Ascension, the Syfy mini-series that just finished on Sky (NowTV in our house) was so incoherent that I became convinced it was being shown in the wrong order. Wikipedia bills it a ‘6-part’ mini series, but it has not been shown in 6 parts (anywhere, as far as I can tell) and was instead shown in three incomprehensible chunks. I don’t think it was edited by humans, anyway. I think somebody chucked a load of raw footage into iMovie’s ‘SyFy Mini Series’ template.
As is my preference, I read nothing about it in advance, so didn’t know it was going to turn out to have the twist that was revealed at the end of episode 1 (or 2). Spoiler alert. So it turns out that the quite promising premise of a generation ship on its way from earth to a new planet is in fact a fake generation ship that never left the earth and has instead merely been keeping 600 or so people prisoner in some kind of science experiment for 50 years.
On the one hand, I was intrigued by the early similarities to one of my favourite SF novels, Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo. On the other, I was crushingly disappointed in its similarities to much earlier SF from the likes of J G Ballard and Bruce Sterling (neither of whom are writers I enjoy reading).
The internal politics of the ship, the class system, the conflicts – all of this was promising (even better if there had been a signal to follow, the discovery of an abandoned alien ship, and so on). But for it all to be based on Earth (yawn) with Earth politicking and constant cross-cutting between events on the oblivious ship and events in the all-knowing secret facility, well, that was disappointing on all kinds of levels.
Disappointing because the plot (over the three extended episodes) moved both too quickly and too slowly. Because the characters never had a chance to grow, develop, and interact in an organic way. They would appear in one extended episode only to be bumped off in the next. Because there were too many twists and turns and revelations. Part of the plot concerned a young girl who had developed psi powers (because the whole experiment was some kind of breeding programme). Fine, except one minute she’s having visions and the next she’s throwing up enormous, ship-destroying power surges and the next she’s teleporting people to strange planets. It all developed too quickly.
It was a show that just couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. If the main thing was supposed to be about a selective breeding programme, fine: make Huysman’s Pets, then, and forget the generation ship stuff. If it was about the people on the ship, then forget the crappy Earth plots and give us a story about a real generation ship with all its conflicts and challenges. And whatever you do, do not commit that worst of all televisual sins: the crappy cliffhanging ending. Because having invested six hours in something that turned out to be utter tripe, your chances of ever making a second series and of tying up those loose ends are very slim indeed.
It finished with a preposterous murder, a man stranded on a planet with no food and no apparent vegetation, and a ship with broken systems on which it was actually raining. I could just see the disinterested writers’ room, in which people shouted out desultory plot ideas around the table, but nobody cared, and whoever was tasked with writing the show just put them all in. All of them.