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“We are made of star-stuff,” Carl Sagan tells us, hinting at the fascinating discoveries in store for viewers who accompany him on his journey in Cosmos. This documentary series is an exploration of the universe around us, from our planet to our solar system and beyond, and from the deepest past to the farthest future, guided by a man who is not just a renowned scientist but also a gifted teacher.

Documentary
Many documentaries try to make learning “seem like fun”; Cosmos is light-years ahead of them because Sagan understands that science doesn’t have to be “made” interesting or fun... when presented properly, it’s inherently interesting. In Cosmos, Sagan introduces us to intriguing facts, exciting concepts, and interesting historical figures; he asks why, and how, things happened as they did; he shows how different things relate to one another; and he’s always ready to look at the “big picture” and ask “what does it all mean?” In the process, he communicates not just facts, but powerful ideas; not just understanding of the universe, but a sense of wonder and excitement.

The Cosmos DVD set includes all thirteen hour-long episodes, which first aired on television in 1980. The voyage begins with “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” which provides a glimpse of all of the ideas that the series will cover. The next episode, “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue,” looks at how life developed on Earth, including fascinating concepts like “the cosmic calendar,” a visual and deeply understandable way of showing how long humankind has existed as a thinking species compared to the total lifespan of the Earth. Other episodes take us out to the solar system, where “Blues for a Red Planet” explores Mars, and the possibility of life on Mars. “The Lives of the Stars” takes us still further, to show how stars are born, live, and die. Other fascinating explorations include “Travels in Space and Time,” one of my favorite episodes, which presents the concept of relativity in a memorable way, and “Encyclopedia Galactica,” in which Sagan discusses the possibilities of intelligent alien life. The final episode, “Who Speaks for Earth?”, is weaker in terms of scientific content, as it focuses mainly on political and social issues related to humanity as a technological species; however, Sagan’s message of peace and cooperation is undeniably both timely and necessary.

At the core of Cosmos is the fact that each individual experiences the cosmos in a unique way. In subtitling the program “A Personal Voyage,” Sagan lets us know that he will be taking us on a tour of the wonders of the cosmos influenced by his own personality and point of view. That’s much of what makes Cosmos wonderful: it’s not dry science made up of factoids to memorize, it’s living science, from the point of view of a practicing scientist who loves his work. And it conveys the important concept that using science to study the world, far from diminishing the wonders around us, enriches us immensely by allowing us to understand and fully appreciate the cosmos, and the fact that we are a part of it.

The series is not structured in a traditionally linear way, with a single subject presented in each self-contained episode. Instead, the series as a whole explores the larger concept of the cosmos. In any given episode, Sagan will present many ideas, some of which he will explore in detail, while others he will touch on briefly and return to in a later episode. This structure makes the series as a whole much more effective, since revisiting important ideas in different ways and different contexts makes it easier to fully grasp them.

Cosmos is a fantastic viewing experience for both adults and children... how often can you say that of a program? Sagan takes his audience seriously, and explains concepts clearly but without watering down the material for younger viewers. The result is a program that presents fascinating material for adults, while at the same time introduces kids to exciting new ideas which they will understand more fully each time they watch the series. One of the ways that Cosmos is appealing to all ages is through its excellent production values combined with Sagan’s boundless imagination. The episodes take the viewer around the world (and out into space!) to provide visually interesting and relevant backgrounds for each topic. Sagan also uses models and concrete examples to illustrate key concepts, and frequent historical dramatizations bring to life important moments in the history of science and discovery.

Cosmos is presented in a region 0 DVD set, which means that it’s playable in all regions, as long as you have a NTSC-compatible player and TV. The seven discs containing all thirteen episodes are neatly packaged in a handsome slipcase which is only slightly wider than the typical double-disc DVD movie case.

Video
I put the video quality of the Cosmos DVDs to a tough test: watching them on a 53-inch widescreen TV. Considering that it’s a transfer of a twenty-year-old television program, the video quality is good. Admittedly, the image isn’t particularly sharp, and a few scenes, especially dark ones, are a bit muddy or fuzzy. In general, however, the image is nice and clear, and colors are bright and vivid, thanks to a digital remastering and restoration job.

The episodes are presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.

Audio
The audio track for Cosmos has been remastered in Dolby 5.1 for the DVD set, resulting in sound that’s always clear and sharp. The music is kept in a good balance with Sagan’s voiceover.

Extras
The main special feature of the Cosmos set is the inclusion of science updates: short video segments that play after the end of the relevant episode, discussing new developments in the topics discussed in that episode. The DVD includes both the “ten years later” updates that were produced for a rebroadcast of the series in the 1990s, and the “twenty years later” updates that were created specifically for the DVD edition. These updates fit perfectly with the theme of the series, showing that science is an ongoing process of discovery and re-evaluation of theories. Subtitle science updates are also included.

It’s a testament to the outstanding quality of the original Cosmos series that the basic information and concepts in the episodes stand the passage of twenty years perfectly well. The only topics that need updating are those that were on the “cutting edge” when the series was made, such as the nature of the other planets in the solar system. In this case, for instance, the science updates provide information about recent discoveries of the close-up nature of our nearest planetary neighbors, as well as the exciting new theories made possible by this information.

Overall
I can’t recommend Cosmos too highly. It’s a fantastic exploration of the universe, science, and humanity’s efforts throughout history to understand the cosmos and our place in it. Carl Sagan is the perfect guide on this journey: enthusiastic, joyful, and gifted in his ability to make difficult concepts not only understandable, but fascinating.

The series is amazingly re-watchable; I know that I’ll be revisiting the series many times now that I have it in my collection on DVD. Any family with kids should consider this a “must-buy” for the whole family to enjoy together. Regardless of kids, it’s a great purchase for anyone, young or old, who is curious about the universe that we live in.


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