Much of the world got to know Carl Sagan through Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the thirteen-part PBS series on the nature of the universe — and the intensity of Sagan’s own passion to discover that nature. First aired in 1980, it would become the most widely watched series in the history of American public television. But it’s not as if Sagan had been languishing in obscurity before: he’d been publishing popular books since the early 1970s, and 1977’s The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence won him a Pulitzer Prize. When Cosmos made its impact, some viewers may even have remembered its host from a series of similarly themed broadcasts a decade earlier, The Violent Universe.
Produced by the BBC in 1969 and broadcast just three months before the Apollo 11 moon landing, The Violent Universe (viewable above) explains in five parts a range of discoveries made during the then-recent “revolution in astronomy,” including infrared galaxies, neutrinos, pulsars and quasars, red giants and white dwarfs.
In so doing it includes footage taken in observatories not just across the Earth — England, Puerto Rico, Holland, Californa — but high above it in orbit and even deep inside it, beneath the badlands of South Dakota. One installment pays a visit to Kōchi, the rural Japanese prefectural capital where guitarist-astronomer Tsutomu Seki makes his home — and his small home observatory, where he had worked to co-discover Comet Ikeya–Seki just four years before.
All of this international material — or rather interstellar material — is anchored in the studio by television journalist Robert MacNeil, later of PBS’ The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and a certain professor of astronomy at Cornell University by the name of Carl Sagan. Despite exuding a more deliberate seriousness than he would in Cosmos, the young Sagan nevertheless explains the astronomical and astrophysical concepts at hand with a clarity and vigor that would have made them immediately clear to television audiences of half a century ago, and indeed still makes them clear to the Youtube audiences of today. Apart, perhaps, from its Twilight Zone-style theme music The Violent Universe has in its visual elements aged more gracefully than the 70s series that made Sagan into a science icon. And how many other other public-television documentaries about the universe include poetry recitations from Richard Burton?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.