Taking a New Generation of
Audiences Through the Universe
In 1980, the first Cosmos series aired on PBS and I was mesmerized by it. Each Sunday night we would settle down in front of the TV and travel through space and time, on a journey led by the late Dr. Carl Sagan. He co-wrote Cosmos with Ann Druyan and Stephen Soter.
It is NO exaggeration to say that between this program and Dr. Sagan’s other writings, I was inspired to go back and study astronomy and space science. It changed my life and truly broadened my universe in the best sense of the word. I would not be the writer and science video producer I am today if it hadn’t been for the inspiration I got from the original series. Cosmos became (for me) a personal journey in more ways than Dr. Sagan and the producers might have intended. Fortunately, I was able to tell Dr. Sagan that and thank him for the inspiration, later on in my career, when we met at a science meeting and had a chance to talk.
On March 9th, 2014, the “next generation” of Cosmos will begin airing simultaneously on FOX Network, National Geographic Channel, FX, FXX, FXM, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, Nat Geo Wild, Nat Geo Mundo, and FOX Life. It’s called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I’ve had a chance to see a sneak preview of episode 1 (of 13) and wow, did it provoke a lot of thought! My first impression is that it’s highly worth watching. I enjoyed the program and it brought back fond memories.
Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson is our personable host this time around. He’s a good storyteller and he knows his way around astronomy. He is our guide in a show that is tightly scripted, well visualized, and covers a LOT of material in its first episode. Star birth, planetary formation, the population of galaxies in the cosmos, the human history in relation to astronomy — all part of the overall story. The first segment is also provocative, at one point zeroing in on the conflict between science and faith in the 16th century to make a larger point about how science is not bound by dogma or prescribed thought. I particularly liked Neil’s description of meeting with Carl Sagan when he was a young man; it reminded me of experiences I’ve had with astronomers who took the time to share the wonder of the universe. That sort of “pay it forward” is an incredibly powerful educational tool at a time when the need for science literacy is greatest.
If I have any quibbles with this new Cosmos (and this is me speaking with my producer hat on now), it’s that it tries to do a little too much in the first episode. It really seems rushed in places, not giving the audience time to even ponder for a few seconds what they’ve just seen or heard. Astronomy is a fascinating and complex subject. I know what it’s like to want to tell everybody all the cool stuff, but a presentation needs to give viewers some time to let it all sink in. I suppose the producers could make an argument that audiences are now all tuned to instant news via the Internet and social media. But, even so, we still need time to think about what we’ve learned. That “thinking” is what leads to understanding. Piling it all on, as parts of episode 1 seem to do in a few places, could lead to viewer overload (or, as one producer friend of mine says, the “MEGO” syndrome (my eyes glaze over)). Perhaps this tendency to rush is only in the first episode, where the producers really want to let us know what’s coming in later episodes.
One of the beauties of the first Cosmos was the absolutely lovely thematic music by Vangelis that threaded through each episode. You knew right away that something special was about to happen, and throughout each episode, the music played an important emotional role. It set the stage for beautiful discoveries. I don’t find the music in this new reboot to be as memorable. In some places it is very pretty, but in others it’s verging on bombastic. Music is a producer’s decision, of course, but the music in this show was just not as special as it could have been.
Those production differences of opinion, however, are balanced out by the absolutely beautiful space travel sequences that take us from Earth to the limits of the observable universe (and even a little beyond). As a science video producer myself, I really appreciate the care the producers took to make the episode visually appealing. One of the memorable bits of the first Cosmos was the spaceship of the imagination that Dr. Sagan used to explore the universe. That spaceship is back, now in the form of a gleaming metallic, cigar-shaped construct that traverses the stars and galaxies with ease. I like the concept and the continuation of a great idea. Neil inhabits it nicely, and the visuals and science bring a 21st century sensibility to the trip.
In the final analysis, I found episode 1 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey an entertaining and thought-provoking beginning to what I hope is a memorable series. As I watched, I realized that I wasn’t the same woman who sat mesmerized by Cosmos in 1980. This Cosmos covers ground I have studied and written about and lectured about and shared with many people. And, now, I know it will do for someone else what Carl and the original series did for me: light a fire in their minds, and guide them to learn more about this wonderful cosmos we live in.
I think every generation deserves a Cosmos to do that for them.