First, the opening for real sci-fi geeks: Ascension is going great until you realise it’s just a rip-off of "Thirteen To Centaurus", the JG Ballard short story that was adapted for an episode of the BBC’s Out Of The Unknown in 1965.
Now the opening for everyone else: Ascension is going great until you realise it’s just a rip-off of The Truman Show.
Admittedly, it’s far more similar to the Ballard tale (as in, virtually the same) than the Peter Weir film, but it’s still close enough that you’ll guess the big twist long, long before what’s clearly supposed to be the WTF? moment. In fact, the twist is so telegraphed you may well guess even if you haven’t seen or read either.
It’s a shame the miniseries fizzles out so limply over the course of its first episode, because Ascension starts fairly promisingly with what looks like a murder at a ’60s house party being revealed as having taken place on a spaceship in an impressive, extended tracking shot that can’t fail to impress. It also bemuses. Why does this ship look so curiously dated?
The reason is that it was launched in the ’60s, apparently in secret. It’s now 50 years later and the ship is half way to Proxima Centuari, carrying a second and third generation who have never seen anything other than the inside of the ship (quite how a ship powered with ’60s technology is supposed to reach a system in 100 years that it’ll take Voyager 80,000 years to reach is never explained). It’s a wonderful conceit, leading to some appealingly retro sci-fi production design, though a few more banks of flashing lights wouldn’t have gone amiss.
As well as the murder mystery, there’s some power politics going on, with the captain on the verge of being deposed and his Lady Macbeth of a wife (see also: Defiance) using her network of “stewardesses” to manipulate the dick-led men. Oh, and then there’s the little girl who sees things and talks in riddles and the cutaways to scenes on Earth with the son of the scientist who built Ascension… the combination of which will have you putting two and two together and coming up with four before the third ad break. There’s no other reason for the “Earth” scenes unless the show’s going to have the twist you suspect it’s going to have. The writers may have been wiser to have eliminated them completely from the opening instalment.
The interior of the ship is so incredibly reminiscent of the future city in Things To Come (1936) it’s difficult to believe it’s not an influence.
So far, then, we have some gorgeous visuals, an intriguing conceit (the ’60s ship) and a murder mystery you’ve lost interest in by the time you’ve guessed the twist. What else? Well, some thinly written characters who – rumpy pumpy aside – talk and act with the bland genericism of an Irwin Allen show (indeed, Brian Van Holt as Captain Derringer looks like he's stepped straight off the bridge of the Seaview). The actors are generally likeable enough, they just have so little to work with. Except, perhaps, Tricia Helfer as Lady MacDenniger, but that just comes across as the writers writing to her “sexual predator” stereotype.
The cast is also foisted with some clunky chunks of exposition. You know, those dialogues that people who’ve known each other for years would never have, but, nevertheless, they do, just to help the audience out: “Usually the crisis is a normal part of coming of age…” “It hit me when I was 14… I couldn’t be a pro baseball player or a secret agent.”
The show also misses the opportunity to capitalise more on its premise. There’s the opportunity to study some ’60s social prejudices, but apart from Gault’s line, “So now I’m a security risk because I wasn’t born in the upper decks?” the crew all seem to be thoroughly colourblind when it comes to race. The upper decks/lower decks divide feels more like a standard sci-fi trope (going all the way back to The Time Machine) than a comment on casual racism. Likewise, the stewardesses are another familiar dramatic device (women using sex to dupe gullible, unsuspecting men) rather than something that says much about a society that has yet to undergo a dramatic shift in female emancipation. Indeed, the head doctor is a woman. The ship certainly //looks// ’60s but it doesn’t //feel// ’60s.
Also, in a TV age where cultural referencing has reached epidemic proportions, it’s a shame the show doesn’t have more fun inverting the idea with a lot of “period” references. There’s a little bit (a line about Agatha Christie and Marlowe, and some early 20th century literature and films in the library) but it’s all a bit half-hearted. Hell, there’s not even a “Yeah, until Ronald Reagan becomes president” gag.
The main problem, though, is that once the twist has been confirmed, you’re left wondering, “How are they going to stretch this out for another two episodes?”
Viondra Denniger: “Finishing what you started is never as good as starting something new.”
Whatever its problems, Ascension is worth watching for its money shot alone, the vertiginous, CG-assisted, 87-second tracking shot through the interior of the spaceship. Not just because the FX are impressive, but because it leaves you wonderfully baffled about what the hell’s going on.
Okay, calling all astronomical historians out there. Surely, if the USS Ascension were “launched” in the ’60s, then the diagram of the solar system should include nine planets, including the since-demoted Pluto? Though we’re ready to stand corrected.
The film that Gault watches to get some sleuthing inspiration in Fritz Lang’s M (1931).
Ascension airs in the UK on Sky 1 on Friday nights at 9pm. It aired on Syfy in the US.