- Cosmos: Possible Worlds. Fox. Tuesday, September 22, 8 p.m.
- Star Trek: Discovery. CBS. Thursday, September 24, 10 p.m.
The good news, as TV's retread fall broadcast season continues its rollout this week, is that the beloved Vulcan Death Grip makes its reappearance in prime time for the first time in decades. The bad news is that no one applies it on the revenant of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has risen from the television grave to reclaim his perennial hold on the Emmy for TV personality most in need of a hard slapping.
The death grip plays a key role in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Discovery, the seventh TV series in the Trekkie franchise, which CBS has pulled off its streaming service and pushed into prime time to bolster a lineup decimated by the coronavirus.
Discovery's popcorny science fiction has a science-fact (or maybe a better phrase would be "science-annoying") counterpart over on Fox with Cosmos: Possible Worlds, the third incarnation of the 1980 PBS series, unfortunately not hosted by a hologram of Carl Sagan but the look-at-me-I'm-a-genius Tyson. This is one case where fiction is definitely preferable to fact.
I'm not necessarily the best guy to evaluate Discovery. My experience with Star Trek is mostly listening to Leonard and Sheldon speaking Klingon while a bored Penny stares into space, fantasizing about mauve nail polish.
Fortunately, you don't really need a degree in Trekkie studies to enjoy Discovery. It's a throwback to the early days of Star Trek and the Cold War sci-fi that spawned it, with the humans and their allies as the United States and the warrior-species Klingons as the Soviets. Phasers are never set to stun.
In a lot of recent Star Trek spinoffs, the Klingons have tended toward the cuddly, even allying with humans against Romulans and other deep-space riff-raff.
But Discovery takes place in the Star Trek long-ago-and-far-away, about a decade before the original TV series, and these Klingons are collectivist religious fanatics, not to be judgmental about it, and prove their loyalty to the group collective by roasting their own hands over torches, sort of extraterrestrial versions of Gordon Liddy, except armed with death rays. Alerted to the presence of humans in their corner of the universe, the Klingon chief snarls sarcastically in English to his colleagues: "We come in peace."
Over on the U.S.S. Shenzhou, which is on a do-gooder mission helping out what Donald Trump might call the Shithole Planets, there's debate about the intentions of the Klingons, who mostly haven't been seen in the last hundred years or so.
Executive Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green, The Walking Dead), a human raised by ruthlessly logical Vulcans, says the Vulcans, after losing a ship to peace-feigning Klingons, forever afterwards simply blasted them on sight: "Violence brought respect. Respect brought peace."
Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) isn't buying it. "We don't start shooting on a hunch," she warns, "and we don't take innocent lives." It's a bit like listening to a National Security Council smackdown between John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, except in this case, Bolton's got the Vulcan Death Grip in his pocket.
Burnham, by the way, wasn't raised by just any old Vulcans, but the late Mr. Spock's own parents. (Listening to Martin-Green imitate Leonard Nimoy's stop-and-go cadences is one of the most entertaining things about Discovery.) Oddly, in 50-some years of Star Trek movies and TV, this is the first time we've heard of a Spock sister or step-sister or whatever she is. For hard-core Trekkies, this is one of several unforgiveable deviations from canonical truth. The rest of us can just sit back and enjoy the smell of photon torpedoes in the morning.
Regrettably, this brings us to the subject of Cosmos: Possible Worlds. The original PBS show (Cosmos: A Personal Voyage) was one of the first television science documentaries for adults. The version Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted in 2014 (Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey) was one of the first television science documentaries aimed at showing how much smarter Tyson was than everyone else.
Cosmos: Possible Worlds mainly serves to show that Tyson has survived a brief stay in #MeToo purgatory. It's got too many CGI special effects; too much distorting of voices and blurring images, giving the unsettling feeling of a bad 1960s movie about LSD; so many random uses of unexplained scientific jargon that it often sounds as if it was written by a computerized buzz-phrase generator; and, mostly, too much Tyson.
Whether he's clownishly picking himself up and dusting himself as if he was really knocked out of his chair by an animated collision of stars, or dispensing scientific trivia that's essentially meaningless but can be used at I Fucking Love Science cocktail parties ("How small is 13 atoms? It's a quadrillionth of the size of a grain of salt"), Tyson's performance in Cosmos is all about self-promotion and show biz.
When he does venture into science, I don't believe a word he says—especially his oft-repeated anecdote about getting kicked off a jury after upbraiding a judge over misuse of mathematics during a criminal trial. Can anyone really believe that a well-known television star can actually be ejected from a courtroom without the news media getting wind of it? Yet Tyson's smug account of his superior intellect unraveling the criminal justice system has never been repeated by anyone but himself.
It would be great if somebody would apply the motto Tyson declares at the start of Cosmos— "question everything"—to that story. Or to his faux-anguished declaration, later in the show, that humanity is the world's serial killer ("What is it about us that wherever we go we bring death?"), as if sharks, timber wolves and Mycobacterium tuberculosis are pacifist vegans. Or his repeated insistence that religion and property are the main enemies of science, despite the overwhelming technological and scientific superiority of the ecclesiastic and market-oriented West over the atheist and unpropertied East. Any chance Judge Judy could eject him from TV?