Ascension (2014)

Poster - Ascension

Country: USA
Created by:  Adrian Cruz, Philip Levens
Starring: Tricia Helfer, Gil Bellows, Brian Van Holt, Brandon P Bell, Jacqueline Byers, Lauren Lee Smith, Jessica Sipos

Ascension is a sci-fi show about a giant nuclear-powered spaceship built in the 1960s that’s been flying towards the new solar system for 50 years. How amazing is that?!

During the 1950s, US scientists on something called Project Orion. The idea was to build a spaceship that would use explosions of A-bombs to propel itself through space. Project Orion was an awesome insanity, something straight out of Fallout computer games. Naturally, the project was cancelled. Something about the ship’s nuclear fallout raining all over the planet. Stupid sensible people with their sensible precautions!

Well, in the SyFy miniseries Ascension, Kennedy administration actually builds this monstrosity and launches it with the entire families. Their century-long trip will take them to a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. That way, at least some remnant of humanity can survive if the Cold War escalates.

50 years later, 600 crew members aboard USS Ascension are mostly descendants of the original crew. Their society still mimics the early 1960s, both in fashion and attitudes. There is a strict divide between the experts working on the upper decks and the manual laborers toiling near the nuclear reactors below. Even though Captain William Denninger (Brian Van Holt) and his scheming wife Viondra (Tricia Helfer) maintain order, everyone aboard the spaceship is fully aware that their lives are one technological glitch away from certain death. This tension threatens to boil into an open rebellion of the “lower deckers” after Lorelei Wright (Amanda Thomson) becomes the first person in the ship’s history to get murdered.

The premise of Ascension is great. The show takes the tropes of noir fiction and mixes them with a retro-futuristic dystopia similar to Joon-ho Bong’s 2013 film Snowpiercer. There are shades of Twin Peaks as well, with the murder of a young and beautiful girl exposing corruption hiding underneath a small community – except, this time, instead of small-town Americana, we get a utopian society straight out of a 1950s sci-fi magazine. Some reviewers referred to the show as “Mad Men in space”, but the far better comparison would be 2007 computer game Bioshock, in which the player explores a 1950s underwater utopia torn apart by the civil war.

Tricia Helfer and Brian Van Holt on Ascension

Despite all this, Ascension is one of those frustrating shows that are just good enough for the viewer to imagine how much better it could have been. The show tries to cram 20 episodes of plot into a six episode miniseries, resulting in way too many unnecessary subplots and supporting characters. In a show like this, it’s really hard to care about, say, the captain’s wife shtupping his political opponent to gain political leverage when the ship might lose all of its power (or oxygen… or shielding) at any moment. And that’s before we even get to a whole plotline taking place on a modern-day Earth, where, for some reason, no one is aware that USS Ascension exists. It’s up to the world’s most inept secret agent (Lauren Lee Smith) to learn why from Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows), a seemingly earnest engineer whose father developed the original project. Soon enough, Ascension descends – Heh heh! – into unbelievable conspiracies and inane plot twists. And then, just as you begin to accustom yourself to plot holes so big a spaceship could fly through them, Ascension ends on an unresolved cliffhanger.

Damn.

Ascension failed as a TV show and it will never reach cult status like, say, Firefly. So why write about it when there are so many other, more interesting movies and shows? Because you don’t need me to tell you about movies and TV shows like Rogue One, Arrival or Westworld. If you’re a geek, you already saw them. On the other hand, Ascension will most probably get lost between the cracks of the pop culture.  This is a shame, since the show is an interesting oddity mixing space exploration, secret history and retro-futurism. If you’re a fan of any of those three things, you owe it to yourself to check Ascension out. As long as you are aware of show’s numerous flaws, you should be fine.

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