PASADENA — With the 1980 television series "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," Carl Sagan excited a generation to stare at the stars that make up this universe in which we live. It became the most-watched series in the history of public television, reaching an estimated 750 million people in 60 countries.
Just like the billions of black holes that exist, though, a giant absence of interest in what's out there followed Sagan's death in 1996. There's a new flicker of light looking to fill that darkness.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson will host a new "Cosmos" series, which launches tonight on multiple channels — FOX, National Geographic Channel, FX, FXX, FXM, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, Nat Geo Wild, Nat Geo Mundo and FOX Life. The series will air for 13 weeks on Sundays on FOX, with new bonus footage and behind-the-scenes content on Mondays on the National Geographic Channel.
The series is being brought back to TV by someone who was a fan of the original series — Seth MacFarlane.
"I had seen it as a child, and then, when I was in high school, saw it again and was able to process it in even more depth and was just always a fan," MacFarlane says.
When the TV and film actor/producer heard the series was being re-launched, he wanted to get involved and give the show the best chance to reach a large audience. So, while the National Geographic Channel and Discovery Channel were obvious homes for the new show, MacFarlane was convinced he could talk the FOX executives into giving the show a place on the network.
If the idea of the guy behind "Family Guy" and "Ted" pushing an educational program seems odd, Tyson, too, was surprised by MacFarlane when they initially sat down to talk about the show.
"His first question to me just after the appetizer was, 'How can I make a difference in science in this world?' That was his question to me. And I said, 'Is this Seth MacFarlane? Is this, like, the guy who illustrates Stewie? Is this the same guy?' So that was my first indication that, in fact, he had some deep sort of genetic roots of wanting to make a difference in this world, and the rest, as we say, is history," Tyson says.
It proved a perfect combination. Tyson brings the same scientific passion that Sagan showed when he started the series, while MacFarlane has been able to help elevate the visual part of the program through 21st century filmmaking that makes a trip through the universe visually stunning.
What they have created is the story of how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time. The series brings to life never-before-told stories of the heroic quest for knowledge, transporting viewers to new worlds and across the universe for a vision of the cosmos on the grandest — and the smallest — scale.
This is all done through new modes of scientific storytelling that reveal the grandeur of the universe and re-invents celebrated elements of the original series, including the "Cosmic Calendar" and the "Spaceship of the Imagination."
At first look, having these stories told on FOX appears to be a big leap from when Sagan, who co-wrote and narrated the original series, took public TV fans on a cosmic journey. "Cosmos" executive producer Ann Druyan points out that having the series air on FOX is actually closer to Sagan's original intentions. She would know; she was married to Sagan for 15 years and was his co-writer on the original series.
" 'Cosmos' is about opening the door to the widest possible audience to entertain them, to uplift them, to make them feel the great, the awesome power of the scientific perspective. When Carl Sagan was alive, we wrote for Parade magazine. We weren't trying to preach to the converted. We wanted to evoke in people, who might have even had hostility to science, a sense of wonder, the questioning, or to excite people who thought that science was just too challenging to dream about the universe of space and time," Druyan says. "So I don't see any problem at all. If you had a sense of humor, you loved those shows on FOX, and if you have a beating heart, you will respond to 'Cosmos.' "
The series launches at a time when the United States has pulled back on its space efforts. Despite that decision, Tyson has continued to see a hunger among those who follow him on Twitter, where he writes posts about the universe. That social media response has shown him that if interest in space is to be rekindled, it won't be done by talking with politicians. It will be a grass-roots approach.
" 'Cosmos' targets people, not only who love science, but people who were indifferent to science. Especially those who might have felt that science is something that they never liked, who are … hostile to it," Tyson says. "If you look at the FOX portfolio, it's all a manner of demographics who come through the FOX portfolio from Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Searchlight Pictures, FOX Business, FOX News, the FOX network.
"I think 'Cosmos' will bring them all into one place at one time on a Sunday night when you already know everybody is home. And they'll be watching FOX at the same time, which is what I think is going to happen."
Galileo gave us a way to look beyond our planet. Sagan gave us a reason to turn our vision to the sky. Now, it's fallen to Tyson to make a new generation see the stars.
"Cosmos": 9 p.m. tonight, FOX (KMPH, Channel 26.1) and multiple cable channels. 10 p.m. Monday, National Geographic Channel.