March 10, 2014 -- Fox and the National Geographic Channel are broadcasting a reboot of astronomer Carl Sagan’s classic 1980 TV series Cosmos: A Personal Journey, with the new series subtitled A Spacetime Odyssey. If the new series comes anywhere near the quality of the original, it too will become a classic.
Sagan (1934–1996) was a top planetary scientist who worked on most major probes to Mars and other planets during the first decades of the Space Age. He also was one of the most serious and insightful theorists concerning extraterrestrial intelligence. But he was perhaps best known for his path-breaking series Cosmos, which brought astronomy and scientific thinking to a popular audience. I rated this one of the top seven series of the broadcast TV era.
The new series is commanded by a stellar crew. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, takes the Sagan seat helming the “spaceship of the imagination.” Brannon Braga, a producer of Star Trek TV series and movies, directs. Alan Silvestri, who scored the excellent soundtrack for the movie version of Sagan’s novel Contact, provides the series’ music.
Steven Soter, a co-writer the original series, joins in the creation of the new series. With him is Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow who also wrote with Soter in the original, and who is a producer of the new series.
Some might be surprised that the producer who really pushed for the new series is Seth MacFarlane, creator of the Fox cartoon series Family Guy. MacFarlane was inspired by the original Cosmos series. He sees the reduction in interest in space travel in recent decades as part of “our culture of lethargy” and wants the new series to be as inspirational as the old one.
Testing for truth
In the first episode of the new series, Tyson sets the goal of inspiring imaginations but also of promoting a skeptical, scientific approach to truth, of showing the importance of testing theories and ideas rather than accepting them uncritically.
The episode is organized on establishing our cosmic address. Starting with the Earth, he shows our place in the solar system, the solar system’s place in the Milky Way, the Milky Way’s place in our local group of galaxies, that group’s place in the Virgo supercluster of galaxies, and the supercluster’s place in the observable universe.
Like the original series, Tyson offers historical vignettes to show how knowledge actually progresses. The first episode highlights Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake by the Catholic Church in 1600 for arguing that the universe is populated by multiple worlds like Earth and is infinitely large.
Tyson brings back the cosmic calendar from the original series to illustrate just how old the universe really is and just how recent is intelligent life and civilization on our own Earth.
The first episode of the new series was well done though it cover familiar ground from the original series.
The challenge of success
The great challenge of the new Cosmos series is to deal with the fruits of the success of Sagan’s original series. It should be no surprise that the series’ great popularity and the explosion of channels in the era of cable and satellite TV gave birth many new science series, many of good quality—The Universe, Through the Wormhole, How the Universe Works.
What, then, will distinguish the new Cosmos? We can hope that the first fine installment will be followed by others that will inspire wonder at the universe in which we live along with a desire to understand it and, most important, will teach how to think critically and apply reason to glean knowledge of the world in which we live!
Hudgins is director of advocacy and a senior scholar at The Atlas Society.
*Edward Hudgins, “ Cosmos: A Voyage Across The Final Frontier .” July/August 2007