What? “Tomorrow” and “the day after” might be the same thing. ;P
To the main event: The ending of “Ascension” could be brilliant!
Background: “Ascension” was a six-episode mini-series on SyFy aired in Dec 2014. Originally, it was supposed to air one episode/week for six weeks, from T-Giving to the New Year; its schedule was changed to two episodes/night for three consecutive days in Dec. Why? Who knows. Probably editing. I’ve said this before: editing is a very important job/task/occupation in any content creation industry. Vitally, fundamentally important. Don’t get angry with your editors; it’s as thankless a task as being a psychotherapist: your clients displace their anxieties and concerns onto you, and then they go away to become happy elsewhere, and you're left holding their negative shit.
Why didn’t I watch Ascension in 2014? Probably because I was busy traveling for the winter holiday. Or because we’d cut our cable down to just internet. Why haven’t I watched it until now, Oct 2017? Reasons. Perhaps because I’m so tired of wading through Netflix to find good stuff. Or perhaps because Netflix didn’t feature Tricia Helfer in Ascension’s thumbnail.
Really, Netflix? Admittedly, I had to be strong-armed into watching “Battlestar Galactica” in 2004. But then I fell in love with it! “Hey, Jessi: did you know that Tricia Helfer is in Ascension?” NO. WHAT? How did I miss that!
“Jessi: it’s pointless to discuss a miniseries nearly three years later.” But it’s not. Because the ending of Ascension—critiqued by critic and audience alike with “meh” reactions—could be brilliant.
Ascension is divided into three Chapters, each with two Parts. After Chapter 1.1, I had guessed that either (A) the Ascension spacecraft was not traveling to Proxima (Centauri, I assume) but was in orbit around Earth or elsewhere in the Sol system, or (B) Ascension had never left the surface of the planet. This was based on my own research while writing MMPR01: Infiniti Eternia (shameless plug, read. my. books!):
(1) The minimum number of people required to successfully (i.e. genetically) populate a 10-generational voyage is somewhere between 80 and 160 people—the population of a large, prehistoric tribe. But the genetic diversity required to repopulate Humanity is much, much larger. One of the evolutionary counters to inbreeding was the nomadic nature of early human tribes; wo/men would engage members of the other tribe in sexual intercourse, for fun, for diplomatic relations, and for cross-breeding.
In actuality, it may require 3,000 to 10,000 individuals, or more; all of Humanity today is descendent from between 2,000 and 20,000 ancestors. Therefore, the 600 people aboard Ascension is nothing more than a guess, just as my ~420k people per habitat was…although my people had far more genetic variance than the Ascension’s crew complement.
(I do not mean that as a passive-aggressive jab at the mostly Caucasian cast of the show. Actually, it was a clever way to express 1960’s racism in the US without dropping an N-word.)
(And for the record, the “lower deckers” is an expression of classism, not racism, although the two issues are strongly correlated even today.)
(2) The fastest human-made object record was set by Helios 2 in 1989…ten years after it’d become a useless lump of metal hurtling in a decaying orbit into the sun. The fastest active spacecraft was Helios 1 (an unmanned probe), 1980: 346,320 km/hr * 1000 m/km * 1/3600 hr/s = 96,200 m/s = 3.21E-4 m/s = 0.032 % lightspeed. At this rate, the journey to Proxima Centauri would require 12,500 years—roughly 500 human generations.
Even in IE, I stated that the journey would require 100 generations for the Rock to reach Terra Nova…whatever or wherever that may be. The beauty of the Rock is that, upon arrival to its target star system, it could settle in a lunar-style orbit with a planet, or in a planetary orbit in-system while new options were considered. Arguably, the builders of the Rock knew far more about its destination than 1960s astrobiologists did about potential life in/around Proxima Centauri.
And though it never came up in IE, I wrote the Rock on the basis that it was outfitted with particle scoops, similar to the Bussard ramjet—a concept, admittedly, proposed in the 1960s, though never directly mentioned on Ascension. Without such a propulsion system, there’d be no way to continue accelerating period, much less constantly for 51 years, such that the crew would have to make “the decision whether to turn around.”
(That would be a very interesting discussion indeed! It was mentioned in Chapter 1.1; I hoped that the ‘turn-around’ would be the central issue of the show. I was entertained by the plot regardless, but the turn-around could’ve made a good transition from mini-series to full-series.)
(3) There has never been any theory suggesting that stars have a dearth of planetary bodies; while the Drake Equation is commonly mis-cited as ‘proof’ that extraterrestrial life exists, astrobiologists theorize that life will exist everywhere it can, developing as fast as possible. Still, the first detection of an exoplanet (a planet orbiting another star) was not made until 1988, not confirmed until 1992. It was only in 2016 that we confirmed there exists a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri.
Since Infiniti Eternia was published in 2015, and I started writing it in Dec 2013, I too was making the vague assumption that there would be *a* planet within Proxima C’s system. While I never state that Proxima C is the system of ‘Terra Nova’, it’s an easy assumption for a reader to make.
Since astrophysicists had no evidence of the existence of exoplanets in the 1960s, and terraforming—though published by Carl Sagan himself in 1960—was never seriously researched (in the USA) until 1979, there would be no reasonable way to prepare the crew of Ascension to colonize anything but the most Earth-similar worlds.
Given these factors, and assuming the show was using as realistic a physics model as it suggested (hold your breath for the ending!), I thought it far more likely that the Ascension was not, in fact, headed toward Proxima Centauri. This was confirmed at the end of Chapter 1.2.
In Chapter 2, the audience is in on the long-con, and the dialogue develops the phenomenon of the “Crisis”—the existential fallout of the realization that the crew of Ascension were sentenced to death before many of them were born. (In Chapter 2.2 and 3, we discover that many of the young people of the original crew were kidnapped!)
This Crisis is one of the reasons why I wrote IE to teach its citizenry that life on the Rock was it—the end-all, be-all. Much like “Earth” in Battlestar Galactica, “Terra Nova” was a legend, a lie, a myth whose truth lay somewhere between BSG’s “Earth” and any civilization’s version of Elysium.
And by the end of Chapter 2.2, the audience learns there may be a hidden purpose to the Ascension experiment: the development of a psychic human. There’s a line in Chapter 2, summarized:
“What do you think the true purpose of Ascension is? To prove that people in close quarters will experience conflict? Reality TV has been showing us this for decades.”
So why the experiment in isolation—an experiment which NASA and other agencies have been testing since the biodomes of the…2011? Ah. Maybe to see if it can be done? Another quote from Chapter 2:
“What do you know of the history of [several technologies, e.g. the MRI]? Take 600 of our best and brightest, lock them up in a confined space, and great things come out.”
Actually, this is a set-up for Chapter 3, in which the young girl Crista (I’m not missing the subtle suggestion here) is given a brain scan by the smallest, most modern MRI ever made, so the audience can see lots of lights going off in her brain just before her psychic-ness saves people and threatens to destroy the illusion of Ascension.
At which point I wondered if the purpose of Ascension was to create psychic humans. In the show, the program directors refer to it as “morphic resonance” and “punctuated evolution”, wherein by virtue of a severe environmental shift, a species experiences evolution more rapidly. It’s similar to the “genetic bottleneck”, when an environmental catastrophe shrinks the genetic variance of a species—and why all modern humans are descendent from 2k to 20k prehistoric humans.
Okay, the show wanted to introduce psychics. That’s fine; I love psychics. And I believe that most of Ascension’s critics were fine with it. There were two other issues proposed by said critics that may have contributed to Ascension’s mixed reviews: “the Star Child must be born”, and the ability of Crista to teleport a human being from Earth to a new world.
And these are why I think Ascension’s ending is not terrible. Actually, it could be brilliant…if you let it.
(1) In the sixth episode, this literal line of dialogue: “The Star Child must be born. [my emphasis]” Most critics felt this line was too corny. (A lot of critics either missed or ignored the girl’s name allusion.)
But the character Sam—an ex-soldier with a tarnished history of service activities that she regrets—invokes this line from Eva, a conspiracy theorist the former thinks has been trying to get to the truth of child kidnappings associated with the initiation of the Ascension experiment, by noting:
‘You’re good. …Is this how Ascension has shut down investigation, by planting you as an obvious conspiracy theorist? A “honey trap”, to catch anyone else looking into the project?’
Eva disarms Sam, then shoots the latter through the eye, giving us the line about the Star Child.
I thought this made a lot of sense, especially given Enzmann’s (Gil Bellows) obsession with the Ascension experiment: what better way to protect Ascension than by creating a cult—a group of equally fanatic people upon whom Enzmann can rely to secure any leaks or oversight blunders? Yes, the birth of the “Star Child” is a trite line, only because a real cult might have spoken those words.
If I think of Eva as a cultist, Enzmann as their fanatical leader, Ascension as the sacred chamber in which the Star Child can be born, given enough time and faith, this plot device makes a lot of sense. The best part is that Enzmann need never share his own, factual knowledge of Ascension! Just his robust obsession with the project. In some ways, Enzmann is a trophy-taking serial killer (Chapter 2), just like Manson. Remember that Director Warren explains in Chapter 3 how she became involved with Ascension:
‘Your [Enzmann’s] father was a man of powerful charisma. He made us believe in Ascension, in its purpose, his vision.’
He would’ve had to; although the Stanford Prison Experiment—widely considered to be a psychological cornerstone in explaining why the people of the Nazis carried out their barbarisms on people of the prison camps—wasn’t conducted until 1974, the Milgram Experiment of 1963 came at the height of academic furor to identify factors of authority figures on their subjects. (These studies, and several others pre- and post-WW2 served also to establish the ethics of modern research.) The show establishes that 70 of the original Ascension crew were academics, in all fields, including philosophy and psychology. It would’ve been impossible to recruit people for the Ascension’s ground-based direction team without the level of charisma that makes smart people do objectively terrible things.
Even if the ‘TC Group’ is led by a board of hard-nosed, economically-focused business sociopaths who’d do anything for money, it would make sense that Enzmann—who, from Chapter 1, is obviously beholden to the TCG despite his father’s founding status, probably because the TCG paid for the experiment—would look outside the corporate structure for people who, like him, can be wrapped up in his cult obsession of Ascension. “The Star Child must be born” is not corny sci-fi banality, but a comment on all of the moronic things believed by any subset of humanity in any era of history.
(2) There were people who didn’t like the finale of BSG! I admit: it’s a stretch of a concept. But in many ways it’s not; earlier, I discussed the genetic bottleneck that resulted in modern humans descending from 2k to 20k people, roughly the population of the remaining BSG fleet.
(The fact that the information ghosts Baltar and #6 are walking around downtown NY/LA/wherever some tens of millennia later can be considered separately.)
Consider the conceit of “Paycheck”, another sci-fi movie panned, unfairly, by critics: ‘What would you pay $500 billion to see? …The future.’
What’s better: paying a trillion dollars (Wayland Corp, Prometheus) to travel to a distant star system, or paying just a billion dollars to develop a teleporter?
Has there been any research that punctuated evolution could create psychic humans? No. Has there been any published literature on any legitimate experiments on the subject? No. Is there any chance, regardless of its infinitessimality, that a psychic human could be produced in just three generations of eugenic breeding? No.
But it’s science fiction, so I move past that point to this: much like the Matrix and X-men, the purpose of Ascension is to force human evolution to produce a special subject, beyond ‘normal’ humans. And they succeeded! It’s as magical as realizing that Event Horizon could’ve been a story told of the early Warhammer 40k universe, or as paralyzing when the Architect tells Neo that there have been several previous attempts by “The Ones” to free humanity from the machines. 51 years ago, Enzmann Sr. predicted, somehow, that he could create a human capable of teleporting other humans across the cosmos.
What’s the future of that humanity?? Does the TC Group come to dominate humanity’s governments? Is Crista unique, or can she be replicated? Can she teleport people back from those new worlds? How does Crista know to which worlds humans can be safely teleported? Can she teleport equipment?
What does Enzmann and/or the TCG do with this revelation? Enzmann ends Chapter 3.2 by reaffirming his belief that the people of Ascension are “space heroes”. Would he use Crista to teleport them to their next planet? Again: can Crista teleport non-biological objects? Or just people and the clothes on their PG-13 backs? Only Gault pops out on that new planet; the other man exposed to Crista’s ‘ability’ is not shown. Does this mean that Crista can only teleport the crew of Ascension? Is her ability somehow dependent upon the others’ isolation with her, that make them susceptible/capable of being teleported?
Does the entire human race get placed into Ascension-like experiments, such that we can all be teleported to new worlds? Can Crista teleport information? Even today (2017), we have no practical means by which to transmit information from one star system to another. The power of a laser required to transmit a light from Sol to Proxima C is astronomical, pardon the pun. Quantum physicists hope we can use quantum computing to do so, but even those signals are limited to traveling at the speed of light. Does a new class of people arise, the “Messenger”: those psychics who can morph their resonance to any Star Child, thereby allowing interstellar mail? What happens when one of these Messengers goes insane or psychotic, and start delivering erroneous or specious information, to a particular colony, to any colony s/he finds?
The possibilities are endless, and, therefore, brilliant. Don’t get caught up on a ‘trite’ line of dialogue, or the sharp curve the plot takes at the end of Ascension.