As strange as it sounds, Fox announced plans last week to order 13 new episodes of the classic science program Cosmos. Only they want Seth MacFarlane to take over for the show’s original progenitor/talking head Carl Sagan. Wait, what?
It’s true, Carl Sagan and Seth MacFarlane don’t really occupy the same space. One man is a progressive visionary who’s ideas about using television to explain his wonky and sometimes almost un-relatable brain works all the while to some wicked cheesy music. The other is Carl Sagan. [rimshot – hooray for cheap jokes!] But in this case, MacFarlane has been pretty enthusiastic about taking on the classic early 1980s science miniseries about the creation of the universe and what it means for mankind. Per his statement to the New York Times:
“We’re obsessed with angels and vampires and whatnot,” Mr. MacFarlane, 37, said in a telephone interview, “when there are many more exciting and very real and much more spectacular things to be excited about, that are right in our own planetary backyard.”
Full confession, I was a huge fan of the original Cosmos series. It’s pretty much what got me interested in science fiction and shows and movies about space travel to begin with. The miniseries used what was, at the time, cutting edge special effects to show just how massive the universe was and in the process how utterly fantastic creation could actually be. It truly exemplified the adage about truth being stranger than fiction by illustrating very clearly and concisely how incredible the universe is and how limited our knowledge of it can be. And while the special effects really, really don’t hold up (not to mention the music), I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to see this series updated.
Seriously. It was mostly just Carl Sagan on a Barcalounger that was supposed to be flying through space.
The thing about the original series, however, isn’t that it was Carl Sagan being his nerdy, astronomical self and just assuming that the rest of the country was as interested in pulsars and quasars as he was. Cosmos was made in the late 1970s and aired in 1980, at exactly the same time the world was staring down the very real possibility of an escalating Cold War that could turn into nuclear holocaust pretty quick. Cosmos was very intentionally made to try to help pull the world back from that brink – Sagan’s idea was that if humanity could get a clearer view of where we fit into the entirety of existence, it might help cooler heads to take their fingers off those red buttons. Science is sometimes rightfully accused of being obtuse and inaccessible, but this show was science at its most beautiful; used not just to inform, but to move.
Cosmos was unabashedly optimistic, despite all the immediate evidence in the world at that time pointing to a particularly pessimistic future. If that sounds like a similar environment to what we’re experiencing now, I suspect that may be part of the motivation for bringing the series back.
Done correctly, programs like Cosmos can literally remake how we think of ourselves and the universe we live in. At a time when it doesn’t feel like the world is on the right track, it is the ultimate way to encourage a view of the bigger picture. There is no stronger argument for creative thinking then allowing people to really wonder at how vast yet interconnected the universe is. More importantly, at least from my memory, it is also a powerful way to encourage people to think differently. If there’s a stronger way to tell a young kid that the universe is vast and limited only by his young perception of it and thereby encourage him not to just follow the path in front of him but look for others as well, I don’t know what it is.