Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey
Episode One – Standing Up In The Milky Way
Fox, National Geographic Channel
Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey is a modern successor to Carl Sagan’s seminal PBS documentary series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the documentary explores the origins of the universe, postulates on the far reaches of space and in future episodes, will explore other scientific disciplines and concepts.
Fittingly, the first episode, Standing Up In The Milky Way, sets the tone for the series by covering the broadest possible spectrum – the Cosmic Calendar of existence – and takes the viewer on a journey starting with The Big Bang and finishing with the dawn of man. The episode also tells the story of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar whose cosmological theories about the Earth orbiting the sun landed him in prison, tortured for years at the hands of the Roman Inquisition who demanded that he repent, before his eventual martyrdom for the crime of heresy.
The Cosmic Calendar and the story of Bruno both show how Tyson and producer Seth McFarlane (of Family Guy fame) intend to bring science to the masses by leveraging both gorgeous computer imagery and elegant yet evocative animation to tell the story. As a non-American peering into the fish bowl, its both unusual and novel to see an American television production that plays it straight with its intentions to educate and inform. I have despaired in the past at the grotesque parodies that other American ‘educational’ channels have turned into as they chase ratings over integrity, creating a wasteland on television where Ancient Aliens plays on The History Channel and Honey Boo Boo is a flagship program on The Learning Channel.
Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey on the other hand, is the real deal. Time will tell as the remaining twelve episodes go to air but this has every chance of rivaling modern BBC documentary productions in terms of its quality and cultural influence. Tyson has long been a terrific ambassador for the scientific community and he is put to good use here. His narration and hosting is enthusiastic and engaging without distracting from the content of the program.
I am surprised and intrigued by Seth McFarlane’s participation as a producer of this program. In fact, without McFarlane who convinced Fox execs to air the show, there would be no Cosmos. It’s interesting to read that his belief that a decline in American space travel ambitions is driven by a “cultural lethargy”. I’m inclined to agree but this coming from a man who produces three near-identical prime time animated shows that are full of non-sequitur gags about pop culture. With McFarlane’s shows, there is no undercurrent of information or references to academia that permeate a Monthy Python’s Flying Circus or The Daily Show etc. Still, regardless of what I think about his own shows, I’m pleased that McFarlane is funding Cosmos all the same.
For all the grandiose star-gazing that the first episode delivers, Standing Up In The Milky Way finishes on a very intimate and personal note. Tyson talks about his childhood and a day spent following Cosmos series creator and scientific pioneer Carl Sagan. It’s a touching account of how Tyson became inspired to become a scientist and shows his very real investment in following in Sagan’s footsteps as a link between the scientific community and the general public.
In the Information Age, there has been some disappointing cultural trends in the Western world that has seen a rise in the number of climate change skeptics, anti-vaccination advocates and peddlers of pseudo sciences such as naturopathy. Academic, peer-reviewed science needs a public face more than ever and its people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Chris Hadfield that are the leaders in their respective fields who can carry that mantle.
Cosmos is a refreshing, entertaining and educational program. I wish those affiliated with the show every success and hope it finds the broadest possible audience.