July 23, 2013
I don't think I like the new "Cosmos"
Seth MacFarlane of "Family Guy" fame has been talking about remaking, or making a sequel to really, Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" for some time. For most of that time, Neil deGrasse Tyson has been talked about as the new show's host. Well, the trailer for this new series was released recently at San Diego Comic-Con, and I am not impressed. Let me try to explain why:
I am not much a fan of Carl Sagan. There are several reason's for this, most of which carry little direct evidence. Suffice to say that he always struck me as a bit insufferable and self-important. But something that came through quite clearly in his "Cosmos" series was that Sagan was, at heart, an educator, and a rather good educator at that. The series' entire goal was to spread scientific literacy to the general populace, something it did quite well at the time. Basically, Carl Sagan was the right man to produce this series, being well known, well informed, and having education as his prime goal.
Seth MacFarlane, on the other hand, is at heart a narcissist. He is all but offended by not being the center of attention where ever he goes. At least, that is the way he behaves for his Hollywood persona. And Neil deGrasse Tyson is a disruptor, a man who insists on immediately changing things that are inconsistent with his world view. Don't believe me, then just ask Pluto. To be sure, deGrasse Tyson's insistence on fixing discrepancies is extremely useful in the scientific world, but it usually lacks the soft touch or nuance needed for a truly successful educator. In short, neither MacFarlane nor deGrasse Tyson really has the softness of voice or educator's heart that made Sagan's series so successful.
The original "Cosmos" was about discovery, history, and science. It dealt with how the world came to where it is in terms of current scientific knowledge (at the time) and why that is important. It was a series of ideas and of optimism for the future that showed what science is and what it can do.
From it's trailer, this new "Cosmos" appears to be more about spectacle and sensation, taking a tabloid view of history and blockbuster view of science. Any trailer for a science show that includes at least one burning at the stake and a Christ figure flying through space can safely be called sensationalized; though, not necessarily overly so. Still, this is far from the understated sense of wonder that permeated the original "Cosmos".
Sagan's "Cosmos" was aired on PBS because it was intended that it be not only accessible to the public, but that it belong to them. It was a sort of gift of scientific knowledge. It is, more or less, for this reason you can currently find the entirety of "Cosmos" on pretty much every video streaming service available.
MacFarlane's "Cosmos" will be on FOX, a network with a long history of severe copyright restriction and more concern for spectacle than scientific integrity. What is more, FOX appears to be airing this new "Cosmos" solely as a concession to MacFarlane's apparently massive ego, and not as some misguided attempt at improving general scientific literacy. While the new "Cosmos" will likely be stream-able shortly after it airs, I cannot help but feel a bit of crass commercial cynicism struck through the whole arrangement.
So, I guess, basically, Seth MacFarlane's "Cosmos" appears to have none of the spirit or heart that made Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" great. If I am wrong, I'll be happy to be proven so, but until then, watch the trailer and judge for yourself.
As a final point of comparison I offer the full titles of both series which I feel exemplifies the kind of divide I am trying to express here: Sagan's - "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage" and MacFarlane's - "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey".