“TThis is an extraordinary sentence I am about to utter,” says astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in a voice charged with significance. “[I met] Seth MacFarlane at a kickoff meeting of a new office opened in Hollywood by the National Academy of Sciences.” He seems barely able to believe it himself. “The National Academy of Sciences,” he reiterates. It’s as though he just revealed the royal family have been hanging out in McDonald’s.
Science and the movies seem unlikely bedfellows, but hooking them up was a strategic move by the NAS to combat what it saw as a growing public disconnection with science, as well as to offer film-makers help and inspiration for storylines. The upshot was the Science and Entertainment Exchange programme, launched in 2008.
Yet it’s doubtful that even the masterminds behind the NAS could have predicted that when MacFarlane, creator of the bawdy cartoon Family Guy, ended up shooting the breeze with one of America’s best-known astrophysicists, it would lead to an astonishing re-boot of one of the most popular science television programmes ever. First seen in 1980, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and its beguiling, turtleneck-sweater wearing host, the astrophysicist and author Carl Sagan, has achieved cult status. “People have phrases that one of us wrote tattooed on their body,” Ann Druyan, co-writer of the series and Sagan’s widow, tells me. Its mindbending visual effects and soaring music, coupled with Sagan’s lyrical, almost hypnotic narration mesmerised viewers, making it one of the most successful programmes ever to run on America’s Public Broadcasting Service.
And it didn’t just captivate American audiences. British physicists Brian Cox and Maggie Aderin-Pocock have cited Sagan as a huge influence, while his appeal was also felt by those pursuing a rather different path – comedian Robin Ince even put on a show named “Carl Sagan Is Still My God”. You get the picture. But Cosmos was far more than just a fanciful tour of our solar system hosted by an exalted professor in a corduroy jacket. Delving into the nature of the universe, the fabric of our being and the lives of those who made some of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, Cosmos was an immersive experience. And with Sagan, in his slow, compelling drawl, uttering knock-out lines like “the cosmos is also within us, we’re made of star-stuff”, the show thrilled and informed in equal measure.
But like all good things, it came to an end, and after Sagan died in 1996 aged 62, it seemed that Cosmos was destined to remain on a nostalgic pedestal. Druyan, however, had other ideas. About seven years ago, together with astrophysicist Steven Soter, who with Sagan and Druyan was also a writer on the original series, she began planning new episodes of Cosmos. Later Tyson joined the team as host, but there was a problem. No network was prepared to give Druyan creative carte blanche. “They knew [Cosmos] was the gold standard of a very unusual kind of science-based entertainment,” she tells me. “But they wanted creative control and to cede that to them would have meant that I really couldn’t protect the legacy of Carl’s work, and mine, and Steve’s.”
But then Tyson met MacFarlane. And MacFarlane had a plan. “Seth walked into our lives and made all kinds of lavish promises about taking us to Fox,” says Druyan. It was a project a world away from the ribald romps of Family Guy or Ted. Yet for MacFarlane, Cosmos pressed buttons. “When I was a kid I watched Cosmos and it was presented in such a way that placed it in a very different category from other science documentaries that tended to be a little on the dry side,” he explained in an interview for Fox.
Tyson was not surprised that MacFarlane was interested. “I’d known that in his cartoons, in Family Guy, there are many references to science, not the least of which are the destinations of Stewie’s time machines,” he tells me. “In one episode he goes to the beginning of the universe – the big bang – and in another one he goes to multiple universes. So I said ‘there is some machinery churning in Seth MacFarlane’s head beyond the fart jokes’.” But taking Cosmos to Fox seemed like a madcap notion.
What would Fox, home of the notoriously conservative news channel, want with a science show fronted by the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium? Yet the more they thought about it, the more the team realised that Fox – and the National Geographic Channel that it co-owns – was the perfect place to bring science and the excitement of discovery to a huge and diverse audience. And so, like the fairy godfather of astrophysics, MacFarlane delivered the team to Fox. And Fox took notice. “Seth wants to do something – you give him audience,” says Tyson. But Fox did more than that. It gave Cosmos the green light, with Druyan as an executive producer.
For Tyson, the challenge was to stamp his own seal on the show. “If you re-do it, then people say ‘Oh, how did he do? Did he pronounce billions correctly the way the original Carl Sagan did?'” he says. “If I tried to fill his shoes I would just fail because he is Carl Sagan but I knew that I could fill my own shoes really well and all I could do is be myself and if I were to fail, I would fail at being myself rather than fail at being someone who I think is not replaceable.”
MacFarlane, also an executive producer of the new show, is certainly a fan. “[Tyson] is a guy who has that gift – he’s a guy who can take a mathematically complex premise and explain it to you in a way that is accessible and communicates his own enthusiasm, and eat all your fries in the process,” he said in a recent Q&A.
But the connection between Sagan and Tyson goes further than the common link of Cosmos. Back when Tyson was a promising high school student, his university application had been seen by Sagan who then invited him, unsolicited, to visit Cornell University to help him decide if that was where he wanted to pursue his studies. It was a magnanimous gesture, not least because by this time Sagan was already well known for his television appearances and for his popular science writing (he later won a Pulitzer prize).
But Sagan was more than a scientific poster boy. His research delved into numerous areas, including the atmospheres of Venus and Mars. He also worked on experiments in which the chemical makeup of the atmospheres of various planets and moons, including primitive Earth, were modelled to investigate how the formation of organic molecules, such as amino acids, can be induced.
In addition, Sagan worked on numerous Nasa expeditions, including the Viking missions to Mars and was well known for his fascination with the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe, becoming a keen supporter of the Seti Institute, a global collaborative project looking for extraterrestrial life.
With his customary enthusiasm, he also oversaw the creation of the somewhat quirky “golden records”, carried on board the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, that bear greetings in various languages as well as more unusual sounds, such as whale song.
Like Sagan, Tyson is a professional researcher with a host of awards and accolades under his belt. “All that inspired Carl Sagan to do science and to share science with the public are the same things that inspire me,” says Tyson. And with both TV shows and bestselling books to his name, he already has quite a fan club. But Tyson isn’t the only new addition to the show. MacFarlane’s fresh take, coupled with Druyan’s vision, has brought a host of innovative ideas to make Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey a jaw-dropping scientific extravaganza.
“Seth made some fantastic creative suggestions that really were all to the good,” says Druyan. “They were, among them, to animate the stories of the great heroes of knowledge.” While Sagan’s series made use of live actors to recreate historic scenes, it was felt that approach wouldn’t cut it in 2014.
“Here in America we stereotype that by describing it as ‘people with fake British accents and glued on sideburns’,” laughs Tyson. But MacFarlane and his creative team, which included Family Guy veterans Kara Vallow and Brent Woods, took a different tack: fusing animation with photography to create “graphic novel” interludes in which the historical scientific figures, and their struggles, come to life.
“We wanted to strike a balance, animation wise, between a look that was narrative based, that was something that was accessible but at the same time felt different from what you normally see in primetime animation, and that was a challenge,” MacFarlane says.
“It couldn’t be an art film but at the same time it couldn’t be Disney. It had to be something that was very specific and unique to this series.” Tyson agrees. “When you animate it you can illustrate exactly what you need and you can get inside someone’s head.” MacFarlane also brought the musical prowess of Alan Silvestri, composer for films including Forrest Gump and The Avengers, to bear. Druyan had worked with Silvestri on the 1997 film of Sagan’s sci-fi novel Contact, but it was his close friend, MacFarlane, who brought him to Cosmos.
For Tyson, the benefits of a big budget were also evident, with the director of photography none other than Bill Pope, whose credits include the Matrix trilogy. “He also directed the Spiderman movies, which means he knows what to do with a camera,” says Tyson. As a scientist familiar with making documentaries, it was a refreshing experience for Tyson.
“Normally you might just park [the camera] in front of the talking head while they stand behind the lab table, and then you put it on another tripod and point it somewhere else,” he says. “But [Pope] had fresh things to do with the camera.”
With a huge boost to the original concept, the new Cosmos is a cinematic spectacle on the small screen. But just as the original series had sobering moments, the consequences of nuclear war among them, the new series also explores significant issues including the mass extinctions that wiped out huge swaths of life on our planet. “I wanted to find a way to pierce the denial and the resistance and the kind of sleepwalking we are in about what we are doing to ourselves and to the planet” says Druyan.
It’s a mission MacFarlane was keen to support.
“There has never been a more important time for Cosmos to re-emerge than right now because of the fact that we have in too many ways roundly ignored and rejected science when it used to be a source of pride for the country, and for the species,” he said. The message is worthy, but one that Cosmos, uniquely, manages to deliver in a blaze of mind-blowing footage. For those who revere the gentle, nuanced approach that made Sir David Attenborough and his blue shirts as a national treasure, Cosmosmay seem unpalatably flashy. Yet Tyson is adamant that science and sheer entertainment are far from an unholy alliance. “When I look up in the universe I am entertained. When I think about what happens when I approach a black hole, I am entertained. When I think about the life story of a star and what it goes through, I am entertained,” he says.
“Normally people think of entertainment [as] watching human drama unfold. I watch cosmic drama unfold.” But science has moved on since Sagan’s time. “There is a huge catalogue of discoveries since 1980 when the original series came out,” says Tyson. “But we cherrypicked those for ones that matter most to our understanding of our place in the universe.” And these are juicy cherries indeed: the concept of the multiverse, the discovery of exoplanets, the mysteries of dark energy, and insights brought by advances in our understanding of genetics all take to the screen.
But no discussion of Cosmos would be complete without reference to the “ship of the imagination” in which Sagan journeyed through space and time in his first episode. Straight out of the 70s, its sparse magnolia decor belied a bizarre dandelion-shaped exterior, making it one of the most peculiar features of the original show. MacFarlane, however, loved it.
“It was Seth who wanted the ship of imagination throughout the series, which was so smart,” says Druyan. “Cosmos has to be a transporting experience to be truly Cosmos.”
When it comes to the ship, Tyson brims with excitement. “That’s my favorite part!” he says. “There was a ship of the imagination in the original but it was sort of under-conceived and it had very mixed reviews.” The new ship is sleek, minimalist and positively gleaming. “This one, dare I say it, is badass,” says Tyson.
Well, what else would you expect with MacFarlane on board?