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‘Cosmos’ EP Ann Druyan on ‘Daring’ Season 2, Climate Change Deniers, and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Cosmosis making a comeback — and it’s all thanks to Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow, who serves as writer and executive producer on the science documentary series.

The first season — a follow-up to the original 1980s series hosted by Sagan — aired back in 2014 on National Geographic and Fox to critical acclaim as well as popular appeal. It ranks as NatGeo’s most watched program ever.

So it was a passion project that Druyan was eager to revisit, having spent the last two years writing the episodes with Brannon Braga. Here, she tells Variety her hopes for the new season, why more women are going into science, and what her late husband would think of series host Neil deGrasse Tyson.

How does the new season compare to the first?

I don’t know because I’m so close to it, but I think it’s more daring, less afraid to feel. The science is as rigorous as ever but I feel like we live in a moment where we have to awaken or perish. And so what we hope this season of “Cosmos” will do will awaken a global audience to the promise of the future that we can still have if we act.

What topics did you want to tackle this time out?

We’re very much inspired by the discovery in the last 10 years of extra solar planets. So we are dealing with global climate change and taking that on. But I think in a way last season we dealt with all the conceivable arguments of the climate deniers and we tried to make the argument for on every level we could why they’re wrong. And this time, we’ve decided to do something much more visceral. We hope it will hit home. There has been one development in science since the most recent season of “Cosmos” which really is on the level of a sea change. And that is the first recording of gravitational waves. We have stories to tell in the history of science that have never, ever been told before. Because we want to inspire a whole new generation of scientists and mathematicians. And I think the only way you can do that for a story driven species is to excite that feeling of the heroism of this kind of sacred searching. These are people who never hit anyone over the head. Instead they were actually, literally willing to die. Because they felt it mattered what’s true. If there were ever a moment in our history when we need to see examples of what that means. If you’re going to lie to yourself and lie to everyone else, you’ll never get to the stars. You’ll never be able to see the distant path of the earth and reconstruct it. You’ll never be able to accomplish any of the mythic achievements of science. So we want to remind the world how important it is. Not an absolute truth, because science can’t give you that and we don’t have human means of finding absolute truth yet, but until a better picture of absolute reality emerges, which science embraces whenever it happens. The whole ethos of science is that it matters what’s true.

Has this become more important given the anti-science sentiment in our culture now?

The idea that the part of our government charged with protecting the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency, is purged of scientists is… To say it’s Orwellian or Kafkaesque doesn’t do it justice. I couldn’t even have imagined a situation like the one we find ourselves in.

How can we combat it?

By the making the knowledge of science and the other human endeavors as widespread as possible. To me, that’s the only antidote. Because the pendulum just swings back and forth. I’m old enough to have seen many swings already of this pendulum. I really feel that the best way to counteract it is to be honest with your kids, to raise them up with bedtime stories about the beautiful reasons that the earth is round. Why the universe makes galaxies and galaxies make stars. And stars make worlds. And worlds make life. You root your kids and their thinking not in the magical fantasies but for me in the more powerful inspiring reality of nature. That’s what I think we need to do.

Are you seeing more women going into science fields?

Absolutely. I’m 68 years old, and when I was a child, I watched a lot of TV and every single night it was the same thing. It was the drumbeat of how stupid women are. How incompetent they are. A woman here or there in science or politics was usually one of a kind. And now I find everywhere I look I’m seeing women in science. Science has only itself to blame for being so exclusive, for having excluded women and people of color. And the community of science failed itself in that regard. I think that is changing. I get a sense from the feedback I get from the public that young women are really seeing themselves. I think “Contact,” our Eleanor Arroway, we dreamed her up with that idea in mind. There are so many women in astrobiology, astronomy now. Many of them tell me that “Contact” and “Cosmos” was a formative experience for them.

Why is Neil deGrasse Tyson the right person to serve as host?

My late husband Carl Sagan reached out to him when he was a high school student and invited him to Ithaca, to Cornell University, and then we maintained some contact after Carl’s death. When I started thinking about doing a second season of “Cosmos” in 2008 he was the only person I wanted for the job. I still feel that way about him. He has the ability to connect. He has a passion for science. He has a passion to communicate which is what Carl had. There are so many people who just want to show you how smart they are and how much they know. And Carl was never like that. He would say, “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” And Neil has that quality. He feels it. He can make the audience feel our words. I love the guy. He’s the one.

He’s also become famous for challenging how pop culture gets science wrong.

I love how irate he gets when the science is wrong in a movie. I remember Carl was very much the same. We’d go to the movies and I’d see a movie that I thought was good and I could see that his nose was twitching because they had gotten the science wrong. He would say, no one is more underpaid than a grad student in the sciences — they would have just had to hire one grad student to vet the script. I see a lot of those qualities in Neil.

Seth MacFarlane has helped shepherd the project, too. What was your experience working with him?

There would be no “Cosmos” without Seth. He is the champion, the hero of this story. Steadfast from day one. Brought me to [Fox Networks Group CEO] Peter Rice in 2010. Even offered to actually, literally pay out of his own pocket for the pilot. In 2010 he gave me the means to make this show with a core group of 40 or 60 people to lead it. As a woman who was hitting 60, that was a tremendous act of empowerment on his part and faith. And now he’s done it again with [NatGeo CEO] Courteney Monroe and NatGeo saying make another one. I’m so proud to be leading a team of such brilliant talented people. It’s because Seth was so absolutely set on getting us, getting me this platform. Not only was he our advocate at Fox and NatGeo, but he also contributed to he series. Some of the most loved parts of “Cosmos” were his idea. I would show him every single script. We would talk about it. He was at every final audio session, sound check. He was involved and remains involved. I can’t imagine a better partner or friend.

What have you learned from this process?

I’ve learned first of all when people work on something that has meaning and they can be proud of, the degree of talent and commitment is awesome. It really is. In taking “Cosmos” around the world, I’m realizing that it has a transcultural power for people. It gives me a lot hope. I feel like I’ve been uniquely privileged in finding that coalescing community of people on this planet who want to see it protected and cherished and see that it has a long beautiful future for our kids and grandchildren and beyond.

“Cosmos” is set to premiere globally on NatGeo and Fox in spring 2019. 

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