Documentary: In the footsteps of Carl Sagan

The 13-part 1980 documentary Cosmos, was one of the most-widely watched television series in the world. But a lot has happened since then. Elizabeth Finkel finds the series re-make a worthy successor.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson steps into Carl Sagan's shoes in the updated TV series Cosmos. – National Geographic Channel

Cosmos: A spacetime odyssey
National Geographic Channel, Sundays at 7.30pm AEDT

It is a tough act to follow in the footsteps of Carl Sagan, often described as the second most famous scientist of the 20th century.

That reputation was earned largely through his performance in the 1980 series Cosmos, the most-widely watched PBS series in the world. Sagan was more prophet than populariser: a powerful fusion of man and message.

He was exciting to look at with his handsome, swarthy looks and jet-black hair cut in psychedelic 1970s style. There was his unabashed theatricality and idiosyncratic accent, imitated of late by Mr Smith of The Matrix. And there was the heart-stopping dialogue – the latest cosmic science rendered through an equally cosmic poetic sensibility.

But the Cosmos series is 34 years old. A lot has happened since then, like discovering dark energy, the Higgs boson and that the universe is 13.8 billion years old. And then there are the revelations from reading genomes. Cosmos needed updating.

It’s hard to imagine there will ever be another Sagan. But just as he was a man of his times, so too are the re-makers of the Cosmos series. Its distributor is not PBS but Fox. Its executive producer, Seth McFarlane, is synonymous with popular culture, having delivered us the in-your-face reality cartoon Family Guy.

Tyson knows he is standing on the shoulders of a giant but that is the scientific way.

But the umbilicus that connects it to the original is there in its co-producer and writer, Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the original series with her husband, Sagan, and in the man she picked as his successor – Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and a celebrity astrophysicist boasting 1.2 million followers on Twitter.

From viewing the dazzling first episode, with its “spaceship of the imagination” piloted by Tyson and guided by the calendar of the universe, we see the new series has reused some of Sagan’s props. His spaceship, however, is re-imagined as something that looks like a shiny mummy case with a reflective porthole compared to Sagan’s vaguely sketched white temple-like craft.

Tyson knows he is standing on the shoulders of a giant but that is the scientific way, he tells us. One passes the baton to the next. The charismatic guide, sweeping narrative, graphic spectacle, and revelation of frontier knowledge, are back in force. Cosmos promises to live again. You can watch a trailer for the series here.

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