December 16, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Miniseries Premiere Review: “Ascension”


ASCENSION:  Mon-Wed 9PM on Syfy

In the post-Battlestar Galactica era, Syfy has barely even seemed to be trying.  It’s rather sad:  at a point when nearly every network–even CBS!–has at least one substantial piece of inventory in the science-fiction/fantasy genre, Syfy has been filling its air with tame programmers like Eureka and Haven, or low-rent imports like Z Nation and Dominion.  Instead of staking a claim to the territory it was named for, Syfy has become the network of Sharknado.

In the next several weeks, Syfy is taking a pair of relatively big swings in an effort to rescue itself from irrelevence, first with this week’s miniseries/backdoor pilot ASCENSION, and next month with its take on Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys.  Ascension has an arresting premise and a sleek look (the direction is by Stephen Williams)–and a hell of a twist offered up at the end of its first 90 minute segment–but it suffers from mediocrity in the scripting by series co-creator Philip Levens (from a story with the other co-creator Adrian Cruz) and performances.

The action is framed as a murder mystery with a unique setting.  Ascension‘s conceit is that when JFK was President, we didn’t just choose to go to the moon, we actually sent an intergalactic spaceship with a 600-person load into deep space on a century-long mission to find the planet Proxima, where humans could resettle if the Cold War led to nuclear annhilation.  (This unlikehood makes more sense as the story goes on.)  51 years have passed, and a new generation has been born on board the Ascension, which has a hermetically sealed existence that still considers I Love Lucy and Lena Horne to be contemporary culture.  The ship is captained by William Denninger (Brian Van Holt, drastically out of his Cougar Town persona), who is partnered by his scheming wife Viondra (Tricia Helfer); she’s in charge of the ship’s “stewardesses,” whom she’s turned into her personal prostitution and spying service.

When the seductive young Lorelei is found dead on the ship’s “beach,” Denninger orders his Executive Officer Oren Gault (Brandon P. Bell) to solve the crime.  Gault’s investigation, as these things do, probes into the dark undercurrents of the Ascension, complicated by the fct that Gault is a black man in an environment that’s still in the 1960s, and he’s having an affair with Lorelei’s (white, married) sister.  Running parallel to this is the story of Nora Bryce (Jacqueline Byers), a friend of Lorelei’s who becomes involved with one of Lorelei’s boyfriends, the perplexingly in-jokingly named James Toback (P.J. Boudousque).  Meanwhile, Nora’s younger sister may or may not be having seer-like visions.  There’s also an insurrection brewing on the lower decks of the ship.

It’s all a sturdy structure for a science-fiction saga with an edge of social commentary, but it’s hobbled by the very pedestrian script that Levens has written.  The dialogue is flat and expository, with soap complications that lack imagination and wit, and no hint of interesting character development beyond what the plot functionally requires.  Levens can barely keep his story going, much less use the 1960s millieu for any effective purpose (he does, however, get credit for The Big Twist, if he’s the one who came up with it).  The acting by Bell and Byers in what are essentially the lead roles is bland, and even sharp performers like Van Holt, Helfer and Andrea Roth (as Nora’s mother, the ship’s doctor) are reined in by their one-dimensional roles.

Despite all its flaws, Ascension is the most intriguing show Syfy has aired in quite a while, and if the miniseries is renewed, perhaps some changes behind the scenes can raise it up to the next level.  For now, it’s more a promising potential than a satisfying whole.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."