I’m pretty sure I never saw Cosmos as a kid, which is a shame, because like many little boys, I was an avid devourer of all things space-related. I had well-thumbed copies of information-filled books like 50 Facts About Space and more fanciful titles like Aliens in Space, and was far more interested in constructing starships out of LEGO than in playing with boring things like cars and firetrucks. A series about the history of the universe, narrated by a Genuine Scientist and featuring cool shit like the Cosmic Calendar and the Spaceship of the Imagination? I would have adored it.
As it transpired, I came to the series later in life. My girlfriend sat me down to watch it on Netflix last year, after discovering to her horror that I’d never seen it before, and we tore through all 13 episodes in the space of about a week or so. And yeah, I did adore it. Clearly, I’m not the only one — the series is enjoying a renaissance these days, in no small part because of its availability on Netflix. Despite the fact that its host passed away almost 20 years ago, there’s a Carl Sagan Facebook page (160k likes!) and next week will see the release of Yellow Ostrich’s Cosmos-themed album. A new version of Cosmos is set to premiere in March, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson presenting in place of Sagan, which I’m sure will be fascinating, although it’s hard to imagine it matching the original.
So, what’s at the root of Cosmos‘ enduring appeal? Part of it, obviously, is the simple wonder of the subject matter, and part of it is the charisma of Sagan himself — he was a wonderfully idiosyncratic presenter, with a palpable enthusiasm for his field and a deep knowledge that he was excited to share. There’s something whimsical about the way the episodes are put together, a sense that the show was following, as much as anything, the trajectory of its creator’s thoughts. Some of it you probably just couldn’t get away with these days — the hilariously short shrift he gives to religion, in particular, along with the ideas of various unfortunate boneheaded contemporaries, would surely not be tolerated today, especially not on government-funded broadcast TV.
It seems to me that the key point, though, is that there’s nothing remotely ironic about Cosmos. “Earnest” is something of a dirty word these days, in this post-millennial age of arched eyebrows and knowing chuckles, but Cosmos is as earnest as earnest gets. It’s popular science in the best sense of that term: accessible, engaging and fascinating. Sagan’s wasn’t at all interested in being cool or flashy or anything else — he was interested in telling the world about the cosmos, and sharing the wonders of the universe.
This, of course, only serves to make him all the more appealing. Watching Cosmos today feels like a throwback to a more innocent, optimistic age — it was made only a decade after we put men on the moon, when the idea of space exploration still sounded like a romantic narrative for the future of mankind, before Challenger and Star Wars and endless budget arguments put paid to what must have felt like an inexorable march toward the stars. So much of that age seems like a faded dream now, in this era where the US government spends more on the endlessly quixotic war on drugs than it does on NASA, when the last man set foot on the moon 40 years ago.
Sitting down with an hour of Cosmos feels like stepping away from that reality. It’s not escapism, exactly — it’s more an embrace of a time when perhaps you didn’t worry about any of that sort of stuff either, when you looked up at the stars and wondered what might be out there. It’s aged well because it’s essentially timeless, and hopefully it’ll endure for many more years. Billions and billions, even. Who knows?