When I first heard that Carl Sagan’s classic “Cosmos” television series from 1980 was going to be remade for a modern audience, I was skeptical. How could Neil deGrasse Tyson hope to carry on where Sagan left off? Would an over-reliance on CGI dumb down the science to such an extent that it would just be a shiny yet soulless reboot? I’ve always been a huge fan of Tyson’s work, but could a Cosmos 2.0 be too much for the famous science communicator to handle?
But all my reservations about the Cosmos reboot, that premiered Sunday on FOX, were completely unfounded. It was a triumph for science and once again proved that Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the heavyweight science educators of our time. For this brilliant effort, Tyson teamed up with executive producer and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, and Ann Druyan, who co-writer of the original “Cosmos” with her late husband, Sagan.
In the one-hour first episode, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” takes us on a dizzying journey from the Big Bang to the very edge of our observable universe; from the tiniest particles to the galactic superclusters. Tyson gives us a history lesson of the genesis of our modern understanding of the universe, starting with the oppressed 16th-Century astronomer Giordano Bruno who thought beyond the Copernican Principal, describing an “infinite” universe containing other stars, planets and even life on those other worlds.
Tragically, Bruno ran afoul of the Roman Catholic Church, which imprisoned and killed him. Bruno’s story was told by Tyson through wonderful animated shorts that enhanced his awesome storytelling abilities.
From Bruno’s realization about the true scale of the universe, the episode spiraled out to the Cosmic Calendar — first popularized by Sagan in the original “Cosmos” — where the entirety of the history of the universe is mapped onto our 365-day year. If the Big Bang occurred on Jan. 1, the whole of human history occurred in the final few seconds of Dec. 31.
“Feeling a little small?” asks Tyson. That was the crux of this entire episode: the scale of the universe is unfathomable and our place in it is baffling, but Cosmos is here to help the audience join the dots and hopefully grasp the immensity of the questions science is asking.
Throughout the show we are treated to some of the best CGI television has to offer and, for the most part, the computer-generated renderings are scientifically sound (give or take a bit of latitude for dramatic license). Personally, I loved the beach scene where Tyson is describing how life from the oceans evolved to venture onto the land — seamlessly a CGI Tiktaalik, one of the first animals to venture out of the oceans, lumbered onto the beach and it took a moment for me to realize it wasn’t real.
But deep within the spacetime fabric of this Cosmos was a beautiful emotion that had the most impact.
In the last 5 minutes, Tyson describes his personal relationship with Sagan. At 17, Tyson was invited to visit Sagan at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. — a period of his life that he remembers with great clarity. Sagan’s hospitality and kindness toward him had a strong resonance at the time. Although Tyson knew he wanted to be an astronomer, he added that he also learned from Carl the kind of person he wanted to become.
Overall, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is a must-see for everyone. I think this is exactly the mainstream space science show that television has been waiting for since the original Cosmos aired over three decades ago. It links the humanity behind our urge to explore. It separates myth and religion from the scientific method, defining what the cosmos means to us and how bright a future of discovery can be. But above all, Tyson, like Sagan did in the original series, shares his deep passion for science, enthusing the viewer to learn more and question everything.
In my book, that’s what makes “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” a winner. And do you want to know the best thing? We have another 12 episodes to go.