Cosmos: Possible Worlds deconstructed with Neil deGrasse Tyson

In terms of scale, there is no TV show bigger than Cosmos: Possible Worlds. The new season of the NatGeo series is continuing to take audiences on a grand adventure that goes through Earth, the universe, and into the great beyond.

And leading that journey once again is internationally renowned astrophysicist, author and host Neil deGrasse Tyson. As Cosmos: Possible Worlds heads toward its conclusion (two new episodes air tonight), Neil spoke at length about what exactly goes into creating a series that has such a vast scope and impressive production values.

Find out what he had to say about the construction of Cosmos in our interview below, then don’t miss two more episodes of Cosmos: Possible Worlds beginning at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT tonight on NatGeo. The two final episodes of the season will air next Monday, April 20 at the same time.

Brittany Frederick: Let’s start at the beginning. Cosmos as a brand has such a long and vaunted history. Can you speak about having brought the show back in 2014, and continuing to push the brand forward now with Possible Worlds in 2020?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Nowadays, people think of these things as seasons. “When is the next season coming?” No one said when the first Cosmos aired, “When is the next season?” That was not a thought. In 1980, it was viewed as a one-off, multi-part documentary.

You don’t go to [Ken Burns] and say, “When is the next season of The Civil War coming?” It’s just not how you do that. But that’s the expectation today. Fortunately, [Cosmos co-creator and executive producer] Ann Druyan is hugely creative. Boundlessly creative in the middle of an expanding universe.

The question of another season beyond this would be a matter of does she have the energy? Does she have the energy to come up with all the stories of these historical figures? She’s not only hyper-scientifically literate, though she’s not a scientist. She’s scientifically literate in all the ways one needs to be. She’s emotionally literate. She is our storyteller. She’s that special sauce that is shared among all three Cosmoses. She co-wrote all three of them, and that’s what they have in common.

That’s why Cosmos doesn’t settle on you as a normal documentary. It enters you in ways that science programming typically does not. You end up feeling for the characters, you end up being motivated to rise up with your newly acquired scientific insights and bring it to bear on making a better world. This one is specifically that – Cosmos: Possible Worlds.

There is no shortage of scientific content, because the universe is vast. There is no shortage of issues and topics that are relevant to our times. I had no less energy for the third one as I did for the second one, [or] as I experienced [with] the first one, watching Carl Sagan.

The real question would be, could we actually pull this off every year? For me, I don’t know, because the effort and the investment of time and energy is so huge. I’ve spoken to Ann and she’s talking about a fourth season. I said okay, if she’s got the energy. She’s older than all of us. She’s got that energy, how can I say I don’t?

BF: Could you see the brand becoming a recurring TV property? Maybe it doesn’t continue immediately now, but it’s something that comes back every six years, or ten years, or whenever TV and the universe warrant more Cosmos?

NDT: I had always imagined…After my first season, I thought wouldn’t it be cool if you could hand this off to a next generation for every iteration of Cosmos? Kind of like Doctor Who; there is another Time Lord who comes in. I’m completely open to that, as a statement that you keep handing this to the next generation of searchers, of scientists.

We’ll see how Ann’s energy shakes out. Also, we’ll see how much the world needs another Cosmos. Is there some other issue? [When the original series aired] in 1980, the Cold War loomed heavy, as we were all held hostage to the conflict of political ideologies. Now we have other challenges. In five years, what challenges will we confront then? Cosmos is, at its best, a way to flow science through the greatest challenges of the day, and offer signs of hope that we can go into the future as better shepherds of civilization than we have been.

BF: You mentioned watching the original Cosmos when you were younger and being inspired by Carl Sagan. Has any of your personal history been applicable now that you’re making the show?

NDT: Carl Sagan was about the same age as I was when he visited the 1939 World’s Fair. This is information handed to Ann, who then says let’s ride this World’s Fair theme. The entire 13th episode, which is my personal favorite, is an imagined World’s Fair from the year 2039. Capturing the mood and the future thinking, and the hopefulness that World’s Fairs tend to bring upon the world.

My visit to the World’s Fair is re-told, and we have actors playing me as a six-year-old kid. Someone playing my mother and my father, and my brother and my sister in a stroller. There’s crackly footage re-enacted of them walking through the fairgrounds of the World’s Fair.

BF: The title of the series naturally makes a TV audience think about space. But Cosmos is as much about what’s happening here on Earth as it is about what’s out there. How does the series balance those two aspects, and keep itself grounded so well while also discussing the fantastic?

NDT: A cosmic perspective, a subset of which astronauts have called the “overview effect,” is something that is not unique to the astrophysical sciences. You can also get a cosmic perspective from chemistry, upon learning that the chemistry of molecules on earth repeats on other planets. When we look at the spectrum of other places in the galaxy, or other planets in our own solar system and other star systems in the galaxy, you see the same chemical signatures that are there. It’s like whoa, what’s going on here is not unique.

Then you look at biology and you find out that we’re made of the most common elements in the universe. Whatever happened here on Earth, Earth managed to be rather expeditious about it. Earth was highly exploitive of the ingredients it had available to it, to go from organic molecules to self-replicating life.

Earth is there to step away from it and then come back to view it in a whole other way. That’s what happened when we went to the moon. We go to the moon to explore the moon, and we actually discovered Earth for the first time. You go back to Earth and you have a whole completely different outlook.

I think that’s what Cosmos does best. Earth is front and center, but not until after we have stepped off of the Earth and then come back. Now you look at it afresh, and now we can deliver the messages and the principles on which becoming a better citizen would be based.

Cosmos: Possible Worlds airs Mondays at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on NatGeo.

Article content is (c)2020 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr.

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