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'Ascension' Review: The Best Science Fiction on Netflix That You Haven't Seen

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Science Fiction | September 22, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Science Fiction | September 22, 2015 |

We reported last year around this time that SyFy was launching a six hour mini-series called Ascension. It was in the mold of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, both in terms of Tricia Helfer and the notion of having a tightly written and paced miniature season that could lead to a full series run. Then all of us completely forgot it even existed and a number of people statistically indistinguishable from zero watched it.

I’ve got some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that the mini-series went up on Netflix over the summer, and it is fantastic. The bad news is that the story ends on a monstrously awesome cliffhanger and we will never get to see what happens because of, um, that thing where none of us watched it and so there won’t be another season.

Personally, I blame Roger Goodell. Because when in doubt, I default to the purest form of evil still in this world.

The basic gist of the show is that a spaceship called the Ascension was launched in the early 1960s towards Alpha Centauri. It’s a generation ship that’s going to take a century to get there and so the initial crew members will never see it make it there. We pick up the series in 2014, at exactly the halfway mark, which is also the point at which the crew can either decide to turn it around or not.

A few hundred people, crammed into a retro-futuristic environment, the younger generation having been born on the ship, strict population controls to conserve resources. It’s Fallout in space to a certain degree, and has a perfect old school Frank Herbert vibe to it.

Then there’s a murder. With a gun. On a ship on which no one has seen a gun in fifty years since none were supposed to be on board. That’s the catalyst for the events on the show, but it’s only the tip of a fascinating iceberg of dense and fascinating politics. There’s the captain who is way more savvy than he appears at first glance (played perfectly by Brian Van Holt), along with his vicious wife Tricia Helfer, who runs the “stewardess” program, which ends up being her own personal empire of escorts who dabble in espionage. We’ve got simmering class warfare between the upper and lower deckers (sort of a less brutal version of the front and back of the train in Snowpiercer), mysteries about past accidents, about paranoid delusions.

The social commentary is fascinating as well, positing how a heavily restricted and monitored population that never went through the sexual revolution yet has mandatory access to birth control and genetically predetermined marriages would deal with sex and gender relations. And with the permanently small population in ludicrously cramped conditions, things like marital infidelity become criminal offenses in order to minimize the possibility of violence. And yet this is inherent friction with a world in which loveless marriages are the norm. It’s weird and different and fascinating to watch play out.

It is excellent science fiction, and I urge such minded individuals to watch it. And be patient with it. There are parts of it - say, for instance the kind of out of place scenes on contemporary Earth at the beginning - that at first seem very weak. But trust me, ride it out, and those parts in particular will reward you on reflection at the end. This is a show with intricate political manueverings that would toss Littlefinger right out an airlock, and it manages to have the pendulum swing on several characters from being antagonistic, to sympathetic, to just damned interesting.

There are a couple of reveals that just leave you staring at the screen as it goes to black.

Including the final scene of the series.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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