It’s difficult to judge Ascension solely on what it is primarily because it’s too easy to initially judge it on what it “should” have been. On one hand, it is a very well-produced, exceptionally-acted, entertaining science fiction show. On the other hand, it is all of those things despite it being a massive fake-out by SyFy. Also, at times it felt as though the writers tried to throw in a thousand different sub-plots and misdirections. And yet, in the end, it became more than either expectation or disappointment should have allowed it to be.
Ascension is basically the Truman Show. There’s no getting around that. It’s not a truly original concept, other than it takes the stance that what was done to the people aboard the Ascension was done for scientific reasons, and in the end, the betterment of humanity. But what is hard to ignore is the feeling that Ascension should have been about an ark in space because it was billed as such.
Despite the fact that it would have succeed even if they had actually set it on a space ship, Ascension does manage to come into its own as a unique and compelling science fiction story, even if it did accomplish this mostly in the last twenty minutes of a six-hour event. It is easy at times to figure out major plot points long before they’re revealed, but somehow the writers still threw several curve balls that save the story from potentially falling flat on its face. After it ends, I was left with an undeniable need to know where the story can go, and maybe that’s all that is needed to deem Ascension a success.
The most compelling concept explored is the spontaneous generation of clairvoyance and telekinesis through carefully controlled genetic manipulation. Basically, Eugenics, which is always a hoot of a topic. Ascension also had some other really great themes , such as how sexism , racism, and a rigid class system evolved in an enclosed environment that was based of 1950’s society. I especially enjoyed the idea that technology similar to that which was developed “back on Earth” through the decades came about as a sort of natural progression of technological evolution aboard the ship. In that regard Ascension was its most interesting when exploring these ideas. Of course those themes seem to dwindle in importance, and are easily forgotten when the telekinesis and trans-spacial teleportation come center stage.
In the end, Ascension is basically a collection of science fiction tropes, done fairly well, and somehow made interesting by a great ending. I spent some time over the course of the three-night event trying to accept that Ascension wasn’t about an ark in space, and it took until the end to become convinced that it really didn’t matter that much after all. I was just being unfairly sour about the bait and switch. I came to this realization because as much as I wanted a space opera, the show’s real design is equally, if not more promising. It’s really about the “ascension” of the human race through the development of “abilities” brought about by the experiment that is the ship itself, and those aboard. There’s still an as of yet unexplained space travel element, along with the “evolved humanity” themes, and the inevitable issue of those aboard the Ascension learning the truth of their existence. Not a bad science fiction plot when you really think about it!