This past Sunday was a big deal for science lovers, nerds and people who are generally sick of network sitcoms. March 9 marked the return of the much-loved science series “Cosmos.” The original, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” aired on PBS stations in 1980. In that 13-episode series, astronomer Carl Sagan took viewers on an epic voyage through the history of our universe. Now “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane (of all people) has teamed up with Ann Druyan (Sagan’s widow), Brannon Braga (the creative force behind three of the four modern “Star Trek” series) and host Neil deGrasse Tyson (the heir apparent to Sagan’s role as “pop science educator”) to bring us the follow-up: “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”
The first episode of the new 13-episode arc was more celebratory than educational, but it set the tone for what the new series is trying to do. For starters “Cosmos” is loaded with high-tech CGI special effects. Tyson spends his entire time aboard a “spaceship of the imagination”—a concept that works far better in practice than on paper. Thanks to his computer-generated ride, Tyson is able to take viewers back and forth in time and across vast expanses of space. It’s gimmicky, but it makes the series both entertaining and easy to follow. A few real-life images—either from history or from the Hubble telescope—might make the show more grounded and less sci-fi-esque. But whatever gets asses in seats.
As a relatively educated man, I can’t say I learned anything terribly new from the first episode. It was mostly a quick overview of the size of the universe and our place in it (in both time and space). A “Heroes of Science” segment seemed a tad out of place, mostly because it was animated in a peculiar cell-shaded style. Not sure why producers chose animation over live-action reenactments (perhaps it was MacFarlane’s influence). The segment related the story of 16th century Italian monk Giordano Bruno whose revelation that the universe was infinite only reinforced his idea that God was infinite—a nice bow to the more science-minded religious people out there. (Although later namedrops for Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed may have been trying too hard.) The biggest problem with the segment was more historical than philosophical. Bruno was executed by the church all right, but not because of his views on astronomy. He was burned at the stake because he denied the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary and the entire concept of Transubstantiation (a dangerous thing to do during the Inquisition).
OK that’s a bit of a gaff (a sin of omission, perhaps), but the show seems to be less about educating the masses and more about celebrating science as a whole. That’s not such a bad thing. Science has taken a lot of lumps lately. A flashy, multimedia presentation about how awesome science is may serve to inspire a whole new generation of Sagans. With its dazzling graphics and its engaging host, “Cosmos” is a spectacular update to the sort of wide-eyed science documentary we used to watch in school. That beats “2 Broke Girls” any day of the week.