REVIEW: SyFy Channel takes off with “Ascension”

As part of an ongoing recommitment to its sci-fi genre roots, SyFy Channel is unveiling the original scripted drama Ascension, for now a six hour mini-series, and possible launch for a future series. It follows a crew aboard the starship Ascension, as part of a 1960s mission that sent 600 men, women and children on a 100 year planned voyage to populate a new world. In the midst of political unrest onboard the vessel, the approach of a critical juncture in the mission and the first-ever murder onboard the craft, the audience soon learns, there is more to the mission than meets the eye. Which can also be said of this multi-layered, ambitious, sophisticated mini-series. Full ScriptPhD review below.

Ascension poster
Ascension poster and stills ©2014 NBC Universal, all rights reserved.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, largely fueled by the heigh of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union and fears of mutual nuclear destruction, the United States government, in conjunction with NASA, launched a project that would have sent 150 people into various corners of space — from the Moon, to Mars and eventually Saturn. Code-named Orion, the project officially launched in 1958 at General Atomics in San Diego under the leadership of nuclear researcher Frederick deHoffman, Los Alamos weapons specialist Theodore Taylor and theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. Largely fueled by Dyson, Orion’s aim was to build a spacecraft equipped with atomic bombs, that would propel the rocket further and further into space through a series of well-timed explosions (nuclear propulsion). The partial test ban treaty of 1963 ended the grandiose project, which remains classified to this day.

Ascension spacecraft
The spacecraft vessel “Ascension” is modeled after NASA reference designs of Project Orion.

Ascension is the seamless fictional transition borne of asking “what if” questions about the erstwhile Project Orion. What if it never ended? What if it was still ongoing? What would be the psychological ramifications of entire generations of people born, raised and living on a closed vessel? Is human habitation of other planets an uncertainty or inevitability? And so Project Orion continued on as Project Ascension, under the hands of Abraham Enzmann. A crew of 600 was sent off into space not knowing the fate of humanity, frozen in time, and as far as they know — all that would be left of mankind.

Ascension carries on in the vein of stylish series such as Caprica, Helix and Defiance, with sleek sci-fi gadgetry and a spaceship capable of mimicking an entire world (including a beach!) for 100 years. This is no dilapidated, aging Battlestar Galactica. However, because time is frozen in the 1960s, all technology, clothes and cultural collections reflect that era — think Mad Men in space. Nostalgia reigns with references to the Space Race via speeches from President Kennedy, along with film and television cornerstones of that era.

Ascension crew.
The crew of Ascension aboard their sleek craft.

51 years into the mission, on the evening of the annual launch party celebration, a kind of Ascension independence day, the unthinkable happens: the first ever murder onboard the ship. Captain William Denninger puts first officer Aaron Gault in charge of investigating. Soon, the motives for the murder become convoluted amidst internal politics and the looming “Insurrection,” a point of no return in which communication with Earth is no longer possible.

This year’s space epic Interstellar explored the science of traveling 10 billion light years away from Earth – ambitiously but not without factual fault. And to be sure, Ascension will address the challenges and physics of nuclear propulsion to the far reaches of space, starting with a radiation storm midway through the first episode. But rather than bogging itself down in the astrophysical minutiae of space travel, Ascension smartly focuses on the human drama and existential questions such a voyage would incur, precisely what made Battlestar Galactica such compelling sci-fi television. Would there be internal psychological ramifications to this journey? All residents of the ship seem to go through an adolescent period termed “The Crisis,” where they come to grips with the fact that they have no future, and a pre-determined fate. Furthermore, the murder victim’s young sister appears to be a “seer” with telekinetic insight into the nefarious inner workings of the ship.

Ascension alternative cap
The Ascension crew, and victim’s sister, mourn the first-ever death aboard the ship in a scene from “Ascension.”

Would there be class division and political turmoil aboard such a confined community? There is a decidedly troublesome rift between the ranking officers of the upper quarters and the “Below Deckers”: butchers, steelworkers and other blue-collar craftsmen that appear on the edge of a revolt. Compounding their efforts are the Captain’s wife, Viondra Denninger (whom fans will recognize as Cylon Number Six from BSG), a cunning, manipulative power broker and the man seeking to wrestle control of the ship from her husband. Back on Earth, we meet Harris Enzmann, the son of the dying Project Ascension founder. Seemingly a low level government engineer, nor remotely interested in preserving his father’s legacy, his role in Project Ascension is convoluted yet significant.

Project Ascension is indeed an experiment critical for human survival — just not the one anyone onboard thinks it is. Amidst an awakened collective imagination about space exploration, including 2015’s IMAX Mars mission movie Journey To Space, this is one sci-fi mission worth taking.

View a trailer for Ascension:

Ascension is a three-day mini-series event on SyFy Channel, beginning Monday, December 15.


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