This Sunday sees the Fox premiere of Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, a follow-up to the 1980 science documentary series Cosmos: A Personal Journey. A Personal Journey was hosted and written by the great Carl Sagan, and his widow and co-writer Ann Druyan has been trying to bring a successor to the screen for years. Who else could captain today's Ship of the Imagination but beloved rockstar astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson?
Last night Druyan and Tyson brought the first episode to Austin's Paramount Theatre, and although the series is made for television, seeing this vast subject matter tackled on the big screen felt just right.
There's an earnestness to Cosmos that could read as corny to the jaded. The premiere episode, "Standing Up in the Milky Way," offers a combination of beautifully rendered digital effects, wonderful hand-drawn animation and straightforward scenes of Tyson just speaking to the camera, teaching the audience in that engaging way he has that never feels like lecturing. While some of the effects in Cosmos are really quite innovative, there's an old-school feeling here. I've always loved scientific educational programs from the '80s, and Cosmos feels sort of wholesome and almost quaint - surprising words to use when we're talking about the immeasurable infinite, maybe, but it's thanks to Cosmos' accessibility. This is a show that I imagine will light a fire in tiny nerds across the country, latent scientists who only need to glimpse the wonder of the universe to know what they want to spend the rest of their lives studying.
The hero of "Standing Up in the Milky Way" is Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Italian friar who first conceived of a boundless universe, not only understanding that the sun is the center of the Solar System but even grasping that the sun is just one star in an illimitable sea of them. Naturally, because he was right, he was burned at the stake, but Cosmos presents his story as triumph rather than tragedy. This is a man whose imagination exceeded every person of his time, and above all else, Cosmos celebrates imagination, and the wondrous scientific discovery that imagination can bring.
I think what I loved best about Cosmos - what I have always loved about analytical examinations of the universe and multiverse - is that I like being reminded of my cosmic insignificance. There's a relief there, a reminder of perspective that allows me to stop sweating the small stuff. As Tyson walks across a calendar year dotted with celestial objects, he uses the visual representation to explain that in the cosmic calendar, if the Big Bang occurred in the first second of January 1st, humans have only populated the final few seconds elapsing as the clock ticks toward midnight on December 31st. He presents this fact with wonder rather than cynicism, and it made me feel small but full of awe.
In the closing moments of the episode, Tyson sits on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean - precisely where Sagan sat 34 years ago - and holds a personal calendar once owned by Sagan. Written on one of the dates is the name "Neil Tyson" followed by a question mark. Tyson speaks of his first meeting with Sagan, an awkward, science-obsessed teenager meeting his hero, and of the incredible warmth and approachability Sagan showed him that day. He says that Sagan not only showed him the kind of scientist he wanted to be, but the kind of human. It's a beautiful, intimate moment in such a vast episode, and a fitting tribute to the original captain of that spaceship powered half by scientific discovery and half by human imagination.
The Q&A was a delight, of course - Tyson sat onstage wearing cowboy boots and drinking a Lone Star, answering questions with the charming ease with which he seems to do everything. He talked about the irony of Cosmos airing on Fox, home to Fox News among other things, and said that he thinks it may be the perfect home for the series, as the people who see this show might be precisely who needs to see it. And to the inevitable critics of Cosmos' fact-based programming: "The good thing about science is it's true whether or not you believe it."
Druyan spoke of the original series and its newest iteration, saying in a few short words what works so beautifully about both: "Equal parts rigorous skepticism and wonder." I couldn't say it better myself.