When Tricia Helfer emerged on our screens as the sexy, mysterious Cylon Six in Battlestar Galactica, she became a new female sci-fi icon. Now eleven years later she has returned to her sci-fi roots for the US Syfy channel's latest big TV event, Ascension. Since Battlestar, Syfy has delivered Warehouse 13, Haven and Continuum among others, but there hasn't been a proper space-bound sci-fi show since Adama led humanity to Earth and the war with the Cylons back in 2009.
The premise of the show, a spaceship built in the 1960s to take a select group of humanity in search of the stars, is an interesting premise. The USS Ascension is a mix of futuristic technology - there is gravity for example - mixed with black and white TV sets and 60s clothing. Visually the first episode was stunning, particularly the panning shot through the ship and out to space. But even from the start I thought I had to take a large dollop of suspension of disbelief to go with it.
Of course, in the end, that was probably justified but more on that later.
There were some fascinating ideas at play here. There was still an obvious class-divide system of sorts, with the lower desk crew facing sneers and condensation from the populace above. But then most interestingly given the 60s origins of which the ship was based, race was no longer an issue, with Brandon P Bell's first officer Aaron Gault seemingly accepted by the crew despite the dark colour of his skin.
Probably most disturbing was the fact the there are no old people on the ship. Considering the ship was only 51 years into its 100 year mission, surely there would be some people on board who would have remembered Earth and been part of the original launch? Yet parents and grandparents were spoken of with nostalgia. An insidious form of crowd control? Voluntary euthanasia or something worse?
The murder of Lorelei was an innovative way to explore these social issues. There was no murder, no guns on this ship, yet it was not the Utopia that the ships's inhabitants tried to make it out to be. It was telling that Lorelei's secret boyfriend, underclass citizen James Toback, was the only suspect. We also learned about the 'crisis', something every crew member goes through when they realise that their only purpose is to live, procreate and die on the ship, allowing future generations to start a new life on a new world. Everyone seemed to brush it under the carpet, viewing the crisis as a rite of passage more than psychological concern; indeed Doctor Bryce seemed surprised when she noted that Lorelei seemed depressed in her psych evaluation.
My one issue is that after one episode, the ideas some more intriguing than the characters themselves. First officer Gault was probably the most engaging character as he searched for the killer, but he had a darker side life everyone else; having an affair with Lorelei's sister Emily. Tricia Helfer did a good job as the Lady Macbeth-style Captain's wife Viondra, using her girls to extract secrets from the powerful and then sleeping with her husband's rival in further pursuit of her power. The trouble was, when you saw Helfer putting on those slinky dresses and dominating the men around her, I was reminded that we were watching Six all over again.
Her husband, Captain William Denninger didn't seem like a strong enough character to plausibly maintain control of the mission. Ryan Robbins - soon to be seen in season three of Continuum starting later this month - came across as a bog standard aggressive security officer out of his depth while other characters blended into the background, particularly Andrea Roth's Doctor Juliet Bryce. Everyone performed well - if I can say anything about the cast it is that there are no dud performances - but I was hard put to remember names by the end of the episode.
Probably the most interesting was Ellie O'Brien's Christa, a girl who could sense that something was very wrong with the mission and the ship. At first I thought she was going to form part of a psychic powers - or alien presence story-line, though oddly that would have felt out of place given the level of realism the show was attempting; futuristic ideas meets retro designs and beliefs. In the end, it was all about the self-awareness of what the USS Ascension really was.
Which brings us on to that big twist. Maybe I am used to them, but I figured it out about ten minutes before the end. The scenes with Gil Bellow's Harris Enzmann on modern day Earth felt jarringly out of place for most of the episode, particualrly the scene with his family at home; Earth it seemed was not some alternate reality-post holocaust world that the premise of the show might have suggested.
Still it was a wonderful, if bittersweet twist, even if I guessed it. On one hand I am little dissapointed that we are not going to get a good space-bound sci-fi show that has humanity out exploring the stars. But on the flip side, considering the social and moral issues presented were by far the most fascinating part of the first episode, this twisted Big Brother experiment seems very apt.
Suddenly there is hope for these characters; they might not die out 'in space' as part of a larger mission and it will be fascinating to see if and when they become self aware of the truth. There is still room for these characters to develop too. Perhaps now that the premise is established the show can hook us deeper into the motivations of the crew, picking out the heroes among this seemingly-unlikeable bunch.
My biggest question of course is what happened to the original crew? Did the social experiment allow people to die in the name of science and psychological study? Or, like the character spaced the end of the episode, were they able to find their way back to Earth? There is plenty of mystery to maintain the momentum for now.
It wasn't brilliant but it was engaging and it made you think; that was a good foundation for the series. Forget the stinking TV turd that is Celebrity Big Brother, Ascension is the big social experiment I want to be watching for the next six weeks!