I checked out SyFy’s miniseries Ascension last week. This show was part of the cable network’s big push to get back to actual sci-fi drama over the past year. I mean, you can only have so many Sharknado movies, right?
In 1963, the US secretly launched a generation ship of Americans into space for a 100-year mission on the USS Ascension to populate a new habitable planet. In present day, the mission is in its 51st year and holds around 600 inhabitants. At first glance the premise sounds a lot like ‘Mad Men, but in SPACE.’
However, I was willing to give the miniseries a try for interest’s sake. Plus, I respect SyFy for at least making an effort to live up to their title, even if in pronunciation only. So how was it? WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
During Launch Day festivities (aka the annual celebration of the day that Ascension launched), Ascension then experiences its first murder. The search for who killed Lorelei Wright drives the story aboard the ship, which affects everyone from the ship’s elite politicians and military officers vying for control of the ship to the poorer inhabitants of the lower decks who keep the ship running.
There is a secondary plot occurring back on Earth with the covert government group ‘observing’ the mission back home. Administrator Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows) finds himself fighting for control of the Ascension project as a shadowy third party called The Creed Group wants greater oversight.
All makes for a very compelling narrative on the superficial level. Yet, despite its best efforts, Ascension fell rather flat more often than not.
Let’s start with the big twist. At the end of the first two hours, we find out that Ascension never left Earth at all. Unbeknownst to its inhabitants, Ascension is sitting in some underground bunker and is essentially a petri dish of sorts for Harris Enzmann to not only see how humanity will survive in space, but to also breed the next evolution in humanity (more on that later). Initially I felt kind of annoyed. I came in expecting a space opera and got duped. But it was a bold choice on SyFy’s part and helped connect to what was happening on Earth.
There was some decent world-building, like who people aboard the ship who are married cannot procreate unless chosen at some elaborate ceremony. Also, the position of ship’s captain is not fixed and can be supplanted by vote from Ascension’s council.
Now, let’s get to some of the bigger issues. Reading through some viewer comments were how did they fool 60 to 70 of the world’s greatest minds (the original Ascension crew) that they were in space given the limited technology at the time? Wouldn’t they be moments or stretches of zero G?
Another issue that was not dealt with at all was RACE. This ship supposedly left Earth in 1963, at least 5 years before the Civil Rights movement got serious traction. And there are a number of black inhabitants on-board Ascension. Particularly, Aaron Gault (Brandon P. Bell) is one of the leads and a high-ranking member of the Ascension crew. However, the lack of any type of mention or discussion about this was glaring and a big mistake by the show. We should have at least seen why Ascension became so colorblind.
The only major inequality issues featured were between the ship’s elite and the lower deckers. This could have been much better crafted and fleshed out. Why did someone become a lower decker? Aside from the perks of politics and being in the ship’s military, what are some other ways the lower deckers got crapped on. This never really got fleshed out other than that the lower deckers really kept the ship running and worked in the crappier jobs.The few lower deckers we meet are either two-dimensional or not developed enough for us to care much for their plight.
Then there were the characters. Most of them were just bland and not very interesting at all. Their dialogue came off stilted and at times cringe-worthy, which does not help the audience connect with the audience.I couldn’t really muster much of a reason to care about anyone aboard or outside of the ship. Even the girl who was murdered, I didn’t care. Tricia Hefler, who plays the wife of Ascension’s captain (Brian Van Holt) plays a milk-toast version of Lady Macbeth as she schemes to keep her husband in power. Then we got the obligatory creepy kid who who could tell something ‘other’ was afoot outside the ship. Haven’t we seen this tired trope enough in TV and movies? Granted, the fact that she had powers, which was the end goal of the whole Ascension experiment was pretty cool. But the journey to get there was snore-worthy. The characters clearly suffered due to the accelerated time frame of the miniseries, which is unfortunate.
Plus, most of the main characters were immoral assholes. I’m all for shades of grey in my fictional characters, but does every marriage or relationship have to be fraught with infidelity or a lack of love? Aaron Gault is sleeping with a married woman. Ascension’s captain and his wife are in a loveless marriage where both are cheating constantly. There’s no one really to root for here.
The plot outside of Ascension dealt with a former military officer brought in by The Creed Group to investigate Ascension and Harris Enzmann, but she was really there to expose the whole project to the world. It wasn’t as clearly defined but we never fully find out who this officer was helping because she got killed in the final two hours.
Also, the sex scenes were not really that sexy. With good writing and drama, you don’t even need to show sexy times to convey sexiness. Click here for an example from the film Revenge. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
See? The two leads (Kevin Costner and Madeline Stowe) hadn’t even kissed at this point in the film and their chemistry was off the charts! But anyway…
Back to the murder mystery aboard Ascension, the combination of the boring characters and the clumsily constructed arc made me lose interest before the end of the first two hours. The killer does eventually get revealed, but I’m beyond caring at this point.
There’s another wild twist at the end of the miniseries involving creepy kid and someone from outside the ship, but I won’t want to spoil everything.
All in all, Ascension was a semi-decent first step in the right direction for SyFy, but there are still too many familiar SyFy flaws to give me full confidence in their return to serious science fiction dramas. I’m not sure if I’m game for any more Ascension at this point, but that’s just my opinion. What did you guys think?