The Watergate scandal was embroiling the Richard Nixon administration, consumers groaned under the burden of high gasoline prices from an OPEC embargo, the Vietnam War was rapidly reaching its conclusion, and the first environmentally themed world’s fair was being held in Spokane Washington when a pretty college dropout and aspiring writer named Ann Druyan was improbably invited to a Nora Ephron party in New York. Ephron’s party was to be attended by prominent novelists, journalists, actors, and academics–a sort of menagerie of intelligentsia and literati. How the undistinguished and anonymous 25-year-old wrangled her way into Ephron’s party will likely never be known (Ephron died in 2012), but it was probably a social connection to writer Pearl Druyan, Ann’s mother. Regardless, it was at that party in 1974 that Druyan bumped into astrophysicist Carl Sagan.
Sagan was infatuated with the young woman immediately, and after the initial meeting found ways to spend time with Druyan. Sagan, a newly minted full professor at Cornell University, had been a consultant at NASA for years and it was in this capacity that found him in charge of some scientific aspects of the Voyager space probe program. Sagan brought on Druyan as “creative director” in the effort behind designing the durable message from humanity that was to be affixed to the soon to be interstellar-bound craft. Druyan had no formal background in music or the arts (other than writing), no academic degree or other credential, and no body of reference work. The only real upside to using Druyan was that she would cost NASA virtually nothing–an important consideration for an aspect of the program budgeted for only $18,000. Besides, Sagan could pick whomever he wanted to work with, and it was Druyan he wanted. This single act of favoritism was to turn into a lifelong collaboration. He and Druyan married in 1981, and they were still married when he died from complications arising from cancer in 1996.
While her accidental involvement in the Voyager time capsules would have cemented her place in popular history, it was her second collaboration with Sagan that made her famous. That collaboration was the documentary series Cosmos, produced in 1977 by Sagan, Druyan, and astrophysicist Steven Sotor. The thirteen part series was a masterwork, ebulliently hosted by Sagan himself, melding history, modern science, philosophy, astronomy, physics, and a touch of science fiction into a wonderful sampling of the world of terrestrial and extra-terrestrial science. The first episode, The Shore of the Cosmic Ocean, is probably the finest documentary production ever made on the subject. Not just relying on high production values to carry the series, Sagan went one step farther–he made science fascinating, creating an emotional connection to the viewers. The effect was breathtaking.
Sagan, adept at navigating the politics in both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, was essentially apolitical. It was consistent with his beliefs in the pettiness of most terrestrial politics–their very insignificance in the face of the vastness of time and space. He was an ardent opponent of nuclear weapons (and war in general)–alarmed at the prospect of the human race wiping itself out before it had made its presence known in the reaches of the cosmos. He held a similar stance with regard to the environment–expressing dismay at industrial practices that affected the natural balance of the Earth’s ecology. But he was no rabid tree-hugger.
Druyan’s politics were more strident. An open admirer of Marx for his views on social inequalities and the unpleasant aspects of capitalism, Druyan, like much of her generation, was also a bleeding heart environmentalist and libertarian activist. Sagan, while he was still alive, was able to channel Druyan’s talents, such as they were, towards promoting his more scientific (rather than political) interests. That guidance came to an end with Sagan’s death, so when Druyan produced a re-mastered version of Cosmos, she could not resist the temptation to insert some politically-motivated monologues and additional footage expanding the environmentalist message of certain episodes.
The tinkering of Cosmos’ original legacy may have ended right there. But ten years after re-releasing Cosmos, Druyan searched for a way to create an all new series. She wanted creative control of anything new, so that eliminated most traditional sources of production funding. And keeping legal rights to the new series was equally paramount, particularly given her painful experience in trying to obtain the necessary permissions for producing the re-mastered original series. Fortunately she finally found a willing participant in her dream–Seth MacFarlane.
MacFarlane had made his fortune creating and producing animated and comedic television series. He knew how Hollywood worked, and he became a critical player in Druyan’s plan to update Carl’s original narrative. And most importantly, MacFarlane held the same libertarian views as Druyan (both are ardent marijuana legalization proponents, for example), and the young filmmaker and producer, while not publically revealing any profound admiration for Marx, was a left-progressive activist in the Obama and Sanders political vein. It was also MacFarlane’s connections and finance savvy that was going to make a new Cosmos series possible, as Druyan’s Cosmos Studios never made enough money from the original series re-release to fund a new series.
The new Druyan-MacFarlane collaboration, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, was released to much fanfare on many of 20th Century Fox’s many networks. By most measures it was an instant hit, drawing well in terms of audience and ratings, and was nominated for twelve different Emmy categories, winning four of them. It also won a Peabody Award in the education category.
On the downside the series took heavy handed potshots at Christian fundamentalists and the Catholic Church, pumped air into the mythos of a Muslim scientific awakening that ostensibly was responsible for holding at bay the ignorance and superstitions of the Middle Ages, and spent some time railing against the conquistadors that reduced cultural diversity by destroying two vibrant American empires. None of these narratives improved the new series in any way, and the distortions inherent behind the viewpoints driving them (woven between some threads of historical accuracy) arguably set back the scientific underpinnings of the story.
Still, fans of the original series could probably live with these clumsy manipulations if it were not for the biggest annoyance of all–the strident environmentalist message. Viewers were treated to two whole episodes (out of thirteen) dedicated to corporation bashing, environmental messaging, and global warming. Cloaked in a veneer of scientific governance, the two stories interrupt an overarching ebullient scientific tone of discovery in favor of political navel gazing.
So does Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey measure up to Sagan’s original creation? In a word, no. It does have rich visualizations and a number of new compelling stories. The new host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is an excellent stand-in for Sagan. But the new orchestration does not come even close in matching Vangelis’ original haunting score. The new selection of noted historical scientific figures does not match Sagan’s original insightful choices. The special effects are largely wasted in terms of driving interest and the story. And the ham-fisted political narrative spoils what should be an enjoyable journey of scientific exploration for open minded audiences of all persuasions.
I give Druyan an A for effort and a C for delivery. Call it three stars out of a possible five. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, could have been so, so much more. Did I still watch it? Yes, every minute of it.