Recent discoveries about outer space -- water on Mars, exoplanets resembling Earth, a star covered in obstructions theorized to be of alien origin -- are bound to continue fueling mainstream interest in the journey we're currently taking through credible and versatile science-fiction. Already, Gravity has refueled that fading perception of the silent dangers of space, while The Martian depicts the rigors of surviving on our local inhospitable red planet. Interstellar, on the other hand, explores the burred lines between theory and fiction for its focus on the arduous trek towards livable alternatives beyond the Milky Way, speaking to both galactic exploration and preservation of the human species. It's no surprise to see television productions capitalize on that interest, especially on Syfy in hopes of firing up another success story in the vein of Battlestar Galactica. Enter Ascension, a promising concept about a generation ship headed out to the great beyond in hopes of preserving humanity's best and brightest, whose ambition collapses under thin logic, cumbersome themes, and an unsatisfying change in course.
Ascension takes place amid an alternate reality where the United States government took the space race and fears of the Cold War to another level, launching an interstellar craft, the Orion-class USS Ascension, towards a planet orbiting the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, believed to be capable of housing humanity. The six-hundred volunteers that originally joined the program in the '60s paved the way for the ship's self-sustaining culture to persist throughout a hundred-plus year journey, to which some people will live and die solely aboard the ship and solely to preserve the human race. Everyone has their place, whether it's in the upper-level social circles and scientists or the lower blue-collar levels, and everyone must abide by strict pairing and mating guidelines. Helmed by Captain Denniger (Brian Van Holt) and his wife, social coordinator and political mind Viondra (Tricia Helfer), they oversee a ship separated from any connection to Earth -- and from our planet's developments in social and cultural developments -- along their trajectory, one whose authoritative maneuverings and social problems are mostly stable until a murder, their first, complicates matters.
There's a lot of potential circulating through Ascension, from opportunities to twist social conceptions to opening the doors for a range of complex characters working within those conditions, all inside the well-dressed vacuum of a cylindrical, sterile, semi-claustrophobic setting housing a few eerie alternate-reality undertones. From the start, however, the show's working against common sense for the sake of its galactic drama, raising questions about the number of people onboard and the technological capabilities and maintenance based on the '60s knowledge-base. It leaves one wondering about everything from the upkeep of all the ship's elements to, really, why there's a reasonable hunk of their female population dedicated to manning a legion of beauty-queen stewardesses. Attributing that to perceptions of the era within which they left, as well as good old suspension of disbelief, only goes so far when the Ascension's working with such a limited number of people. The population's proportions and their dedications to certain efforts strain credibility, and it's no surprise that the bolts start flying off the series' logic once more is revealed about their underlying purposes.
That'd be more tolerable had Ascension developed a stronger grasp on its characters and the concurrent drama powering through its setting, but the B-grade performances and the soapy, shallow scripting never really accomplish that. Tricia Helfer unsurprisingly provides the strongest character of the bunch as the captain's politically savvy wife, whose fierce screen presence galvanizes Viondra's push through a male-dominated hierarchy with calculated maneuverings and spying. Despite promising starts, the rest largely service the series' ham-fisted thematic trifles: the classism complicating a romance between lower-level resident James Toback (P.J. Boudousque) and upper-level intellect Nora Bryce (Jacqueline Byers), whose potential as a strong female character -- she's deciding between being a doctor and manning the initial colonization effort -- gets wasted on other-side-of-the-tracks melodrama; the fraternization between Aaron Gault (Brandon P. Bell), the executive officer who worked his way up from the lower levels and the de-facto homicide detective, and the wife of one of his crewman; and the rebellious gristle and murder suspicion of bullish lower-level conspirator Stokes (Brad Carter), the stockyard master. All of it functions, but none of it holds a steady bearing.
That's largely because the events going on aboard the Ascension are only part of the story, one which abruptly changes in destination. While navigating through relationship conflicts, the deliberately graceless murder mystery, and rote conspiracy and politicking, the miniseries also cuts back to modern-day America in depicting the directors involved with monitoring and troubleshooting the generation ship from afar, notably Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows), the son of the originator of the project. At first, this angle comes across as little more than world-building and padding for the series' runtime, eventually bringing in an external detective -- the obscurely-motivated Samantha Kreuger, played with skeptical grace by Lauren Lee Smith -- to solve the homicide from Earth as an outsider and offer a glimpse into their hands-off observation and secret-keeping. By the end of the first part of Ascension, however, marked by a significant twist in the narrative that changes nearly everything about the audience's perception of the project and its participants, that concentration on the homeland aspects becomes much more prominent, deliberately undercutting the enormity of the interstellar project and rewiring what the series is really about.
Said twist, which is difficult to delve into without touching on any spoilers, starts Ascension down a path of escalating outlandishness as well, unaided by how it resorts to supernatural elements -- psychic abilities, helpful ghosts, superhero-like channeling of lightning -- and Earth's unexpected control over the events going on aboard the ship. Piling up a bunch of patchy cliches and some head-scratcher holes across the later parts, the miniseries transforms its scenario into something much more far-fetched than originally advertised, bolstered by "secrets" that, frankly, go down an alternate path that betrays its alleged premise. Instead of concentrating on a collective of people coping with their individual crises of faith and futility smack dab in the middle of a hundred-year space voyage, that focus gets distracted by the validity of the Ascension project itself and its true purpose, overtaken by the machinations responsible for getting hundreds of humanity's best onto this vessel. Some answers do come at the end of Ascension, but they're too ridiculous in the context of the series' earnest beginnings, and only elaborated on to a degree in hopes that the narrative would take off into a full-fledged series (which it didn't). Unfortunately, those smarter, harder sci-fi ideas and contemporary inspirations get lost along the way.
Video and Audio:
The trek to get to the end of Ascension is a lengthy one, clocking in at roughly four hours of actual runtime stretched across the three parts, providing a challenge for Lionsgate's single-disc presentation of the miniseries. Surprisingly, the quality didn't suffer terribly much throughout its 1.77:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfer, staying appropriately sharp and colorful within the largely teal-and-orange dominated palette. Details are softened at times and some digital noise and aliasing crops up in complicated areas; however, the disc's space limitations never encroach on the vividness of lighting and skin tones, continually relishing fine details within intimate close-ups and tight shots on stony and tech-bound textures. The contrast balance stays aware of black levels, rendering deep but responsive shadows that rarely, if ever, crush out details. And the bursts of striking color in the transfer -- bright shades on the simulated beach, the colors of space from the observation deck, and lights visible on the exterior of the ship -- are robust yet mindful of the intended look. For a four-hour HD broadcast crammed onto a single standard-def disc, Ascension looks pretty great.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track accomplishes a lot as well, holding strong at the center of the surround stage with the bulk of its effects as surround elements periodically travel to the rear channels. For the most part, the activity at the back end of the sound design revolves around crisp, clean music, yet there are a few pronounced effects -- sirens, sparks, water, and the general bustle of the station -- that insist on being heard above the overpowering soundtrack. The stronger aspects of the track stick to the center and front speakers, where natural dialogue typically doesn't have to vie for attention while surrounded by the chatter of a '60s-inspired bar setting or the closed quarters. Sliding doors, open airlocks, and intermittent blasts of unexpected damage project fierce, yet controlled surges in clarity and audibility level, but they're appropriately restricted and assertive. Some tinny dialogue comes out and the boldness of the suspenseful music occasionally throws the balance off, but the tracks get their jobs done quite nicely. English SDH subs are available.
Ascension: A Behind the Scenes Look (4:19, 16x9) briefly covers that expected press-kit territory, combining surface-level, enthusiastic interviews with the cast and crew about the project with green-screen footage and other on-set glimpses.
Those expecting Syfy's Ascension to be some kind of hybrid of Interstellar's far-flung journeying and Battlestar Galactica's personal and political drama will receive a wake-up call roughly a third into the miniseries. Starting off as stiff, yet tolerably conceptual science-fiction that operates on shaky logic while spinning its yarn about a '60s-era generation ship in the middle of its hundred-year voyage, it descends into wild pseudo-science, conspiracy, and flimsy suspense and melodrama that effectively alters the entire point of the narrative, to a degree that'll drive off many of those initially interested in its galactic colonization premise. Even for tolerant audience members, those with liberal imaginations and adaptable attention spans, the events that continue to transpire aboard the Ascension stretch credibility further and further, resulting in a pile of wrong turns and missed opportunities the further out-there it goes. Worth a Rental for the pure zaniness of its all, the production polish, and for an absorbing Tricia Helfer, but that's about it.