In 2014, Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Duryan, brought back Cosmos with the help of Seth McFarlane and Brannon Braga. And it seemed natural that the Sagan of our generation, Neil deGrasse Tyson, would take us through an updated journey through the universe. It won a ton of awards for its two seasons, but that seemed like it was all they had to say. But six years later, a new season, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, aired on NatGeo, and now makes its Fox debut. Read on for more…
Opening Shot: A shot of people walking on a cliff edge. We hear the late Carl Sagan’s voice say. “We were hunters and gatherers. The frontier was everywhere.”
The Gist: Cosmos: Possible Worlds is the third season of this current incarnation of Cosmos, which of course first came to our screens with Sagan as host forty (!) years ago. Neil deGrasse Tyson is back a host, and in this third season, he’s examining how the human race became such intrepid explorers, with the desire to explore beyond our planet and solar system. He also discusses the possibilities of other worlds that humans may inhabit in the future.
In the first episode (two episodes will air on its September 22 premiere night), Tyson takes audiences exploring to the point where two black holes collided and changed the space-time continuum of the universe. But he also discusses the history of the cosmos in terms of the “cosmic calendar,” meaning breaking up the history of the universe into 12 “months.” Human innovation and exploration pretty much takes up the last few hours of December 31 on that calendar.
As part of that talk, Tyson goes to Amsterdam to discuss the views of Baruch Spinoza, who lived during an age of free thought in Holland in the late 17th century, but was excommunicated from the Jewish faith in the city because he dared espouse that state-run religious worship was aimed at superstition and not where he thought God really existed: In nature.
Then Tyson discusses the evolutionary relationship between bees and other pollinators and plant life, and how one out of every three bites humans take, even now, would not be possible without bees. Of course, he then discusses how humans are starting to see the results of our exploration and development, especially when it comes to the bee population. He enters the “Hall of Extinction,” and says that, unlike in previous seasons, the hallway that marks the current age of extinction now has a name: The Anthropocene, meaning “Recent humans.”
Finally, Tyson goes back out to space, to discuss how, in the not too distant future, humans may be launching tiny probes that will go at 20% the speed of light, much faster than the Voyager craft that NASA launched in the ’70s, to bring back possible planets that might sustain life in our neighboring solar system, four light years away.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Like previous seasons of this current incarnation, Cosmos feels like a combination of the original version grafted onto an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. More on that below.
Our Take: We struggled to get through the first episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds, and we couldn’t put our finger on why. Was it Tyson’s slow, almost sing-songy narration, which we know is not the way he talks in real life? Was it the concentration on long scenes of CGI that had little to do with the show’s narrative? Or was it because the episode itself didn’t particularly have a narrative center? It might be all three.
We were surprised how unfocused this first episode was. We were grasping for a through line that would link the stories that Tyson was telling, and we couldn’t find one, even after watching the episode twice. Despite the involvement of original Cosmos EP Ann Druyan, it feels like Brannon Braga, the Trek alum who directed the first episode, got too caught up in making the episode run like a sci fi scripted series than a science and nature show.
Yes, this has been the show’s style going all the way back to the Sagan original. And the host’s musings about how everything fits together is also a signature of the show, but for some reason or another, we weren’t quite understanding how the different stories in the first hour of the show fit together, and it just felt that extended effects sequences were favored over a coherent storyline.
That being said, some of the information, like the profile of Spinoza, were effective, which gives us hope that other episodes will be a bit more cohesive.
Parting Shot: Tying back to his discussion of one of Çatalhöyük, one of civilization’s first cities, which was an egalitarian ideal, we’re shown a similar-looking city on a space station, complete with people accessing their houses via their roofs, with a family looking out at the Earth.
Sleeper Star: The CGI on Cosmos is pretty detailed, so we’ll go with what we imagine Cosmos Studios’ extensive special effects crew.
Most Pilot-y Line: There’s an extended sequence where the “ship” Tyson is on tries to ride the wave created from the collision of black holes, and it felt like it went on far too long, despite how nice it looks.
Our Call: STREAM IT. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that Cosmos: Possible Worlds transcends its muddled first episode. But we’re wondering if the concept has reached its limit for now, and maybe we should wait another decade or two before seeing another version.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
Stream Cosmos: Possible Worlds On Fox.com