“Ascension” is a twisty and compelling sci-fi mystery with a familiar actress playing gay

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Caution: Spoilers ahead!

In the 1960s, the space race was on between Russia and the United States. Both superpowers set their eyes on the skies to see if dominion could be extended out to the cosmos. This is where the genesis for SyFy’s three-part series Ascension really starts.

The Ascension is a massive space ship launched in 1963 on a hundred year journey into space, filled with the brightest minds of a generation. We meet up with the Ascension 51 years into its trip, where most of the original crew is long dead and their descendants are in charge. Imagine a world where the last 50 years of social evolution simply didn’t happen. What you’d get is Don Draper and Peggy Olsen on a spaceship; basically, gin gimlets and an utter lack of feminism.

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The first episode brings us into the current time, however, and we learn that the Ascension is somewhat of an urban legend. A fellow named Harris (played by Gil Bellows) is the son of the man who hatched the idea for the Ascension, but when confronted about the project by a young researcher, he chalks up talk of its existence to fantasy and wishful thinking. Which is sci-fi talk for, “You better believe that shit is real.”

The murder of a young women named Lorelaithe ship’s first ever homiciderocks the Ascension and Officer Aaron Gault (Brandon P. Bell) is tasked to investigate the crime. Ascension deals a lot with social status/caste system dynamics (upper decks vs lower decks) and Gault, who is lower decks born, has risen in the ranks to become one of the most respected men on the ship. When a lower decks butchera man named Stokes (Brad Carter)is accused of the crime and blasted out into space, we learn the big bad truth about the Ascension: It’s a gigantic hoax. The ship exists, but firmly planted on the ground; a fact completely unknown to the six hundred people on board. And who’s in control of the project? Shady McShades Harris. Stokes lands very much alive and terrified in a controlled area, and taken into a psych ward on the grounds. 

The government is behind the Ascension, and Harris’s boss Katherine Warren (Wendy Crewson) puts the smack down after Lorelai’s death. She brings on Detective Samantha Krueger (Lauren Lee Smith) to investigate the murder, and keep an eye on Harris. Samantha is a lesbian, something that the Ascension folks know nothing about, since homosexuality was left out by design. (Anyone who isn’t procreating, isn’t needed on the Ascension. Sorry space lesbians.)

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When she meets Stokeswho, incidentally, tries to kill her at firstshe’s horrified by “social experiment” that he and the other crew members are being put through. She gets in touch with Eva Marceau (Aliyah O’Brien), a conspiracy theorist, and tries to take the whole thing down from the inside. Unfortunately, you don’t put fifty years into an universe changing experiment and not cover your ass. After Samantha and Stokes escape the compound, and she survives a bullet wound, Samantha is stopped in her tracks by the only person she thought she could trust.

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It also unfortunately leaves us with one more dead lesbian character to round out a banner year in lesbian/bi television deaths.

Back on the ship, the tenuous peace that has existed for half a century of Beach Blanket Bingo parties, assigned procreating and class-ism finally starts to crumble in the wake of Lorelai’s death. While the men are “in charge” on the Ascension, it’s actually the women who run the show. Captain’s wife, Viondra Denniger (the always terrific Tricia Helfer), is the show’s Lady McBeth, plotting and scheming so that she and her husband maintain controlboth personally and professionally. She runs the Ascension’s “stewardesses,” which are pretty much waitresseshostesses and concubines all in one. In theory they exist to fulfill the fantasies of the men on board, but there seems to be a lot more happening behind the scenes than what the men give them credit for. Viondra even ends up taking over as the ship’s captain, a position she actually seems destined to obtain.

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The ship’s doctor is also a woman: Dr. Juliet Bryce (Andrea Roth), who is smart and capable, if not a bit naive about what’s happening around her. Harris has been obsessed with her since her was a child, even marrying a woman who resembles her. One of the more understated but fascinating characters is Ophelia (Rachel Crawford), the ships librarian and Aaron Gault’s older sister. She was badly burned, protecting Aaron from an explosion and has an almost serene quality about her.

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The other major female character is young Christa (Ellie O’Brien), who may or may not have been genetically engineered to have super powers. The kid can create lightning with her mind, and you get the impression that all of Ascension has been leading up to her harnessing this power.

Also, for some reason, there are a lot of female ass shots in Ascension. Maybe it’s because basic cable and they can’t show breasts, but there are certainly many lingering shots. They feel kind of gratuitous, and not very organic when they do happen, making it seem like the director was reeeeally trying to amp up the sex appeal of this sci-fi heavy show.

One fun thing about Ascension is seeing all the familiar faces and how many of its cast have played lesbian/bisexual roles before, or been in queer films: Lauren Lee Smith played loveable Soup Chef Lara on The L Word, Aliyah O’Brien plays Holly on Rookie Blue, Rachel Crawford played Petra in When Night is Falling ,and Wendy Crewson played Lila, Maggie’s mom in Better Than Chocolate. God, I love Canada.

The ending perfectly sets up a television series or second run of mini-series, so hopefully the second time around, we can see more character development and some of the women on the ship, rising to power. The juxtaposition of the spacey ’60s vibe and the harsh, modern reality of the actual world is kind of fascinating, and begs to be developed.

You can watch the three-part series on Hulu now.

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