"This ship landed?"
-Stockyard Master John Stokes-
"You never left."
The shit hits the proverbial fan in a generally enthralling third and final act.
There is a great irony to the idea of the generation ship as lifeboat. With the Ascension we have a boat for the generations, a true generation ship, but it is a facade, a trap, a container for living and dying, but ultimately a lie. It's a boat to nowhere. And speaking of life, are these people truly alive?
Ascension culminates in Ascension, Night 3, with a ceremony called Ostara whereby men and women's names are matched or paired and selected by a birthing computer. "No man or woman will reproduce who has not been selected from the birth list." An unsanctioned birth results in an unclaimed child. There are ramifications here based on this rule. Ascension takes on a whole new level of creepy in Night 3 as the inhabitants aboard the generation ship are forced to live by a set of self-contained guidelines. These confining rules suppress freedom and further amplify the prison-like nature of their severed, tiny universe.
The fertility festival is by its very design established out of a necessity of survival. Humanity is attempting to ensure humanity endures ignorant of the true reality. It is the ultimate program in eugenics. Survival is also about improving the genetic make-up of the human race. There is also a class structure that has hardened aboard the U.S.S. Ascension that also facilitates and feeds the program again echoing a population that has stagnated culturally and socially back to the era from which the project was spawned.
But what is the end game? Is it a legacy for those aboard Ascension? Or is there something more nefarious in play by those in control of the experiment? Night 3 takes us toward the long view of the project.
On Ascension humankind has relinquished the freedoms to meet, fall in love and procreate by choice, instead turning the reins aboard the vessel over to science and math to ensure the survivability of the human race.
On the Ascension people live in a bubble, in effect, focused on developing science and advancing technology at rates of speed much higher than they would on the outside world. The belief by Abraham Enzmann is that the human mind, too, would develop generationally into something well beyond the average ordinary human mind if left uninhibited or unmolested thus the control variable. Christa Valis is the first known product of this grand experiment on humanity---she is the result of controlled evolution. She is a child with Akira-like powers, an evolution also visited upon in the Rian Johnson film Looper (2012).
Thus, as noted once earlier, my complaints about not seeing enough of the Ascension vessel herself were somewhat unfounded. This is after all not technically a space ship-based science fiction. It is and it isn't. It's at least logical why we don't see the U.S.S. Ascension like Babylon 5 or the U.S.S. Enterprise or Destiny, Ascension is about human interaction within a contained environment. It's an experiment an in keeping with science fiction themes and concepts. Unfortunately Ascension isn't entirely well-executed science fiction and as a result is not a fantastic mini-series. It's good. It's decent, but it's not essential unfortunately. However it is a story with a beginning, middle and end, but not one that hasn't been written and/or executed by science fiction authors to greater effect in literary form. But things come to a rousing, generally satisfying conclusion and much of the chaos coalesces within the narrative in Night 3. It doesn't short change the viewer like so many failed or canceled series.
Additionally pacing picks up for the final installment as things begin to completely unravel and efforts are made to contain and continue to conceal the illusion of Ascension to its residents within. A much needed bit of energy is infused into its conclusion. The writers and creators bring their best conflict-resolution to the third act. While not as convincing as Battlestar Galactica's mini-series all of the components and characters were in place to continue the story, but as it stands Ascension is better served as a short series allowing are imaginations to fill in the holes.
There is a terrific sequence whereby wave interference from the outside comes across monitors and James Toback catches a glimpse of something extraordinary of which he has never seen. Gordon Shumway is spotted on a television monitor. Yes, friendly, strange, little, extraterrestrial Alf.
For the sci-fi geeks there are tributes to sci-fi like Forbidden Planet, an I Grock Spock bumper sticker and other notable moments that enhance an entertaining finale.
Character development is merely cursory to the mini-series, though Tricia Helfer shines in this installment as the seductive, venomous but also vulnerable Viondra.
Performances by Brad Carter as Stokes, the underrated Ryan Robbins as Duke Vanderhaus, John Ralston as Dr. Robert Bryce (the man and mole handling experimental operations on the inside) and others are also at their best in this last act.
And one final point, I still have difficulty wrapping my head around the fact there would be sufficient enough technology, top secret or not, to generate an Ascension program fifty-one years ago. This is part of the suspension of disbelief in this sci-fi tale. However, the 1960s aesthetic is well placed in production, writing and wardrobe throughout the ship.
Offering some insight into Ascension's production, Helfer explained to TV.com that the characters' "morals and the values that they're dealing with are still from the 60s. The society on the ship is very hierarchical.... Viondra started out on the lower decks but rose through the ranks, as did her husband. They're a power couple. Viondra will do anything to stay in power."
Creator Philip Levens explained to Zap2it, "Ascension will explore how technology has evolved on the ship and the way morality is still rooted in an early '60s, pre-Civil Rights Act view [of] humanity."
Ascension, on thematic terms, analyzes our humanity like any sound science fiction tale should when taking a step back from it. Ascension asks us to question what is real and what is artifice. Is what we see manufactured, digitally reproduced, artificial or authentic? Even today, when we view television, is what we see a physical reality or a digitally created construct? Ascension wants us to ask these questions. Are we steered by forces around us to facts or truths that aren't true at all? We are asked to wonder if what is before us is real or truth. But with shifting agendas, computer technology and television we wonder what isn't a deception or illusion and ask can anything really be trusted today?
Ascension also begs the question of morality. How far should we be able to go with our fellow man? Is it ethical to manipulate the lives of others for a perceived end however just, noble or beneficial? Or does playing God present a moral dilemma?
As noted earlier, Ascension analyzes the social animal and human behavior. Despite being placed in a controlled environment hierarchies still exist and the quest for power remains an aphrodisiac leaving the potential for utopia an impossibility. Questions of class, obedience and coming of age are all relevant components on a series that has splintered and developed its thinking from the 1960s and moved in a unique direction from our Earth reality. Nevertheless, controlled environment or not, the same problems and issues persist.
Finally, Ascension also deals with the evolution of humankind and the mind and the idea space travel or time travel can be achieved through tapping the potential of the mind. Are space ships and transporter rooms really a requirement? Ascension essentially proffers the idea of a generational human incubator for the evolution of humankind and the mind. This component of a child representing the evolution of man and where it might go presents the greatest science fiction potential here beyond the mini-series had it continued.
When the Battlestar Galactica mini-series arrived it was clear how exceptional it was. It was an easy decision to pick that property up for a series, but Ascension fails to sell its viability as a long-term series. We may never understand the omission of wisdom by SyFy in not renewing Stargate Universe for a third season, but Ascension gives SyFy plenty of justification in not moving the story forward. By comparison, it's better than Caprica but nowhere near as good as a Battlestar Galactica or SGU.
Despite the fact it took oddly 51 years to unravel, for those interested Ascension is buoyed by fine performances and does rally in Night 3 pulling all of its story elements together reasonably well for this lifeboat concept.
Sadly, despite all of these efforts, the worthy Ascension was the recipient of a DVD only release treatment. What a shame. Still, a mild recommendation goes out to the mini-series particularly for the science fiction fan.
Writer: Melody Fox/ Philip Levens.
Director: Mairzee Almas (Defiance, The 100)/ Nicholas Copus (Painkiller Jane, The 4400).
Ascension Night 1 here.
Ascension Night 2 here.