by Billie Doux
[The first part of this review is spoiler-free!]
The story centers on a generation starship called Ascension that was launched in 1963 and is now on a one-hundred-year journey to Proxima Centauri. The ship has been traveling for 51 years and is approaching the point of no return, when the crew must decide whether to continue on to Proxima or change course and return to Earth.
A television series about a generation starship could be fascinating if done well, and this miniseries started out exploring some interesting possibilities. A couple of generations have passed but society on the good ship Ascension has atrophied and remains stuck in the early sixties, with the women still limited to support roles. Tricia Helfer leads the cast as Viondra, the captain's wife, a strongly sexualized character that echoes Helfer's role as Six on Battlestar Galactica. Viondra is the head of the "stewardesses" -- young women who must adhere to a standard of beauty, and who also seem to function as hostesses, waitresses and possibly prostitutes. I was never completely clear about what was going on there, one of my many complaints about this miniseries.
Another lead character is the XO, Aaron Gault (Brian P. Bell), who is tasked with investigating the Ascension's very first murder: that of a young woman named Lorelei who was found dead on "the beach," a tank of reclaimed water where the teenagers like to hang out, swim and exchange important dialogue.
I found the artificial beauty of "the beach" to be an effective metaphor for the Ascension itself, which is quite gorgeous, white and shiny, modern and efficient. At "the beach," there is a fake sun, a seascape painted on the walls, potted plants that never look like real foliage, and most of the cast frolicking in their sixties bathing suits. There is a feeling of claustrophobia and unreality that pervades every scene (of which there are many) set on "the beach." The reason for Lorelei's murder and why it was committed is the catalyst for most of the action.
While initially quite promising, Ascension eventually went in completely stupid plot directions, and ended with an idiocy that I found unforgivable. While I don't make a practice of writing negative reviews, I'm writing this one in order to advise anyone who hasn't seen Ascension yet but might have it in their Netflix queue that they might not want to bother investing six hours in this turkey.
And now I'll explain why. Warning! You will find complete spoilers for the entire miniseries beneath the adorable spoiler kitten:
When I started watching, with no clue about what would happen, it was obvious to me that technology in 1963 wasn't capable of creating an actual starship that could reach escape velocity from Earth, much less travel to Proxima Centauri. This was six years before we managed to get a tiny, primitive capsule to the moon and back. How could a starship like Ascension possibly exist in 1963? What sort of propulsion could it even have to get something so large out of the atmosphere? How did they create such perfect artificial gravity if it didn't even spin?
And sure enough, we learn at the end of the second episode that the Ascension never left the ground, that it is an experiment intended to... what? Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows), the son of the original creator of the Project, treats the Ascension and its inhabitants like his own personal toy. The politics behind the Project, which has somehow remained secret for 51 years, play out in an incredibly idiotic manner as a detective named Krueger (an out lesbian, intended to illustrate that gays and lesbians were excluded from the original Ascension crew and any born afterward are almost certainly in the closet) is brought in to investigate Lorelei's murder, but she never actually does so since the Project never gives her the means. Krueger's plotline is intertwined with that of an unpleasant character named Stokes, an Ascension crew member who is framed for Lorelei's murder and is "spaced" out of the airlock, which was actually a fun way to show Ascension's true circumstances.
I speculated for awhile that the Project's endgame was to launch Ascension at some future time when technology made it possible -- but no. The action inexplicably shifted to a young girl on Ascension named Christa, whose emotional trauma after discovering Lorelei's body on "the beach" pushed her into manifesting some sort of superpower a la Firestarter, or possibly River Tam on Firefly. Yes, unbeknownst to all of us trapped into watching this miniseries because of its hard sci-fi plot synopsis, the entire reason for the Project was to breed a super child like Christa, who in the end fulfills her destiny when she teleports the unfortunate Aaron Gault to another planet using only the power of her mind.
Seriously. What the frak? What is supposed to happen to Gault now? No food, shelter, clothing, supplies of any kind, and can he even breathe on this planet for more than ten minutes? Does Christa even know what she just did? Will she follow this inexplicable act with sending the other crew members to wherever Gault is? (Could it be Proxima, perhaps?) How such a breeding program happened to produce someone like Christa in the first place, even with a "birth computer" calling the shots, is never explained. It's only been two generations, guys.
Since Christa achieved the Project's objective, is the experiment now over? Will the crew be freed from their fake lives on Ascension so that they can try to adjust to 2014? Or will they and their children continue to be unknowing prisoners of the Project? We never discover what happens to these people, and I was actually a bit peeved that the miniseries never spent any screen time addressing the criminality of what the Project did to them.
I can only assume that the producers left us with a cliffhanger because they planned for Ascension to go to series. Which it didn't. What was supposed to keep us tuning in? The pseudo-sixties daily life on board with arranged marriages and star-crossed affairs, like Gault's with Emily, who was married to another officer? Viondra's sexual manipulation of a council member? The briefly alluded to class struggle between the upper decks and the lower? The fact that the Captain was white and the XO African American seemed to exist to introduce a sixties racial element, but they never went there.
The only good thing about the ending was that we had the satisfaction of seeing Viondra take over as captain and save the crew during an emergency when the oxygen supply crashed. But everything else about the conclusion of Ascension was unsuccessful. Even the focus on a society based on the sixties, arguably its biggest strength, ultimately fizzled out.
Whenever I watch something this unsatisfying that had so much promise, I imagine what could have made it better. (You should hear me talk about Episode One.) I get the 1963 thing: it gave them an interesting societal structure to explore in isolation. But the time period made the basis of the series too unrealistic, and the discovery that the Ascension was still on Earth pretty much ruined the story for me, even before it went sideways into Christa's magical psychic powers.
What if Ascension had actually been a real starship? It could have been launched in the present day or the near future, and the problems of the isolated crew as generations progressed could have been compelling. For me, the most interesting psychological tidbit in this miniseries was "the crisis" that struck crew members in their teens as they came to grips with the fact that they were trapped in a situation with no chance of escape and extremely limited life choices.
Or what if they were nearing the end of their interstellar journey and had to deal with landing on their destination planet and starting to colonize? Or even if the ship had gone off course and wound up as a Heinleinian (or even Yonadan) generation ship whose people were ignorant of their circumstances?
If the producers were insistent on exploring a society trapped in the early sixties and the ship was still on Earth, wouldn't it have been more compelling if the observers were unable to interfere in any way? Or even if the ship had been built underground and was completely cut off because of a natural disaster of some sort? The crew could have even discovered their true circumstances while still being unable to change them. That could have been fascinating.
My pointless meandering through plot possibilities illustrates the core problem with Ascension as a series: it didn't know what it was supposed to be. It was like the producers and writers threw a whole bunch of science fiction and interpersonal drama plots against the wall to see what would stick, which pretty much ensured that nothing would.
Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.