Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series premieres next week. Early reviews are mostly positive, although some, like the New York Times, are unimpressed.
When the original Cosmos premiered, there was nothing else like it in on TV. Space-travel shows like Star Trek were still relatively rare, and no one had attempted a big-budget no fiction space show like Cosmos before.
Since that time there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of space and astronomy shows on PBS, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, etc. While Sagan’s Cosmos had no competition, Tyson’s Cosmos has competition everywhere, including many shows hosted by Tyson himself. It is hard to see what will set the new Cosmos apart from the pack.
The new Cosmos does have support from a major network (Fox), which is undeniable advantage. The quest for network fame may have caused Tyson to make some questionable choices, however. To bring in Fox, he had to partner with Seth MacFarlane, who is known primarily as a writer of foul-mouthed gutter comedy and producer of some of the worst animation ever to appear on television. It is hard to see how MacFarlane’s involvement adds anything to the new Cosmos‘ credibility. He simply brought the money.
With only one episode aired, it is hard to predict what direction Cosmos will take in the future. There are some clues, however. Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, who is also involved in the project, has said the new Cosmos will be more overtly political than the original. Considering how preachy Sagan could be in the original (and given MacFarlane’s involvement), we wonder how far the new Cosmos will go in that direction.
The biggest weakness of Cosmos is likely to come from Tyson himself, however. Like Sagan, Tyson has an aristocratic disdain for human space exploration, especially large-scaled citizen space exploration. Tyson is a fan of government “flag and footprint” missions, which will always be rare and expensive. He has spoken occasionally of sending NASA astronauts to Europa, but he sees no value in affordable, near-term citizen space exploration (which he denigrates as “joyrides” and “so-called” spaceflight).
Tyson believes that citizens should explore space figuratively, through television, not literally, through actual spaceflight. But watching television is not exploration; it’s voyeurism.
The universe is vast. It is naive to think that space (or even our tiny little corner of the solar system) could be completely explored by a handful of government employees acting alone.
We do not want to simply watch Cosmos. We want to explore the cosmos. More people travel than watch the Travel Channel. More people cook than watch the Food Network. We look forward to day when more people travel in space than watch space shows on Fox TV.