Rebooting Carl Sagan's seminal "Cosmos" miniseries three decades later is almost impossible — unless you happen to be renowned astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson.
For those who may have missed the original back in 1980, "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage" was a documentary series on PBS that explored the universe as well as the history of scientific discovery. Sagan's topics of discussionranged from Japanese folklore to debunking astrology to the ultimate fate of the stars and galaxies that surround us.
Now Tyson is hosting a new version of the TV series called "Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey," with the first episode airing in March on Fox and the National Geographic Channel. [Watch the trailer for the new 'Cosmos' series]
During a roundtable discussion at New York Comic Con this past October, Tyson explained why it's time for a new iteration of the beloved astronomy documentary, and how he and his team of scientists and entertainers hope to engage and enlighten a new generation of viewers. SPACE.com sat in on this roundtable, which also included Ann Druyan, Brannon Braga and Mitchell Cannold, all producers for the 2014 reimagining of "Cosmos."
Bringing 'Cosmos' back
Druyan is co-writer of the original "Cosmos" as well as Sagan's widow. Braga was a producer on three "Star Trek" series, while Cannold is a major Hollywood producer with a background in journalism. Not present was Seth MacFarlane, the creator and voice actor behind "Family Guy," who first went to bat for "Cosmos" on Fox and is now its executive producer.
"Seth has been our champion," Druyan said. Druyan and Cannold shopped the idea of a "Cosmos" rebootto a number of major science networks but couldn't find a good match. "They didn't want to give me relative control. They didn't want to give me support. We [couldn't] really do a 'Cosmos' that would be a worthy successor." [Exclusive SPACE.com Video: Why Reboot 'Cosmos?']
Although Tyson pointed out that he has an extensive fan base that will follow him to the reboot, many fans of the original remain skeptical that anyone — even the World's Sexiest Astrophysicist — can measure up to the legendary Carl Sagan, who died in 1996.
"No one can fill those shoes," Tyson said. "But I have another pair of shoes that are there, and they're my shoes. I can fill my shoes, and I can be a really good version of myself. Nobody could do me better than me!"
"Several other scientists were lobbying for this gig," Druyan said. "I knew it was Neil from the beginning for several reasons. Fist, his 'Neilitude.' He's not only a serious scientist; he's also a communicator without a scintilla of pretense or snobbery or the desire to impress people."
Some of the information and production values in the original "Cosmos" are dated, but the show remains an engrossing spectacle and a thought-provoking drama about the universeand humanity's place in it. The cast and crew of Fox's "Cosmos" thought that 34 years was long enough to wait for a new one.
"When isn't it the right time to bring 'Cosmos' back?" Braga asked. "There are always dark forces of irrational thinking. Science is always relevant. Reality is relevant. Nature is relevant. A believable view of the world that is real is relevant."
Even so, making a definitive follow-up to the original series was a daunting task, given how popular and influential the original "Cosmos" became.
"The original series is on the air somewhere tonight, 34 years later," Cannold said. "Not a lot of media in any platform can say that. The bar was set really high from our point of view. We have to create something that has real, everlasting value in terms of the stories we tell. We're doing this a lot for our kids and grandkids in addition to an audience."
Awe and wonder
Braga also discussed one thing that "Cosmos" brought to the table that many science documentaries leave by the wayside — a sense of awe and wonder.
"Science doesn't have to be the opposite of religion in terms of its emotional value," he said. "Science can move you like any other story. Science can be a visceral, emotional experience. Religion doesn't own awe and mystery. Science does it better."
Two more mainstays from the original series will appear in the reboot as well: the Spaceship of the Imagination, which allowed Sagan to travel instantaneously across time and space, and the historical dramatizations of famous scientists' lives.
Druyan knew that even though the Spaceship of the Imagination occupies a fond place in fans' hearts now, the critics weren't so kind when "Cosmos" first aired.
"When the reviews came out for the original series, they were scathing about the ship and really nasty," she said.
"It got completely reimagined [for the reboot] and serves a lot of the same utility," Tyson explained. "It carries me around the universe on a whim … It's an expression of my thoughts." Rather than a simple backdrop, the new Spaceship of the Imagination will be a fully realized starship created from computer graphics.
In the original series, actors in period costume re-enacted scenes from the lives of famous astronomers like Tycho Brahe and Galileo Galilei. This time around, MacFarlane suggested that "Cosmos" portray these scientists in animated sequences.
Given MacFarlane's history with series like "Family Guy" and "American Dad," Tyson and the crew were skeptical that animation could deliver the necessary gravitas, but the final product wowed them — as well as the audience at an NYCC panel.
The sequence depicted scenes from the life of Giordano Bruno, an Italian astronomer who was one of the first Renaissance scholars to propose the existence of a boundless universe.
In the gorgeous clip, which looks like something out of a papercraft graphic novel, an imposing cardinal, cloaked in shadows, kicks Bruno out of the Dominican order of monks for reading banned literature. Bruno then has a dream in which he flies past the boundaries of the traditional Ptolemaic solar system and sees the infinite vastness of space beyond.
The clip garnered no fewer than two full sessions of riotous applause from a packed theater.
"You realize that science is not just this subject from a textbook," Tyson said. "It's a human story. Discovery is human … It's a celebration of human curiosity and why that matters to who and what we are."