The dreaming in Cosmos goes really far: You discuss life on Enceladus, you envision interstellar travel. How did you decide the outer bounds of where you were willing to go in the series?
Well, obviously the imagination doesn’t obey the laws of space and time! We didn’t want to be irresponsible and show things that have no scientific basis, but we also wanted to make people aware that there really have been, and will be, ambitious robotic missions.
We were deliberately vague about life on the bottom of the Enceladus ocean; we were suggesting it without really depicting it. There was a moment where you think that you’re seeing extraterrestrial life forms, but in fact every one of them is native to Earth, which we have Neil say at the end. Nature is genius. You’d never be able to make up the real creatures of the deep ocean.
There were also moments when we felt it was okay to let loose, because we hoped we made it clear what we were doing. What was so funny about the first season of Cosmos is that Carl [Sagan] was constantly being harangued at the time for being so speculative. I’m very proud of his batting average on those speculations. It’s phenomenal how many of them have proven to be real.
A lot of your new speculations are based on real proposals, like the Breakthrough Starshot concept an interstellar mission, or geoengineering concepts to deal with climate change.
Exactly. I wanted to convey something of the possibilities. It was like: Let’s just get going again. Let’s get back in the business of doing the kind of exploration that captivates a global audience.
You got to imagine so many possible worlds for this series. Do you have a few favorites, specific ideas or visual moments that to you especially encapsulated the theme of the show?
I love when all the [future] humans are talking across the galaxy, and then at the end, it’s about how they’ll remember the Pale Blue Dot [image of Earth taken by Voyager 1]. They’re all, “Oh maybe you haven’t ever seen it, but that’s where every human came from.” The last words you hear are “thank you, mother,” to the Earth, spoken by Nick Sagan. He was a voice of the children of planet Earth on the Voyager record when he was seven, and now he’s that last voice. I always choke up at that.
I love the trip into the subsurface ocean of Enceladus. Another moment I’m crazy about is in the opening title: the newborn Jupiter carving out its lane in the solar system when there were no other planets born yet. I’m very proud of the Cassini sequence, with the last nmemories of a robot that’s about to be compelled to commit suicide. And when I say “I,” I’m talking about [co-writer] Brannon Braga, [executive producer] Jason Clark, [VFX director] Jeff Okun, and all of our 987 colleagues on Cosmos.
987 people worked on the show? Really?
Literally! It is a web of minds, and everyone who I interacted with was inspired about working on something they felt was meaningful. That made for spectacular esprit de corps.
Science progresses so quickly. Were there any new developments that you just didn’t have time to incorporate into the series?
Cosmos has never been the latest flavor of the month. It has been always trying to communicate the discoveries of science over the ages. It’s about science as a way of seeing everything. We did cover the first verification of gravitational waves, but not in an encyclopedic way. We take you there [visually]!
What I would be so happy about is—I don’t expect everybody to understand everything about science at the end of the season, but I want them to be curious about learning more. I want them to understand the power of science, and its tremendous liberating potential. If those things are communicated, then I feel like my work is done.