We live in a world beset by major problems: the coronavirus pandemic, systemic racism and, as if those weren’t troubling enough, the threat of climate change. But Emmy-winning producer, director and author Ann Druyan maintains optimism about human potential. You might say she takes a cosmic view.
“What gives me hope is that our ancestors had their backs to the wall on countless occasions…and they suffered tremendous hardships and managed to endure and even to flourish,” Druyan tells Deadline. “This is true of our species…We have what it takes.”
She adds quickly that what she believes in is “evidence-based hope.”
“We have the means to get through these terrible troubles, but we have to get our act together,” Druyan insists. “And one of the ways, in my view, is to spread the knowledge of science and high technology to the widest possible public once again.”
Druyan has been spreading the knowledge of science for at least 40 years now, going back to the 1980 PBS series Cosmos, which she co-created with her husband, astronomer Carl Sagan, and Steven Soter. The third installment in the series, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, recently premiered on National Geographic and will air this fall on Fox. It’s contending for Emmy recognition as Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, as well as writing and directing honors.
Cosmos: Possible Worlds is forward looking, examining planets humans might one day inhabit, if we can there, but it equally explores ancient history.
“It’s about imagining the worlds of our ancestors, those vanished worlds of which we know so little, reconstructing the world of the distant past before humans even evolved,” she explains, “but also most deeply the possible world that this could become…as well as our depictions of where we might go as a species if we endure and get to master interstellar travel.”
Episodes document the importance of the development of the neocortex in mammals, as well as the work of pioneering scientists like Giovanni Domenico Cassini and Nikolai Vavilov, and philosophers like Spinoza, who located god in nature. Episode 1 delves into the possibility of space exploration using tiny nanocraft as “the basis for future high-capability, lower-cost-risk missions beyond Earth,” as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory puts it.
“We hope to launch a flotilla of a thousand such craft,” Druyan shares. “They’re so small that I can carry one in my purse, in my wallet, actually. And yet they have all the capabilities of Voyager, but when fixed to a solar sail, they can actually achieve a significant fraction of the speed of light and would overtake both Voyagers [1 and 2] within four days.”
Illustrating such complex concepts represents one of the primary tasks of Cosmos: Possible Worlds. The series makes use of animation and sophisticated visual effects to accomplish that.
“All credit [goes] to my fellow director, Brannon Braga, to Jeffrey Okun, who is not only just a delightful person to work with, but a really brilliant VFX supervisor, and Karl Walter Lindenlaub, our director of photography,” Druyan maintains. “In really big-budget blockbuster movies, these visual effect shots usually last for 30 seconds or 20 seconds, but Jeff was creating visual effects for us that would last for five and six minutes. They really had to hold up. I just think he did an astonishingly brilliant job.”
The series was shot on location around the world and on giant sound stages in Santa Fe, New Mexico. With a green screen as his backdrop, later substituted with the visual effects, host Neil deGrasse Tyson brought the cosmos to life with verve and scientific authority. He is an astrophysicist himself and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
“Every single one of those words was scripted by Brannon and me, so there’s nothing spontaneous,” Druyan reveals. “I’ve told him this a million times, his performance in this season was even greater than what he did in the previous season, which I thought was remarkable and wonderful…Neil is a scientist, so he has the kind of depth of understanding of what Brannon and I wrote. And he does have that same passion to connect that is critical if you want to be a science communicator.”
Cosmos: Possible Worlds was supposed to premiere last year, but was delayed after Tyson was accused by several women of sexual misconduct. Druyan says she had “made peace” with the possibility the show might never see the light of day, but after several investigations National Geographic announced it was moving forward with the series (Tyson denied the most serious allegation against him, and said his behavior in other instances had been misinterpreted; he vowed in the future to be “more sensitive to people’s personal space”).
“My own company, Cosmos Studio, mounted one of the investigations and we went about it with the utmost seriousness. Because…I’m a woman, and I’ve lived the last 50 years or so of the trials and tribulations of what it is to be a woman in any business,” Druyan comments. “We just decided to follow the evidence wherever it led. And I know Fox, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, everyone felt that way. But what we found was a degree of insensitivity, but nothing that rose to the level of anything more than that.”
From 1980 onward, the Cosmos series has been on a journey of enlightenment, fueled by the dual engines of “skepticism and wonder.”
“Then as now, there was a kind of a contempt for science widely expressed, and more recently to my horror, expressed by the current administration in myriad ways,” Druyan notes. “But when I first started doing Season 3, I was thinking that it was time once again, to make the case for science.”
No one ever did that better than the late Carl Sagan, who died in 1996. Cosmos: Possible Worlds begins with his words and his distinctive voice: “For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.”
Despite his passing almost a quarter of a century ago, Druyan says Dr. Sagan’s work and vision continue to inform the series.
“Carl is very much at the heart of every season of Cosmos,” she notes. “Carl and I spent virtually every minute of 20 years together, working together, thinking together, building a family. And so—not in any supernatural way, but in the most natural way—when you spend that much time thinking with someone and living with them, they continue to be a voice in your heart.”
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