Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ascension To Nowhere

Syfy, the vowel-friendly network that once openly courted nerds but wanted a bigger audience, hasn’t had an out-and-out hit since Battlestar Galactica ended. Its attempts at reality TV attract tepid audiences, and lacking any clear ratings winners, it’s mortgaged prime weeknight time to WWE pageantry. Based on advance publicity, they clearly hope to close that gap with the convoluted, set-bound spectacle of Ascension. And the tedious wait continues.

Back in 1963, six hundred people boarded a rocket bound for Proxima Centauri. In 2014, the original crew’s children and grandchildren continue their mission. Having lost Earth, suffering history’s worst cabin fever, they persevere because doing otherwise is impossible. Until, that is, their ship suffers its first-ever murder. The sheer unlikelihood shocks the population… and their Earthbound handlers, who remain strangely aware of everything aboard a ship two light-years away.

Initially, the show centers on the inhabitants of USS Ascension, deeply claustrophobic and immune to cultural change. The murder which initiates events proves a Macguffin; the real story investigates the science and morality of human eugenics in deep-space colonization, and how Earth manipulates events from afar. Within a few scenes, however, focus drifts onto humanity’s last true hope, a little girl whose abilities meld Stephen King’s Carrie with River Tam from Firefly.

I’ll resist the temptation to disclose the first episode’s big concluding plot twist. That’s too easy. However, despite the actors in special features extolling its “mind-blowing” nature, I predicted it around the one-hour mark. It’s such a well-worn science fiction standby that, when novelist Christian Cantrell recycled it elsewhere, many reviewers responded with derisive laughter. Heinlein and Asimov wore the shine off this apple, which dates back to René Descartes, even Plato.

Tricia Helfer
This proves something I’ve long suspected: today’s mass media product creators don’t read. Though it drags revelations out interminably to maintain otherwise nonexistent suspense, veteran genre fans will recognize Ascension as a massive spittoon of pre-chewed science fiction lard. Not even the good stuff, either; besides The Matrix and Jefferson Starship’s Blows Against the Empire, it openly ransacks Brendan Fraser’s lukewarm concept comedy Blast From the Past.

George Lucas at least had the decency to read Hero With a Thousand Faces before writing his naked Flash Gordon pilferage.

Ascension attempts crafty social awareness. Important conflicts derive from “lower deckers,” sweat-stained machinists who persistently challenge the officers’ corps. Tricia Helfer, playing a slightly aged version of her BSG character, brokers power through her “stewardesses,” a euphemism for an elaborate whorehouse. Helfer selects apprentices through anorexia-inducing weigh-ins. The stewardesses’ loyalty oath includes the pledge: “We are wife, mother, and caregiver to all.”

Shudder.

Yet somehow, this social conscience feels hollow. The population remains stuck in a pre-Beatles culture, staunchly unenlightened on sexual matters (men evidently think butt slaps are playful), yet somehow progressive enough to promote African American command officers. They’ve never composed one new song? Never staged one community theatre play? Yet some changes are okay. Particularly those changes that make casting directors look broad-minded and worldly.

Creator Adrian Cruz basically assumes that, without the specific influences that molded our culture, his ship would remain a time capsule, immune to social pressures or human thirst for novelty. Somebody, somewhere, would’ve written interesting poetry. Somebody, somewhere, would’ve organized labor movements and forced concessions by pinching the water supply in a closed environment. Considering how often people disrobe on this show, somebody, somewhere, would’ve invented the underwire.

Even the physical design looks strangely ordinary. Despite Frankie and Annette-ish fashions, stars could wear their costumes into any big-city rockabilly bar today without changing their tastefully outdated knickers. The ship, all sleek plastic and swooping angles, looks copied from Gene Roddenberry’s design studio. Notably, despite fifty-one years aloft, the ship (and Earth’s masterfully hidden spy cameras) remain apparently immune to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Where’s the damn dirt?

Brandon P. Bell
So we have recycled plot elements, recycled cultures, and recycled actors phoning in recycled performances. Everything starts seeming rather pointless. Murky screen images, deaths you could time with a stopwatch, and scenes already pre-satirized in Galaxy Quest leave me feeling headyachy. When target audiences, like me, would rather spend time fault-finding the onscreen picture than joining the characters’ development arc, that shark’s probably jumped.

I suspect this series was written with a Blake Snyder textbook, a Sinatra Pandora stream, and a case of 5-Hour Energy Shots. The writers need, however, some John Varley paperbacks and a Scientific American subscription. Methinks America’s over-busy cable media is approaching terminal saturation. Ascension may be our last warning.

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