Monday, March 10, 2014

The New Cosmos: A Worthy Journey

It's back!  Carl Sagan's original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage aired Sunday nights in late 1980.  Back then, I caught every one of the thirteen episodes.  My parents gave me the companion book for Christmas and I loved the whole series.

Tonight the reboot, Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, premiered, brought to us by none other than executive producer Seth MacFarlane, and narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Wait, did I type that right?  Seth MacFarlane--the Family Guy guy? Yes, that's the one.  The same guy who brought the house down at the Oscars last year.  But never fear.  Even though I see a touch of his humor in this show, it's all well done and in good taste.  You can see some samples of the humor in the trailer.  For example, when Tyson puts on shades right before witnessing the Big Bang.  And also when Tyson winces just as the dinosaur-killing meteorite hits.

This first episode was directed by Brannon Braga of Star Trek fame.  What we get is something similar to the feel of the original Cosmos, but with updated special effects, and better pacing for grabbing today's general audience.  Just like in the original, the narrator takes a trip through space and time in a cheesy unexplained ship.  Yet, it looks really cool.

Viewers of the original will recognize some recycled material in this first episode, such as when Tyson proclaims, "We are made of star-stuff."  And when Tyson walks us through the galactic calendar (13.8 billion years of time condensed into one earth year), he describes how all of earth's written history only falls within the last second of Dec. 31.

Tyson is a great choice to narrate this show.  He's nowhere near the same as Sagan, but he also doesn't even try to match Sagan's lovable magical persona. Yet, Tyson has his own charm and a very prominent booming clear voice that is very easy to listen to.  He is funny in his own way.  Instead of trying to match or outdo Sagan, Tyson rather gives a quick tribute or two to his predecessor, including a touching story of meeting him in 1975.

For the finishing touch, Alan Silvestri provides music for the new series.  I know people who have said, "If it doesn't have Vangelis, I'm not watching."  I love the original music, but as a musician, I think that Silvestri's music is more engaging and does a better job at grabbing the attention of the viewer, doing a much better job at matching cues and hits.  Even though his music is much less memorable than Vangelis, it still does its job very well.

My only concern about the show is how it might handle science vs. religion.  Carl Sagan was known for his agnosticism, which came across in the original series, but he always seemed to show respect toward the world religions in the show's presentation.

Tonight's reboot featured an animated section describing the martyrdom of Giordano Bruno at the hands of the Inquisition in 1600.  Though it was informative and entertaining, when it came time to burn Bruno at the stake, his prosecutors had the most sinister looks on their faces, as if the animators wanted to make sure the audience knew who the bad guys were.  I think it would have been more appropriate, accurate, and effective to show these bad guys with faces of "righteous indignation," that is, the look of anger toward a wayward soul.

In other words, I hope that as they present the facts, they do so with accuracy and without the need of artificially magnifying the drama.  Yet, I have high hopes, considering that Carl Sagan dedicated a whole episode to the question of cosmology, where he even related a couple of religious origin stories.  He left the question of origin open.  He even stated how impossible it is to prove/disprove the existence of a god.  If Tyson, et al, follow this same formula, then I suspect that we will see a good discussion on the whole topic of science vs. religion.

In summary, this show it worthy to watch.  It's different than the original, yet some elements are the same.  It's well-produced and well-edited, and it has excellent pace, music and special effects, leaving very little time to be bored.  It doesn't dumb down things very much, yet Tyson speaks very clearly and simply, so as to better explain complex concepts to most audiences.

Be prepared to be blown away as you watch this very-well-done documentary.

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