BY SAJIDA AYYUP
Science as a medium to answer philosophical questions will never be fully exploited by us humans, let alone be used to deconstruct complex scientific phenomena. Thriving on this seemingly thin string between the laws of nature and theories of the unknown is an entire genre of entertainment that so often challenges the accuracy of its own depiction. Cosmos: Possible Worlds (2020), the docuseries which premiered earlier this month on National Geographic, and which will air on Fox later this year, is an all-encompassing series that fuels curiosity and imagination; it fills the cracks left by scientific theories with intense visuals and storytelling.
The first Cosmos series aired in 1980 — let that sink in. Co-written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) was a docu-series that explored the origin of life, space and extraterrestrial life. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey carried the same legacy forward in 2014, and this year will mark the 40th anniversary of the original series with its third installment. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson returns to pilot the ‘Ship of Imagination’ in Possible Worlds, walking us through 13 different stories written by Druyan, Brannon Braga and André Bormanis. In an interview with The Beat, Tyson says we live in a generation which demands sequels. “In 1980, it was viewed as a multi-part documentary,” he shares. “Fortunately, Ann is boundlessly creative in the middle of an expanding universe.”
The reason why Cosmos stands out among other documentaries is the way it’s written, the continuity seamlessly flowing through all seasons. “You end up being motivated to rise up with your newly-acquired scientific insights and bring it to bear on making a better world,” Tyson says. He believes Druyan is the secret sauce whose scientific and emotional literacy has made the show what it is today. The first episode of the latest series, Ladder to the Stars opens with Sagan narrating an excerpt from Pale Blue Dot, “…the frontier was everywhere.” The way Tyson welcomes viewers is reminiscent of Sagan’s back in the ’80s where he is standing by a seashore cliff. Easter egg: keep an eye on the dandelion!
But series like this are subjected to scrutiny for trying to overlay cosmic principles with foreseeable technology. Tyson calls himself the last gate before any scene gets filmed, often challenging the story arc with his knowledge of astrophysics and stellar evolution, to name a few. “[The] Physics is working, but the technology is still a bit of science fiction,” he says. “We take great pains to distinguish what is real and doable, what is real but dreamy; what is dreamy, and maybe one day in the unforeseeable future, we’ll get it done.”
The highlight of every episode is invariably the seamless blend of our past and what’s yet to come. This week’s fourth episode, Vavilov, carries a striking message to those who fail to appreciate the laws of nature, and follows the tragic story of Soviet botanist Nikolai Vavilov‘s historical contribution to genetics and biodiversity that changed the world. Tyson compares such historical references in Cosmos with our current global pandemic. “There comes a time when you don’t have the luxury to pick and choose what you want to believe,” Tyson says. “It’s an experiment. If we come through this on the other side, it’s because people listen to the advice of science professionals on this.”
For Tyson, the whole idea behind Cosmos is to drive the universal compelling urge of establishing oneness. There is one such day in the history of comics that reflects this sense of ‘possible worlds’: when Tyson made an appearance in DC’s Action Comics #14! “Superman visits me at the Hayden Planetarium — best day of my life,” he says. On the subject of superheroes, when asked which people from the comicsverse would kick back with Cosmos, Tyson says three make the cut: Bruce Wayne, Wonder Woman and Dr. Strange. “There are many times we’ve seen [Wayne] in his library reading. He cares about technology, although he’s not as clever about that as Tony Stark,” he says. “I think those who are regular people would be most enchanted by Cosmos, because it is designed to influence your outlook as a regular person.”
The next episode, The Cosmic Connectome, will air on March 23, 2020 at 8 p.m. on Nat Geo.