The generation ship idea has been only sporadically conducted on film before. The generation ship was posited as an alternate to faster-than-light space travel of a spaceship than can travel to the stars at existing speeds but where the length of the journey necessitates that one generation of people begin the journey, live and die aboard and it is their ancestors who finally arrive at the destination. Generation ships have turned up in the occasional episode of tv series like Doctor Whos The Ark (1966) and The Ark in Space (1974), the Star Trek episode For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky (1968), Space: 1999s Mission of the Darians (1975) and The Orvilles If the Stars Should Appear (2017), in one previous Canadian tv series Starlost (1973) and the film Pandorum (2009). Although what must be said is that here we dont have a full generation ship story but only a fake one where it is revealed part way through that the crew we thought were on a deep space mission are in fact still back on Earth and that this is an elaborate social experiment. Surprisingly, this is something that has also been conducted before in the Doctor Who episode Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) wherein Sarah Jane Smith is abducted and placed aboard a ship only to find this is a ruse by a scientist who is planning to transport everybody back in time.
Ascension starts well. We go from the aftermath of the launch where we see the crew dressed in 1960s-styled clothing and a news clip that places everything within the context of the Space Race. We see the schemings and torrid love affairs going on aboard, before a great shot that pulls back up and passes through the central core to show the multiple striated levels the ship operates on and then keeps on going back to reveal it is a spaceship rotating in space and there are stars outside. I soon became fascinated with the social scenario the mini-series creates. The model for the deep space mission through almost every tv series like Star Trek (1966-9), Babylon 5 (1992-8) and Battlestar Galactica (2003-9) is that of the military command structure. Here instead, this is more fascinatingly fraught the captain is a position that is voted on by the council more akin to a mayoralty, while the ship maintains a rigid class hierarchy not dissimilar to the way the compartments operated in Snowpiercer (2013). As compared to Star Trek et al, we get a fascinating glimpse of the power behind the command of the backbiting and stabbing for control and how the captains wife (Tricia Helfer) sleeps her way to maintain power, even maintains a cadre of hostesses for the express purpose of doing so. (If nothing else, this is a show that positively sizzles in terms of the amount of bare flesh it has on display). The script throws some challenging ideas into the mix of what happens in a hermetically closed environment when the first murder the society has known in fifty years happens and how it managed to occur when no firearms were brought on board at the outset of the mission. There is the appealing idea of Brandon P. Bell being assigned the role of investigating detective when such a thing has never existed aboard the ship and is forced to go to the library to look up classic detective movies for clues about what to do.
The first two-hours gives us a depiction of life aboard the ship and takes us through the murder investigation. This works very well and most promisingly. The great kicker that comes at the end of the episode [PLOT SPOILERS] is when Brandon P. Bell gets into a fight with Brad Carter and the latter is ejected out an airlock only to fall into the supposedly airless void and then land on an airbag, followed by a pullback from this to show that everything is in fact an experiment back on Earth. Although by the time the second two-hour slot started, I must admit that I was having credibility issues with the set-up. It must be one that requires that no astrophysicists or engineers are aboard the mission. When we see the exteriors of the Ascension, it is supposedly rotating. However, the interior of the ship is built vertically as though everybody was living in a circular office block or apartment building. A spaceship has no gravity of its own the way it would achieve such is by centrifugal spin where if it rotates at sufficient speed objects are pushed outwards and people are able to enjoy the semblance of gravity on the inside surfaces furthest from the centre. You can see this demonstrated in 2001: A Space Odyssey (2001) where Gary Lockwood does a complete circuit around the rotation of the habitat sphere. On Earth, when this would happen, the greater gravity of the Earths mass would simply cause people to fall off the rim. Confusingly, the people inside the ship are oriented vertically as they would be for Earth gravity and yet the spaceship is also seen rotating. It is a set-up that requires nobody aboard to ever asks how gravity is achieved something that would require not teaching basic physics, which seems an absurd idea for a bunch of people going off to supposedly colonise a new world.
The first two parts of Ascension create a great set-up life aboard the ship, the pull back to reveal it is all a social experiment but things started to fall apart in the third part. The investigation of the murder mystery gets overtaken by a great many other things the in-politicking to unseat the captain, the standard evil government agency that comes in determined to not only unseat but also eliminate Gil Bellows (best line of the film is when investigator Lauren Lee Smith decides to go whistleblower: Were going to go the Full Snowden), the scenes with Lauren Lee Smith trying to introduce Brad Carter to the outside world for the first time and get the truth of what happened out, and especially the left field plot element about young Ellie OBrien demonstrating psychic powers and the race between a bunch of parties to obtain/protect her. The wrap-up the series eventually opts feels somewhat half-hearted after being built as the most sympathetic character, Lauren Lee Smith is simply eliminated; the murder mystery is solved in a perfunctory way and rushed. The most confusing aspect is the final image where Ellie OBriens powers manage to teleport Brandon P. Bell to another planet. What this means, whether this was the real purpose of the experiment is left unexplained. It feels like either a mini-series that was never intended to be such having a forced-on ending.
Certainly, all of this leaves you scratching your head wondering how any of this could have been spun out as a tv series would the series have followed the in-politicking among the various decks of the ship and contrasted this to the in-politicking back at mission control? If so, the idea of a series set around a faked space mission seems very limited in nature. Either that or would everybody have been teleported to the new world by Ellies powers and the series start from there akin to Earth II (1994-5) dealing with the colonisation of an alien world? If so, it seems a bizarre dogleg of a plot to get there.
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Lauren Lee Smith) at this sites Best of 2014 Awards).