Bad science, bad history, bad TV: we are but motes in the infinite cliché

I wanted to wish Neil deGrasse Tyson well  on his rebooted COSMOS project, I really did: he’s a good scientist, and he can write well. Why then, with lots of money and big names and whizz-bang tech behind it, is the much-hyped Sagan reboot such a chore to watch?

(Caveat: I’ve only seen the first episode. But then I’m not sure I have the stomach to see the rest.)

The show looks modern, but it feels extraordinarily dated. I think that’s because it takes an approach to science-for-the-masses that was turned into a cliché by the Great Sagan himself.

Earnest. Boosterish. Occasionally jokey but essentially humorless. Sagan got away with it, because he was able to carry the scientific ideas on the back of his own passionate involvement: we really wanted to hear him talk, not just because of the info, but because he represented an admirable engagement with it. And he managed not to sound as if he was talking down to children.

A generation later the same formula seems, well, formulaic. And Tyson is hobbled at ever turn by design-and-production mistakes. The first twenty minutes of this first new episode take place entirely inside a shiny interstellar suppository – er, spaceship. Touring the universe from the deck of the Enterpr… it’s a dull, been-there idea, made worse by the fact that, instead of having us admire the universe, the producers force us to watch Tyson admiring the universe! Watching is always a pale shadow of doing – see under “eating” and “sex.” But watching someone watching is absurd, not least because Tyson himself looks so uncomfortable – a man trapped in his captain’s chair, all too conscious of the camera that leers over his shoulder, waiting to catch the damp-eyed glimmer of his amazement.

Things look as if they might improve when Tyson escapes onto a sunny street in Rome to talk about the origins of modern cosmology. But this is going to be a cartoon version of the battle between science and religion, so we quickly switch from Tyson to – yes, I’m not making this up – a cartoon. Irony alert, irony alert – but it fits the relentless earnestness of the show that such wholly unintentionally irony is all you’re going to get around here. For the record: the origin of modern science is all about the heretic Giordano Bruno, a handsome, doe-eyed hippie Seeker who loses his run-in with the raving, slit-eyed monsters, conveniently both-evil-and-stupid, who run the Inquisition.

I had a similar experience a few years ago when visiting Tyson’s own Hayden Planetarium. Seated in the amphitheater of the most technologically sophisticated astronomer’s playground ever built, we were subjected to a fifteen-minute program of unadulterated schmaltz, full of expensively-voiced portent but almost entirely devoid of post-elementary scientific content. We journey together now on a wondrous odyssey through the infinite reaches of a mysterious cosmos. We are but motes of dust, searching for meaning in the vastness of creation. You get the picture: the sort of pious, empty afflatus that’s guaranteed to put people off science in exactly the way the average sermon is guaranteed to put people off Christianity.

Here’s an editing suggestion: writers who use the adjective “wondrous,” or the construction “we are but”: give ’em five without parole.

Science edutainment doesn’t have to be like this. You might think the joyfully anarchic Mythbusters – to take just one example – had permanently buried this whole style of programming. But the producers of COSMOS don’t seem to see how trapped Tyson looks, or what a good job they’ve done of making this clever and interesting man sound pompous, clumsy, condescending, and dull.

A vast voyage of imagination and discovery! The show goes on and on about “imagination” and “discovery.” Alas, you won’t discover much here. Except, perhaps, that it has simply never for a moment occurred to the people who put COSMOS together that they – yes, they themselves! – lack imagination.