Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ‘Cosmos’ Is Just Different Enough From Carl Sagan’s to Work

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The roof-raising finale of True Detective will justifiably dominate discussion of the weekend’s television (I’m never going to look at flowers or dolls quite the same way), but last night also saw the premiere of the new Cosmos. I loved the original series, so I approached Sunday’s premiere with as much trepidation as anything else. The idiosyncratic charms of Carl Sagan’s series — the Ship of the Imagination, the turtlenecks, the need to invent the universe before apple pie — are pretty much impossible to replicate, so was this gonna be any good? Happily, the answer — so far, at least — is “yes.”

Part of the charm of Sagan’s Cosmos was its earnest confidence in both its host’s ability to explain and its audience’s willingness to understand. The show assumed that people really did want to know why there were crabs that looked like samurai, or whether there might be more than three dimensions, and that the subject matter was compelling enough that it didn’t need any jazzing up. It’s striking to compare it to later shows like How the Universe Works, where the story of the universe is structured as a narrative, with hilarious cliffhangers and a dramatic voiceover.

Cosmos was never like that — its narrative leaped from the dawn of time to the present to the future and back again, following its creator’s train of thought and his whims. It was presented as “a personal voyage,” and it was — one that could only have been undertaken by the man who took it. Sensibly, host Neil deGrasse Tyson and the new show’s creators don’t attempt to replicate this idea. Instead, this is billed as “a spacetime odyssey,” and Tyson’s style of presentation tends more toward the conventional narration of, say, David Attenborough than Sagan.

Still, Tyson is very much part of the show, and you get the feeling that this series will be as identified with him as the original was with Sagan. At the end of this premiere, he speaks fondly and movingly of the time he met Sagan as a teenager — the two spent a day together, an experience that Tyson suggests was just as formative in shaping his personality as in making him want to become a scientist — and there’s a real sense of a baton being passed here, with Tyson taking up the work of his predecessor and bringing popular science to the world. (He also shares Sagan’s penchants for moments of flair, amusingly donning a pair of sunglasses before bearing witness to a recreation of the Big Bang.)

It’s a tricky balance to strike, paying homage to what’s gone before while steering clear of being a complete pastiche. On the strength of the premiere, at least, the new Cosmos manages to get it right. There are elements that’ll be familiar to fans of the original show — the Ship of the Imagination, the Cosmic Calendar — but also new ideas, like the animated sections that relate the story of ill-fated 16th-century visionary Giordano Bruno, who was one of the first to propose the idea that the sun was just one of many stars, and was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for his trouble.

The animations will divide fans, I suspect, but there’s a certain charm to them, especially as a counterpoint to the big-budget CGI of the new Ship of the Imagination. They’re the sort of thing that Sagan might have liked, you suspect — a method of relating a story that makes it popularly accessible without dumbing down or trivializing the subject. It’s this balance between storytelling and education that the original Cosmos struck so well, and while the first episode isn’t a huge amount of evidence to judge on, the new Cosmos seems to do this well.

Popular science is a field that’s difficult to get right, but hugely rewarding if you do so. As Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the original series with her husband, says here: “Both series combine rigorous scientific skepticism with a soaring sense of the romance of life in the cosmos.” That’s an admirable goal, and one that all popular science should aspire to.

Science shouldn’t be dry — it’s eternally fascinating, especially when you’re dealing with headline topics like the origin of the universe and the birth of stars — but neither should it need to be tarted up for the masses. Like the original Cosmos, Tyson’s series talks to the viewer as an equal, and invites them to come on a fascinating journey. It’s one that we’ll enjoy taking, I think.