Going into Ascension, I assumed that it was a self-contained miniseries, not unlike the generation ship itself smoothly sailing through space toward its destination. But once we discovered the twist behind the series’ premise—which redefined everything this supposed space opera was commenting on—it also makes sense to learn that Ascension is intended as some sort of sneaky pilot, not unlike Syfy’s 2003 miniseries that spawned the new Battlestar Galactica.
Ascension’s finale forced the ship to face its gravest danger yet; saw characters usurping power in “yay!” ways and killing each other in “no what no!” ways; and upped the ante with a very different sci-fi twist that might guarantee a series pickup but could also wind up alienating future viewers. Basically, Ascension has become a hot mess of a show—but that might not be the worst thing!
The point of the last three nights’ experiment was seeing the finely-tuned ecosystem of this ship thrown into chaos when they encountered external forces they never expected. It’s still soapy as all hell and leans on several unoriginal character and plot tropes—but several key power exchanges from the finale have at least restructured the show enough that I want to see how the characters shakily pull themselves through another miniseries, or one season.
Even as all of the shit had clearly hit the fan by the end of “Night Two,” Ascension still kicked off “Night Three” with a deeper look into the ship’s self-created customs. We open on Ostara, some sort of annual neopagan fertility festival. As the ship’s computers calculate each year’s Birth List—the couples who are granted permission to procreate, and the singles deemed desirable enough to be matched with a mate—Head Steward Viondra Denninger (Tricia Helfer, who killed it tonight for reasons you’ll soon find out) devised a festival to make the process less agonizing. Ostara is the kind of festival that I would like to see repeated—and possibly changed—if Ascension goes to series. Of course, a leaked video of Viondra’s husband Captain Denninger and dead girl Lorelei Wright put a damper on tonight’s festivities.
And yet, that’s the least of the crew’s worries. When the focus shifted to Ascension’s youngest generation in “Night Two,” I was worried that going forward we would be forced to see the ship and its future only through the eyes of the treacly Nora/James star-crossed love story and little evolutionary gem Christa (unfortunately, she does have a large part in the finale). Thankfully, the finale stayed focused on the Denningers’ long game, with the setback of the video and their setup of the council actually revealing how much they know about keeping power on the ship.
We also got to witness the depth of feeling between them: how Viondra fell in love with William despite there being no need for her to do so, and how much they trusted each other that Viondra could lead her network of stewardesses and occasionally play sexpot spy herself in order to take down William’s rivals. This is Ascension’s interesting love story, not Nora and James whining about class and fate, or Gault (Brandon P. Bell) and Emily’s (Tiffany Lonsdale) extramarital affair. Both of these couples rail against the system keeping them apart, while Viondra and William work within their constraints.
Speaking of the infrastructure… Project manager/pseudo-heir gone insane Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows) claims that he doesn’t make the Birth List, that he leaves that to the computer. And yet, he has no problem meddling in the creation—and, in the finale, attempted extraction—of super-child Christa. Bringing to mind the long game of Childhood’s End, Enzmann and the TC Group have been treating Ascension as the petri dish for a mutant-like next-gen child. And Christa has certainly demonstrated her special skills, from reading the mind of comatose Ophelia to looking straight at Enzmann’s cameras to setting off an explosion, Firestarter-style, to communicating with dead Lorelei.
I was already annoyed with Christa when she resembled Firefly season 1 River Tam, but now that she’s suddenly jumped up to be Serenity-level River, it’s even harder to swallow. Are we really expected to believe that one precocious child spontaneously developed all of these skills? If the computer is making these Birth List selections, you would think that it would have scattered these genes among multiple members of the new generation instead of just one unstable child. Especially when she pulls the shit she does tonight (more on that shortly).
The best part of tonight’s episode was witnessing the power plays both onboard and off Ascension. You almost feel for Enzmann with Director Warren stomping all over his train set, and you believe that he is truly proud when Ascension’s crew manage to save themselves from suffocation. (It also saves him the trouble of letting them all die and dealing with that PR nightmare.) But things escalate way quickly when he just shoves Director Warren off the catwalk. I had noticed how precarious those things were all through “Night Two,” but it was such an overdramatic move that you never expected it to actually happen.
The more believable usurpation happens on Ascension, when Viondra is made acting Captain in the absence of Denninger and Gault (who are busy saving the ship’s oxygen). It’s a nice throwback to BSG, though the difference between Viondra and Roslin is that while the latter came to the position of President with absolutely no experience, Viondra actually has the instincts for Captain. Her line “my position is not command” couldn’t be further from the truth. Tricia Helfer’s best line was snapping at Councilman Rose—after he sneered at her for “keeping my Captain’s seat warm”—“now get the hell off my bridge.” Yes.
That said, I truly wonder what Denninger’s reaction will be when he returns to the bridge to find his wife leading Ascension. Yes, he respects and trusts Viondra with her power brokering, but does he also see her as little more than a high-class madam? What will happen to her stewardesses? Will they become officers, or continue their bedroom intrigue around the ship?
Briefly leaving the ship again, we have to talk about the deaths. Samantha Krueger’s (Lauren Lee Smith) time on Ascension the series was far too short, as she only started to scratch the surface of the TC Group’s plots. If anything, she seemed simply to serve as a narrative vehicle to spring Stokes from the loony bin and get him out into the world. I should have known that conspiracy theorist Eva Marceau was too good to be true, especially once she and Sam got closer.
Then there’s Gault, who surely would have died fighting Christa’s would-be kidnapper if she hadn’t gone all Storm and conjured up some sort of electrical teleportation sphere. Ascension’s big finale cliffhanger is that Gault comes to on what looks like an abandoned (but apparently habitable?) planet. Did Christa just teleport him to a new planet, or to another Enzmann simulation? Because the excited way he says “it worked” leaves it unclear as to whether or not that part was planned.
BSG required a radical change to the status quo—that is, the destruction of the 12 colonies and the Cylons chasing Galactica into space—in order to kick off the series. Ascension doesn’t quite get there, but it also doesn’t end with the ship’s crew emerging from the wreckage, a la The Island, to explore the planet they’ve been grounded on all along—something for which I’m grateful. Here’s what I would like to see a full series touch upon:
- Viondra struggling to hold on to her newfound power over Ascension.
- The crew members getting more hints about the outside world—like the surprise broadcasts on the TVs, but bigger.
- To that end, Stokes stumbling his way through 2014 America, pursued by Eva Marceau.
- We still need to find out if everything is hunky-dory on Earth. Enzmann’s obsession with procreation might be hinting at a population shortage.
- According to Syfy’s series timeline, 2015 is when Ascension will encounter the Rubicon, or the point in their journey in which they must decide whether to turn back to Earth or go on with no chance of returning. It will be interesting to see how puppetmaster Enzmann handles that, and if Viondra believes that Ascension must continue to honor its original mission.
Natalie Zutter will follow Captain Viondra Denninger into the black. You can find her commenting on pop culture and giggling over Internet memes on Twitter.