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Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 1, “Standing Up In the Milky Way”

When I first heard that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was being rebooted, I was thrilled. As much as I loved the original, even the best science series inevitably becomes dated sooner rather than later, as our knowledge advances. And this was a great opportunity to see how modern special effects, which are light-years ahead of where they were in the original, could be used for scientific storytelling. But when I heard the new series was going to air on Fox – and be produced by Seth MacFarlane, best known for two lowbrow cartoon series and a shockingly misogynist Oscar-hosting stint – I admit I felt some trepidation.

On the other hand, I was greatly reassured when I heard that Neil deGrasse Tyson would be the new host. With his big, cheerful presence, his already formidable reputation as a beloved science popularizer, his unabashed geek cred, and his personal connection to Carl Sagan, he was the only host imaginable for this remake. Together with the involvement of Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s collaborator and wife, this gave me more confidence that the new series was in good hands.

And if I had any residual doubts, they were dispelled almost from the first moment of the first episode, when we heard the opening narration in that familiar voice: “The Cosmos is all that is, or was, or ever will be” – and then saw Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the same cliffs in Monterey, California where Sagan stood a generation earlier.

The original series, for all its imaginative scope and sense of wonder, often strained to depict all the stories it wanted to tell. This was particularly evident in Carl Sagan’s “Spaceship of the Imagination” in which he toured distant regions of time and space: a brilliant idea, but limited to what was possible with a 1970s PBS budget.

The new series, it’s safe to say, doesn’t have this problem. Tyson’s new Spaceship of the Imagination is a sleek black shape like a flying saucer, with a central orb that presents a spectacular panoramic view from the bridge. But the really inspired concept is how it represents time: a moon pool opens in the floor that looks down to the past, while a sun roof in the ceiling looks up to the future, to show the same scene in three epochs.

This episode started out with a tour of the solar system, a sequence of gorgeous images that displays the visual firepower of the new Cosmos to full advantage. Every scene was pure eye candy: Tyson’s ship flying through the acidic yellow clouds of Venus, swooping over the surface of Mars and buzzing one of our rovers, surfing the eyewall of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, sailing the blizzard of Saturn’s rings, and plunging into the outer solar system, where it looked down on the far-journeying Voyager 1 like the eye of a benevolent god. (The crackly music of the Voyager Golden Record was a lovely touch.)

I have just two complaints about this part. First, the trip through the asteroid belt seemed off-kilter: I’m not an astronomer, but I’m sure there aren’t as many asteroids as we saw here, nor are they this densely packed. Second, and more serious: sound in space! Come on, guys. As accustomed as we are to hearing a “whoosh” when something travels past, that only happens in an atmosphere. This is such a basic thing to get wrong, especially from a host who famously harangued James Cameron’s Titanic for showing the wrong stars in the night sky.

Traveling outward from the solar system, we saw the grand spiral of the Milky Way, then the Local Group of galaxies it’s part of, then the still-larger Virgo Supercluster, itself just a small part of the entire observable universe, which may only be a bubble within an inconceivably grander supercosmos. This mind-blowing expansion leads into Cosmos‘ first historical segment, from a time just a few centuries ago when everyone thought we were the center of a small universe made for the sake of human beings. This was the infamous tale of of Giordano Bruno, the heretic monk who dreamed of an infinite universe and for his pains was excommunicated by Rome, expelled by Calvinists and Lutherans, heckled by scholars in Oxford, and finally burned at the stake by the courts of the Inquisition. I loved the stylized, woodcut-esque animation, a clever way to present history without the awkwardness of actors in period costumes.

I’ve already defended Cosmos‘ treatment of this story in another post, so I won’t rehash that. But I want to add this: the main criticism I’ve heard of this sequence is that it was too black-and-white; that Bruno, acknowledged to be a stubborn and abrasive person, was depicted as too patient and saintly, while his jailers were drawn as sinister caricatures. Well, I’ll tell you something: when you’re telling the story of a man who was tortured and burned alive for his ideas, it’s not necessary to go looking for complexity. The moral here is a bright line, and the retelling suited that perfectly.

The last major segment, like the first, reintroduced a familiar visual element of the original series. This time it was Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar, a metaphor that compresses the history of the universe into a single year. Like the Spaceship of the Imagination, the new and improved special effects are used to full advantage, depicting the calendar as a 3-D mosaic: from darkness, to luminescent stars and swirling galaxies, to the appearance of the Earth and its shading from the fiery red of its birth to the blue of its cooling seas to the green of flourishing life.

On this scale, all of human history is in the last few seconds of the cosmic year. The series returned to animation to tell it in brushstrokes: cave paintings and hieroglyphics leapt to life, depicting how our hunter-gatherer past gave way to agriculture, the rise of civilization, the Axial Age of the world’s major religions, and in just the last four hundred years, the invention of science and the exponential acceleration of our understanding and progress.

The episode closed on those Monterey cliffs, with Tyson holding Carl Sagan’s old date book and opening it to the day when he, then a young student from the Bronx, met the famous astronomer at his Cornell home. Sagan gave him a grand tour of the campus, and when bad weather threatened, he gave the young Tyson his personal phone number and invited him to spend the night if the bus didn’t come. As Tyson said, he already knew he wanted to be an astronomer, but he learned from Carl Sagan “the kind of person I wanted to become”. If you can listen to that story with dry eyes, you’re a stronger person than I. (I’ve heard him tell it once before, and it choked me up then too.)

What I’m most impressed by was how much territory this episode covered, without ever seeming rushed: vast expanses of space and time, the sweep of human history, the drama of science versus fundamentalism, the familiar nostalgic elements of the original Cosmos, and the heartwarming story of Sagan’s torch being passed on. Combined with those amazing visuals, it sets an extremely high bar for the rest of the series to live up to, and I couldn’t have asked for a better starting point.

Other posts in this series:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...