Imagining the Syfy pitch meeting for Ascension writes itself: “Mad Men, in spaaaaaaace!” It’s an easy sell. Ascension follows the crew of an American space ark, sent on a 100-year journey in the 1960s, to find and populate a new planet. In this telling, President Kennedy thought the Cold War might get hot, and wanted Americans to be able to find a way out. The program was designed for sacrifice — it would be the grandchildren, or beyond, of the original crew, who would end up on this new world, but it was all for the ultimate support of the mission. Now, 51-years into the journey, the ship has its first murder, and the cracks in the ship’s idyllic, Truman Show-esque setting are starting to show. Hit the jump for why, “we don’t have infinity, we have the ship. We were born in it, and we will die in it.”
Ascension is playing out as a three-night, six-hour miniseries event for Syfy that will also likely act as a backdoor pilot for a full series order (much like the revamped Battlestar Galactica‘s miniseries event). After watching the first two hours, that hope is certainly a viable one. The world of Ascension is rich, and a late twist folds in several storylines into one incredibly interesting premise.
At first, though, Ascension seems like little more than a sci-fi murder mystery, which has its own promise. A young woman who had dreams of returning to an Earth she never knew is found murdered at her favorite place on the ship — a makeshift beach (complete with painted clouds, sand, and surf). The ship’s captain, William Denninger (Brian Van Holt, playing against type) appoints Executive Officer Oren Gault (Brandon P. Bell) to investigate. But both Denninger and Gault have their own secrets, and affairs, that tie into the murder plot, as well as a much larger secret that only a young girl (Ellie O’Brien) seems able to see through.
What makes Ascension stand-out from the start, though, is its 1960s aesthetic — one that is never seen in modern shows about space travel. The interior is pure Mad Men, both in its looks and its surrealism; the captain puts Lena Horne on the loudspeaker as those on the U.S.S. Ascension dutifully place oxygen masks over their noses and mouths, and drift off to sleep in radiation-proof pods.
Throughout Ascension‘s premiere night, intriguing facets of life aboard the craft begin to emerge. There is social unrest between the upper and lower decks (a la the Titanic), and a breeding program where couples are genetically matched (but are only allowed to produce a child to replace someone who has died, keeping their biome from expanding beyond 600 people). There are counsels and plans written out on paper, but no robots or A.I.s to assist; this is 1963, after all. The Ascension is essentially a floating time capsule.
Ascension does a good job of filling out drama among its cast, too, like Tricia Helfer as Denninger’s scheming, power-hungry wife, as well as the development of several lovelorn relationships (like that between Gault and the older sister of the murdered girl, who is married, as well as two teenagers who are at their most existential about being on board a “ship to nowhere”).
Its unclear whether viewers will ultimately be rewarded or punished for believing this really is a miniseries, though. If Ascension can wrap things up in a workable way at the end of these three nights, then it has a chance to make audiences clamor for a further exploration of this world (or, God forbid, actually just leave it alone as a great 6-hour event). If it ends with a “stay tuned for more!” Syfy will lose some trust and momentum with it and any upcoming series that get the same treatment (which may lead to more Sharknado sequels). Ascension, like its mission, could be great or a complete disaster, but it seems worth sticking around to find out.
Ascension’s two-hour premiere begins Monday, December 15th at 9 p.m. on Syfy, and will continue on the following two nights.