Can the reincarnation of Carl Sagan's iconic masterwork deliver the societal impact of the original series? This weekend viewers in 174 countries get a chance to see the first of 13 hour-long prime-time episodes.
Sunday will be a red-letter day for me — and not because the United States is switching to Daylight Savings Time. (Hardly!)
Instead, that evening will be the culmination of 2½ years of anticipation for the debut of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I've been following this show's progress closely since the project's start-up was announced in 2011.
The hour-long premiere, the first of 13 episodes, airs at 9 p.m. on Fox stations and on Monday at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic cable channel. All told, it'll debut in 174 countries and 47 languages — arguably the most global rollout of any series in television history.
Thanks to the involvement of Fox Broadcasting and entertainment wunderkind Seth MacFarlane, this new incarnation should be a visual treat. The host, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, is the obvious choice — at least for American audiences. He's a well-known popularizer of all things astronomical, and thanks to his day job (director of New York's Hayden Planetarium) the charming and irrepressible Tyson oozes credibility.
Many of you know that the original Cosmos, which first aired in 1980, set the bar very high for all of the prime-time science programming that would follow. It made Carl Sagan a household name, and his unique, measured delivery was seen by an estimated 800 million viewers worldwide, making it the Public Broadcasting Service's most-watched series of all time.
Tyson acknowledges this legacy in the first episode, describing how he met the esteemed Cornell astronomer while still a high-school student and how that encounter changed Tyson's life. But this weekend's debut will not be an homage to Sagan, who died in 1996 at age 62, despite the fact that it's been scripted by Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, who had teamed with him to write the first series. (Sagan and Druyan later married.)
Instead, it attempts to bring the breadth of scientific discovery — and the underpinnings of science itself — to the widest possible audience. By that, I don't mean your typical Nova watcher. Instead, I'm referring to the vast slice of modern citizenry who don't give much thought to even major scientific discoveries or, worse, carry an anti-science bias.
"When Cosmos was first broadcast, the attitude toward science was much friendlier," Druyan told me during an interview last August. She regrets that so many people have become uninformed about and even openly hostile toward fact-based thinking. But she senses that the "pendulum is swinging back our way. We're ready to explore again."
To this point I've seen only snippets of the show. I can tell you that two key visual elements from the original series are back. One is the "Ship of the Imagination," which Tyson navigates from the very micro (an atom's nucleus) to the very macro (the edge of the observable universe). Sagan's SOTI was a stylized dandelion of light, but its new iteration is a sleek, bubble-domed sliver of futuristic design.
The second returnee is the "Cosmic Calendar". Sagan used this clever visualization to compress the entire history of the universe (15 billion years back then, 13.8 billion now) into a single year. By this reckoning, our solar system formed in early September — and humans didn't make their appearance until the last hour of December 31st.
Sorry, that's all I'm going to tell you — you're just going to have to watch the premiere yourself. After viewing it, jump back here to leave your comments and impressions. (And be sure to check out my feature article on the series in Sky & Telescope's April 2014 issue.)