Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
In 1980, the original "Cosmos" - subtitled "A Personal Voyage" - aired on PBS for the first time, igniting an instant cultural conversation about the methods, uses, and fruits of science. "Cosmos" was an inspiration to millions who thirsted for hard scientific knowledge but had little access to it, and Sagan was a gifted teacher with a passion for popularizing science.
Now the show has a follow-up, helmed by original series writers Ann Druyen and Steven Soter, along with executive producer Seth MacFarlane (yes, that Seth MacFarlane, of "Family Guy" and "Ted" fame). The show also has a bigger budget (it aired on FOX and Nat Geo). "Star Trek" alum Brannon Braga, Bill Pope, and Druyen herself serve as directors for the show’s thirteen episodes. Hayden Planetarium director and science popularize Neil DeGrasse Tyson takes over the late Sagan’s role as "host-presenter."
Such a pool of talent might have generated a more cohesive overview of science fact, science history, and scientific speculation; as it is, the new show feels somewhat scattershot at times. That’s a legitimate gripe, but a trivial one, given the deplorably low level of scientific literacy in 21t century America. The new "Cosmos" aims to entertain as well as educate, with state-of-the-art CGI and cost-saving (and stylistically striking) animation; if some scientific nuance is lost in the name of stimulating our cultural imagination once again, so be it.
Those who prefer religious mythology to objectively testable fact have already taken considerable exception to the show for not including their viewpoints, but such inclusion would have been out of place. "Cosmos," both the old and new versions, can be overtly political at time, but the program is less interested in theological or philosophical debates than in embracing, and exploring, our environment in its largest sense, wonder-struck at the fact that the tools of science makes it possible for human beings to do so.
The Blu-ray edition of the new series contains several extras, not all of them especially noteworthy. "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey - The Voyage Continues" takes an in-depth look at the show’s visuals, its aims, and how it all came together. "Celebrating Carl Sagan - A Selection from the Library of Congress Dedication" is comprised of footage taken at a ceremony in which a large collection of Sagan’s papers was accessioned into the Library of Congress. Druyen and Tyson speak movingly of Sagan; MacFarlane fearlessly, and hilariously, takes rakes anti-science enemies of rationality (including Republicans and certain religious institutions) over the coals.
Less gripping is footage of the "Cosmos" team at ComiCon 2013, and the "Interactive Cosmic Calendar" is a real disappointment. Suffice it to say that despite its grand title, this feature is pretty boring. There’s also an audio commentary track for the opening episode that features Druyen, Braga, executive producer Mitchell Cannold, co-executive producer Jason Clark, and Consulting Animation Producer Kara Vallow. (No MacFarlane, sadly.)
Should you buy a copy? Hell, yes! And then buy at least one, preferably two, more copies to gift to anyone with an interest in science (or a need of some corrective scientific perspective): Nieces, nephews, Tea Party politicians. As we face an encroaching Dark Age of magical thinking and denialism-as-ideology, "Cosmos" is a slender, but brilliant, sliver of light.
"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey"