Monday, January 25, 2016

Ascension mini-series review

Warning - this review will contains spoilers for the Ascension mini-series.

    I'm presently enjoying The Expanse and Killjoys series on the Syfy channel, which is the first sign of the old (note the spelling) Sci-Fi channel quality coming back for me. I'm not done with either season, though, so I thought I would take time to discuss one of the failed efforts of the network. Specifically, the Ascension mini-series.

    The premise is interesting but has the problem of trying to tackle too much in too many different directions. Basically, John F. Kennedy created a space program which sent a generation ship up which contained the best and brightest of America. This ship won't reach its destination before all but the grandchildren of the original explorers are dead.

The Ascension is a cool ship. Too bad it's a prop.
    As a result, all of he inhabitants have a history and culture vaguely resembling 1950s America as well as an epic case of cabin fever. This is a pretty high concept thing to begin with, already alienating hard sci-fi fans by asking them to buy 1950s technology could send a generation ship up. Are there many Mad Men fans in that group? Do they think two great tastes will taste great together? I think the two clash, personally, but I'm not adverse to the idea of zeerust science-fiction. After all, I love the Fallout series.

    It could be a really engrossing storyline if they explored a alternate timeline where the US of A achieved the kind of technological progress necessary to send an Orion-drive starship into space without making much social progress. Would it be worth it if America sacrificed so many of its improvements in certain areas if it meant we could reach the stars? Would it not be worse to leave our planet and carry things we have moved beyond in our current timeline? These are the kind of questions that series could have answered.

    Except, none of those questions are relevant because it's all a big hoax on the Ascension's crew.

The show frequently used fanservice in hopes of attracting viewers. Not that I'm complaining, mind you.
    As you discover in the pilot episode, the entire thing is actually a science-experiment being run by a private contractor who took it over from NASA. Everyone on board the generation ship who thinks they've been traveling through space for the past fifty-years have actually been in a corporation's basement. This is quite an intriguing twist but, unfortunately, also kills all interest in the generation ship side of things as there's nowhere to really go with the story other than everyone eventually finds out. Yes, you could perhaps send the ship into space at some point but that's going to require its own thing.

    I can't help but think the miniseries would have been picked up if they'd decided to stick with just the generation ship angle and not overload the audience with subplots. Shocking as it may seem, even with all the above plot twists, I still haven't covered everything. There's also a psychic breeding program, kidnapping scientists as well as children to work together on the ship, and a conspiracy to shut down the program which will result in everyone being killed.

    That is a lot of stuff to digest.

A large portion of the plots took place on an artificial beach by a pool. I kid you not.
    Ascension is at its best when its tackling the ideas behind a generation ship and what it does to people. It's at its worst when it attempts to be a soap opera about characters who are kind of a bunch of unsympathetic a*******. For example, one of the major plots is a power struggle between Councilman Rose (Al Sapienza), Captain Denniger (Brian Van Holt), their lover/wife Viondra (Tricia Helfer), and Viondra's apprentice Jackie (Jessica Sipos).

    It is a conflict with absolutely no stakes whatsoever because Denniger is a cheating slimeball only slightly better than Councilman Rose. The fact it doesn't matter who leads because it's all a movie-set only underscores the problems with the Ascension's "secret." What's sad is this is actually more entertaining than most of the other soap opera plots like who is having an affair with who.

    The best plots deal with things like what it's like to have your marriage predetermined to maximize genetic diversity, how to deal with the fact there's no freedom in a society where everyone has to pull their weight, and the class divisions which emerged on a ship which actually needs everyone because human beings are innately averse to equality. Prostitution is a glamorized profession on the ship because, bluntly, everyone needs sex to stave off boredom and Viondra controls it. The conflict between the upper and lower decks is one the former ignore while the latter seethe could have gone in multiple directions.

The X-Files part could have been its own program.
    The conspiracy on Earth isn't bad but, again, seems like it belongs on a different show. It feels like SyFi had two really good concepts for shows: a generation ship as well as The Truman Show played seriously then decided to combine them. The conspiracy is disjointed because, essentially, they can't decide whether Director Harris (Gil Bellows) is the good guy or the bad. He's an obsessive weirdo who is trying to throw off an investigation into the project but also maybe keeping all of the people inside from being euthanized. The show's inability to make up its mind as well as killing its only gay character really annoyed me about that.

    I suspect I wouldn't have liked the show nearly as much as I did if not for the fact the actors are taking the material extremely seriously. Tricia Helfer, in particular, tries to carry the show by herself through sheer will and it's a shame she wasn't the star. I think she could have made a formidable captain, Lady MacBeth, or whatever she wanted to be. Even characters which might have been stock were endearing like the lovable teenagers in a forbidden romance.

I really liked the sets. The reality-meets-Sixties science-fiction vision of the future was cool.
    It's a shame the series will never get a chance to expand on its plots. The sad fact is I enjoyed the show despite all of its flaws and it's never going to get a chance to show what it could have been. It would have been a rocky first season but I would have been interested in seeing where the show took things and whether or not it would end with everyone on Earth or actually reaching Proxima Centauri.

    Oh well.



  1. Wait, wait: It turns out that it's all a movie set? That sounds like a really dumb plot twist.

    1. It's quite shocking, really, at the start when a character is sucked out an airlock and flies through the void until landing on a bunch of gymnasium cushions. It's also apparently a prototype for the ACTUAL spaceship which works just like the real one would but was never launched into space. But yes, the more you think about it the more clear it's the kind of Twilight Zone twist which only works as a series finale or a prelude to the end.

    2. Now, I haven't actually SEEN the show, so I might be complaining too quickly, but that sounds like a shining example of wasting a good plot-even if it was a season finale.

      It would probably work as a Twilight Zone episode. In fact, "it was an experiment by NASA-the protagonist was safe and sound the whole time!" was the plot twist of their first episode IIRC. Come to think of it, though, has there ever been a bad Twilight Zone episode?

    3. No, I agree. I feel the show might have succeeded if it focused on the generation ship aspects but it seemed they didn't have confidence in that. It was probably also a budget issue since Earth is an easy place to film on.

  2. Question, have you seen the show Defiance, per chance?

    1. I saw a few episodes but wasn't quite really gelling with it, which is strange because post-apocalyptic space Western seems like it would be right up my alley.

  3. I thought it was mildly amusing. But what the fuck was up with that double twist ending? I didn't even know what that was supposed to mean. I worried I had gotten drunk and fallen asleep during the last twenty minutes or something, but then I rewound it and realized, nope, it was just a smash cut to another planet for no reason.

    Two questions:

    1) Have you seen "Childhood's End" aka 2015's answer to "Ascension?"

    2) Turn off "Killjoys" right now and turn on "Dark Matter." Okay, that wasn't really a question. But do it anyway.