This past Sunday marked the premier of the Cosmos reboot, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane and the Fox Network’s remake of Carl Sagan’s classic science mini-series. Fox did everything it could, so it seems, to make sure as many viewers as possible tuned in to the first episode, capping off the promotional blitz leading up to the premier with a statement from President Obama, and then airing the first episode on a myriad of channels.
While I do not believe this version of Cosmos has any chance of reaching the significance of Carl Sagan’s version, I also do not believe that is even a fair criticism. The television landscape has changed more than most of us can even comprehend since the original airing of Cosmos. Science fans, and those of us who mourn the day reality shows took over channels such as National Geographic will no doubt tune in each week. For most of us, Cosmos will be a review of fascinating things we already know. For me, the question is how many of those for whom this is new information will choose this over the other seemingly infinite entertainment choices?
For a series such as this, one episode is far too small of a taste to give a fair review. I will definitely be tuning in next week, but that really isn’t saying anything. With the lack of documentaries, especially astronomical/cosmological documentaries, now that shows like Amish Mafia dominate, Cosmos would have had to literally claim the Earth was 6000 years old for me to stop watching after one episode. While I feel it is too early to pass judgement on the show, there are a few things I want to point out.
Hitting the positives first, the effects are awe-inspiring. I have no doubt that Cosmos is going to feature some of the most impressive effects ever seen. Hopefully they will draw people in who will stay and learn from the science. Neil Tyson a rockstar. He is the only science communicator who I think could fill the Carl Sagan role for the reboot, and this far in I think he is doing a fine job. The most memorable part of the first episode, for me, was his snowy bus stop story of meeting Sagan. I was already familiar with the story, but that didn’t stop it from bringing a tear to my eye.
Now a couple negatives….
First off, I think Fox really dropped the ball by not finding a sponsor willing to let them present the first episode either commercial free or with limited interruptions. Maybe a block of ads right after the title sequence or something? I know that ads are what pays the bills and allows shows like this to be made in the first place, but I find it hard to believe, with the amount of channels they were airing the premier on, that they couldn’t have found a sponsor or two willing. The amount of commercial breaks was jarring and made it seem much more like just another documentary and less like the start of a special, 13 week event. Of course, I can’t lay this criticism at the feet of Cosmos. This ball was dropped by Fox.
The next issue I had though is all Cosmos, and I fully expect that most people will accuse me of picking nits over it. And perhaps I am. Of course, with a science documentary, the most important thing in my mind is getting the science right instead of reinforcing misconceptions. Yet twice during the trip through the solar system the visual designers chose to either pick artistic license or popular misconceptions over reality. First, by portraying the asteroid belt as described in multiple sci-fi flicks instead of astronomy textbooks, and then doubling down later in the trip by having the space ship weaving through a flock of trans-Neptunian objects when they came to the Kuiper belt. Now I completely understand that showing the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt as they are would make a much more boring shot than what they went with. (The vast majority of both belts is empty space.) That being said, by showing the belts as they really are, Cosmos could have helped fix a major misconception people have about the asteroid belt. Instead, they chose to reinforce it. Here, from Phil Plait’s first book, Bad Astronomy:
Astronomer Dan Durda puts it this way: imagine a scale model of the solar system where the Sun is a largish beach ball a meter across. The Earth would be a marble 1 centimeter in size located about 100 meters from the Sun. Mars would be a pea about 150 meters away from the Sun, and Jupiter, the size of a softball, about 500 meters out.
If you collected all the asteroids in the main belt and balled them up, they would be in toto about the size of a grain of sand. Now imagine crushing that grain of sand into millions of pieces and strewing it all over the hundreds of thousands of square meters between Mars and Jupiter in the model. See the problem? You could tool around out there for months and never see an asteroid, let alone two.
So am I nit-picking here? Perhaps, and if that is the only bit, to borrow Phil’s phrase, of bad astronomy we see in Cosmos (not going to mention the space ship making a sound as it passed by us in space, not going to do it….) I won’t hold it against the series as a whole. It does worry me though. What other bits of artistic license are we going to see them take?
I hope the viewers are tuning in, and I hope this Cosmos is a huge success. I for one, want more things like this on the air, and less dynasties that involve the instruments of fowl genocide.