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Ann Druyan Talks Making the Return to COSMOS

“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” – Carl Sagan

When Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage debuted on PBS in 1980, the thirteen-part educational series enraptured space-hungry viewers and captured minds so utterly that it was the most widely watched series in the history of television until it was dethroned by Ken Burns’ The Civil War in 1990. Written and created by Sagan, his future wife Ann Druyan, and astrophysicist Steven Soter, the series became an instant classic thanks to Sagan’s easygoing charm, palpable enthusiasm, and the awe-inspiring subject matter. As a result, over 600 million people have boarded the “Spaceship of the Imagination” with him over the years to explore the final frontier and contemplate the vast, intricate beauty of the universe.

Now, 34 years later, Druyan and Soter are preparing to launch a brand new Spaceship of the Imagination in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, joined by executive producer Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), director/producer Brannon Braga, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, who will be filling Sagan’s outsized shoes as host. The new Cosmos premieres Sunday, March 9th, at 9 PM, on 10 different 21st Century Fox networks with an encore presentation on Monday, March 10th, at 10 PM, featuring behind-the-scenes content and bonus footage on the National Geographic Channel. Given the series’ massive scope, it’s getting an appropriately galactic-sized rollout, premiering globally in 170 countries and in 45 languages, which seems fitting, considering Cosmos‘ impressive pedigree.

One of the perks of putting out a Cosmos series 34 years after the original is that technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, meaning that the series is a visual feast and the new Spaceship of the Imagination has never looked better. Backed by a breathtaking score from composer Alan Silvestri, deGrasse Tyson will serve as your intergalactic tour guide, taking us across the vast expanses of our universe. Most importantly, though, is that the series is all about an unbridled enthusiasm for science without the cynicism or snarkiness that permeates so much of our culture nowadays. In a recent interview at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, a group of journalists and I had the opportunity to speak with producer Ann Druyan about why now was the right time for Cosmos to make its return, deciding on Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and what she hopes viewers will take away from the experience.

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Q: Why is this the right time to bring Cosmos back?

Ann Druyan: I always feel like it’s the right time for Cosmos because it’s always a good time to have that cosmic perspective and the kind of awesome power of science at your disposal. But here in the United States, I feel we’ve been coming out of a period of, if not outright hostility towards science, a period of alienation from science. We don’t have that exploratory vision permeating our society. I think it’s an excellent time for Cosmos because it’s time to get going again. I feel like there’s an appetite.

Q: How did Seth MacFarlane get attached to this project?

AD: I have kids who are grown and Seth MacFarlane was a hero in my household for Family Guy for a decade before Neil deGrasse Tyson introduced him to me. This came about in a funny way. Neil was doing the inaugural science outreach in Hollywood for the National Academy of Sciences, and Seth – being a person who really has a lifelong interest in science that stretches back at least to his childhood viewing of the original Cosmos - attended this outreach, heard Neil speak, and followed up several months later. By that time, I had already asked Neil to be the host of Cosmos. We were looking for the right platform, went to the usual suspect networks to try to mount a new Cosmos.

Everybody wanted it, but nobody wanted to give me the creative freedom I thought was necessary to protect the legacy of Cosmos and Carl Sagan. Seth came to Neil, they were talking, Seth asked Neil how he could support scientific research or some kind of project that would foster a greater public awareness of science. Neil said, what about Cosmos?

Q: Where did the idea of animating certain historical heroes emerge?

AD: The whole idea of animating the lives of these heroes of knowledge was Seth. When he first suggested it to me, I was momentarily taken aback. I had been imagining we’d be doing these dramatic recreations as we did in the original series. Then, the more we thought about it, I realized how right he was. What they created was I think a dozen graphic novels, each with a completely different style. And of course we were able to attract some marquee names like Richard Gere, Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Stewart, Alfred Molina, Marlee Matlin – a host of really brilliant actors – to give life to the gorgeous animation.

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Q: What is it about Neil’s position in science literacy that made him the go-to choice for host?

AD: I’ve known Neil for 20 years. As soon as I started thinking of this new series, which goes back seven or eight years, I knew Neil was the guy to do it, for many different reasons. For one, the thing about Carl, for as brilliant as he was, and as knowledgeable, he never spoke to impress people with how much he knew, only to communicate. I think that’s one of the reason’s he’s still so beloved. The same thing is true of Neil. With his many achievements, to walk with Neil is to feel a person who just wants to share the information.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about how the Internet and social media will help get the message of science and Cosmos out there?

AD: I think the rise of the Internet is certainly one of the most hopeful things that has happened to human civilization. I wish Carl were alive to know about it. He dreamt of the planet becoming an intercommunicating organism, and that’s what’s happened in the years since his death. I’m thrilled about that because it’s a world community of people who love Cosmos, who love the original and who are hungering for this new series.

Q: What would Carl think about Cosmos coming back, and is there anything in this new version that you and he were not able to do before?

AD: One of the things we would’ve liked to have done in the original version is tell Giordano Bruno’s story. The other thing is our technological capability to simulate nature on the grandest scale has grown by leaps and bounds since 1980. For instance, the cosmic calendar of the original series, which I think was very effective, did have some cardboard dinosaurs in there. This new cosmic calendar, the reveal when Neil is just walking among the stars and all the sudden we pull out to reveal the vastness of the calendar, and to lose Neil as a tiny figure on the calendar. There are moments like that I think Carl would have absolutely loved with the original series. The voyages we take in the ship of the imagination to other worlds and other universes, I think he would have just loved. He would be thrilled that this new Cosmos is going to be the largest roll out of a television series in planetary history. He’d be proud his flame is still burning so brightly.

Q: If the response is what you’re hoping for, could a second series be possible

AD: I don’t know what to wish for. At this point, what I’m really excited about is going home after being in L.A. for nearly two years to produce this. I hope it’s a success, because the industry is so slavishly imitative that, if it’s a success, every network is going to want to do their own science series. That would be so good for our society.

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Cosmos premieres Sunday night on Fox at 9/8c.

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