Tonight, Syfy took to the stars for the first installment of the twisty space thriller Ascension, the network’s first miniseries in quite a few years. The bad news? This isn’t going to become the next Battlestar Galactica. The good news? It’s telling a good enough story that it doesn’t need to. Mostly. For now.
If you sat out night one of Ascension, stop reading now as there are huge SPOILERS below.
The set-up is as simple as it is effective: the USS Ascension has been floating in space for 51 years on its way to a distant star system where human civilization can continue away from Earth. As it’s the midway point in the ship’s journey, everyone onboard is pretty much the middle generation, who’ll never know life on solid ground. There are a few clever ways in which this is conveyed (beyond the blatant exposition), and it’s interesting to tackle the depression of someone who doesn’t think they’ll ever breathe outside air.
Of course, it’s impossible to go on without bringing up the surprisingly massive twist that gets revealed in the third act of the 90-minute first part: the Ascension has actually been on a 51-year journey completely within Earth’s atmosphere, within a giant government compound of some kind. It’s all an experiment. (Lost opportunity leaving out a mad scientist juggling Jacob’s ladders while cackling about it all being an experiment.) The it’s-all-on-Earth twist is one of those that is always floating around in the back of my brain for a project like this, but I never suspected they’d bring it out in the first episode.
So with that being taken away as a possible outcome, the focus then shifts on what these characters bring to the story. The Ascension crew embarks on a murder investigation when the body of the secret-keeping Lorelei (Amanda Thomson) is found, an occurrence that has never happened in the 51 years it’s been not in space. Captain William Denninger (Brian Van Holt) puts Oren Gault (Brandon P. Bell) in charge of the investigation, thinking he’s going to be extremely incompetent I guess. Turns out he’s good at his job, shit gets done, and the non-guilty (but still guilty for a slew of shit) water reclamation head Stokes (who was a grungy acquaintance of the deceased) gets exiled into space.
Which really just means he gets sent to Earth, where he presumably loses his fucking mind. That’s almost a worse fate than whatever would have happened to him on the ship. Transitions are hard.
Ascension seriously has a shitload of people in it. Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer plays the Captain’s scheming wife Vondra, who wouldn’t mind seeing her husband lose his position. (She also gets into a few positions that Helfer’s fanbase will hoot and howl over.) Then there’s James Toback (P.J. Boudousque), Lorelei’s ex-fling, and Christa Valis (Ellie O’Brien), the little girl who is getting clued into Earth people coming into the ship. Only she thinks their name is GLOBUS or some shit. The first rule of secret government spying is “Don’t wear the name of your organization on your clothes.”
There’s some great stuff in Ascension, such as the ship’s light show surroundings, that below deck brawl, and a few of the more trailer-ready lines. But then there’s some of the wooden acting. Even though I’m a Gil Bellows fan, everything that happens on Earth here—is that journalist ever coming back?—is pretty weak, though I’m guessing we’ll find out more about THE EXPERIMENT on the next epoisode. Maybe that kid can just go away, too.
Watch the second installment of Ascension on Tuesday, December 16.