'Ascension': TV Review

Ascension - H 2014
Courtesy of SyFy

Ascension - H 2014

Syfy's flawed new limited event series has potential that needs to be pursued

In the new Syfy limited event series, a group of hand-picked Americans go on a secret government mission into deep space

The Syfy channel is desperately trying to reverse its fortunes of late and land a big, zeitgeisty reverberating drama series akin to the days when Battlestar Galactica graced its space. So far, only baby steps, but the effort seems to be in the right direction.

On Dec. 15, the channel premieres one of television’s favorite new things – a “limited event series” – named Ascension, which will run for six hours over the course of three nights and, if it does well, could become a future series on Syfy.

Of all the shows Syfy has tried recently – Defiance and Dominion come to mind – none give off the sense that, if the right buttons were pushed, the series could be both huge and acclaimed a la Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, genre series Syfy wishes it had.

But at least Ascension, flaws and all, dreams to be a little bigger and more serious than Defiance or Dominion. Right out of the gate, it’s not as well-written or acted as something like Thrones or Walking Dead, but it does have a little whiff of the early, finding-itself days of Battlestar Galactica to it.

And that’s something to build on.

Ascension is about a covert space operation – really a military operation – by the United States in the heady days of the space race in the 1960s. The series posits that the government successfully convinced scientists, families, disparate men and women and children to volunteer to save mankind by going on a century-long trip into deep space. A full 600 are on board the secret starship that stands taller than the Empire State Building. The series begins in the present time when those on board the Ascension are roughly halfway into the mission, meaning that people have died and a generation was born and raised inside since the launch.

Gil Bellows stars as Harris Enzmann, the son of the founder of the project, who has been running the mission for 20 years now. His father is dying in a hospital with what appears to be Alzheimer's.

On board, the ship is run by William Denninger (Brian Van Holt – which will be funny to fans of Cougar Town). Denninger is the hero leader of Ascension because he helped save the ship during a catastrophic fire in the early stages. Denninger, like others on the ship, was “paired” with his wife, Viondra (Tricia Helfer, who brings good BSG vibes to this series), because the computer liked how they matched up. Viondra is a power broker who is helping Denninger stay in command as he realizes he will be the middle-era pilot, when the only two likely to be remembered by history are the one who launched it and the one who landed it.

Ascension, which has a splashy and cool set, benefits from a number of intriguing elements that, with some polish, could help this series make its mark eventually. For example, the ‘60s era interior is gorgeous and there’s a sense of retro-hipness not only to the styling but in the space-aginess of it all.

Created and run by Philip Levens (Smallville) and executive produced by Jason Blum (The Normal Heart, Stranded, The River), the series can be clever about such things as class division – those in the “lower decks” are more blue-collar and their lives are harder. Nothing on the ship is post-1963 so the library is full of classic books and films like Dial M For Murder or old John Wayne westerns.

Now, hitting the 50-year mark, the inhabitants are starting to feel a sense of pointlessness about their mission. Their parents and grandparents volunteered them, so, despite no documented violence (until a shocking murder revealed in the opening night) there’s a strain of “no future” anger and depression running through some of the 600. And, because the series needs movement, strange things are starting to happen (there’s a nice twist that changes things up in an interesting way – but future episodes, if Ascension moves forward, will have to be very creative as they tackle the outcome of that twist).

There’s a lot of soapy sex going on as well, as you might imagine. Once inhabitants realize they’ll be paired up with someone not of their choosing, they tend to disrobe and have some fun while they can. (There are, in fact, so many naked butts parading around Ascension – including Helfer’s, in an attempt to break the internet – that Syfy could have called it Asscension instead.)

Relationships can drive the drama, of course, so we get First Officer Aaron Gault (Brandon P. Bell), a lower-decks kid who rose through the ranks and is now having an affair with Emily Vanderhaus (Tiffany Lonsdale), the married Chief Astronomer and sister of the ship’s first murder victim.

Even Enzmann, watching the mission from the outside, has a connection inside: as a kid he watched one of the inhabitants, Juliet Bryce (Andrea Roth), grow up, eventually becoming the ship’s primary doctor and someone who looks a lot like the wife Enzmann chose on the outside world.

With all of these neat conceits going for it – a 100 year mission in space, plus a clever twist tied in – how can Ascension go wrong? Well, despite the cool sets, everything else is a little overheated to start. The dialogue can be a little clunky at times and it doesn’t give the audience much credit, opting to drop the anvil more than is necessary.

Some of the acting and motivations are off, as well.

As it stands (having seen roughly three hours of it, the latter parts not nearly final), Ascension has tons of potential and meets a little more than half of it in this early going. But here’s the thing – Ascension almost demands that it be allowed to breathe and grow. It has all the bones to be a good Syfy series and is certainly a better long term bet than Defiance and Dominion.

The channel will wait to see what the ratings are like (and the latter part of Ascension could get better; in the meantime, there’s no shortage of bare backsides to take your mind off the dialogue). But Syfy really needs something big and challenging and with more heft than what’s on its air currently. Nobody was ever expecting Ascension to be Game of Thrones, so letting it grow and at least be a cousin to Battlestar Galactica (if things trend the right way creatively) would be the wise choice.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com