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Cosmos: Collector's Edition

Cosmos Studios

Written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter

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Review by J. Jordan Burke                    

When it comes to the sort of things everybody would like to have on DVD, there's an obvious shortlist of classic films — stuff yet to be released like The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and Lawrence of Arabia, and great movies already on disc, like Casablanca, His Girl Friday, and A Streetcar Named Desire. But as the DVD format has left its infancy, it also has become an ideal repository for television shows — series and miniseries alike. We already have box-sets of the enormously popular The X-Files and The Sopranos, numerous classic shows like The Twilight Zone and The Avengers, and even boxes for Ken Burns miniseries like Baseball and Jazz. So as we now journey into the 21st century, it's wholly appropriate that the best thing to ever happen on television is now on DVD — Carl Sagan's Cosmos. At 13 hours long, it's mighty big. Covering all aspects of the natural world, from evolution to extraterrestrial life, it has never been equaled. And Sagan was one of the foremost scientific geniuses of the 20th century, a fact often belied by his desire to present the mysteries and joys of scientific exploration to the masses.

Born in New York City in 1934, Carl Sagan was a pioneering scientist who participated in virtually every NASA interplanetary expedition during his lifetime. A professor at Cornell University, he determined that Venus was a greenhouse-hell of heat while Mars was essentially a cold, barren desert. He was instrumental in placing a "message plaque" on the explorer Pioneer 10 in 1971, which illustrated the location and appearance of its human creators (an idea that evolved into the plaques and phonographs that were included on Voyagers 1 and 2). And he predicted that Titan, a moon of Saturn, contained the building blocks of life before the two Voyager spacecraft confirmed it in the 1980s.

saganAnd yet, despite all of his scientific innovations and discoveries, Sagan will always be remembered foremost as a great communicator, a man who was not content with merely delving into the mysteries of the universe, but who felt the need to reach out to the public and convey his unbounded enthusiasm for science, and also talk about his hopes and fears for our civilization. Starting with a series of books written for the average reader (the first being The Cosmic Connection in 1973), Sagan proved himself a master of parable and metaphor, illustrating complex scientific theories and arguments in everyday vernacular. More books followed, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dragons of Eden and the fictional Contact, which chronicled one of Sagan's pet projects, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, or SETI. Like most tenured academics, Sagan's efforts often focused upon gaining government funding for expensive scientific programs, but his desire to live outside of the Ivory Tower, to make a connection with the person on the street, was undeniable, and unmatched by any scientist in history. Public appearances, books, and television were the tools of his cause. The crowning achievement was Cosmos.

First appearing on PBS over the course of two weeks in 1981, Cosmos was a television event only surpassed by Ken Burns' The Civil War some years later. It has been estimated that Cosmos was seen by 50 million people, and it succeeded by Sagan's storytelling instincts. Cosmos is science in bite-sized servings, with each of its 13 episodes addressing a separate element of natural history or scientific discovery. Beginning with "One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue," Sagan explores the laws of natural selection and evolution, while "Harmony of the Worlds" debunks the pseudo-science of astrology and documents the life of pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler. "Heaven and Hell" takes in comets and meteorites, while "Blues for a Red Planet" is a sober examination of Mars in light of human legends. Further episodes, addressing topics ranging from human genetics and extraterrestrial life to the once-controversial Big Bang, bring the series towards its conclusion, and among the most compelling is "Journeys in Space and Time," which deftly explains Albert Einstein's special and general theories of relativity (in one of Sagan's famous metaphors, a boy on a bicycle, riding at light speed, illustrates Einstein's twin paradox). For this writer, Cosmos has become a magnificent documentary to enjoy again and again, and its immense length is a tonic for anybody who's bedridden for a few days with the winter flu.

Cosmos was originally released on home video (both VHS and Laserdisc) by Turner in the 1980s, but it went out of print in the '90s, and full sets were hot items on eBay, trading into the hundreds of dollars. Released in December of 2000, the seven-disc Cosmos: Collector's Edition, released independently by Cosmos Studios, is a fitting tribute to Sagan's work. All of the original materials (both video and film sources) are in remarkably good shape, and the audio for all episodes has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 (something the producers could not have anticipated in 1980 — when Sagan plays a 20 Hertz signal from a tone generator in a sequence on whales, he notes it's too low for television speakers to transmit, but it comes through loud and clear on the .1 track). The remix is wonderfully handled, with Sagan's original narration locked on the center channel and music and spatial effects spread across the soundstage, and those elements are available in a music and effects track, which eliminates Sagan's narration (although only those who have seen all of Cosmos a few times probably will want to investigate this feature).

Also included is an introduction by Sagan's wife and co-writer Ann Druyan, and most episodes are followed by brief "updates" by Sagan, filmed in 1990, while additional scientific updates are available on a special subtitle track. It all comes in a folding seven-DVD digipak with external paperboard slip-case, but note that Cosmos: Collector's Edition is only available for sale via www.carlsagan.com, www.onecosmos.net, and www.amazon.com.

— J. Jordan Burke

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