A funeral for all the details.

Source: Jan Thijs/Syfy

'Ascension' and Sci-Fi's Fiction Problem

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

Now that Syfy’s three-day “Ascension” tryout is over, I’d like to ask a few pertinent questions. The show follows the fortunes of some 600 people who were born on what they and their parents and their grandparents all believed was a spaceship launched in the 1960s on a hundred-year journey to colonize a planet near Proxima Centauri. Actually, it’s a controlled experiment. The “spaceship” is still on Earth, buried at a secret government installation, and the population has been duped. (Not a real spoiler, because we learned all this during the first episode.)

Here are the pertinent questions.

1. How did the duping work? Science-minded critics, before the show even aired, pointed out that it would have been impossible to build or lift into orbit a spacecraft of that size. Okay, not a problem, given that the Ascension never left Earth. But many of those aboard were scientists. None of them ever did the math?

2. The ship’s officers wear service ribbons. Lots and lots of service ribbons. How exactly did they earn the underlying medals?

3. Juliet Bryce seems to be the only doctor aboard. She also seems to know everything about every kind of medicine. Let’s assume that she was chosen when she was young, and trained for years. Surely not every sort of medical crisis would arise with so small a crew. How exactly did she practice? On whom? Given that she is unlikely to have undertaken any specialty rotations, the chances are that she was apprenticed to the former doctor. (There seem to be lots of apprentices on board.) But one of the reasons for specialization in medicine, which of course long predated the Ascension’s “launch” in the 1960s, was that no one physician could possibly know everything needed. And it does no good to draw analogies to ships and combat units that have only one doctor with them. Those doctors have trained with many different specialists, not apprenticed with only one.

4. (This one’s a spoiler.) What exactly happened to Director Katherine Warren’s bodyguards? At first they’re everywhere. Then two die in the tunnel. But there still seem to be plenty. She sends one into the ship to grab little Christa (far too cleverly named), who seems to have wandered in from “Firestarter.” At that point, the rest of Warren’s bodyguards vanish into thin air, allowing Harris Enzmann to arrange the director’s “accident.” When the guards get back from wherever they’ve disappeared to, won’t they wonder why their boss is dead and the man they are supposed to have killed is in charge again? Won’t they, um, do something about it?

5. (Another spoiler.) How could John Stokes possibly have escaped, even with Krueger’s help? Only one orderly unstrapping a dangerously disturbed prisoner? Nobody else in the room? Nobody in the hall? No cameras anywhere? Let me say that again: No cameras anywhere? Enzmann and his team have installed cameras in every corner of the Ascension, but none in the corridors that catacomb the complex -- including the conveniently available but completely unguarded security wing?

6. (Yes, yet another spoiler.) And speaking of Krueger, isn’t she supposed to be some sort of crack federal investigator? So, let’s see. She gets knocked out by Stokes with one blow. (On the ship, by contrast, nobody is ever knocked out by one blow.) Stokes ties her wrists with an obviously loose cord that she can’t escape. She gets shot helping him escape. She gets shot a second time, now fatally (or not -- if the show comes back, we’ll find out), when she allows Eva Marceau, whom she is holding at gunpoint, to take her weapon away from her. (And why exactly did she trust Eva in the first place? Has Krueger ever actually investigated anything?)

Now, you’ll notice that none of these questions are about the science behind the fiction. But what makes good sci-fi isn’t just the sci -- it’s also the fi. The premise of “Ascension” is extremely smart, and the story arc itself is dandy. The two big surprises -- where the ship really is, and what it’s really for -- have been handled deftly. The trouble with what we’ve seen so far is that the writers are being far too sloppy with the non-science elements. If the show comes back, the practical side will need some serious sharpening.

  1. Or “Carrie,” or -- for those whose memories stretch that far -- “The Fury.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net