Ascension, ep. 1

On the week­end I record­ed the first episode of Ascen­sion on CBC. Tonight I watched it.

This post con­tains spoil­ers for episode 1 of Ascen­sion. You Have Been Warned.


Ascen­sion is the sto­ry, osten­si­bly, of a secret Kennedy-era gen­er­a­tion ship (named, con­ve­nient­ly, Ascen­sion) launched some­time in the 1960s toward Prox­i­ma Cen­tau­ri. As the sto­ry opens, the ship has been under­way for 51 years, con­tains 6001 peo­ple, and is near­ing what the cap­tain and XO refer to as “the Rubi­con”, or what nor­mal folks would call the point of no return. While every­one in the upper decks enjoys a dance, the low­er-deck­ers (a low­er caste, appar­ent­ly) drink their ille­gal (?) whisky (?), and a woman named Lorelei goes for a swim in a pris­tine blue pool right next to the green­ish tanks of the flu­id-recla­ma­tion sys­tems. (Must smell love­ly.) Lorelei ends up dead, the appar­ent vic­tim of an acci­dent — or is it?

Of course it isn’t.

Mean­while, on mod­ern-day Earth, the archi­tect of the Ascen­sion project, hos­pi­tal­ized after a stroke that appar­ent­ly makes him quote some­thing that sounds vague­ly like Scrip­ture, is vis­it­ed in the hos­pi­tal (or the hos­pice, maybe?) by his son. The son finds out that some­one else has been vis­it­ing Dad­dy-O, and storms off to catch this inter­lop­er. The vis­i­tor turns out to be doing his Ph. D. the­sis on “the ear­ly Space Age”, and tries to talk to the son about Ascen­sion. Sounds like every­one on Earth that’s heard of it (oth­er than Mr. Ph. D.) thinks that Ascen­sion is a myth. NASA’s projects are open, says the stu­dent; Ascen­sion was a mil­i­tary project.

Back to the star­ship. Was it acci­dent, or mur­der most foul? The dis­cov­ery of a .22 bul­let in the victim’s head seems to point at the lat­ter. The cap­tain orders his XO to inves­ti­gate — but keep it low-key, right, we don’t want every­one to pan­ic.

Oh, and hey, every­one seems to be shag­ging some­one else’s wife.

I real­ize I’m sound­ing a lit­tle less than impressed with the show, and that’s prob­a­bly because I am. This episode had a lot of strikes against it:

  • Clunky expo­si­tion tum­bling from almost everyone’s mouth (“As you know, as XO, you’ll need to learn to play pol­i­tics.” “As you know, my hus­band is con­ve­nient­ly work­ing the late shift. Let’s do it here on the table.” “As you know, Ascen­sion was a pipe dream.” (Super-sub­tle cut to Ascen­sion plod­ding through space.))
  • Appar­ent­ly they worked out a sys­tem of sta­ble and con­tin­u­ous arti­fi­cial grav­i­ty in the 1960s, which makes me won­der why they’re not using it on the ISS. Here I am, thinks Saman­tha Cristo­fore­t­ti, float­ing around like a suc­ka.2
  • I kind of liked the fact that the Captain’s and the XO’s uni­forms look like US Navy or US Air Force uni­forms, but (and this is nit­picky, I know, but if you’re gonna do it, do it right) the XO either needs a dif­fer­ent col­lar device or a cou­ple more stripes on his epaulets. The sil­ver oak leaves go with the Lt. Com­man­der stripes, not the Lieu­tenant ones he’s wear­ing. (Mil­i­tary folks, please feel free to cor­rect me on this. I’m get­ting my info from Wikipedia. Yes, I know.)
  • 600 peo­ple isn’t even a small town any­more. It’s a vil­lage; a ham­let. Every­one knows everyone’s busi­ness in a com­mu­ni­ty that small. But there seems to be plen­ty of infi­deli­ty going on, and the cuck­olds don’t seem to real­ize it’s hap­pen­ing. Odd.
  • The stars in the for­ward obser­va­tion lounge are awful­ly red. If they’re trav­el­ing fast enough to see a red-shift that extreme (and they might be, if the ship­board grav­i­ty is due entire­ly to con­stant accel­er­a­tion3), then you’d expect to see it to the rear of the ship, with the stars up front shift­ed to the blue end of the spec­trum…
  • …and oh look, the stars just to the right of the red ones, those guys are all blue. (Also, a child actress tells us that the red stars are “death”, and the blue stars, “those are life”. I… see.)
  • Also: What the hell are those dark clouds that stream by the for­ward obser­va­tion win­dows?
  • Also also: Next week’s episode appar­ent­ly fea­tures an “ion cloud” (ooh, how Star Trek-y) that sneaks up on them quick­ly enough that they have only 30 min­utes to save the ship and every­one aboard her. You’ve been trav­el­ing for 51 years and you only noticed this death-deal­ing cloud of ions (I guess?) half an hour before you’re going to plow right into it? Fire your for­ward watch astronomer, then. (Pos­si­bly toward the ion cloud, in the hopes that the body might dis­perse it.)

I guess my major com­plaints about the show are a) clunky dia­logue with waaaay too much expo­si­tion hap­pen­ing, and b) a lack of sci­ence sol­id enough for me to sus­pend my dis­be­lief. (One exam­ple: you want me to believe this gen­er­a­tion ship has a con­stant 1g pulling every­one to the floor? Build the habi­tat like a torus and spin it, then. Have an exter­nal shot of the torus spin­ning. Show me that that grav­i­ty is earned.)

You want me to believe in a sci­ence fic­tion show? Then put some sci­ence in it. It doesn’t have to be rig­or­ous, dry, this’ll-stand-up-to-peer-review sci­ence, either. Just show me you made an effort.


All that said, I have set my DVR to record the rest of the series, for two rea­sons:

  • It’s short — there are six one-hour episodes in the minis­eries.
  • Despite my com­plaints, there was enough to keep me inter­est­ed. I’ll give it anoth­er hour. Hope­ful­ly now that all the pieces are in place, and the world is estab­lished, the dia­logue will improve.

  1. 599, actu­al­ly, I guess. (Sor­ry, Lorelei. We hard­ly knew ye.) 
  2. Not real­ly. 
  3. …though 51 years at 1g accel­er­a­tion would have them mov­ing waaaaaaaaaaaaaay faster than light, which doesn’t seem to be the case.