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"Cosmos" series reaches for the stars

"Cosmos" astronomy show

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Carl Sagan would have been proud.

A new version of his 1980’s astronomy series “Cosmos” got off to a big bang Sunday night if I may be permitted the most obvious of puns.

Shown on the Fox network and other cable outlets including the National Geographic Channel, the series’ first episode featured eye-popping graphics and a narration by host Neil deGrasse Tyson that was true to the message of Sagan’s original book and astronomy show.

Tyson even borrows some lines from his mentor’s original script though he doesn’t intone the phrase “billions and billions” quite the way Sagan did.

“We are all star stuff,” he says while explaining that elements from the formation of the universe exist throughout the world including in our own bodies.

Committing to “Cosmos” in prime network viewing time is a gamble for Fox which had made billions (of dollars) off nonstop action dramas and adult humor like “The Family Guy” whose creator Seth McFarlane is one of the ‘Cosmos” producers.

Monday morning television ratings for the first episode were anything but stellar.

“Cosmos” came in third in its time slot with 5.8 million viewers according to the Los Angeles Times. It was outpaced by a show about the dead coming back to life, “Resurrection” (ABC) and “Intelligence” (CBS) a techno thriller about a super cop who can tap the World Wide Web through a microchip in his brain.

If my own household was any indication, getting the audience to accept “Cosmos” will be an uphill battle.

My wife and twenty something son walked out after the first 15 minutes. The show’s format was dull and familiar, they felt.

“It’s like a planetarium show,” my son said.

But if the information being presented may not be thrill packed, the sheer beauty of the special effects is worth the price of admission.

Since Sagan’s death in 1999, planetariums have learned to use graphics and computer generated images to illustrate the most advanced scientific concepts.

Tyson takes his audience through the universe using a Star Wars like space vehicle that travels past the rings of Saturn, above the giant hurricane that makes up Jupiter’s big red spot and out beyond our solar system.

To illustrate the timeline of the universe’s formation, he walks across a massive calendar in which the emergence of man and scientific inquiry doesn’t occur until the last minutes of Dec. 31.

But while Tyson explains the secrets of the universe, he fails to tell us why we should care about the knowledge being presented.

Elaborate images are a good hook, but unless the average Fox viewer understands that the journey though the stars ultimately reveals more about ourselves, the series in little more than elaborate planetarium show.

But the ultimate value of “Cosmos” is revealed in the last quarter of the first episode.

Tyson speaks of his first encounter with Sagan when the scientist invited the kid from Brooklyn to visit his Cornell University laboratory and offered to put him up for the night if Tyson could not catch his train due to a snowstorm.

“I already wanted to be a scientist but after I met him I understood the kind of person I wanted to be,” Tyson said.

And somewhere out in the vast television audience there may be another budding astrophysicist who has found direction from Tyson’s prime time space odyssey.

I image that would make it all worthwhile.