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Featured TV on DVD Review: Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey

June 19th, 2014

Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Cosmos debuted on TV in 1980 and featured Carl Sagan, who was arguably the most famous science communicator ever. When it was announced that the show was being re-booted as a mini-series, I was super excited, even more so when it was announced Neil deGrasse Tyson was the host, my anticipation grew even more. But did it grow too much? Could the show possibly live up to my expectations?

The Show

Before I get to the individual episodes... The asteroid belt isn't that crowded. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the guy who complained to James Cameron that the stars in Titanic weren't right, so how did he allow the depiction of the asteroid belt be so wrong? ... Moving on.

  1. Standing Up in the Milky Way
    The first episode starts with a nod to the old series with Neil deGrasse Tyson looking at our place in the universe, before discussing Giordano Bruno and the quest to discover the true nature of the universe. At the time it was geocentric and really quite small, but Bruno believed it was truly infinite, sentiment that put him at odds with the Roman Catholic Church. We are also introduced to the Comic Calendar, a concept that is used throughout the series.
  2. Some of the Things That Molecules Do
    Looks at evolution including selective breeding of dogs, the evolution of the eye, the hearty Tardigrade, as well as the possibility of life on other planets.
  3. When Knowledge Conquered Fear
    The episode begins with a discussion of pattern recognition and how we used this pattern recognition to use the constellations as a calendar. But it also made us susceptible to superstitions, like using comets as portents for disaster. The study of comets led to a meeting between Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton, who changed the world.
  4. Hiding in the Light
    The episode discusses how light works and all of the people who helped us uncover the mysteries of light from Mo Tze, an ancient Chinese philosopher, to Isaac Newton, and beyond.
  5. A Sky Full of Ghosts
    Since the stars are so far away, the light from them can take hundreds, thousands, and even millions and billions of years to reach us. Because of this, looking at distant stars is actually like looking in the past. This episode explores this, but also the very nature of light and who discovered it.
  6. Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still
    Instead of exploring other galaxies, this episode looks at the very small, and not just microscopic, but the atomic scale. We also look at the history of our understanding of the atomic structure and some important breakthroughs along the way.
  7. The Clean Room
    This is one of the most important episodes of the series. It discusses Clair Patterson, who was tasked with finding the true age of the Earth. He did this by measuring the amount of lead in zircon crystals; however, it never worked properly, because every sample was contaminated by lead. At first he thought it was just the messy lab, but then discovered there is a dangerous level of lead throughout the environment. This episode is important for two reasons. Firstly, it shows that scientific inquiry can lead to incredibly important discoveries, even if they are not directly linked to the scientific experiments' main goal. Secondly, it discusses the corrupting influence of money in science. If corporations pay for the science, they can control what gets done based on what will hurt their bottom line.
  8. Sisters of the Sun
    This is a frustrating episode, because it deals with serious sexism. The Harvard Computers were a group of women that helped catalog stars during the early 20th century. They made incredible breakthroughs, but because they were women, their work was mostly ignored. Not only did this hurt these women, but it also slowed down scientific research. We also learn about the life cycle of stars in this episode.
  9. The Electric Boy
    This episode focuses on Michael Faraday, who is inarguably one of the most important scientists of all time. We also learn about electromagnetism, which basically runs the modern world.
  10. The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth
    The planet Earth has gone through a lot of changes over the past 4 billion years or so and if you were to travel back in time enough, you wouldn't even recognize the continents. The episode deals with plate tectonics, which is a proven fact now, but destroyed careers when it was first proposed.
  11. The Immortals
    A look at the quest for immortality, of sorts. It's not about some mad scientist's dream, but immortality through writing. Our thoughts can now live after we die. It talks about some of the earliest myths written down, like Gilgamesh and one that is surprisingly like the The Great Flood from the Bible. The episode also deals with how life on Earth might have come from other planets and how we are looking for life in other star systems.
  12. The World Set Free
    This episode is dedicated to Climate Change and includes some ways we could mitigate any changes. One of the best episodes, both in terms of quality and in terms of importance.
  13. Unafraid of the Dark
    A look at our quest for knowledge and how we must protect knowledge. It also looks at the discovery of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Finally, it looks at the two Voyager probes and the message humanity has sent to the stars.
I loved this series and I really hope they do make more episodes. The combination of the CGI and the animated re-enactments helped make the science interesting to explore. And obviously, Neil deGrasse Tyson is an amazing host. On the downside, some of the episodes seemed to bounce around topics in a haphazard way, but that's my only complaint.

The Extras

The only extra on the first disc is an audio commentary track on the first episode. Disc two has a 35-minute long featurette on Carl Sagan. Disc three looks at Cosmos' appearance at ComicCon 2013. It is 40 minutes long, so it is not some insignificant fluff piece. The final disc includes The Voyage Continues, a 41-minute making of for the series. There is also an interactive cosmic calendar. Not every month has a video, while December is very busy.

The technical presentation is excellent, for the most part. The are lots of different formats used in the show from live action to animation to archival footage. Obviously the archival footage doesn't look as crisp as the rest, but beside that there's nothing wrong with the transfer. It isn't reference quality, but it's certainly a step above what we saw on TV originally. The audio is better than expected. It is an educational show, so the audio isn't as important as it would be with an action film, for instance. That said, they use the surround sound speakers to an impressive effect.

The Blu-ray costs $37, which is $5 or 16% more than the DVD. This is an excellent deal for a TV on DVD release.

The Verdict

I already named Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey the Pick of the Week and it deserves it. Both the DVD and the Blu-ray are worth owning, but the latter is the better deal.

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Filed under: Video Review, James Cameron, Carl Sagan