‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,’ take it
This new Fox series updates the 1980 PBS show with Carl Sagan
March 6, 2014
In his first talk show, Arsenio Hall used to include in his monologues a bit in which he bundled together some observations in a list of “things that make you go ‘hmmm…'”
TV series that are intended to popularize science or other difficult subjects are usually sprinkled with “hmmm…” things: To draw us in, they offer surprising facts about elementary subjects before tackling the more difficult stuff.
The first episode of Fox’s new series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” airing this Sunday, March 9, at 9 p.m., is surprisingly free of “hmmm…” moments. Much of it will seem familiar to anyone who paid attention in middle-school science class or who occasionally watches educational documentaries.
But its host is engaging; the lessons are accessible; and its heart is in the right place. Although grown-ups might not find it as involving as it could be, future episodes could improve. In any case, the series should provide pleasant family viewing for parents and their scientifically inclined kids.
The series is based on the 1980 PBS series “Cosmos: A Personal Journey,” which starred the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who would become famous for his peculiar way of pronouncing the word “billions.”
The episode opens with a line taken directly from the original “Cosmos”: The host, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, tells the camera, “The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” Two of the series’ writers, Ann Druyan, who is also Sagan’s widow, and Steven Soter, worked on the original series.
As Sagan did in his first episode, Tyson takes off on a tour of the universe in a special-effects spaceship. Whereas Sagan went from the edge of the universe to Earth, Tyson reverses direction, but the effect is similar.
The facts we learn on the way — for example, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is three times the size of Earth — are informative but not arresting. Tyson says that it’s possible that other universes lie beyond our own but there hasn’t been enough time for their light to reach us.
Then Tyson tells the story of Giordano Bruno, a scholar and monk who was burned at the stake in 1600 by the Roman Catholic Church for promoting the heliocentric model of the solar system, among other heresies. Although Bruno will probably be news to most viewers, his story arc is a little clichéd.
In a surprising choice, Bruno’s story is told through old-fashioned 2-D animation, with voice actors speaking in Italian accents. The segment is reminiscent of those educational cartoons for kids that TV stations used to run in order to keep their FCC licenses.
Perhaps Seth MacFarlane, the Fox animation mogul (“Family Guy,” “American Dad!” and “The Cleveland Show”) who is also an executive producer of “Cosmos,” is having some ironic fun by making the segment deliberately corny, but that will be lost on most viewers.
Then the show borrows a teaching tool from the first episode of the original series: comparing the 13 billion years of the universe’s life to a calendar. For example, if the big bang is on Jan. 1, life on Earth doesn’t appear until Sept. 21, and all of recorded human history could fit in the last 14 seconds of Dec. 31.
The segment segues smoothly into a tribute to Sagan and the impact he had with the original “Cosmos.” Touchingly, Tyson says that when he was 17 years old, Sagan found the time to invite him to Cornell to spend a Saturday with him. Tyson shows us a book that Sagan signed for him, with the inscription “For Neil, a future astronomer.”
The series wins a lot of good will with that anecdote. Since the first episode does a lot of the groundwork, it’s very possible that the remaining 12 will be more engrossing and surprising.
If only because the TV universe has expanded astronomically since 1980, it’s unlikely that Tyson will have the impact that Sagan had. But everyone involved deserves praise for the effort.
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