What would have happened if the US had been able to launch a colony spaceship, not in the years to come as we hopefully will do regarding the planet Mars, but in the not so distant past, and even then it was to Proxima Centauri? That was my approach to this series Ascension, first broadcast on SyFy and now on Netflix.
The series opens with something that clearly feels like the 60’s where a young woman named Lorelei goes swimming, and then she’s found murdered. Rewind the clock 18 hours and we see an interesting collection of people whose connections with each other are not yet revealed, and they are getting ready to celebrate something called “Launch Day.” As the party progresses we see them settle down to watch some historical film with a very 60’s looking film projector, and they see footage of a scientist named Dr. Enzmann as he proposes the idea of creating a generation colony ship to fly into space. That’s when we discover that they are on the spaceship Ascension! Meanwhile there is a middle-aged engineer who turns out to be the son of the same Dr. Enzmann, only he’s on Earth and his father is in the hospital having suffered a stroke. The problem is that his profession is not what he shares with people as he does have a connection to Project Ascension. As the episode closes, we are back on Ascension, and a young girl named Christa appears to have a sense of awareness about her and feels that this ship is going the wrong way… And that they are being watched by something called the Globus.
With the second episode the investigation into Lorelei’s death continues, and in the process we start to see how the entire social structure of the people on Ascension functions. The Captain and his wife are opportunists and will do anything they can to stay in their positions of power, and there is apparent infidelity going on with some of the high-ranking crew. There are also two castes that have evolved, one with people who are on the upper decks, and then another with people who are on the lower 40 decks. Those people are referred to as deckers, and despite whatever propaganda the crew give, these “deckers” are basically regarded as nothing more than troglodytes. One of them, a man raises animals for purposes of slaughtering them, suddenly becomes implicated in Lorelei’s murder By the end of the episode he accidentally gets spaced, but as he’s falling through space he suddenly lands on an air mattress, is sedated, and then taken away. That is when the next surprise is revealed and we see that Project Ascension isn’t a real spaceship after all, rather it’s a group of people (600 to be precise) who are living in a simulation, only they don’t know it’s a simulation. To them all of this is real.
As the third episode airs we see the company that is behind this “social experiment” bring in an outside investigator/consultant. The official reason is to discover who killed Lorelei, but the unofficial reason is the director of the project wants Harris Enzmann looked into, as she believes that Harris is hiding something and she wants the investigator to find it. That’s when we learn what the official reason is behind Ascension, and that is if you put America’s brightest and best in a tin can, just imagine what type of inventions and ideas they may be able to come up with. However, Harris has his own dark agenda, and it starts with his fascination with Dr. Bryce. It’s so strong that he picks a wife that resembles her, and he also had a personal item from Dr. Bryce stolen so that he could give it to his wife.
This is a soap opera. Given some of the wild passionate activities among some of the crew (the Captain’s wife runs a “Stewardess Program” which essentially involves prostitution for the purpose of learning secrets from other people on the ship) this really comes off as Dallas, in space, which does make for an interesting social experiment regarding human behavior. This is a totally closed environment, and yet humans are humans and they are going to revert to basic human nature. Even the outside investigator, who was served in the military during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” period, tells Harris that just because no one from the LGBTQ community was selected to be a part of the crew, people like her just have a habit of popping up everywhere. However, the big issue is Lorelei’s murder. Despite the belief that by capturing Stokes they have found their killer, it is at best circumstantial. Nonetheless there is unrest on board the “ship,” as a terrorist group is continuing to sabotage and bomb parts of the ship in the hopes that it will force the ship to turn back towards Earth before they pass the point of no return. All of these little elements are great fun to watch, and yet there is something rather “meta” going on here with how the show is packaged. We are kept in the dark about Ascension, just as the crew is about their mission to Proxima, but when the truth about the project is revealed it is done so in a way that plays with the audience one more time, teasing us that this series is about one thing when in reality it is about something else. I rather like these surprises that this series from 2014 keeps giving us.
Many of the cast are veterans in sci-fi genre programming, especially that of Tricia Helfer as Viondra Denniger, the Captain’s wife, but there is a lot of young talent here as well, and they’re acting chops are quite good, starting with the young Ellie O’Brien as the mysterious Christa, all the way to the troubled young man James Toback, played by P.J. Boudousqué. Just as the premise of this series is that the best have been chosen to live out their lives in the simulated space travel, the show runners have also picked some outstanding actors to flesh out this series, and their commitment to this show has done nothing except totally sell the believability of these stories. Unfortunately this episode, as it currently is on Netflix, only has 6 episodes. There is no question that there were plenty of stories to be told, but this series never got the chance. However, given that the premise of this show automatically determines it its own sense of finality to it, Ascension, clearly could have served as a limited mini-series. Sadly we’ll never get to find out, because after three episodes it is clear that Ascension, a joint production with Blumhouse, fires on all thrusters!!!
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