Over the course of three weeks we have been taken on a fascinating journey observing the crew of the star ship Ascension on a 100 year mission to take humanity to a distant world, all the while observed by Harris Enzmann and his project on Earth. The twist at the end of part 1 - that the ship was not in space but a laboratory under Enzmann's control made for an interesting change of direction. Not only were we looking at how a space-bound human community could survive effectively, but the morality of using humans as lab rats in the name of science.
We watched with interest at the power plays between Captain Denniger, his wife Viondra and Councilman Rose, the ability for racial equality to evolve as Aaron Gault became XO and how class was still huge issue between the officers and lower deckers as James Toback fought to become a cadet and rise out of his old life. We have become disturbed by Enzmann's disturbing obsession with Doctor Juliet Bryce and the striking similarity to his wife. Samantha Kruger - an observer to the Ascension project - became the audience's voice, questioning the morality of letting people live and die within the ship in order to study them and use genetics to create a superior human.
Week one was interesting, though the characters themselves were made less of an impact than the themes at play. Week two brought depth to the people on and off the ship as we learned more about the motives and beliefs of Gil Bellow's Enzman, the connection between Tricia Helfer's Viondra and Brian Van Holt's William, the blossoming romance between P.J. Boudousqués' James and Jacqueline Byers' Nora and the intrigue of Jessica Sipos' Jackie and Al Sapienza's Councilman Rose. But it all remained fascinating rather than gripping television. But week three brought both in spades, delivering the strongest episode and delivering on the potential glimpsed in the trailers for Ascension.
Giving the events taking place on Earth, the events on the ship were insignificant in the scale yet still gripping too. The war between Councilman Rose and Captain Denniger took a surprising twist as a potential illegitimate child of the captain threatened to send William and Viondra to the lower decks. So it was rather satisfying to see the child revealed as the love child of Rose's ally, Councilman Davis, sending Rose's plan to take power come crashing down and making the Denningers stronger than ever.
Better still was the moment Viondra took command in the crisis, providing a very human side to her as she took action to protect the crew. Her husband played the hero by releasing lithium hydroxide into the ventilation shafts to create oxygen as the carbon dioxide levels rose and threatened to kill everyone on board. Viondra was able to cunningly remove Rose as he attempted to take control from her on the bridge, freezing the chain of command and protecting her position and her husband's. At the end of the episode we say for the first time that they deserved to be in charge of the ship, something that would have been hard to imagine a couple of weeks ago.
Poor Aaron Gault went through the wringer this week as Duke Vanderhaus discovered Aaron was having an affair with his wife and was beaten. He was then almost electrocuted as Christa unleashed her powers and almost destroyed the ship and Enzman's facility with it. But his final fate was far worse, engaging in a brutal fight with Christa's would-be abductor and finding himself - we assumed - stranded on an alien world with no food or water. Dying would have been a better option.
Talking of Christa, the mystery of what project Ascension was really all about - the creation of a star child, the latest evolution of humanity - added horror and some big sci-fi themes to the episode. Enzman and his father had created the project not just to study how a human community could survive such a mission, but to genetically engineer people with abilities too.
The return of a zombified Lorelei at the party was a particularly creepy edge to the episode and a manifestation of Christas psychic abilities. Lorelei had learned the truth about the project, something which resulted in her death. I wondered if she had obtained some of Christas abilities or just stumbled on Robert Bryce's secrets. There was also the suggestion that Aaron too might have developed something as he was able to see Lorelei walking the lower decks.
I loved the idea of genetic experimentation but I am not so sure I bought into the ultimate goal; to create someone who could transport humanity to another world. Even with the brightest minds, how would Enzman's father and his colleagues even be able to theorise such a thing was possible when they conceived the project? Yet at the end, Enzman seemed to have guessed what Christa had done.
Off ship, I was glad to see John Stokes, the man spaced at the end of week 1, had more screen time. He became unlikely allies to Lauren Lee Smith's Samantha Kruger as she held him escape the facility in an effort to reveal the secrets of Ascension to the world - Snowden style. The moment Stokes discovered the memorial of the dead Ascension crew - including his son who died last week - was brilliantly moving and Brad Carter delivered a great performance. As for Kruger, it all came to a tragic end as her girlfriend was revealed to be a plant and her plans to make those secrets public came crashing down when she was shockingly shot in the face. At least Stokes made it to freedom - for now - and I can only wonder where he might go. I can't imagine him revealing the secrets though; the danger would be too great.
The dramatic power play between Ezman and Katherine Warren became the true conflict in the final episode a she took control of the facility and ordered Ezman 'retired'. Christa unleashing the blast that crippled the Ascension and the facility quickly turned the tables as Ezman went from misguided villain to hero, battling to save the people on the ship while Warren was prepared to kill them all to get the 'star child'. Like Viondra and William Denninger's take down of Councilman Rose on the ship, Ezman pushing Warren over the railings to her ship was just as satisfying.
There were plenty of dramatic twists and turns in this final episode and for the first time I was properly invested in the lives of these characters. As the story went into the final ten minutes I had no idea how it was going to end but Kruger's death, Captain Denninger saving the ship, Christa defeating her abductor and Ezman killing Warren quickly left us with a swift conclusion - one that I didn't necessarily expect.
I think the ending was meant to suggest that Ezman would continue his 'sociological experiment' and the crew would continue their mission. But there were plenty of questions too. Would Warren's bosses take action and threaten to derail the project? Would Stokes reveal the truth or live a life in hiding? Would the Denninger's cement their powerbase on the ship and would Christa reveal the truth?
There are plenty of possibilities for a second season of Ascension, though I am conflicted as to whether there should be one. Ultimately it was a fascinating study of humanity and a tightly paced drama - though I could have done with another episode to flesh some stories out - that ended full circle with the Ascension continuing its journey to another world. The conclusion left room for more stories but there might not be any stories as interesting as those we watched over the last three weeks. Perhaps it should be left as it is; a successful and thought-provoking drama that delivered something exciting to the sci-fi genre.