Emily LakdawallaMar 10, 2014

The new Cosmos: Standing Up in the Milky Way

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey debuted on Fox and nine other affiliated networks yesterday, but it aired late enough that I couldn't watch it with my children, so I recorded it and watched it with them this evening. In brief: they liked it and want to watch next week; I thought it was a successful beginning for a long series, and I think it'll become a weekly viewing event for our family.

I seem to be coming at Neil Tyson's Cosmos from a different direction than most of my peers, space bloggers and scientists both. I really don't remember watching Carl Sagan's original series; I was only five years old when it aired in 1980. I understand how important it was in inspiring many of my friends in the space business; but other, later television series are what inspired me. These include David Attenborough's The Living Planet in 1984, James Burke's The Day the Universe Changed in 1985, Philip Morrison's The Ring of Truth in 1987, and Mr. Wizard's World throughout this time, from 1983 to 1991.

As such, I will not evaluate the new Cosmos in the context of the old one, nor will I compare Neil Tyson to Carl Sagan. Instead, I'd like to focus on the fact that we have a brand-new, expensively produced, 13-part series on the universe and our place and time within it, airing simultaneously on ten networks. In my view, this was something to be thrilled about even before a single episode aired. And I'm really excited to see Neil get an opportunity to have a vehicle for his obvious talent at engaging and exciting the public about science. (Full disclosure: Neil Tyson is on the Planetary Society's Board of Directors, and was President of our board for several years. While I'm at it: Carl Sagan was one of the three founders of The Planetary Society. I came to work at the Society after Carl's death. It feels weird for me to call him by his first name, because I never met him, but all the other, longer-term employees of the Society call him Carl, so I've fallen into the habit.)

Will people watch the new Cosmos? Will Neil Tyson inspire today's kids the way that I was inspired by Attenborough, Burke, Morrison, Herbert, and other television science personalities in the 1980s? Will Neil be allowed to be himself, or will he be overshadowed by the ghost of Carl?

The answer to the first question appears to be a cautious "yes," at least for the first episode. Cosmos did not win in its time slot, earning a 2.9 rating compared to a 3.6 for the series premiere of the ABC show Resurrection. That's a bit of a disappointment, given the amount of marketing devoted to it. But 8.5 million people watched it air across the 10 networks, and since it wasn't a live event there will be more viewers coming in via DVR and Hulu over the course of the next week. Plus, it has yet to debut overseas. But time will tell whether people consider it worth watching more of. Will the audience grow, or shrink?

Will viewers be inspired? That's what I wanted to know when I sat down to watch with my girls: Anahita, 7, in second grade, and Sanaya, 4, a preschooler. I thought they might be a little young, but I have recently introduced them to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and they love it, so I thought they could sit through Cosmos. More important for this post, though, is the fact that they are much closer to the target audience for Cosmos than I am.

The Ship of the Imagination
The Ship of the Imagination Image: Fox

The first of 13 episodes primarily sets the stage for the rest of the series. We are introduced to Tyson's shiny "Ship of the Imagination," a device that allows him to be physically present as he narrates computer-animated scenes. It is much more successful than the (in my opinion) kind of awful green-screen stuff he appeared on in NOVA ScienceNOW; he is given enough space in the Cosmos set to really walk and wander and gesticulate, which is how he talks in person, and I think it helps him engage with the viewers.

The first thing Tyson's ship of the imagination does is introduce us to our "cosmic address," beginning with a tour of the solar system. Everything is too close together in the Cosmos solar system, but at least it's consistent. Neil departs an Earth with tons of adjacent satellites, sees a Mercury practically engulfed by the Sun, passes through an asteroid belt as dense as the one near Hoth, and so on. The graphics are lovely, if you overlook everything's extreme proximity; I especially enjoyed the Red Spot on Jupiter, even though it represents the Red spot as a hole when it's actually 8 kilometers higher than the surrounding clouds. Finishing up the tour of the solar system, the ship matches pace with a convincing computer rendition of Voyager 1, which brought a lump to my throat.

When Neil's Ship departs the solar system, I realize with a shock that my daughters will have always known that the universe is full of planets other than those in our solar system. We're shown our galaxy ("I like the Milky Way," Sanaya commented here), and then the local group and clusters of galaxies and on to the boundaries of the observable universe and then he mentions bubble universes. This part went rather fast. Anahita wanted to know why there's a limit to the observable universe, but I didn't have time to unpack this for her.

The Ship returned to Earth. ("We live there, Mommy," Sanaya remarked.) The show moved into an animated segment focused on Giordano Bruno's martyrdom for the heresy of believing in worlds beyond Earth. I wasn't quite sure what the writers were getting at with this focus on one character in the long history of understanding our place in the cosmos, although the story did resonate with both the recent discoveries of thousands of exoplanets and with the bubble universe idea mentioned earlier. Perhaps the point was to encourage the viewer to experience the epiphany that our world is just one of an infinite number of worlds, that infinity possibly contained within an infinity of universes. I felt that epiphany in the moment, and I hope at least my older daughter did too. I did like the quality of the animation a great deal. But it seemed to go on for a long time, and to belabor the excommunication, imprisonment, and final suffering of Bruno without a clear message -- Neil remarks in narration at the end of it that Bruno wasn't even a scientist, he just "got lucky" in his ideas about multiple worlds. Other bloggers have remarked at greater length about the odd choice of Bruno here. But my daughters liked this segment; they liked the animation, and they liked the story even though I found they didn't understand why Bruno was being punished. I know that similar animation will be used throughout Cosmos to bring historical figures to life, and my girls are looking forward to that.

Having shown us the vastness of space, and talked about Bruno, Neil moved on to explain the depth of cosmic time with the familiar device of the "Cosmic Calendar," in which the 13-plus billion years of history of the universe is represented by the days and months of a 1-year calendar. This segment moved very rapidly through cosmic time, touching only briefly on each of the events that led toward our presence on Earth at this moment. It felt too fast, but I realize that if covered at a slower pace the viewers might lose track of the march of the calendar. My daughters were rapt. (Except when Neil mentioned an event in March -- I believe it was the formation of the Milky Way and other large galaxies -- and Sanaya remarked that also in March, the new Muppet movie is coming out. I don't think she followed the Calendar analogy; she doesn't quite understand the actual calendar itself yet.) There was some odd stuff in the Cosmic Calendar segment; in particular, it seems that Neil and/or the writers don't subscribe to the "great whack" theory of lunar formation. And it's a little frustrating that the illustration of the Big Bang has it exploding into a preexisting space that contains our narrator. The fact that the Big Bang was the universe itself expanding, that there is no "outside," is one of the most difficult things to try to explain about the scientific origin story, and Neil's presence in this animation told almost the opposite story.

Cosmos: Standing Up in the Milky Way
Cosmos: Standing Up in the Milky Way Neil Tyson survives the Big Bang in the "Cosmic Calendar" segment of the premiere episode of the new Cosmos series.Image: Fox

I felt like Neil was most himself in the part toward the end of the Cosmic Calendar, when he was walking through old-growth forest, talking about the fate of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals. I'm curious to know when that segment was filmed with respect to some of the others, because it felt most like it feels to converse with Neil in person.

And then we were transported to an African savanna as he talked about the appearance of human ancestors, on the last day of the calendar. I can't tell you how pleased I felt to be watching an African-American man narrate this part of the show. Ordinarily you have a white commentator (usually with a British accent) talking over animation or dramatization of dark-haired, swarthy-skinned savages on the African savanna and it feels more than a little colonial. With Neil narrating it, present and in person, I felt both an intimate connection and a wonder-inspiring distance between that distant, preliterate past and our modern, scientific present. Those distant, first humans are us, separated from us much more by technology and culture than they are by biology.

To belabor this point, I think it's incredibly important for my kids to see a major, multi-episode science show hosted by a guy who looks like Neil. It pains me that all of the inspirational figures from my youth, listed in the second paragraph of this post, are white men. I want my children to see all kinds of people in all kinds of roles. Not only so that they can learn that they can aspire to be anything; it's just as important for them to learn that everyone else, even the people who don't look like them, can aspire to be anything, too. They didn't know who Neil Tyson was before they watched Cosmos, beyond (in Anahita's words) "that guy who was in the picture with Mommy's boss and Barack Obama." Now they know him, and he'll be one of the people who'll inform their prejudices about what scientists look and sound like, and that's great.

At the end of the show is a scene that -- judging from the response on Twitter last night -- was loved by everyone who remembers the original Cosmos. Standing on the seaside cliff on which Carl launched the original Cosmos series, Neil briefly tells a story of an invitation to Ithaca, New York to meet the eminent astronomer Carl Sagan, and how Sagan inspired him: "I already knew I wanted to be a scientist, but that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become....He reached out to me and to countless others, inspiring so many of us to study, teach and do science. Science is a cooperative enterprise spanning the generations." I think it was a necessary -- and effective -- segment to reach out to those people who were watching out of fandom of the original series, but it was at that moment in the show that Sanaya (the 4-year-old) totally lost interest.

Neil receives the Cosmos baton?
Neil receives the Cosmos baton? Image: Fox

The show opened with Carl's actual voice ("The cosmos is all that ever was, and all that ever will be") and ended with Neil talking about Carl. So I still don't have the answer to my question of whether Cosmos is going to allow Neil to be Neil, without the specter of Carl hanging over him. I hope that this final segment in the premiere episode is kind of like DeForest Kelley showing up in the pilot episode of Star Trek: TNG; that it represents the passing of the baton to Neil, and that from here on out the show will be his, and that the new Cosmos can be great on its own merits, separate and different from the original.

There was the briefest of previews of next week's show: something about life, and pictures of water bears and polar bears. Anahita wants to know what that's about, and booed when the show was over, and wants to tune in next week.

And that's really what I wanted to hear. I (and other bloggers) can pick nits about too-close asteroids, and the problem of an animated Big Bang that expanded into preexisting space, and of the cherry-picking of history of the Bruno segment. And people should pick nits in any television show in which Neil is involved, because Neil himself is one of science communication's worst nitpickers; I can't tell you how many times I've heard him tell the story of how Titanic had the wrong night sky and James Cameron should've got that right since he was focused on so many other details and Neil complained to Cameron and Cameron fixed it in the DVD release.

Ultimately, this show will succeed or not based on how many people watch and on what kinds of questions they ask when they're done watching, and whether they seek answers to those questions, and how they feel when they answer them. The inaccuracies in the show won't generally lead people too far astray; in fact-checking some of the scenes I myself have learned a few things. I realize now that it's way too early to tell whether my daughters will, eventually, count this series as something that influenced them. But they want to keep watching, and we will keep watching, and that's good.

I don't plan on posting episode-by-episode reviews. I may just post one more blog entry about this show, after we're done watching the series. I hope we make it through all 13 weeks, because I think that would really be a big deal to my daughters. We'll see.

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