It’s been ages since I’ve seen the original PBS version of Cosmos (heretofore to be distinguished by the latter part of its full title, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, when applicable), and I’m less familiar with it than I’d remembered while encountering the first episode of FOX’s fancy new Cosmos (consequently heretofore to be referred to by the latter part of its official title Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, also when applicable). In a fashion, that’s a good thing, as it provided the opportunity for a fresh approach to the new presentation. Eventually revisiting the prior work would be welcome to see how well they both convey what is ultimately similar material.
A Spacetime Odyssey is an intriguing proposition. With FOX’s immense resources, they’ve spared no expense at bringing this engaging introduction and exploration into the science of life amongst the universe to, well, life. It’s clear that such an update is entirely relevant when trying to reach an audience that has continually been wowed to expectation by the Hollywood machine. At the same time, it will be interesting to see if audiences, particularly young demographics, respond and turn out to take advantage of this unique use of primetime airspace.
One of the more surprising facets of this production is that Seth MacFarlane — he of Family Guy fame — is the driving force behind it. He not only invested his own money in the project but was influential in getting FOX on-board and providing the bulk of the funding. MacFarlane was concerned that less focus on space travel and exploration in modern times was a result of what he called “our culture of lethargy,” and that thought behind this project is to once again spark the imagination and interest in what’s out there for newer generations.
MacFarlane became friends with writer Ann Druyan, wife of the late Carl Sagan, the brain behind A Personal Voyage, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a mentee and devotee of Sagan’s. They’ve tried for years to launch an update and follow-on to Sagan’s seminal series, and make no mistake, the two are the scientific, creative, and educational hearts and minds behind the revival. Their care and devotion to Sagan’s work and science in general is evident in every moment of the first hour of this thirteen-part series event. Tyson, who has gained his own popular following and serves as both the face and the voice of A Spacetime Odyssey, recounted how he was introduced to Sagan at 17 years old, solidifying his desires to pursue science as a career, but also modeling how open and communicative of a person to be, particularly in gifting the knowledge of science to those who haven’t devoted their lives to it.
Tyson proves a warm and enchanting host, never too wild as to be shrill and push people away, but also not dispassionate or cold as to bore or isolate the audience. He fundamentally understands that as academic as the material needs to be, it also has to be entertaining. Using the kitschy yet cool framing device of being on a ship that allows him to traverse the vast expanse of the observed universe, as well as gives him the ability to view through the extensive reach of time both backwards through the past and into the future, Tyson is able to engage new generations in the best possible way. It’s a visual shorthand that offers the appropriate lens through which to keep them interested. (Yes, by all means, it should be noted that this “Spaceship of the Imagination” is firmly rooted in the original series, which used the same device to attract and interact with its audience.)
The question is will it keep new audiences interested. And, for as media-focused as our young have become, is network television the best outlet? It’s certainly more prominent than public television would offer in this day and age, even with all the focus on shows as wildly popular as Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, and Sherlock. (Though, to be fair, one has to wonder if most are catching those shows on BBC America instead of PBS.) In a generation starting to get used to getting bite-sized educational information, specifically through new media, are we at the point where a television miniseries event is going to provide the same impact as the original? Certainly, involving a second screen app on mobile devices to delve further into the information presented in each episode is a shrewd model and practice. And, if anything, this is the type of series that will likely be made available for use in classrooms to tie into specific lesson plans, perhaps allowing for even greater modern ways to communicate the included information.
These are fascinating questions raised by the creation and airing of this series. Educational television is hardly anything new — in fact, FOX is re-airing episodes on its distinctly appropriate National Geographic Channel — but employing mainstream educational programming portends good things for the future, especially if this does well in the ratings. It’s also exciting to see network television branch out and try new models and new approaches to their programming. For that alone, this endeavor should be celebrated.
Beyond all of those externalities, this first episode draws one in throughout the hour. It starts right from the beginning with the Big Bang, describing in brisk, fantastic detail how our Sun, the Earth, and our moon came to be formed. Tyson presents us with Sagan’s “Cosmic Calendar,” which uses the familiar construct of our annual calendar to present the known entirety of cosmic time in a digestible and relatable context. It still proves a powerful metaphor. To see the extent of our human history relegated to mere “seconds” of the “cosmic year” is both humbling and awing.
Further captivating was the zooming out through the various layers of the universe to really identify just where we are in the cosmic soup. For better or for worse, it reminded me of the navigation system of the Mass Effect video game series, which was obviously trying to ape true cosmology as much as possible, and was always a personal favorite element of those games. It wasn’t surprising to see the scope, but it said much for the presentation that it kept the viewer engrossed as the Spaceship flew further out. A few notable moments: The still-saddening recognition of Pluto as just one of many planetoid structures laying amidst and beyond the belt past Neptune. (Tyson is popularly cited with starting the movement to “demote” Pluto from planetary status, which the IAU agreed with in 2006.) And the recognition of the theory of multiple universes.
With the series being fundamentally science-based, it’s not hard to see how those of religious faith and belief could possibly be turned off to the material. Yet, Tyson and Druyan don’t necessarily shy away from religions of the world and the obvious connection to the creation of life. In some instances, including an extended animated sequence recounting the story of Giordano Bruno, they touch on the role religious institutions played in science, but more specifically the availability of education, during the early formation of what’s come to be known as Copernican cosmology.
It is unfortunate yet historical that churches have, at various times and for myriad reasons, withheld education and writing from the masses. In the case of Bruno, who actually wasn’t a scientist and based his beliefs of an ever-expanding universe made of multiple stars and solar systems on visions and the reading of certain books considered apocryphal, he was tossed out of the church and eventually burned for daring to espouse his beliefs. Sadly, Galileo would prove him right just a scant decade after his death. Some might consider this science trying to blackeye religion, yet it’s honestly addressed historically rather than with any sort of bias.
Furthermore, they manage to namecheck Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha without scientific comment during the discussion of our human history. One wouldn’t expect Tyson to start quoting scripture throughout this series, but they aren’t attempting to get into the ages-old science vs. faith debate.
Behind the deft writing of Druyan and Steven Soter and the adept direction of Brannon Braga, he of Star Trek franchise fame, this first episode is a wondrous jaunt through the basics of our universe. Some may describe it as nothing more than a glorified planetarium exhibit, and yet there is really very little wrong with that. Through state-of-the-art visuals and a compelling score by heavyweight composer Alan Silvestri, it’s a sweeping and sense-engaging installment that instills the appropriate excitement for the entire endeavor.
It’s safe to say that, while I was intrigued by the premise; fondly recalled the excitement, if not the particulars, of the original series; and was impressed by the gumption to do this series event in regular season primetime network television, I hadn’t expected to be as nigh-inspired by the hour as I was. Science has always been an interest, particularly the cosmos, but never to the level that fired a dedicated pursuit into the field. That makes programs like A Spacetime Odyssey a treasure and astonishing journey to spark those latent passions, if only for those moments.
Yet, that spark was greater than anticipated, inspiring in personal pursuits beyond those secondary or tertiary interests. That speaks to the power of the series, and a desire to see more of it. I’m left wondering how many others were so inspired.