Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Review

The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the landmark PBS documentary series, is one of the most influential informative television series in history. Hosted by astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan and co-written by Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, the series is the most-watched series in the history of public television, having been seen by over 500,000,000 worldwide. Countless scientists and other intellectual types have listed Cosmos as a turning point in their personal interest in studying science.

Now, the television network that brought us Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire, partnered with the man who brought us The Cleveland Show are reviving this show. What could go wrong?

Well, that wasn’t necessarily fair (at least, on Cleveland Show creator Seth MacFarlane’s part). MacFarlane is a serious science aficionado, which is evident in the Library of Congress’ Seth MacFarlane Collection of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, a collection of Sagan’s notebooks, correspondence and documents, collected and purchased using a donation from the Family Guy creator. It is with optimistic trepidation, then, that Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered on every FOX-owned network on Sunday.

Neil-deGrasse-Tyson-and-Seth-MacFarlane_article_story_mainI’m not quite sure how to review this show. Do I compare it note-for-note with the PBS original? I don’t know if that’s effective: commercial-free, hour-long episodes for public television versus full-commercial, 40-minute shows with the end goal of making money for Rupert Murdoch? I can question motives until the universe ends. Inversely: a show created in 1980 using late 70s motion graphic technology or a show created in 2014 with the full force of the Fox network’s budget behind it, tech-wise? Another ineffective comparison.

What I can compare is the effect of the original series to the new—or at least, the first episode of each series, which are very similar: both scientists, Sagan and new host and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, stand in the Spaceship of the Imagination, a futuristic vessel in which our host leads us through a reverse course from our home planet to the future reaches of the known universe. Each host then discusses the Cosmic Calendar, a history of the known universe’s chronology compressed to one calendar year.

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Added to A Spacetime Odyssey was a vignette about Giordano Bruno, an Italian friar who theorised about the infinite nature of space in a time where the Roman Inquisition frowned on that sort of interstellar thinking (to say the least) and burned him at the stake.

Watching A Spacetime Odyssey in HD was truly a sight to behold. While some on the internet chided the graphics, I thought they were stellar. The spaceship was sparsely decorated and lacked detail, but that’s perfect—we’re not here to look at the spaceship, we’re here to look out of the spaceship. The CGI sequences of space, the different planets and the vastness of our galaxy were all brilliantly rendered, from the atmosphere of Venus to the Big Red Spot on Jupiter. I don’t doubt their scientific accuracy based on the people who are working on this, although I thought the asteroid belt was slightly less densely-populated with asteroids. (I could be wrong.) The mix between live-action video and CGI, showcased by Tyson pointing out a tetrapod walking on land for the first time, was effective and seamless.

[message_box title=”An aside about storytelling.” color=”gray”]An interesting aside: an effective course of storytelling is to give the protagonist as few details as possible, to make it easy for the reader/viewer to relate to. Visual heros like Mario are nothing more than a man with a pair of overalls, while their bad-guy counterparts are heavily detailed with spikes, shells and fire breath. In the Twilight series, Bella lacks any physical description while Edward gets about 87 chapters worth of describing his glittery skin (hat tip: the Oatmeal). The reason why the Spaceship of the Imagination is so sparsely rendered is that we’re not meant to focus our attention on it. To that effect, it works perfectly.[/message_box]

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of A Spacetime Odyssey, is no stranger to both public television and science. He is currently the director of the Hayden Planetarium and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. He hosted the PBS series NOVA ScienceNow for five years, a kind of grown-up Bill Nye the Science Guy. He and Carl Sagan share a gift: the ability to breaking down complex scientific theory and explain it with the appropriate amounts both gravitas and awe. Tyson does a great job of walking us—quite literally—through the Cosmic Calendar and explaining just how vast our universe is. His narration carries us through the cartoon vignette of Bruno, and its animation (developed by animator Kara Vallow, known for her work on Family Guy, Johnny Bravo and Dilbert and animated by Six Point Harness, which has worked on Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show, Wow Wow Wubbzy and animated sequences in Black Dynamite and EuroTrip) is effective, engaging and a welcome change of pace in the show from the photo-realistic shots of space.

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The science—the most important part of Cosmos—is sound. Never did I feel confused or overwhelmed with the facts presented to me. The careful scripting of the each fact, combined with the visuals on the screen and Tyson’s deliberate narration left no room for ambiguity. Facts and figures were emphasized and highlighted with primetime panache. This is a show being hosted by the man who managed to notice that the Daily Show’s globe rotated in the wrong direction and the stars in James Cameron’s Titanic‘s nighttime scenes were incorrect for their place and time (and had it corrected in the re-released 3D version). Of course the science is going to be sound.

There have been complaints that there wasn’t a lot of actual science in A Spacetime Odyssey. Tyson addressed that in an interview with Big Picture Science:

The task for the next generation of Cosmos is a little bit different because I don’t need to teach you textbook science. There’s a lot of textbook science in the original Cosmos, but that’s not what you remember most. What most people who remember the original series remember most is the effort to present science in a way that has meaning to you that can influence your conduct as a citizen of the nation and of the world–especially of the world.

Without a doubt, that’s what the end goal of Cosmos is: a reminder that even if we’re alone in the universe, we are the only ones who have the ability to make or break this rock we live on, and if we’re going to survive, we need to survive together.

Will this show change the world like Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos did? Only time will tell. Television as a world-changing medium isn’t as strong as it once was: the primordial ooze of cable was just starting to coagulate when Cosmos premiered on PBS. Now,  the universe of channels that exist make it difficult for one show to effect the masses like Cosmos or Roots or Battle of the Network Stars did in the past. I admire what Fox, MacFarlane, Druyan and Tyson are doing. Reviving Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is no small feat, and they are living up to the production, scientific and moral values that the original Cosmos represented.

[message_box title=”tl;dr: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” color=”blue”]5 out of 5 supernovas. From a technical, intellectual and emotional standpoint, Fox’s Cosmos delivers an updated—and worthy—revival of PBS’s original.[/message_box]