How do you summarize the history of the universe in forty-two minutes?
If you’re Seth MacFarlane, you summon the convenient power to bend an entire television network to your will. You gather a small portion of the obscene amount of money at your disposal, and you invite your friend Neil DeGrasse Tyson to embark on a journey with you. And then you set out to re-introduce the world to the pleasures of space travel and the power of scientific exploration.
The result is Cosmos, a thirteen-episode reboot of Carl Sagan’s wildly popular 1980 PBS series, which sought to make the most daunting aspects of our world and the surrounding multiverses both comprehensible and appealing to a mass audience. The original series came at a time when space discovery had begun to seem commonplace, even though we had only scratched the surface of the knowledge we’ve recently acquired. This new series arrives at a moment when space programs are in serious financial trouble and the prospect of exploring other worlds seems like a cop-out when we’ve got so many problems of our own on this one.
With a name like MacFarlane attached, no one would be blamed for expecting this series to be a crass, modernized version of what Sagan offered in the original. As I watched last night’s premiere, I kept expecting Neil DeGrasse Tyson to drop his earnest act and launch into a profanity-laced rant complete with insipid pop-culture references and forced metacommentary. Instead, I came away from the hour impressed at a rare example of a major entertainment industry player choosing to temporarily separate himself from his brand to make something with a goal more noble than noxious.
The presence of Tyson is an enormous asset. He’s a wonderful narrator, warm and wise, clearly as enamored with the implications of what he’s saying as we are by what we’re seeing. And what we’re seeing is spectacular indeed. This series looks expensive, but not in a way that feels like showing off. Rather, the visuals succeed at inspiring the awe and passion that clearly went into this project, which no one was specifically demanding. Veteran composer Alan Silvestri adds majesty to the images with his perky score, and the gravitas of Tyson’s narration grounds these fanciful images in a spirit of discovery and exploration.
The premiere is divided into three main sections. The first places Earth in context with the rest of the universe, extending past the Milky Way to provide a sense of Earth’s relatively infinitesimal size. Tyson narrates and navigates aboard a monolith-shaped spacecraft that feels nostalgic in its simplistic design. From there, perhaps the most controversial sequence explores the astronomer Bruno, who was persecuted by the Inquisition of the Catholic Church for daring to suggest that there existed worlds beyond Earth. Some have pointed to this section as an unfair attack on theism, especially considering that the show’s ultimate goal is to inspire people to attack life’s most daunting questions with practicality and reason. I choose to view this section more as a statement on how we’ve evolved as a human race since ancient times. While it’s clearly an implicit condemnation of oppressive religious persecution, the segment falls short of incriminating those who choose to believe in a higher power.
The most dazzling segment of the premiere is lifted from the original: a compressed view of the history of the universe that spans only a single calendar year. The punchline: humans have only been around since the final minute of the final day of the “year.” We’ve only begun to understand who we are, why we’re here and what it all means. Luckily, we’ve got twelve more episodes of Cosmos to tide us over while we continue to figure it out.