The production style is also of historical interest in itself,
as early usage of video chromakey with mechanically-synced cameras
showcases some great re-creations of things impossible to film,
and elaborate 2D images are stacked layer upon layer to create
convincing and extremely artful 3D motion. Unlike today where we can
brush off amazing effects with the thought that it was done by computer imagery,
these effects make you sit back and wonder just how they managed to
pull it all off in such quantities at this level of quality.
If there is one great downside to this opening episode, it is perhaps
that it doesn't quite present any kind of a plot for its pleasant and informative meanderings,
no real driving over-arching questions to which its host Carl Sagan goes digging for answers.
And this is a shame, because there is otherwise a well-structured story coming out of this episode,
one whose answers lay the groundwork for the episodes to come. All it needs is
some way for first time audiences to anticipate what is about to unfold, and to see each phase
of this magnificent journey as the next logical step forward. Those of us who know
the episode already I think are much better primed to just sit back, enjoy,
and be fascinated all over again.
Charting the First Episode:
After a very poetic opening that goes on a bit too long without any real
information, the first episode here soon settles down to two basic halves.
The first half is primarily a great zooming-in voyage from several galaxies away
to the planet Earth, along the way marveling at many astronomical phenomena
and landmarks from our perch in an imaginary spacecraft, with Carl Sagan at the helm.
This spacecraft sequence looked so expensive for late 1970's production terms,
I found myself wondering how long they could or would sustain it, and subsequently
how they could ever top it with anything else. Indeed, it goes on for a solid 22 minutes
until it rounds off the first half of the hour-long episode. But it is worth it in the
end because with it, Sagan is bringing the audience up to speed with many of the
terminology and concepts that will be used throughout the rest of the series.
We learn about the concept of the light-year as a measure of interstellar distances,
and experience the layout of the universe and our place within it
on an ever shrinking scale. We see examples of places where stars are born
(The Orion Nebula), where they are still fairly new (The Pleiades),
and contrast different ages and lifespans of various types of stars. We also
get an idea of the great dust clouds and various other types of matter
making up various galaxies including our own. And before long, we are sailing
past the familiar planets of our own solar system, getting an informative
introduction to most of them.
With this spacey opening half, Sagan is carefully taking us through WHAT we know.
The return to Earth signifies a bit of a shift, as Sagan proceeds to recount
the story of HOW we figured all that space stuff out in the first place.
This second half features many filmed sequences on our Earth, and it begins
in Egypt. Why not? We learn how a librarian in 300 B.C. managed to
accurately calculate the circumference of the Earth, based in no small
part on the idea that the Earth must be round instead of flat. A fairly simple,
but pivotal launching point for serious astronomy.
This naturally leads into the more unique of the first episode's two big set-piece
scenes - a discussion of all the wonders of books, information, and experimental discoveries
being systematically collected into the Great Library of Alexandria, reconstructed as
a highly detailed model with Carl Sagan inserted into it via some impressive then-cutting-edge
trick photography. It is impressive that we also have footage of the last remaining
piece of the Library still standing today in Egypt, thus the coverage seems quite thorough.
The topic is also quite tantalizing - that a good deal of the ideas we credit to recent Europeans
were resurrected from the remains of this hybrid Greek/Egyptian civilization of so long ago,
after spending a lot of time being forgotten. It also makes one wonder how often
knowledge and technology is lost and rediscovered. This Great Library of Alexandria
is the earliest known systematic gathering of the world's knowledge that we can
easily verify today, but were there others before then, others that we have completely
forgotten? Has evidence of other lost civilizations simply not yet surfaced to
widespread public awareness?
At this point, we accelerate through the story of ever growing, ever expanding
astronomical knowledge, and we get some teasers for the things we will learn
in future episodes, and see some of the places and historical figures that we will learn
about in much more detail in episodes 3, 6, and 10. The goal here though is to
get an overview of the big picture of astronomical discovery, to move past the
question of what we know and how we know it, and finally move on to our best current idea
of exactly WHEN we think we are in the big cosmic picture.
Our final set-piece sequence is the introduction of the "Cosmic Calendar",
which compresses the history of the universe so far into 1 "year".
It's a fairly decent and useful way of contrasting the lengthy existence of the universe
with the fairly recent introduction of Man's evolution to an intelligent and sentient form,
able to contemplate his own existence in this grand scheme of things.
And with that, the first episode of Cosmos bows out, leaving much for its audience to ponder,
and many more grand ideas to be explored in further episodes....
I would say that this episode seems to have a higher percentage of
"money shots" than many episodes that follow, and this premiere episode
seems to be a bit more polished in production terms. As for content,
Sagan is very much on top of his material here, and I feel he didn't
really step into any trouble areas at all.
The end result is that, even though he is still warming up
for later topics here, this remains one of the best and most engaging
episodes of the "Cosmos" series.