Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of his mentor Carl Sagan’s much-lauded and much-loved documentary Cosmos will air next year on Fox. What I want for Christmas is for the show to be compelling and for people to watch it.
The trailer shows a slicked-up version of the original iteration of the show, which makes sense, given all the special effects and cinematic wizardry (not to mention developments in our knowledge of space) that have been developed over the past 20 years. It still features its host manning what looks to be some futuristic spacecraft — the only difference is that Tyson dons a pair of bad-ass sunglasses. Tyson’s no dummy. He knows that in these times, he has to appeal to audiences that have short attention spans and little interest in space. As he said at the end of his wonderful speech at the National Space Symposium, the rhetoric most space advocates use (All humans are explorers! It’s in our DNA!) has grown tired, and only appeals to people who are already bought into the importance of space exploration.
Tyson himself uses those arguments, especially in his book Space Chronicles in which, among other things, he champions something called the “cosmic perspective” and underscores Sagan’s points about how important it is to understand humanity’s place in the cosmos. The “we’re made of star stuff” point is, quite literally, the “it’s in our DNA” argument, and maybe Tyson makes it not only because it’s true, but because only people with at least some interest in space will buy or read his book. But it’s very possible that people will stumble upon Cosmos as they’re channel surfing, and he needs to be ready to appeal to these people with a few different arguments.
Tyson has already shown impressive reach — he’s got Star Talk Radio, more YouTube videos than I can count, frequent appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, he speaks at Congressional meetings about space exploration and funding, and he’s active on social media. Unlike Carl Sagan, Tyson doesn’t have a soothing voice or a gentle demeanor — he’s got sass, pizzazz, and plenty of ego. And while Sagan was the perfect space spokesperson in the post moon-shot era precisely because he didn’t have those things, I’m hoping that Tyson is the perfect space spokesperson for right now because he does.
As much as I like Tyson, though, he does have the ability to be off-putting. He’s quick to chastise people for being scientifically illiterate, or even stupid, which I agree is a problem, but I’m not sure shame is the most effective remedy. In Space Chronicles, he tells an anecdote about an Ivy League professor who, confronted with the vastness of the cosmos, says he feels small, insignificant, and depressed. This is a pretty typical and understandable reaction, but Tyson rails against this professor for letting his “delusions of significance” get in the way of what he should be feeling — exhilarated and awed. While I don’t disagree with Tyson’s point here, I do think his delivery could be a bit gentler. It’s not easy for someone, especially a non-scientist, to wrap his brain around space. I think movies such as Gravity help a bit, but they also underscore the infinite scope and terrifying aloneness that space entails. Those movies, as much as they may engross us in space for a couple hours, also could easily support a theory Arthur C. Clarke brings up in Childhood’s End: that perhaps “the stars are not for man.”
Yet Tyson also succeeds in making space relevant and real. He talks about how corrective lenses for the Hubble gave way to breakthrough mammogram technology, and how, on a molecular level, we’re drinking the same water and breathing the same air as Aristotle or Joan of Arc. Given that Cosmos will air on Fox, and given that it’s got serious backing and influence from more mainstream entertainment gurus such as Seth McFarlane, it presents the perfect opportunity for Tyson to appeal to adults, kids, scientists, and non-scientists. Tyson has said that he’s all but given up on adults, as their minds have been made up. And sure, it may make more sense to focus on kids, to get them interested in space while they’re young and keep them interested, which eventually could promote an entire shift in the way our culture views space. But I don’t really buy that Tyson’s thrown the towel in when it comes to the grown-ups.
I think if Cosmos can appeal to that sense of wonder that still lingers in adults somewhere, if it can appeal to curiosity, wanderlust, an ancient and dramatic narrative, and the inherent human sense of adventure, it can pull in anyone. That the show will air on Fox is perhaps surprising, but a golden opportunity. While Fox airs often edgy shows such as The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Arrested Development, we all know who the typical Fox (or Fox News) viewers are. And given that the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is comprised primarily of Republicans, many of whom are climate change deniers and fit Tyson’s definition of scientifically illiterate, the Fox viewership may be exactly the right one to target with this new show.
I fully believe that space exploration is important to culture and to what Carl Sagan called “cultural exuberance.” I also believe there’s no greater vehicle for changing minds and spreading knowledge than the ol’ boob tube. This is the chance Tyson has been waiting for. While you can’t wrap it up and put it under the tree, my Christmas wish is that the ratings for Cosmos exceed my, Tyson, and the network’s wildest expectations. My wish is that instead of shuffling along staring down at our various screens all the time, the show will inspire people to start looking up.