I am very late to this science fiction mini-series about a generation ship, but this isn’t a TV review. I’m one of several bloggers who are reviewing science fiction short stories about generation ships. Because Ascension falls into this subgenre, I thought I’d discuss it too, comparing it to what we’ve been reading. For links to our previous short story reviews, see:
Warning, I’m going to give spoilers. Ascension first appeared in the U.S. on SyFy in 2014 and only lasted six 43-minute episodes. I had to buy it on Amazon Prime for $7.99, where it’s sold/viewed in three double-episodes. The show is no longer being streamed anywhere I can find. I don’t recommend buying it unless you’re like me and want to see how the series handles the generation ship concept. It includes all the common issues of a generation ship story. It could have been a great series, but they spoil it with a bunch of crappy conflicts and pitiful plot twists. But I still enjoy watching it.
I sprang for Ascension because it promised to be about a spaceship built around 1963, so the original crew members were stuck in that pop-culture milieu. I figured it would be Mrs. Maisel in space. Unfortunately, except for very few tech items, such as a couple of 1950s TV sets showing old TV shows, the people dressed and acted like modern fantasy Americans. The plot starts out about the first murder after voyaging 50 years but quickly develops into standard soap-opera of powerplays and sex between beautiful Hollywood-humans. I will give Ascension credit, it does go through many of the basic ideas we’ve been reading about in generation ship short stories.
Of the stories we’ve read, some have the crew forgetting they are on a starship, and with other stories, they know, but they have been brainwashed for various reasons to adapt to the long voyage. In Ascension, everyone knows about the mission. And like several of the stories we’ve read, the ship born crew resent being forced into a role they didn’t select. In this miniseries, young people go through a psychological breakdown akin to a mid-life crisis in their teens when they realize what they missed from living on Earth, and learning they probably won’t live to see a new world. The murder is related to a terrorist resenting their lack of future.
Like several of the old pulp stories, Ascension breaks ship-board society into classes. Workers live on the lower decks, and the elites live on the upper decks in luxury. I thought this was totally bogus. The premise is in the Kennedy Whitehouse era scientists feared the total destruction of the Earth by atomic war so they built a spaceship base on Project Orion. This is a way-cool idea. All the crew should have been fighter pilot astronauts and the best and the brightest scientists. Unfortunately, in 1963 the women would have been wives and mothers. However, the creators of Ascension ruin this show with too much modern technology and anachronistic humans. Some of it is disguised, like really thick tablet computers, but much of what the characters do in the show wasn’t anything like 1963 people, their speech, their habits, their fashion, their make-up, their furniture, or their gadgets. People from 1963 would have been racist, sexist, and homophobic, and that’s not the case in the show. Girls are used as shipboard spies, where one woman controls power with their sexual favors, and that’s definitely 1963 sexist.
I wonder if Hollywood feels the need to make TV shows with standard chords like pop music creators feel compelled to always use the same four chords to get hit sounds. Ascension feels like too many other TV shows. Watch this video to see what I mean.
I have to wonder if the screenwriters of Ascension had read “Thirteen to Centaurus” by J. G. Ballard because the first big plot twist is the generation ship has never left Earth. The crew believes they’ve been traveling for fifty years on what they believe is a one-hundred-year voyage to Alpha Centauri. Instead, they’re part of a giant psychological experiment. Unfortunately, Ascension doesn’t have a clever spy aboard the ship that leaves every night like Ballard had, and it’s child genius isn’t as good either. Well, it does have the spy but he isn’t that essential to the plot.
I wished that Ascension had been Mrs. Maisel/Mad Men in space, and the show was actually about fifty years into a real space mission using 1963 technology. That’s the one porcupine I was willing to swallow. The crew would not have had videos to watch, and maybe not even video cameras. They certainly wouldn’t have had MRI scans or tablet computers. Realistically, they would have been all WASPs, probably hung-up on Christianity, and the women would have had limited job roles in their society.
Actually, it would have been an interesting tale philosophically if Ascension had used the fake starship plot, but everyone in the ship acted like 1963 Americans, while their handlers were 21st-century Americans. It would have been a reverse Star Trek. Morality plays about how we differ from ourselves 55 years ago.
I’m still waiting for a generation ship story to really get it right. For some reason, they all have a gimmick, and Ascension was no different. They all hint at the problems crews would face living on such a long-term mission, but they never get into those problems, at least not with finesse and real characterization. I guess I wish Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood would write a human interest story about life on a generation ship with the realism of NASA space science.
James Wallace Harris, 1/1/20