Alternate-Universe Space Thriller ‘Ascension’ Proves Syfy Is More Than Just ‘Sharknado’

It’s impossible to talk about Syfy’s miniseries Ascension without talking about the network’s current predicament. Syfy has been stuck in limbo, swerving constantly between two extremes as it tries to figure out what it wants to be. On one side, Syfy is struggling to be taken seriously with original (and sometimes underrated) science-fiction programs; on the other, Syfy knows that it will always be able to find viewers for its ridiculous made-for-television movies (see: Sharknado) and will thus keep putting those out until the end of time. Syfy is making an admirable attempt to find balance: a TV version of 12 Monkeys is in the works, as well as adaptations of The Magicians (!) and 3001: The Final Odyssey; meanwhile, Saturday will bring the premiere Christmas Icetastrophe, wherein an asteroid triggers a wave of deadly ice crystals. But if Ascension is any indication, Syfy’s original programming might actually become a force to be reckoned with.

Ascension is a three-part television event, running from tonight through Wednesday. It is something of a tryout, meaning that if the miniseries does well, it will likely return as a full series (which is my biggest hesitation about the show so far). No matter what the future holds for it, Ascension has the most intriguing premise of any show premiering this month. It’s a science-fiction drama about an alternate reality where President Kennedy, amid hysterical Cold War fears, commissioned a secret mission that sent 600 people into space for an entire century in hopes that they would later populate a new world. But the series takes place in the present, 51 years into the voyage, when the starship Ascension has hit the point of no return.

The death of a young woman is the catalyst for Ascension‘s action. It’s believed she drunkenly fell and hit her head, but some crew members — including First Officer Aaron Gault (Brandon P. Bell) and the ship’s captain, William Denninger (Brian Van Holt) — are under the impression that it was actually murder, and their suspicions are confirmed when a bullet is found in her body, even though guns are forbidden on the ship. This only adds to the mystery — not only did someone manage to sneak a gun aboard, but they also managed to keep it hidden for 51 years before finally using it.

Ascension is gripping from the cold open, from creepy psychiatric evaluation videos to a beautiful and sprawling shot of the ship’s interior (the vessel is bigger than the Empire State Building) set to Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” From there it only gets more captivating and mysterious, with numerous twists and turns, though I can’t go much deeper without giving away major plot points. Suffice it to say, there is a twist at the end that is so thoroughly shocking, I actually shouted, “Holy shit!”

Ascension - Season 1One of the many strengths of the first two hours of Ascension is the show’s timelessness. It reminds me, in a way, of a dramatic version of the world that Archer exists in: It is 2014, but there as aspects of the ship that are very 1960s, so much so that the scenes that take place back on Earth feel almost anachronistic. It’s visually stunning, the juxtaposition between such a futuristic ship and the old-fashioned equipment and social values that exist within. Essentially, everyone aboard exists within a time capsule that was launched into space. When they left Earth behind, they also left behind progress.

The ship acts as a town in miniature, with its population divided between different classes. There are lowerdeckers, who work as butchers and maintenance men, and who are forbidden to interact with the higher-class and more elite members of the crew who live at the top in spotless white rooms. There is, of course, a class-warfare love story between two teenagers: elite Nora Bryce (Jacqueline Byers), the daughter of Ascension‘s head doctor, and rebellious second-class citizen James Novack (P.J. Boudousque). Not only do their different statuses keep them apart, but aboard the ship, couples are paired together out of compatibility rather than coming together through romance. (Naturally, not everyone is happy with this, leading to infidelity and secret relationships — mostly, it seems, because Syfy is making a concerted effort to ramp up the sex scenes).

There are some cheesy sci-fi moments and some less-than-impressive acting throughout, but Ascension‘s ambitious story mostly makes up for them. It helps that Ascension puts the characters before the mystery — it’s a little hard to keep track of everyone at first, but it’s clear the writers are aiming to create deep, realistic characters to help ground the more fantastical aspects of the series. The mystery is definitely worth watching (I love that, because there are no police aboard the ship, the passengers have to figure out how to solve a mystery by reading detective novels or watching old movies), but it’s the characters that will make you stick around. 

The biggest question is whether Ascension will stick the landing with just six hours to tell a complete story, or if it will peter out after a thoroughly impressive first 90 minutes. But the show is off to a great start, and if it can keep up the momentum for the next two nights, Syfy might finally have a high-quality hit on its hands.