In an industry where an 80 percent failure rate is pretty much the norm, every TV project is an experiment.
But a miniseries like Syfy’s “Ascension” is a grand experiment on several levels, from subject to the viewer’s interpretation. Especially this viewer’s interpretation — the first hour made me ask myself, many times, exactly what it was that I was watching. Was it supposed to look like the love child of “Mad Men” and “The Love Boat“? Did half the cast attend a workshop at the William Shatner School for Drama? Is this thing for real?
Yet I didn’t give up on the hour that Syfy made available to me, either. I saw it through to the finish and was glad for the payoff. The end of that first episode changed a number of my initial impressions.
“Ascension” is a space adventure with a retro twist. As the story goes, President John F. Kennedy commissioned a classified military study called Project Orion, which examined the possibility of creating a gigantic vessel capable of launching into deep space and propelled by the force of detonated atomic bombs. It sounds interesting, if more than a little nutty, and apparently was never declassified.
In “Ascension’s” alternate reality the launch actually did take place, in secret, sending 350 souls on a deep space odyssey that began in 1963. The miniseries drops us into the journey more than half a century after launch, at the point of no return. The ship is populated by the children of the initial voyagers, and William Denninger (Brian Van Holt) is its Captain, with his wife Viondra Denninger (Tricia Helfer) serving as the equivalent of the ship’s first lady. Not an inaccurate description, considering the political nature of the ship’s social structure: Everyone is born into their roles. Pregnancies must be approved, marriages arranged. This also means discontent boils beneath the surface; being a faithful spouse, for example, is less important than maintaining order and political supremacy. And the guys who do the dirty work understandably are not thrilled with their lot in life.
Ascension’s closed society works for 51 years until it has to deal with its first murder, spurring an investigation by First Officer Aaron Gault (Brandon P Bell), who has no idea of how to take on a homicide case. This is where “Ascension” gets interesting from both a performance and a storytelling perspective. You see, the ’60s-era launch means the architecture, interiors and fashion on the ship are stylistically frozen in the mid-20th century. So, too, are Ascension’s inhabitants, to a certain degree; its society is multicultural, which is a science fiction ideal and a welcome aspect of this presentation, but perhaps not in keeping with the actual sentiment of the time period. This does not strain credulity any more than the idea that a gigantic ship propelled by nuclear explosion could launch secretly anywhere on Earth does.
But it bears pointing out because it’s obvious that other values and mannerisms on display in Ascension’s society evolved within a space that never witnessed the signing of the Civil Rights Act or the Feminist movement, never experienced the end of the war in Vietnam or saw the Berlin Wall come down — and did not live through the cultural shifts that happened because of these historic developments.
And here’s the interesting idea within “Ascension,” one that might develop further over nights two and three, or might not. What happens when a segment of the human population is encapsulated at a specific point in time and completely removed from a larger world? Is that a benefit, or to its detriment? At the very least, the visuals fascinate. As I stated above, some of the performances in the miniseries suffer from a pulpy flatness, which makes more sense when Gault turns to an old timey noir detective film to get tips on how to investigate a homicide. If they’re getting life instructions from old movies, it’s no wonder that the acting of everyone we see on Earth — yes, there’s an Earth-based contingent — comes across as more believable and lifelike than that of the wooden deep space folk.
Maybe this is one science-fiction fan trying to find excuses for flaws in a show that she really wants to love, and those flaws hold no deeper meaning. It could very well be that “Ascension” represents another of Syfy’s swings for the fences that ends up being a whiff. Or this three-night miniseries could ultimately be considered successful enough to launch into a fully-realized weekly drama. Like I said, it’s a tricky experiment.
Whether I’m on to something or just fooling myself, it’ll be interesting to find out where this mission goes, and whether it sticks the landing.
“Ascension” premieres 9pm Monday, December 15, continuing at 9pm Tuesday, December 16 and 9pm Wednesday, December 17 on Syfy.