Tuesday 21 November 2017

Beautiful and eloquent Cosmos is love letter to the universe

Cosmos, National Geographic, Monday - on demand

Ian O'Doherty: You really should be watching this
Ian O'Doherty: You really should be watching this
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Maybe it's a sign of getting old. Maybe it's a sign of approaching chronic crankiness. But I have taken to screaming and hurling the remote control out the window virtually every time I flick on to the likes of the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and National Geographic. And the justification for my righteous, window-breaking fury?

Well, the viewer expects a channel to do what is says on the tin – when they tune into Discovery, they can't be blamed for wanting to actually discover something they didn't know. Similarly, it's hardly the mark of a madman to expect something called the History Channel to show programmes that might, just might, have a historical context. With National Geographic, it's perfectly understandable to expect new sights and be treated to a televisual treat based on the world's most iconic magazine, even if it's only those strange African tribes of bare breasted women that made that publication such a staple of pre-internet nudity for young men all over the world.

Instead, we get dross like Gold Divers, Wheeler Dealers and Yukon Men on Discovery; History treats us to such forgettable drivel as Shipping Wars, Duck Dynasty and endless hours of programmes devoted to mad people trying to convince the rest of us that ancient aliens built the pyramids and invented the Wild West. Even National Geographic, the ultimate mack daddy of natural history programmes now devotes interminable hours of its programming to terrible guff like Car SOS.

In other words, channels which used to devote themselves almost entirely to the reliably fascinating topics of Nazis and sharks – although not at the same time, thankfully – have now descended into reality TV hell. Or rather, a hideous tedious limbo where hour after hour is taken up by demented Americans with unfortunate hairstyles who think that killing ducks makes them fascinating.

But there is one jewel in National Geographic's crown that reminds us of what it can do when it puts the time, the effort and the money into the kind of programme that deserves the NG logo.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of those camera friendly astrophysicists who seems to spend more time on our screens than he does in the observatory, and when it was announced that he was doing a reboot of Carl Sagan's truly iconic 80s show Cosmos, geeks everywhere were horrified. Furthermore, when breathless reports started to emerge that this was to be the most expensive science documentary of all time and that Seth McFarlane, of all people, was an executive producer, one could be forgiven for thinking that this was going to be another example of the dumbing down of science on television.

And it's rare that I'm as happy to be proved wrong as I am with this 13 part series.

deGrasse Tyson has made the show as an homage to Sagan who, we learn in a moving and sincere tribute, was Tyson's mentor and that sense of the great man's ghost looms like an approving, avuncular spirit over Cosmos 2014

We're only four episodes into a 13 part series, but already the show has provoked fury in America with religious zealots accusing the programme of dissing religious sensitivities. This reaction is not surprising but the attitude of the presenter, perhaps, is, As deGrasse Tyson brings the viewer through the great scientific breakthroughs of the ages, and recognises the brave and great minds who forged these advances, we see a common thread of Church opposition, blocking and denouncing science at every turn.

Far from the cuddly appearance he has adopted on other shows, the presenter here has embarked on a full on crusade for science, and in the first few episodes he managed to completely debunk dangerous myths such as Creationism and the Young Earth theory. But as he embarks on his Space Ship Of The Imagination and journeys through the virtual stars – a device that nods to the original, and isn't as terribly hokey as it sounds – to show the effects of, for example, seeing rifts in time and space around a black hole, you realise that this isn't some anti-religious piece of propaganda, as its numerous critics claim. No, it is a simple love letter to the universe and all its tantalising secrets.

It is also, fittingly, a love letter to Sagan, and the way he encouraged deGrasse Tyson, a black kid from the Bronx, to broaden his horizons and seek out a career in science.

Cosmos is beautiful, elegant and eloquent.

And you really should be watching it....

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