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Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey



Carl Sagan kicked off his classic science television series Cosmos by defining the scope of his endeavor: "The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be."

Writing a book that covers all that ground, much less making good TV out of it, is nearly impossible. But Sagan pulled off both feats in 1980, creating a worldwide phenomenon that sharpened a generation's interest in science. The 13-part Cosmos was the best-rated show on public television for more than a decade until Ken Burns' The Civil War topped it, barely. With an estimated half-billion total viewers worldwide, it remains one of the most-watched and most influential shows in the history of the medium.

Sagan was the right guy in the right place at the right time. The Brooklyn-born astrophysicist worked for NASA at the dawn of the space program and was one of the driving forces behind the army of robotic space probes that fanned out across the solar system in the 1960s and '70s. But he was not one of NASA's self-styled "steely-eyed missile men," the former military engineers and aviators who turned their expertise in creating nuclear-tipped rockets toward peaceful ends. Sagan was one of what they called "The Long Hairs" — a professorial type who preferred smoking weed over swigging scotch and who regarded space exploration as something of a mystic vision quest rather than a series of engineering challenges to be overcome.

By 1980, Sagan was the author of a half-dozen classics of popular science writing. Already a minor celebrity, he was appearing regularly with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show to discuss new scientific breakthroughs. He took his position as the de facto public face of science very seriously, and Cosmos' scientific rigor and clarity became the standard that all subsequent popular science shows aspired to. But Sagan the mystic, who had grown up on a diet of pulp science fiction, was obsessed with the possibility — he would say inevitability — of extraterrestrial life. Cosmos did not shy away from speculating what forms that life may take, and how we might learn about them. This drew hoots of derision from some of his fellow scientists but proved to be a hit with audiences.

In the ensuing 34 years, Cosmos became the template for documentary television, both great and terrible. Today, cable shows like Ancient Aliens take Sagan's tone of breathless wonder and cynically use it to peddle ratings-grabbing hokum. Perhaps the anti-Cosmos was the 2001 Fox "documentary" that accused NASA of faking the moon landing, so it is kind of ironic that the same channel would choose to produce a rebooted Cosmos intended to both update the series' increasingly dated science facts and introduce a new generations to Sagan's sense of wonder.

Astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, hosts the revamped Cosmos.
  • Astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, hosts the revamped Cosmos.

But it's not very ironic when you consider that it was Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane who got the series greenlit. MacFarlane has made billions and billions of dollars for Fox, and when Sagan protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson approached him about redoing Cosmos, MacFarlane decided to cash in some of his chips. MacFarlane's clout apparently buys a lot, including what was claimed to be the biggest premiere in television history: Ten networks, 45 countries, and dozens of languages.

The new series is completely worthy of the hype. Tyson, working with Sagan's widow and co-writer Ann Druyan, has updated the look, feel, and pacing of the series for 21st-century viewers without sacrificing its spirit. This is no mean feat, considering that Sagan had 90 minutes per episode while Tyson, working on commercial television, has less than half that. But the first two scripts, directed by former Star Trek: The Next Generation producer Brannon Braga, have been models of narrative economy, revamping Sagan's most successful motifs while discarding some of his more esoteric digressions.

The show's framing device, the Spaceship of the Imagination that takes the host from the edge of the observable universe to the mutating DNA of a prehistoric polar bear, has transformed from a dandelion seed into something that looks like a variable-geometry guitar pick. Another of Sagan's great ideas, the Cosmic Calendar, an extended metaphor that helps make sense of the mind-destroying expanse of time by compressing the history of the universe into a single year, where the entirety of human history is contained in the last 14 seconds of December 31st, has lost none of its power in Tyson's hands.

Tyson lacks the depth of Sagan's hard science pedigree, but he is a fearless evangelist for the scientific method. His day job is running New York's Hayden Planetarium, where he made his bones by breaking the news to the non-astronomer peoples of Earth that Pluto is not a planet.

It was reported that a Fox affiliate in Oklahoma had edited out the 15-second mention of evolution in the first episode, but the second episode made the attempted censorship futile. Tyson uses the same rhetorical gambit that worked for Charles Darwin in On the Origin Of Species, starting with the familiar example of animal breeding (artificial selection) to explain the mechanism behind evolution (natural selection).

Comparing the second episodes of the two series highlights the strengths and weaknesses of both. Sagan used a story about medieval Japanese crab fishermen as his example of artificial selection, an artful but willfully obscure choice; Tyson traces the evolutionary history of the dog, something that everyone can relate to emotionally. Sagan devoted an entire segment to telling the full story of life on Earth from biogenesis to the present in what remains the clearest and most compelling explanation of evolution ever set to film. Tyson opts to tell the specific story of the evolution of the eye (which even Darwin said was the biggest hole in his theory) as a way to both educate the audience about the nuts and bolts of natural selection and to preempt a common counter-argument.

We live in a world that is, even more so than Sagan's 1980, defined by a constant state of technological change, evolving scientific revelations, and the menace of global catastrophe. To make good decisions about our future, we must understand the wonders and perils of science. Tyson does not flinch from the unknowns, throwing down a challenge to young viewers to be the ones who finally decipher science's greatest mystery: the origin of life itself. But he makes no apology for Cosmos' mission: to deliver a strong dose of science fact to a country, and a world, in sore need of it.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
Sundays, 8 p.m.


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