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'Ascension' review: Back to the future again, but with a twist

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ASCENSION
Jan Thijs/Syfy

In the first season of Mad Men, in the episode entitled “The Wheel,” pitchman poet Don Draper reframed a carousel slide projector as a time machine and defined the word “nostalgia” not as “a sentimental longing” or “wistful recollection of the past” but by the Greek meaning, “pain from an old wound.” Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner not only gave us a way of understanding his show and its haunted antihero but also a perspective on ’60s nostalgia in general, a genre of entertainment unto itself. It began in earnest in the 1980s, when the thirtysomethings who suffered the history of Platoon, Mississippi Burning, and JFK started grieving their Wonder Years and bemoaning The Big Chill and wishing they could Peggy Sue it all over again. Where oh where did all The Right Stuff go? The nostalgia was imprinted upon proceeding generations. Ferris Bueller on a float, lip-synching to “Danke Schoen” and “Twist and Shout”? Perfect metaphor for Gen X teens raised on the bittersweet symphony of Baby Boomer existential crisis. A myth was massaged into us by all of this Back to the Future cultural conditioning: Once upon a time, America the not-so-beautiful was on an ascending redemptive arc, then got shot down by assassinations, war, and Nixon. Our mission impossible: to recover the lost narrative and complete it. We could be Marty McFlys, fixing our fallen-and-can’t-get-up malaise infected culture, and we didn’t need time-traveling DeLorians to do it. We just needed to stand by me, lean on me, do the right thing. Because (sing it!) that’s the POWER of love!

Today’s pop culture is still rehearsing and rehashing the ’60s, explicitly and obliquely, especially the stuff from Gen Xers all grown up. Christopher Nolan, age 44, gives us Interstellar, a cinematic revival tent of Space Race can-doism. Paul Thomas Anderson, age 44, gives us Inherent Vice, a portrait of dazed and confused heroism in the fallen, fallout world created by the apocalyptic ’60s. Nostalgia begetting nostalgia about the nostalgia that begat it. Ascension, a three-part Syfy mini-series that made its debut tonight, is an intriguing iteration of the trend. It’s Interstellar with inherent vice, kinky with irony and twists, indebted to the conspiracy theory storytelling of all things Oliver Stone and every Nothing Is What It Seems sci-fi thing in the ’90s, from The X-Files to The Matrix. Ascension falls way short of all the works cited in this paragraph. But it tries.

The time is now, but for the people aboard the Ascension, it is forever 1963. That’s the year when NASA secretly launched a nuclear-powered, skyscraper-sized, egghead-populated “generation starship” (yes, that’s a thing) on a 100-year journey across the galaxy to find a new home for humanity. (Apparently, this fiction was inspired by actual science. Fancy that: The Sharknado network, trying to do “hard” sci-fi.) The saga begins as Ascension approaches the no-going-back halfway point in its mission, amid mounting tensions between generations. There’s the older, ruling elite, who busy themselves with the business of enjoying and keeping their power, and there’s the young folks coming of age, wrestling with their limited lot in life. They collectively suffer from knowing that they are but a caretaker people. They exist to push the cause forward; none of them will see the promised land. The culture is charged with purpose and seemingly utopian, but this great society is not-so-great, predominantly white and marked by rigid class stratification. Sexism is institutional and casually accepted. The highest-ranking woman aboard Ascension is its chief steward, Viondra Denninger (Tricia Helfer), married to the captain, William Denninger (Brian Van Holt). Her job is to play madam to a company of stewardess/escorts, eye-candy for the proles and sex toys for the privileged. The primary function in this fishbowl world is to just keep breeding, just keep breeding: Eventually, everyone gets assigned to mate and must reproduce. (If you’re wondering “where are the gay people?” that question gets answered tomorrow.) Our hero is one of the people of color in leadership, a black man with the name of Oren Gault (Brandon P. Bell), who overcame a traumatic childhood on the lower decks to rise to the level of XO. (Maybe John Gault’s mama would be proud.) He’s been assigned to investigate the first murder ever committed aboard the Ascension. Crime is so alien to Ascension, Gault has to watch film noir detective movies to learn how to gumshoe. The victim is a pretty young woman, one of Viondra’s girls, whose cryptic last recorded words suggested she was suffering from profound disillusionment. She might have been killed by it, too. Found at the crime scene: Bloody graffiti, “No future.” So begins Ascension’s fall from grace.

Most of the first part of Ascension presented a kind of alt-reality tale: What if… nothing changed after 1963? No assassinations, no Vietnam, no Watergate, and none of the malaise and cynicism that followed, as well as no 9/11, no Iraq, no global economic crisis, but little to no progressivism, either. The drama seemed to promise an allegorical rehash of ’60s social upheaval that had the potential to speak to life on Spaceship Earth here in the present. The show is surely dressed for success. I was tremendously impressed by the world-building: the history, the culture, the set design, evoking the design of the space-age era and golden age of aviation, sleek and minimal splashed with cool Pan Am blue and a bold red here and there. And the opening sequence, a where are we?/when are we? zip through the ship from top to bottom and then out the window, set to Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” was an inspired entree into the series. I was less impressed with the thin, bland archetypes and the casting. The acting isn’t bad, but no one pops. Everything about Ascension struck me as compelling except for the thing that should compel me the most: the people. I don’t think I would have moved on to part two… if it wasn’t for the big twist at the end of part one.

Now, if you haven’t watched a minute of Ascension, then you’ve been warned: SPOILER ALERT! The final scene of part one revealed that folks aboard the starship aren’t in space at all. They’re actually still on Earth, their ship suspended within a massive underground facility and surrounded by a simulation of space. I have seen part two, so I can clarify some things, but SPOILER ALERT! for everyone: We quickly learn that with perhaps a couple exceptions, no one aboard Ascension knows the truth of their situation. They really do think they’re in space. It’s Capricorn One meets The Truman Show: The crew is faking a star trek, except they don’t know it, because they’re all Jim Carrey. Or: It’s The Dharma Initiative in Lost, and everyone is Desmond. The second generation mission leader, Dr. Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows), son of the project’s founder, claims the experiment he’s conducting represents “a lifeboat for humanity.” He claims to envy the sea monkeys he’s raised in Ascension’s prelapsarian bubble world, untouched by the scarring history of the past 50 years, unmarked by the mythology of the ’60s and all of its Greeky nostalgia. By the end of the second hour, we gain some insight into how “the best reality show never made” has improved the world, but we still haven’t gleaned how Enzmann plans to prevent the end of man (groan) with his own private Utopia. It seems to hinge on a young girl who… might have precognitive powers? Not sure. At the very least, she is magically aware that she’s being watched and that nothing aboard Ascension is what it seems.

Did you guess the twist? I did. There were clues (like the clunky, loaded line between Enzmann and his son about manipulative texting), and they were needless and clumsy. Still, the twist makes everything about Ascension much more interesting: It makes me care more about the characters, and it adds depth to every scene. The writing becomes more nuanced (the acting gets better too, as Helfer, Van Holt, and Bell come on strong) and as it explores the layers of reality/unreality at play in the world of Ascension; the whole thing plays like a meditation on social constructivism, or a critique of Objectivism, or something. Ascension has a lot on its mind, though I still don’t know if it has a point. My engagement went next level with the arrival of Samantha Krueger (Lauren Lee Smith), a government investigator tasked with solving the murder and smoking out Enzmann’s secrets. She’s a hero to root for. The retrograde culture of Ascension offends her progressive worldview, but what galls her most is the plight of a puppeted, blinkered people stuck in a manufactured moment, trapped in a bogus future. Will she go full-Morpheus and try to liberate the test subjects from Enzmann’s matrix? Is Enzmann a showrunner with a redemptive vision and a master plan? Or is he just Lost in space? Might Ascension be a self-reflexive meta-comment on the generational decline of science fiction from hard to soft, from aspirational and speculative to fantastical and up-its-own-ass? I will watch part three to get the answers. Ascension is decent crypto-zoo fun and mildly provocative pop culture about pop culture. Can it get any higher, better? Come back Wednesday night when we discuss the finale. B-