If Neil deGrasse Tyson's fans have learned one thing about the universe, it's the fortuitousness of it all. On Tuesday night at the Adler Planetarium, fans of the media-darling astrophysicist lined up early to limit their risk of being turned away from the overbooked premiere of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey. The first episode was broadcast via satellite from Los Angeles to audiences around the globe. Thirty-four years after Carl Sagan's original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage introduced a generation to the observable universe, the reboot premieres Sunday, March 9, on Fox.
Produced by Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, a self-professed Sagan fanboy, and directed by Matrix cinematographer Bill Pope, the series follows much the same format as the 1980 PBS show. With his booming baritone, Tyson serves as docent to the green-screen galaxy via the "ship of the imagination"—a vehicle that looks like something out of a Star Wars prequel—and literally follows in Sagan's footsteps, doing stand-ups along rocky shores and various eye-catching locations around the world.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that animation has replaced historical reenactment as the primary dramatic mode. The first episode features a sequence on 16th century astronomer Giordano Bruno. Overseen by frequent MacFarlane collaborator Kara Vallow, who worked on Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, the 'toons look (thankfully) more like moving Orthodox icons than anything identifiable as a MacFarlane product.
Technology has done wonders for space education, as the Adler can attest, and the new Cosmos is no exception. The glossy update features some impressive CGI that opens up new and more vivid ways of illustrating the dense and jargon-heavy ideas of astrophysics—notably, a sequence that portions all of space-time into a calendar year, with all of recorded history happening in the final 14 seconds of New Year's Eve.
Yet those who grew up on the original Cosmos likely will find something to miss. For one, the synth themes of Vangelis are replaced by unmemorable orchestrestral strains by Hollywood composer Alan Silvestri, perhaps best known for Back to the Future. The bigger loss, of course, is Sagan, who died at the age of 62 in 1996. The pot-toking, turtleneck-wearing star gazer was a space poet, and his lyrical narration had a distinct, infectious sense of wonder. When Sagan spoke lines like, "We're all made of star stuff," it didn't come off as corny.
Not that Tyson isn't a capable host. The mustachioed scientist is perhaps better when playing off the likes of Stephen Colbert, but he's excited about the material and meets the demands of the job, gazing with conviction at green screens while imagining the heat of the sun or Jupiter's Great Red Spot. Toward the end of episode one, Tyson gets emotional recalling the time Sagan had the budding astrophysicist over to his Cornell University lab. After the tour, Sagan drove the 17-year-old back to the bus station. A snow storm had kicked up. Worried Tyson's bus wouldn't arrive, Sagan wrote his phone number on a scrap of paper and invited Tyson to stay the night at his family's home. Tyson has said that experience has guided how he treats his students. And with Cosmos, it's evident he's operating with great deference to his mentor.
But Tyson is best off the cuff, and so he was in the Q&A after the screening, which also included Druyan, MacFarlane and other show contributors. "You said science versus entertainment?" said Tyson, pouncing on what he felt was a false dichotomy in MacFarlane's thinking. "I'm entertained by the universe every day I think about it. When I think about falling into a black hole, that's hilarious!" The line elicited big laughs. It was a reminder that Cosmos allows little room for Tyson's brand of geeky humor.
Sagan's widow and constant companion, Druyan, described her frustration with trying to get a new Cosmos made, before Tyson introduced her to MacFarlane, who brought the project to Fox. Other networks "wanted to control it, wanted to edit out the uncomfortable parts," she said, referring perhaps to the frequent clashes between religion and science throughout history, sticky political issues such as global warming and semi-controversial theories like the multiverse.
"Fox specializes in discomfort!" MacFarlane quipped.
Asked about Cosmos's potential to educate children, Tyson's energy level spiked again. "I'm not worried about kids. I'm worried about scientifically illiterate adults," he said. "They run the world. They wield resources. The issue in modern time is: Do adults have the wisdom and insight brought by a scientific perspective to actually lead this world into the future? If the adults who are in charge don't have it, you're throwing seeds to fallow ground."
Toward the end of the discussion, Tyson touched on the multiverse, one of the many hard-to-grasp ideas that seem to tickle rather than overwhelm him. "What we've come to learn over time is that the universe doesn't really make anything in ones," he said. "The earth is special and alone? No, we're one of many planets. The sun? One of billions of other suns. Our galaxy? One of billions. Our universe? Maybe we're one in a multiverse. If you follow this reasoning, perhaps the multiverse is just one of many."
"You just blew my fuckin' mind!" MacFarlane shouted.
"You just have to remain open to all possibilitites," Tyson said. "That's all I'm saying."