The first episode of the new Cosmos TV series, subtitled a Spacetime Odyssey, has just hit the airwaves on Fox-owned TV stations across the country. An update to the original Cosmos, written and hosted by the legendary Carl Sagan in 1980. The new series was a collaboration between people involved in the original (among them Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, and Cosmos co-writer Steve Soter),
and a new generation of personalities (such as astronomer and host Neil deGrasse Tyson and producer Seth MacFairlane).
Needless to say, there was a lot of hype surrounding the premiere, which begs the question: can it live up to the original? Well, let's see (spoilers follow, so skip to the last paragraph if you missed the show).
The episode opens with host deGrasse Tyson introducing viewers to the original 1980 Cosmos, which was written and hosted by Carl Sagan. Past addressed, the viewer's new journey begins as deGrasse Tyson reintroduces the Space Ship of the Imagination and takes viewers out to the cosmos.
Starting with the first line of our 'cosmic address,' deGrasse Tyson takes the viewer out to the edge of the observable universe, passing through the Solar System (and catching up with Voyager 1, which was just passing Jupiter at the time Sagan's Cosmos hit the airwaves), continuing outward through the Milky Way Galaxy, passing through our Local Group of galaxies (our galactic neighborhood, if you will), continuing out through the Virgo Supercluster (our galactic city), an finally to the edge of the observable universe, at which point he reminds us that science is an ongoing process and that only in the future, with its greater technology, will reveal more of the universe.
Next, the viewer is taken back to the year 1600 for the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk/philosopher who was burned at the stake for teaching, among other things, that the universe was endless and populated by other planets and that the Sun was only a star, no different than those that we see at night. This was a time before the telescope, when the observable universe consisted of what could only be seen by the naked eye. The story continues with the opposition Bruno's ideas received, namely one of ridicule and outright hostility. His teachings running contrary to the Bible, Bruno was brought before the (un) Holy Inquisition, tried for heresy, convicted, and executed by burning at the stake.
After the tale of Bruno, deGrasse Tyson brings back the ideas of the Cosmic Calendar, the history of the universe compressed into a single year. Through the cosmic year, deGrasse Tyson goes on to explain how the universe, solar system, and life on Earth came into existence, all while relating it into the terms of a single year.
For starters, this series is definitely not the old Cosmos but heavily draws on the original. The music and almost poetic delivery of the original is no longer present, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your point of view. The Space Ship of the Imagination has been dramatically updated as has the cosmic calendar. The special effects that made the original so cutting-edge at the time? Truly stunning thanks to the latest in computer graphics.
The biggest change from the original is the retelling of stories from the past, which is now in cartoon while the original used actors on a set. Personally, I'm not a fan of the cartoons as the animations are on the crude side and the actual people look, well, cartoonish, but they do the job in telling the stories they are supposed to tell.
The science? Bullet-proof here, and updated as well. One thing in our trip around the solar system that was an unknown at the time of the original: the close-up appearances of Uranus and Neptune, both of which are too distant to get good views of with Earth-based telescopes and neither of which had been passed yet by Voyager 2.
As an interesting final tale, deGrasse Tyson relates his personal connection with Sagan. In 1975, Sagan invited deGrasse Tyson, then only 17 but already wanting to be a scientist, to visit him at Cornell University. Here, we get a brief glimpse of Sagan the man, a selfless teacher who not only devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, but to public outreach, as well. According to deGrasse Tyson, he already knew that he wanted to be a scientist, but Sagan taught him what kind of person he wanted to be.
Overall opinion? 4 of 5 stars for the first episode. Personally, I expect the next episodes to be even better.
Will Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey stand the test of time as the original has done? Who knows. Like the original, the science is specific enough to tell the story of why things are the way they are, yet general enough to not be filled with cutting-edge developments that will look terribly outdated in another 34 years. Missed the show? It will rebroadcast on the National Geographic channel tomorrow night, with a new episode coming next Sunday night at 9pm EDT. I will tune in and I recommend you do the same.
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