SXSW 2014: Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Hopes and Challenges of Revisiting ‘Cosmos’

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AUSTIN, TX: Over the past couple of years, as an indication not just of the festival’s expanding scope but the sheer high quality of the medium’s current offerings, more and more television has made its way onto the SXSW Film Festival’s slate. This year’s “Episodic” sidebar includes premieres of several new shows, including a plum opening night slot for Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to Carl Sagan’s beloved miniseries, again co-written by his widow Ann Druyan, and hosted by the Internet’s favorite scientist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Cosmos is the story of how we found our coordinates in space in time, as a species,” Druyan explained, while introducing the first episode, “Standing Up in the Milky Way,” to a packed house at the giant Paramount Theatre. “And it’s a story, many stories, that can be told and must be told, every generation. And so this new Cosmos has some of the genes of the original, and I hope all of the heart of the original, but we have many new stories to tell, and many new trips to take.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson at SXSW. Photo Credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

The 13-episode show was the result of years of pitches to networks interested in the Cosmos brand, but unwilling to grant Druyan either the control or the budget to make it happen. The show finally came together thanks to an unlikely benefactor. Tyson had spoken at the inaugural gathering of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences. That exchange, Tyson explained, was the result of a realization that “for science to matter in the 21st century, it would require some level of mainstreaming. It would require for someone to buy into it, other than scientists.”

In the audience that day was Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, who arranged a lunch with Tyson and was excited to learn about the Cosmos sequel, since he (like many of us) had so adored the original miniseries as a child. But Tyson was initially resistant to MacFarlane’s offer to pitch the show to his bosses at Fox: “I said, ‘Nope, he doesn’t get it.’ That was in the first three seconds, I thought that. In the second three seconds, I thought, wait a second, Fox then had the number one show on television, Fox is 20th Century Fox, Fox is Searchlight, it’s Fox Business, it’s Fox Sports, it’s Fox network, yes, it’s Fox News–it’s all of these branches of human demographics, on roads crossing in the portfolio of Fox. And you have the sort of conservative commentary that goes on at Fox News, and the sort of acerbic liberal commentary in Family Guy and on The Simpsons. Fox has all of this! And I said to myself, if science is gonna reach the largest possible audience, that’s the network it outta be on!”

The resulting series–or at least the episode screened at SXSW–recaptures the original show’s mixture of science and approachability, filled with a sense of awe and the joy of discovery, not without a touch of humor (often thanks to the careful deployment of Tyson’s sly little smile). Mixing animation, nature footage, narration, and jaw-dropping special effects, the show is inventive and intelligent; it is also bound to meet with some controversy in certain far-right circles, insisting as it does on the idea that the Big Bang and evolution and climate change are, y’know, real things. In that way, it’s more timely and loaded than it predecessor–or, as Druyan noted, though the show is premiering in 117 countries in 45 languages, “I don’t know if there’s any country that needs Cosmos more than this one.”

Left to right: Moderator Logan Hill, writer/producer Ann Druyan, host Neil deGrasse Tyson. Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire

Tyson, in discussing the show’s perspective and potential political ramifications, is insistent but not confrontational. “I think the good thing about science–and by science I mean the truths that have emerged about truths and observations–the good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it,” he noted, gently. “You can’t complain if this past month you gained ten pounds, you can’t decide you want to repeal the law of gravity, because it’s affected your scale in ways you don’t like. And to the scientific community, that’s what it looks like when people choose sides over emergent scientific truths.

“So that’s what Cosmos is: it’s an offering, to the viewer, of how science works, and why it matters that we know how it works, and how you fit into how and why science works. So we’re not beating anybody over the head. I think the people who are cherry-picking scientific results for their own philosophies, I think they just don’t understand how science works. So I don’t even blame them–I think they’re victims of a failed educational system that left them susceptible to that kind of thinking.”

But there’s only so much Tyson’s celebrity and patience can do. An audience member noted that two years to the day before Cosmos‘ SXSW screening, Dr. Tyson was in front of the Senate Science Subcommittee, making a plea to save NASA’s funding. And if it didn’t take, Tyson is sanguine; he’s playing the long game. “It’s my task to educate people so that they can then choose their leaders, their members of Congress, knowing that they will allocate funds in the interest of their dreams,” he explained. “So Cosmos, we’d like to think, will affect everybody, but at its best it will affect an electorate. And the electorate can then choose the future that they want, empowered by the ideas, the wisdom, the insight, the influence–not only intellectually, but emotionally. And when you combine it with wonder and awe, a touch of spirituality, the feeling that you are a part of something bigger than yourself, this universe… that feeling, that cosmic perspective, if it manifests itself in who you elect to Congress, can you imagine what kind of future we’d be making for ourselves?”