The new reboot of classic science educational series ‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’ launched this week simultaneously on the Fox network, the National Geographic Channel and several of their sub-channels. In this day and age of inane Reality shows and raunchy, hyper-sexualized sitcoms, can a show that advocates thinking and learning survive on the primetime network schedule?
Current science golden boy of the moment Neil deGrasse Tyson takes over as host from the late Carl Sagan. He’s a good choice for the role. He’s charismatic and personable, and conveys a genuine excitement for teaching the material. Behind-the-scenes is a strange confluence of talent, including ‘Family Guy’ creator Seth MacFarlane and reviled former ‘Star Trek’ producer Brannon Braga. As far as I can tell, the former mostly stays out of the way, while the latter’s influence is felt primarily in the glossy production values and elaborate visual effects sequences.
I think it’s worth keeping in mind that the show is intended mainly for children, with the goal of hopefully inspiring them to pursue science education or possibly even careers in the field. From the perspective of a jaded 40-year-old man, the presentation sometimes feels a little cheesy. (To be fair, cheesiness was a hallmark of the original show as well.) In the pilot episode, called ‘Standing Up in the Milky Way’, Tyson flies in a “spaceship of the imagination” that cruises through the solar system like it’s on a leisurely Sunday stroll. The spaceship appears to have artificial gravity and can travel much faster than light, both fantasy concoctions, but I suppose we’re not meant to take it literally.
Astronomy fans much smarter than myself have already started nit-picking some (mostly minor) facts in the episode, such as its depiction of an overly-cluttered asteroid belt that the spaceship must dodge and weave through like a scene from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. In reality, most of the asteroids are millions of miles separated from one another. Personally, I would chalk that one up to artistic license.
After hitting the end of our solar system (surprisingly, the episode doesn’t address Pluto’s downgrade from planet status), the magic spaceship zips out further into the void so that Tyson can demonstrate the mind-bogglingly immense scale of the observable universe, and try to put into perspective how tiny a blip on the radar that the entirety of human civilization has been in the timeline of history from the Big Bang to today. This is kind of heady stuff for kids to absorb, but the show does a good job of explaining it.
It should go without saying that religious literalists will not care for much of anything in the show, especially its galling insistence that evolution is real and that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old. Some animated segments actually seem to court controversy by promoting the legend of 16th Century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was executed by the Roman Inquisition and is held up here as a martyr for science. (Although Bruno championed the Copernican model of a solar system in which the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around as the Church of the time believed, he also had a habit of shouting to the rooftops that Jesus was a big fat stupid fraud, which is perhaps more likely what antagonized the Holy See.) In any case, organized religion doesn’t come across too well in the episode, in a manner that seems deliberately confrontational. I’m not sure that was the wisest decision the producers could have made for their big premiere.
Some quibbles aside, I think that something like this is desperately needed on television right now – especially primetime network television. I hope it succeeds.