Laura Pearson recommends the revamped Cosmos TV series, which premieres tonight with Neil deGrasse Tyson stepping in for Carl Sagan:
Popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts this time around, but the plot of the 13-part series remains largely out of this world, exploring the farthest reaches of the knowable universe and the origins of life on Earth. Spoiler alert for anyone who missed Sagan’s groundbreaking Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the instructive 1977 film strip Powers of Ten, or every science class ever: The universe is old. Mind-blowingly old and vast. To explore it is to better understand ourselves.
That’s why watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a matter of necessity, and what distinguishes it from what’s usually on TV—Hell’s Kitchen or Kitchen Nightmares or Hotel Hell or My Cat From Hell or whatever. Whereas the vast nebulae of reality shows entice viewers with the notion that ordinary people (and cats) can access instant fame, Cosmos shows reality as it applies to everyone, famous or not.
Matt Zoller Seitz sees plenty to admire about the new version:
The show deploys blockbuster-quality visual effects, triumphant orchestral music by Alan Silvestri (who scored Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, which is based on Sagan’s novel), and cartoon interludes rendered in the handmade style of a graphic novel to make the Big Bang, the rise of Copernican astronomy, and the basic principles of evolution seem as Hollywood-magnificent as the latest Marvel opus. But its greatest special effect is the laid-back charisma of its host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Affable, plainspoken, and charming without seeming full of himself, Tyson might have seemed like Sagan’s obvious successor even if the master hadn’t mentored him as a teen (a tale movingly recounted in the first episode’s final moments). He lacks Sagan’s Vulcan-like vibe but compensates with a self-deprecating average-guyness that often morphs, delightfully, into Danny Ocean cool. (It’s hard to imagine Sagan getting away with donning shades to watch the Big Bang, as Tyson does here.)
Willa Paskin describes a segment about the 16th century monk Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for holding heretical scientific beliefs, and pushes back on Seitz’s suggestion that the new Cosmos is anti-faith:
Writing in New York magazine, Matt Zoller Seitz interpreted this segment of Cosmos as “painting organized religion as an irrelevant and intellectually discredited means of understanding factual reality” and as part of the show’s larger “pushback against faith’s encroachments on the intellectual terrain of science.” (This is particularly in contrast to the sort of echt-spirituality and new-ageism that hovered around the original Cosmos. Sagan himself was agnostic.) Organized religion certainly comes in for it, but I think this segment is up to something more gentle than declaring war on blinkered anti-science evangelists. Cosmos is offering viewers a way to reconcile science and faith: Don’t let your god be too small.
In an interview, Tyson discusses how to think about the new show:
If you only think of “Cosmos” as a science documentary, then the natural obvious question would be, “Well, it’s been 35 years. What has changed?” However, “Cosmos” wasn’t only that, and it wasn’t even mostly that. “Cosmos” is mostly “Why does science matter to you? Why should you care about science? Why should society care about what scientists say? How can you empower your own destiny by becoming scientifically literate?” …
So yeah, since then, we’ve discovered nearly 1,000 planets orbiting other stars, and Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons has an ocean underneath it. There are other experiments that have gotten us closer to understanding the Big Bang. And, of course, the politics are different. Back then, we were steeped in a Cold War and using weapons that were imagined by scientists and used to hold the world hostage.
So, the climate was different than it is now, but there are other prevailing concerns that we have: What is our effect on the environment? Will we be good shepherds of this Earth as we go forward? Do we know enough to be good shepherds of this Earth? Do we understand the risk of asteroids that could render us extinct? These are broad questions, and “Cosmos” takes some element of science and shows you why it is way more relevant to your life than you ever previously imagined.