SyFy is known for spinning off popular movies, or beating viewers into submission with Dadaist pulp like Sharknado, but its new miniseries Ascension starts with a brilliant premise. What if Project Orion, a ‘50s research program bent on launching interplanetary nuclear-powered spaceships, had secretly succeeded?
In Ascension's 1963, 350 people were launched on a century-long journey into another solar system, unknown to anyone except the program administrators and some nosy conspiracy theorists. 50 years into the journey, the first generation has died out, and their descendants are the unloved middle children of the space program — conscripted from birth into a mission they didn't choose and will never see succeed. "If you and I weren't born on this ship, we could have accomplished great things," the ship's captain laments. "The captain who launched and the captain who lands, that's who history will remember. The guy in the middle? Who gives a shit."
The future-past of Ascension look a lot like our present, with more tasteful lingerie and a stifling sense of ennui.
Meanwhile, they're living in a ship that's supposed to be powered as much by distilled retro-futurism as nuclear explosions. The Ascension is a time capsule reminiscent of the vaults in Fallout, where sci-fi idealism runs headlong into present-day complications and cynicism. Hundreds of people can live in an entirely artificial environment for decades, but their TVs still use vacuum tubes in 2014, and their fashion is untouched by generations of change on Earth. Women work as ship "stewardesses," and food is served out of Automats. There's still a right and wrong side of the tracks, and as the miniseries begins, the murder of a woman from the safe, suburban upper decks threatens to pit them against the blue-collar lower ones. Officer Aaron Gault, one of few people to rise between decks and classes, is tasked with finding the first killer in the ship's 50-year history without upsetting the myriad shipboard romances, rivalries, and power plays.
We're fascinated by visions of the future from the past, and Ascension was marketed with vintage-inspired subway posters and sneak peeks into its ‘60s-style beach parties in space. The series speculates on what might happen if people from our most stereotypically repressed, insular, and conservative era were whisked away just as it tipped towards civil rights reform and the sexual revolution, then allowed to develop a new society isolated from (almost) any outside influences. But the answer Ascension finds is as perplexing as it is frustrating: it'd look a lot like ours, but with more tasteful lingerie and a stifling sense of ennui.
The New York Times wrote that Ascension was "as if Mad Men had been sealed in a giant tin can and shot aloft." But Mad Men was more than its period costumes and antiquated technology. It treated the past as an alien culture, with fundamentally different tastes, assumptions, and morality. Early seasons played up indoor smoking, blatant racism, sexism, and even casual littering to the point of exoticism. Ascension's future-past, by contrast, seems to have made many of the same strides we have. In SyFy's online timeline, social and technological development on Earth and the ship parallel each other, from birth control to civil rights reform to the development of compact storage media. Gault is black, but racial tension is surprisingly lax, and while stewardesses may get their power from sex appeal, other women occupy prominent scientific and administrative positions. Even the obvious class divisions don't seem to stop the murdered woman's lower-class boyfriend from attending her funeral.
Ascension isn't a world where culture diverged or even stayed the same, it's one where it was amputated. Film, music, and literature all stopped abruptly in 1963, when the ship launched, and Gault has to learn to solve crimes by reading Agatha Christie and watching Fritz Lang's M. Characters wear military uniforms or extremely muted versions of ‘50s suits and dresses — they wouldn't look out of place in a 21st-century New York bar or office. One of the few attempts at creating a genuine piece of Old Earth culture is the "beach," a tiny watering hole with a patch of artificial sand, painted walls, and a fake wooden pier. Few characters have much of an affection for any of it, or seem interested in anything beyond basic human necessities, though they'll sometimes speculate about what they might have been back on Earth. Even the political intrigue seems listless.
There's a lot of Battlestar Galactica in Ascension, beyond the simple fact that they're both high-production SyFy miniseries set on giant spaceships. Like BSG, Ascension is claustrophobic, full of people trapped in places that are neither just transportation nor permanent homes. It's set firmly in the world of science fiction, but with hints of mysticism — in this case, a young girl who seems to know about a mysterious entity on the ship that no one else can see. And it's full of the same political scheming and personal scandal. Tricia Helfer, who played a seductive Cylon in BSG, appears here as a head stewardess with the ambition and blunt pragmatism of Lady Macbeth.
But Ascension lacks the urgency and rich social structure of BSG, a tense three-hour ordeal that threatened us with the destruction of the human race at every turn. There's no ticking clock or central conflict, especially because we're occasionally pulled back to Earth. A twist at the end of the first night puts the ship's mission in an intriguing new light, but it lowers the stakes for the coming episodes. And little touches like the ones that made BSG so memorable — the corner-cut paper, the notion of monotheism being foreign and subversive — are much rarer here.
Ascension is missing its chance to show how its alternate-timeline social progress happened
In some ways, it's interesting to see a show that suggests that social progress is inevitable, even in a regimented mid-century time capsule. But so far, it's missed its chance to show how that progress happened. Thanks to the Ascension timeline, we know when characters were born or started work, but little about how a society can fundamentally change its opinion of entire social groups — while apparently giving up on producing culture altogether. It's a more fascinating question than who killed an unknown woman on a fake beach.
The show's evident willingness to mess with its rules could give us a look into it between now and Wednesday. The way it's going, though, Ascension seems more interested in its characters' affairs than the strange, terrifying, miraculous world it's created.