If science, as Neil deGrasse Tyson says, is “the passing of a torch from teacher to student to teacher,” Carl Sagan’s flame is in good hands.
“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Tyson’s long-anticipated, 13-episode reboot of Sagan’s classic 1980 PBS series, premieres Sunday, March 9, on Fox and nine sister networks – and its lineage is true.
The debut episode, “Standing Up in the Milky Way,” conveys both the rigor and wonder of science to the masses the way “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean” stirred viewers of public television on the evening of Sept. 28, 1980.
The archetype series, Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” may have introduced more people to the scientific method and to our species’ intellectual journey than any other piece of popular culture. Nearly 34 years later, it still doesn’t feel all that dated, but Tyson and Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, for years have hungered to bring it to a new generation.
Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, has been an heir to Sagan since a snowy Saturday in upstate New York in December 1975. On that day, Sagan was host to Tyson, a 17-year-old aspiring scientist from the Bronx, in his lab at Cornell University. Tyson, in a poignant aside during the new series debut, says he learned that day “the kind of person I wanted to become” – a member of “a community of minds, reaching back to antiquity and forward to the stars.”
Sagan’s sensibility, and even his voice, inhabit the new series, as do many of his narrative devices. Tyson zips through epochs and parsecs in the 2014 model of Sagan’s “ship of the imagination,” and he condenses the life of the universe into a single year to convey its chronology on a tangible scale, as Sagan did. (The Milky Way was born, by the way, on March 15; our Sun on Aug. 31. Stay tuned for Dec. 17; it’s quite a day.)
And yes, we’re still made of “star stuff.”
Tyson, in his own way, is a guide every bit as engaging as his mentor. He’s a big nerd one minute, talking about methane lakes on Titan, and a street sophisticate the next, slipping on shades to shield his eyes from the Big Bang. His awe at the marvels of time, space and the human experience will translate well to the initiates.
Druyan’s script is elegant. New discoveries are woven in (sorry, Pluto). And if fans of Sagan fear that the updated special effects will overwhelm the story, they needn’t worry. The vessel is sleek, but Tyson is in command.
Some might see a small misstep in the use of animated re-creations of historical events in lieu of the original series’ human re-enactments. The animated narratives seem a bit crude amid the dazzling computer-generated imagery.
But it’s to a genius of pop animation that we owe a debt for this cosmic encore. Seth MacFarlane, the man behind “Family Guy” and a fan of Sagan, is one of the executive producers with Druyan, and the quest to update “Cosmos” got a final push when MacFarlane brought Fox aboard after a lunch conversation with Tyson in 2009.
Five years later, and nearly 18 years after Sagan died, science is under attack, even more than it was three decades ago when that geeky-cool astronomer from Brooklyn was its premier evangelist. But the first episode of Tyson’s series, like Sagan’s, is reassuringly defiant.
Sagan’s utter rejection of creationism in the PBS series, a gutsy stand taken on the public dime, reverberates. Any fundamentalists who tune in, perhaps out of curiosity, will abandon Tyson’s ship 15 minutes after it sails.
And that’s fine with him. He’s on an adventure.