Neil de Grasse Tyson Is John Harrison

Over at Galileo's Pendulum, Matthew Francis expresses an opinion that's sure to get him in trouble with the Inquisition and placed under house arrest: Carl Sagan's Cosmos isn't all that:

However, even taking into account the differences in TV between 1980 and 2013, the show is very slow-paced at times. I’m not talking about the mellow oh-so-1970s Vangelis score, or Sagan’s measured style of speech: I mean the obvious stretching of material to make hour-long episodes. I have a long attention span, so I’m not saying Cosmos should be like the frenetic Star Trek reboot; I’m just saying that a serious show about serious science need not be ponderous.

It's been years since I even tried to watch the original Cosmos-- I caught a bit of it a few times when I was home with SteelyKid when she was a baby, and I basically agree. I was actually surprised by how much of it was historical and Earthbound-- like MAtthew, most of what I remember of it was the "starship of the imagination" segments, which I loved as a kid when it originally aired.

Of course, it's difficult to really fully account for the differences in media expectations between then and now. My touchstone for this is the "featured image" movie poster up top, which I've thrown in just to thoroughly confuse everybody. That's from the movie The Hot Rock, an adaptation of the first of Donald Westlake's comic crime novels about John Dortmunder, and one of the best. This is a caper novel where a hapless gang of thieves have to steal the same gem multiple times, in progressively more outrageous heists, and ought to be very cinematic. To modern eyes, though, it drags really badly in places, most notably a long sequence where they fly around New York in a helicopter for what feels like ages (lots of lingering shots of the then-new World Trade Center towers, eek).

That didn't particularly stand out at the time, though, and other well-loved movies of a similar era have the same issues-- the original The Italian Job was widely praised as vastly superior to the remake when it came out, but when Kate and I watched it, it seemed really slow and shaggy. While the modern remake has significant flaws, it conforms much better to modern expectations for plot and pacing.

So, I suspect that the pace of media is subject to a rule like whichever Murphy's Law variant it is that says projects always take longer than you expect, even when you account for the fact that they take longer than you expect. Even when you go in knowing that things were paced more slowly back then, it's almost impossible to appreciate just how much slower they were.

Anyway, the proximate cause of Matthew's post was, of course, the reveal of the trailer for the third Star Trek reboot movie at Comic-Con:

Oh, sorry, that's the Cosmos reboot with Neil de Grasse Tyson as Khan Carl Sagan. But, you know, it's easy to get mixed up, what with all the dramatic panning and CGI effects and ominous BAAAAAAMMMM noises on the soundtrack.

And as much as my tastes these days are better suited to modern pacing, this makes me a little nervous, to be honest. Of course, this was a trailer made specifically for release at Comic-Con, and thus not necessarily the most highbrow of audiences, so it's obviously going to play up the gosh-wow graphics budget and not show much of the, you know, science explanations. But that's an awful lot of gosh-wow graphics stuff all the same, and a lot of the splashier elements of that make me worry about how well it will handle the science.

But maybe this is just another expectations issue, where the Comic-Con-ization of something will always be more shallow and flashy than you expect even when you try to account for the shallow flashiness of Comic-Con...

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Some people are planning to make a sequel, another 13 part series, to Carl Sagan's Cosmos. This may be a greater heresy than giving Star Trek a reboot with a time-travel movie, or turning Star Wars into Jar Jar Binks land, but there is one glimmer of sunshine: it's going to star Neil deGrasse Tyson…

Science needs marketing. I'm not about to deny that there is a certain amount of inner disgust at the methods, but I remind myself that people "in the know" are not the ones who need to be persuaded.

This sort of begs the question as to how much this program needs to "handle the science". My rationalization is that the science isn't as important as stirring the pot of curiosity. I mean, its television. Think of it like a commercial for your self-interests, with the target audience essentially being the general public.

By William Hendrixson (not verified) on 29 Jul 2013 #permalink

To be fair, it does look a lot like the standard preview/advert schtick, where you take the 30/60/whatever most exciting/dramatic/funniest/eye-candyest seconds in the whole movie and splice them together into an advertisement. I'm sure that we've all encountered movies that had really funny commercials or ads with great special effects, only to attend the movie and realize that there's only a few funny jokes in the whole movie, or only a few scenes with great special effects, and they're the ones in the ads. I'm guessing the actual episodes, not being condensed into under 3 minutes of knock-them-off-their-socksness, will be less frenetically paced, and that what was shown basically describes the bounds of the gosh-wow graphics.

Regarding scientific content, good science content takes a while to develop (especially with a general audience) - you need time to build the foundation needed to understand the implications. It also tends to be dialog heavy. (The actual science gets explained by the voiceover, while related gosh-wow graphics play in the background. - Though that would be an interesting challenge to set to people: explain an advanced scientific result/concept entirely with pictures, using no words.)

I personally wouldn't be too concerned by the promo. Tyson's Cosmos is probably going to be aimed directly at the lowest of lowest common denominators of general audiences, but it'll have decent science in it, even if unsurprising to a science-specific audience. I trust that Tyson wouldn't be involved if it didn't. -- Though if anyone can take something easy and muck it up in the worst possible way, it'll be FOX.

I guess my cinematic appreciation skills are still stuck in the 70's then. I like to be able to take time to appreciate the imagery. When it only lasts one cognitive cycle I get nothing but annoyed. And especially in music movies; I like to study fingering techniques and chords. Not possible, has not been for a long time.

And then, you brought up The Italian Job as another example. While plot treatment may have been more - er - modern in the yank remake, the story lost several key points in its rush to -er - rush.

Most notably in that it starts, continues, and ends, with the thieves being heroes.

The original has an ending that for me totally defines the term "cliff-hanger", and its attendant moral point. I guess 40 years is long enough for this to not be a spoiler - as they make their getaway back across the mountains in their coach, they over-celebrate and end up teetering out over the gorge, the gold at the lower end of the see-saw out over the drop, and the team all clustered around the steering wheel at the top. Any change in this dispersal and they all die. The movie ends right there, no resolution. Love it.

So I hope Neil spends time letting us luxuriate in the imagery. What we have today, compared with the original Cosmos, is just stunning. No need to jazz it up with cut shots.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 29 Jul 2013 #permalink

"whichever Murphy’s Law variant it is that says projects always take longer than you expect, even when you account for the fact that they take longer than you expect."

I think you mean Hofstadter's Law ('s_law).

Beth beat me to citing Hofstadter's Law, so all I can add now is Afghanistan Bananistan.

I remember watching Cosmos, but I was an adult. I really liked it then, but I imagine that my own expectations have changed enough that it would seem dated in its treatment today. But then so are a lot of classics in a lot of fields. It really isn't fair to judge it by today's standards. Our expectations of popular entertainment have been too strongly shaped by car chases and explosions.