Ever since the first announcements of Ascension I was more than just intrigued. Perhaps it was the obviously flawed premise of a 1960’s space ship launched to another planet that got me to ask. ‘How the hell do they think to get away with that’. When after the initial announcement several executives of Syfy put the future of their network on the success of this show I started to pay attention. Syfy channel has a reputation of cancelling their core programming in favor of wrestling, reality and ghost hunting shows that frankly made me wonder if the change from Sci-fi channel to just Syfy was the because of a savvy marketing tactic or because they had forgotten how to spell the English language. In any event, Ascension has arrived. As of yesterday you can enjoy two episodes per night for three consecutive nights. This is the review of the very first ‘pilot’ episode written by Philip Levens and directed by Stephen Williams.
Syfy Ascension Night One Review
Fifty-one years into its hundred-year journey through space, a murder occurs among those aboard the U.S. Orion Class Spaceship: Ascension. The body of Lorelei turns up on the ship’s “beach”, and Executive Officer Aaron Gault is asked by Captain Denninger to investigate. The last person to see Lorelei alive was Stokes, a man working in the lower decks. Meanwhile, on Earth, Harris Enzmann visits his father, who has suffered a stroke. While at the hospital, Harris learns of a visitor, an academic who asks about the Ascension project, seemingly knowing too much already. Harris states the program doesn’t exist. Back on the ship, Gault’s girlfriend Emily is Lorelei’s sister and is also married to the Security Officer. Emily tells Gault that Lorelei was dating James Toback, who worked on the lower decks. Christa, Lorelei’s little sister, found her body and went into shock and a brief coma. Chief Science Officer Bryce is treating Christa. Nora, her daughter and part-time nurse, also has a crush on Toback. Gault visits Ophelia, the ship’s librarian, who says that there aren’t books about solving murders, but there are some great film noirs with detectives in them. She also mentions that Lorelei checked out a video card from Year 31 but only returned its case. Year 31 was also when a massive fire killed a lot of people.
Gault and Ophelia were saved by Denninger. Dr. Burns reveals that, at around puberty, which Ophelia was experiencing, everyone must realize their limited future, pre-destined by the ship itself. Viondra, the ship’s head stewardess and Denninger’s wife, has sex with Councilman Rose, who could unseat her husband. She also gives Denninger information about Rose. As Gault searches the lower decks, he finds a book of Rilke poetry that someone has been using as a notebook to stage an insurrection. Toback and Nora go skinny dipping at the beach to find Lorelei’s video card. However, a radiation storm approaches, forcing most everyone to protect themselves. Someone steals Dr. Burns’ seahorse necklace from her bedroom, as Christa watches. When the storm passes, Stokes’ headquarters is raided and the gun is found. Stokes is taken to the brig. Christa gives Gault a compass that Lorelei had kept from “her boyfriend”. After the funeral for Lorelei, Stokes’ cell door is mysteriously opened, and he escapes to retrieve a gun and take Nora hostage. As Gault confronts Denninger with the compass, he is shocked to learn that Denninger had an affair with Lorelei. Stokes enters, a fight ensues, and he tries to shoot Gault, but the gun has no bullets. He gets sucked out the airlock, only to land on a pad and is drugged and taken away by some men. Ascension is actually kept in a large building. For 51 years, its populace has been watched by Harris and his father.
Ascension has a rich décor and exposition. Its attention to detail is considerable. The creative staff have imagined how 60’s fashion and culture would look like today. So we have black-and-white CCTV, crude computers and social inequality. Strangely, 60’s culture also invented the thong if it had been left to its own devises. When one of Viondra’s ‘girls’ shows her booty the viewer is immediately left suspicious as to the true intend and nature of the Ascension mission. Such moments are deliberate of course, carefully planned to make viewers look beyond the murder mystery that takes up the bulk of the first episode.
Some fans had already guessed that the Ascension mission was a fake before the series aired. I wasn’t surprised by the revelation, though the first hour almost had me believing it was real. I would have hated had they gone for ‘Sixth Sense’ style reveal at the end of the series. That said, the reveal doesn’t really work. Showing that the mission was faked using an elaborate set piece complete with holographic projectors and an insane mission director is almost as bad as the idea of a real Ascension mission being launched in the 60’s. The idea had more than just a whiff of ‘The Island’ about it. For the creative staff the decision to reveal the true nature of the mission so soon was in the end based on the fact that they would be ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’.
Some viewers have complained that they have a hard time getting to know the characters in the first episode. There are indeed a quite a few of them but each had more than enough screen-time to keep them interesting for the duration of the series. By episode 6 I think viewers will be thankful for the large ensemble cast that precludes endless introductions. Actor Brandon P. Bell as second in command Oren Gault should receive special praise. His depiction of a man willing to believe the mission is real but who has a deep-rooted desire for the truth is intriguing to watch. You cannot help but develop sympathy as the world he lives in is slowly unraveled by his own investigation into the murder of Lorelei. He reminds me more than just a little of Dale Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan) from Twin Peaks.
Despite the screen-time given to some of the cast, notably the Bryce family members, many also show behavior that is too familiar. Tricia Helfer’s depiction of the femme-fatale Viondra Denninger is convincing, however the writers have not been able to advance her character in one episode to distinguish her from Polly Walker’s depiction of Atia Julii in HBO’s Rome or Lucy Lawless as Lucretia in Spartacus. I hope Ascension will improve upon this. It is almost guaranteed, but the comparison of some character of Ascension with those from other TV seems more than just a coincidence.
Flaws with he characters aside, Ascension is hard-core science fiction at its best. It is the kind of show that sets a new benchmark and could spurn other production companies to take some risk as well. Right now Syfy seems to have found some of its groove back with others shows such as 12 Monkeys and Childhood’s End slated for release. This was Syfy Ascension Night One Review, I hope you enjoyed it.
Score; 9 / 10. Not a perfect show, but it comes dam close. I hope this is the start of a renaissance of hard-SF.