Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

2014-03-07_2308March is space month at National Geographic.

Next weekend it screens Live from Space, which will broadcast live images from the international space station that promises “incredible shots of the planet, from sunset and sunrise, to city lights and green aurora, to lightning storms and shooting stars.” It sounds like just the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from National Geographic.

A day later it launches a new 13 part series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, designed as a sequel to the Emmy-winning 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

The original series featured legendary astronomer Carl Sagan and introduced ground-breaking special effects to explain the origin of life and our place in the universe.

The new series is presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was inspired by Sagan through a meeting with him in New York as a young boy. It is produced by Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad) and Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, and scored by Hollywood composer Alan Silvestri. Nat Geo will launch the series in a global broadcast, as event television.

Tyson is seemingly transported through the universe in the “Ship of the Imagination” -a kind of remote-control shaped object that flies through space from galaxy to galaxy. Like Captain Kirk looking out through a window wall, Tyson serves as a tour guide looking down upon the wonders of the universe.

Juxtaposed against such green-screen travel, he also appears in more earthly-bound scenes on cliff-tops, the beach, forests and the streets of Italy. As a storyteller he certainly comes with the kind of deep, resonant voice you would expect from James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman. “You, me, everyone, we are made of star stuff,” he explains.

As a science series there is plenty of information coming at you. Science buffs will be in ‘heaven’ here. Cosmos works hard to try and compress enormous and infinite data into comprehensible storytelling. A “calendar of the universe” begins with a big bang on January 1st while life emerges from the sea as late as December 17, and all the history of man occurs only on the evening of December 31. Such explanations help us to grasp the vast history of the universe.

As well as using CGI the series relies heavily on animation, such as detailing Italian friar and Giordano Bruno who, in the 15th century challenged the Church’s view that Earth was the centre of the Universe. The style of these cartoons is a little clunky given the stature of the other elements, and they comprise a significant part of the first episode.

For all its grandeur Cosmos is dominated by Tyson, who is at the foreground of the science rather than as narrator to vision. He also doesn’t interview other experts, but fills the hour with an abundance of dialogue.

As event television I wanted more than green-screen and CGI, and I didn’t feel Cosmos transported me in the way that the movie Gravity did. As a National Geographic experience I came away feeling that the tangible footage of landmark documentaries such as Great Migrations was a more satisfying experience.

Clearly, one doesn’t actually expect Nat Geo to literally head into space with their cameras.

But then again, Live From Space will do just that…

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premieres 7:30pm Sunday March 16 on National Geographic.


  1. Why do we need another Cosmos? Every year, there are many many space documentaries being produced and broadcast all around the world. Sure there are some crocks (Ancient Aliens comes to mind), but there are also shows like Prof. Brian Cox’s Wonders of…, which do have reputable research and high production values.

    When the original Cosmos was produced, space documentaries were the exception, rather than the rule, and it was rightly valued as a classic and a pioneer. It did give insights and inspiration to a generation. I have no doubt that Tyson’s Cosmos will be good, but is it just using the name to gain an edge? Give it that much more publicity? Why not call it Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s space documentary, and let it stand on its own, not riding the coattails of a classic?

  2. Secret Squirrel

    Regarding the out-of-sorts animation, Giordano Bruno is an anagram of “on our dog Brian”, so I assume that the character is just Brian in period costume.

  3. But Gravity was simply awful! It had too many technical absurdities (most unnecessary) and too many dreadfully clunky info-dumps to be entertaining.

    In the end it was nothing but a silly CGI-heavy, story-light movie for people who don’t know *anything* about space travel, the ISS, the shuttle, HST, etc. People who haven’t noticed what’s been going on above their heads for the last 30+ years in fact. I cannot figure out why it was so popular.

    The Cosmos reboot won’t have to work very hard to be better than Gravity!

  4. I can understand why Cosmos is dominated by Tyson talking just as the original Cosmos was dominated by Sagan talking. No matter how hard you try, describing events and structures at the universe (or sub-atomic) level in just not possible on a two dimensional medium like television… even if it is a brand new 84″ super-plasmo-LED-gargleblaster.

    TV is great for exploring the intricacies of bob and carol’s romance with bill and stephan, but worse than useless when it comes to explaining Higgs theory.

    I saw the original program with Sagan, and one sentence he said changed my life. “We are all made of star stuff”, he said, “and will return to being part of a star long after we have died.”. Lets see anyone try and CGI that.

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