Last night, the first episode of the reboot/sequel to Carl Sagan's acclaimed series Cosmos premiered on FOX and National Geographic Channel. I'd been anticipating this show since it was announced last year, as the original Cosmos is one of the best educational programs that has ever been produced. This show is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose passion and charisma makes him an excellent communicator of scientific ideas (right up there with Bill Nye) and fitting successor to Sagan.
The new "cosmic calendar".
In this premiere episode, Tyson gives a brief tour of the solar system, recounts the story of Giordano Bruno, and introduces the viewer to Sagan's classic "cosmic calendar". The information presented in this episode is very high-level and elementary. I'm hoping that this is due to the introductory nature of this first episode, and that the remaining episodes will go into much greater depth and detail. However, I fear that the one-hour format will be too constraining for Tyson to provide any information of substance. Sagan's original series was made up of thirteen episodes each two hours long, and that format gave him the opportunity to give more than just an introduction to a given topic, providing specific details on the evidences and experiments that lead to the discoveries he presented. Will Tyson have the time in later episodes to provide more information than one can get from the first paragraph of a Wikipedia article? I hope so.
CGI graphics will convey the awe and wonder of the cosmos rather than Sagan's wonderous stare.
Compounding the problems of time constraint were the incessant commercial breaks. I felt that half the show's air time was commercials...
Obviously, the visual and production quality of this new series is leaps and bounds beyond what Sagan and PBS could show in 1980. The show offers plenty of grand vistas for viewers to gawk at; although some of it seems a bit sensationalized and over-done. This new show definitely has much greater potential to take viewers on a much more imaginative tour of the depths of human knowledge; whereas, Sagan's original had to be much more grounded due to technical limitations.
The 30 years that have passed since the original show has been plenty of time for astronomers and physicists to make new discoveries and verify or overthrow old hypotheses. Tyson doesn't waste much time in introducing the viewer to new concepts that Sagan's original series could not present: rogue planets. Although they had been hypothesised earlier, evidence for rogue planets had not been discovered until this past decade. After the brief guided tour of the solar system and a stop by the Voyager I space probe, Tyson's ship of the imagination illuminates an interstellar rogue planet using infrared, demonstrating to audiences how easy it can be for things in the cosmos to hide in plain sight, and how the tools of science and technology can reveal them. Hopefully, Tyson will spend more time in future episodes specifically discussing more of these newer discoveries that could not have been presented in the original series and emphasize how our knowledge and technology have expanded, rather than simply retread the same topics that Sagan so eloquently covered 30 years ago.
Much like the original series, the new Cosmos also explores the history of science. This first episode recounted the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher who was excommunicated, imprisoned, and executed for proclaiming that the universe may be infinite. These historical segments will be dramatized in vibrant animated sequences. It looked pretty, but it reminded me a bit like the transition sequences in The Beatles: Rock Band (Giordano's character even looked like that game's animated George Harrison).
So this new series definitely does not look like it's going to be a simple remake of the old show, and it will surely cover new and interesting content in both science and history.
The updated Ship of the Imagination is quite shiny, indeed.
But it also retains some trademark elements from the original. Two of the most iconic symbols of Sagan's original show have already been introduced: the ship of the imagination and the cosmic calendar. Both have been re-imagined with a more contemporary design, and the rounded and reflective design of the new ship of the imagination works much better than the old snowflake design. The cosmic calendar also remains an elegant and useful tool for communicating the immensity of the cosmic time scale, and Tyson presents it very well (if a bit rushed).
This episode concludes with a personal tale from Tyson, recounting an invitation that he received from Carl Sagan himself to visit his home in Ithica, New York, when Tyson was only 17 years old. Here, Tyson describes Sagan's humility, thoughtfulness, and passion for communicating the wonders of science to the next generation. Now, Tyson wishes to be a spokesperson to the next generation, just as Sagan was to Tyson's generation. And he has already demonstrated himself to be an exceptional spokesperson for science, through his many appearances on television shows such as The Daily Show and Colbert Report. He will do a fine job in Cosmos.
Tyson, along with producers Seth MacFarlane (yes, the Family Guy dude), Ann Druyan (who worked with Sagan on the original series), and Brannon Braga (a former producer of Star Trek: the Next Generation), have laid a solid framework in this first episode. It likely won't match the density of information or the poeticism of the original (due to time constraints), but if subsequent episodes can delve a little deeper into the innermost workings of the cosmos, then this new show looks like it can live up to its namesake and hopefully excite a new generation of scientists and explorers with a passion for discovery. I look forward to next week's episode.
In the meantime, here's the first episode of the original Cosmos to whet your appetite:
First episode of the original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, for your viewing pleasure.