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July 30, 2014

Ascension: An Alternate History About a Planned Community in Space


Katharine Trendacosta / io9

New series Ascension has just finished filming on its first few episodes, and we learned a lot about it at Comic-Con on Saturday. It sounds extremely promising and got us excited for what’s to come.

The show takes place in an alternate reality where the United State became convinced that there was a world-ending war coming in the ’60s. In 1963, 600 men and women were put on a spaceship and sent to the closest inhabitable planet. Cut off from Earth (the panel was clear that the ship was not in touch with Earth, although they do send logs back “like a message in a bottle”). The show starts just as the ship approaches the point of no return, 50 years in and therefore in the modern day, when the murder of a young woman causes things to “unravel.”

The only footage available was in the form of a black-and-white film from the ’60s, which we were told was played by the inhabitants of Ascension every year as they celebrated their launch day. The footage showed a scientist with a German accent saying that humanity’s future survival is dependent on going into space. He unveils a model of the ship, showing its size and scope. It dwarfs the model of the Eiffel Tower next to it.

The scientist, showrunner Phillip Levens said, who is “a mash-up of Wernher von Braun and Dyson.” Over time, we’ll learn that, to get his passion project off the ground, the scientist had to make “deals with the devil.” We will also meet the son of the scientist. Said Levens:

[The project] is now run by his son, who doesn’t quite feel that he can measure up to his father. On the other hand, he envies the people on the ship. He talks about his own son and he’s confused and if he were on Ascension, his destiny would be assured.

The idea that he’d know what to do if he was on Ascension is woven throughout the descriptions of Ascension. It’s a community where, by necessity, everything is planned. People are “matched” to be married and when and how many children they have are planned. The only jobs available are the ones that serve the ship, and people can only chose among the jobs that they show the most aptitude for. Andrea Roth, who plays Dr. Julia Roth, explained that we come into the show just as her daughter undergoes “the Crisis,” where they realize that they have no choice in their lives. She will have to watch her daughter maybe “fall for someone she can never ever be with and will have to see every day.”

The cast we meet are of the first generation born on the ship and will die before they reach the planet “Proxima.” And as they reach the point of no return, Tricia Helfer said there are “guerrilla terrorists” who want to go back to Earth even though they “don’t even know if there’s an Earth to come back to.”

There going to be a fair amount of tension between Brian Van Holt’s Captain William Denninger (who Van Holt described as “competent and confident” but “with a dark side.”) and Councilman Rose, who, according to actor Al Sapienza, “wants the captain’s job and wants the captain’s wife.”

Part of the show will be showing how this community of people, who left Earth in the early ’60s before the sexual revolution or the Civil Rights Movement. Levens did say that the ship will be ethnically diverse, as the idea is that the project was headed by the most forward-thinking people of the time. But, when asked, Levens said the plan was to play original music pieces that were composed on Ascension, although he warned that it’s hard to do that without making them “really bad.”

Helfer said that her character, as the wife of the captain, is sort of the chief hostess. And as such, she’s dressed up in very ’60s garb, longer nails, makeup, the whole works. A lot of the cast stressed how the inhabitants of this ship are, in a way, frozen in time. They “bypassed a lot of things that happened on Earth,” said Levens.

All in all, it sounds like a fascinating concept and one with a lot to mine and explore. We look forward to seeing more from Ascension.