Shorter, self-contained television series with a pre-plotted ending are all the rage these days (See: True Detective, Fargo). The upcoming Syfy miniseries Ascension may benefit from that puzzlebox trend when it launches in November, releasing only six, one-hour long episodes in its first season.
“You think you know one thing going into it,” said Tricia Helfer, Battlestar Galactica veteran, during an interview at Dragon Con. “But you’ll get a big reveal the first episode or two in. By episode four, you get another reveal and another hint. There are definitely a lot of layers.”
Part of Ascension is inspired by a classified project from the 60s known as Project Orion, which proposed the use of nuclear bombs to propel manned ships to take us to Mars by 1965 and to Saturn by 1970. Whether the technology would have succeeded is still theoretical, but the project was pushed aside for political reasons – the nuclear component of the project led to fear that it could become a weaponized “Death Star” and the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed in 1963 was considered the project’s final nail in the coffin. (Fore more on the project, see this TedTalk).
Helfer said that although the show is fictional and takes liberties, it was clear writer and show runner Philip Levens had done his research on the project before penning the scripts.
“He has it all in his head, sort of like Ron Moore. Any question you ask him, it’s up there. He’s thought about it and has an answer for it,” she said. “He’s really delved into what it was like in the early 60s to launch a ship.”
Ascension explores one of history’s greatest “What Ifs?” by creating an alternative history in which a fictional ship using nuclear propulsion was launched in 1963, carrying 600 men and women aboard. The story is set roughly 50 years later, with Helfer portraying the de-facto First Lady of the ship. Because of the smaller pool of people, the ship has evolved at a slower pace – Helfer even joked about it being “Mad Men in space” because of the period costuming and the politics, including issues like sexism and racism.
Like many actresses, Helfer personally related to her character’s struggle as a woman to become more involved.
“She wishes she could get her hands dirty more. She feels she doesn’t have a job that is essential,” she said. “It’s a struggle for me, as an actor, to just be in high heels and tight dresses. I get frustrated.”
Though the season ends at episode six, Helfer said she sees the potential for at least another 4-6 episodes to close out the mystery, depending on the show’s success. Helfer teased a big plot bomb in episode five, followed by partial closure in the sixth and final episode.
“I won’t lie – it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger,” she said.
Ascension premiers on Nov. 24 on the Syfy channel.