(If you missed the first episode and you live in the US, check it out now on Hulu!)
Last night was the premiere of the Cosmos reboot starring Friend of Skepchick Neil DeGrasse Tyson in all of his glory. Well, most of his glory – I didn’t see any cowboy hats or ridiculous vests, but NDGT looked pretty damned fly walking through a lush forrest while wearing a well-tailored black-on-black suit.
But enough about the fashion choices. What did you all think of the show? Pretty great, right?
First, I’d like to address a complaint that I didn’t hear from anyone before or after the show: is NDGT awesome enough to fill the shoes of the late, great Carl Sagan? That complaint never came up because duh, of course he is. But lest anyone did worry, the first episode included a moving tribute to Sagan in which NDGT described how Sagan personally inspired him to become an astronomer and a science communicator. I know that there were many people rubbing the bits of stardust out of their eyes during that bit.
Second, there’s NDGT’s ship of the imagination, which got a big upgrade from Sagan’s. Like, it’s the difference between Sylvestor McCoy’s TARDIS to Christopher Eccleston’s. NDGT’s ship looks exactly like a really sleek and sexy vibrator, with better viewports on the sides and the floor. All jokes aside, I like that they kept the idea of the ship, but I do think that because of that, this version of Cosmos will look just as dated as the original in about ten years, and I wonder if the hokiness will turn away some of the teens who will invariably be forced to watch this in science class.
Third, I’d like to talk about the treatment of religion. This was something I was curious about leading up to the premiere, knowing that Seth MacFarlane was the producer. MacFarlane is an open and vocal critic of religion, while NDGT appears skeptical (and atheist) but tends to avoid commenting directly on theism until it directly contradicts scientific evidence, either because it doesn’t interest him or because he realizes that his pro-science message could get lost if he turns off religious people.
Because of that, I was surprised to see that the last half of last night’s episode focused on Giordano Bruno, the 16th century philosopher who suggested that the Earth circles the sun and that the universe is infinite. He was caught up in the Inquisition and burned at the stake for his beliefs. All of this was represented in animation (the style of which I quite liked, but I worry that younger kids may see it as being a bit old-fashioned. It actually reminded me of old religious cartoons). The depiction of the religious leaders was really not at all subtle: their black-ringed eyes and disapproving mouths were sinister and threatening, while Bruno had an air of innocence and courage. In his final moments, Bruno turns away from a cross thrust into his face.
Compare that opening episode to the original, which opens with a broad overview of the universe, like the recent incarnation, and then also like the recent incarnation switches to a history of the study of our universe. But in the original, Sagan begins 1,800 years earlier than Tyson, with Eratosthenes, who deduced that the world was round and calculated its circumference to an impressive degree of accuracy. Sagan then moves on to the Library of Alexandria (including a shout out to Hypatia), and then finally he jumps to Kepler. Despite mentioning the Library of Alexandria and Hypatia, he doesn’t go into detail on the possible involvement of religious groups in the eventual demise of either.
So why did the new series use the first episode to tell the classic story of a man dying for a heretical belief? As Tyson points out in the show, Bruno wasn’t much of a scientist – he made a guess, and that guess could have easily been wrong. There are a hundred other good places to start when discussing the history of the exploration of the cosmos. The conscious choice of starting with Bruno, to me, shows an interest in exposing a mass audience not just to science but to the danger of dogma.
Is that a bad thing? Will it turn off religious people who are interested in learning more about the universe but bristle at the idea of a show with an anti-religious message? Or is it the perfect way to start this series, considering that religious people continue to try to control and suppress scientific ideas that contradict their worldview, as in the unending evolution vs. creationism fights?
Maybe a science show that is at once entertaining and unafraid to jump into the science vs. religion fray is just what we need right now. So, I’m looking forward to the next episode and I hope that many other people – atheist and religious alike – are as well. But we’ll see.