Ascension (7.2 IMDB rating) is a science fiction series which aired on CBC in Canada and SyFy in the US. In addition to being an interesting and thought-provoking sci-fi series, there are some traditional values presented in the series, since it takes place in a society isolated from the rest of the world in the early 1960s.
The series consists of three episodes, sort of an extended pilot or shortened mini-series that has the potential to be extended. Note: The series originally aired December, 2014; if you have not seen it yet I will reveal one spoiler (with warning label) that is also revealed in the first episode.
The story begins in 1963 when President John Kennedy launches a secret manned space mission. The USS Ascension is constructed and launched on a 100-year multi-generational mission to colonize a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. The idea is based on the real Project Orion, which was cancelled by JFK when it became obvious the military was more interested in using space advancement for destructive and warfare purposes than scientific exploration. The Ascension left earth with 600 volunteers–men, women, and children, all from 1960s America.
The series begins in 2014 as the USS Ascension enters its 51st year of the 100 year journey–passing the point of no return. At this point, there is insufficient fuel or resources on board to abandon the mission and return to Earth. The Ascension is a fascinating exercise in sociology, as there is an entire generation who have been born on the ship, never lived on earth, never experienced the civil rights movement, feminism, terrorism, the internet, smart phones, the mini-skirt, birth control, inter-racial marriage, Angry Birds, etc.
All the technology they have is pre-1964, and they have access to entertainment from that era, mostly black and white television. Fashion has not changed. Old telephones, tube televisions, and games from the 1960s entertain the modern crew. There is a livestock and produce area that sustains the population with food.
In the first episode, a homicide is discovered—a young girl is shot and killed on an artificial beach—the first killing since the ship left earth. The death starts a chain of events including questioning the true reason behind the mission. The series alternates between sequences aboard the ship and the communications staff back home on earth.
However, on earth, the existence of the Ascension is still secret, outside of those who communicate with and support the ship. A conspiracy theorist believes that the missing 600 people did leave Earth on a vessel, and tracks down the son of the original project director.
Staying true to the 1960s theme, the series is produced with little CGI and a real set, with tangible 60s era buttons and knobs. The ship is planned to have three captains—the initial captain who launches the mission, the interim and current captain, who is frustrated that he will receive no glory, and the final captain who will pilot the ship to its destination 100 years after launch.
There is a league of women on board who comprise the Sexual Stewardess Corps, who are managed by the captain’s wife, Viondra, played by the alluring Tricia Helfer, and the women must compete for a position on this team, which is charged with entertaining and pleasing the men. Girls must weigh in, demonstrate proper etiquette, dress well, and basically compete as if they were entering a beauty pageant. Here are some other themes I noted:
Patriarchal, Monarch Style Of Leadership
I think watching Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica was the series that really made me question my belief in democracy. Captain Adama is a strong, authoritarian leader, and that is exactly what the crew of Galactica needed. It is no different on board the USS Ascension, and there are strict prescribed roles and duties for everyone.
There is a working class on the lower decks who have blue collar duties that maintain the ship operations, and an officer class that oversees and manages. There is no putting things to a vote or deciding things by what is popular. There is no distraction over a pending election, as the US is going to experience for the next 12 months. Business is taken care of, the rules and duties are pre-existant.
Absolute authority lies with the monarch, who rules benevolently in the best interests of the society. There is little room for individualism or “being different.”
I have had a couple of friends who recently entered arranged marriages, and they are both quite pleased with their wives. Throughout history, marriage was always about the families of the husband and wife, much more than the actual couple. Over many years, Western culture has trended away from outright arranged marriage towards the ultimate end result of two couples choosing to marry for love.
With only 600 people on board the ship, and no birth control, marriages are selected, supposedly by a computer algorithm, but the exact details or criteria is unclear. However, what is perfectly clear is your path and role in life–women are to become mothers, and they will have an appropriate husband matched to them, whom they must nurture and please.
Men have important duties on board the ship, and must also raise a family to ensure that the mission is completed by their children.
The Noble Lie (SPOILER ALERT)
There is a plot twist revealed early in the series at the end of the first episode related to Plato’s Noble Lie. Plato believed that a myth knowingly told by an elite to maintain social harmony or advance an agenda, is a good and necessary thing. In Ascension, it is revealed that the ship never left Earth, but instead the vessel and all its inhabitants are sitting on Earth after all these years, and remain nothing but a social experiment.
From the noble lie perspective, their outcome is not changed by this lie–what they perceive as truth is the life they have been presented with inside a vessel on a 100 year mission, whether that is actually true or not. Religion is often described as an example of the noble lie–what is more important is not whether the One True God actually exists, what his name is, or what he calls his kingdom, but the fact that people believe in this story, with all its tales of morality and messages for living is of utmost importance. Basically, Voltaire’s “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.”
Traditional Femininity Is Valued
The crew have been exposed to the media and culture of the 1950s and 60s for the past 50 years, and the result has been a peaceful, stable, healthy, and productive society with traditional femininity highly valued. As Viondra is inspecting one of the girls competing for membership in the sexual stewardess corps, she weighs in one hopeful girl, accepting her with the words, “120, the acceptable weight for a girl 5’5.”
Reality Vs. Illusion
Much as the Matrix questioned the notion of how real the world is around us, there is a stark contrast between the modern society we are living in on earth in 2014 versus the world the 600 members of the Ascension live in. What is real? What is the illusion? Is life on Ascension merely a facsimile of the way things used to be?
Is life on Earth, with all its rape culture, war, intolerance, gay marriage, transgender, microaggressions, and immorality the “real” world, or is it a mere approximation of what humanity once was?
Classism And Patriarchy
On the Ascension, there are clear, distinct lines between the upper deck and lower deck. They may not love each other (but can we really say the entitled class loves the ghettho today?) but they do manage to get along, and each have their duties which they feel responsibility for in order to keep the world running.
There was a black officer, which I questioned based on the viewpoints of the time; however, keep in mind that they were in communication with earth, and at least heard about things like the civil rights movement, or the fact that America elected a black president, so it’s not unbelievable to have a black crew member.
Similarly, there are also clear lines between men and women. Women left the important jobs (especially all the lower level work) to the men, and chose supporting roles, with the big picture and the community in mind. This is in no way minimizing their importance; in fact, good, nurturing women who would raise the future generations of inhabitants who would dutifully fulfill the mission goal in 2063 was absolutely essential.
The role of the woman as supporting and nurturing was vital. Indeed, the sexual stewardess corps served as a sexual outlet for the well deserving men.
As of November, 2015, the series has not been adopted for further development, which is a shame. I was captivated by the idea, and looked forward to exploring the reasons behind the mission, the social experimentation being done by Mission Control on Earth to the inhabitants, and seeing how a completely different society running parallel to the one on earth would turn out.
Sci-Fi is a predominantly male domain, and series such as these are one of the few “safe spaces” where women can be fat-shamed, the patriarchy portrayed in a positive light, and traditional femininity is valued and praised. We should support such endeavors in order to encourage more entertainment counter to the anything-goes Hollywood mainstream releases.
The idea of Ascension is very appealing. As they say in the trailer, Ascension is a lifeboat for humanity. Will we have to resort to such drastic efforts soon in order to preserve our own humanity? Ascension seemed much more “alternate history” than “science fiction” to me.
If given the choice, would you rather be trapped on a ship in space stuck in 1963 or on Earth today?
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