Ascension pissed me off.
There's a lot of good things and bad things about the first night of the series, but the thing that really pissed me off – and I mean, the thing that really, really, really pissed me off? It's that I predicted the ending, the bit twist, like two months ago when I first heard about this. “Oh, please don't let it be a variation on the JG Ballard story, '13 to Centaurus',” I begged, but, nope, that's exactly what it is. It's 13 to Centaurus on steroids, as a soap opera.
For those of you no familiar with the story – which I assume means all of you, since who the hell reads Ballard but me? - I'll explain below in the “Spoilers” section, so you can avoid it if you don't want to know the twist. I will say that among the things that piss me off about this series, however, is that it rips off his premise, even goes so far as to have the “Ascension” launched in 1963, the year “13 to Centaurus” was published, and yet doesn't give JG any credit whatsoever.
Ok, so the premise is that somehow in 1963 the US built a nuclear pulse rocket-powered starship in secret, and launched it to Proxima Centauri on a voyage that would take 100 years. It was sent up with 600 people aboard, and is now 51 years into its journey, with nearly everone on the ship having been born en route.
Thus far I'm on board. The ship is the size of the empire state building, the interior is all googy architecture, period furniture, turntables rather than MP3 players, period clothes, and clunky machinery that looks like it came out of an Irwin Allen TV show. I am concerned however by a number of nonscientific details that don't make sense to me, such as: why do they have artificial gravity? In an incredibly closed ecosystem like this, why are they just chucking dead bodies out into space? Lots of stuff that may be clues, or simply sloppy writing. Dunno. Not gonna' find out. Tonight was my only epsode of “Ascencion.” I'm checking out. I'm done. Did I mention it pissed me off?
No spoilers yet: I should also mention that I LIKE “13 From Centaurus.” It's a good story. Heartbreaking, even. But what's good for a short story is not good for a 6-hour miniseries, and as a result, whatever the ratings were last night, I expect them to SERIOUSLY drop off tonight, as the viewing public collectively screamed, “OH, COME ON!” and hurled things at their TV sets.
Anyway, the plot is sort of a cross between “Twin Peaks,” and “Mad Men” in space. (In fact, I'd be surprised if that wasn't the pitch). There's a murder that gets everything going, the dead girl turns out to be not nearly so nice as everyone assumed, there's 60s sexism galore, there's a hint of racism, but I don't think they went far enough exploring that. (How many people believe an USAF starship launched in 1963 would have had ANY black people on it? Hands up? None? Yeah, that's my thinking as well. Still: there's a notable minority of black folk, and one prominent black character) Since marriages are arranged for maximum genetic viability (In a world where DNA had only been discovered 5 years before), they've pretty much completely divorced marriage from sex. There's your family, and then there's the people you schtupp. This is an excuse to show a surprising amount of nudity (Which is to say any). Hooray! We get to see Tricia Helfer's naked butt. Now take a picture and mail it back to 2004 when I gave a damn about Tricia Helfer's naked butt.
Acting is competent. (Better than Twin Peaks, though it'd be hard to imagine it being worse) Music is entirely forgettable (Excepting an anachronous Elton John song). Direction is good. Cinematography is good. Sets are great. On the whole, however, the entire night felt disconcertingly slow and plodding. Like there wasn't quite enough story for two hours, but more than they could fit into one, so it got padded out a bit.
And now for the spoilers. Don't read on if you don't wanna' know, though, trust me, you're gonna' wanna' bail out now or else risk killing people when you find out.
“13 from Centaurus” is about a kid who was born on a starship en rout to Alpha Centauri. The journey is expected to take a century. The kid is very smart and inquisitive, and begins to suspect aspects of their lives that don't make sense, such as “Why do we have artificial gravity?” He suspects they're not really on a starship at all, and pokes around until he finds a long-forgotten, badly-maintained access pannel. He goes through it, and finds out their starship is a huge mockup built in a warehouse somewhere in the UK. He sneaks back in, and doesn't tell anyone.
Turns out the whole “Mission” was a feasibility study to see if such a mission were possible in real life. It was started by some administration or another, then promptly forgotten about by subsequent administrations. When rediscovered, they couldn't simply expose it because of the scandal it would cause, but also the shock to the crew.
The boy (And a technician pretending to be the computer) decide to make the mission fail, prevent there from being any more births on the ship, and just let them expire of natural causes. The end.
It's a good short story.
Ascension is the same plot. It's not a real starship. It's a full-scale century-long simulation.
Yeah, I'm pissed off.