A while ago I wrote a post bemoaning the lack of decent science fiction on television. I had high hopes for Ronald D Moore’s Helix but the first few episodes were so filled with plot holes, incredulous actions, and cardboard characters that we had to give up. This week saw the debut of the mini-series Ascension on the SyFy network and I had cautious hopes.
SyFy appears to be back in the business of creating genre-driven series again. No doubt they’ve seen the success of series like Game of Thrones, Outlander, Penny Dreadful, etc. Of course those series are on premium pay cable networks, where swearing and nudity are common currency, along with a steady vision of where a series is going and some great writing. I suspect Ascension was SyFy’s attempt to dip into that market, showcase something edgy with a little more vision and intelligence than Sharknado. They didn’t exactly stick the landing.
Spoiler abound after this – you have been warned.
The series is about a generational spaceship launched in the early 1960s with a crew of the best and brightest. A young woman is murdered aboard the ship, the first major crime since the launch. On occasion we went back to Earth, where a mysterious corporation was handling the earth-side part of the mission. The big twist at the end of the first episode was that the ship had never left earth. All its inhabitants were part of a Truman Show type experiment in social engineering, controlled by the son of the man that started this experiment. The tone of the series really wasn’t clicking until the second episode when they transitioned back and forth between what was happening aboard the space ship and what was happening with its controllers.
The lead characters were somewhat OK. The ship’s captain and his wife (head of the ship’s stewardesses) were sort of a somewhat interesting spin on Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards. Oh, but did I mention the magical precocious little girl aboard the ship named Christa? That was five kinds of wretched. Outside the ship, the characterization was worse. Enzmann, the head of the project, had the most depth but the rest on that side were just there to serve the plot and little else. Oh, and the corporation brought in an ex-military officer to help investigate the murder. A lesbian who enjoyed tacos. There is a perfect example of the subtle writing at work here. Gil Bellows, Brian Van Holt, and Tricia Helfer did their best to flesh out their characters with some humanity and grace, far better than the script gave them. Helfer has a great moment when she commandeers the bridge and kicks a posturing councilman off it.
There was mild language because you know SyFy was trying to spice things up a little. The nudity consisted of Helfer’s bared buns each episode and one of the stewardess’. Again, not there to service the plot, just to show how “edgy” this show is and act as a tribute to Helfer’s incredible fitness regimen. I love a bare butt but this was ridiculous. And for the sake of fairness, they could have at least showed one dude jiggling his rear. It was all so contrived.
The ending was pretty open-ended. The program is revealed to have been a eugenics experiment that would result in someone like the precocious little girl who could kill you with her mind (oh wait, that was another far better space opera). This little girl could transport humans to another planet with absolutely no explanation of how in three generations of breeding could result in such a mutation or how the corporation even knew that it would work. That was when we went from science fiction straight into bad fantasy. But the folks on the ship still thought they were on a ship. Enzmann remained in control after defeating his evil one-dimensional corporate overlord. And in a extremely ludicrous turn, the lesbian investigator was killed by a ridiculous character who actually uttered the line “the Star Child must be born”. There was so much wrong with the logic that brought us to that point I’m not even going to get started.
So I’m still waiting for a decent space opera. SyFy is now developing James SA Corey’s The Expanse series. The Expanse books are incredible and while the authors (Corey is Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) are very much involved in the series, Ascension makes me wonder if SyFy can pull that off. The Expanse is pretty dark, pretty complicated, and true science fiction. I’ll be there to watch it but I’ll be crossing my fingers.