Stay Tuned: The sky is the storybook in ‘Cosmos’
“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” begins with a clip from the original series starring astronomer Carl Sagan (titled “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage”), which was first broadcast on PBS in 1980. I remember watching this when I was in elementary school and not being excited about it. The pace could be a little slow and the soundtrack was moody. Science wasn’t my favorite subject, despite one very cool project I did on the planets, though I suspect the cool part was the fact that I got to paint Saturn. So whenever it was time for a “Cosmos” episode, I was less than enthusiastic.
It’s a shame my younger self couldn’t appreciate the contribution Sagan made to bringing science to life on the small screen. Thoughtful and philosophical, he walked viewers through environments, explaining the universe and our place in it.
“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” takes Sagan’s legacy and updates it with digital effects and a soundtrack that is more majestic than moody. It’s a good reboot, but one with a definite point of view that could use more subtlety.
Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, it begins with an invitation to join him on a “spaceship of the imagination,” depicted as a sleek, silver metallic vessel. Leaving Earth, we take off with Tyson flying further and further away to discover our cosmic address. (Earth/Solar System/Milky Way Galaxy/Local Group/Virgo Supercluster /Observable Universe.) In my favorite line of the series he tells us, “We are made of star stuff.”
The digital odyssey is juxtaposed with animation. In the first episode, we watch the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century man burned at the stake for his blasphemous beliefs that the universe was infinite. Tyson tells us that Bruno, a religious man, “was no scientist” and his ideas were a “lucky guess” because he had no evidence to support them. It’s not a subtle commentary and one that clearly lays out the show’s position on religious cosmology.
Laying out the cosmic calendar, Tyson introduces the theory of the Big Bang with some theatrics. (He puts on sunglasses and plants his feet to feel the impact.) After explaining the theory, he says: “I know that sounds crazy,” before pointing out that there is “strong observational evidence” to support it. It’s the scientific response to creationism, and Tyson wants to make sure we know it. And just in case we missed the lesson, he reminds us in the second episode, which introduces natural selection, the tree of life and our nearest genetic relative in the animal world, the chimpanzee. Tyson understands some people’s resistance. Who wants to believe they are related to an animal that often demonstrates undesirable social behavior? But, he scolds us, that belief is based on our need to “feel special.”
Tyson was a young, eager student when he first met Sagan, who he recalls showed him much kindness while inspiring him to pursue his passion. It’s an impactful, touching memory and one that reinforces the series overall concept that we are all connected. It’s an idea worth listening to no matter what your beliefs.
“Cosmos” is on Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT on Fox and Mondays at 9 p.m. EDT on National Geographic.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.