The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Cosmos still
Neil deGrasse Tyson sitting in his “Spaceship of the Imagination” looking at the Moon in a still from the remake of the series Cosmos. (credit: Fox)

Rebooting Cosmos

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Calling the premiere of a new series a “television event” can sound like hyperbole. In the case of new version Cosmos, though, that language can be justified. Fox had been promoting the series for months, including an ad during what is unarguably a television event, last month’s Super Bowl. The premiere of Cosmos aired last night in an unusual simulcast on ten different networks, from the flagship Fox broadcast network to obscure outposts on the far end of the cable dial like FXX and Fox Sports 2.

A conclusive judgment is impossible until the entire series runs, but last night’s opening episode shows that this new Cosmos has some promise.

And, unlike the typical television series, Cosmos got a send-off from the President of the United States. “America has always been a nation of fearless explorers, who dreamed bigger and reached farther than others imagined,” President Obama said in a 30-second introduction. “That’s the spirit of discovery that Carl Sagan captured in the original Cosmos.”

What he, the show’s producers, and many others hope is that the new Cosmos captures that same spirit of discovery that has, over the years, almost been mythologized. The executives at Fox that greenlighted the show, and spent many millions of dollars, on it also hope it captures views and advertisers. Will it?

A conclusive judgment is impossible until the entire series runs, but last night’s opening episode shows that this new Cosmos has some promise. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist anointed “the next Carl Sagan” long before plans for remaking Cosmos were announced, takes viewers on a whirlwind tour of both space, from the Earth to the edge of the observable universe, and time, compressing the 13.8-billion-year history of the universe into a single year. In between, he tells the story of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century man who first argued we were not at the center of the universe, and for such heresy was burned at the stake.

This Cosmos has elements of both new and old in it. The special effects, as one might imagine, are spectacular, and far beyond what was possible 35 years ago when the original series aired. The iconic ethereal soundtrack of the original series, by Vangelis, has been replaced by a new soundtrack by Alan Silvestri, but it, too, does not overpower. Tyson, like Sagan, travels through space and time in his “Spaceship of the Imagination,” albeit one with a much sleeker design than the dandelion-inspired one Sagan used. Even the cosmic calendar Tyson walked viewers through in the opening episode is borrowed from one Sagan used in the original series.

The one thing jarring about the episode was not the show itself, but the commercial interruptions. The original Cosmos aired on PBS, without commercials, but on Fox, and in prime time, commercials are a necessity. That led to some odd juxtapositions of content: while Tyson hailed the triumph of science over superstition and the promise of a bright future, the commercial breaks included ads for a Biblical epic (Noah) and a movie set in a dystopian future (The Hunger Games.)

Few, though, doubted the quality of the special effects that would be used in the new Cosmos. More people questioned how seriously Fox—a network not known for highbrow entertainment or documentaries—would take a show like Cosmos. The fact that one of its executive producers is Seth MacFarlane, best known for television shows like Family Guy, didn’t increase the confidence of skeptics. And while Tyson had long been compared to Sagan, and had television experience hosting PBS’s Nova ScienceNow, some wondered if he was the right person to host a reboot of the show.

“Science, and in particular astrophysics, is in the hearts and minds of the public right now, and it is growing,” Tyson said earlier this year.

Part of the skepticism stems from his public speaking experience, where Tyson doesn’t exude the calm demeanor of a Sagan. For example, in an on-stage interview Saturday at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas, ostensibly to promote the series, Tyson jumped from tangent to tangent, excitedly veering off what appeared to be a planned script for the event. “You know, Neil, we’re going to be doing something else,” his interviewer, science journalist Christie Nicholson, said at one point, as Tyson was opining about the lack of ice caps on an inflatable globe during an intended demonstration of the scale of the solar system. (“Don’t get me started on Pluto,” he advised earlier in his SXSW interview, before going off on a tangent about the former ninth planet. “That would derail the whole thing.”)

Tyson has also rubbed some members of the professional astronomical community the wrong way with a perceived emphasis on self-promotion over science. In a plenary talk at an American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in January outside of Washington, DC, Tyson started with a hopeful message for the audience of professional astronomers and students. “I think science is rising, it is percolating up from fertilized ground, and it is on a level I have not seen before,” he said. “Science, and in particular astrophysics, is in the hearts and minds of the public right now, and it is growing.”

Tyson attempted to prove this by demonstrating how science was becoming a greater part of pop culture, from ComicCon to Internet memes to even tattoos. However, as the talk progressed, many in the audience saw Tyson talking less about science in pop culture and more about Tyson himself, from diving into the statistics of his Twitter followers (currently about 1.7 million) to showing a screenshot of his weekly schedule, packed with meetings and trips.

On the backchannel of Twitter, some attendees expressed displeasure with the tone of Tyson’s talk. “I have to say, I am not seeing much of a message from this talk, except that the speaker thinks he’s awesome,” tweeted Australian astronomer and author Bryan Gaensler in a comment typical of the criticism many in the audience expressed about the talk.

But the Tyson who appears in Cosmos is not the manic or narcissistic character that some might conclude him to be from some of those public appearances. He’s clearly excited about the wonders of the universe that he plans to show viewers, but he does so in a calm, confident way—like Sagan.

The opening episode about Cosmos, though, is a little bit about Tyson at the end, but in a good way. Many know from Tyson’s previous talks and writings that, as a high school student in the mid-1970s, he traveled by bus from New York City to Ithaca to visit Carl Sagan at Cornell University. He recounts that story at the end of the episode and pulls out a calendar of Sagan’s, with Tyson’s name written in it on the day of his visit. It is an emotional passing of the torch from one generation to the next, from one Cosmos to the next.

Whether this next-generation Cosmos is a success won’t be known until after the series finishes airing—and perhaps for not long after. While Fox will soon be able to judge if the advertising and other revenue from the series made it profitable, the success of the series to further germinate what Tyson described in January was the public’s growing interest in science in general, and space science in particular, may take many years to gauge. It was apt, then, for Tyson to close out the first episode with this advice: “Our journey is just beginning.”