I’ve been wanting to watch Ascension, the original miniseries from Syfy, for quite a while. The premise: an alternate history in which the Kennedy Administration, at the height of the Cold War, sent a ship with 600 people into space for a century-long journey to another world in order to ensure the survival of the human race. Cut off from all Earth contact since the 60s, they establish their own community and set of rules that govern class, rank, and society. We enter the story fifty-one years in, about half way to their destination, where the ship’s first murder sparks chaos and intrigue.
With early rumours of the possibility of being picked up as a regular series, and starring Tricia Helfer, I had some hope Ascension could be the next Battlestar Galactica. It turns out that it did not reach the heights of BSG (granted, that is a high peak), and it did not get extended to a regular series. But I think that is actually for the best – the 6 episodes present a sprawling but well-contained story, with an ending that satisfied me while still making me imagine what would have come next.
Ascension is not perfect, and it’s definitely not the best miniseries I’ve seen. My biggest qualm was its screenplay – the dialogue is stiff and predictable, falling into the trap of tacky sci-fi clichés more than once. Furthermore, not all characters are as developed as I would have liked. Part of this can be explained by world-building, as the ship has a clear sexist and class-oriented society thus relegating women and “deckers” (people living on the lower decks) to the background. But even given these circumstances, I felt some if not many of the characters came out hollow, with a lack of depth.
I’ve said many times that miniseries’ are one of my favourite forms of visual media, and Ascension has joined the ranks with some of my favourites (BSG, Taken, The Lost Room), despite its above shortcomings. It is very well established and I really believed in the universe they created, which is not always a given with space opera sci-fi. The fantastically designed ship itself contributes to the shows’ credibility, with a functional but livable feel suited to the generational nature of their mission. Additionally, Lauren Lee Smith, Ellie O’Brien, and especially Tricia Helfer give strong performances, anchoring the cast in all settings. Helfer’s character, Viondra, is no Number Six from BSG, but she’s still the best one on this show – a strong, persistent, and capable female lead who uses everything at her disposal to reach her goals. Finally, there were at least three or four shocking plot twists that I definitely did not see coming. I won’t spoil them, but the plot of Ascension is definitely an intriguing one, and will keep you guessing until the very end – exactly what a contained miniseries should do.
Ascension is definitely worth the watch. Don’t expect an eloquent masterpiece, but instead enjoy the universe the showrunners created. Dive into the divergences from modern society caused by a 51 year separation from Earth, and relish the narrative twists and turns. And just wait for the jaw-dropping and imagination-stirring last scene that will leave you wanting a continuation that will never come.