Review

In Syfy's 'Ascension,' a voyage through space and back in time

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
Syfy's 'Ascension' presents space travelers in a kind of time capsule, and reviewer Robert Lloyd is intrigued

I have tried to determine whether there is anything insidious in Syfy turning "Ascension," originally described as a six-part miniseries, into a "three-night event" and setting it afloat in the relatively dead waters of mid-December.

But I have no idea, really. Perhaps this is the absolute best time to air something you're not sure anyone will watch, the competition being relatively light.

The series, a Canadian co-production — I suspected as much when one character told some others to "take off" — is set aboard a city-like spacecraft, bigger than the Empire State Building and launched on a century-long secret mission to colonize another world. The twist — the first twist — is that the trip is half over, having begun in the early 1960s, and that the astronauts are living in a kind of time capsule, or parallel history, in which the old mores still pertain.

This is, of course, impossible. But it does allow for a pleasing use of old tech and fashions, and the creation of a world, to quote one Earthbound character, "that never knew the Summer of Love, Betty Friedan, 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X,' the Clash." And that pretty well covers the second half of the 20th century.

Creator Philip Levens ("Smallville") reportedly took inspiration from Project Orion, which in the late 1950s and early 1960s sought to create a really big, reusable spacecraft to be propelled by little atomic explosions. (It died in the Kennedy administration, supposedly after the president was shown a super-weaponized model.) But I also can imagine this series being pitched as a kind of "Mad Men" in space, or a "Peyton Place" in space, if anyone would get that reference, or — as there is a murder — "NCIS: Space," or given the cartoonish midcentury mood, even "Twin Peaks" in space.

The ship — smartly designed and realized, revealed with a seamless fly-through of its floors — is arranged as a metaphor on class: The lower orders (maintenance workers, meat packers) make shift down low while the more highly ranked live large up top, near the windows, where the walls are spotless starship white.

Brian Van Holt, the layabout ex-husband on "Cougar Town," is the ship's captain, a local hero; Tricia Helfer, who was Cylon Number Six on "Battlestar Galactica," plays his wife, wielding power behind the scenes via her stewardesses, I guess you'd call them. Brandon P. Bell is the black first officer, who's come up from the lower decks and is tasked with investigating the murder — the first the ship or he has ever known.

In packing this crew off to a brand-new world, no one apparently thought to make it a better one. For one thing, miscegenation, to use that bad old word, is illegal. But as the point is to play around in all the old tropes of class, sex and race they made '50s potboilers out of, that would be dramatically counterproductive. It's a big ship but a small town. There are misunderstood teenagers, angry workers, disaffected spouses, illicit lovers and a little girl who sees things.

I like what I've seen, though there are more than a couple of moments where the only possible reaction is "Naaah." Still, whatever has been made or becomes of it, like the Bryan Fuller "failed" pilot "High Moon" aired by Syfy this year, it has something a little different to show you.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Ascension'

Where: Syfy

When: 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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