Shipping Out into the Cosmos

You’d be forgiven for thinking that RM has turned into a one-man operation over the last few weeks, what with Matt posting a slew of excellent pieces and me not making a peep. Thankfully, a couple of other side projects that have kept me occupied of late are winding down, and I’m looking forward to jumping back in and tackling Matt’s recent slate of arguments. (Especially that one about Douthat et al. siding with the Democrats. That should be a rollicking good debate.)

In the meantime, I wanted to post some brief thoughts on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos relaunch last Sunday night. You’ve probably heard the backstory ad nauseum at this point: NdGT is hosting a successor to Carl Sagan’s popular 1980 television program, and the format has been juiced up with slick new graphics and high-definition footage. Perhaps the most interesting part is that Fox gave the show a relatively plum primetime slot, an unheard of decision for what amounts to a science documentary. Credit to Fox – a network whose current programming roster includes not one but two shows with “Hell” in the title – for trying something a little different.

The first episode was a mixed bag. Tyson is an engaging host with a warm, booming voice. He effortlessly nails the role of cosmic tour guide, providing a grounding point of familiarity in a frighteningly massive expanse. The organization of the episode didn’t take full advantage of his easygoing, jocular presence, though. Most problematic was the erratic pacing wherein some segments lasted far too long or were given unexplained weight in what amounted to an introduction for the show’s central conceit and thesis.

While the writers did a fantastic job of showing the geographical and temporal scope of the cosmos, a condensed “history of scientific inquiry” was comparatively short and punchless. It featured an oddly lengthy profile of Franciscan monk Giordano Bruno, one of the first Europeans to understand the extent of the cosmos but one who suffered persecution by the Church for his beliefs. Identifying the Church as a roadblock to pre-Enlightenment scientific development is an important point to make, but the central focus on Bruno seemed disproportionate to other deserving cosmic researchers and scientists. This segment created a narrative foil for progress in the Church but did so at the expense of a more holistic view of other key contributors to our understanding of the cosmos.

Additionally, I would have liked to see a more structured episode that clearly laid out where the rest of the series is heading and what specific topics will be addressed. A more clearly constructed breakdown of the history of science would also have been welcome.

That said, the graphics were very well done and should attract younger viewers in particular. The combination of live action film, animations, and sharp comic-esque animation for the Bruno history scenes worked well. The presentation was roundly engaging and attractive.

Of course, it all comes down to content, and the next couple of episodes will indicate whether Tyson’s work has the consistent substance to back the style. I’ve never seen Sagan’s original series, so I can’t provide an informed opinion as to whether Tyson’s charisma lives up to that standard or whether the writing does justice to its forbear. But the very fact that this team has pulled an educational science show back onto television – in prime time! – is already a measure of success.

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