Thoughts on Syfy’s Ascension

For those unfamiliar, Ascension was a six hour miniseries aired on Syfy earlier this week. My basic reaction is that I didn’t really care for it, and here are some reasons why. First, I need to explain some things about the show so there will be spoilers. You’ve been warned.

In appearance, the Ascension is a generational starship launched in 1963 with 600 people onboard. Their mission will take 100 years to reach Proxima Centauri where they’ll colonize a planet. That’s what everyone onboard believes, but in reality they never left the ground. They are all part of a long-term “sociological” experiment run by some secret government group.

On the Ascension there are the Upper Deckers – who are the officers – and the Lower Deckers who are the workers. There is a lot of tension between the two classes. For the first half of the series, there was talk of a group of Lower Deckers who committed acts of sabotage in the hopes of turning the ship around and going back to Earth. There’s even a murder, but that ties in to another matter dealing with the outsiders. But all of this is pretty much forgotten about in the last half of the series.

There are a lot of introduced characters on the ship, but only three that really matter. There’s Stokes, who is one of the workers suspected in the murder. He “dies” when he’s sucked out an airlock, only to end up locked in a cell. The XO Aaron Gault who investigates the murder and who seems to pop up in most of the other subplots. And a young girl named Christa Valis who has visions and “knows” things she shouldn’t be able to.

Outside the Ascension there are several introduced characters, but only two that matter. Harris Enzmann, whose father started all this, oversees the project. After the murder, his superior sends Samantha Krueger in to investigate. She finds the project wrong and ends up helping Stokes escape before she is killed by an agent. The series ends with Stokes, apparently, still running from this agent.

Part of the stated reason for the mission was to lock several hundred of the best and brightest up on a ship to see what they could come up with. Some of these advances have been used to help fund the project. But there is a secret goal Enzmann is working on, and that’s to breed a psychic, or something, in the form of Christa.

After a great deal of political intrigue and backstabbing – inside and out – Christa eventually manifests some powers. Gault is caught in these powers and is transported to an apparent alien planet. And then the series ends.

Some of the minor issues I had with the series were that there were too many characters and too many subplots. For example, there was a teenage couple – she from the Upper Deck, he from the Lower – who spent most of their time going through the “Do they have a future together, or not conversation” that you’ve seen a thousand times before. But when I think about them I don’t know anything about their characters or why – other than they’re told to by the script – they’re together. And then there are the Stewardesses – basically escort girls – who gather information for their leader, who is married to the Captain, who are all involved in the varied, political maneuvering schemes. Now I’m not saying that political intrigue and sex can’t be entertaining, but it needs to be handled well and be interesting. While the Captain and his wife don’t come off as the greatest of people, their opponent is portrayed throughout the series as sleazy, and therefore it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that his schemes never work and that the Captain and his wife seem to come out one step ahead.

I could go on about how most of the basic science was bad, but that’s normal for a lot of science fiction, even good science fiction. But my biggest issue with the show is that they had a really interesting premise, but buried it under all this bland teenage drama, bland political intrigue, and a government conspiracy cliché. I wasn’t overly hyped for the show to begin with, but those aspects drained away all of my interest. Why? Because it was stupid, boring, clichéd, unimaginative, predictable, etc.

The really interesting premise they ignored, is how people would deal with being the middle generation on a generational starship. At one point, the Captain says something along the lines of the Captain who launches and the Captain who lands will be remembered forever, but nobody will remember the one in the middle. There are several times they talk about the “Crisis” which is how everyone born on the Ascension eventually – usually as teenagers I guess – realize that the ship is all they will ever know. Because their parents, or grandparents decided to leave their homeworld they will be stuck on a ship that they can never leave. Some deal with that and make the most of their lives, some ignore it, and some start plotting to take over the ship and take it back to Earth. That is a real concern that will need to be looked into if we ever launch a generational starship. Three dimensional characters going through complex emotional and social issues is ripe for real, sink your teeth into drama. I’ve seen enough “secret group in the government breeds a psychic” style of stories to be bored with them. I crave exploring a rich world full of interesting characters dealing with complex issues. Ascension had the potential for that. For about a minute. Then they went with the “secret group in the government breeds a psychic” storyline. So much wasted potential is just depressing.

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