Ascension: This sci-fi “event series” is yet to make its mark

If there’s one thing TV viewers love more than a dystopian fantasy show right now it’s surely the good old “event series”. In fact, such is the current clamour for big-budgeted, easily digestible chunks of prestige drama, Sky have not one but two such shows ready to hit our screens this month. Fortitude, an epic drama set in the Arctic circle and boasting a stellar cast of big names, will land in a couple of weeks, but before that we have Ascension, a six-part sci-fi miniseries that takes place aboard a generation ship.

The premise is the highest of high concepts. Inspired by the real-life Project Orion that existed during the Kennedy administration, Ascension posits an alternate reality in which the US government, fearing the escalating Cold War will lead to the destruction of Earth, green-light the covert mission. 350 willing men, women and children are promptly rounded up and shot into deepest space on a century-long mission aboard the eponymous ship, which, we’re told, is taller than the Empire State building, that officials hope will deliver the human race to its new home among the stars.

There’s a wonderful whiff of classic space-age sci-fi about this show, with its sleek and bold sets and stylish 60s-era costume designs, and the series boasts some fascinating elements that, with some fine-tuning, have the makings of a great TV show.

Most of the action is set 51 years into the journey, where the first generation has died out and their descendants are coming to terms with their role as the forgotten middle children of the mission. “If you and I weren’t born on this ship, we could have accomplished great things,” the ship’s captain (bizarrely played by Cougar Town’s hapless Bobby Cobb) bemoans. His ship’s adolescent passengers share his disenchantment; they’re restless and frustrated, searching for a better sense of purpose, so when the body of one of their friends washes up on the artificial beach, the ship’s passengers begin to question the nature of their mission.

Ascension also takes a lot of hints from Battlestar Galactica, another space-set SyFy miniseries and a fine model on which to build upon. The series shares BSG’s claustrophobic setting and air of the supernatural – here, a young girl claims to have seen a mysterious figure on the ship that logic can’t account for – and the plot packs a similar range of romances, rivalries and political power games.

Essential to the latter is the excellent Tricia Helfer, who plays Cylon, a seductive femme fatale in the mould of Lady Macbeth who uses her position as head stewardess to learn the secrets of powerful men and isn’t above using her sexual assets to influence the people in charge.

Yet, even with so much going for it, the first two episodes have fallen terribly flat. Some of this can be put down to the typical early season wobbles – an over-reliance on exposition, an understandable tendency to prioritise cramming in the plot twists over character development – but mostly it seems showrunner Philip Levens doesn’t know what to do with the story.

Too much time is spent on a listless investigation into the murder of a young woman and the myriad romantic trysts that are always going on, and these subplots have an over-dramatised, soapy tone ill-fitting of the sci-fi genre and they come at the expense of exploring any of the wide-ranging social issues posed by the brilliant premise.

Ascension is, in essence, a giant time-capsule where its inhabitants are permanently frozen in 1963, prompting the question of what might happen when a group of people develop a new society isolated from outside influences. Yet Levens dodges tackling such weighty themes by creating a world that looks a lot like our own.

There are vague mutterings of a class war brewing between the upper and lower decks, but equally there are stories of characters rising rapidly through the ranks; women may still work as sexy stewardesses but they also hold prominent scientific and administrative positions; and racial tensions are apparently a thing of the past with officer Aaron Gault easily rising up the decks and class system. Perhaps Levens is suggesting that social progress is inevitable, but to see that change take place in a stifling environment would surely be more exciting than finding out who killed an unknown woman on a fake beach?

The first two episodes also suffer from a lack of urgency and tension – though maybe that’s just an insanely meta reference to the characters suffocating ennui – with no enemies of note or any kind of immediate threat to the mission to spark the plot into life. It also doesn’t help that we are periodically pulled back to present day Earth, a move that often breaks the claustrophobia of life on board the ship.

Ascension is a show rife with potential, with a killer premise and some intriguing character dynamics in play, but one that doesn’t yet know what to do with itself. A twist at the end of the first night has cast the mission in a tantalising new light and that’s certainly an argument for allowing the story to grow – let’s not forget that The 100 developed into a brilliantly savage beast during its first run – but Levens needs to work fast if he’s going to turn Ascension into the bold and challenging show it could become. That’s the problem with “event series”, you see, there’s very little time to make your mark.

Click here to watch the trailer for Ascension

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