Cosmos: A Triumphant Reboot

Image credit: 
Fox

This Sunday, the 13-part series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey begins. It airs on Fox, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, and it is a triumph of television. The new Cosmos is like the original, in that it communicates clearly about science, and the wonder of the universe. But you've never seen Cosmos like this.

Tune in on Sundays on Fox at 9pm ET/PT beginning March 9. The show airs on Fox and National Geographic on Sundays, then airs again on National Geographic starting Monday, March 10 at 10pm ET/PT (with bonus material).

The Tightrope

There are so many ways a reboot of Cosmos could have gone wrong. To succeed, the production had to walk a tightrope, in constant peril of falling. I'm delighted to say that the producers have managed to cross that tightrope intact, and delivered a show that's simultaneously entertaining, educational, and inspirational. The wonder of the original series is here, and in many ways the new show is more fun to watch, while retaining the careful attention to detail that was a hallmark of the original.

The challenges facing the reboot of Cosmos were threefold:

1. Nostalgia. I grew up watching Carl Sagan on Cosmos, and I'm a fan. I own the DVD box set. I own the book. So when I think about Cosmos, I think about a very specific set of qualities that are entangled with my own childhood experience of wonder and awe. It's hard to revisit something with more than three decades of nostalgic love attached to it, because the slightest misstep could bring out shouts of, "Sagan wouldn't have done that!" Nostalgia is a powerful and generally irrational force, but the new show has managed to stay true to the original in part by bringing back the original writers (more on that below). All in all, it feels right, and that's powerful.

2. Audience. What's the audience for a primetime science show in 2014? Most science programming now lives on cable or PBS (where the original Cosmos aired), so it's either gutsy or misguided to air this in primetime on a major network. I'm going with "gutsy," because what we have here is an entertaining show that really does work for the whole family. Kids and adults alike will dig the new Cosmos, and I expect it will inspire many conversations about science—and perhaps even guide career choices for kids. The original Cosmos really was a landmark TV show, winning Emmy and Peabody awards, and remains PBS's most-watched series. I suspect the new Cosmos will also be a huge deal, in part because it is accessible to so many people—both by virtue of being on broadcast TV and being a well-made show.

3. Correctness vs. Watchability. The original Cosmos was notable partly because it took such pains to be correct, to communicate the concept that science often entails being wrong. In the first episode of the original, Sagan explains the story of Eratosthenes deducing the circumference of the Earth using "sticks, eyes, feet, and brains; plus a zest for experiment." In the reboot's first episode, this story is swapped with that of Giordano Bruno, who believed in a cosmos filled with other planets orbiting other suns, based in part on an inspirational dream. At the end of Bruno's story, Tyson points out that Bruno was not a scientist and that his vision of the cosmos "was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it. Like most guesses, it could well have turned out wrong." This is important. In this moment, we see Tyson gently but firmly asserting the importance of science within the narrative.

(A side-note: viewers familiar with Tyson's history related to Pluto will want to watch carefully how the first episode deals with Pluto's status as a planet. The show manages to be technically correct but also inclusive, in a way that should satisfy...most viewers.)

Animation vs. Live Action

Animation still from Cosmos. Image courtesy of Fox.

The new Cosmos features loads of animation for historical reenactments. The art style is not cartoony (no Family Guy art here), and it's beautifully executed—distinctive but not distracting. The original Cosmos used, let's face it, slightly stuffy actors in period garb waving their hands. The new approach works better on all levels.

There are also small details woven into the animation that are brilliantly appropriate—at one moment in the Bruno animation, we see a glimpse of the Earth seen in its solar system context, and the continents shown don't include the Americas. This makes sense, of course, because Bruno lived in Europe. But the fact that someone in the production team decided to rotate the Earth on that illustration such that the relevant continents were shown demonstrates a reassuring sense of attention to detail. We see similar clever details in other visual effects, such as when the Spaceship of the Imagination flies by a NASA rover on Mars.

The Cold War vs. Climate Change

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson contemplates the Big Bang. Image courtesy of Fox.

The original Cosmos was made at a time when the Cold War was still the overriding threat to human life on Earth, and it shows within Sagan's narration. He mentions the potential for human self-annihilation, for instance when musing on a hypothetical extraterrestrial civilization, he wonders whether they are also "a danger to themselves." Ann Druyan's introduction to the 2000 DVD release of Cosmos (with updated visual effects) touches on this as well, noting that many scientists of the day were caught up in the global arms race.

In the new Cosmos, of course, the Cold War is history. But there is still a specter of doom, and it is climate change. Tyson mentions it while walking through a forest, saying, "Three hundred million years later, we humans are burning most of that coal to power—and imperil—our civilization." It doesn't come across as heavy-handed, but it's there, and it occupies a similar position as the greatest threat of our age.

It's notable that two science shows, separated by a span of more than three decades, each identifies a serious human-caused threat to human life on Earth. Neither wallows in the threat, instead choosing to focus on the possibility that humanity can make its way. That is a core part of what makes Cosmos inspirational, and why it's likely to resonate especially strongly with young people today.

Sagan vs. Tyson

Ann Druyan and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Photo by Patrick Eccelsine/FOX.

Both versions of Cosmos were co-written by Ann Druyan, who married Sagan in 1981. The scripts share many concepts (such as the Cosmic Calendar and Spaceship of the Imagination) and key phrases ("star stuff!"). Her intellectual presence within the new show is palpable as the strongest link to the original, though she doesn't appear onscreen. Instead, Neil deGrasse Tyson takes over the hosting role in Carl Sagan's place. But how do you compete with the guy whose iconic phrase "billions and billions" became so popular that it was plastered all over McDonald's signs?

The short answer is that it's not a competition; Tyson's presence in the show feels more like Sagan's legacy. In the first episode, Tyson stands on the same windswept cliff where Sagan began the original series. There, Tyson relates an experience in which he visited Sagan in the mid-1970s, and it's a humble, emotional moment. As a host, Tyson is fantastic—he conveys information clearly, and he's fun to watch (when he walks up to the Big Bang and puts on sunglasses, you know we're dealing with a badass). His presence onscreen (and even his monologue) is markedly different from Sagan's, though—Sagan's version of Cosmos was dense with metaphor and a cadence that only Sagan could deliver. Tyson deals less in metaphor, and the show benefits tremendously from it. Instead, we see clear explanations of complex concepts, often illustrated using (very nice) computer graphics. That stuff simply wasn't available three and a half decades ago.

I sat down to watch the new Cosmos and watched the original Cosmos right after. The difference is stark. The original show is slow and dense, with a soothing Vangelis musical score—it's rather like a rich meal that touches on dozens of flavors, occasionally losing the typical viewer ("What's a quasar?"). The new show isn't fast-paced in the sense of an action movie, but in comparison it's simply more modern in its presentation. Tyson presents us with a view of the cosmos that is easier to grasp in the moment, but doesn't sacrifice the sense of wonder that permeated the original. I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

Where to See Cosmos

Tune in to Fox on Sundays at 9pm ET/PT beginning March 9. The show is running on a bunch of Fox and National Geographic channels, plus re-runs with bonus materials on National Geographic Mondays at 10pm ET/PT. So you're likely to find it on cable, broadcast, or any other TV medium you might be able to access. As always, check your local listings to be sure.

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