In space, no one can hear you scream… Unless you’re on the Orion (that’s important—more on that later) class generation ship Ascension, which has just marked year 51 of its century-long voyage to Alpha Centauri to colonize a new planet. Launched in secret in 1963, this space ark houses 600 people and has already brought up two generations, though not without issues: The fact that the ship’s social mores are stuck in the 1960s, coupled with the younger crew members’ disillusionment with the fact that they’re grooming their successors for their new home, has created a society layered with fiercely guarded secrets and hidden violence.
Ascension is an ambitious miniseries from Syfy, as the network is struggling to launch its own science-fiction epics to challenge the other genre programs currently commanding viewership on other networks. The series was originally going to air over the course of six weeks, but the Powers That Be have smartly condensed it into a three-night event. That’s an especially keen choice since “Night One” ends with a massive twist that will determine how you view the rest of the show. As we can’t ignore the twist when discussing the show, watch out for spoilers later on in this review.
The inciting event, taking place on the 51st annual Launch Day celebration, is the murder of a young woman, Lorelei Wright. Her body washes up on Ascension’s fake “beach,” with clear evidence of foul play and a number of suspects. Even though this is ostensibly the ship’s first murder, no one seems all that disturbed by it, from Captain Denninger (Brian Van Holt) to his wife Viondra (Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer) to Aaron Gault (Brandon P. Bell), the Executive Officer assigned to investigate the crime. There are allusions to other accidents on Ascension: the death of Lorelei’s father in a fire, whatever scarred Gault as a child on the lower decks (the same fire?), etc. But for the most part, life on the ship seems rather idyllic.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, we see a domino effect of major and minor catastrophes taking shape on Ascension: Gault’s investigation takes him to the lower decks, where Lorelei had a forbidden boyfriend and picked up a forbidden gun; a radiation storm rocks the ship; and Lorelei’s little sister Christa displays some sort of precognition that lets her pick up on suspicious happenings both inside and outside the ship.
Whereas other generation ship stories often have the ship’s inhabitants either create a modern society in parallel to the societal evolution on Earth or else totally regress into barbarism, Ascension’s characters are frozen in the 1960s. They seem buoyed by false cheer, covering up the various obstacles with cocktail parties and lots of clandestine, casual sex with everyone but the people with whom they’re supposed to mate.
What’s interesting is that while we watch all of Ascension’s issues slowly build up as it gets farther away from Earth, the omniscient-third narration of television also allows us to observe present-day human society. Its inhabitants blindly go about their 2014 lives, unaware of the government’s secret project hurtling toward Alpha Centauri. Well, some people know, including a young academic who seeks out Harris Enzmann, son of Abraham (I’m not even going to touch that) Enzmann, the founder of the Ascension mission. Harris claims to know nothing about the mission, but as we learned from Interstellar, secret government space missions are fraught with secrets, especially when you bring in multiple family members on the same project.
Back to Ascension and how it got to year 51. Unfortunately, instead of a detailed shipboard history (beyond what’s on the official timeline on the Syfy site), we get tropes. Ascension’s younger generations are placed in professions and marriages based on genetics and aptitude rather than passion. There’s a clear class divide between the lower decks and the upper decks, with prejudices that must have been cemented as newer crew members were sorted into a specific section of the ship. Interestingly, despite still living in the 1960s’ sexist attitudes towards women, Ascension’s society seems to be more open-minded where race comes into play: You have Gault, a black man who grew up in the lower decks but clearly moved up in the ranks. Like the lower deck workers on the Titanic, members of this disadvantaged class are presented as resentful grease monkeys—no more so than Stockyard Master Stokes, who seems to take the murder as an excuse to rise up.
Not surprisingly, a self-governed society like this carves out its own moral gray areas. As the ship’s Chief Steward, Viondra trains young women to be some cross between flight attendants and spies: They keep slim and are perfectly coiffed and impeccably made up, strutting around in cute little dresses—that is, when they’re not dropping the clothes to sleep with various members of the ship. In many ways, Helfer’s character is BSG’s Number Six if she were able to actually assume a leadership role.
While Ascension’s men are in the cockpit, looking outward at the ship’s journey to Alpha Centauri, the women are focusing inward on life on the ship. In addition to treating small injuries, Dr. Bryce also performs psychological evaluations on the ship’s inhabitants, especially the younger generation. Saddled with the responsibility of solving this murder, Gault consults Ophelia, the ship librarian who gets to play armchair psychologist by analyzing which books and movies crew members check out. Suspiciously, Ascension’s library contains no books on solving murders… but she sends Gault away with some detective noirs, close enough. It’s a sad moment to realize that Ophelia’s—and the ship’s—knowledge is necessarily limited to 1963. But you know whose knowledge isn’t limited? Little Christa, who is playing uncomfortably similar to Firefly’s River Tam with her burgeoning precognitive abilities. Fortunately/unfortunately, no one seems to take her seriously when she points to a star cluster in the opposite direction and says they should go there. (The fact that she also yells “Stop watching me!” at said star cluster later probably undercuts her believability.)
The main issue plaguing both sexes in the younger generation is what Dr. Bryce terms “The Crisis”—the moment where they realize that they won’t get to enjoy their new home planet, if they even live long enough to see it. Some kids act out in relatively harmless ways—there’s a flashback to someone painting “NO FUTURE” on the walls of the ship—while others, like Lorelei, are unable to get over the severe depression linked with The Crisis.
But that’s nothing compared to how they’ll feel when they discover (here we go, spoiler time) that Ascension is actually grounded on Earth. We learn this at the same time as Stokes, who gets sucked out of an airlock—in a really cool sequence that tracks his dizzying fall through space—only to land on a mat. He’s immediately surrounded by government types who sedate him and carry him away… as the camera pans out to show us that Ascension stands in a giant warehouse, presided over by Harris Enzmann and his superiors. (Hence the Orion class ship.) Yeah, the kids are going to be pissed.
A question I had all during “Night One” was how surveillance worked on Ascension. Various people know each other’s dirty laundry but seem linked by a complicated enough power system to not rat each other out. I’m waiting to see Gault (or Viondra, maybe) pull up feeds to all of the hidden cameras on the ship to track down their murderer, not to mention the impending uprising. Or it could be that the only surveillance is taking place on Earth, tracking what Enzmann calls their “lifeboat for humanity.”
Why keep the Ascension project under wraps like Interstellar’s underground NASA did? Why not transform the ship’s adventures into a reality series à la The Truman Show or even Big Brother? Year by year, you would slowly ease the public into the idea of space travel, until three generations later, everyone would be used to this decades-long series in their living rooms (and on the Internet). Of course you’d have to incorporate the notion of “voting people off,” but by the end of the 100 years, humanity would have invested enough in one person or a handful of people—who could then actually be shot into space. Because if this lifeboat stands up to its 100-year experiment, what’s to stop the government from actually pulling the trigger on a secret colonization project? Right now, they’re just asking for forgiveness instead of permission.
Revealing this twist in the first third of the story could be setting up for an even bigger reveal later on. Is Ascension’s test run because Earth is in trouble from global warming or incoming alien invaders? Most importantly, is this present-day Earth or an alternate history? We’ve gotten just a few glimpses of what appears like typical America, but for all we know, the United States might not even exist anymore.
For all of its reliance on archetypes and trope shorthand, Ascension still succeeds in worldbuilding. (Watch that first sequence racing through the ship set to Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and tell me you weren’t stirred even a teeny bit.) I can’t get enough of generation ship stories, so I’ll be tuning in for “Night Two” and “Night Three” this week to watch Ascension’s onboard dramas implode, especially once its inhabitants realize they are very much not alone in the universe. Because it’s one thing to scream in space where no one can hear you… but being observed and tested like lab rats? That’s unforgivable.