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.