Big, ambitious and more than a little weird, Syfy’s “Ascension” is being billed as a three-night limited-event series, which is misleading at best. That’s in part because this strange project ultimately feels more like a teaser for the hoped-for series to come, as its intriguing premise carries through the first two chapters before beginning to unravel in the third. Those who board the flight will likely be curious enough to want to see the trip through to its conclusion, but while there are strands of “Battlestar Galactica” in the project’s DNA, the idea never ascends to that level.
Granted, it’s not every day that you run across a miniseries rooted in the 1960s, and a super-secret century-long mission — birthed during the Kennedy administration — to launch an ark filled with 600 people, into space. Fifty-one years later, two generations have grown up aboard the facility, adopting their own unique rituals and culture, and having developed an elaborate “Titanic”-like caste system that consists of the privileged class above and those who occupy the “lower decks.”
This de facto colony is rocked, however — in a fashion that vaguely recalls “Twin Peaks” — by a mysterious murder. And an introduction to Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows), the son of the scientist who dreamt up the project, raises questions about the true nature of the mission.
Created by “Smallville” alum Philip Levens (who shares story credit with Adrian A. Cruz), directed by Stephen Williams and scheduled for maximum impact on consecutive nights, “Ascension” initially mixes genuinely clever twists with what amounts to a semi-claustrophobic soap opera, casting Tricia Helfer (a tangible link to “Battlestar”) as the scheming wife of the spaceship’s fearless leader, Capt. William Denninger (Brian Van Holt), with Brandon P. Bell as the officer who has begun an affair with a woman who, under the ship’s breeding rules, is forbidden to him.
Yet as the mythology mounts, some of the parallel plots become considerably less interesting, even as Levens keeps piling on additional sci-fi riffs and cliches, including an unexpected detour into “Carrie” territory. By the time night three rolls around, it’s all become too chaotic, culminating in a manner that — while clearly intended to whet one’s appetite for more — merely creates a sense of having been jerked around only to be left dangling.
The most serious flaw, though, is that for all the drama surrounding the characters, relatively few resonate. And while perpetuating the species is an understandable goal for these hardy sojourners, for viewers, it’s small compensation that the travelers find an awful lot of time to have sex — almost never with designated partners — given everything else that’s happening.
In the broad strokes, it’s hard not to admire Syfy’s bet on something of this magnitude without the sort of built-in following or name recognition that’s normally considered a prerequisite to such a launch. Even “Galactica,” after all, was a reboot of an existing title.
It’s just that after the novelty begins to wear off, “Ascension” increasingly looks better from orbit than it does up close.