introduction to the awesome universe. It is studded with galaxies, big banks, black holes, and the ever-present, ever-enthusiastic, breathlessly impressionable and impressive Dr. Sagan. Some would say that Carl Sagan is to science what Leonard Bernstein is to music.
At moments the initial episode is so slick it seems like one long Madison Avenue political commercial for a candidate running for, well, the highest office. But I have viewed a sampling of the first eight in the series (the only ones available at preview deadline time) and Dr. Sagan really gets down to serious science business after his first lapse into an almost psychedelic approach to the cosmos.
However, at the onset, enveloped by the strains of Vangelis Papathanassiou's musical composition "Heaven and Hell," Dr. Sagan takes the viewer on a simulated journey through the cosmos, where we encounter "galaxies and suns and planets, life anc oncsciousness, coming into being, evolving and perishing, worlds of ice and stars of diamond, atoms as massive as suns and universe smaller than atoms."
If that's not enough to rev up the engine of your imagination, Dr. Sagan sits down at his cosmic console and orchestrates a fabulous voyage "in a ship of the imagination, unfettered by ordinary limits of speed and size, drawn by the musich of cosmic harmonies. It can take us anywhere in space and time. Perfect as a snowflake, organic as a dandelion seed, it will carry us to worlds of dreams and worlds of facts. Come with me. . . ."
Now who could possibly resist that lush, luring, alluring, deep-purple come on? Well, there's still more, to the accompaniment of suggestively metaphysical and mythic Papathanssiou music ("Creation du Monde") plus a little Shostakovich and Beethoven as well. All of this under the allseeing mystic ever-presence of Carl Sagan, whose smiling, wonder-brimming eyes look out at viewers through the rushing galaxies. I tell you, "Cosmos" gets off to a rip-snorting, simmering, smoking start.
Did I say hokey too? But marvelous hokey.
Especially mindboggling is Dr. Saganhs Cosmic Calendar, a device he returns to time and time again during the series but which he introduces in the premiere: the universe compressed into one year, with each minute 30,000 years long.By this standard, mankind has emerged so recently that the events of our history occupy only the last seconds of the last minute of Dec. 31. while not original in concept, the Cosmic Calendar is a fabulously effective method of giving the viewer quick perspective on the chronology of the universe.
Astro-physicist Dr. Sagan really starts his cosmic saga by going back 2,000 years to the days of the great Alexandrian Library, reconstructing an architectural fantasy seemingly full scale. Actually, this effect is a accomplished, as are most of the sensational effects, by Magicam, a unique technological process which was responsible for much of the $8 million cost (sounds like a lot but remember that "Shogun" cost $22 million) of the series. The amazing pseudo-opulence doesn't look at all pseudo . . . merely expensive.
Also in the premiere is a hint a dramatizations to come -- as Johanes Kepler appears, melodramatically establishes his identity with unfortunate hints that he will reappear later in the series in dramatized segments, along with other docudramatic moments and other ingenious gimmickry. Whatever happened to the good old talking-head professor?
Well, Dr. Sagan is always there, taking his Bronoswki-like walks in exotic locations, a loquaciously talking head, marvelously talking hands, and even a talking body theory and thesis man has ever considered in all areas of science, especcially astronomy, physics and biology. You may even want to take the "Cosmos" course for credit with one of the universities cooperating in a TV-study program. Many high school students have also been relieved of required reading for the nights when "Cosmos" airs.
No. 2 in the series concentrates on evolution and is full of fables told with storybook gusto by that master cosmic storyteller of all time, Dr. Carl Sagan. Other future segments, with ex-BBC executive producer Adrian Malone supervising, discuss spacecraft missions, the nature of black holes, the death of the sun, the search for life on other planets.
"Cosmos" tells you more than you ever expected to know about the universe -- and insists that you enjoy every moment of it. In its own way, it is a natural progression from "Sesame Street." So why fight the ingenuity-or-bust aspect? Just lean back and enjoy while the secrets of the universe are revealed to you. Sagan interview
Lunch with the cosmic storyteller himself is just a bit symbolic. The special of the day at therestaurant of his hotel, the Park Lane, overlooking Central Park, is fricassee, and that is what boyish-looking, Dr. Sagan orders . . . and some might describe his series as a kind of fricassee, too. A bit of this and a bit of that, all highly spiced and served with panache. But in the long run, tasty as well as highly nutritional.
Dr. Sagan, in appearance perhaps every freshman co-ed's dream of what a college professor should look like, says he has been working on the series for about two years. "I'm on leave from Cornell and I'll go back in January to teach and do research. I'm lookin forward to that. The one concession I extricated was that I would have time off for Voyager."
Dr. Sagan believes wholeheartedly in the series -- he feels that commercial TV underestimates the American TV viewer. "There is a perception that many network executives have that the attention span of grown-ups watching TV is two minutes, and you have to have an act of violence otherwise people will fall asleep. I agree that's the easiest way to keep people awake, but I don't think it's the only way. I think you can involve people deeply in the drama of reality and keep them awake that way.
"In 'Cosmos' we try to go deeply into some of the questions of origins -- of life, of the galaxy, of the whole universe, what will happen to the earth in the future as the sun evolves. These are questions that men have always asked, only now they are couched in science where they used to be couched in myth the legend. Every culture has myths of origin which proves that every human being is concerned with it."
Is Dr. Sagan Satisfied with "Cosmos" now that the two- year ordeal is over?
He smiles what will be known by millions very soon as the "Sagan Smile? and admits that "it far exceeds my fondest expectations. I had some experience in doing science on television ("20/20") but not in producing. It's my own production company which, jointly with KCET in Los Angeles, has done this project. I had no idea what's involved on the production side. There were a lot of hurdles I just didn't expect. But on a visual level, it is just so much better than I thought possible because the artists did so well and the special effects technology has come so far."
Many of the most spectacular images which the interviewer imagined were film clips, according to the good Dr., were artist's special effects.
When some of the astronauts returned form the moon, they implied that never again would they be able to look at the earth from their old perspective. Will the cosmic voyage do the same for TV viewers?
"I deeply hope that may be the effect. If it gives people the emotional perspective of where we are in the cosmos I would be deeply happy."
What's the most optimistic thing Dr. Sagan can say about the universe?
He throws up his hands, those perpetually moving expressive hands, without overturning the fricassee. "It's hard to make either an optimistic or pessimistic observation about the universe. It's everything. And optimsm and pessimism are things that humans bring to it. but the universe is indifferent to human concerns. It's neither hostile nor benign. It's just there. The significance is something we bring to it . . . and rightly so. The series portrays a humanist perspective in series, the book, the production company, all of which are constantly on Dr. Saganhs mind, all of which one understands, must be promoted now.
He continues in their vein: "A conservative estimate is that 150 million people are going to see 'Cosmos.' It's going to be shown all over the world. That's 3 percent of planet Earth. That's an awful lot of people. So if we can excite people, stir them up, get them interested in science and thinking about things, we will have accomplished an incredible thing."
What will Dr. Sagan teach at Cornell?
"Astronomy 570, Physics of the Planet for first-year graduate students, starting Jan. 1."
How does he perceive himself -- as teacher, space explorer, author, astronomer, TV personality? And which does he prefer?
"That's a hard question.At least on one level, it's all just a dream come true. It's a fulfillment of childhood science fantasies. Especially being really involved in going to the planets and finding out what's there. That was my most powerful childhood fantasy.
I would look dreamily out the window in the boring parts of the third grade in Brooklyn. . . ."
Dr. Carl Sagan, cosmic storyteller, looks out the window now.
"Will you have something for dessert, Dr. Sagan?" ask the maitre d', who recognizes Carl Sagan, TV personality. "I've saved some of our delicious chocolate mousse."
Dr. Sagan returns to the dining room of the Park Lane from his mental meandering in the park, in space. "See," he says, "being a TV personality has its compensations, too."