Forty years ago this fall, the late Carl Sagan began his journey towards becoming a worldwide pop culture icon and champion of science communication thanks to the PBS series Cosmos. Now, though Sagan is gone, his legacy lives on through the work of Ann Druyan, who continues to strive for science education through the series that she, her husband Carl, and Cosmos co-creator Steven Soter started decades ago. That legacy was furthered in the 2014 series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which featured astrophysicist / contemporary science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson as the host, and continues still today with the series’ newest effort, Cosmos: Possible Worlds.
Druyan returns as co-creator, executive producer, director, and writer, while deGrasse Tyson returns as the host of the new 13-episode series which will air on NatGeo. The “most beloved science franchise on the planet” makes its highly anticipated return tonight, at 8/7c with a two-episode premiere. The episodes will then air regularly on Mondays at 10/9c before a two-part finale on May 18 at 9/8c and 10/9c. Here’s what you can expect from the new series / season:
In the vastness of time and the immensity of space, the number of worlds to explore and stories to tell are virtually infinite. The most-watched, highly anticipated science show on the planet — COSMOS — returns this March for the newest season with COSMOS: POSSIBLE WORLDS. Continuing the legacy she began with Carl Sagan 40 years ago and the brainchild of creator, executive producer, director and writer Ann Druyan, this 13-episode season is a triumphant voyage through humanity’s past, present and future, taking viewers to previously uncharted territories and turning complex themes of science and exploration into a mind-blowing adventure beyond the realms of the imagination. Approximately 13.8 billion years in the making — the age of the universe — COSMOS: POSSIBLE WORLDS, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is a wonder-filled odyssey that maps a hopeful vision of our future. The episodes integrate state-of-the-art VFX, stylized animation and dramatic reenactments to carry viewers deep into the future and through that hole in the curtain of reality.
As a former scientist and current science-communicator myself, I’m almost always in support of media programs that attempt to bring real-world science to audiences, especially when it comes with the pedigree of a franchise like Cosmos. So it should come as no surprise that I’m recommending that everyone checks out this new series. Even if you’ve heard the science before, even if you’ve studied the history of past human civilizations or the potential future that awaits all of us, there’s bound to be some new nugget of knowledge, some new factoid or shift in perspective that you’ll find in Cosmos: Possible Worlds. So whether it’s an exploration of the world’s oldest town of Catalhoyuk in modern Turkey, the highly ambitious Breakthrough Starshot program to send probes to distant worlds, or the defiant philosophies of scholars like Baruch Spinoza, there’s sure to be something for everyone in these 13 new episodes.
That’s a blessing and a curse for shows like Cosmos. There is so much science out there in the world, spanning every frequency in the electromagnetic spectrum and ranging from the sub-atomic to the multi-universal, that attempting to cover it all results in either broad strokes from a high level or cherry picking for a few deeper explanations. And then there’s the additional challenge of actually communicating that science and what it means to audiences of all levels of curiosity and education.
Cosmos: Possible Worlds attempts to make that meaningful connection by relating scientific discoveries, principles, and future possibilities to the human condition, be it through the stories of individual researchers, intrepid groups of explorers, or whole civilizations that embraced scientific concepts. We’ll need to do the same on a planetary scale if we’re to mitigate damage from climate change, the Anthropocene extinction, and the eventual loss of our Earth’s habitable region. That’s a lot to tackle. The series makes a commendable effort in reducing all of that vast accumulation of knowledge into something understandable by compacting the known history of the universe into the space of a calendar year. Most of human civilization as we know it today has only occurred in the last few seconds before midnight on New Year’s Eve. It’s those sorts of perspective-shifting moments that make or break the effectiveness of series like this in not just getting the science across, but broadening minds.
Unfortunately, Cosmos: Possible Worlds misses the mark a bit in a few important ways. First, early episodes feel more like parts of a whole rather than one cogent, focused argument; we get snippets of science loosely related to each other by the strings connecting thousands of years of human civilization or the strands of DNA that bind all living things together in an atomic sense. Take, for example, nature documentaries like Blue Planet, which featured episodes focused on specific aquatic areas of Earth, or the more recent Seven Worlds, One Planet, which focused on a specific continent in each episode. Those documentaries understand that vying for viewers’ shortening attention spans in this modern world is a tough task, so it’s better to tighten the focus as much as possible. Cosmos: Possible Worlds wanders far afield in an effort to give a surface-level explanation to everything without grounding those disparate stories with solid connections.
The second shortcoming is a focus on a distant, hopefully optimistic future at the expense of urgency for the here and now. In other words, much animation, narration, and sci-fi hype is spent on pie-in-the-sky examples of interplanetary and interstellar travel–and even colonization–for far-flung future human beings, relative to only a scattered sentence or two, here or there, about the current sixth extinction event (caused by humans), the devastating effects of climate change (caused by humans), or the endless division of classes and bloody battles over dwindling resources (caused by humans). We do visit the Hall of Extinction once more, but one could easily spend an entire episode there if not an entire season. Look, I’d love to live long enough to see the first data streams return from the Alpha Centauri system or watch the first human beings leave footprints in the Martian dust, but I’d much prefer that we first get our acts together to fix the one and only home we have before shopping for a (very expensive) new one.
Cosmos has the power to reach millions of households and the minds that dwell within them, be they people who currently have political power (whether it’s voting rights or more direct legislative access) or those who will in the near future; it’s a missed opportunity not to further drive home the urgency of the here and now. It is, admittedly, difficult to maintain a balanced message, somewhere between getting people to take action and turning them off completely. People need hope, and promise, and optimism to want to work for a brighter future, something that facts alone don’t seem to encourage, so a certain amount of sci-fi goes a long way in that regard. Druyan and Sagan managed to spark a movement nearly 40 years ago; Cosmos: Possible Worlds unfortunately does little to encourage that next big step forward.
And therein lies my last issue with the latest series, and it’s more of a personal and subjective one: I just don’t like Tyson that much as a host. His accomplishments in both academia and pop culture are quite literally stellar, and the fact that a Black man has become the face and voice of science communication on a number of popular titles is incredibly important for both representation and inspiration of the next generation of scientists. But to me, Tyson comes across as arrogant and detached, a far cry from Sagan’s informed but conversational tone from the original Cosmos series; the difference is as clear as night and day on the tidally locked Neptunian moon of Triton, especially when an episode closes with a quote from Sagan himself. It’s thanks in a major part to Druyan’s script that any warmth comes through at all in the attempt to connect viewers to the very human story taking place in one small corner of the cosmos. One wonders if and when Druyan herself might take a crack at hosting duties, or perhaps pass the baton to a female scientist for the first time in the series’ long history. If Tyson’s elevation to the position was transformative for some, imagine how powerful it would be for half the world’s population to see an accomplished woman of science speaking from a place of prominence. May we see that day arrive long before we set foot on Proxima Centauri b.
Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a necessary next step in the continuing battle for more science communication in this modern world, even if it’s held back by a less-than-cohesive narrative, a lack of urgency, and Tyson’s struggle to live up to the legacy of Carl Sagan.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Cosmos: Possible Worlds premieres tonight on NatGo at 8/7c or a two-part premiere. The Emmy Award-winning, worldwide phenomenon also hails from Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated executive producers Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, The Orville); Brannon Braga (The Orville, Terra Nova), who also writes and directs; and Jason Clark (The Orville).