Entering COSMOS

1980’s classic PBS series COSMOS rebooted across Fox networks Sunday evening.  Beginning with an introduction by President Obama, and the voice of the late Carl Sagan himself delivering the opening lines from the original episode “the cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be,” a new generation has the opportunity to deliver, and to receive, science as entertainment.

Or perhaps it should be a “next” generation.  With stunning visuals, and direction by veteran Star Trek TNG producer Brannon Bragga, the new COSMOS was evocative of Star Trek on several points.  It is hosted by well known “celebrity” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who sits very Kirk-like in the command chair of a re-styled “ship of the imagination” even as he bears an unmistakable resemblance to a slightly older version of the Enterprise D’s chief engineer, thankfully minus the visor. Even the oddly shaped “ship” itself is reminiscent, not of the Enterprise, but of Spock’s vessel in the big screen re-imagination of Trek.  Soon however, the science takes over, and the show takes off.  The only distracting element is the deliberately rough, anime style cartoon segments which will apparently be employed to relate stories from human history and the evolution of the scientific method.

Though presumably unintentional, and perhaps intended to hold the attention of younger viewers, the cartoon segments, which in the first episode told the sad story of condemned Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, have the effect of minimizing the human element, particularly when contrasted against the gorgeous visuals presented in the rest of the show.

Curiously, Tyson does not introduce himself until the episode’s conclusion, when he completes the circle by reflecting on the impact of day spent with Carl Sagan in 1975 when he was a teenager, underscored by an entry in Sagan’s personal calendar.  The hope expressed by Tyson, (and the President in the intro) is that the new series will have a similar effect on future generations. With positive reviews and a vast potential audience, it will be interesting to see where Tyson and the new COSMOS departs from the original over its 13 episode run, and whether it will lead to another season or new productions on other networks.   

The original COSMOS was set against the backdrop of an escalation in the Cold War, as Sagan described in the opening  “a time of great danger.”   While we are hopefully not in store for a re-boot of that as well, deterioration in relations between the U.S. and Russia are a stark reminder of the fact that our own tiny “mote” in the cosmos is still stocked with far too many nuclear weapons to assume the threat has passed. 

What remains to be seen, is what impact the new series can have on a generation which has far more in the way of distractions to take it away from considering, and investigating, the hard questions of science.  The original COSMOS described our species as “young, curious and brave.” One hopes that is still the case.   

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