Talk about exploring the final TV frontier.
No, not space -- that's been done, both fictionally, in Star Trek and dozens of other scripted series, and in a factual fashion, with the landmark 1980 PBS series Cosmos and numerous other science-minded projects. But a serious, measured, academic examination of time and space, broadcast in Fox Broadcasting's usually cartoon-silly Sunday-night block and co-produced by the guy who brought you Family Guy, American Dad and Ted?
Well, that's going where no TV program has gone before.
Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey is a massively ambitious undertaking that premières Sunday at 8 p.m., across multiple TV networks, including Fox, National Geographic, NatGeo WILD and, in Canada, Global TV. The 13-part series is essentially a reboot of Carl Sagan's acclaimed '80s PBS effort, employing the most up-to-date digital-effects technology to create an awe-inspiring and spectacular exploration of the infinite scope of space and time in our universe.
The series is hosted by TV's current go-to guy for science, astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson, who brings a great sense of pacing, scholarly perspective and wide-eyed wonder to the project.
More intriguing, however, is the combination of production talents responsible for bringing this new kind of Cosmos to television, including scientist and author Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the original Cosmos and is also Sagan's widow, animated-comedy creator Seth MacFarlane, producer/director Brannon Braga (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Terra Nova) and veteran TV/film producer Mitchell Cannold.
The list might feel like one of those Sesame Street "One of these things is not like the others" segments, but the team is united in declaring MacFarlane a perfect fit for this new-era Cosmos, adding that he's largely responsible for the series' presence in a major broadcast network's prime-time schedule.
"I had always been a fan of Cosmos," MacFarlane said recently when the show's producers and host were interviewed during Fox's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "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. And I met Neil... and found out he was working with Ann on doing a new Cosmos.
"And I said that National Geographic (or) Discovery Channel -- some of the places that it was being considered to be pitched to -- are great networks, but in a way, you're sort of preaching to the converted. Wouldn't it be nice to broaden (the audience) a little bit more? And I thought that there was a strong possibility that this particular regime at Fox, as creative and open-minded as they are, would be receptive to the idea of doing the show on a (broadcast) network. And sure enough, they were."
Tyson recalled his first meeting with MacFarlane as both an eye-opener and a very encouraging conversation.
"The lunch that I had with Seth... was on a topic I did not know in advance, and his first question to me just after the appetizer was, 'How can I make a difference in science in this world?'" recalled Tyson, who will be in Winnipeg next week (Thursday at 4 p.m., Investors Group Athletic Centre), delivering a free public lecture entitled The Sky Is Not the Limit during the University of Manitoba's Dream Big celebration of astronomy and student leadership.
"That was (MacFarlane's) question to me. And I thought, '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 (desire) to make a difference in this world. And the rest, as we say, is history."
For its part, Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey is sure to earn a significant place in 21st-century TV history.
The hour-long première presents a broad overview of the topics that will be covered over the series' 13-episode run. Tyson invites viewers to climb aboard his shiny new "Ship of the Imagination," a digitally created craft that can transport him, and us, anywhere in the universe, anytime in the infinite span of time, and to any location, regardless of how large or small.
It's a great gimmick, and in Cosmos's first hour, it's used to breathtaking effect. Tyson and the show's writers also do a great job of translating mind-bogglingly complex topics into easily understandable and relatable language.
For example, Tyson proposes that we imagine that the lifespan of our universe, from the "Big Bang" moment of creation to the present, takes place within the familiar framework of a calendar year. He then walks us through the important dates on that calendar, starting with Jan. 1's Big Bang, and eventually explains that all of our recorded earthly history would have taken place in the final few seconds of Dec. 31.
It's a very effective way of explaining a concept that's otherwise hard to fathom by those of us with average intellects.
And that's just the beginning of a wild ride through space and time that deserves to have a whole lot of TV viewers on board.
"I think there's a tremendous overlap between the Cosmos audience and the Fox audience," said Druyan. "Cosmos is about opening the door to the widest possible audience to entertain them, to uplift them, to make them feel the great, awesome power of the scientific perspective, and I don't see any contradiction here.
"When Carl Sagan was alive... 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, of questioning, or to excite people who thought that science was just too challenging to dream about the universe of space and time.
"So I don't see any problem at all. If you have a sense of humour, you love those (animated) shows on Fox, and if you have a beating heart, you will respond to Cosmos."
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