Over a vegetarian breakfast at the London in West Hollywood in June, writer Ann Druyan contemplated the “Cosmos.”
She had been there before as a writer on the first “Cosmos” series in 1980 when her husband, the late astrophysicist and astronomer Carl Sagan, invented the science-as-entertainment genre and himself became a pop cultural phenomenon.
This time around, she’s working with executive producer Seth MacFarlane, who knows a lot about creating pop phenoms and is a science buff to boot.
“I love the guy,” Druyan says. “There would be no ‘Cosmos’ without him.”
But back up several years ago, and at that time, Druyan says she felt a palpable antagonism to science in society. “If Carl had been alive, he would have continued that astonishing one-man campaign to engage the broader part of the public in science.”
She already had host Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, on board. “We had known each other for a long time,” says Druyan, recalling she had seen a notation in one of Sagan’s old calendars noting that “Neil Tyson” would be visiting. This was in 1975. “He must have been 17 years old!” she says with a laugh.
Every network said it wanted the show, but negotiations broke down when Druyan asked for total creative control and a budget healthy enough for the vfx she envisioned.
Enter MacFarlane, who had attended a lecture given by Tyson. The two met and eventually, Druyan, Tyson and MacFarlane sat down for dinner together in L.A.
MacFarlane surprised Druyan by talking about how powerful an influence “Cosmos,” and especially Sagan, had been on him.
MacFarlane said he would take “Cosmos” to Peter Rice at Fox, and the road to the series began, eventually becoming the biggest TV series rollout in history, bowing on 10 U.S. nets and 220 more in 181 countries.
As a writer it was an easy choice for Druyan to focus on personalities in the series to bring science alive.
“For some of us, it’s hard to wrap our minds around scientific concepts; however, there is a romance around scientific research, the quest for knowledge, the struggle, that everyone can relate to,” Druyan says.
What she dubbed the Heroes of Science had been born.
“The science had to be important, but it also had to be a good human drama. “I selected personalities that were involved not only with important discoveries but also because of obstacles they had to overcome.” Like British chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, who came from an impoverished family and had little education; or astronomer Cecilia Payne, whose gender was a challenge to the mostly male world of science; and astronomer Annie Cannon, who not only had to fight sexism, but also was deaf.
Druyan made an effort to include unsung women scientists and others left out of the historical narrative.
“Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey” also tells the tales using lots of vfx (“1,500 shots,” says Druyan) and animation.
The animation was, naturally, MacFarlane’s idea. His longtime producing partner, Kara Vallow, put together the animation team and developed the look of the sequences, which resemble a graphic novel.
“And then to get actors like Kirsten Dunst and Richard Gere for voice-overs was tremendous,” Druyan says.
In June, the Broadcast TV Journalists’ Assn. honored “Cosmos” with two Critics Choice Awards: reality host for Tyson and reality series. It’s racked up 12 Emmy noms.
“We are more interested in shopping and other aspects of pop culture, and then we wonder why our kids don’t want to be scientists! They don’t get any play in pop culture. That’s what made ‘Cosmos’’ win for best reality show (at the Critics Choice Awards) so sweet.”
She still gets mail from scientists praising her late husband for his influence on their careers. “Cosmos” challenges viewers and the next generation to take up science, she says. “How many scientists were influenced when they were kids by what Carl did?”