Ascension is hard to pin down. At first, this three-night miniseries appears to be a kind of Mad Men-inflected, deep-space murder mystery, as the crew members of an interstellar generation ship launched in 1963 investigate the first homicide in their 51-year journey. That’s about enough story for a two-hour movie, but Ascension recognizes it needs more to fill out six hours, so the end of the first of the three episodes reveals that the ship never actually left Earth at all, and the entire mission is really a carefully controlled, top-secret experiment undertaken by some particularly shadowy government agency. Even then, wrestling with the ethical quandaries of consigning entire generations of people to live and die on a starship that isn’t even headed to the stars still isn’t quite enough to tell a complete story, so there’s one more wrinkle: The true purpose of the project is … well, it still isn’t entirely clear, even after the miniseries has theoretically concluded. (Though writer and co-creator Philip Levens has said he’s optimistic Syfy will order more episodes, much as the Battlestar Galactica reboot used an opening miniseries to launch full seasons.) But it appears to involve incredible psychic powers, interstellar teleportation, and, yes, “the star child.” Honestly, this show seemed crazy enough when it was just Mad Men in space.
The thing is that, much as Ascension burns through a hell of lot of intriguing premises in its six-hour run, all of its ideas are fascinating enough to just about overcome some seriously wonky execution. There’s just such novelty in watching people stuck forever in the ‘60s make their way into deep space, even if the whole thing is ultimately a ruse. The set and costume design of Ascension goes full-tilt with the Kennedy-era ethos, and that carries over to the attitudes of those onboard the ship. Their society is an unapologetically sexist one, the most readily apparent relic of the crew’s pre-feminism mindset. But the miniseries also examines the particular challenges these 600 souls would have to deal with to remain sane in the face of an entire life trapped aboard a giant tin can. The miniseries is at its most thoughtful in exploring how the crew deals with the strict controls on who can and cannot reproduce; the announcement of the lucky few selected for the birthing list—once the tensest, most fractious time of the year—has evolved into its own party and ad hoc fertility festival, while the birth of unapproved children leaves these families ostracized and stuck at the bottom of Ascension’s rigid caste system.
Not all the world-building is so carefully considered, and this speaks to the basic problem with this miniseries, in that it bites off far, far more than it can chew. Those on Earth gesture a few times to the fact that the Ascension crew represents an entire group never exposed to the last 50 years of social progress; the fact that they would have missed the heart of the civil rights movement gets particular consideration. And while the miniseries never shies away from the sexism that pervades its shipboard society, racism is completely elided; Aaron Gault, the ship’s executive officer and probably the closest thing the miniseries has to a main hero, is black, and nobody in this supposedly 1963-frozen society ever comments on this. That isn’t an issue in and of itself—you could even do some vague hand-waving about how the government designed this to be a race-blind society, even if they didn’t show similar foresight with respect to gender—but it’s bizarre to have characters on Earth emphasize this point and then those on the ship so thoroughly ignore it. Compounding this strangeness is the fact that there is extreme class stratification on the ship in the form of the divide between the upper and lower decks, and this ends up feeling like a weird sci-fi proxy for the actual prejudices discussed elsewhere.
More than that, it’s worth acknowledging that the premise of Ascension is completely ludicrous in any of its various iterations—it’s absurd that even the most secretly advanced government agency could have designed interstellar travel in 1963, it’s absurd that entire generations could live and die without ever suspecting that the fiction of their existence, and it’s absurd that sealing 600 people in a giant tube for 51 years is apparently all it takes to unleash planet-hopping psychic powers. I mean, granted, that’s all utterly ridiculous, and the suspension of disbelief this miniseries demands might be too much for some viewers. Ascension does itself no favors by not always thinking through the logic of its own premise. For instance, in justifying the gargantuan amount of money spent on this 51-year project, its director suggests that many of our greatest scientific advances actually originated on Ascension. That’s all well and good, but there’s no sense that anyone on the ship actually does any scientific research whatsoever, not when they spend all their days scheming and screwing, often simultaneously.
A lot of said scheming and screwing revolves around Ascension’s resident power couple, Captain William Denninger and Chief Steward Viondra Denninger, played respectively by Cougar Town’s Brian Van Holt and Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer. Since these characters can’t get involved with the show’s overriding plot—the fact that their entire existence is a sham—the Denningers and most of their shipmates while away the miniseries with a series of soap opera plots that are intended to spice up what could otherwise be a somewhat sterile sci-fi story and provide an easy excuse for some basic-cable nudity. This part of Ascension aspires to a level of character complexity it never really manages—Helfer does her best, but it’s hard to take seriously a scene where Viondra passionately argues she’s not some icy femme fatale when that’s all the miniseries has presented her as up to this point—but it does allow the characters to retain some agency even after their lives are revealed to be essentially meaningless, and the Denningers do get to prove their mettle by saving the ship from some very real peril in the final episode.
The rest of the cast is more hit or miss—Helfer in particular has plenty of experience bringing humanity (or the Cylon equivalent thereof) to preposterous sci-fi premises, but not everyone else is quite so able to impart life to the stilted, familiar dialogue. Ascension is a miniseries about ideas, but it’s more concerned with their simple presentation than with their exploration, as the script is only intermittently interested in delving into the moral issues it brings up about the Ascension mission. There are questions of eugenics and the limits of informed consent, of the trade-off between sparing those on the ship from 50 years of terror and environmental degradation and robbing them of all the strides in equality and civil rights those same decades have brought. The reason Ascension can’t really develop these ideas in much detail is the same one that has plagued science fiction storytelling since at least the Battlestar Galactica reboot: To deal with any of those topics too directly would risk giving away too much about the show’s bigger mysteries. Hence there are a whole bunch of elliptical, subtext-laden conversations that never really go anywhere.
As a one-off miniseries, Ascension must at least earn some points for sheer audacity. This is an oddity, but it has just enough new to offer to compensate for the ways in which it is all too frustratingly familiar. It doesn’t quite show enough to outright earn follow-up episodes—this is a pale shadow of Tricia Helfer’s last series-launching miniseries for this channel, but then that’s no fair comparison—but Ascension at least shows a willingness to take the biggest, craziest swings with its storytelling, and it ends on a cliffhanger that I really would like to see resolved. I’ve been down this road enough times with science fiction shows to know that that’s probably just a recipe for exasperation if this does indeed get the full season its final scenes so obviously angle for. But what the hell: Ascension is just bonkers enough to follow further down its rabbit hole, if only because there’s every possibility said rabbit hole will be revealed to be at least five other, completely different things before all is said and done.
- This reminded me quite a bit of Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore’s Fox pilot Virtuality, which also involved a lifelong interstellar voyage where all was not as it seemed. Oh, and also Space Mutiny, the only sabotage-plagued generation ship I can think of where the inhabitants are definitely dumber than those onboard Ascension. Although this ship’s murder mystery does kind of feel like a job for Slab Bulkhead.
- You really could drive yourself crazy trying to figure out the logical holes of this show’s premise. For instance, has nobody on the ship in 51 years wondered about how perfectly the ship generates artificial gravity? I mean, I imagine there would be plausible enough answers to that question, especially if nobody was allowed to become too expert on those systems, but still: Wouldn’t some engineer have to realize that none of the propulsion systems actually work in the way they’re supposed to? And how exactly did they fake the original non-launch into non-space? Anyway, I’d say it’s fun to kick around these inconsistencies, but it’s probably best not to actually worry about them, because that way lies madness.