9 June 2014

A maker of the first COSMOS reflects on its successor

Posted by mcadams

Haines-Stiles and Sagan

Geoph Haines-Stiles, a Senior Producer and Director of the original COSMOS series, stands with Carl Sagan in Death Valley while shooting an episode about Mars for the original COSMOS series. Photo courtesy of Geoph Haines-Stiles.

As the final episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s series airs tonight on the National Geographic Channel, a Senior Producer and Director of the original COSMOS series, Geoff Haines-Stiles, shares his thoughts and reactions about the remake and how it compares to the original. Haines-Stiles also shares a film tribute he edited for the 1987 memorial service for Carl Sagan, creator and star of the original COSMOS.

By Geoff Haines-Stiles

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote the poet William Wordsworth about his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution, “but to be young was very heaven.” And that’s how it felt for the youthful band of 20- and 30-somethings who worked with Carl Sagan and Executive Producer Adrian Malone to create the classic 1980 PBS series, COSMOS.

I was one of them, so how could I not be fascinated by COSMOS 2.0? It’s been more than a little surreal to have decades-old memories triggered by what’s similar, and thoughts stirred by what’s so different.

Working on the original COSMOS (C1) changed my life, with Sagan showing how and why science is as human (yes, he said it “you-man” not “h-uman,” rolling the word around in his distinctive pronunciation) as literature and history. Inspired by the experience and encouraged by audience responses—I’ve worked on fact-based science documentaries for the past 35 years.

There are myriad moments of TV magic in the new COSMOS, including Neil Tyson trusting his nose to the laws of motion, allowing a pendulum to fall away and knowing it won’t swing back higher and harder to smack him in the face.

In watching the current COSMOS (C2), I’ve drooled in envy at the Star Trek quality special effects for the new “Spaceship of the Imagination.” But the presence of slow-motion and CGI (computer graphics) dandelions throughout C2 honors a key visual theme of the original series.

Haines-Stiles and helicopter

Haines-Stiles atop the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zeland during filming for “Earth: The Operators’ Manual” … a journey in science TV that started because of his work on COSMOS. Photo courtesy of Geoph Haines-Stiles.

C2, with its emphasis on the contributions of female astronomers, such as Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, appropriately adds to the male heroes—Eratosthenes, Kepler, Leonardo, Einstein—we profiled in C1, no doubt thanks to C2’s Executive Producer and co-writer, Ann Druyan, who was Sagan’s wife.

Last weekend, I watched with particular interest “The World Set Free,” C2’s episode about climate change, an issue which is the subject of one of my own recent projects, a PBS 3-parter on climate science and clean energy solutions called “Earth: The Operators’ Manual” with Pennsylvania State University professor Richard Alley.

I find it both touching and significant that this C2 episode includes clips from the original series, such as Carl walking across a charred California hillside, warning—in 1980—that we humans need to get a grip on our carbon emissions or risk turning the “heaven” of the Earth we inherited into the “hell” of Venus. Would we had listened to him then, and Jim Hansen in 1988, and Clair Patterson, a scientist profiled in C2 who both confirmed the antiquity of our planet and used solid research to document environmental lead pollution!

The way C2 conjures the white cliffs of Dover higher and higher to visualize how much carbon we’re emitting, how looking down from the Ship of the Imagination on a volcanic eruption dramatically emphasizes that volcanoes emit but a very small fraction of carbon dioxide compared to our coal plants and cars, and that the producers made carbon dioxide electronic purple, rendering the invisible visible, are all great for TV audiences, and future uses in classrooms.

What do I miss in the C2 series? C1, for example, had documentary scenes of contemporary scientists and engineers during a Voyager encounter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, emphasizing that the journey of discovery continues through the efforts of today’s researchers. C2 seems to have focused more on the history of science with less contemporary documentary scenes.

That led to the “miss” (everyone’s a producer) of spending too much time on philosopher Giordano Bruno’s speculations in program 1. And the extended treatment of Clair Patterson and his fight against the evil captains of the lead industry seems a little preachy and over-long.

C1 had some 16 million viewers for the premiere (I recall) and a Nielsen rating of 10, still making it PBS’s highest rated science series. C2 on Fox initially had lower numbers, but rolled out globally in 180 countries, an amazing success, and it appeared on multiple channels here in the USA.

Long ago, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s diarist, James Boswell, wrote in his biography of the English author that when he told Johnson he’d been at a Quaker meeting where he heard a woman preach Dr. Johnson responded (in what, to our ears, is unfortunately sexist): “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” That’s rather how I feel when a full-throated—and very well done—assertion of the reality of evolution through natural selection, the many billion-year history of the Universe and planet Earth, and the reality of human-caused climate change, appears on a network whose news anchors win audiences by questioning all those facts.

That’s a magnificent achievement in itself. And reading Reddit, I came across a comment that wondered what boy, or girl, watching C2 will in a few decades grow up to be the host of COSMOS 3.0? Like science itself, Carl created what may become a multi-generational science communications trek.

As the 13th episode of C2 rolls out on the National Geographic Channel and other screens, I think we can be sure that Tyson, Druyan, co-writer Steven Soter and the new team won’t leave us thinking it’s too late to build a better future. Applying science, we can be smarter than the dinosaurs who didn’t know what hit them.

What lives on from C1 is the unique voice (in both meanings) of Carl Sagan. C2 stands on the shoulders of C1, and it deserves all the viewers and viewings it can possibly get on TV and online.

The new COSMOS is a different series for a very different time, but the central philosophy is the same: “We are Star-stuff.”

“We are a Way for the Universe to Know Itself.”

“We Speak for Earth.”

Watch… listen… marvel… pass it on.

Carl Sagan, The Planetary Society tribute, excerpts from COSMOS (1980) from Geoff Haines-Stiles on Vimeo.

Haines-Stiles created this 7-minute film tribute to Carl Sagan for a 1987 memorial service. The video is ©2014 COSMOS Studios.

— Filmmaker Geoff Haines-Stiles worked with Carl Sagan as a Senior Producer and director of the original COSMOS series in the late 1970s. He is a current AGU member and co-winner of the 2013 AGU Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism.