When astronomer Carl Sagan’s landmark PBS series “Cosmos” first aired in the fall of 1980, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was flying past Saturn and its moons, sending back astonishing images of worlds never seen up close.
Some 33 years later, both Sagan and Voyager 1 (and its mate, Voyager 2) have left the realm of the reachable. He died in 1996, and, sooner rather than later, we’ll lose the faint communications from the resilient Voyagers as they travel into interstellar space.
As just about everyone knows, each craft bears a human greatest-hits disc of our languages, music and understanding of numbers, among other assorted audio-visual samples of Earth’s inhabitants. The thought of anyone or anything ever finding and playing the disc inspires great wonder; just as much, the thought of our little gizmos floating off forever into eternity brings on a chilling sense of loneliness.
To both soothe and stoke those feelings, “Cosmos” is back Sunday night (airing on Fox and then repeating on Monday nights on the National Geographic Channel). It’s a 13-episode remake/update lovingly shepherded by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, who worked on the original series, and hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a worthy heir to Sagan’s legacy, even if he doesn’t quite possess Sagan’s natural ability to captivate viewers.
Though only one episode was made available for review, this new “Cosmos” arrives just when we seem to need it most. Hardly a day goes by where the news feed doesn’t produce some freshly galling example of intellectual backsliding, with age-old fights resuming over science textbooks and religious intrusions on education and governing.
To borrow that Max von Sydow line from Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters”: If Sagan returned to Earth on his interstellar Ship of the Imagination today, he might never stop throwing up. He’d see evidence of climate change. He’d read polls that find nearly half of Americans don’t buy evolution. He’d see creationist museums and theme parks.
This 2014 “Cosmos” has its work cut out for it, to say the least, in a far different context than Sagan’s series did.
“This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules,” Tyson tells viewers in a carefully but beautifully phrased invitation to have an open mind. “Test ideas by experiment and observation; build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail; follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything. Accept these terms and the cosmos is yours.” (Reject these terms and you might wind up sitting on an Adam and Eve roller-coaster ride around our 6,000-year-old planet.)
Happily and even nostalgically, “Cosmos” orbits high above all this noise.
It begins much like Sagan’s original did, with Tyson stepping aboard a sleek Ship of the Imagination for a primer on the size of the observable universe. The series takes full advantage of the leaps in computer-generated effects since 1980 (thanks again to some science) as Tyson journeys ’round the sun and past the planets, then out past Neptune and the “tens of thousands” of planet-ish bits and pieces on the fringe — of which, pathetically, “Pluto is one.”
Though this is always a dazzling trip, I can’t help but think that the best version of it exists in neither the old nor new “Cosmos,” but instead in the unforgettable opening scene of the 1997 film adaptation of Sagan’s novel “Contact,” in which the camera eerily follows a cacophony of Earth-based radio and TV broadcasts outward in space and backward through time into the utter silence of galactic indifference.
In the new “Cosmos,” we have Tyson telling us about the Oort Cloud and the particular band of the Milky Way’s spirals where our sun becomes just one of so very many; beyond that, there is the “local group” of galaxies nearest ours; beyond that, the Virgo supercluster of galaxies; beyond that, eventually, the limits of what we currently understand to be our universe.
Beyond even that, Tyson hypothesizes, our universe might just be a teeny-tiny bubble, one of many universes in a multiverse. (Pause here to remember where the ’80s “Cosmos” played best: dorm rooms, where minds were easily blown and Oort clouds were frequent.)
“Feeling a little small?” Tyson asks as we head back to our blue marble. “Well, in the context of the cosmos, we are small.”
That humbling experience of “Cosmos,” then and now, is precisely what offends some people. The wonder of it, the beauty of it, the enormity of it — with nary a mention of the belief in a God who made all of it. The nerve! “You, me, everyone — we are made of star stuff,” Tyson informs us, secure in the knowledge of the table of elements.
This random insignificance still strikes a note of heresy for many, but “Cosmos” doesn’t try to skirt the fact that much remains unknown. “We still don’t know how life got started,” he says. “[It’s] one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of science.”
As much as the new “Cosmos” is a striking and worthy update, its arrival has served as a launchpad for reviewers and writers to engage in their own science nostalgia about the first “Cosmos.”
And why not? It’s difficult to overstate the cultural impact and perfect timing of the original. Sagan’s contagious enthusiasm for space caught on just as the youth of Generation X were discovering their ones-and-zeros, whether dialing up into nascent computer bulletin boards (“War Games”-style) or wasting hours with their Atari consoles. NASA’s space shuttle was about to take off; geek culture was lured out of the basement by Hollywood’s enormous appetite for science-fiction blockbusters; smart kids started getting real attention (as opposed to half-interested nods) for going to space camp or winning science fairs or writing code.
Nerddom in the Radio Shack ’80s was still a long way from the triumphant era of camping out for the new iPhone release; in his turtleneck sweaters and corduroy sport coats and wide-eyed eggheadedness, Sagan himself became an easy punchline (“Billions and billllllions”).
But pop culture comes with its own sort of time-space continuum, in which the well-intentioned people we so easily lampooned in one decade (Mister Rogers comes to mind here) turn out to be our patron saints and guiding lights at a later point. Sagan’s legacy as a science communicator is seen wherever and whenever a smart person gets up in front of a crowd — from pricey TED talks to fifth-period physics — and then persuasively, factually wrangles an impossible concept into compelling sense.
One of the co-executive producers of this “Cosmos” is Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Fox’s “Family Guy” and other animated series. (He’s also a film director, retro Sinatra-style crooner and last year’s Oscar host.) MacFarlane’s involvement is genuine and wiseass-free; like so many others who were adolescents or teenagers when “Cosmos” first aired, he clearly holds the series in high regard and has used his influence to get it aired in prime time on a broadcast network.
MacFarlane’s creative contribution is most evident, I suppose, during a long and not terribly fascinating animation sequence in which Tyson tells the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century Italian monk whose illicit reading of Lucretius and Copernicus inspired him to speak publicly of provocative notions of an infinite universe of suns and planets — and, naturally, led to his imprisonment and eventual execution at the hands of the Catholic Church.
In a cartoon style that recalls both modern anime and a set of catechism Colorforms, Bruno engages in the same tussle between faith and science that vexes us now. “Cosmos” is quite clear on the tragedy of persecuting those who challenge old ideas; barely a decade after Bruno’s death, Galileo peered into space and saw further proof of heliocentrism in the planets and their moons.
There’ll be plenty more animated history lessons throughout “Cosmos,” and it’s during them that a viewer might wish we’d just stick to flying around in the Ship of Imagination. The first episode picks up again when Tyson walks us through a cosmological calendar that puts the vastness of time into an understandable perspective: If each month represents a billion years or so, then each day is 40 million years. If the Big Bang occurs on Jan. 1, it would be summer on the calendar before our solar system forms; by fall, there’s hint of life on young Earth. The narrative of human history doesn’t begin until very late on Dec. 31; with five seconds to go, Jesus is born, followed two seconds later by Muhammad.
That’s the “Cosmos” we knew and loved back in the day — not taunting us with our own insignificance, but rather inspiring us with the relative comfort of perspective. (And, really, how different is a cosmological calendar from the literary tradition of Genesis and the first seven days?) Rather than snuff out a belief in wonder, “Cosmos” encourages us to marvel at it.
Much of what Sagan hypothesized and rhapsodized about has come to pass; most notably, we’ve detected more than a thousand of the exoplanets he thought were out there in billions and billions. From a science standpoint alone, “Cosmos” has plenty of opportunity to revise and improve on the content of the original.
From a cultural perspective, I hope “Cosmos” will pick up the pace and have the same dazzling and meaningful impact it once did. But unless you’re watching it with a child (which I encourage you to do), old fans of Sagan’s show might find the first episode too remedial.
Then again, given the tenor and muck of public discourse these days, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to start from scratch and explain to everyone how the Earth is round and revolves around the sun.
Carl, if you’re out there in the stars — speak kindly of us.
(one hour, first of 13 parts) premieres Sunday at
9 p.m. on Fox; repeats Monday at 10 p.m. on National Geographic Channel