It was on March 20th 2009 that Battlestar Galactica ended its run, crossing barriers throughout its four seasons to become the most critically acclaimed science fiction show of modern times even beyond the genre ghetto that is too often regarded as beneath serious attention. Perhaps coincidentally, less than a week beforehand, on March 16th, the American Sci-Fi Channel which aired Battlestar Galactica had announced that it was rebranding to SyFy and expanding its remit beyond the bailiwick where it had made its name. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, this was generally seen as a bad move.
While the output of the Sci-Fi Channel down the years had been, to be kind, variable, that rebranding was seen by many as an inexplicable attempt to distance itself from its core audience, a counterintuitive move for any business. Five years later, it is now evident that SyFy has come to that same realisation, announcing a slate of original productions and adaptations to return to the values they were so determined to abandon.
Bryan Fuller’s excellent High Moon pilot was sadly not optioned for series but was broadcast as a television movie, but due in 2015 are 12 Monkeys, based on Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film of the same name, The Expanse, based on the novels by James S A Corey, to be followed by Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End and 3001: The Final Odyssey and Larry Niven’s Ringworld.
First to be launched – in 1963, no less – is Ascension, created by former Smallville and Knight Rider writer Philip Levens and co-written with Adrian Cruz, the story of a generation ship launched in the wake of President John F Kennedy’s call to his fellow Americans to do the things that were hard. In the words of Abraham Enzmann, the man who conceived of Project Ascension, seen in a black and white archive reel, “Our eyes must be focused on the stars if we are to have any hope of surviving this arms race… this space race.”
Now fifty one years into a voyage to Proxima Centauri, the USS Ascension is approaching the half way point of no return; with resources limited and everything strictly recycled, the population is equally regimented to a stable six hundred with no new births permitted except as direct replacement for any who have died and with the transfer between the menial jobs performed by those “below decks” to the more desirable “above decks” positions rare and highly sought after.
The world of the ruling council, the stewardesses, librarians, medical staff and ship’s officers is bright and clean while those involved in farming, water reclamation and sanitation live in a world of metal, harsh lighting and sweat, and with little hope of change for another fifty years it is no surprise that resentment is beginning to flow upwards. Perhaps inevitably in the for a population fulfilling a role decided by their parents in which they have no option but to participate, angst and resentment are omnipresent, and for the first time since Ascension was launched a murder has been committed.
A microcosm of America in the sixties, ethnic minorities are barely seen; Aaron Gault (Brandon P Bell) is a man of colour who has risen to Executive Officer, but he is a rarity, and it is he who is asked to investigate the murder of Lorelei Wright. Similarly, the gender roles are strictly delineated, but despite styles harking back to the sophisticated glamour of that decade the trophy wives may dress modestly but are far from chaste.
With the ship led by two competing men, oleaginous Councilman Rose (Al Sapienza) and honourable but dull Captain William Menninger (Brian Van Holt), hero of the fire which claimed many lives during the celebrations on the 31st anniversary of launch including Gault’s parents and Lorelei‘s father (and presumably everyone over the age of sixty), the young women of the ship hope to become “stewardesses” under the supervision of the ambitious Viondra Denninger (Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer) who has hauled herself up from below decks to become Chief Steward.
The class system isn’t as rigid as Snowpiercer but, perhaps in deference to the origins of the society, it is blindly sexist: while there are female officers (for example Chief Astronomer Emily Vanderhaus, performed throughout like a deer caught in headlights by Tiffany Lonsdale), while their male colleagues are in uniform they wear cocktail dresses on the command deck.
It is also very apparent that the women of Ascension are largely cast to be of a similar type, a blandly generic blonde, which given their identical dress and undifferentiated characters makes them unhelpfully interchangeable in the narrative.
A top secret military project, Ascension is little more than an almost forgotten rumour back on Earth, the vestiges of the project overseen in secrecy by Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows, intense but seemingly baffled by his involvement), son of the elderly and ailing Abraham, but when concerns are raised over his governance of the legacy his abrasive director calls in an outside investigator, Samantha Krueger (a driven Lauren Lee Smith) whose interests rapidly expand beyond her stated remit, uncovering the story of a whole generation of top scientists and genius children who vanished decades before, “the ‘63 seventy.”
Every science fiction show has “the buy in” which is asked of the audience, the initial conditions upon which the story will be built, and with Ascension it is quite a reach, that even with the best technology of the sixties an interstellar vessel hundreds of times the size of the largest rocket of that era could have been built in orbit, equipped, manned and launched on a generations long voyage without anyone noticing, and that science on board could have kept even approximate pace with Earth; while the project may have siphoned off the finest minds, they would have lacked the resources with which to develop new technologies, nor does anyone on board actually seem to be engaged in any form of research.
Lip service is paid to the ship’s Orion drive, though as Ascension is already in cruising mode en router to Proxima Centauri it is never seen in action, leaving the Phaeton of Ronald D Moore and Michael Taylor’s vastly superior Virtuality as one of the few demonstrations of this theoretical nuclear propulsion method in televised science fiction.
Set in a small community rocked by murder, what begins like Twin Peaks in space soon falters over several stumbling blocks, with science fantasy overtaking the hard science fiction premise as the precocious child Christa Valis receives messages from the ether telling her of danger ahead and events back on Earth which cannot be verified (“two towers falling from the sky and a war in the desert that never ends, and a woman in pink, holding her husband’s head together”), a tendency towards increasingly preposterous artificial crises (most painfully egregious is the supposed tension as a group of characters hide silently behind a bulkhead hoping an officer on the other side won’t hear them, even though he is in a vacuum and wearing a spacesuit) and a degeneration into standard soap politics of cuckolded husbands starting fistfights to reassert their masculinity.
While the production values are unparalleled, particularly the expansive and encompassing sets showcased in an early pullback through the layers of the ship, the functional dialogue is laden with painfully heavy exposition and the performances are variable. While Helfer is seductive and manipulative, she is asked to do nothing at which she has not already displayed her mastery as the various iterations of the sixth Cylon model, and beside her the rest of the cast pale in their underwritten roles.
Ascension has scope and ambition, but it lacks finesse and honesty, a fact brought home in the final moments of the opening night.
Originally intended to be shown as six weekly instalments, the decision was made that each pair of episodes would be shown back to back over three consecutive evenings, and it is possible the reveal which would have capped the second week as the show was planned was brought forward in hopes that the understandable sense of betrayal an audience might feel upon realising the story they have been sold and invested in over two weeks is in fact not what they were led to believe might be mitigated by having sacrificed only a single night.
With the nature of the show fundamentally changed, alternative possibilities for the narrative are opened but all are by necessity a radically different direction from the one that had been offered to those who stepped aboard, and the producers’ hopes that should this first miniseries be successful that there might be further seasons means they will by necessity drift further from the expected course.
Most infuriating, not only has the premise been sold dishonestly, but with multiple plotlines unresolved in the parallel storylines on board Ascension and at mission control on Earth plus a third storyline spun off in the final moments, neither is the show the described “six hour event series” as it lacks the necessary conclusion for that claim.
Pushing further into the fantastical and abandoning any pretence at serious, consistent storytelling, while SyFy may now appreciate the value of the tarnished crown it gave up, it still suffers from a lack of understanding of its genre and defiantly maintains a crucial underestimation of the audience they hope to reclaim.