Syfy’s three-night event series Ascension (9/8C) premieres tonight and continues through Wednesday. It’s the story of a generation ship that was launched in the early 1960s, taking a selection of humanity to a new home on a planet orbiting Proxima – because the ship’s creator/architect was convinced that the Cold War was about become hot and destroy the Earth.
It’s also the story of that man’s son, in the present, trying to preserve his father’s legacy. It’s also a serious mindbender of a concept – with one helluva twist.
What could be more normal than a pretty girl on a beach, under a mostly blue sky broken only by wisps of white cloud? Now, what if that girl is dead and the beach is only a recreation area on a ship that makes the Empire State building look like twig? And further, what if that ship is nearing the midway point on its journey to Proxima – only a short time away from passing the point of being able to return to Earth?
What if the girl was murdered by a weapon that should never have been on the ship, called the Ascension, in the first place – and her murder may only be the first symptom of a societal upheaval that will threaten the Ascension’s mission?
When that pretty girl on the beach, Lorelei, is found murdered, it creates a problem for Captain William Denninger (Brian Van Holt, Cougar time). In the Ascension’s fifty-one years in space, the ship’s safety officers – headed by Duke Vanderhaus (Ryan Robbins, Sanctuary) – have never had to handle anything more serious than the odd drunken brawl or petty theft. To make matters worse, Lorelei is family – and he refuses to believe it’s murder.
Captain Denninger orders his First Officer, Aaron Gault (Brandon P. Bell, Switched at Birth) to investigate. Meanwhile, Viondra Denninger (Tricia Helfer), the captain’s wife and head of the ship’s stewardesses (the ship was launched in the ‘60s, remember), has her girls attempting to find out more through the associations they’ve made with virtually every important member of the ship’s society (that means what you think that means).
There are clues, of course – a missing video card; a necklace with a sea horse charm; a boot print where there shouldn’t be one – but they lead to more than the simple murder of an eighteen-year old girl. As lower decks worker Stokes (Brad Carter) puts it, ‘The question isn’t who was she afraid of – it’s who was afraid of her?’ And why?
The Ascension is populated with quite a variety of characters and the host of relationships that must exist in any society. Gault is having an affair (with Mrs. Vanderhaus); Lorelei had a boyfriend, James Novak (P.J. Boudousqué, American Horror Story: Coven)…, and what was Lorelei’s connection to Stokes…?
Then there’s Christa (Ellie O’Brien, Kingdom Come), a slightly spooky little girl who talks about something called The Globus and, in a particularly strange moment, insists that the ship should not be heading for Proxima but another star system entirely and that ‘everywhere else is death.’
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows, The Captive, Ally McBeal) is confronted by a man who believes that his father launched Project Ascension back in the ‘60s – and Enzmann’s boss has become aware of a problem with the project and needs to be assured that he has everything under control – or else…
Written by Philip Levens, Ascension is Syfy’s first big space show since Battlestar Galactica and it is visually as impressive. It’s a murder mystery in an enclosed environment that explores class structure; the idea of predetermination vs. free choice (youths on Ascension can apprentice to any position open to them through their aptitude tests, but the choices are limited enough to make those choices seem irrelevant), and the relevance of politics to any civilized society – and how easily (and how much) any society can be affected by one random unforeseen event.
In terms of presentation, Ascension is beautifully shot and the cast is extremely good. The first night’s two hours move at a reasonably quick pace without sacrificing character development and setting up the two vastly different locales – the Ascension look like something out of a sci-fi novel of the late fifties and early sixties with its huge computers and boxy television and computer monitors, while present day Earth serves as an interesting contrast. The impact of seeing people on an interstellar generation ship in styles that have been history for fifty years cannot be understated.
Overall, Ascension is smart and engrossing. Even though the screener warns of possible tweaks, the look is solid and the effects – where necessary – are extremely good. The premiere gives us a lot of the Ascension’s history – including the fact that Captain Denninger became captain only after being particularly heroic during a potentially catastrophic fire. And there’s a governing council – so even the position of Captain is potentially always open to change.
As Syfy’s first step back into big idea space fiction, Ascension is a worthy effort. If the network’s other upcoming projects are as good, Syfy will re-establish itself as a genre leader and serve notice to other networks that have swung their attention to genre shows that they mean business.
Final Grade: A-
Photos by Diego Uchitel and Jan Thijs/Coutesy of Syfy