How Are Sci-fi TV Shows and Their Starships Like Canadian Cities in Winter?

by Hans Rollman

22 May 2015

Two Canadian forays into sci-fi television, Ascension and The Starlost, bear interesting parallels to modern life in Canada.
Ascension's U.S. Orion 

Canadians love their sci-fi.

What Canadian sci-fi lacks in ostentatious show and Hollywood bedazzlery, it makes up for in smart, subtle savvy. In lieu of epic sagas and box-office blockbusters, Canadian science fiction is above all a fiction of ideas, provoking the imagination moreso than enchanting the eye. Even our science reflects this quality. America might have invented the space shuttles, but Canada invented the Canadarm that enabled them to actually do stuff while they were up in orbit.

This subtle savvy reflects itself in other characteristic ways, as well. Canadian sci-fi television might not win awards for effects or acting, but its ideas are invariably provocative. It’s a quality aptly reflected in an unusual recent foray into science fiction by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Canada’s public broadcaster.

Ascension was a six-episode television mini-series broadcast earlier this year by the CBC in Canada and Syfy channel in the US. A joint Canadian-American production, it was produced in Montreal by Canada-based Sea-to-Sky Studios. Without giving too much away, the series takes place aboard what the sci-fi genre refers to as a ‘generation ship’ – a spaceship whose journey is intended to take so long that multiple generations will be born, grow old, and die before the ship reaches its final destination. The crew on this ship know only that they were launched 50 years earlier, in secrecy by a ‘60s-era US government that feared the annihilation of the planet in a nuclear war. The series in fact opens as a murder mystery, as the crew grapple to solve the first on-board murder in the ship’s history. The plot quickly unfolds, however, into something far more complex and unexpected.

It’s an intriguing premise for a show, and it follows through with mostly positive results. The actors, a mixed crew of moderately known names whose biggest draw is Canadian actress Tricia Helfer (Cylon Number Six from Battlestar Galactica), offer mostly convincing performances. The set was particularly impressive (for a Canadian television production); in an interview co-creator and writer Philip Levens said it was the largest set ever constructed in Montreal (a city that has filmed the X-Men films, among others), spanning over 100,000 square feet; one of the ship’s sets was five storeys high.

Despite these distinctions, the most striking element of the series is neither its visual dimension nor its acting. What’s most compelling about the series are the ideas it presents, about what life would be like aboard a spaceship whose crew departed Earth in the ‘60s and before any of the social change that transformed modern North American society (the civil rights movement, feminism, and so forth). It engages in complex ways with contemporary conspiracy theory, and opens several provocative windows of ideas.

Unfortunately, as a mini-series – the producers conceptualized it with the possibility of it being extended into multiple seasons, but decided not to continue beyond the original six episodes – it’s unable to follow most of those ideas to any fruitful or satisfying conclusions. The outcome is a provocative and imaginative one, if frustrating in its sense of inconclusiveness.

Taking on a sci-fi television series is an interesting move for the CBC. The broadcaster – known first and foremost as a news agency – has been struggling with funding cuts and is turning to increasingly diverse entertainment programming as a result. With comedies like This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Schitt’s Creek and Little Mosque on the Prairie, and adventure series like the WW2-era X Company under its belt, delving into sci-fi is an interesting turn for the CBC, but one we may hope it will pursue again in the future. 

Generational Parallels

The ‘generation ship’ genre, while new to CBC, is not new to Canadian television. In fact one of the genre’s most compelling – and today, mostly forgotten – creations was also produced in Canada. The Starlost was a mini-series first broadcast in 1973. It was originally conceived and written by well-known science fiction author Harlan Ellison. The series was rejected by the BBC, to which it was originally pitched, but subsequently picked up by the Canadian CTV network. Plagued by technical difficulties, labour disruptions and budget cuts, Ellison eventually got fed up with the way in which the series was heading, and refused to have his name attached to it (instead the distinctive pseudonym Cordwainer Bird was used to credit his work).

The resulting production was a far cry from Ascension: the studio space was so small (thanks to plans to use a new type of camera that didn’t pan out) they could only build partial sets. Fellow science fiction great Ben Bova had been hired as the series’ technical advisor; he too quit in disgust and later wrote a satirical novel about the experience titled The Starcrossed. And no shortage of sci-fi lists have ranked it among the worst sci-fi shows in television history.

To add injury to insult, after its cancellation the series was subsequently chopped up and reordered into a series of short television movies that were sold in varying packages to cable television networks. This was, of course, in the early days of cable network television, and the format and its commercial models were still being experimented with. The Starlost has all the qualities of a grand, daring experiment for which everything wound up going wrong.

Yet for all its cinematic shortcomings, the series has a compelling charm that merits a historical reconsideration. As one of many children who grew up watching the series on cable television re-runs, I could never quite understand what was going on, or why the same episodes seemed ever so slightly different depending upon which station I watched them on (I realize now it was due to their reformatting as TV movies of varying lengths). Even at such a young age I could recognize bad television when I saw it (characters in the original Star Trek series, filmed a decade earlier, did a more compelling job hurling themselves from side to side during space battles than this lot did).

Yet I watched, riveted, every time it came on. It wasn’t for the acting or the effects: it was for the sheer creative imagination of the series. Here was a ship that’s been traveling through space for more than four centuries (off-course and en route to collide with a star, as we learn partway through), more than 200 miles long, containing dozens of massive biospheres which each contain their own self-contained worlds.

The three protagonists, who come from a biosphere whose society roughly resembles that of the Amish, accidentally discover the nature of their ‘world’ and set out to explore the mysterious, half-functioning vessel. Each biosphere they visit could contain any sort of society, from devolved cavemen to computer-driven dystopias. There are aliens, there are mad scientists, there are goddesses, there are centuries-old crewmen in suspended animation. And between these biospheres is the abandoned, half-functioning hulk of the ship itself, full of treacherous and malfunctioning terrors of its own. Only gradually as they explore the massive vessel do they begin to piece together what happened to the ship and its crew, and eventually understand the danger they’re all in.

However much Ellison was horrified by the show’s butchering of his story outlines, what survived was imaginative enough to trigger at least my own imagination growing up, and doubtless others among the generations of Canadians who were forced to endure the various incarnations of this show every weekend on mid-morning cable television.

Parallels and Possibilities

Despite the drastic difference in production quality between the two shows, it’s interesting that it only took me watching the first few moments of Ascension to trigger childhood memories of The Starlost. The two shows – both experiments in Canadian-American co-production, both exploring variations on the generation ship genre, both unlikely forays into sci-fi by otherwise serious-minded Canadian television networks – represent an interesting continuity in Canadian science fiction history.

Two shows hardly constitutes a pattern, but these are two of the most significant efforts to make an ongoing television series from this premise, and one can’t help wonder whether there’s something distinctly Canadian that compels a fascination with the generation ship genre. The lure of an interlinked system of self-contained worlds hurtling through the forbidding vacuum of space conjures up imaginative fantasies, but bears real-life parallels, as well.

What large urban Canadian city doesn’t have its own underground network of malls, restaurants, entertainment centres and even apartments, connected together so as to provide a self-contained atmosphere negating the need to wander outside into the cruel vacuum of a Canadian winter? Montreal has RESO: 32 kilometres of underground tunnels comprising the largest underground network in the world, and containing more than 2,000 shops, 40 cinemas, as well as condos, museums, amphitheatres. Toronto has PATH: 29 kilometres of underground tunnels including the largest underground shopping network in the world (more than four million square feet of retail space). Edmonton has its Pedway – 13 kilometres of above-ground climate-controlled tunnels linking over 40 structures (libraries, theatres, courts, hotels) in the city’s downtown. Even the smaller cities are burrowing and networking, building their own urban generation ships. Winnipeg, Halifax, and Vancouver also have underground climate-controlled worlds, as do large university campuses in Ottawa, St. John’s, and Saskatoon.

Perhaps these speculative forays into self-contained worlds hurtling through the cosmos contain an element of grim conjecture for us up here in the north. Many of us are used to long months of winter, in which our goal is to burrow into our homes and avoid emerging into the desolate, frigid Plutonian landscape outside, buffeted by storms evocative of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. What would happen if that day eventually comes which we all secretly dread, wherein Spring does not actually arrive, and the vacuum of winter simply keeps on going? Would we all retreat into our underground worlds forever? What societies would evolve – or devolve – inside our self-contained underground vastnesses? Would we wind up being ruled by robots? Worshipping moose? Cannibalizing our neighbours and cooking them in great vats of boiling maple syrup?

At the very least, it’d make great fodder for another TV mini-series.

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