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Ascension

I was kind of aware of the SyFy mini-series Ascension (no relation to the deck building card game of the same name) because they’d been running ads for it for a few weeks now (mainly promoting it as Tricia Helfer’s return to SF TV). Somehow I stumbled upon the timeline for the story and it got me much more interested.

The premise is that in 1963 the United States launched a generation starship to Proxima Centauri, with a planned mission length of 100 years, and that this was kept from the public. So the ship, the USS Ascension, developed its own society (with only 600 people), cut off from communication with Earth. The series starts in the present day, 51 years after launch, and begins with the first murder on the ship since it took off. The first episode (of three), in particular, focuses on the investigation of the murder, and various red herrings along the way.

The first episode also ends with a big plot twist, and it’s impossible to talk about the story in depth without spoiling it, so I’m going to continue this entry after the jump.

But if this sounds interesting, I suggest watching the first episode, which features some stellar set design and costuming, maybe the best I’ve ever seen in an SF television show. When you hit the twist, you’ll either be intrigued to watch more, or you’ll decide to stop there.

But now, on to the spoilers:

The first episode is by far the best of the three in the mini-series. It opens with a party for launch day, but it’s not immediately clear if it’s happening the day of the launch, in 1963, or in the present day, because all of the fashions are straight out of the early 60s. Then a young woman, Lorelei (Amanda Thomson) is found by a 12-year-old girl, Christa (Ellie O’Brien), and we’re treated to what looks like a single impressive shot travelling up through the decks of the ship and to the outside, where we learn that it’s the present day. Between the costuming, the set design, and the camerawork (no less impressive from almost certainly not being a single shot), it’s the most memorable sequence in the series.

The costume design features strict and casual military outfits for the officers, and casual fashions right out of the late 50s and early 60s for everyone else. The officers are all very clean-cut, with Captain Denninger (Brian Van Holt) sporting a cleft chin and perfect hair. Everyone at first appears to be the model of a perfect little society, which of course is an illusion since almost everyone has a secret in their lives.

The sets are amazing, especially the main area with its central elevator, walkways from it to the various floors, and rooms around the edges. I’m sure some of it is CGI which is gluing together some disparate physical sets, but it’s very well done, certainly the next generation of techniques used to achieve similar effects in Babylon 5 20 years ago. A couple of the sets look a bit constrained by budget, such as the lower decks, but overall it looks great, almost like a mash-up of every science fiction series and film from 2001, through Logan’s Run, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The first episode’s story is largely a mystery, being investigated by the ship’s executive officer, Gault (Brandon P. Bell). He interviews the family, the suspects, reports back to the Captain, and it’s generally an effective way to introduce us to the principals. It also throws in interesting questions like how a gun got on board the ship, and how it stayed hidden for 50 years. And there are some neat cultural bits, such as the anxiety which develops for individuals of this generation when they realize that almost everyone they’re ever going to know is on the ship right now, and they’re never going to see either Earth or their new home at Proxima. The building of a life on a small generation starship is quite well done.

And then it takes a sudden turn.

The big reveal at the end of the first episode is that the Ascension is not, in fact, a generation starship, but a hundred-year eugenics experiment. The “ship” is an enormous simulator sitting in an underground chamber on Earth, and it’s riddled with cameras so that Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows), the son of the man who started the project, and his staff can observe what’s going on inside. While outsiders can enter the ship if necessary, it’s not easy, and they need a pretext to be able to do so unseen (such as having the ship pass through a “radiation storm”). Harris and his staff work very hard to preserve the illusion for the crew members – who at this point are almost all second-generation citizens who have no memory of Earth – in order to continue the experiment.

The reveal is very effective – but ultimately I think it undercuts a lot of what I enjoyed in the first episode.

From a purely scientific standpoint, I was willing to forgive a lot based on the original premise: The ship was traveling at something close to a constant acceleration of 9.81 m/s^2 to simulate Earth’s gravity, even though under that thrust they would have long passed their destination in their own frame of reference. Alternately, they could be going much slower and had more conventional pseudo-gravity based on rotating modules in the ship, but the show’s designers elected not to blow their whole budget trying to show that on-screen. Either one could be reasonable use of artistic license.

But after the reveal, clearly the ship had to be under Earth’s gravity – because it’s still on Earth – and had to have a design that was exactly what we saw. But in that case I’d expect one of the smart people on the ship to have done some math and long since realized that the numbers didn’t add up.

And the murder mystery, which had been a creepy “Who brought the gun onto the ship 50 years earlier, and who was motivated to kill the girl?” story when everyone was along in space, became a “What sorts of manipulation are Harris and his staff performing?” question. The dangers of being on a ship using 1960s technology in space were replaced with the delicate dance that the ship’s handlers perform to keep things running smoothly, and keep the ship’s residents in the dark.

The big question is: Why would anyone bother with a project like this? I secretly hoped that there was a second, real ship out there and the Ascension was some sort of control experiment, or attempt to probe what the real ship might be experiencing. Instead, as I said, it’s a eugenic experiment, which is about to come to fruition as Christa exhibits telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Kind of interesting, but still hard to believe that 50 years of US governments would have signed off on the budget for this project – not to mention the human rights questions of keeping two generations of American citizens not only imprisoned, but in the dark about the fact that they are imprisoned. It’s a lot to swallow.

It’s not so much the plausibility that Ascension struggles with, as the fact that the revelation makes the story more mundane. The drama and adventures on the ship are still pretty interesting – Gault stopping a bomber, Denninger trying to keep his job, his wife Viondra (Helfer) with her own machinations to support him as well as establish her own base of influence – but the story outside the ship is pretty dull. The Ascension‘s stockyard master, Stokes (Brad Carter), is ejected from the ship and detained by Harris, and he is rescued by Samantha Krueger (Lauren Lee Smith), an agent placed with Harris to investigate the murder. Harris’ power base is overturned, and there’s a lot of running around until events on the ship cause Christa to emit a huge electromagnetic pulse, throwing the ship and its surroundings into chaos.

Contrast with what the series might have been about had its original premise been its true one: Long-buried secrets about the origin and fate of the ship, Christa’s warnings that their planned destination means death and they should turn onto a different course, and back on Earth the investigation into whether Ascension ever really existed at all (and what would it mean when people find out that it did?). I think this could ultimately have led to a richer, perhaps more fantastic story than what we got, and I’m rather sad it didn’t happen.

I’m also disappointed that the ending of the series was so clearly a set-up for a potential series. The crew don’t learn that they’re really still on Earth, Stokes escapes from everyone and heads towards a nearby city (DC?), and Christa apparently transports Gault to an alien world. But I have a hard time seeing a series coming out of this having a lot of staying power. Sooner or later the crew are going to have to learn the truth, but that’s going to undercut what makes their lives so interesting, that they’re their own isolated subculture. I don’t really care about Stokes, but he’s presumably the fulcrum through which the world would learn about Ascension. And honestly I’m not that interested in Christa as the first of a generation of apparent superhumans, either. Would I watch a spin-off series? I might try it. But this series was quite a contrast to Battlestar Galactica, which had a similar launch, but its initial series felt complete unto itself, not quite so obviously a set-up for a series.

After the first episode of Ascension I expected they’d need to have a huge finish to get back what they lost in the plot twist, but they didn’t have it.

I’m not sorry I watched the series, but it felt like it could have been so much more than it was. I understand what they were going for, but I think they should have stuck with the initial premise, because that was more interesting than the story they ended up telling.

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