Ascension — a fatal bait-and-switch

I have to give the SyFy network some credit. After taking a strange turn away from all things sci-fi several years ago, they’re making an effort to cultivate new sci-fi programming. Helix, for example, is a solid, if not great, show.

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I was excited to see the promos for SyFy’s new miniseries (and possible series) Ascension. Not just because it stars Battlestar Galactica alum Tricia Helfer, though that’s a plus. Mainly I was ASCENSION-HELFERintrigued by its plot. This is what we were told Ascension would be about:

A spaceship is launched in 1963 to colonize the far reaches of space. Halfway through their 100-year journey, they’ve been isolated from Earth, yet continue on with their mission.

Wow. So many thematic possibilities. The obvious question, what would a society be like that never saw advances such as civil rights and feminism? And how would this society have evolved over a full generation with nothing to rely on but their faith in their mission? Space operas tend to focus on the larger mission, that is, surviving in space and getting to the planet. Few genre shows get into the nitty gritty of day-to-day survival. In my opinion, that’s one reason why The Walking Dead is such a successful show. When it comes to zombies, it is wholly conventional — nothing new to see there. But what it does different than every other zombie show we’ve seen is focus on the mechanics of survival. Ascension, based on its premise, seemed like it could be the sci-fi equivalent.

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Unfortunately it did none of this. Instead, what we got with Ascension was one of the biggest bait-and-switches I’ve seen on TV.

(SPOILERS BELOW…)

At the very end of the first night of Ascension‘s three night run, we discovered that the spaceship was not in fact traveling in space. It had never left the ground. The whole thing was a planned, covert experiment.

What???

So, you mean to tell me, the last two hours I’ve invested in these people and their mission was wasted? And there are four hours left?

Now, I’m all for dramatic twists, but this one undermined the whole premise of Ascension. I was lured to a show about space exploration, not a show about a Truman Show style social experiment.

I watched the remaining four hours of Ascension, though my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t care about the power struggle among those running the experiment, and I no longer cared about what was happening on the spaceship, because their mission wasn’t real anyway. And all I could focus on were the flaws: the boring angsty teen subplot, the annoying child actor who played a girl with mystical abilities.

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By the time the ending came — a convoluted, inexplicable mess of a thing — I was glad it was over, and I was also sorry that I never got to see the show that I was originally promised.

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