After last night’s world premiere of the Fox reboot Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, this time hosted by the rock star Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, water coolers around the world are abuzz with commentary and opinion.
This repackaging of the BBC original series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted by legendary scientist and science communicator, Carl Sagan in the late 1970’s, was aggressively promoted and endorsed by some of the largest names in science today. Before airing it was seen as an opportunity to inspire a love of science in a younger generation, and it seems they’ve hit that mark dead on.
Judging by the commentary I saw circulating twitter during the show, many people tuned in and most were pleased with what they saw, myself included. Tyson, and executive producers Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s widow) created a visually stunning tour of the cosmos. The opening sequence and lead segment were just beautifully done. Nearly 100% CGI, that portion of the show offered an unprecedented view of our solar system, our galaxy and our universe, all the while offering easily digested facts about scale, history and the general physics of cosmology. An excellent beginning!
There are some things about this show, however, that are somewhat surprising, to me at least. Not the least of which is the fact that it’s produced by the Fox Network. This is a group of people who are notoriously anti-science, or should I say, pointedly right-wing conservative. I was initially surprised to learn that Seth MacFarlane was involved as well, but after considering his known love of science and his liberal stance on most social issues, it’s really not surprising at all.
Today though, I have seen some people offering criticism of the show, citing a heavy reliance on CGI and flashy graphics, countered by only rudimentary science content. I disagree with that assessment. It seems to me that the entire purpose of the show, as with the original, is in popularising science among people who would normally not be exposed to such information, or least be inspired by it. High production value and eye catching visuals are an important part of attracting the attention of those people who might otherwise be tuning into brainless reality TV. It’s not intended to be a challenging academic program, offering new insights to those who are already well versed in the science covered. It’s a window into the world of science, one that will hopefully invite more people to enter the discussion.
I was also surprised by the apparently anti-religious tone Tyson et al took on for the second segment. Don’t get me wrong, everything they covered was factual, and indeed more than relevant. I personally believe that history is of paramount importance, in highlighting the failures of our past, so that we may avoid them in the future. And I think that was the spirit in which they offered that information. However, I can see, quite easily, how those of a religious persuasion might have viewed that segment as deliberately antagonistic and insulting. After all, the fastest way to turn religious people off, is to point out the flaws of their belief system. I would submit too, that those people are the ones who would most benefit from a deeper understanding of the science offered by the show. Turning them off may be counter-productive.
In the wake of the premiere, The New York Times reports that the show’s ratings were less than expected. Neilson, the television ratings watchdog, reports that there were 5.8 million total viewers on the Fox network, which landed it squarely in the third place spot among competing shows like Resurrection, Intelligence and NCIS, not to mention The Walking Dead. Though those Neilson numbers don’t account for the simulcasting of the show on other networks like National Geographic and FX, nor time-shifted broadcasting and DVR records. So it may have done better than it seems.
[UPDATE: Seth MacFarlane reported Monday that the combined numbers were 17.5 million viewers, meaning the show was a success.]
The premiere episode finished off with a heartfelt tribute to Carl Sagan, beginning with Tyson’s own memories of his encounters with Sagan and his influence on Tyson’s career and passion for science communication. Carl Sagan was a hero to many, he was a pillar of reason and insight, and his work as both a world class scientist and science communicator has offered us – all of us – a much deeper understanding of the world around us. He was the first of our ambassadors to space, and was a pioneer in the effort to expand our minds to include a view of the cosmos as a part of us.
Sagan is deeply missed by a lot of people, and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a worthy tribute to his greatness and contributions.