Cosmos: derived from classical Greek, this word refers to the universe considered as an orderly, harmonious whole. How appropriate, then, that Dr. Carl Sagan took Cosmos as the title of his groundbreaking science documentary series in which he explored the scientific foundations of the universe, exposing the beauty and harmony that exist in the natural relationships all around us. From physics to biology, history to astronomy, the study of the cosmos is one that endlessly unfolds new and exciting ideas to explore. Consisting of thirteen one-hour episodes, Carl Sagan's Cosmos takes viewers on a guided tour of the way the universe works that remains unsurpassed in overall quality from its original broadcast in 1980 to the present day. Simply put, Cosmos is an incredible package: it's a journey into science that simultaneously informs, intrigues, and inspires.
Cosmos is made up of thirteen one-hour 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," "Encyclopedia Galactica," and "Who Speaks for Earth?" To detail the actual contents of each episode would require a great deal of space, so I'll just point out a select few of my favorites. Cosmos excels in presenting difficult concepts in ways that are both understandable and interesting, and along those lines, one of my favorite sequences in the series is "One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue," in which Sagan presents the "cosmic calendar," showing the timeline of the life of the universe and the tiny fraction in which all of human achievements have taken place. "Blues for a Red Planet" explores the planet Mars, which has fascinated humankind for thousands of years, from the ancient mythology of Mars the warrior god to modern popular curiousity over the possibility of life on a neighboring planet. In "Travels in Space and Time," Sagan offers a captivating explanation of Einstein's theory of relativity and the distortion of time at the speed of light, and in "The Lives of the Stars" we are privy to the birth, tumultuous life cycle, and eventual death of stars like our own sun.
The late Dr. Carl Sagan was a professional, practicing scientist, not an actor hired for his star appeal or polished voice to narrate the show. He was a man who loved the realm of science, who cared deeply about bringing scientific literacy to the public, and, perhaps above all, who was gifted with the ability to share that enthusiasm with others. Subtitled "A Personal Voyage," Cosmos is truly his own project, and in watching the series, we get the sense that we're privy to a personal conversation with Sagan, a one-on-one conversation with a favorite uncle who's full of fascinating anecdotes and who's always able and willing to answer your questions. In Cosmos, we see Sagan's brilliant, roving mind in action, as he comes up with real-world ways to explain topics as widely separated as the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence to the evolution of life on earth.
Perhaps what I like most about Cosmos is Sagan's joyful approach to the material. While some science documentaries treat their informative content as a bitter pill that must be sugar-coated in glitzy entertainment and flashy effects in order to be palatable, Sagan shows us that science, presented correctly, is fundamentally an absolutely fascinating subject on its own merits. What could be more interesting than understanding how the world around us works? Sagan's enthusiastic presentation of the series' content is both unfeigned and contagious, and viewers who take the journey through Cosmos will never look at the subject of science in the same way again.
Sagan shares the excitement of the intellectual journey toward understanding the world around us: Cosmos shows us that facts and theories don't spring fully-formed from textbooks, but were discovered and created by human beings through trial and error, each scientist, philosopher, and inventor taking one more step on the path toward greater understanding. The series includes frequent "historical flashbacks" showing re-enactments of scientists in their own times. We realize that figures like Johannes Kepler, profiled in "The Harmony of the Worlds," were real people, practicing scientists in their own day just as Sagan was in his. "Science" ceases to be a monolithic block of information in a textbook, and becomes the product of many hands, the fruit of many minds, and thus far more accessible to the viewer.
One potential criticism that can be levelled at the Cosmos series is that it is, after all, more than twenty years old. Viewers might ask whether it has become dated, since science has certainly not stopped its forward progress since 1980. However, there are two excellent reasons why Cosmos remains an essential part of any DVD collection, no matter the year. First of all, the DVD edition of Cosmos has been put together with a eye on presenting it in as up-to-date a manner as possible. One of the subtitle options is a "science update" selection, though as the menu itself points out, there aren't all that many instances in Cosmos where the updates are necessary. More relevant are the video update sections that follow many of the episodes. Some are from Sagan himself, done in 1990 for a re-release of the show and offering a decade's worth of perspective on the content; others were created specifically for the DVD and are presented by Ann Druyan (Sagan's wife, co-writer on several of his books, and a scientist in her own right). These updates highlight the general timeliness and timelessness of Cosmos while providing useful information on new findings that expand Sagan's presentation.
But the more important reason why Cosmos remains at the forefront of science documentaries lies in the material itself. Sagan's choices of subject have endured as being part of the building blocks of a science education. Relativity; evolution; the scientific method; planetary motion; stellar formation; these are topics that have been refined, built upon, and added to in the succeeding years, but they have not been rendered obsolete. To the contrary, they are fundamental knowledge for a literate adult, and Cosmos has yet to be even approached in terms of overall quality of both content and presentation.
Originally created for television, Cosmos is presented on DVD in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and has been digitally restored and remastered. Time has taken its toll to a certain extent, but the series appears to have been brought to the best state possible for its transfer to DVD.
The image is soft and at times somewhat blurry, but this seems to be the result of the condition of the source material rather than a problem in the transfer. Some noise is present, more noticeable in some scenes than others, and a touch of grain is visible fairly consistently, but fortunately there is no edge enhancement distorting the image. The 1990 science update footage is significantly cleaner and sharper than the original 1980 footage, indicating that the DVD transfer is presenting the material as well as is possible, given the condition of the source.
All in all, though, Cosmos looks generally pleasing to the eye. Colors in particular are excellent, appearing rich and lifelike across the entire spectrum, and black is appropriately deep and dark, making a perfect backdrop to the glowing colors of planets hovering in space or to the tiny sparks of stars in the Milky Way.
The series has been fully remastered into Dolby 5.1 sound. Sagan's narrative voice is crystal clear and perfectly balanced with the excellent musical score (by Vangelis). Special effects and environmental noises are also represented fairly on the track; all in all, it is a very natural-sounding soundtrack. Not surprisingly, there isn't much use of the full surround capabilities of Dolby 5.1, but it's a very attractive soundtrack that does justice to the series.
The seven-disc set is packaged in an attractive fold-out cardboard disc holder which fits into a glossy slipcover. Especially considering the number of DVDs in the set, it's a compact and tidy-looking set.
As is appropriate for Sagan's global vision, Cosmos is a truly multilingual DVD. In addition to being region 0, playable on any NTSC-compatible DVD player and TV, Cosmos comes with subtitles in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, and English for the hearing impaired. One thoughtful touch is that the initial screen for each DVD is a "menu language" selection screen: in addition to English, it's possible to choose to view the menus in any of the languages offered as subtitles.
The main special features in the set are the video science updates, which I discuss in the main body of the review; these segments from Sagan and Ann Druyan are excellent expansions of the original material. Those who particularly enjoy the musical portion of the track will appreciate the inclusion of a music-and-effects-only 5.1 track for each episode.
Although it's not included with the DVD, viewers who enjoy Cosmos may be interested to know that Carl Sagan wrote a book of the same title to accompany the series. Sagan is equally captivating in writing as he is in the show, so it's worth seeking out the book as well.
If you only buy one documentary on DVD this year, it should be Cosmos. If you only buy one documentary on DVD or any other format, ever, it should be Cosmos. There's simply no better single program on science out there. A joy to watch and a joy to re-watch, Cosmos belongs in every viewer's DVD collection; presented on DVD with loving care, the Collector's Edition is worth every penny.