Cal Sagan made the word famous in the first iteration of Cosmos, a TV show that explored well, “everything that is, or was, or ever shall be.” That’s biting off a lot to chew. Sagan pulled it off in 1981 with an erudite, intelligent, fascinating and informative 15-week series on PBS. Sagan was one of the most well-known scientific spokesmen and the show propelled him to celebrity status. His was subtitles “A Personal Journey.”
Now the series has been revamped in 2014 with this generation’s most well-known scientific spokesman, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. New discoveries in the intervening 33 years certainly call for such a move. Even though the subtitle of the new series is the more bombastic “A Spacetime Odyessy,” the producers still have to be careful not to step on, belittle or demean Sagan’s legacy yet continue the quest of explaining scientific process and discovery to the general public.
One way to update is with modern production techniques to create whiz-bang visuals and special effects. The new Cosmos started on the same seashore as the old one and borrowed the spaceship of the mind idea to explore the universe. Sagan started his from the outside — billions of light years away — and traveled in to Earth. Tyson goes the other way, starting here and moving outward. That turns out to be more effective, because Tyson can mention all the planets of the solar system where Sagan couldn’t get Venus and Mercury on-screen because he stopped at the third rock from the sun. Tyson also has more information about what the planets looked like, so his planetary system looks cooler. Of course, in Sagan’s day, Pluto was considered a planet (and at that time was inside the orbit of Neptune) where Tyson simply mentioned something vague about other objects in the system past Neptune, including Pluto. Nothing about the demotion of Pluto from planet status and his role in doing that, but perhaps he’ll go into more detail in a later episode.
Tyson’s version follows the trail blazed by Sagan’s to the point of him saying some of the same words as Sagan in some cases. This shown particularly in the segment of the life of the universe shown as a calendar year to show how all of human recorded history can fit into the last ten seconds or so of the year. Almost word-for-word at the end.
The two men diverge on their choices for early scientific heroes to illustrate how thinkers in ancient times blazed a path for later generations. Sagan went with Eratosthenes, who deduced the size of the Earth my measuring the shadows of sticks stuck in the ground. Tyson chose Giordano Bruno, a 12th century monk who suggested the sun was the center of the universe, not the Earth. He was eventually burned at the stake for suggesting that. Eratosthenes was a scientist, Sagan points out, where Bruno wasn’t because he didn’t have facts to back him up, says Tyson.
This choice of “hero” illustrates best the differences between the two shows. Sagan is more of a dreamer, Tyson more prosaic. Sagan spoke in poetry — “We are the way for the cosmos to know itself” — where Tyson’s style is more lecture. Both men say “starstuff,” but when Sagan says it, it’s just that more lyrical. Nothing wrong with that, but Tyson should let himself wax poetic once or twice. Wouldn’t hurt his image that much.
Sagan’s ethereal music — such as the show’s theme, Movement 3, “Symphony to the Powers B” from the album Heaven and Hell by the electronic artist Vangelis — has been replaced by the tedious orchestrations that mark scores of modern films such as Star Trek or Star Wars. Perhaps this isn’t surprising because a main backer of the new series is Seth MacFarlane, a potty-mouthed producer of potty-mouthed TV and movies who is wont to “borrow” from other creators. The credits also list Brannon Braga, who was on the staff for Star Trek: The Next Generation. This also perhaps explains why Tyson’s spaceship of the imagination resembles Boba Fett’s spacecraft from Star Wars. In flight, it resembles a coffin. (Update, April 10: I finally figured out what it does resemble: a sarcophagus. And it gives me the creeps every time I see it sliding through the cosmos.) In one scene, as the ship flew low over a rocky world, I expected a giant space worm to rise out of a hole and snap at the spacecraft. Given the show’s personnel, and the fact that it’s on commercial TV, I keep anticipating pop-culture references, like the U.S.S. Enterprise visiting a new world or the Millennium Falcon zipping by a distant galaxy.
The original show was based on the BBC model of documentary series where the host would visit the places under discussion and dramatize the stories of the historical figures under discussion. But the new show has commercials, which squeezes the time, so it looks like Tyson will spend most of his time in his spacecraft or standing on a beach or a meadow. And the dramatizations will be animated the way the Bruno story was. Perhaps that saves money, but with all the commercials, you’d think they’d have enough to spare. But, this is the modern world, and in this world everything mus make s money for someone somewhere. Altruism is so ’70s.
The most affecting part is Tyson’s telling use about a visit to Sagan when Tyson was a teen. That’s Sagan, all right, taking time to talk to a kid about the wonders of science, and in this case, it certainly paid off. Tyson points out that this is another process in how science works — a teacher passes information to a student, who uses it to carry research further, then he becomes a teacher and passes what he found out to the next student. And on and on. A nice touch, but we must hope the series doesn’t become too much of a paean to Sagan.
It’s good to have science and rational thought on TV, especially network TV. The first show was interesting and Tyson’s no-nonsense style is engaging and the eye candy was compelling. Plus, if Tyson continues to take an occasional jab at conventional thinking, that could only be a good thing.
Update: paragraph added 10 March ’cause I left it out of the original version.