Reboots and relaunches are nothing new to TV; the cops of "Hawaii Five-0" are back, while last year's revamp of "Ironside" sank. But "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," broadcast on Fox and several sister networks, differs from other TV flashbacks; it's an updated and expanded version of the 1980s Emmy- and Peabody-winning "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," hosted and co-created by the late Carl Sagan. The Envelope spoke with new host (and astrophysicist) Neil deGrasse Tyson and executive producers Ann Druyan (Sagan's widow) and Seth MacFarlane (yes, that Seth MacFarlane) about the challenges — and rewards — of reinventing "Cosmos."
When you met Seth MacFarlane, did you know that was going to lead to a new "Cosmos"?
Druyan: Seth was a hero in our household because my kids were very big fans of his. I had seen enough episodes of "Family Guy" to respect his wit and creativity, so I was thrilled when he said that "Cosmos" had been so important to him as a child and that Carl and I had been a big influence on him. But this was after I had been working, for years, to get a new "Cosmos" produced and had been going from network to network. Every single network said, "Yes, we want it," but when we finally got to the point of negotiating, it was always clear that they didn't want to give me creative control, and they didn't want to finance it to the tune of [it being] a kind of glorious, transporting experience.
MacFarlane: When I met with Neil for the first time, I was really intrigued by the idea of redoing "Cosmos." I liked the idea of taking him in to Fox, to pitch it there, but I thought it was a crapshoot.
You were as surprised as anyone that Fox took the risk and backed the program.
Tyson: I was thinking maybe I would mention "Cosmos" to Seth, and then he would maybe fund a pilot and then shop it around. But that's not what he said. He said, "Oh, let's just take it to Fox." So, it took me all of about 12 seconds to think it through. I said, "Wait a minute, Fox? So, Fox is 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight Pictures; they have the No. 1 show on television, and the Fox network has the acerbic liberal commentary of 'Family Guy' and 'The Simpsons,' and it's got Fox News, with the acerbic conservative commentary. It's got Fox Business, Fox Sports …." So, I realized, this is the greatest idea I'd ever heard.
You're the face of that "experience" and the sole host. What's it like shooting exposition all day, in front of, as in one episode, a roaring fire pouring smoke in your eyes?
Tyson: [Laughing] Well, I kept a bottle of eyedrops with me. You summon the energy each day to do exactly what you need to do, and I would say the most challenging aspect of this was reading a teleprompter and making it sound like I'm thinking it up on the spot. Any actor does that; that's what they do for a living. But, I'm a scientist ….
We're in a time when huge portions of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet have begun to melt irreversibly even as we're arguing if climate change is real. Was that part of the urgency to bring "Cosmos" back?
MacFarlane: Absolutely. There's the message of hope at the end of every piece on global warming. They always say, "There's still time." We're now at the point where that's not necessarily a sure thing. A show like "Cosmos," hopefully, will do what the original did and remind people that you're entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.
Druyan: I was dreaming of some kind of cultural experience … so that we begin to feel the reality of what science is telling us about nature. Not just about climate change but about the vastness of the universe and the immensity of time that has passed since the big bang. All of that, beginning to feel that you're a part of that ancient continuity, I believe, is related to your sense of commitment about protecting it. So, yes, definitely, at the heart of "Cosmos," there is this notion that not only is science a way to live twice as long as our ancestors, to see across time, to reconstruct the lost worlds of this universe, but it's also a way for us to be good links in the chain of the generations. That's our most powerful tool, and if we don't start using it, there will be future generations [looking] back on us as being completely careless and thoughtless about the plight of our descendants.