Carl Sagan, famed astronomer and science communicator (and indirect namer of this blog), made perhaps his largest contribution to popular culture through the miniseries “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” originally aired in 1980 on the Public Broadcasting Service. The 13-episode program took viewers from the microscopic worlds inside their cells to the edge of the visible universe, sharing the science of the era in an easily accessible but still comprehensive fashion. Now, one of Sagan’s proteges, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is anchoring a reboot of the series titled “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” airing Sundays at 9 p.m. on FOX and Mondays at 10 p.m. on National Geographic.
The result, debuted last Sunday, is as much a reflection on current popular and political culture as it is a exploration of scientific knowledge. The most obvious way in which the new “Cosmos” is grounded in the present is its whiz-bang presentation: Sagan’s original “ship of the imagination,” the device that transports the viewer around the universe, is updated into a sleek, shining craft that has drawn comparisons to the latest Star Trek movies and Eve from Disney’s “WALL-E.” The rest of the graphics of space share that high-budget Hollywood blockbuster polish, as might be expected from a prime-time television series; executive producer Seth MacFarlane, better known as the creator of “Family Guy,” has a keen understanding of the modern viewer’s visual expectations.
Yet MacFarlane’s influence is also felt in an extended animated sequence discussing the 16th century philosopher Giordano Bruno, one of the first men to explore the idea of a universe not centered around the Earth, that strays from the main thrust of the series. The story plays up the conflict between Bruno’s open-minded speculation and the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church of the era, making this personal battle the focus of roughly a quarter of the hourlong episode. The whole segment seems to magnify the supposed conflict between religion and science (perhaps capturing the spirit of the recent Bill Nye/Ken Ham creation debate); although Sagan was a confirmed skeptic of the supernatural, he wrote brilliantly on the sense of spiritual wonder to be found in science and led efforts to unite religious leaders in environmental advocacy. Instead of uniting viewers in wonder, Bruno’s story feels like a dig at the portion of the audience for whom the program is arguably most important.
“Cosmos” finally hits its stride after returning to the conceit of the “Cosmic Calendar” used in the original series. By condensing all of time into a single year, Tyson effectively communicates the mind-blowing scope of the universe and the miniscule amount of it occupied by recorded human history (approximately 14 seconds). This reminder of the original program is followed by a touching tribute in which Tyson shares the story of his first meeting with Sagan. The human element of this segment, focused on the positive interaction of minds and the continuity of scientific exploration, is far more uplifting and powerful than the tale of Bruno and provides an example of the stories “Cosmos” should pursue moving forward.