The first night of Ascension was a thrilling and original 90 minutes of science-fiction television. It threw viewers deep into the alternate-reality story of Project Orion, transporting us onboard the Ascension ship and introducing a beautiful but worrisome, timeless world. There were clashes galore between the ship’s passengers, but also one between the two time periods that Ascension straddles: the futuristic 2014 world of people living on a spaceship and the 1960s world that they left behind but are still stuck in, due to the ship’s time-capsule nature. The big behind-the-scenes clash was far more interesting: Syfy’s public insistence that Ascension is a miniseries (or “television event”) vs. the too-obvious reality that it’s essentially a very, very long pilot episode — something that ultimately hurt the program.
Ascension started off strong, got very weird, and then ended with a questionable nudge from Syfy: “Eh? Don’t you want to know more?” The biggest twist came early in the miniseries, at the very end of night one, when it was revealed that the Ascension never actually went to space but instead was a highly elaborate, and devastatingly expensive, social media experiment. The “ship” has remained on Earth and is being monitored closely and creepily. There are so many gross questions here about morality, honesty, safety, and so on, but obviously the biggest question I had was, “How has this not already been a reality show?” I mean, it’s 2014 and we totally have the technology (and shady ethics) to create a reality show that spans decades and makes people believe that they are living in space. I would watch that, and actually keep up with it, unlike the more boring social experiment Utopia.
But back to Ascension. This reveal is when the show either completely won over viewers like me or made them throw up their hands in frustration and quit. That reaction is understandable — the built-in intrigue is about people living on a spaceship. In space. The idea that they are just in a giant metal contraption on Earth can be a little disappointing, even with the whole murder mystery still at its center. But the show managed to retain its science-fiction roots with Christa, an eerie little girl aboard the ship with a handful of supernatural powers. She knows Ascension‘s secret, she can communicate with the dead, she’s clairvoyant, and she is aware of everything that happened on Earth while she was in “space” (she makes references to the World Trade Center and an endless war). She’s basically a sci-fi author’s dream, and one of the main reasons to stick with Ascension.
Outside of Christa, there’s still a lot going on. Class warfare, forbidden romance, rampant sexism (oddly enough, racism doesn’t come into play, despite the ’60s-throwback setting), illicit affairs, physical fights, attempted murders from outside the ship, actual murder onboard the ship, and a hell of lot of craziness happening on Earth when questions start arising about the whole point and safety of the social experiment. A man from the ship ends up “back” on Earth, in 2014, and has no idea how the hell to react. There are conspiracies that go much deeper than the show is willing to let on, likely because of the hope that Syfy will order more episodes.
Therein lies the big problem with Ascension: It isn’t a self-contained miniseries. It asks questions that it doesn’t want to answer, for fear that it will tip its hand when it comes to the later mysteries it wants to explore. It doesn’t dive deep enough into some of the characters’ motivations. It sets up insane twists and turns, plot developments, and character arcs that never come to a conclusion, leaving viewers with an empty, unsatisfied feeling at the end of the three nights. This could all be seen as pointless nitpicking because there is a very, very good chance Syfy will order a full series of Ascension — after all, it seems Ascension‘s mission is to jump-start evolution, hence Christa, and it also ends with an infuriating cliffhanger that finds one of the crew members teleported onto an alien planet? Who knows!
Overall, the smaller mysteries, interesting social-class dynamics, and strange rituals (such as the birthing list) made Ascension an enjoyable watch, and was enough to convince me to come back if the show returns. As a miniseries, however? It was completely frustrating.