Will a nation attuned to the heavenly bodies of "Charlies's Angels" settle instead for the sun, moon and stars? Will the good people of Spaceship Earth find room on their home video display terminals for something about the universe that wasn't produced by Universal Studios?
Carl Sagan -- astronomer, professor, NASA consultant, author, lecturer and the Barry Manilow of science -- hopes and thinks they will and that tonight and for the next 12 Sundays they will tune in "Cosmos," his new TV series that is one of the super-major undertakings in public television history.
"I'd be content for it just to be popular, but I'd love for it to be very, very popular," says Sagan, 45, both tweedy and boyish behind slightly askew on his nose. "I would like to, in the vernacular of the '60s, blow people's minds. I'd like people to get very excited about it."
It could be the biggest home-grown public TV hit (though produced in conjunction with the BBC) ever. Or it could make more of a big whimper than a big bang.
Coming in with a price tag of around $8 million -- $250,000 over budget -- and with another $1.25 million tagged for advertising and promotion, "Cosmos" is costly and risky. It attempts to make Deep Science and Deep Space both understandable and diverting -- and for an audience that has seen the wowsers and loop-dee-loops of "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" and thus may be tough to impress.
But Sagan thinks the timing of "Cosmos" is perfect, that "science and technology permeates our lives" and that people are more eager than ever to explore the whole wide world and the tiny little place that the human race occupies in it. And the program itself is spectacular and inventive: visually, a fabulous expedition; and intellually, at least to novices in the sciences, an invigorating, stirring challenge.
"With a title like 'Cosmos,' you can talk about almost anything," Sagan says, and so the program has him flinging himself around space and time, beginning with tonights's overview premiere, "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean," at 8 on Channel 26 and other public TV stations. Future programs include such ports of call as 12th-century Japan, to illustrate a point about natural selection (episode two), Mars in episode six) for a visit with primitive astronomers Chritiaan Huygens and, in episode seven, to Brooklyn, N.Y., birthplace of Dr. Carl Sagan.
In the final chapter, airing Sunday, Dec. 21, Sagan will look into the future, such as it may be, of this particular planet in "Who Speaks for Earth?" and "Cosmos" special effects will compress the last 15 billion years, from Big Bang to the present, and recap the series. The Selling of Science
"Every culture has had questions of origins, the origin of life, the universe -- every culture has myths about that," Sagan says. "Today we are fortunate enough to be living at the time in history when we have a real chance of understanding the answers to many of those questions. And so it's a perfect moment to discuss science because it resonates with people's deeply felt needs to understand their own origins.
"Right now there's the sudden discovery to the astonishment of a great many people that there's an unsatisfied hunger for science -- this amazing spate of popular science magazines coming out now, which clearly has not yet saturated the market. There's a hugh untapped audience out there."
Talk of unsaturated markets and untapped audiences suggests that perhaps Sagan is as much a showman as a scientist -- that he's the one to most successfully market the new curiosity, as he has done in books like his 1977 smasheroo, "The Dragons of Eden." To make "Cosmos" (auteuristically subtitled "A Personal Voyage") Sagan and a business partner formed Carl Sagan Productions Inc.
Personal Voyage or Ego Trip? Sagan does get to ham it up a lot in the show. His tours amongst the galaxies aboard the "Ship of the Imagination" -- a huge set at KCET in Los Angeles -- are awe-inspiring; the room looks like a hangar but it has two big chroma-key windows (one on the far wall, one on the floor) that open out only gassy passing galaxies and Technicolorry planets and all manner of celestial gooble-gobble.
The music goes whoo-ooo-ooo-ooo . . .
But then, splat, director Adrian Malone will cut suddenly to the beaming face of Carl Sagan, seated at central control or whatever it is in the middle of the room. Presumably this is supposed to humanize the vistas, but in effect it serves as a reminder that not all the stars are in the heavens. Sagan's on-camera delivery is often marred by so many demonstrative hand gestures that one may think Mitch Miller has returned sans goatee to lead another sing-along: Think Along with Carl.
As a performer, Sagan has his limitations, but these may actually help authenticate what he says. If he were much slicker, he's come across as as actor rather than a thinker. But in "Cosmos," he has problems giving heartfelt conviction to such ingenuous exclamations as, "How lovely trees are!"
But the content, which isn't supposed to matter in television, and the picutures, which are, make "Cosmos" frequently enthralling, sometimes astonishing -- as when, in episode two, Sagan and animators compress the 4-billion-year evolution of us human beings into 40 seconds. Or when Sagan wanders around a bas-relief calender in which the history of the cosmos is represented as a single cosmic year, each month equivalent to 1 billion of our human years. Jan. 1 is the Big Bang that reportedly began it all. Where you and I are now, Maggie, is in the closing moments of Dec. 31. Tick, tick, tick . . .
"The dinosaurs appeared on Christmas Eve," Sagan explains on the program, and then he gets to a teensy-weensy white burple in the lower right hand corner of December. That's all the temporal space that the miserable old human race takes up in this grand scheme of things. "The written record of human history occupies only the last 10 seconds of the cosmic year," he says.
How very very impressive. How very very depressing.
"That we came along late doesn't mean that we don't have meaning," Sagan says consolingly to a TV critic feeling even more inconsequential than ever. s"But the meaning is what we make it. It's up to us to give meaning to our lives individually and as a species. The dinosaurs were around for 180 million years, they had every reason to think they were the be-all and end-all of existence, but there aren't any more dinosaurs."
In a sense, "Cosmos" is not just science, but practical philosophy, a lesson in self-preservation, isn't it, Doc? Aren't you saying that this is such a wonderful old world, it would be grossly impolite for the human race to pollute it into a coma or blow it to kingdom come?
"Exactly!" says Sagan with an excelsior gleam. "Exactly right. And in episode four I talk about Venus, which is a place very much like hell and yet it's the nearest planet, it has the same mass and radius as the Earth. Well I use it as a cautionary tale, not that there were creatures on Venus who messed up the environment, but that a place like the Earth can be messed up. Nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit is what the surface temperature is. And we talk about human misuse of the Earth in that episode. There is a kind of social concern that goes through many of the episodes."
Yes. In episode one he says, gravely, "This is a time of great danger." Gross Encounters
Has Sagan just become the token scientist in the beautiful people galaxy celebrated in airhead journalism? On one hand, he is on the cover of Saturday Review ("Ugh! Unshaved," he complains). On the other hand, he plans to turn down a request for a full-scale invasion of his private life by People magazine. On yet another hand, he materializes from time to time as a kind of Mr. Wizard on amateur astronomer Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." But this is just a matter of missionary work to him, of increasing the public's interest in, and willingness to see the government spend lots of money on, scientific endeavors.
"As for the Carson show," he says, "my main objective is to have Carson talk about science. It's no big surprise to middle America that here's a scientist who thinks science is nice. But if here's Johnny Carson and he thinks science is nice, that does a lot more good. Sometimes people say they wish Carson would let me talk more, but that's not my feeling about it at all."
Carl Sagan is traipsing around with the lamp of knowledge and trying to get people to pay attention. And to pay money, too. There will be a companion "Cosmos" book to the "Cosmos" television show. It's "richer conceptually than the TV thing," he says. On the basis of sales to foreign television networks, he expects the worldwide viewership for "Cosmos" to total 150 million souls.
And yet if he were really just a money-mad promoter, Sagan would have sold out big and pitched a version of the show to the commercial networks. He says he didn't and wouldn't, that they aren't interested in anything serious about science or life.
"The general perception, especially of the networks -- that people are dumb -- is a self-confirming prediction," he says. "You put on dumb programs and people watch them because they want to watch something and then their response to it is dumb and that response demonstrates the acuity of the executives to put on dumb programs in the first place. It's a vicious circle and nobody ever breaks out of it."
Thus he hopes "Cosmos" will be such a success that "it will demonstrate that people are a lot smarter than they're given credit for -- especially by the networks -- and that the networks will feel it to be in their best interest to do more serious science programming. That would certainly make me very happy."
Sagan doesn't cotton to the word "entertainment" as applied to his program, saying he prefers something like "exhilaration," though he won't get very far with that. But in fact a dazzling, eye-tickling array of special visual effects has been employed to keep viewers interessted and keep them listening to Sagan's sometimes complicated explanations of things. "In many cases we were at the very frontier of technology, state-of-the-art," Sagan says.
Easily as impressive as the big Ship of the Imagination set and Sagan's barnstorming of the Milky Way and other galaxies is an overlong sequence in episode one in which he tours the Library of Alexandria, long since burned to a cinder but recreated in miniature on a tabletop. Sagan is teleported into its rooms and hallways through the use of something called Magicam, a sublime illusion that also enables him to saunter all over the cosmic calendar and, later in the series, will take him on a tour of the human brain.
To achieve the effect, Sagan spent about two weeks walking around an allblue soundstage so that the blue could later be dropped out and the library and the other backgrounds dropped in. "I got a very funny sense of being disembodied, you know? I'm on a blue stage in which there is nothing to orient me. I have to walk purposefully by this thing that isn't there, look at this statue, and so on. I had to memorize where everything was.
"Then there are little blue footprints you follow on this featureless blue stage. Or poker chips. Sometimes I would follow little poker chips. It's a very errie thing to spend two weeks following little poker chips." Every Second Tuesday
Sagan raves glowingly of his underwriters (Atlantic Richfield gave $3.5 million for production, and financed the promotion; the BBC and other foundations put up the rest) for never meddling with the content of the show. Occasionally visiting executives would visit the Good Ship Imagination or Sagan would have to go out and "talk to a bunch of people about why 'Cosmos' was nice, to get a little more money," but although "you'd think they might be tempted to fiddle, there was not one hint of it."
In some respects the content might be considered controversial. When you poke around the cosmos, you touch on articles of faith as well as fact.
"I've tried to distinguish fact from speculation," Sagan says, "but there are some statements, for example concerning extraterrestrial intelligence, which some people will think too optimistic, some too pessimistic. Although I put down fairly strongly the UFO business, you know there are people who think we are being visited every second Tuesday. I came out strongly in favor of evolution, and I know that some people don't like it. I talk about why astrology is without any support in terms of, you know, scientific evidence, and every newspaper in the country, with the exception of one or two, has an astrology column.
"So on that level I suppose you could say it's controversial, but I don't think it's controversial in the broad sweep of scientific ideas."
Sagan is asked the question inevitably and perhaps tediously asked of scientists: Whether all this alleged knowledge they come up with can be made consistent with the idea of the existence of, well, God.
"It depends what you mean by 'God,'" he says patiently, as if to a class of rank beginners at hail-to-thee-Cornell. "That single three-letter work encompasses many different ideas, from an outsized male with a long white beard who sits on a throne in the sky and follows the fall of every sparrow to Spinoza's idea of God as the sum total of all of the physical laws of the universe. It would certainly be mad to deny that there are physical laws in the universe. If you want to call that 'God,' I can't imagine anybody disputing it. Evidence for the outsized male with the beard and the throne is weak, in my view."
Some people may think "Cosmos" a disaster -- too creamy-dreamy, too much syrupy Saganism, too much homogenization of the once-elitist world of science. sBut "Cosmos" steps back for a closer look and does it as accessibly as possible without turning to mush before one's eyes. At times, it is thrilling, as when Sagan pricks his finger in the second episode and thus begins a journey deep, deep, deep into the tiniest element of life, the DNA molecule, and this only a little while after a journey far into the proverbial outermost reaches of great space itself, fulfilling Sagan's promise to take uus into "atoms massive as suns and universes smaller than atoms."
Jeepers. Golly. Wow. Gosh. Hokeysmokey, Bullwinkle!
"The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be," Sagan says in his opening narration.
Can television handle a subject that big? Yes it can. Yes it can.