‘Ascension’ Premiere Recap: “They Sent Us on a One-Way Ticket to Nowhere”

What’s this, actual science fiction on Syfy? Who let that happen? This week, the network is airing its three-part miniseries event ‘Ascension’. With an intriguing concept and high production values, does this ship fly toward the heavens or crash down to Earth?

The premise: In 1963, at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, President Kennedy authorized a top secret NASA mission to build a skyscraper-sized space vessel and launch a 100-year mission to the nearby solar system Proxima. Obviously, the original crew would not survive that length of time to see the arrival, but their grandchildren might. As such, the mission was populated by an entire community with every cross-section of society, who all live, work and (very importantly) procreate aboard the ship, stuck in an eternal time loop of early 1960s technology and culture.

It’s now 51 years into the journey and the USS Ascension is a little over halfway to its destination. The current men, women and children aboard are the first generation descendants of the original crew. They have never seen the Earth. Many of them experience a time, usually in their teenage years, called “The Crisis,” when they struggle with the reality that their entire lives have been prescribed for them by decisions their parents made before they were born, and they have very little free will of their own. The jobs they work and the spouses they marry and mate with are dictated by the needs of the community, which is segmented into social classes from the wealthy upper decks to the blue collar laborers in the lower decks. Captain Denninger (Brian Van Holt from ‘Cougar Town’) laments that he will see the glory of neither the launch nor the landing and that history will forget him.

One night, a beautiful upper-decks teenage girl named Lorelei Wright is found dead on the beach of an artificial lake in the middle of the ship. Her death is officially declared an accident to avoid a panic, but her body exhibits signs of struggle and a small .22 caliber bullet is found in her mouth. The captain asks his XO, Oren Gault (Brandon P. Bell), to quietly investigate the matter. Of course, because this is such a closed community, word of what he’s doing spreads quickly. In a nice touch, Gault goes to the ship’s library to look for books on police procedures. Finding none, the librarian suggests that he read Raymond Chandler novels and watch old detective movies.

Other important characters include Denninger’s scheming wife Viondra (‘Battlestar Galactica’ babe Tricia Helfer), kindly Dr. Bryce (Andrea Roth from ‘Rescue Me’), and a little girl named Christa who appears to have The Shining and hears voices from the stars telling her that the ship is headed in the wrong direction. Gault’s investigation initially points him to Lorelei’s secret lower-decks boyfriend, a character bizarrely named after filmmaker James Toback. Eventually, that proves a red herring and the ship’s stockyard master, a sketchy guy named Stokes, becomes the prime suspect when a gun (the only one on the entire ship) is found in his possession. Stokes insists that he’s been framed, but nobody believes him.

Interwoven with all of this is another storyline that takes place on present-day Earth. A man named Harris (Gil Bellows) is the son of Ascension’s chief architect. When a snooping grad student starts asking questions about rumors of the Ascension project, Harris brushes him off and says the whole thing was wishful thinking that never had a chance of happening, but he clearly knows more than he’s letting on.

Back aboard the Ascension, sensors warn that the ship is about to fly through a dangerous ion storm. Everyone goes to their quarters to take shelter in radiation pods, and must wear masks that sedate them until the storm is over. Little Christa doesn’t sleep, however, and sees a strange man in a hazmat suit creeping through her room to steal a necklace Dr. Bryce left her.

While everyone else is distracted, Toback and Lorelei’s friend Nora dive into the artificial lake because they believe that Lorelei hid something at the bottom. Sure enough, they find a box holding a video card. (That sounds awfully advanced for 1960s tech. Was it invented on board the ship?) The card has footage of a big fire that happened years earlier, but is there more to it than that?

After the storm ends and everyone wakes up, the door to Stokes’ cell mysteriously opens. He slips out, steals the gun from lock-up and takes a hostage, but doesn’t get very far. He and Gault struggle and get trapped in an airlock. The door in the floor opens and Stokes falls through, after which the door closes behind him.

Stokes tumbles out into the void of outer space, only to promptly hit a giant black air bag. Men in white suits run up and jab a needle in his neck… Wait, what?

Plot twist!

In a final revelation, we discover that the Ascension is not in space at all. The ship has been grounded on Earth the whole time, but no one inside knows. Outside, the area buzzes with activity. Looking on is Harris, who’s in charge of whatever sort of experiment this is, and rigidly manipulates everything that happens to and inside the ship.

That’s a hell of a twist, and opens up a lot of interesting questions. What’s the point of this experiment? How could it have gone on so long without anyone discovering it? Was Lorelai killed because her video card shows evidence that the ship isn’t in space?

The premiere episode has some suspension-of-disbelief issues regarding the size of the ship, which is said to be larger than the Empire State Building yet makes very inefficient use of space inside. I also don’t believe that the closed-off ecosystem shown could really be sustainable. However, the big plot twist at the end can explain these away… assuming that the twist itself is adequately explained in the following episodes.

‘Ascension’ is being promoted as a three-night event that runs Monday through Wednesday this week. I enjoyed the first part a lot and will watch the rest. If it’s popular, I wonder if the plan is to expand it into a series later, the way that the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ reboot did? I guess that will depend on how the miniseries ends.

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