Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premieres tonight on Fox at 9/8c
For every galaxy, star, and planet that will appear on television screens tonight during the premiere of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the moment that may stick out for most viewers will take place right here on Earth. On a cliff, precisely, that overlooks crashing waves stretching far into the distance.
It’s here that Tyson pulls out a notebook that was owned by his mentor and former Cosmos: A Personal Voyage host, Carl Sagan. From this point he describes his beginnings as a young student who was eager to learn about the universe, and Sagan's excitement to teach him and countless others about it, in the hopes that they, too, could one day inspire others to learn science and explore worlds outside of our own. "Who was I back then?" Tyson asks. "I was just a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx, with dreams of becoming a scientist." That kid from the Bronx is now a famous astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Tyson's become a big name in pop culture and the science community in recent years (the dude even has his own meme and has appeared on The Daily Show multiple times.) Outside of a small group of other science personalities, almost no one else has gained as much exposure on both television and the Internet as he, so it's unsurprising that Tyson would host the reboot of the legendary program that Sagan helped create back in the 80s, which has since been watched by some 750 million people.
What is surprising is that Seth MacFarlane—creator of Family Guy, American Dad, and Ted—is one of the people helping to resurrect Cosmos as an executive producer. Now, before you brush off the show because of this: if you're an avid fan of Family Guy, all you have to do is think back to the many Star Wars-themed episodes and Stewie's time machine to pick up on MacFarlane's geekiness, which is as much a part of him as is his comedy.
The premiere, "Standing Up in the Milky Way," pays homage to Sagan. When subsequent episodes roll around, though, this may be dialed down: Not only because Tyson's personality is different than his predecessor, but also due to Sagan's generation of viewers being very different than today's viewers, which Tyson aims to tap into. The times are different as well. We only need to go back a few weeks to recall the debate between one other prominent science personality, Bill Nye, and creationist Ken Ham, which trended on Twitter for much of the night and into the next morning. Religion and science have never been the best of friends, but with science education coming under attack in school districts that would rather teach creationism, science personalities such as Nye are not shying away from publicly bringing up where religion has hindered science, either in America's classrooms today or throughout history.
Tyson tells the story of philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600 for his theories of an infinite universe that threatened to disrupt the dominate religious views of the time. Bruno's world is brought to life using animation—not in the same style as Family Guy, but still as appealing, nonetheless. "Family Guy is a show that dabbles in science fiction now and then," MacFarlane told the LA Times. "To fans of the show I don’t think it’s that surprising, animation and science, there’s always been some sort of crossover in those two worlds of nerddom." The cross between the show's CGI crafted planets and its cartoon-styled animated characters blends surprisingly well.
For those who are hungry for a taste of space, Tyson's show should not only be satisfying, but will keep them hungry for answers to the questions that arise.
In the episode, there's no mistaking who the antagonists are when it comes to the religious leaders that send Bruno to his death (it almost looks like the animators took design cues from Jafar of Aladdin or Scar of The Lion King.) There's some symbolism weaved in, as well. Before Bruno is executed, he has a brief fantasy where he rises up into the heavens, arms outstretched and feet close together, not much different from the position Christ had while on the cross (perhaps alluding to Bruno being a martyr of science.) The scene then cuts to Bruno being led down the street with a crowd cheering for his death.
This artistic touch runs throughout the entire episode. Historical events and celestial objects are brought to life with impressive detail, and are guided by Tyson's gentle hand as he breaks down their details. He divides Time into a cosmic calendar year, starting with the Big Bang (Jan. 1), and ending with recorded history (the last minute of Dec. 31.) It's a clear way to present the "Universe, as revealed by science," as he says, which puts into perspective how young humanity is in comparison to the scope of the cosmos.
The 13-part mini-series launches on Fox and nine other networks tonight, and on National Geographic tomorrow. President Obama will deliver an introduction to the episode, where he'll "invite a new generation to embrace the spirit of discovery and inspire viewers to explore new frontiers and imagine limitless possibilities for the future," according to the network.
If the premiere is any indication, Sagan is still as much an influence on the show as he was on Tyson. As it goes on, Tyson will do what he does best and in his own way. He'll make A Spacetime Odyssey his own—he'll easily resonate with a generation of future scientists, and appeal to young people who don't know they'll be scientists, yet. This is one of the many reasons a program such as this is important today. For those who are hungry for a taste of space, Tyson's show should not only be satisfying, but will keep them hungry for answers to the questions that arise. Likewise, his take should be fun for fans of Sagan's original program, who have long-awaited a return to the stars.