Like David Attenborough, Carl Sagan’s success as a presenter came from a sincere and unrivalled passion for his subject. As he proved with his BBC lectures in the 1970s, he didn’t need props or special effects to be interesting; he spoke as well interacting with a group of school children as he did strolling along a beach, or standing next to a cardboard cut-out of what was supposed to be a spaceship.
Yet even when these devices were employed, such as in his landmark series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the project upon which Sagan’s legacy still rests, he himself always remained effortlessly fascinating.
When he died of pneumonia in 1996, it seemed extremely unlikely that there would ever be a follow-up to the series, or whether a worthy successor to carry on in Sagan’s place would ever be found. But now, thirty-four years after the original aired, it returns, this time hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, presenter of PBS’s Nova ScienceNow and one of Sagan’s close friends during his lifetime.
Gone this time around are the cardboard cut-outs and what Tyson calls “mutton chops” — i.e. scenes in which historical events are acted out by actors in tights and wigs; in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey such stories are told through graphic novel-style animation and narrated by Tyson, who sits aboard an expensive-looking CGI spaceship, his face illuminated by flickering buttons and the kindly light of distant galaxies.
In episode one Tyson describes just how incomprehensibly old our universe is. He explains that if all time were to be represented as a calendar of the month, our history—that is, every war and battle there has ever been, every king and every queen, every person from Pytheas to Eric Pickles — would appear as a single tiny dot in the very corner of the 31st day.
He then takes us back into what is comparatively the very near past to tell the story of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian philosopher who correctly proposed that the Sun was just another star moving in space and not the centre of our universe. Bruno’s epiphany, Tyson says, was not accepted in his time, and as he had no way of proving his theory, he was shunned and later burnt at the stake for blasphemy and heresy.
Some viewers — particularly those who know Tyson as one of the unofficially elected faces of internet atheism — may believe that this sad and gruesome story is Tyson’s way of suggesting that religion is detrimental to furthering our understanding of the universe. But in fact Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is by no means explicitly anti-religious. The series instead encourages viewers to be sceptical of all that is unproved and seeks to open minds to what is unarguably a vast and wonderful universe.
More accurately, if it is against anything at all, it is against ignorance. Both Tyson and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and one of the creators of the original Cosmos, have expressed their disappointment at a supposed trend towards anti-intellectualism, which they say is prevalent throughout the United States. A Spacetime Odyssey is thus their attempt to change all this by inspiring a generation of young people the same way Sagan and the original Cosmos did over three decades ago.
Whether this can be achieved remains to be seen. Yet judging from this first episode, full of dozens of humbling facts about the world in which we live and the stars and planets that surround us, it doesn’t seem improbable to hope that hundreds of astrophysicists will be created because of it.
That’s not to say that it’s entirely beyond reproach. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said of the new series, which is more a matter of preference than an overt criticism, is that it looks a little too slick. Robert Hughes proved with The New Shock of the New that a follow-up to a classic documentary series doesn’t need glossy production values; and though the Cosmos has much more need for elaborate visual aids, it does tend to overuse CGI to the point at which it becomes a distraction rather than a useful tool.
Nevertheless it is hard to be especially critical given that the original series, too, had its fair share of cheesy special effects—most of which were created using string and cardboard. Even for its time these effects were not great, though ultimately it didn’t matter: viewers tuned in for Carl Sagan, for his charisma and his ability of explaining the seemingly unexplainable.
With A Spacetime Odyssey, the same seems true of Tyson. Very few people could have convincingly stepped into this role, but he manages to pull it off by showcasing his own disparate talent as a presenter, as well as the boundless charisma he possesses. Though it contains far more distractions than its predecessor — particularly those of the CGI variety — Tyson ensures that A Spacetime Odyssey is as equally thrilling and concerned with celebrating the natural beauty of the universe as the original series was.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey starts on Sunday 16 March at 7PM on National Geographic