'Ascension' finale review: Lost in space, or 'Lost' in space?
The twists and turns of Ascension’s three-night mini-series flight landed the earthbound space ark’s most Right Stuffy space hero and the story itself in a mysterious place strewn with wreckage and reminders of other stories. And more mystery! In the final minutes of part three, we learned that Dr. Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows) was using the decades-long psych experiment started by his father to trigger “punctuated” evolution and produce a next-gen X-Man—a “star child”—possessed with “morphic resonance” (i.e., telepathy, telekinesis, super-powers) capable of manipulating the vast energies located within the nuclear powered “Panopticon” to do even more amazing things, like… actually send someone across the universe! Why take a slooooooooow-boat generation ship when you can just grow a magic sea monkey in a skyscraper-sized fishbowl? NASA, you’ve been doing it wrong!
Enzmann found success in the form of young Christa (Ellie O’Brien), part Marvel Girl, part Firestarter, part Space Guild navigator from Dune. In the final moments, she used her abilities to channel the energies of a Glowglobe to produce a Holtzman effect and save Aaron Gault (Brandon P. Bell) from a baddie’s beat-down by instantaneously teleporting him to… a distant, dark planet? Another Enzmann simulation? The only thing we know for sure is that Ascension is perhaps best understood not as a response to the myth of the ’60, as I argued pretentiously on Monday (sorry). It is something very post-modern, a self-aware sci-fi saga born from an accumulation of sci-fi sagas over the past 50 years, and perhaps full of pining for better, more hopeful, more serious-minded sci-fi: I found something meaningful and provocative in the last image: Gault, a “space hero” with the Right Stuff, rising to his feet amid that trendiest, most dismal of things, a dystopian wasteland. A charitable read: Ascension was challenging a genre to dream better. More hope, less “No Future” cynicism. More big new ideas, fewer hyperlinks trapping us in old ones. More mind-expanding space odysseys, less self-absorbed geeking… like this review.
That’s what I got out of the interesting mess that was Ascension. How about you?
Elaborations and ridiculata:
Ascension was a stir of sci-fi (and Syfy) echoes. There was Stokes (Brad Carter) watching space opera on a motel telly, ogling the space princesses. There was James Toback (the name, a reference itself; the actor, P.J. Boudousque) catching flickers of Fraggle Rock on Ascension monitors. (Or that’s what he was watching on my Syfy-supplied screener. Those who’ve seen the aired version are saying he saw ALF. I’ll update this Thursday morning after checking out the PST telecast.) We definitely got a coded nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. That line about “the star child must be born” (uttered by the treacherous faux troublemaker Eve, revealed to be an Ascension fangirl running a honeypot to snare haters) came during the same scene in which Stokes was playing Moon-Watcher. Gault got The Last Starfighter’s arc, graduating from (unwitting) space hero gameplay to becoming the real deal. (Will Enzmann cover up his absence from the ship by replacing him with a robot doppelganger, just like the movie?)
And was Ascension winking at The Terminator franchise, arguably the defining dystopian, “No Future” narrative of the past 30 years, during its final act? There was Christa, the story’s symbol for a better, redeemed future (a real Christ-a child), standing in the mud, stuck, in front of three doors labeled T-1, T-2, and T-3, waiting for one ruthless, cynical terminator to come through to claim her, while another terminator, morally dubious but presently on the side of angels (Enzmann’s inside man, revealed to be Lorelei’s killer) trying to save her, pleading with her to leave, his line a version of “come with me if you want to live.”
Okay, maybe I am projecting… but projecting might be what Ascension is all about! I’ll bet you five bucks that if Ascension returns for another mini-series, we’ll learn that some kind of magical observer effect is at work here, with Enzmann affecting reality inside the ship simply by watching it, by projecting his wants and wishes upon his “space heroes.” Of course, I once theorized something similar about Lost, and in fact, I dare say this revelation that Enzmann was trying to cultivate a super-powered savior inside his spaceship Skinner Box is basically my Evil Aaron theory of The Dharma Initiative. (Since all of my columns and recaps have made like Gault and mysteriously vanished from this site, you can find that theory here. Thanks, “verdantheart”!) I also used to insist that Lost was a self-aware pop construct built from bits and bobs of other pop culture. It can now be revealed! Doc Jensen is also a super-powered mutant, just like Christa. I wasn’t watching and writing about Lost back in the day. I was just precogging Ascension.
Ascension was definitely fixated with the theme of watching and the effect that watching has on the watched, and vice versa, and more, the show wanted us to know all that, too, via clues to be decoded. Enzmann’s term “morphic resonance” is apparently some sort of pseudoscience business made up by a dubious parapsychologist dude named Rupert Sheldrake, whose books include The Sense of Being Stared At. I am guessing that scientist-voyeur-mutant maker Enzmann is very familiar with those books. James Toback called the monitor showing Fraggle Rock/ALF a “Panopticon.” Which definitely sounds like a good name for a TV monitor, except the word means something else altogether: A Panopticon is a special kind of prison designed in such a way that the prison guards can see all the prisoners at the same time. A perfect analogy for Ascension. (Another Lost link: The inventor of the Panopticon was the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and Jeremy Bentham was the pseudonym used by John Locke after he vanished from The Island when he turned the frozen donkey wheel.) (If I had the energy for it, I would argue a theory that Ascension brims with passive-aggressive “seduced and abandoned” anger at Lost, Seduced and Abandoned being a movie by increasingly meta-filmmaker James Toback. Another time… Okay, probably never.)
There was also that moment when Dr. Juliet Bryce (Andrea Roth, who in a past Lost life played Harper, the woman married to the Other who was sleeping with… Dr. Juliet Burke) used the phrase “every breath we take,” which is so close to “every breath you take,” which, clearly, makes it a wink at The Police’s stalker-surveillance ballad “Every Breath You Take,” from the album Synchronicity, which was inspired by The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler, who also wrote a book called The Ghost in the Machine, which inspired the title of The Police’s previous album Ghost in the Machine, which brings us back to Ascension because we learned in part three that Lorelei is now some kind of ghost in the machine that is the ship that both Christa and Gault can see. And I am pretty sure I used all this Police/Koestler stuff in my Lost theories, too. And a few FlashForward recaps, too! Ascension is trolling me, isn’t it? ISN’T IT?!?!
This job is going to break my mind one day. Welcome to my breakdown.
But hey, back to Panopticons. A Panopticon is also a pretty good analogy for the power we have over a TV show. We are the guards; the show is our prisoner; we control its fate with our watching. The TV version of the observer effect: If enough of you watched Ascension, you’ll get another season that resolves all of its darn cliffhangers! Chief among them: Where is Aaron Gault? TBD… but only if you watched! Otherwise, consider Ascension forever … lost in space. Cue this.
A few other thoughts, including an actual attempt at criticism:
– Part three attended rigorously, metaphorically and on many levels to the themes of sex and death, reproduction and reproduction rights, power and takeover. I liked the parallel plots of Enzmann suffering a coup and temporarily losing control of the project and Captain Denninger (Brian Van Holt) suffering a coup and losing control of the ship. Both were replaced, temporarily, by women, each suspect yet righteous in their own way. And coming off part two, with its critique of a society hostile to homosexuality, we learned that marriage, sex, and having kids are tightly regulated things, arbitrated by an allegedly impartial, perfect judge: a computer. Encoded in this bit of business were so many loaded, political, timely things: marriage equality rights, reproductive rights, population control, eugenics. That’s some smart writing. Well, played Ascension. That said…
– The artfulness of Ascension is difficult to assess given the way Syfy decided to present the series: My understanding is that the show was originally written as six one-hour episodes, not three two-hour movies. Some negative consequences: thematic overload, the unevenness in direction and acting, and irritating instances of redundant plot restatements. I think the Sherlock-esque mini-series format is a good one for Ascension. But next time, it should be produced for the format. The storytelling will be better for it.
– Ascension should be commended for its world-building. I loved the thinking behind the Ostara fertility ritual, how it evolved organically within the ship, how Viondra (Tricia Helfer) took charge of it and turned something fearsome into something festive (akin to: ancient pagan rituals, morphed/ret-conned into Christian holidays), how she used it to build her own star aboard the ship. Note: Ostara is also a reference to be unpacked, with connections to spring rites and Easter. Take it away, Wikipedia.
– I still think the cast could be better, but Helfer and Van Holt and their characters really grew on me as the series progressed, even more so in part three as the troubled power couple doubled down on each, and even reconnected as lovers. And I liked Viondra as captain of Ascension. True authority becomes her.
– Speaking of Helfer: Ascension sure does like taking off her clothes. Maybe less of that in the future.
– Why couldn’t the ship communicate with Earth? Sure, there would have been an epic delay in the signal. But still! Right? Or did I miss something?
– I will miss Samantha the haunted ex-soldier turned duplicitous agent and would-be Ascension liberator, who wanted to save the dupes in the experiment (and score redemption for past sins) by exposing Enzmann’s project to the world, Snowden style. She was shot through the eye by evil journo-fangirl seducer-betrayer Eve before she could skip the country with her living proof, Stokes. Samantha was a good character archetype and served good story and thematic function for this show; I hope next season will fill her void. Samantha leaves a decent legacy: Her storyline made me care about Stokes, now in the wind, his “Allegory of the Cave” enlightenment storyline giving way to a Logan’s Run. He’s poised to be some kind of thorn in Enzmann’s side next time around.
Finale Grade: B. Series Grade: B-