TV Review: Cosmos: Possible Worlds, Week 1

Cosmos Possible Worlds title card.jpg

During the previous season of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, I reviewed the series to discuss how it measured up to the original, and I wanted to do the same thing again. Granted, the new season, Possible Worlds, doesn’t exactly lend itself to this. A Spacetime Odyssey told many original stories, but it also spent quite a bit of time updating the material of Episodes 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 12, and 13 of Carl Sagan’s original. That does leave a few more that they could potentially draw on now. In fact, sight-unseen, I was at some point expecting an update of Episode 5, “Blues for a Red Planet,” which was all about Mars.

However, after reading the summaries, that turns out not to be the case—although Episode 8, “The Sacrifice of Cassini” does seem to parallel Episode 6 of the original, “Travelers’ Tales,” which was about the Voyager mission. Other than this, there’s only one other obvious parallel in this season. Episode 2 seems to echo Episode 11 of the original, “The Persistence of Memory.”

For the record, of the other episodes in the original series, Episode 4, “Heaven and Hell,” was about the twin disasters of asteroid impacts and the runaway greenhouse on Venus; and Episode 7, “The Backbone of Night,” was about our historical understanding of stars and the galaxy.

Anyway, last time, I reviewed four episodes at a time, but this time, since Fox aired two episodes last night, I wanted to get started now. It’s not clear if that schedule will continue. I know they’re only running one episode next week because of the Presidential debate, and the network doesn’t list their schedule further in advance.

I also need to note that this is not the order the episodes were aired on National Geographic Channel. At that time, Episode 2 of this run, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” was switched with Episode 11, “The Fleeting Grace of the Habitable Zone.” The production codes reveal that the current airing on Fox is the correct order, and reading over the summaries, I think it feels more natural that way. (At least, I hope they won’t be making any more changes. I haven’t cared for how they’ve handled the series so far.)

Anyway, now that all that’s out of the way, what did I think of the episodes? Well, I thought they were solid. I took issue a little bit with the animated histories; I thought they played a bit fast and loose (a complaint I had about the previous season as well), but it was still solid storytelling.

Episode 1, “Ladder to the Stars,” was mainly asking the question, “Where did we come from?” And rather than evolution, as in the previous season, this question was really, “Where did we come from…as a civilization.”

As usual, the episode opens with an archival narration by Carl Sagan and vignettes of possible future colonies on Mars and other worlds, followed by Neil deGrasse Tyson introducing the theme of this season: possible worlds—far away and deep inside us, in the past and in the future. After this, Dr. Tyson introduces the new season by recapping the “rules” for scientific inquiry from his final monologue of the last season, before getting into the main story.

This episode brings back an old favorite, the Cosmic Calendar, which maps the history of the universe onto a calendar of one year, but soon focuses in on human origins—the art, culture, and technology of early hunter-gatherer societies, the invention of the city, and finally leading up to Baruch Spinoza, the Enlightenment scholar who (controversially at the time) found his God in the order of nature and the laws of physics.

Episode 2, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” continues this theme with the question, “Is DNA destiny?” Dr. Tyson explores the complex behaviors of organisms as simple as a virus, which seem to be “programmed” by evolution. As I said, this mirrors Episode 11 of the original, “The Persistence of Memory,” which was partly about DNA and the brain as stores of information, although this time, the story was more about how they influence behavior in humans and animals alike.

Dr. Tyson challenges us that the answer to his question might be yes—that even stories of heroism and saintliness can be found among animals and are explained by kin selection. Yet he also points to the Indian emperor Ashoka, who, according to legend, ascended to the throne as a cruel monster, but became a man of peace after converting to Buddhism, expanding his sphere of “kin selection” to include everyone. Ultimately, Tyson concludes, “Who are we? You tell me?”

I do have a few complaints. No show is perfect, but Cosmos is usually pretty good about it, so I hold it to a high standards. They were hamming up the Spaceship of the Imagination more than last time, treating it more like a real ship in a science fiction show during the black hole collision. That’s fine, but not really necessary. They talked about the Breakthrough Starshot project to send a probe to another star as if it is likely to actually happen. (It’s a cool idea and probably doable this century, but it’s still very much just an idea.) And although Dr. Tyson said that it’s not clear if the story about Ashoka is true (much of Ashoka’s alleged cruelty is considered to be a later exaggeration to make the story more dramatic), he glossed over that part and certainly told it as if it was, which is the same trap he fell into with Giordano Bruno last season.

Also, I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or not by the Jeep commercial quoting Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech with visuals that fooled me into think it was part of the show.

Anyway, like I said at the start, I thought these episodes were solid. We haven’t exactly gotten into the “meat” of the season yet, but they were a good start, which bodes well for Possible Worlds being up to Cosmos’s usual standards.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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