Friday, December 19, 2014

TV Review: Ascension

Rating: 1 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line:  This mini-series fails almost completely at delivering good science fiction and proves that Syfy still doesn't get it.

So Syfy has claimed that they want to move toward heavier science fiction oriented programming and away from the "genre-lite" scripted shows they have been delivering the last few years (you can read the interview with network president Dave Howe at this link).  They have recognized that they are missing out on the audience tuning into shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead (which are currently stomping even the broadcast networks), and their much-hyped mini-series Ascension was supposed to be the launching point for the much-maligned cable channel's new direction.  But if that was intended to sway sci fi fans back to the network in large numbers, it misfired in a big way as far as ratings and it was a big, dull dud of an "event" series.

Normally, I'm careful about revealing spoilers in reviews, but this time around I could really care less because I would just as soon save five plus hours of your time watching from this poor excuse for engaging television.  But if you choose not to heed my warnings (PLEASE, heed my warnings), I will warn you once: MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.

Ascension follows the crew of a generation ship launched from Earth clandestinely in the 1960's during a time when it looked like nuclear war might lead to the extinction of the human race.  They are now in the 51st year of the their 100 year mission to travel to and colonize Alpha Centauri (which puts them in the present day by our perspective) and at the Rubicon or "point of no return" if they continue.  A murder on board (the first that has occurred during the journey) makes people question the mission, though, and prompts a ship-wide investigation.  And that ultimately leads to a surprise revelation to the viewers that the ship is not actually in space, but this whole thing is a social experiment being conducted on Earth, and the inhabitants of the spaceship are unaware of their true location.

Now, there are plenty of interesting concepts in all of this for the writers to work with.  On the ship, people are going through a crisis because their fate has been pre-determined and many of them will not be alive to see the mission fulfilled because of its length.  There's also the issue of the computer-controlled selection of mating on the ship which seeks the optimal pairing of couples, regardless of how they feel about each other.  And then that major twist that comes at the end of the first night opens many story opportunities with the Earth-side crew controlling and closely monitoring all the activities onboard the ship.  There are stories galore across these many threads, all with potentially strong sci fi elements.

But does Ascension stay on track with the science fiction heavy bent that Syfy claims it wants to follow?  NO!  Not at all!

The first two or three hours of the mini-series give us a crime drama in space (or sort of in space).  Because that's what science fiction fans are looking for on television!  And when it wasn't doing the crime drama thing, it was giving us soap opera side stories or a bunch of angsty people moping about.  The science fiction elements just acted as window dressing for mostly stock television stories.  They even failed to stick with the one interesting twist hinted at on the crime drama formula.  Nobody onboard was really trained for criminal investigations, so the ship's chief officer has to train himself from detective books and movies.  You could actually do something interesting with that, but this series didn't.  And that comes as no surprise as it shows a palpable lack of inspiration throughout its entire run.  There are definitely some good ideas floating around, but they were all squashed apparently by a budget-conscious network boardroom in favor of what looks like a hack-n-slash attempt to appeal to the "broad" audience.  

To Ascension's credit, the performances are competent or better and it doesn't have too much in the way of copy and paste dialogue (though it doesn't have too much in the way of engaging dialogue either).  But it falls short of making use of the interesting sci fi concepts that it introduces.  The stifling confinement and restrictions of the hundred year mission offers plenty of potential drama, but we get procedural and soap opera stories instead.  And the controlled, social experiment angle could deliver some intriguing Prisoner-esque plots.  But instead we get a tired conspiracy angle that could have been lifted from any of a number of better crafted shows.  And then the whole thing just spiraled into a big mess that ended with a huge wtf left turn that was probably supposed to leave viewers begging for more but likely had them throwing their remotes at the TV.

Syfy claims that they want to deliver the next Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, but unfortunately they are just watching the ratings results of those shows, not the actual episodes.  Those two shows (as well as top-flight non-genre entries like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy) are drawing in large audiences by breaking away from the old television standards of playing it safe and trying to appeal to the "broader audience".  They are giving us challenging, engaging television and that's what's attracting viewers.  And when it comes to genre television, even The CW has been doing much better than Syfy the last few years (as they has essentially become the broadcast network sci fi channel).  What's more, Ascension does not even come close to the much-beloved previous output of the Sci Fi Channel that fans are really looking for like Battlestar: Galactica, Farscape, and Stargate.

To show how far out of touch Syfy is, they failed to even make good use of the stellar Tricia Helfer.  They obviously brought her onboard to give the show some BSG-cred, but all they asked her to do for the most part was vamp it up.  And while she can do that quite well, she has more of a range as an actress and we caught a brief glimpse of it when her character took charge at the end of the third installment.  That was a definite missed opportunity and clearly what they needed to do was jettison all the rest of the crap from this waisted mini-series and just put her in command of a starship with some decent supporting actors and good writers.  That's something that sci fi fans (and more) would tune in for, and that's the direction Syfy needs to go.  But if the mock space opera of Ascension is any indication, the network clearly does not understand that.

1 comment:

  1. I only just discovered this fantastic blog article, but Paul you summed up perfectly nearly every issue that was wrong with "Ascension".

    This was such an incredibly disappointing mini-series which wasted more than just a few potentially great story lines. And while I was willing to overlook some of the glaringly improbable things that this series was depicting about a space ship that was on a 100 year journey through space; the fact is, the hints that the ship was still firmly docked on Earth were actually pretty obvious long before what was supposed to be the "big surprise" at the end of episode one.

    But what really ruined this series at least for me was the blatant sexism and cheesy cardboard cut out characters.

    "Viondra Denniger" the character played by Tricia Helfer, was essentially a madam running a high class call girl ring in space where her "girls" were paired off with the influential members of the ship. It is so nice to know that sex will continue to be the most prized commodity a woman has to offer even on a space ship. And did Gil Bellows based his "Harris Enzmann" character on the dastardly villains of Saturday morning cartoons and straight-to-video movie bad guys?

    I also kept wondering about some of the little, seemingly insignificant things that unfortunately ended up distracting from the overall story arch. Such as, how did the ship manufacture any medicines and why was there only one doctor for such a large crew and contingent of people? Where were the infants and elderly passengers on this ship? How was it possible that the place where the ship was housed, never experienced any sort of power failures, equipment malfunctions or breakdowns which would have directly affected the ship? How is it that given the very real and often times troublesome human trait of curiosity that it was only "Lorelei Wright", the murder victim, who had started to wonder and question about this 100 year journey she was on? "Star child" really? How original. And how convenient, but lame was it that the one person who does "escape" from the ship is a raging alcoholic which pretty much ensures that no one will believe his farfetched sounding story?

    "Ascension" was not a new idea in science fiction, but it's a shame that a great premise of a story was thoroughly ruined by poor writing, characterizations and overall execution.