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Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: TV Review

The Bottom Line

Carl Sagan's famous "Cosmos" series is updated and brings science to primetime in a refreshingly bold way -- but the reaction from people who don't understand or believe in science as the ultimate answer in place of religion will be interesting to watch. 

Air date

March 9, 9 p.m., Fox; March 10, 10 p.m., National Geographic Channel

Executive producers

Seth MacFarlane
Ann Druyan

Host

Neil deGrasse Tyson

It's a fascinating look at science in primetime as Seth MacFarlane helps reimagine Carl Sagan's famous series, this time with rock star scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson as the host. But will godless science play in this country?

There's so much intriguing information, possibility and daring inside the modern-day version of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which updates Carl Sagan's epically important Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, that there's also a risk of overlooking the simple parts of it.

Case in point: The series kicks off with a creative, visually impressive 45 minutes built around rock star astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and exists on the Fox network in primetime for 13 hours because Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) wanted it to and because he has the power to make something that incongruous actually happen. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has the stamp of authenticity not just because Tyson is involved but also because Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan, is an executive producer, writer and director. With a mix of Tyson's magnetic personality and ability -- like Sagan before him -- to make science understandable to people who aren't scientists, plus whimsical but informative use of animation and a visual device called the "cosmic calendar," Cosmos bites off an enormous chunk of ambitious knowledge-spreading in the first episode.

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One would assume that will continue and we'll all be the better for it. The series will also air on Monday, March 10 at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel and will be, according to Fox, the largest global launch of a television series ever because it will be on 123 Fox-branded channels in 125 countries and 90 NatGeo channels in over 170 countries and 45 languages. Set your DVRs and bring the kids if you have them.

OK, but let's back up a minute to what makes Cosmos something truly profound. Remember that Sagan's original was also 13 parts, but it appeared on PBS and it premiered in 1980. While the show -- and Sagan -- became immensely popular, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was essentially an idea shared (or not) in a more private, less polarized time. To essentially teach science on primetime on a broadcast network in 2014 is amazingly bold.

Why? Because science is godless. And the United States is a strongly religious country. And because the Internet makes everything a water-cooler conversation that is often fractured into one side vs. the other without much openness to divergent thought or understanding opposing values. So the idea that Tyson gets an hour on a Sunday night to blow your mind with science is, in fact, mind-blowing.

How do you think this part of the show is going to go over, as Tyson explains how the world was created by the Big Bang Theory:

"Our entire universe emerged from a point smaller than a single atom," Tyson says. "Space itself exploded in a cosmic fire, launching the expansion of the universe and giving birth to all the energy and all the matter we know today. I know that sounds crazy, but there is strong observational evidence to support the big bang theory."

Evidence or not, the guess here is a whole lot of people who don't understand science or don't want to try to understand it based on their religious beliefs are going to have a hard time coming to terms with this new Cosmos.

But that's what makes it so thrilling. Tyson clearly states in the opening minutes of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey that the study of our world is based on only science . To reach conclusions, we must "test ideas by experiment and observation," Tyson notes. If they don't hold up -- as faith often doesn't under scientific examination -- then those ideas are tossed out.

This very first episode has so much information in it that the first 15 minutes seem like a study course and might prove slow to some folks as Tyson diligently starts explaining the solar system piece by piece. But Cosmos picks up with the help of executive producer Brannon Braga's sci-fi touches and some early animation that follows the plight of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar and astronomer who made one very, very bold guess of an idea about the infinite nature of the world that got him in loads of trouble with the Catholic Church in his native Italy. Why is his story, animated here, so interesting?

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Well, it's not only because Bruno was the first to evangelize a dangerous notion about the cosmos more than a decade before Galileo even looked through a telescope, but because in Cosmos his story is pretty damning about religion and the Catholic Church in particular. It's hard to put into perspective how bold that is, other than to just remind you that no religion likes to see itself portrayed poorly in primetime.

Part of the beauty of Cosmos is how it dissects "the chance nature of existence," which has, not to hammer this point home too strongly, a godless starting point in hard science. Ah, but that's also the crux of the debate (always has been, always will be), because as Tyson says in the premiere: "The origin of life is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of science." And that's the foothold that the faithful will use to support a religious counterpoint to evolution and gigantic exploding fireballs.

Maybe by having Cosmos in primetime this debate (though, to be clear, there's no debate in Cosmos at all about science vs. religion) will get people talking. Tyson is wonderful as usual and superb at teaching difficult principles. In a nod to modernity and the kind of special effects capabilities we have in 2014, Cosmos has Tyson as the captain of a space ship he calls "the ship of imagination" that is depicted whizzing through the galaxies.

After explaining complex ideas about "the cosmic perspective" and our "cosmic address," Tyson wraps up by telling a very personal story about meeting Sagan when Tyson was a teenager dreaming of being a scientist. Now here he is, the most recognizable scientist on the planet, and he's continuing to spread the gospel that Sagan started on PBS all those years ago.

Only this time, even with so much more knowledge at our fingertips, Cosmos feels like a daring, revolutionary idea for the masses. Science in primetime. Mind: blown.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine