SyFy Miniseries 'Ascension' Is a Promising Thought Experiment Canceled Too Soon
Ascension plays with the range of pleasures associated with the detective story, but framing it within the claustrophobic environment of a spaceship puts quite a spin on the old formulas.
Cast: Tricia Helfer, Gil Bellows, Brian van Holt, Andrea Roth, Brandon P. Bell
US release date: 2015-10-13
Ascension is a six part miniseries that originally aired on SyFy and has recently migrated to video streaming services and DVD release. The plot consists of a series of mysteries, each one smaller and more precariously balanced than the next.
At its opening, we are given to believe that this is a show about a murder aboard a small spacecraft on a multigenerational mission to terraform a planet orbiting the star Proxima Centauri. The star ship Ascension is over half-way into its 100-year mission, and the small self-sustaining community has never experienced an episode of violence quite like this one before. What ensues is a murder investigation that, as it unfolds, reveals a web of romantic and political intrigue bubbling just under the surface of the ship’s quaint retro veneer.
Yes, this is a sci-fi show set in outer space that doubles as yet another vehicle for the Atomic Age nostalgia that was reinvigorated by AMC’s Mad Men success. However, Ascension has more going for it than many of its peers, most of which (like ABC’s Pan Am) wound up being canceled before they even really got started.
Opening the show with the mysterious murder of a young woman allows the show to play with the range of pleasures associated with the detective story or the film noir, but framing such an investigation within the claustrophobic environment of a tin can that’s been hurtling through space for half a century puts quite a spin on the old formulas. As a result, it’s (perhaps appropriately) difficult to figure out exactly which way is up.
For one, there’s an issue of time. Ascension launched in 1963, and it’s been in flight for over 50 years, which means that what's taking place on the ship is taking place in the present. It's difficult not to feel as though one is watching the events on Ascension through a series of flashbacks, though. This is partly because of the aforementioned vintage style -- explicable, perhaps, by the ship’s isolation and lack of infusions of cultural novelty -- but it’s also partly because the scenes that take place on Ascension are interspersed with episodes from here on Earth where bureaucratic forces struggle for control over the project.
The other thing muddying the waters is that we’re not really sure exactly what purpose Ascension is ultimately serving. The ship’s crew know only that they were sent to find a new home for humanity following what was assumed to be the imminent destruction of the Earth in nuclear war. The project coordinator, Harris Enzmann, keeps telling agent Samantha Kreuger, who has been sent to investigate the murder on the ship, that Ascension is a “lifeboat for humanity”. As events unfold, however, it begins to look more and more as though the US government has been performing genetic experiments on the ship’s inhabitants—without their knowledge, of course.
Despite all this, however, the most interesting aspects of the show are not its mysteries or its flirtation with the supernatural; it's the way that the show’s writers imagine what a small, closed society of modern Americans would adapt to look like under the constraints of a space mission from which there is no return. Predictably, a class hierarchy has evolved on the ship. Those responsible for the maintenance of the ship’s basic functions are referred to as “lower deckers”. They live in the less elegant areas of the ship and perform those functions that are necessary if not glamorous. They seem to share a common lack of faith in Ascension’s mission, and it’s difficult to really blame them for that, given the distinct difference in quality of life between those on the lower decks and those above.
One of the elements I was most interested in and wish had been further explored was the existence of a cohort of what were essentially sanctioned prostitutes. The “stewardesses” aboard Ascension are a small group of carefully selected young women who cater to the spiritual and physical needs of the ship’s elite. For anyone interested in gender or the way that women have historically used sexuality in order to hold politically fraught societies together, the vows taken by the stewardesses upon initiation are really something: "We are the shepherds of the flock, guardians of the birthless. We vow to give ourselves, body and soul, to our colony. We are wife, mother, and caregiver to all." To be honest, I wish the show had been primarily about this segment of Ascension’s population but, as it were, they receive only passing attention in their capacity as political spies.
All things considered, Ascension is a rather fun way to spend a few of my evenings. It shows a lot of promise, but I think that ultimately the show overlooks what its most compelling features are. More than technology or monsters, what the show has going for it is a genuinely curious thought experiment about what a tiny, isolated society—one that missed the dramatic social revolutions of the '60s—would look like over several generations with no external influence or contact. The psychological and political needs that would arise from those constraints and the solutions that would be devised to address them are the best parts of the show. Unfortunately, it spends so much time developing its more “hard” sci-fi elements, such that it neglects fully developing the rest.
I wish I could say that I hope to see Ascension continue to do something interesting with its promising premise, but as of the time of this review it seems as though the miniseries has not been picked up for a second season. It looks as though we’re left for the foreseeable future with some good ideas and as many unanswered questions, all compiled neatly into a DVD release with an unremarkable making-of featurette. The show seems destined to spend its days in the graveyard of TV Shows Canceled Too Soon -- that is, the bottom shelf of our media racks.