Syfy’s Ascension review

Syfy forgot to add any science or characters to character-driven science-fiction show Ascension, a space drama that failed to launch...

This review contains spoilers.

If you’ve spent the sort of money that Ascension cost to make, and employed some of the actors in it, you’d think that would go hand-in-hand with a plan of sorts. But having seen Ascension there appeared to be no plan other than to come up with a unbelievable, nay preposterous idea and then hope that somewhere in production something magical might happen. It didn’t.

And Syfy knew that a while ago. Which is why they suddenly switched broadcast from a planned six single episode weeks, to double episodes on successive nights. They also moved the start date, which is a shame because the original one is still referenced in the trailer. I can only conclude that having seen this abysmal show, they decided it was best to get over it fast and move on.

But how could some of the people involved in this, with their track records, come so unstuck? There are three basic tenants to this fiasco; concept, script and execution.

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The inspiration for Ascension is a long buried plan that JFK had drawn up called Project Orion, when he worried that Nikita Khrushchev might progress at some point from kicking the tables at the UN to pushing the nuclear launch button. In Orion a ship would contain a sample of humanity to survive Armageddon, taking with them American values to a brave new world far across the cosmos.

It never happened because it was a very dumb idea and entirely impractical on numerous levels given 1963 technology. It’s even impractical today, because we don’t have the capability to lift an aircraft carrier-sized object into space even in bits.

But before I get on to the total lack of science in this science fiction, I want to talk about what Ascension ended up as.

There’s an entirely superfluous coyness at the opening, when we’re introduced to some of the remarkably bland characters, before the mandatory pull-back reveal shot. Lorelei’s body lies on the beach of a pool that’s in a giant spacecraft, populated with people who never considered alternative fashions to the ones their relatives brought aboard some fifty years previously.

That they then use Rocket Man as the intro music is pretty ironic, because it came out in 1972 and therefore nobody on Ascension would ever have heard it.

My first reaction to this was that someone on the writing team loved BioShock, but Syfy baulked at creating the underwater city of Rapture. So instead they came up with this sixties retro concept, where we’ve 600 mostly bitchy people heading where we don’t know, disconnected from the world they’d left on a 100 year one-way mission.

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There’s been a murder, the first ever on the Ascension, and everyone suspects everyone else. Wasn’t this a classic episode of The Love Boat?

Meanwhile back on Earth an old man inspired by The Men on the Moon is the key to a student investigating Ascension, like he can do something about it when they’re trillions of miles away. The old man’s son has a very current connection, despite ridiculing the suggestion.

How is this all possible? Ascension was ‘military’ and ‘top secret’, and therefore nobody would know, right. The only reasonable conclusion I could draw was that Ascension is either laughably dumb, or the reason we’ve been presented with this concept is equally so.

Having intentionally avoided providing any science explanations, the show prefers to deliver a cheap detective show with dire dialogue instead. A TV cop show of the quality where they try to guess the cause of a women’s death without even turning her body over. I was just reeling from the banality of that, when one character asked ‘How am I going to tell my wife her sister is dead’ and the Captain finds a uniquely personal and comforting way by telling everyone on the ship over the ship-wide speakers. This sort of utter crassness pervades the whole sorry exercise.

Also, some of the acting in these sequences is awful. There is no other way to describe it. People spit out the words like they’ve found something truly horrible in their mouths, and given some of the lines, it’s quite understandable.

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Eventually they determine that Lorelei was strangled, beaten, drowned and shot, and that it might well be suspicious with there being no guns on Ascension. That revelation was the only point at which I laughed, because the idea that 600 Americans would go anywhere and no one would bring a gun is beyond belief.

As Ascension grinds through the first part it is revealed that they can communicate with Earth and their destination is Proxima Centauri, which everyone knows is 4.2 light years from earth. So when they send a message from roughly halfway, it would take 4.2 years to get a reply. And, for maths geeks everywhere, they’d need to be travelling at 4% of the speed of light, or 7500 miles a second, or about 27 million miles an hour. At that speed a single grain of sand in your path would have the impact equivalent to the kinetic energy of a supersonic express loco, and it would take a fuel tank the size of Nebraska to accelerate them to that velocity. With BS that deep I prepared myself for the inevitable implausible explanation.

With that all not addressed, the show instead is more interested in characters rediscovering the art of detective work through the creative works of Raymond Chandler and the Flims of Fritz Lang.

For one amazing moment I realised that an interesting idea was bubbling under the surface, trying to make it to the sunlight. And then, Ascension just continued on its dreary and utterly humourless path.

When I thought it couldn’t get any dafter, they find part of the ship that they’d never noticed before, after half a century. It was at this stage I began to wonder if Ascension went anywhere, even in to space, which would explain how ridiculous much of this was. It didn’t take long after that to realise that I’d guessed the Ascension secret well ahead of when it was revealed.

The protocol for a radiation storm seems designed to make everyone on the ship unconscious, conveniently, and the truth about Ascension is finally shown. That’s a twist you though would be kept until neared the end, where in fact it comes out near the end of the second original episode chunk.These are 600 lab rats in a complicated Earth-bound maze, not one of which ever asks questions about why they’ve got gravity or beehive hair never went out of fashion.

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That poses the question as to why this is still going on, given that those government people running the show are trampling on just about every human right that those on the ‘ship’ have.

When the answer to that came about half way through the second part, it was the dumbest idea this reviewer has ever heard voiced with such seriousness. Apparently all the innovations that we have in our modern world came from the ‘smart people’ on Ascension. That’s undermined by the lack of smart people we’ve met, their utter lack of facilities, and the massed millions of smarter people with access to each other’s technology knowledge on the outside. If they’re that smart, they’d of worked out that Ascension is bunk fifty years ago, wouldn’t they?

Eagle-eyed readers will notice I’ve not mentioned the characters at all, because they’re borderline two dimensional. The caricatures are endless. There’s the ego driven captain and his manipulative wife, the kindly librarian, earnest cop, upstart teenager and seditious politician. None have believable personalities, and some of the exchanges between them are of the worst soap opera trash.

With the whodunit on Ascension flagging, they throw emerging psychic powers as we are told were predicted by the idiot behind the creation of Ascension.

By the end of second part the writers are entirely out of ideas, and personally I was desperate for it to end. Would the shopping centre this looked like was all shot be destroyed, who cares?

For a final two hours people run around, try to stab each other in the back, inside and outside Ascension, before they finally come up with the silliest ending one might possibly imagine, glued to some feeble hint that they’d like to continue this complete junk in another series. I so sincerely hope that request fall on deaf ears, because this is six hours of my life wasted.

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Ascension was science fiction without science, character-driven narrative without characters and a story so lacking in interest that this could be the cure for insomnia.