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SEASON REVIEW: COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey

SEASON REVIEW: COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey

I’m not in the target audience for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, but it made me want to be.

Even if you never saw the original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage with Carl Sagan at the helm of the Ship of the Imagination, the 13-episode run of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey had enormous momentum behind it. The series featured today’s most recognizable scientist—astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson—and aired in primetime on major TV networks in almost every country will the help animation leviathan Seth MacFarlane. It featured writers, directors, and editors from the original series, and had a special effects budget that would have made the Wachowski Brothers gasp (probably). In short, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey could be the most ambitious attempt at popular science communication to a mainstream audience in decades. I’d like to think that it worked, but we might not know if it did for another few decades.

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Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey follows Neil deGrasse Tyson on a journey that spans literally everything we know about the universe. From dark matter to evolution, DNA to quantum physics, Neil took us there with a combination of fantastic visuals, animated sequences, and stand-ups at over 30 different physical locations. The show progressed much like the original 1980 series, but with all the benefits that come with 2014’s editing technology.

This massive undertaking in science communication included 13 episodes, a companion tablet app, and heavy social media integration. The Blu-ray copy of the series (with promised additional content) has been coordinated as well, and will be in stores tomorrow. Each episode covered a wide swath of scientific knowledge and was in this respect a bit all over the place, but in the show’s defense, covering the entirety of our knowledge about the universe in a 42-minute cable show is a tall order.

Each sweeping episode had its highs and lows, but my favorite episode of the series was its last, “Unafraid of the Dark” (most likely a nod to Carl Sagan’s essential book: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark). This last episode covered skepticism and critical thinking—why science has been so successful in discovering our world—and emphasized how much we still don’t know and why. Dark matter was featured heavily, as it’s basically a “placeholder for our ignorance,” as Tyson says, even though it makes up almost a fourth of the stuff in our universe. Showing how science works, telling audiences to think for themselves, to question authority, to not believe everything you hear (even from Tyson) was maybe the one message in Cosmos that had to stick in a way that knowledge about DNA didn’t have to.

“That’s why I love science… We don’t have to pretend we have all the answers,” says Tyson.

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Other episodes had more political bents. Like the original series, where Carl Sagan took an episode to expound on the dangers of nuclear war, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey included an entire episode entitled, “The World Set Free,” on the dangers of climate change. But unlike a lot of outlets that may focus on the economic or political aspects, Tyson stuck with the physics and the math, pointing out the dangers that will come based exclusively on the data. His explanation of weather versus climate was particularly good, even if the episode didn’t have quite the gravitas Sagan mustered while talking about nuclear winters.

Another episode entitled, “Standing Up in the Milky Way,” tackled the religious persecution of a scientist who had sacrilegious ideas about the ordering of the universe. The episode drew a lot of criticism, as did others that covered topics where religion and science have clashed. Cosmos’ premiere had 15 seconds mentioning evolution mysteriously vanish from a FOX affiliate’s feed in Oklahoma.

For how impactful and visually astounding the episodes of Cosmos were, I did have some nagging problems with the show. The animations, which replaced the original series’ live-action reenactments, were hit-or-miss at times (though they had great voice acting). The almost Southpark-style graphics meshed harshly with the gorgeous HD visuals of Mars or of DNA. Also, there wasn’t really any connection between episodes. The narrative jumped back and forth between topics (new and already covered) enough that I was never sure what was coming next. Cosmos also tried very hard to make you aware that they knew who Carl Sagan was by repeatedly featuring Tyson’s single anecdote about the scientist and mentioning the original series. Sagan should of course be recognized for the work he did, but for the generations of kids that will have no idea who Tyson is talking about—exactly the kids we want the show to reach—the heavy focus on Sagan may have been misplaced. Even so, when Tyson and company repeated the original series it lead to some of the show’s strongest moments.

The “cosmic calendar” returned from the original Cosmos—a tried-and-true metaphor for the scale of time in our universe. For example, if a calendar year were matched to the known age of our universe, all of human history would only occupy the last few seconds of the last day in December. Though the show relied a bit heavily on the metaphor, the updated visuals and Tyson’s silky delivery made it just as impressive as when we first saw Sagan walk into the cosmic calendar.

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The original Cosmos was such a success that generations of science enthusiasts grew up wondering who the next Carl Sagan would be. But as time went on and media diversified, audiences started embracing all forms of delivery and interpretation, rather than just a guy talking to you on the TV. Science blogs became mainstream sources of knowledge coming directly from working scientists, and social media now lets anyone connect with scientists in real time. Maybe we don’t need another Carl Sagan. But after watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, I think we do.

I think we’ve underestimated just how important it is to have a singular scientific experience, to have one event or piece of media that can change the course of your life. Carl Sagan did that for millions of people, and Neil deGrasse Tyson probably will too. But I was surprised that my favorite moment in the entire series of this beautifully realized show was Carl Sagan, reading his most famous passage, “Pale Blue Dot.” (Cosmos told me on Twitter that they found the original masters of the speech and re-mastered them to incredible effect.)

My point is that the original Cosmos really took advantage of Carl’s lyrical narration and way with words. Because the technology simply wasn’t around to make the show visually impressive, it had to rely on the strength of Sagan as a communicator. I’m not sure Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey had the same pressure. As masterful as Tyson is at communicating, much of his work on the show was in the form of short stand-ups and/or voice-overs. He didn’t have to speak to camera for five minutes straight (like Sagan would), and perhaps that’s why this new Cosmos did not hit me quite as hard emotionally or intellectually. But, as the new show emphasizes, I could be wrong. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey doesn’t need to sell me on the wonders of science. I would buy that wonder though, if it did.

I said I wasn’t the target audience for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey because the show isn’t for me—it’s for everyone who hasn’t always had a great interest in science or choose it as a career path. So, highly biased but critical, I loved the new Cosmos. I think it represents nothing less than the very best attempt at mainstream science communication to date. Will that attempt be successful? We might never know. Perhaps when the next great physicist or astronomer or chemist is asked what inspired them to get into science he or she will say, “I loved watching Cosmos and Neil deGrasse Tyson as a kid.” But that kind of cultural penetration is difficult if not impossible to measure.

Every generation needs a Cosmos, a pop culture reference to point at and say, “This is what I love, isn’t this amazing?” Despite the small flaws, I think the show succeeded in being a new reference point in science popularization. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is the show that I will point the curious towards.

Kyle Hill is the Science Officer of the Nerdist Enterprise. Follow the geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

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  1. Kelly says:

    Wachowski siblings – they aren’t brothers anymore. 🙂 excellent article, great take on the show.

  2. I have to agree that it was a noble effort.  There’s been a serious back slide in the last few decades in the respect granted science.  I also feel I wasn’t the right audience (or intended audience).  I grew up with the original Cosmos, Connections, The Nature of Things and Nova.  I wanted something meatier that really played with the brain but by the same token I don’t think that is what’s needed right now.
    Tyson tried his best, and he was very good, but he was no Sagan.  Sagan could spin words using his own voice that truly painted the beauty of the cosmos, illustrated the power and the force of nature and time.  Tyson came close but there was a scripted nature that made him fall just short but we’re in a time where the dialogue has been so muted and he was having to push back against political forces of intolerance in a way his predecessors didn’t that may have clouded the message.  I always found Sagan’s agnostic views more scientifically palatable than Tyson and MacFarlane’s atheistic skepticism.  It’s a valid philosophy but as Sagan himself put it flawed in that it’s a height of arrogance as long as there are things that can not be explained nothing should be off the table.  That said, with the political back lash against science right now Tyson’s stance while at times seeming shrill is more a victim of circumstance and if it was not so hostile an environment may not have come off as quite so shrill.
    I’m glad this show was made, I’m hoping more like it come down the pipe.  We need science, we need learning, we’re in a world that’s in many ways far more backwards than it was 20 or 30 years ago.  We have politicians taking pride in their ignorance, a public who know less about the nature of the universe than ever before, and this scares me.  Thanks to Sagan’s wife for helping this get made and those who backed it and Tyson for having the courage to step out there and be the face of it.  Sadly, in the world today, being the voice of reason and knowledge can lead to your destruction and that’s a very difficult thing to face.