Oh for… Ascension is popular on Netflix right now? People… no. Just… no.
Editors’ note: Becca had put together this thorougher-than-it-deserved analysis of SyFy’s Ascension while the mini-series was running. Yet WEIO staff were so un-enthused with the mediocrity as it aired, and especially as it wrapped up, that we never ran the dang thing. And then we saw that the series was trending on Netflix and we knew, deep in our tiny little hearts, that the world had to be warned.
Look, we get that it wasn’t the highest of high minded entertainment, and it was on SyFy to boot. But this short series took an interesting premise and wasted a lot of nice opportunities and stylistic touches.1 If you need the proof, listen to Becca:
In 1963, 600 of the brightest men, women, and children of America are sent on a 100 year journey to colonize a new planet when it is feared that the Cold War will become nuclear and destroy Earth. The first murder aboard the spaceship occurs 51 years into the journey. The crew, now the third generation of astronauts, is unsure of how to deal with the murder and how to catch the killer. This is of particular interest to a group of scientists back on Earth, who are monitoring every person aboard the spaceship, because – twist! – the spaceship isn’t actually in space: the spaceship is an extravagant simulator built to facilitate a 100 year social experiment.
The space in space
Ascension takes place in an alternate reality. There are two key elements of the series that set up this alternate reality: the technology that existed in 1963 to simulate space travel, and equality on the ship.
It is revealed early into the series that the “spaceship” that was launched in 1963 was not actually launched into space but rather is an extremely realistic simulator still on Earth. Obviously, 1963 was not the dark ages, but, technology was not what it is today. Ascension’s version of 1963 was far more advanced than reality’s 1963 was2.
The other factor that makes it obvious that Ascension takes place in an alternate reality is the fact that neither race nor gender have an impact on a person’s power and social status. The people onboard the ship are currently the third generation of astronauts, and they treat all races and genders equally. This would suggest that the original astronauts from 1963 set forth the example that all people truly are created equally and are to be treated as such. This is a prime example of how sci-fi facilitates social commentary better than most other genres: no one onboard the ship ever comments on race or gender in a negative way, but instead, social status is the only issue that defines people. By using a social characteristic as idiotic as where someone was born on the ship to determine his/her worth, the story shows how pointless real world categorizing of people by race, gender, education, etc., truly is.
One of the main characters, Krueger, outside the spaceship is a lesbian. She comments to the man overseeing the experiment, Enzmann, that homosexuals are probably on the spaceship, whether Enxmann acknowledges it or not. Enzmann, in turn, remarks that he doubts that is the case because homosexuals were intentionally not included in the original group of 600 in 1963 because homosexuals would not serve a breeding purpose aboard the ship. Krueger then remarks that regardless of the original exclusion of homosexuals, there are most likely homosexuals onboard the ship now. And then this conversation is just dropped. The subject is never broached again nor is it even addressed in a cursory manner onboard the ship. This is very poor writing on Ascension’s part because they have acknowledged but not addressed a very real, very important issue that could have added much-needed substance to this series.
In conjunction with the discussion about homosexuals onboard the ship, Krueger points out that eugenics are being practiced with this massive social experiment: a computer determines the best possible genetic matches and couples are married off based on those results. No one onboard is allowed to breed with anyone other than the person the computer has chosen. Since the population needs to stay stagnant so as not to put a strain on resources, subcutaneous birth control3 is used to ensure no one gets pregnant without permission. No one is allowed to reproduce until someone on the ship dies, thus making room for a baby. Then, a lottery is conducted where the computer selects the most viable candidates to reproduce.
Enzmann defends his position, insisting eugenics are not being practiced, but rather the best possible genetic results are being ensured4. Rather than exploring the very complex and intriguing discussion of homosexuality and eugenics, Ascension just abandons this thought-provoking discussion and never brings it up again.
Jumping the Sharknado
They just had to go and Syfy this up. One of the characters, a young girl named Christa, turns out to be “the star child.” That means that this girl has super powers: she knows things without being told5, she can see the dead, she can control electricity, and she’s apparently a human teleporter because she beams one of the characters to another planet in the last few seconds of the series.6
Ascension would have been more engaging if this supernatural element had not been incorporated. The show would have been far more interesting if the writers had focused on the core idea of the series: what happens when you lock people away and seal them from the rest of the evolving world?
Also, the series leaves many plot lines untied. For example, the last shot of the miniseries is of one of the characters on a foreign planet. That would have been an exciting shot if it had been a cliffhanger ending to a first season of a full-fledged television series. As it is, the ending left the audience saying, “What the… Okay, so then what happened?” That’s not the best note to end a miniseries on. Syfy should’ve either committed to making this a fleshed out series with more episodes broken up over multiple weeks or rewritten the miniseries so that the story was tighter with a solid, closed ending.
The idea for this series had so much potential, but the execution fell short of expectations. For a shorter and more engaging story about what happens when a finite number of people are locked away in a vessel, check out Snowpiercer.7
- We still like the 60s ‘beach resort’ trapped in time. ↵
- example: a girl is shown watching a movie on what is essentially a low-grade iPad onboard the ship/simulator ↵
- which is apparently 100% foolproof in this universe ↵
- As my hero, Karen Walker, would say, “You say, ‘potato;’ I say, ‘vodka.’” ↵
- e.g. she describes 9/11 and Kennedy’s assassination when clearly no one of the ship could have told her about either of those events ↵
- Pretty much the only interesting thing to happen in the last hour of broadcast, btw. -Mooch ↵
- currently on Netflix ↵