In 1980, on televisions eagerly tuned to PBS all over the country, Carl Sagan stood on a windy cliff overlooking the sea and stepped forward as the camera slowly approached. “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be,” he intoned, a lone man on the shores of a cosmic oceanas he introduced the world to his passion project, the thirteen-part scientific documentary series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. In 2014, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson stands on the same cliff overlooking the horizon as Sagan’s words repeat in voiceover. “Come with me,” said Sagan, inviting his long-ago audience of 1980 on a voyage through space and time. The waves crest behind him, and Tyson grins broadly as he addresses his audience: “It’s time to get going again”.
This new iteration of Sagan’s series, launched in March of this year and more epically titled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, echoes those footsteps along the cliff even as it aims bigger, diverting from PBS to FOX in an attempt to reach as broad of an audience as possible. Created in a partnership between Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and Cosmos co-creator, and host Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan’s longtime admirer and protege, the rebooted series sought to remain true to Sagan’s original vision with a new focus on making science appealing to a broader, twenty-first century audience. Like Sagan before him, Tyson provides accessible entry points for the sometimes overwhelming scientific concepts, crafting analogies to illustrate their explanations before delving more deeply into the science, like using a lesson about riding his bicycle to unpack Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
Each episode of Cosmos is anchored by a framing device from the original series called the Ship of the Imagination, a vessel fueled by equal parts science and wonder as it explores different scientific concepts and notable figures. Both Sagan’s and Tyson’s ships remind of Star Trek, though Tyson’s, with its sleek ultra-minimal design of metal and mirrored glass, is decidedly of the J.J. Abrams era. It functions as the perfect unifier in a series composed of thirteen standalone episodes, with each week delving into a new facet of the cosmos. “The Ship can take us anywhere,” says Tyson, as he takes a seat in the captain’s chair and pilots the vessel to locations as wide ranging as the edge of the observable universe, the nucleus of an atom, and the deepest waters of the Marianas Trench. In the premiere episode, Tyson also re-introduces the Cosmic Calendar, Sagan’s elegant method of visualizing the history of the universe in which its nearly fifteen billion year lifespan thus far is condensed into a single year, with the Big Bang occurring on January 1st and the evolution of the human race unfolding in the final moments of December 31st. Like Sagan before him, Tyson incorporates these devices along with short animated sequences and his own rhetorical flourishesas he narrates the story of the cosmos. Both men are impressive speakers, each distinguished by an instantly recognizable voice; Sagan, low and enunciated, eager to impart knowledge in an almost Kermit-like timbre, and Tyson, growly and richly layered, growing softer with intensity as he describes something awe-inspiring.
In 1980, Sagan was the focus of the show, relying on structural devices like the Ship and the Cosmic Calendar to allow him to do what he did best: teach. Speaking directly to his audience, Sagan was a brilliant yet still accessible scientific voice, laying out all manner of vast concepts while examining our perspective of the larger universe with ease. In 2014, Tyson ably succeeds his mentor and is at his most effective when echoing Sagan’s use of simple analogy, in one case asking an organist to help him illustrate the differing lengths of sound waves. His narration grounds each episode in the present day, with the series progressing thematically even as it challenges the space-time continuum. Each installment layers scientific concepts around a central theme, moving through time to lend context and through space to dredge up concrete examples; in episode eleven, Tyson explores the development of life throughout the solar system, interweaving musings on the evolution of DNA and possibility of life on other planets while recounting how the ancient hero Gilgamesh once collected and recorded stories. Tyson’s overall tone is slightly different than Sagan’s, less gentle instructor and more voice of a deity, and this impression is only bolstered by the show’s heavy reliance on animation and visual effects, often to mixed results.
The premiere episode orients us in space and time by defining the Earth’s “cosmic address”, cataloguing where we exist in the universe in the same way a child would list their city, state, and postal code. Beginning with the Earth, the special effects team sends us reeling further into space with the addition ofeach line of our cosmic address, from the Solar System, to the Milky Way Galaxy, further and further until Tyson has reached the edge of the Observable Universe, offering a brief glimpse of a theoretical beyond. The results are spectacular, a staggering display of light and color that communicates the incredible vastness of the cosmos and emphasizes the smallness of humans in thescope of the universe. The new Cosmic Calendar is another achievement of visual effects wizardry; though its time jumps proved occasionallydisorienting, the calendar works well as a visual road map allowing Tyson to leap through space and time, each month representing one and a quarter billion years in the history of the universe. On this massive scale, August 31 brought the birth of the sun and December 28 marked the appearance of the first flowers of earth, with all of recorded human history compressed into the last seconds of New Year’s Eve.
Sagan’s Calendar was an elegant way to visualize the lifespan of the cosmos, and the advanced computer rendering technology available to Tyson allows the Calendar to come alive in an even more evocative way. “Let’s compress,” he says, stepping through a starry void, and the frame quickly dissolves into a dazzling graphic illustrating billions of years of history, each month—of the calendar alive with crystal clear images showing the formation of planets, comets, or oceans. Cosmos features dozens of these visually riveting special effects—an illustration of the light spectrum that uses the New York City skyline as its palette, the kaleidoscopic light show that accompanies the Ship of the Imagination through a series of black holes, or the underwater split screen showing how eyes evolved over time—and Tyson’s reverent tone in describing the science outlined in each sequence only adds to their power.
The animatedsequences interspersed throughout the series lack the same punch. Created by an animation team hand-picked by executive producer and animator Seth MacFarlane, the graphic novel-esque panels feature stiffly moving figures and frames that feel filtered through a layer of grime to look more antiquated, giving even the most brightly colored sequences a slightly dingy cast. These scenes are used in every episode to provide a historical context for the concepts being discussed. The panels are used most heavily in “The Electric Boy”, exploring electromagnetism and Michael Faraday, and “The Clean Room”, focused on the uranium-lead dating work of Clair Cameron Patterson, with Tyson returning to the comics repeatedly as he describes these scientists’ contributions. The animation may have been introduced for the sake of attracting a new child audience or young fans of MacFarlane’s Family Guy; animation in this style was rare in Sagan’s original series, infrequently incorporated in the form of animated line drawings and in one instance the existing still illustrations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in a lesson on gravity.
Though the scientific history and concepts covered in these digressions are generally engaging, the dialogue can skew corny and the animators seem to be in on the joke, perhaps under MacFarlane’s influence; one depiction of different vendors at the Paris World’s Fair prominently displays a sign for MacFarlane’s Refined Lard, complete with a pig in a bow tie, next to the booth where Alexander Graham Bell exhibits his discoveries, and in a sequence in an earlier episode discussing natural philosopher Robert Hooke, a fellow scientist advises him to, “Put up or shut up, Mr. Hooke.” The most effective animation in Cosmos comes not from the new animators, but from Sagan’s original series—a simple, black-and-white, flip book-style sequence depicting the evolution of life from single celled organisms to photosynthetic plants, ocean creatures to land dwellers, primates in the trees to the upright humans of today, compressing four billion years of evolution into just forty seconds. The short film is so effective, Cosmos employs it on two separate occasions.
But even when embellished by animation and special effects, the science still remains the focus. Many of the concepts that Tyson discusses would not be unfamiliar to a high school science class, including the composition of an atom and the breaking apart of the supercontinent Pangaea. In his detailed explanations, Tyson takes the same care with these more easily digestible concepts as he does when explaining Super-Kamiokande, a subterranean Japanese neutrino detection chamber buried half a mile beneath the earth’s surface, or the tardigrades and other microscopic organisms that exist in a drop of dew. His enthusiasm is boundless, though Tyson is at times limited by scripts that verge on the overly silly—at one point, he braces himself, covering his ears and preparing for a cosmic explosion, in another he dons sunglasses to protect his eyes from the Big Bang.
In the penultimate and arguably most urgent episode, Tyson devotes the entire hour to the greenhouse effect and the rapid progression of climate change, fulfilling his declaration that the reincarnated series would serve the scientific needs of a twenty-first century audience. The episode opens with visuals of a peaceful blue planet—not Earth as we might expect, but Venus. Though the planet was much like Earth when it was first formed, Venus has fallen victim to a runaway greenhouse effect, and now a toxic, dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide prevents any possibility of life. Tyson refers back to Sagan’s 1980 warning about the Earth’s increased production of carbon dioxide, which humans have continued to excrete at an incredible rate every year since the Industrial Revolution. He offers this data while standing beneath England’s White Cliffs of Dover, towering over 350 feet above his head. Thirty billion tons of carbon dioxide is a shocking number, and Tyson puts it in even more frightening perspective—if the White Cliffs grew upwards at that same rate as humans spit out carbon dioxide, they would double in height every year. Though far from the most sophisticated visual effect of the series, the shot of the cliffs reaching up towards and blocking the sun offers amost compelling argument for seeking alternative sources of power. In a series marked by dazzling special effects, this very simple moment stands out.
In the finale, entitled ‘Unafraid of the Dark’, Neil deGrasse Tyson steps down from the Ship of the Imagination for the last time, closing the series with a final lesson. Question authority, he says, and question yourself. Test your theories, and always follow the evidence. And remember, he adds, you could be wrong. Standing on the same cliffs where we began, he encourages new discovery and waves away failure with an unsentimental “get over it”. He turns to face the ocean, looking on as the unmanned Ship of the Imagination departs, leaving Earth to journey into the dark reaches of space. In a rare quiet moment for the series, the final image lingers on the now empty captain’s chair, silhouetted against the undiscovered stars and galaxies of the universe, awaiting the next explorer. “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” says Sagan. The cosmos has no limits, Tyson and Sagan remind us. Go beyond.