1980: With 'Cosmos,' Carl Sagan Makes A PBS Blockbuster

Entertainment | September 28, 2020

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan poses before a Florida State University Distinguished Lecture Series speech. The original background of the image has been replaced by a NASA photo of the Cosmos. (Photo by Mickey Adair/ Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images)

With its 13 episodes, the 1980 PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted by Carl Sagan, gave audiences a chance to look into the unknown, to dream of discoveries big and small. The show covered everything from the dawn of life on Earth to the possibilities that we're not alone on some rock in outer space. Moreover, it brought in hundreds of millions of viewers and it won a Peabody Award. This was highly entertaining educational programming for families who didn't have the economic resources of their peers. More than any other educational program, Cosmos inspired young people to follow their scientific dreams.

Carl Sagan did it all

source: popular science

More than an astronomer, cosmologist, and astrophysicist, Carl Sagan was someone who knew how to explain extremely complex concepts to people who didn't have his knowledge base. One of his pet projects was working with SETI, a nonprofit research organization that searches for the existence of extraterrestrial life. As deeply ingrained in the world of concrete Earth science as he was, Sagan fervently believed in life among the stars. Unlike many believers in extraterrestrials Sagan never jumped to conclusions about alien life. Instead, he opted to make up his mind with the use of cold, hard facts.

A bit of a scientific journeyman, Sagan taught at Cornell and Harvard, but he also acted as an advisor to NASA from the infancy of their space program. Because he was so deeply embedded with the Apollo program he was asked to assemble the first physical message to be sent to space in the guise of a gold-plated plaque. He continued to create new designs to send to stars and peaked with the Voyager Golden Record that was sent out in 1977, it contained the sights and sounds of Earth, showing the diversity of life and culture on the planet.

Sagan wanted to work in television so he could reach more people

source: pinterest

While he was teaching and working with NASA, Sagan was also busy writing a series of popular books about science, most notably The Dragons of Eden. This 1977 book offered Sagan's thoughts on evolution and the way in which he believed human intelligence evolved over millions of years. The book also features Sagan's worries about the societal calamities that come with the advancement of technology. Throughout The Dragons of Eden he worries that the people in power will stop trying to make humanity better through technology and that they'll only want to stick to the status quo. He writes:

Much of the difficulty in attempting to restructure American and other societies arises form this resistance by groups with vested interests in the status quo. Significant change might require those who are now high in the hierarchy to move downward many steps. This seems to them undesirable and its resisted.

Sagan won a Pulitzer prize for his work, and the book was a resounding success with audiences both in and outside of the scientific community. Producers at PBS felt that Sagan's non-judgmental and informative writing would be the perfect tone for their new series aimed at general viewers, a group of people whom Sagan felt were uninterested in science only because of the way that the educational system was structured. In the companion book to Cosmos, Sagan explained the importance of his move from print media to television:

I was positive from my own experience that an enormous global interest exists in the exploration of the planets and in many kindred scientific topics — the origin of life, the earth, and the Cosmos, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, our connection with universe. And I was certain that this interest could be excited through that most powerful communications medium, television.

'Cosmos' had a multi-year production journey

source: PBS

Produced in Los Angeles between 1978 and 1979, Cosmos was incredibly expensive for a series on PBS. With a $6.3 million budget for production and an extensive promotional campaign, the series needed to be a hit in order for PBS to prove that the show was a good investment. If no one watched Cosmos it would have been financial disaster for this federally funded broadcasting system. Obviously that's not what happened.

Sagan and his production partners spent three years writing and filming each of the 13 episodes. They traveled to 12 countries and worked with more than 30 artists to create the groundbreaking sets and special effects for the series, many of which rivaled what appeared in the initial version of Star Wars. Filming with KCET, the public broadcasting station in Los Angeles, gave Sagan access to the best cast and crew members in the country and with that group of people he was able to make an outstanding series.

The final piece that was shot for the series was Sagan's "Ship of the Imagination," a Jules Verne-esque contraption shaped like a dandelion seed that takes the host through the solar system. Filmed on Stage B in KCET's Sunset Boulevard studios, the series wasn't just another set of short science docs, it was a groundbreaking series that combined the visuals of science fiction in order to educate viewers on the possibilities that can be achieved with technology and thoughtfulness.

The music of 'Cosmos' is as important as the series

source: PBS

Aside from the sotto voce style information on offer in Cosmos and its super cool effects, one of the things that makes the show so watchable is its score and soundtrack. Created by Vangelis, the Greek new age composer who's most famous for working on the score to Blade Runner, the series has an other worldly quality that fits snuggly around your ears like a surreal, aural blanket. Sagan helped select tracks from Vangelis' discography, but most notably the contribution "Heaven and Hell" serves as the theme song for the series and it's the perfect thing to bring viewers into Sagan's amazing world. In the liner notes, Sagan and producers Ann Druyan and Steve Soter explain why music was so important to the show:

The musical content of Cosmos seemed to create a message of its own - almost as though it were the collective intelligence of the universe pleasantly calling our attention to the lessons at hand... Many hours were spent exploring the music of unfamiliar composers and performers, and considering how old favorites would enhance the thoughtful words and rich visuals of the series. Finding the music for Cosmos was in itself a voyage of discovery. We hope you will share in that experience, enjoy the music of this album and then sample the original works from which these pieces were excerpted. It was always our intention in Cosmos that the images and the music would be as important as the words, and that the series would speak to that part of us in which the heart and mind are one.

With only 13 episodes, the series touched millions of people

source: PBS

Cosmos was the most watched series on PBS throughout the '80s, and was only surpassed by the Civil War documentary in 1990. However, Cosmos has had a long life after 1980. In 1989, Turner Home Entertainment purchased the series and edited the episodes down but had Sagan film new epilogues for episodes where new discoveries had been made, or where contrasting views had arisen since the original broadcast. A VHS box set of the series was released, but it wasn't until 2000 that the series was made available for wide release DVD due to rights issues with the music.

Inspired by Sagan's original series, Uber-nerd Neil deGrasse Tyson and Family Guy scribe Seth McFarlane set out to mimic the feeling of the original series without stepping on its toes. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey aired on Fox in 2014, and in the premiere episode of the series Tyson explained that Sagan's intellect and his compassion inspired him to seek a life in science. He later wrote of Sagan:

If I am ever as remotely famous as this man, then I am duty-bound to treat students who show an interest in the universe with all the respect and dignity he showed me.

Tags: Carl Sagan | Cosmos | PBS

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.