Seriously, who would have thought the mind behind Family Guy could somehow Voltron up with Carl Sagan’s widow and the man, the mustache, Mr. Neil deGrasse Tyson to make a big deal science show that might just get everyone in your household hyped about the universe, life, and the origins of both?
Fox and NatGeo invited Topless Robot out to Space Camp in Huntsville to view the premiere of the 13-episode series and have a chat with its co-creator and Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan in advance of its March 9th premiere. And I have to say Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey is good – very good. So good, I would hazard to say that the reinvention of the classic ’70s science series is actually important. And we’re going to tell you the eight reasons why you shouldn’t miss it.
Come with me…
8. A Head Trip for the Whole Family
This is a show about the very origins of the universe featuring a man on a CG space ship zipping around talking about its building blocks (with a view that would put the Illusive Man’s to shame).
Druyan says the series is the result of the work of over 750 people across five years: an attempt to map out where we come from (and hopefully, where we’re going), using deep space photography, CG, animation, and good, old-fashioned heart.
“I feel like science has a really great story to tell,” Druyan tells us, offering that Cosmos is a chance to acknowledge the spiritual with the scientific.
It’d be easy to call the expansive scope “weird” or trippy, but it’s instead an exciting look at the scope of our universe, a “story” mapped out across billions of years that can make the viewer feel both small and like an important piece of a narrow slice of galactic history.
7. It’s Got Music From the Composer for The Avengers
Oh, Cosmos sounds great, and that’s thanks to a score by Oscar-nominated and Grammy-winning composer Alan Silvestri – who was only tapped for a theme for the series according to Druyan.
He went above and beyond.
“We sent him the rough cuts of the episodes and expected him to do a theme to be used through several hours of the series,” Druyan says. “He was so taken… that he wanted to write every single second of the 13 hours.”
Cosmos is a rarity on TV with music taken from live sessions composed by Silvestri, giving the whole production a big budget, film feel.
Druyan worked with Silvestri on the big screen adaptation of Contact, but it was Seth MacFarlane who recommend the composer for the show.
6. Seth MacFarlane Helped Make It Expensive, Expansive
Druyan told us that she’d been shopping Cosmos around for years before landing at Fox, in each case circling a potential broadcaster before having to turn them down. The reasons? They were stingy with the budgets and wanted editorial control of the series – something Fox, and collaborating with the man behind Family Guy, was ultimately able to offer.
Druyan says MacFarlane was a hero in her household thanks to his animation work, and that he really stepped up to the plate in getting the series made. While MacFarlane’s work is often juvenile, bordering on misogynistic, transphobic and outright mean, he’s also an incredibly smart and funny guy with a real science boner, according to Druyan (who did not, in fact, use the words “science boner”), dating back to the original series.
It was MacFarlane who reached out to Dr. Tyson about a way to get a global audience interested in science, and Dr. Tyson who put MacFarlane in contact with Ann Druyan, leading to a Cosmos that, not incidentally, has some pretty sweet animation.
5. No Cheesy Live-Action Sequences
“The whole idea of animating these heroes of knowledge was Seth,” Druyan told us. The original series is remembered for its painfully sincere but occasionally low-budget live-action historical reenactments which might not fly with today’s audiences.
The new Cosmos includes animated sequences dramatizing these so-called “heroes of science”: dreamers, thinkers, and philosophers who used rigorous scientific methodology to construct a picture of life on Earth and in relation to the rest of the universe.
Druyan says that MacFarlane assembled the collection of character designers and artists who would work from the show’s scripts to create a series of shorts voiced by the likes of Richard Gere, Patrick Stewart and Kirsten Dunst.
Think about it: this is a show were the portions with a man talking science from the deck of his space ship isn’t the single most visually-arresting component. That alone makes Cosmos a must-watch.
And speaking of the man on the ship…
4. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Science Ambassador
“To talk with Neil is to talk to a person who really wants to share,” Anne Druyan tells us of the Cosmos host.
In our 10 Heroes of Black Nerddom piece, we talked about why Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is important as the modern face of science and scientific thought, and we won’t rehash those reasons here.
The big surprise is what a perfect host he is for Cosmos, bringing just the right amount of charisma, humanity and gravitas to a show that could have easily hired a celebrity spokes-critter (I’m thinking one of the geek minstrels from Big Bang Theory) to front the show.
Serving as both our narrator and guide, Dr. Tyson blends the academic, the cosmic, the spiritual and the personal in a way that’s surprising on a big-budget piece of TV.
Druyan says that “As much as [Carl] knew, he never spoke to impress people with how much he knew, only to communicate and to connect. And I think that’s one of the reasons he’s so beloved. And the same thing is true for Neil.”
He’s also responsible for the most emotional moment in the pilot episode.
3. Hold Up, There’s Something in My Eye…
See that picture up there? That’s a young Neil deGrasse Tyson, years before he would be a fixture on television and in the news talking about space, science, and getting a gig on a big budget science show. Once upon a time, that skinny kid was a huge Carl Sagan fanboy, and the story that the adult Dr. Tyson tells late in the pilot aims for the heart where much of Cosmos aims for the head.
Tyson recounts how, as a teen, he was invited by Sagan to visit his home in Ithaca, New York, the famed academic taking time out of his schedule to talk with a young man about a future in science.
You’ll have to see the segment to see why it had a couple of journalists tearing up, but when Tyson says that meeting Sagan made him realize what kind of man he wanted to be, there might be some sniffles coming from your living room, too.
2. The Spirit of Carl Sagan Lives!
Fans of the original Cosmos are in for a treat when the new series makes its debut: Carl Sagan’s voice is one of the first things that greets audiences, asking them to join him on a journey of discovery through space and time.
Besides the nostalgia factor (which is kind of a big deal for some fans), it also serves as a cool passing of the torch from one generation to the next, a kind of an endorsement from beyond the grave from Carl to Ann and company. What could come off as macabre and manipulative instead feels like the show’s efforts to show us the evolution of the series (and our visions of the cosmos).
Plus, that voice, 30-odd years later asking you to come with him on a journey remains a hypnotic and wonderful thing.
1. We Need to Dream Bigger
“The dreams of a generation before have kind of been downsized,” Ms. Druyan told us when asked about the new Cosmos. The author, producer and writer says that at least here in the U.S., we’re in an era that’s hostile (or at least apathetic) to science.
And who can blame her for seeing it that way? Hell, the most disheartening thing I read this week was a Dartmouth study showing that presented with hard, scientific data, anti-vaccination proponents would actually become more certain of their beliefs rather than the concrete facts. We’re in a period where the shuttle program has been killed, where creation myths are making their way into science curricula, and science doesn’t get the full-throated advocacy it deserves.
I’ll leave you with this thought: when I asked why now was the right time to bring Cosmos back to the airwaves, Ms. Druyan suggested that it was always a good time for a series like this. “It’s always a good time to have a cosmic perspective and the kind of awesome perspective of science at your disposal.”
Previously by Charles Webb
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