Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Syfy's "Ascension" a potential "Mad Men" in space

In the '60s we already had "Star Trek," very much of the golden era, just a thinly disguised Great Society as a space fantasy. "Progressive" but culturally conservative too (partly choice, partly assumption). The generations clashed in the '68 episode "The Way to Eden"; hippies really were that annoying but in real history they sort of won, in my memory by around 1972.

I'd heard of the 100-year colonist spaceship idea; great one for a movie or TV show. The "time capsule," Rip Van Winkle potential also reminds me of another miniseries if I recall rightly, "Goliath Awaits": what if the Queen Mary had been sunk by a U-boat at the beginning of World War II but thanks to some mix of nature and engineering skill, survivors and their descendants lived on board, at the bottom of the sea, for 50 years? ("Ascension" has a class war playing out on different parts of the ship too.) This one's also compared to "Battlestar Galactica" (same colonist storyline but Mormon-based myth where they're seeking Earth).

This time around, rather than basing it entirely on the Navy like "Star Trek" ("U.S.S.," etc., which "Ascension" uses too), the space service that runs the Ascension seems an offshoot of the Air Force based on the main uniform. (Nitpick: Air Force blue in '63 was lighter.) The captain has a Navy-based white uniform too; pretty authentic-looking offshoot of '63. (Rank seems Navy-based as on "Star Trek"; the captain's an O-6.)

The elements of an entertaining story are there: an intriguing premise and soap-opera ("Mad Men") plots complete with "fan service" sex appeal (5'11" Canadian model Tricia Helfer, the android baddie from the new "Galactica," as the Joan Harris-ish leading lady).

Fortunately for people like me who spend on Web access but not premium cable, Syfy posted the first episode online; I imagine like "Mad Men" you'll be able to find the whole miniseries on the Web (Hulu?) eventually.

Without giving too much away, I can say that while the concept itself makes it pretty enjoyable, "Mad Men" it ain't. Now I know part of the appeal of a well-made version of this kind of story is seeing how a parallel society based on ours 50 years ago would evolve differently from real history, and that some things might be the same. A spaceship launched 50 years ago on its way to another solar system would have lost most contact with Earth so there'd be little if any influence. But... rather like "Star Trek"'s makers chose to have it really be America in 1966 in order to attract viewers, whom they thought would be turned off by people TOO futuristic, too different culturally, this is suspiciously politically correct, even in the "we know better now" view of what retro culture there is; too much like America in 2014. Like how "Star Trek" was '60s America (continuation of the '50s: Middle America) but "Enterprise," a prequel, was 2000s America meets "TNG" (which was '90s America). Of course I want to see how a reset/do-over starting in '63 would play out.

P.S. Rent Galaxy Quest. It's a scream. By the ways, years before, there was "Star Trek" fan fiction with the same story line (actors thrown into an actual "Star Trek" universe). Wonder if that writer's getting royalties.

P.P.S. If, as in this fantasy, there were no Sixties, no cultural revolution, we'd still have the Internet, the Web. The concept was already on the drawing board in the '60s (ARPANet started in '69), as you can see in the details on "Star Trek" (reading a technical journal on a small monitor screen, not on paper). All the technological advances, including putting a man on the moon, were achievements of "the other '60s," the good one.

P.P.P.S. On watching the whole episode, I think the Ascension is a really good hypothetical projection from '63 minus the Sixties. Well done. The ship's authentic design and technology make it a star in its own right. The service is definitely Navy, and the bridge is the starship Enterprise had it been built in '63.


  1. The original "Star Trek" might be based on the navy, what with the ranks and the name of the ship, but it wasn't very naval. In fact Roddenberry hated the naval focus of "Wrath of Khan" but wasn't much involved in the production of it due to the box office failure of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." And a good thing, too, as "Khan" is the best Star Trek movie (still, over 30 years later!).

    1. But Roddenberry based "Star Trek" partly on C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels about the Royal Navy in the age of Nelson (like Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander).

      One unrealistic thing: a crew of 400, but all officers. There were few or no Starfleet enlisted men. Roddenberry's thinking here was liberal, anti-military, egalitarian; his excuse was everybody on board is a qualified astronaut and thus an officer. On "TNG" and later, I think Miles O'Brien, the Irish transporter boss, was a chief petty officer ("Chief O'Brien"). There was an enlisted man in the "TNG" episode "The Drumhead" too, plus civilians (crew's families) on board.

      Then again, Roddenberry never claimed he was making realistic sci-fi. The show's concept was always as a fable, a pulpit for his secular-humanist sermons, for space-age "Progress!" (Think about it: the Federation, the Great Society in space, is totalitarian.) So it didn't matter if the plots and the "aliens" weren't convincing (everybody's humanoid and speaks English; how convenient). But at the same time you have clever product placement that looked like forecasting, an aspect that WAS realistic (reading journals on a computer, memory cards, flip phones, even iPads). That's because the Rand Corp., connected to the Pentagon, worked on the show with Roddenberry.

      A lot of the magic of "Star Trek" came from other people's ideas; writer Bob Justman wrote much of the show's "bible" (mythology) including the Prime Directive (non-interference in native cultures).

      And Roddenberry was intensely anti-religious; something from the '60s, not just the Sixties, I touch on in my post on Part II of "Ascension," a three-parter. Sons of the "Enlightenment," the Western intelligentsia in the early to mid-'60s thought religion was a myth hindering our progress, something we've "outgrown" (actually a line of Captain Kirk's, in "Who Mourns for Adonais?": the Greek gods as long-lived alien explorers).

      Critics say Roddenberry's meddling marred the first season of "TNG." He was always kind of annoying plus his mind was starting to go.

      I like the first TV "Trek" for the flavor that still reflected the Kennedy era, including the hot chicks (Captain Kirk as Jack).

      The first Star Wars is MUCH better: the best of the old movie serials, heroes, villains, and all; myth including rather deep concepts such as the Force; and special effects that still wow over 35 years later, done without computer animation. It's NOT liberal propaganda. And because it's in a place far, far away, you can assume they're all speaking the same language, so using English isn't a problem.


Leave comment