Seeking a new Carl Sagan

Can the new ‘Cosmos’ capture the moment like the 1980 original?

A photo of the Whirlpool Galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
A photo of the Whirlpool Galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

‘Cosmos” is coming. The 13-part documentary series about the universe and discovery — a reboot of the 1980 PBS series — premieres Sunday night on Fox, the National Geographic Channel, and a host of other networks. It’s a big-bang promotion, designed to make people watch.

And they should. I’ve only seen one episode, but it’s gorgeous, a loving, CGI-filled homage to the original series and its host, Carl Sagan, produced by Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and longtime collaborator. As in the original series, the first episode takes viewers on a journey in a “spaceship of the imagination.” It condenses cosmic time into one calendar year, to show the brief duration of human history.

The message, in both cases: We are small, but we think big, and we could use a huge personality to guide us. Thirty-four years ago, that was Sagan. The series’ original subtitle was “A Personal Journey,” and it really seemed that way, the astronomer-poet-philosopher in his red turtleneck, leading us through his own thoughts and fears, in his Jonathan Livingston Seagull-esque ’70s cadence.


“Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth,” he said. And “this cosmos, in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”

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It was both dated and eternal, and so what if it came from the era of the film strip? “They could have had little Styrofoam planets like we used to make in kindergarten, but with Sagan talking about them, it would have been fine,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

I had asked Thompson to recount the cultural climate when the first “Cosmos” aired, drawing record ratings for PBS — at a time when there was much less on TV — and inspiring a generation of stargazers. He confirmed that this was a particular moment in time. The early excitement of space exploration had started to wane, but there was a keen interest in extraterrestrial life, one of Sagan’s fascinations.

And of course, there was the backdrop of the Cold War, which loomed explicitly over the series. In the final episode, in a dream sequence, Sagan watched from his spaceship as the Earth went black, engulfed in a nuclear war.

Times are different now. Things feel decidedly less grand, more inwardly focused; when we’re all looking down at our phones, we’re less likely to gaze at the sky. We have existential threats, but they’re slow-motion and diffuse (unless they’ve planned an episode on Kim Jong Un).


And it’s unclear whether this new “Cosmos” will feel as urgent as the original. It’s a brilliant move to take the show to Fox’s broad audience; executive producer Seth MacFarlane, of “Family Guy” fame, deserves the credit for pushing this through Hollywood. Still, there’s a risk that network suits will wind up softening the message.

The first new episode makes glancing reference to climate change and the tyranny of religion over scientific inquiry. But nobody’s grabbing you by the lapels or whispering doleful poetry in your ear.

This is not a knock against host Neil deGrasse Tyson, who follows in Sagan’s footsteps in many ways. He’s an accomplished scientist and savvy communicator, a guy who could demote Pluto from planet status and still remain beloved. (In “Cosmos,” he gives Pluto a wistful name-check.) Tyson knows how to work the medium; while Sagan philosophized from Johnny Carson’s couch, Tyson regularly holds court on “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show.” He might be the best ambassador we have today for the wonders of science and the possibilities of TV.

But it’s unclear whether anyone today can be an evangelist like Sagan — because of the way people listen, and the way Sagan spoke. Watching original episodes, I couldn’t help but think of the climate change movement, the frustration I’ve heard from its foot soldiers, who are trying to convey a sense of urgency, and sometimes feel that people don’t hear.

Perhaps what they need, more than anything, is a Carl Sagan to communicate for them, voicing their foreboding not through shouts or rants, but through gorgeous images and elegant words. This was Sagan’s gift, and it’s hard to reproduce. He knew how to talk about doom. But he knew how to wrap it in wonder.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.