Is the heavily hyped Syfy miniseries Ascension the second coming of the second coming of Battlestar Galactica? Nope.
The first night of Ascension wasn't directed by M. Night Shyamalan, but it might as well have been. We'll get to the final twist at the end of this recap, but suffice to say that it did not work for us.
Apart from that final twist, it turns out that Ascension is a melodramatic murder mystery that happens to be set aboard a spaceship, with character names ("Duke Vanderhaus," "Viondra Denninger") that appear to have been cut-and-pasted from a 1980s nighttime soap opera. Oh, and there are some other unintentionally hilarious twists throughout the first installment — of the sort that might have you screaming "NO WAY!" (in a bad way, though) at the TV screen.
Ascension begins by letting us know it's taking place in The Past — a time when TVs were black and white and inside of consoles, and when word-association games passed for serious psychology. The attractive young woman projected onto the screen-within-a-screen has the manicured eyebrows of a pinup girl, but a haunted look on her face. When the interviewer asks her to free-associate the word "ascension," she squares her jaw, and replies "trap."
Next scene: the same woman strips off her evening gown to reveal retro undergarments, takes a swig from a wine bottle, and plunges into — a pool? A lake? Some kind of cinematically lit body of water. The music cues us that drama is afoot, and indeed, there's a sudden edit, revealing our glamour girl is now a corpse with a nasty-looking head wound.
Who is she? Where are we? What year is it, anyway? Ascension plays coy at first, offering up a subtitle that only lets us know we're about to shift "18 Hours Earlier." We're now watching the bustling setup for a launch day party of some kind. Strutting into the frame comes erstwhile cylon Tricia Helfer as Viondra Denninger, whose role is as-yet unclear but whose bitchy, regally sexy bearing suggests a woman of power. She's berating a row of cocktail dress-clad women ("Jackie, the seams of your stockings are a disgrace") who publicly work as flight attendants — though, as we learn a few clicks down the road, they're secretly foot soldiers in Viondra's bustling call-girl business.
The camera moves on to two younger women who are helping decorate for the party, the overriding motif of which appears to be American flags. One looks on admiringly, dreaming of joining Viondra's carefully poised clones ("Stewardesses get all the prettiest clothes!") The other glowers from beneath her Bangs of Independent Thinking (Jacqueline Byers as Nora); clearly, she ain't cut out for that life. Up saunters an agitated-looking lad in a polo shirt (PJ Boudousque as James) looking for "Lorelei." There's no Lorelei here, though teenage longings are afoot. Too bad for Nora, but James is most definitely not coming to the party tonight, the purpose of which he describes as "toasting the glorious tin can."
Lorelei, we soon learn, is the femme fatale in the gown who's gonna be dead in 18 hours. At present, she's still breathing, and entering into a clandestine meeting with a shady character named Stokes (Brad Carter), whose positive points include the fact that he has access to the last 25 bottles of Bordeaux left wherever all this is taking place. A rendezvous is planned ("We had an understanding!" Stokes glowers) but Lorelei is Over It and exists with a flounce into the launch party, now fully underway. "Fly Me to the Moon" is playing. Wait ... could that be a CLUE to the SETTING?
Partygoers include Lorelei's sister Emily (Tiffany Lonsdale), flirting with a man in a military uniform (Brandon P. Bell as Aaron) who is not her husband. Juicy. Lorelei interrupts, disrupts, and flounces again. We get it. She's a little unhinged.
Elsewhere at the party, a group that includes Viondra (her interpretation of formalwear includes elbow-length gloves) gathers to watch a flickering black-and-white film. "We must reach for the stars," a man cajoles from the screen. "Imagine the greatest journey ever undertaken. A century-long sojourn to a new world, completed by the grandchildren of the brave souls who embarked on this adventure." Guys! Exposition has entered the room! You better recognize!
Quick cuts reveal yea more snippets: Emily and Aaron in flagrente delicto. Lorelei swimming in the pool toward her inevitable, mysterious death. Eighteen hours, it seems, have already passed.
Back to that retro film, which looks kinda like, and shares a dead-eyed can-do enthusiasm with, Walt Disney's opening-of-Disneyland propaganda film. "Our eyes must be focused on the stars if we are to have any hope of surviving this arms race, this space race. Indeed, this human race," the narrator intones. He unveils a spaceship model with the flair of a magician: "I give you ... ASCENSION!" Diondra and a uniform-clad man we soon learn is her husband (Brian Van Holt as Captain Willian Denninger) exchange knowing glances, just as a most unlucky little girl stumbles upon Lorelei's staring, underwear-clad corpse.
Cue swooping overhead crane shot set to "Rocket Man" (did the music supervisor just Google every space-themed song he or she could get the rights to?) and it's revealed: Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space, aboard the full-sized version of the model we've just clapped eyes on. Not really a shocker, that.
More titles. We are aboard "United States Orion Class Spaceship: Ascension, 51 Years Into Their 100-Year Journey." (Apparently there's no accounting for it versus their in space.) Dramatic pause. "Today." This is happening now, but all the people aboard Ascension know is the culture prior to their launch in the 1960s. The title appears, overlaid across … there it is again … an American flag.
Boom. We are suddenly back on Earth, as dramatic music chases Harris (Gil Bellows) down a hospital hallway. Dude is anxious to get to his bedridden father, who's just been visited by a mysterious stranger. (Look closely, and dear old dad certainly does resemble a wizened version of a certain Ascension proselytizer we met a few paragraphs ago.) Harris confronts the intruder, an academic who's writing a thesis on "the early space program," and softens a bit when he notes how much the scholar admires his old man. Until shit gets weird, that is, and "Project Ascension" enters the convo. What if, in the 1960s (take a deep breath, it's a doozy), Harris' rocket-scientist dad had helped the US government launch an interstellar spaceship with a crew that knew they'd die en route to a new world, leaving the journey to be completed by their descendants. Harris is skeptical, or as we will learn, pretends to be. This thing cannot be, because "I work for the government. Do you know how incompetent they are?" Heh.
Meanwhile, back on Ascension, Aaron is summoned to the crime scene, where fellow officer Duke Vanderhaus (Ryan Robbins), aka the guy married to the woman Aaron is nutzo for, is all to happy to snarl at his theories. "Agatha Christie would be impressed. Or have you been reading Raymond Chandler?" (Literary snark has seldom cited more obvious source material.) The debate rages: Was Lorelei's death an accident? Was it a murder? OMG, is there a murderer loose on Ascension?
It's time to announce Lorelei's death, and Denninger does it just like Laura Palmer's high school did it: Over the public address system. Errrryone is sad, or acts like it. Whodunnit? And why?
Lorelei's mom weeps into the coroner's office to drop science on her daughter. "All the boys were interested in her. That's no secret. She didn't run around like some lower-deck trash." (After this point, Ascension goes out of its way to emphasize class struggles on the ship; hat-tip to Titanic there.)
Meanwhile, the little girl who found Lorelei's body is in a white room, a state of shock. Babbling nonsense. "The globus sees all!" This little girl will later be revealed to be somewhat psychic. Whatever "the globus" is will not, at least not in this episode.
While we're in the medical part of the ship, the doctor (Andrea Roth) has a chance to share Lorelei's psych eval, which we saw at the very beginning of the episode. Seems there's mental malaise known as "the crisis" which affects those born on the space — kids who will never see a blue sky or a real beach. Everybody gets it, but Lorelei's space-cabin fever was worse than most.
From here, Ascension propels itself in police-procedural directions; Aaron scrutinizes surveillance camera footage and questions hostile witnesses, including James and Stokes. (Both are from "the lower decks.") It's discovered Lorelei had a gunshot wound in her mouth. But that's impossible! There are no guns on the ship! OR ARE THERE?
Other notable moments as the case proceeds: Having never worked a murder case before, Aaron takes Vanderhaus' earlier sneer as advice and visits the library look for books on how police solve crimes." The librarian is Aaron's wry sister, who points him toward Philip Marlowe. "He walked the mean streets alone." Sis also has some Lorelei intel: The last thing the girl checked out was a video shot the night of a fire that still haunts the ship's collective memory.
After, Nora and James have an emo interlude. "Face it ... our grandparents screwed us," James broods. "They sent us on a trip to nowhere." Foreshadowing? YEP. More foreshadowing, or perhaps just an obvious plot twist foreshadowing the less-obvious one that's about to drop: back on earth, Harris drops a bombshell. Ascension is real. (Sort of.)
In space, a storm bears down outside, the mysterious gun is recovered, and Stokes is punished for hiding it with rather rabid fatal justice. But as he's tossed out a Galactica-stye airlock, he spirals not into the stars... but onto an inflated mattress, and is hustled away by Harris' minions.
Yes. That's correct. Ascension is a hoax — they're not in space, they're on a fake spaceship, on Earth.
"Ascension is a lifeboat for humanity!" Harris, now revealed to be the puppetmaster of this operation, declares, in a line Syfy was so proud of it appears in the trailer below. Before we get a chance to hear exactly what humanity is running from, and what purpose this epic experiment the ship is serving, the screen cuts to black.
Parts two and three of Ascension air tonight and tomorrow night, on Syfy.