EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: “Hiding in the Light” (Episode 5)

Kevin Long
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Here’s the thing: While the new Cosmos is certainly not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, and while it’s been getting good reviews from the media at large, I’m not sure I buy it. The people I’ve spoken to in my daily capacity as a blogger and crazy person – some I know, and a whole lot more I don’t – all seem to feel disappointed by it. It’s not that it’s a bad show, it’s just that it’s not living up to its namesake. On any point you care to compare, music, writing, hosting duties, even as simple nostalgia, it suffers when put up against the same points in the original. So it’s not terrible, but it’s just kinda’, y’know, anticlimactic.

 

Wanna’ know what it’s like? It’s like the late-80s revival of “Mission: Impossible.” Everyone always loved M:I, people regularly beefed that there weren’t any modern shows as good as M:I, M:I was regarded as a great old show long overdue for a revival. So they revived it with several characters from the old show reprising their parts, and a whole bunch of new characters, annnnnnnnd nobody watched it. Because no matter how good your memories or how genuine your love, the fact is that shows are products of their time, and you can never really go back again. Attempts to do so are…well…”I feel like I should like it, but I kind of don’t,” even if there’s nothing wrong with it. That seems to be the consensus.

 

(I’ve also noticed a number of people criticizing the show for taking time out to subtly attack religion. What’s interesting about this is that most of the people complaining about it ARE NOT RELIGIOUS. Their opinion seems to be, “Why are we even bringing this up?” or “This is supposed to be about science, not social agendas.” Make of that what you will)

 

The ratings are not bad by any stretch, but there’s some strong erosion. From nearly six million viewers for the not-very-good premier, we’ve dwindled to just under four million last week.

 

I don’t think tonight’s episode is going to do anything to break that declining trend. It was the first episode of the new show that my wife had sat through with me, and her first comment (Made during the second commercial break) was, “It’s kinda’ bland, isn’t it?” I agreed. Not only bland, but the information it was trying to convey was rather hard to hold on to as well.

 

Essentially, this was the first episode to lack a strong narrative, a person-based story with a beginning, middle, and end. Last week I criticized the show for its wildly biased portrayal of Newton, Halley, and company, all bent around the idea that Haley was a saint of science, and everyone else was to a greater or lesser degree a chump or perhaps an anti-scientific sinner. Now, as propagandistic as that was (You’re calling Isaac Newton a chump? Really?) it at least gives you something to sink your teeth into. It gives you a framework that people can follow. If you’re talking about arcane rules of optics, as we were tonight, then that’s hard for people to really follow. On the other hand, if you’re telling the life story of a guy who learns some new fact of Optics, that gives us a framework or lattice to hang our new information on. It becomes personal.

 

While they eventually did introduce a character in this capacity, it was late in the episode and apart from the guy being a genius who had a crappy childhood, an amazingly lucky adolescence* and died young, we don’t really know anything about him personally.

 

My point being that it’s remarkably impersonal. Couple this with the consistently terrible animation and this episode’s unwise decision to have Neil DeGrasse-Tyson pretend to be interacting with the cartoon characters (“No, Isaac! Don’t put down that magnifying glass!”) and it just ends up feeling goofy rather than educational or even interesting. When the house collapses on the kid, my wife and I burst into laughter. Honestly, “Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends” had more realistic sound and motion than this show.

 

The storyline, such as it is, tells us about the (Repeated) discovery and loss of the Camera Obscura, the development of the telescope and lens, Newton’s discovery of the spectrum, Herschel’s accidental discovery of infra-red, leading up to fraunhoffer and his discovery of the spectrograph, the merger of physics and astronomy, and the birth of the science of astrophysics itself.

 

Of this, the only part that was terribly interesting was the discovery of infra-red, and this was hampered by yet another goofy pretend-interaction (“What’s that sound again?”) The rest was stuff covered in any basic high school science textbook, with some tacked-on broad history discussing how the emperor Chi’in burned all the science books (Boo!) and how the Islamic Empire had a golden age of science (Yay!) of which things like Arabic numerals (Actually Indian), the concept of ‘zero’, and the names of some of the more noteworthy stars are examples. All this is true, but it’s also all trivial. Factoids. Commonly known ones, too.

 

Then, in the last five minutes we have a detailed explanation of how spectrographs work which blasts through photons, changing energy states of electrons, and a half dozen difficult concepts so fast that it was actually difficult to follow EVEN IF YOU KNOW WHAT TYSON WAS TALKING ABOUT! (Which I do)

 

And that’s about it, kids. I don’t have much more to say. There wasn’t all that much here until the very end, and what there was wasn’t the kind of thing that sticks to the bone. And that’s the problem with the new Cosmos, I think: It’s not TV that makes you smarter, nor is it TV that makes people THINK they’re getting smarter, it’s just TV that bores you.

 

Five notes:

 

1)      Obligatory anti-Faith comment was a recitation from a Chinese philosophers’ “Treatise against all faith” (Or something like that. I’d never heard of it before)

 

2)      Is it just me or did Tyson do something to his hair between the last episode and this one. It’s distracting. It shouldn’t be, but there’s so little else going on here that it’s hard not to notice.

 

3)      The globetrotting host segments are pretty much entirely gratuitous. We see Tyson in the UK, Germany, New York, Hong Kong and Egypt, each for just a few moments acting as segues. Assuming they really flew him all over the world for this…why? It’s not adding anything.

 

4)      The “Ship of the Imagination” is seeming rather gratuitous as well, and tonight they clearly didn’t know what to do with it. I think this is an expository device that worked really well back in ’80 that we simply don’t need now because we’ve had much more exposure to these things. And we’re more well versed in the jumpcut. Back then people needed more of a transition to set things up. “We are on our way to the planet Venus” as opposed to “Here we are on the planet Venus.”

 

5)      The “Billion” joke made me cringe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*- A house collapsed on him, and he was personally rescued by a king who had nothing better to do at the time.

 

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Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who has written three full-length anthologies, and has a fourth one coming out any week now. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here and his Smashwords page here. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his books are here, here, and here. Check out his site, and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support!

 

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