Friday, December 19, 2014

ASCENSION MAKES GREAT TV, ONLY S0-SO SF

Syfy's nifty intergenerational Ascension


I just finished watching Syfy’s three-part miniseries ASCENSION, and I’m suffering from whiplash.  The plot twists in this science fiction cross between THE ORIENT EXPRESS, PEYTON PLACE and FIRESTARTER had my head spinning.  But despite the wobbly knees, I’m glad I took the roller coaster ride with this SF thriller, if only for its pulse-pounding third leg and spectacular conclusion.

Like another of Syfy’s more recent series, HELIX, ASCENSION begins with a great premise (but suffers from a slow start).  What if the Kennedy-era Orion Project to send an interstellar, intergenerational ship into deep space fueled essentially by nuclear bombs had actually been implemented? 
 
We join the Ascension 51 years into its 100-year flight to Proxima Centauri, just as the murder of a young woman on board reveals deep cracks in the calm façade of life on the ship.  There are tensions between upper decks, where the privileged classes live, and lower decks, where the workers toil with fewer amenities.  There are the usual intrigues between the appointed captain and the sly council members who govern the ship.  And, of course, there are romantic/sexual liaisons of all kinds going on, some for political reasons, many violating the strict rules constraining marriage and reproduction in a society in which the privilege of having children is determined by computer.

Even more tension is created by the captain’s decision to assign the investigation of the murder to his Executive Officer, rather than the ship’s Chief Safety Officer.  XO Gault (Brandon P. Bell) uncovers a world of resentment simmering among the Lower Deckers, and thinks he has his suspect in the Stockyard Manager, Stokes.  Until, that is, Stokes disappears.  Off a ship in deep space.

All along a young girl, Christa (Ellie O’Brien), keeps warning anyone who’ll listen that things are not what they seem.  She has visions, you see.  And, well, other talents.  Which, it turns out, has been the entire point of Ascension.

****SPOILER ALERT***

It is impossible to go much further in this review without giving the whole story away.  And since I’ve read a number of reviews in which some folks feel Syfy perpetuated some kind of bait-and-switch with ASCENSION, I feel it’s my duty to inform you, so you can decide for yourself to watch the show or not. (It’s available on demand or through Hulu if you missed it the first time.)

So here goes:

Ascension never left Earth.  The huge ship is sitting in a warehouse monitored by scientists (in particular, by the son of the man who conceived of the project, a man obsessed with the outcome).  Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows, fantastic!) is fanatically attached to the ship and its residents, but he will tolerate no interference in its inner workings, even refusing to help the ship’s passengers in a major crisis.  The experiment must be allowed to proceed.  The results they have been seeking all these years are imminent.  (No, I’m not going to tell you everything!)

I’ll admit I was ready to give up on ASCENSION when this “secret” was revealed in the first segment.  Really?  We haven’t seen this before? (CAPRICORN 1 comes to mind, as well as numerous episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.)  But there was that endgame to be revealed—what is Enzmann after?   Bellows plays the scientist as such a complex character—is he a good guy or a bad guy?  And how far can Christa’s talents take her?  Then, too, Trisha Helfer, of BATTLESTAR GALLATICA fame, is intriguing in her role as the captain’s wife and director of the corps of courtesans dedicated to making life pleasant for the male upper crust (and keeping her supplied with state secrets).   Oh, and all the SF homage references--an "I Grok Spock" sticker on a car, the name Fritz Leiber chosen for a disappeared scientist.  I stuck with the series through a so-so second segment.

My reward was a third segment that kept me on the edge of my recliner.  As every good suspense writer should, creators Adrian Cruz and Phillip Levens and additional writer Melody Fox, amped up the adrenalin by piling one problem after another on our heroes in the last hour until it seemed there was no way they could escape.  And the last ten seconds?  Not to be missed! 

That said, ASCENSION makes good television, but not so good SF.  We are never given an explanation for the gravity on board ship—or the fact that never in any crisis do they lose it.  This is a shipload of the “best and the brightest” (they make a point of this several times), wouldn’t you think they’d notice?

The show’s creators obviously want to show a closed society based on 1963—fashions, music, etc.  But the ship’s people have invented new technologies (MRIs!), why wouldn’t they refashion their clothes in 50 years?  Or write a new song?  Or make movies or TV shows for entertainment?  Kennedy was a big proponent of the arts; his ship wouldn’t have launched with just scientists and technicians.  

And where are the old people?  At the big party for assigning new birthrights, the only deaths acknowledged are the recent murders.  Wouldn’t some old folks have died throughout the year, allowing for more births?

Science fiction is not just about the hard sciences.  It’s also about sociology and psychology and linguistics (no new slang?).

Some things to remember if Syfy wants to take ASCENSION into the future with a full series, which, given the number of lingering questions in the plot, the network clearly hopes to do.

PING PONG

If you haven’t scooted over to the SFR Brigade Page on Facebook to check out Laurie’s beautiful cover for her novella Farewell Andromeda, what are you waiting for?  Go!  And congrats, Laurie!

Cheers, Donna

5 comments:

  1. This miniseries was a train wreck. There is a limit to suspension of disbelief in sci-fi and this show went far beyond it. It was touted as based on science and an exploration of human relations but none of the characters really acted in any way like real people. (spoiler alert)
    And the end was like it came from a completely different show. Why do they need generations of people to grow up and die in a fake starship in order to breed a little girl who has magical power to send someone to another planet? Why segregate a crew into a privileged, and apparently highly alcoholic, bourgeois class and a oppressed proletarian class, thereby making a proletarian revolt inevitable? For crying out loud this ship was supposedly 'launched' during the height of the cold war! Didn't the planners know anything about what the Red Threat meant? As a longtime sufferer of bad sci-fi this show reeks of a bad premise that by some miracle got to the series stage. By the time the suits realized they had a turkey on their hands most of the first season was in the can. So they tried to save their jobs by cutting and editing the dramatic points into a 'miniseries'. Unfortunately, they lacked the talent to succeed and cut out a great deal of the 'exposition' scenes that might have filled the enormous plot holes that riddles this mess. The enormous promotional advertising was a last gasp of a failed effort to get a viewer base. What a waste!

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  2. Thanks for the congrats on my cover reveal, Donna. The excitement builds! :)

    And thanks also for your recap of Ascension. I really appreciate your insights, since it couldn't hold my attention long enough that I could get a solid sense of the plot or stakes, though it always pains me to say this about any SF series. Maybe I got spoiled by the brilliance that was Defying Gravity and I've come to expect the same sort of standard in sets, casting and premise. I'm sad to say Ascension just wasn't my cup of tea.

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  3. The flaws in the knowledge of the "astronauts" can easily explained with a lack of knowledge. There wont be ever any complex sci fi with a totally sound logic.
    So I think its easy to look past the little flaws.

    The end was great and my explanation for it is that the common reason for the crew was to get to an habitable planet and that desire ever present created the girl christa and her abilities to "get there".
    It is also foreshadowed when she tells us that they are going to the wrong planet/star. Obviously the guy is then "beamed" to the right planet. I guess the bad guy is on the wrong one ^^.

    Dont know if it really needs a continuation as the story as it is is already very neat. But the ending also sets it up for the possiblity.

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  4. Wow, Nyar, why not tell us how you REALLY feel? :-) I agree the show had plot holes you could drive a starship through, but I disagree that the people in it weren't acting like real people. That a society would stratify itself into haves and have nots seems almost inevitable unless rules are enacted to prevent it. This society was meant to reflect the one the ship had left, which was certainly one of privileged and working classes. I'm more concerned, like one reviewer I read, with where they got all that alcohol and lipstick on a long-term voyage!

    Was it DEFYING GRAVITY, Laurie? No, but that's a high bar long forgotten by the powers that be. Syfy swears it is trying to get by to REAL SF, but it clearly has a ways to go.

    I'm encouraged like you are, Anonymous, by the series ending. That last few seconds made everything worthwhile, IMO.

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  5. The acting is decent, the characters interesting, the sets beautiful, the writing OK. The premise recalls Paramount execs' allegedly rejecting early "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" scripts by saying "not big enough."

    SyFy sold this bill of goods on the interesting (alleged) premise of a JFK-era Orion. Far-fetched? Sure. "Mad Men" derivative? Perhaps. But the intrinsic potential excitement of a series set aboard a generation ship (as conveyed by Pt. 3's "gotta get the air breathable" conclusion) was sold down the river for the "high concept" idea of the "mission's" being a simulation. Does the Starchild's interstellar beaming point to a possibly interesting series? Sure. Will I tune in for a while at least should that series debut? Yep. But I am deeply offended and disappointed that a talented writer and production crew brought forth a half-baked conspiracy/"mystic talents" show. I LIKE those sorts of shows, and by no means think they should not form a part of SyFy (or any network's) lineup. But "Ascension" was sold as something else entirely. I don't give a hoot about the bait and switch aspect of its airing. SyFy handled that beautifully, and my hat's off they kept the secret. But I'd have enjoyed FAR more an actual generation ship story.

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