It says here in the fine print that my blogging license could be revoked if I fail to offer a public opinion on the Cosmos reboot, which premiered last night. I missed the first couple of minutes– I had The Pip for bedtime, and he didn’t start snoring until 8:58– but saw most of it in real time. I posted a bit of commentary on Twitter, but will offer something marginally less ephemeral here.
The show opened and closed with tributes to Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson standing on the same cliff where Sagan opened the original series back in 1980. That was good and fitting, and Tyson’s story about visiting Sagan at Cornell in 1975 was very touching.
Between those bookends, the first episode was more or less an introduction and outline of the series to come, and as such served mostly to showcase some really amazing visuals. The tour of our “long address” from Earth through the Solar System to the Milky Way and out to the observable universe was spectacular. The “cosmic calendar” sequence at the end was likewise extremely well done. There wasn’t anything all that new or amazing about the content– I think SteelyKid’s after-school program covered all the information about the Solar System– but the vast improvement in effects technology over the three and a bit decades since Sagan’s original series really showed up in these bits.
I was less taken with the animated “Giordano Bruno, martyr of Science” section, which my limited understanding of the history suggests was playing a little loose with the facts. Bruno’s one of those historical figures where if you tilt your head and squint like a confused dog, you can make parts of what he was saying seem to match up with modern science. Provided you’re willing to ignore some other bits that just look nutty. And this played up the modern-ish bits in a big way, while completely ignoring the nutty parts.
I understand the attraction of Bruno as a metaphor, and it’s probably not any less valid to cite his infinite cosmology as a historical antecedent of modern cosmology than it is to cite Democritus as the precursor of the modern notion of atoms. In both cases, there’s an element of similarity, and a gap of centuries in which everybody basically ignored the idea, before it was picked up again to give a veneer of historical depth to a new development. At the same time, though, I’m uneasy about the way the useful bits of Bruno’s cosmology get picked out and highlighted, while ignoring the rest of the package– this doesn’t strike me as all that much different than the games the 2012 cranks played with the Mayans, grabbing hold of the accurate parts of their astronomy while ignoring the goofier bits, something Tyson has directly and specifically mocked.
Then again, while I remember being blown away by the original Cosmos — contrary to this post, you don’t need to be over 50 to have seen the original, thankyouverymuch– I don’t remember much about the history segments. I remember they were there, of course, but mostly what I was interested in was the “spaceship of the imagination” sequences, zipping off to look at other planets. The couple of times in recent years that I’ve watched bits of the original, I’ve had a lot of “Oh, right, historical recreations…” moments. As such, I can’t really vouch for the accuracy of the history of science presented by the original. So this might not represent a departure from the form, just a change in my state of knowledge.
And that was kind of the other theme of the evening– my reaction to this reboot was largely colored by the fact that I know so much more than I did in 1980. So, while there were a lot of gosh-wow moments, I also found myself mentally quibbling about little details, like the vast overabundance of asteroids and Kuiper Belt objects. (And Giordano Bruno…) I totally understand the practical reasons for this– I’m not arguing that such minor inaccuracies for the sake of great visuals are a cardinal sin, or anything– but it was striking how much knowing stuff changed my reaction. I thought several times that this would’ve been way more awesome if I could go back to being 9 years old to watch it.
Sadly, SteelyKid is probably a little too young for this– it’s certainly airing way past her bedtime (particularly on a Sunday night– Monday mornings are rough even when she goes to bed on time)– and by the time she’s eight or nine, I suspect there will be chunks of it that are out of date. Of course, that very fact is kind of awesome in its own right…
But, you know, I have it on the DVR, so maybe I’ll try it out and see what she thinks, sometime next weekend when The Pip is napping. I suspect the talky bits are a little too slow for her (and Bruno’s trial might be too scary), but I bet she’d be appropriately awed by the visuals of the Solar System tour.
Anyway, as a series premiere, I thought this hit the right notes: paying respects to the original, showing off the spectacular new visuals, and setting the stage for the rest of the series to come. I expect future episodes will go into specific areas of science in a bit more depth, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with.
(Also, I look forward to seeing this on DVD, because, damn, the commercials are irritating…)