After 34 years, astronomer Carl Sagan's voice once again introduces a TV series of "Cosmos" proportions: "The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be ... Come with me." But this time, "Cosmos" has a new guide, a new audience, a new network and a changed scientific landscape to explore.
The torch has been passed from "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," which made its debut on public television in 1980, to "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," which premieres Sunday on Fox. Sagan passed away in 1996 after a battle with bone marrow disease, but the hosting duties have been taken up by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
One "Cosmos" echoes the other: In both series, a Ship of the Imagination carries the narrative from earthly shores to the far frontiers of the universe. In both series, more than 13 billion years of time are laid out as one year on a Cosmic Calendar, with all of recorded history taking up only the last 14 seconds of the last day.
But don't refer to the new "Cosmos" merely as a reboot of the old one. If you do, you'll draw a sharp comment from Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, who was a co-writer of the first series and the executive producer and co-writer of the new series.
"It's a completely new set of adventures," Druyan told NBC News. "We tell completely different stories, and we have capabilities that didn't exist technically when Carl and [astrophysicist/co-writer] Steve Soter and I created the original series."
New twists to the science
After the introduction of the series with Sagan's quote, this "Cosmos" quickly sets a 21st-century tone with cutting-edge special effects. During the season's 13 weekly episodes, the show will send Tyson through the haze of a nebula's dust, plunge viewers into Titan's hydrocarbon seas, delve into a bear's reproductive system and trace a fantastic voyage to the bottom of a dewdrop.
Even in the first episode, titled "Standing Up in the Milky Way," a sharp-eyed viewer can notice scientific twists Sagan could have only guessed at.
One live-action/animated scene shows Tyson standing on a primeval shore while Tiktaalik, a fish-animal whose fossil remains were discovered in 2006, crawls out from the sea. The show's travelogue includes the plethora of other worlds alongside Pluto and beyond our solar system — a planetary frontier that was just starting to open up when Sagan died.
Since that time, astronomers have identified more than 1,600 extrasolar planets — serving to confirm what Dominican friar Giordano Bruno suspected in the 16th century. Bruno insisted that other worlds had to circle the stars he saw in the sky — and was eventually burned at the stake for his views. His story is the first to be featured in a regular animated segment that spotlights history's "Heroes of Knowledge."
"These are examples of really revolutionary courage, but without the throwing of a single bomb or the taking of a life," Druyan said.
Executive producer Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow, worked with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to bring an updated "Cosmos" to prime-time TV.
Tyson also touches on the idea that our entire universe may be just one of many bubbles in a "multiverse" that includes places where the laws of physics are radically different. That concept would have been dismissed as science fiction in Sagan's day, but today some physicists see it as a valid way to explain the gaps in our understanding of the workings of the universe.
Looking beyond all the upgrades in research findings and special effects, the message of the new "Cosmos" is the same one Sagan delivered 34 years ago: that scientific realities are as wonderful and as spiritual as any fictional fantasy, and that the scientific perspective is eminently worth promoting and defending.
"We've lived through a period of real antagonism toward science and alienation from science. I think the thing that Carl would love most about this 'Cosmos' is how strongly it makes the case for the ethos of science, and the values of science which were so precious to him. That's really the heart and soul of this series," Druyan said.
"We always felt that science has a great story to tell, and yet ... I know how many dedicated and excellent science teachers there are, but reading the science textbooks in the last few years has made me very sad, because they don't at all capture the great story that science is telling," she said.
Completing a cosmic circle
Druyan spent years trying to bring that great story back to prime-time television — and eventually she found the right backer in fellow executive producer Seth MacFarlane, who created a string of animated TV series for Fox including "Family Guy" and "American Dad." To some, that may seem odd. But the key to success was that McFarlane and Fox were willing to give Druyan and her collaborators full control over the new "Cosmos."
"All I could say to you is what I said to the other networks: I know what 'Cosmos' is, and if you knew what 'Cosmos' was, you would have made a 'Cosmos' in the last 34 years," Druyan said.
She said "it's been a joy" to collaborate with Tyson, one of the scientific community's smoothest communicators. In a way, Tyson's involvement completes a cosmic circle. Toward the end of the debut episode, he recalls that Sagan invited him to visit his lab in upstate New York during a snowy weekend in 1975, when Tyson was just a science-crazy teenager from the Bronx.
"At the end of the day, he drove me to the bus station," Tyson says. "The snow was falling harder. He wrote his phone number, his home phone number, on a scrap of paper, and he said, 'If the bus can't get through, call me, spend the night at my home, with my family.' I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become."
Just as the torch of science is passed from one generation to the next, the torch of "Cosmos" has now been passed from Sagan to Tyson.
"Come with me," Tyson tells the viewer at the episode's close. "Our journey is just beginning."
"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" makes its TV debut on Sunday on multiple Fox and National Geographic channels. The show will be broadcast on 220 channels in 181 countries with an overall footprint of more than half a billion homes. Going forward, episodes will air on Sundays on Fox, and on Mondays on the National Geographic Channel. For detailed schedules, check local TV listings.
First published March 7 2014, 8:00 AM