SyFy continues to step away from its reputation of being nothing but cheesy monster flicks full of poorly-CGI’d giant crocodiles with Ascension – a three part miniseries full of enough twists and turns to satisfy both science-fiction fans, as well as casual TV watchers. The first of three nights for the series aired last night, and while it took a bit to really get going, it did a great job setting up intrigue for the forthcoming episodes.
The miniseries was written by the relatively unknown Phillip Levens, who has done some work on Smallville, and the cast is full of other similarly low-key actors. Probably the most well known is Al Sapienza, who you may not recognize by name, but he has been all over the scene on both the big screen and TV shows. Sadly, the first time you see him in Ascension is shirtless and full of chest hair. The rest of the unknown cast are mostly hit or miss with some like Brad Carter and Ryan Robbins being at least passable. P.J Boudosuque, who looks an acts like a cheap Ryan Gosling knock-off is far less impressive, and delivers his lines with the enthusiasm of a wet sock floating aimlessly in space.
Ascension’s story, as we know it before the twist and turns begins, revolves around a secret project by NASA and the US military during the height of the space race meant to send a brave group of explorers on interstellar travels in a top-secret spacecraft called Ascension. Viewers are introduced to the group of travelers technically in modern day, 51 years into the 100-year mission, almost all of whom were born on the ship and have never even seen Earth, let alone had the chance to play with Hearthstone on their Android tablets or other modern amenities.
Similar to other media that portray ’50s-’60s Americana being trapped in a secluded civilization (think Fallout or the 1999 film Blast From the Past), the aesthetic is a mix of standard ’60s attire and their lofty expectations of what the future would look like. It mostly works in Ascension, but at times the technology and general look of the ship seems to out-pace where it probably should be. They have contact with Earth so of course they know about modern living conditions and change accordingly, but a lot of their clothes and technology, which of course they would have had to have brought with them on the launch day, seem way too modern and make it confusing as to what era these people are actually from.
FULL EPISODE SPOILERS BELOW
The main intrigue of this inaugural episode is kicked off with the death a woman named Lorelei. Outside of a brief flashback and some recordings, we don’t see much of her but that’s ok, she’s not important. This is one thing I appreciate about how this first episode of Ascension is set up and told. At its core, a lot of the episode’s story looks like generic daytime TV drama fare, with a murder and investigation seemingly being the main point of the episode. Predictably enough, it’s revealed that Lorelei was actually murdered, and did not just slip and fall in the ships pool/beach area. Using this investigation as a base, the rest of the cast is introduced and built up, all while something more important looms over their unsuspecting heads.
While all of the adults on the ship run around and play their little game of Interstellar Clue, one little girl continues to warn them about visitors that keep talking to her, and even a galaxy that seems to be signalling to her. During most of the story she is believed to be just insane or possessed, but it’s revealed during an ion storm that her visions may just be correct. While everyone else on the ship is asleep through the story, young Christa Valis wakes up and see’s a man in a very modern hazmat suit digging through her room, giving us our first solid hint that not everything on Ascension is what it seems.
Parallel to the story and murder investigation on the ship is the story that takes place on Earth, revolving around one of Ascension’s founder’s son, Gil Bellows, fighting off a reporter who wants to dig deeper into the program that many believed to be fake. Or at least that’s what we are told.
The twist that Ascension isn’t actually in space, but is actually just an experiment sitting on Earth was pretty predictable, but still nicely done by the show. It never tries to trick you into thinking the ship is in space, technically. Whenever an establishing shot of the ship’s exterior is shown, it’s always very close up, with the synthetic “space” around the ship being visible in the close distance. It’s one of those plot twists where, when you see it, it makes you rethink the entire show – and that’s all you can ask out of a good twist.
When you realize that the ship has never actually left Earth, it brings into question everything that characters throughout the episode have been thinking and doing. Have they actually been on the ship, including their grandparents, for 51 years? Or were they brainwashed somehow? Who was talking to Christa, and is it being done as part of the experiment? It also makes you second guess some of the minor subplots, such as the distrust of the ship’s Captain. It’s hinted at during the big reveal at the end that Gil is in control of everything, so perhaps he is trying to oust the captain for some reason. And of course, the murder of Lorelei is assumed to have some significance, if indeed he is controlling it.
Being that the murder of Lorelei was never completely solved, it will surely come back in the next episode, but I am most looking forward to where the experiment of Ascension goes, and how the inhabitants are manipulated. To put it simply – count me invested in this series from day one.
Visually, the show does a lot of really cool things, especially considering it’s on SyFy. Sure, there are some cheap transitions and cheesy zoom-ins for effect, but I really admire how a lot of the reveals are done. The very first being in the opening scene when they cleverly hide the fact that the show takes place on the ship (as we know at that point) and not on Earth. The scene takes place in a very Earth-looking building on an Earth-looking beach, but when Lorelei dies it zooms out and slowly reveals more and more artificial aspects until you realize that it’s on a ship. This same technique is used when its revealed that the ship is on Earth, as the camera zooms out further than it had before and shows the stationary giant sitting in a big warehouse on Earth. CGI so far has been honestly pretty great. Maybe a couple rough spots, but they are mostly hidden well enough by keeping them out of focus or only briefly in frame. But the ship, and the believability of actually being in the world are both really well done.
The real downside of the episode came in the form of some weak attempts at suspense and some boring or pointless story lines. When the big ion storm comes, a couple of people need to close one of the bay doors and just… do it. There’s maybe a second of suspense but then it’s instantly gone. Unless it maybe leads into something else, the whole scene could have been skipped entirely and it would not effect the episode at all. There is also the issue of the aforementioned hairy-chested Al Sapienza and his “close friend,” the captain’s wife, Viondra. Their affair aside, the only purpose they serve is to get information moved around, which Viondra does with her stable of prostitutes. The whole thing feels like Game of Thrones lite in space and just doesn’t work all that well, not to mention some abysmal acting during all of their time on screen. Hopefully it either fades further into the background or becomes more useful in future episodes, but it’s a definite knock against this first part.
I don’t even know if I can call it a downside, but the “real world” section of the story following Gil features a hilariously bad discussion about the dangers of texting “DIAF” to a friend and how it impacts the digital world. It could just be me being too aware of this mysterious digital world, but that whole scene was laughably awful.
Overall, the first part of Ascension was very promising for this three night event. You could do a lot worse for a made-for-TV sci-fi series, and the multiple plot lines, twists, and open-threads (some tragic fire that happened in the past went unexplained) have me anxiously waiting for tomorrow to see what happens next.