Warning: this blog post contains many a spoiler for the mini-series Ascension; also, if you have not seen this show yet, the content of this post probably will not make much sense.
Last week, my partner and I happened upon the 2014 science fiction mini-series Ascension. On its face, this show is about a multi-generational interstellar ark on its way to Alpha Centauri. The product of a secret military project fuelled by the fear of a nuclear holocaust (Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.), it was launched in 1963. We join the crew near the journey’s midway point. The 51st anniversary of the launch is rocked by an on-board murder, the very first during the spaceship’s epic journey.
But there is more to Ascension than initially meets the eye. As we learn at the end of episode two, Ascension never left Earth. Rather, the ship serves as a colossal cage within which government researchers are conducting a multi-generational experiment on humans – all of whom believe themselves to actually be in space. We learn that Ascension is a psychological experiment studying the long-term effects of multi-generational space travel, but in the last two episodes of the show we realise that we have been fooled again. Yes, the ship is a large-scale science experiment, but it does not focus on human psychology. Rather, it attempts to stimulate cladogenesis, here the generation of a species of super-humans with telekinetic powers.
We liked the general idea behind the show, but thought it fell apart around its midway point at the latest, and the superpower angle with which the show ended felt ham-fisted at best.
What we liked
Ascension as a to-scale human experiment provides an at least somewhat realistic conduit for exploring many interesting science fiction topics, such as counterfactuals and generational, uninfluenced sociological experiments. We also found some aspects of the storyline and production quite compelling.
Ascension’s crew shared Earth’s timeline until 1963. After the ship was sealed and ‘left Earth’ (as the crew believed), history developed in a different trajectory. Just think of having more than one ship; one could then have a chance of inferring invariants of historical developments from the alternative historic time lines in each ship!
Let’s address some of the points we liked in more detail.
Uninfluenced sociological experiment
What the above and other topics have in common is the opportunity to observe a real-scale society with almost no interference. The surveillance systems are set up at the get-go, and then life on Ascension can pursue its own path. In real life, this is not possible, as the observer perpetually influences the observed society.
Several characters were given room to grow in unexpected ways. The captain’s wife in particular, the beautiful, glamorous Viondra, at first seems to be purely self-serving, calculating, and manipulative –one of the ‘villains’ of the ship. As the series progresses, however, we learn that she is in fact motivated by a deep love for her husband, and that tragically for her, this love is not reciprocated (all marriages and births on Ascension are carefully arranged, based on genetics). In the last episode, it is Viondra who finds the courage and ingenuity to save the lives of everyone on the ship. Other characters also surprised us, and these shades of grey (and not black-and-white, good vs. evil portrayals) were a major point in the show’s favour.
So much drama, so much intrigue
After the big reveal at the end of episode two, where we learn that Ascension is actually in an underground bunker and not flying through space, plot lines from inside the ship and from the outside are skilfully woven together. As we root for the crew’s survival, and for their liberation from their tin-can ‘spacecraft’, we follow the machinations of the corganisation which is behind the entire project. An external investigator is brought in to evaluate things as a result of the murder, but the man in charge is determined to reveal as little as possible about the project. How much will the tough, cool investigator (who has her own back story) manage to uncover? Although it initially seems that the original crew members volunteered for the mission, rumours of gifted children being kidnapped from their families make it all the more unsavoury. Can the investigator find a way to rescue the crew? If she does, will they all lose their minds when they discover the truth?
What we did not like …
No equipment wear
The interior of the ship is just too shiny. Are we really to believe that there has not been any noticeable wear on any of the ship’s equipment in the last 50 years? Instead of sleek, shiny interiors, one would rather expect a Serenity type of gritty, worn-down environment.
Segregation just disappears?
The counterfactual potential of the show was by no means exploited to its fullest. Just think of it: Ascension is ‘launched’ during the height of the civil rights movement. What if segregation had never ended on Ascension? What if there were a violent uprising on the ship, leading to a standoff? As it is, the mini-series does not mention racism and segregation at all, and this neglect is left entirely unexplained.
Sex as currency, and no one cares?
The stewardesses in Ascension act as de-facto geishas, and no one seems to care too much about women systematically trading sex for political and other favours. This is quite a departure from 1960s American society, in which this kind of trading took place only ‘in the shadows’, and this pattern has hardly changed at all in ‘our world’. Such a major switch in morals could of course point at sexuality not being as much of an invariant as we thought it is, but such a pivotal finding needs to be explained!
Too many stories: what is this show about, anyway?
The mini-series has a strong set-up as a murder mystery: the first episode focuses almost exclusively on Lorelei, a young woman who has a mysterious rendezvous on the lower decks, dives into the artificial ocean while the ship’s upper crust are busy at a posh party, and is later found dead on the beach. An officer is assigned to find her killer, and in a bit of comic relief watches crime films from the 1950s to learn how to investigate a murder. But we then switch gears to follow the intrigues occurring outside of the ship, and the question of Lorelei’s murder is more or less dropped. We begin to see hints that Christa, a young girl on the ship, is developing superpowers. At the end of the last episode, these suddenly reach the point of allowing her to telekinetically transport a crew member to an unidentified planet. And this is where the story abruptly ends, with no explanation. Had the series continued for a second season, the story would have had little connection to anything in season one – and as it is, the various elements of season one had darn little to do with each other.
… and how to improve Ascension
Give us answers
Generally, we would like to see all loose ends followed up. For example: what exactly happened in the run-up to the murder of Lorelei? Why exactly did Dr Robert Bryce kill her, what did she know? How did the gun get on-board? How did Dr Bryce become an inside man? What advantages does he gain from that? Who put up the sex tape of Lorelei and the captain? The list goes on and on, and frankly, leaving so many questions unanswered just feels sloppy.
There are two main basic plot lines we would like to change. First, the government conspiracy and second, the superhuman trope.
Concerning the first point: the US military conducted scientific experiments on living soldiers (for instance the Edgewood Arsenal human experiments, project MKUltra, and project 112), so why would it be so hard to believe that the military would run this experiment itself instead of relying on a proxy government agency? The whole added X Files-type conspiracy layer is superfluous at best and does impede the flow of the story. Removing this distraction increases the time available for discussing the experiment itself.
Concerning the second point: are we the only ones tired of the superhuman trope? Being human is actually quite fascinating! There are many ‘mere human’ topics that could be investigated in Ascension. For instance, how about the original question: can humans survive a multi-generation journey upon a space ship? The show could borrow a lot of insight gained from NASA’s real-scale emulations. As we can see from existing fiction—such as Harrison’s Captive Universe, Le Guin’s Paradises Lost, and Alvart’s Pandorum—, the question of what happens to human society under such extreme conditions certainly can hold audiences captive. Also, if a ‘let us breed different humans’ angle is needed, why does it need to be a superhuman angle (as in super-powers)? What about humans that can tolerate much higher carbon-dioxide levels? Or humans adapting to zero g, or to high levels of radiation? And even if we go for ‘super’, why not explore the adaptation of the human mind to the space? Good examples of the latter can be found in Card’s Ender’s Game and Pohl’s The Gold at the Starbow’s End.
We enjoyed the first few episodes of Ascension and had high hopes for it, but it turned into a messy, disappointing hodgepodge. There are great ideas with lots of potential behind the show. Any number of compelling stories could have been created which would make for good viewing. It’s a shame the writers weren’t able to decide on just one.
Note: this blog is a collaboration between my partner and myself
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