Ascension – Syfy’s launch back into space-based drama
by Doc on Nov.09, 2014, under Television
With Syfy’s renewed focus on the genre from which it was born, the upcoming event series Ascension leads the way on full thrust.
The concept is interesting – part science fiction, part period drama, part murder mystery. At the height of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, in order to unsure that the Human race will survive, in 1963 the U.S. launches the U.S.S. Ascension, a secret mission to launch humanity to the stars. Carrying 600 men, women and children, the Ascension is 50 years in to their multi-generational mission and approaching the point of no return, when the first ever murder takes place on board. With no way to get advice back from Earth and no one trained in murder investigations, a web of intrigue and secrets might get unraveled and reveal the true secrets about the Ascension.
One of the intriguing parts of the show is going to be at the society level. If you took 600 people from 1963 – before women’s liberation, the Civil Rights movement, technological advancements, modern terrorism, and all the other things shaping our society, and placed them in a town with no outside influence but with the technology and a library of written knowledge and entertainment available at the time. Place a fixed restriction on resources, which would necessitate a strict limitation on population – forced birth control (something that was even more controversial back then), birth rights, etc.
What would happen over time?
Now something happens…a crime basically unknown to the residents except through movies and books. How would that society react?
Now, put that town in a spaceship, heading to an unknown future, with one last opportunity to change their minds and head home – even though few of those on board will ever see either possibility. Essentially volunteered by their ancestors, their mission is just to keep the society intact for the next generation – for someone else. Now you have life aboard the Ascension.
The town analogy is also apropos – the ship is lead by a captain and crew, but there is a ruling council that appears to have the ability to appoint the captain, much like a town manager. And sometimes they don’t get along. That actually mimicks my old home town that is going through exactly that trouble and it has divided the town considerably over the issues. But not only is there political turmoil at the top of Ascension (literally), but there is a growing discord, nearing insurrection, among the working class of the ship, known as the “lower deckers”, who keep the ship running. The “caste” system is such that the two groups are rarely allowed to mix.
William Denninger (Brian Van Holt, Cougar Town, Wild) is the current captain, a military man skilled in politics as well, he rose through the ranks of the crew and became a hero due to his actions during a catastrophic fire that could have destroyed the ship, which later led to his appointment as captain.
He is married to Viondra Denninger (Tricia Helfer, Battlestar Galactica, Killer Women), the stunningly beautiful but just as cunning and manipulative wife who knows what being in her position gets her, and although their marriage is strained she works behind the scenes to keep him in power.
Councilman Rose (Al Sapienza, The Sapranos, House Of Cards) is the total politician with plans to become the captain. He’s a schemer, and makes sure all the pieces are in place before he makes his move. He is the only one of the main characters who was alive on Launch Day, albeit as a very young child.
Aaron Gault (Brandon P. Bell, Hollywood Heights, Dear White People) is the Executive Officer, having come from the lower decks as the son of two maintenance workers. He is ordered by Denninger to conduct the murder investigation – which he believes he is completely unprepared for and has to turn to novels and movies for ideas.
Juliet Bryce (Andrea Roth, Rescue Me, Rogue) is the chief ship’s doctor, struggling with the relationship with her strong-willed teenage daughter Nora (Jacqueline Byers, Scared Stiff, The Strain), made worse by the murder on board.
Among the rest of the cast are Ryan Robbins (Sanctuary, Falling Skies) as Duke Vanderhaus, the self-serving and heavy handed Chief Safety Officer; Tiffany Lonsdale (Snake and Mongoose) as his wife Emily, the Chief Astronomer and sister to the murder victim; P.J. Boudousqué (Coldwater) as James Novack, a lower decker by choice who has a relationship with Nora Bryce; Gil Bellows (The Shawshank Redemption, Ally McBeal) as Harris Enzmann, the son of Project Ascension founder Abraham Enzmann and who is in charge back on Earth, and resents someone looking over his shoulder when word of the murder reaches Earth; and Ellie O’Brien (Kingdom Come) as Christa, a young girl and self-described “weirdo” who found the body but also appears to know things with a form of precognition and does not believe there is a future to be found at Proxima Centauri.
The cast work well together. It’s a little confusing at first because there are a lot of relationships to sort out, due to the nature of the culture on board and the size of the cast. It may take a bit for everything to gel over time but I think that will pan out pretty quick with this group, and especially for the relative newcomers to regular TV roles.
One thing about the actors and playing their roles was something Al Sapienza said that really struck me. “For an actor, it’s the opposite of what you normally do,” he said. ” For a role, you have to research what you don’t know. For this one, you just had to forget what you
knew, like you have to imagine what it would be like if there were no civil rights, if there was no Martin Luther King, there was no Malcolm X, if there was no womens lib movement, and total equality now in most places in the United States, like what would society be like without that?”
Science-wise, I think the nitpickers might be a bit satisfied as well. The U.S.S. Ascension is based on actual theoretical work from the 1950s called Project Orion. That project was about the feasibility of a design based on technology then available or reasonably believed to be available in the near future to build a manned interstellar spacecraft that used nuclear impulse propulsion – think small nuclear explosions against a “pusher plate” – to accelerate the spacecraft to small fraction of light speed – necessary to make a journey to our nearest neighbors within a conceivable amount of time such as 100 years. In addition, the structure of the craft borrows from the designs of long-range spacecraft that made use of modified upper-stage modules to provide crew and work spaces (think Skylab) that could be launched into space and assembled in orbit.
Technology-wise they seem to be right as well. Using early 1960s technology as the basis, you see black and white monitors, reel video recorders with poor resolution, mechanical devices with large lighted buttons, etc. But there are refinements as well. The elevator itself appears futuristic. They have “video cartridges” which look like they could be something like USB drives (but perhaps contain recording tape similar to 8-track or the more modern DLT/LTO data formats). And apparently while on board in 1973 they created the Stenotab, which eventually evolves to look suspiciously like a thick iPad…presumably there are manufacturing and fabrication systems on board, but being able to advance to modern computer technology I would expect to be very difficult if not impossible. Especially without any input from Earth. Theoretically Earth can send information to Ascension, but if they were halfway to Proxima, it would take two years to reach it…so technical data (say, perhaps, for the transistor and how to fabricate it) could be sent, but conversations and advice based on current events would be impossible.
Billed as an “event series” to be shown over three nights starting December 15th, this does serve as a backdoor pilot, so the potential for a full series, much like how Battlestar Galactica started.
If you’d like to know more about the cast and the show, read on for a transcript of a press panel with the cast.
BILL McGOLDRICK: This
next show is one of our biggest and most ambitious
shows we’ve done in a while.
Ascension is a new limited series that’s
premiering over three nights starting on
December 15th, a bold, ambitious thriller that
follows an intrepid group of colonists on board the
ship Ascension, which was launched by President
Kennedy in 1963. We pick them up in the show about
50 years into their journey, sort of the point of no
We’ve got a lot of cast members here today in
the back, starting with Brandon Bell, who plays
First Officer Gault.
BILL McGOLDRICK: Tricia Helfer, who plays the
ship’s chief stewardess and the beautiful wife of
captain — of the captain. Her character name is
BILL McGOLDRICK: Brian Van Holt who plays her
BILL McGOLDRICK: That would never happen in
real life, but on T.V.
He plays the ship’s captain, William Denninger.
That also wouldn’t happen in real life.
And Andrea Roth, who plays the ship’s doctor,
BILL McGOLDRICK: And finally, maybe the
hardest last name of the day, Al Sapienza, who plays
politician, Councilman Rose.
And here is our clip for Ascension.
BILL McGOLDRICK: So guys, this is our most
populated cast of the day. Thank you all for
coming. Why don’t we just go down the row, starting
with you, and talk a little bit about your
character, how you came to this one, and we can go
BRANDON P. BELL: Cool. How I came to audition
for the role? I was fortunate enough to get in.
But what drew me to it was just the concept in
general. This is like historical fiction, in a
sense. It’s really cool that there was once a
project called Orion that had a lot of parallels to
But Aaron Gault, in general, I think there’s a
quote by Raymond Chandler that Phil Levens, we
talked a lot about it. It’s “Down these mean
streets a man must go who is … neither tarnished
nor afraid.” And Aaron Gault personifies that to the
max. He’s a reluctant XO of the ship. He doesn’t
necessarily want to investigate the murder, but it
keeps him focused. It keeps him motivated. And so,
he’s a great character, having been born in the
lower decks and having made that rare transition to
the upper decks. He’s a great, interesting
character to play with a lot of internal issues.
BILL McGOLDRICK: Great. Tricia, welcome back
to Syfy, by the way.
TRICIA HELFER: Thank you.
TRICIA HELFER: I am definitely very happy to
be back. Viondra is a complicated character. What
you see on the surface you think is one thing, and
then a very strong character, and also dealing with
some of the sexual — we haven’t gone as far as we
have now, so contemporary in our world. So I think
she’s also a woman that sort of feels like she
hasn’t been able to accomplish what she would
necessarily like to accomplish on her own. She
stands behind her man, but she’s also as, Philip has
told me, sort of the steel in his spine. So she
definitely works, works hard to stay in power. She
grew up on the lower decks as well, as Brandon’s
character, and has made her way to the upper decks
and is determined to stay there and to keep her
husband in power.
BILL McGOLDRICK: All right. Brian?
BRIAN VAN HOLT: Yes. I’m Brian Van Holt. I
play Captain Denninger, which would never happen in
real life. But if it did, Bill, you would be my
first passenger. We would be going down.
BILL McGOLDRICK: Gladly.
BRIAN VAN HOLT: That should be a spin-off, all
right, going to be called Descension.
How did I — I got a straight offer. Just
kidding. This character, I begged. I met with the
creator of the show, Philip Levens. I’m really —
I’m upset that he’s not here because he’s —
everybody should get a chance to talk with him.
He’s got an amazing brain. This is his. This is
his brain child. And one of the main reasons why I
wanted to do this is because of him and his
intelligence and his ideas and his imagination.
I’ve never been a part of any kind of show like
this, nor have I ever played a character like this,
and I was very anxious to do so. I wanted a
departure from what I had been doing for the past
So Captain Denninger is the captain of this
wonderful ship called Ascension, and this is my
beautiful wife, who is the real captain, which would
be — that would be realistic in this, for sure.
You know, he’s a natural born leader, and the
captain of a ship has a lot of responsibility. He’s
in charge of — how many passengers do we have now,
600? The whole community, he’s in charge and
responsible for their well-being and to get to our
destination, which is called Proxima.
But Captain Denninger is not without his moral
ambiguities. He deals with some demons and how he
— how he deals with them, his outlets, are morally
questionable, which made him a very interesting
character to play for me. That would happen in real
So he’s not your normal like — he’s definitely
not Captain Kirk. I don’t even know what that
means, really, but he’s — he’s a very layered
character. What else can I say about the captain?
ANDREA ROTH: I am Andrea Roth. I play
Dr. Juliet Bryce, the head doctor onboard Ascension.
More importantly, I am a mother struggling with a
teenage daughter, and the issues that happen, added
to that, is since we’re on this ship and we were
born on this ship, and my daughter has no sort of
choice in her life or what career path to take, and
obviously all of that is very limited. So she and I
are sort of struggling, mother/daughter stuff there.
And also, she finds herself attracted to a lower
decker onboard our ship. I’m going to go as long as
he did. Sorry.
My daughter is — and onboard the
ship, you have to be matched. We don’t get to
choose who we’re with, so I know, possibly from a
past experience, that her falling for someone and
following that passion could only lead to
heartbreak, so I’m trying to protect her.
BILL McGOLDRICK: And Al, just a tiny bit about
AL SAPIENZA: Al Sapienza. I play the mafia
guy on the show — no, just kidding.
Getting this part, I am very, very excited
about the concept of this show, and that’s what drew
me to it. It’s a parallel society that has had no
— it’s not influenced in any way by anything on
earth for 50 years. We don’t know that John Kennedy
got shot. We don’t know about the civil rights
movement. We don’t know about women’s lib. Our
input from earth stopped in 1963. So we’re the
society on the ship, and I am the political end.
And interestingly enough, even though we’ve had
no influence from earth, the political end evolved
the same way as politicians on earth. I am
self-serving, I put myself first instead of the good
of the ship, and I’m having a love affair with the
captain’s wife. So I’m the perfect politician.
It’s an exact evolution to what happened on earth.
So anyway, that’s my character.
BILL McGOLDRICK: All right. Let me open it up
QUESTION: When you guys talk about this being a limited
series, I mean, are we talking backdoor pilot? Are
we talking, you know, that this is really is limited
and we’re kind of stopping here? It’s more of a
BILL McGOLDRICK: I’ll do this one. It is a
six-hour kickoff. You know, we have a tradition at
this network. Battlestar Galactica started that
way, as Tricia knows. You know, other networks do
it. It’s concepts this big that require this much
world building. Sometimes you can’t do it in just a
two-hour pilot. You need more answers, and
especially this one. When you guys watch it, you’ll
So we’re going to air it. We’re going to make
a big event out of it, and then we’re going to talk
about a future, hopefully, very shortly after that.
QUESTION: If you’re given an opportunity like
this, would you actually go?
BRIAN VAN HOLT: I think I would.
AL SAPIENZA: If the women were this good
BRIAN VAN HOLT: If we were paid what we’re
paid on Ascension, one hundred percent absolutely.
TRICIA HELFER: I might have trouble with it.
ANDREA ROTH: Well, your cats.
TRICIA HELFER: If I could take my cats, yes.
BRANDON P. BELL: I’ve always wanted to go to
space. I mean, who doesn’t? I think the mission,
the purpose of the mission, is super righteous and
we’re the leaders of a new frontier, to propagate a
new planet and carry on humanity, so that’s cool. I
think I would. Once I’m on it, it might present a
whole different number of issues, I don’t know if I
would regret it, but initially, upfront, yeah, I
think it would be really enticing. It would be hard
to turn down, you know.
AL SAPIENZA: I’m with him.
QUESTION: Seeing as how you and the other
characters are going to have to evolve without
outside influences from earth, what kind of research
was needed for your roles?
BRIAN VAN HOLT: God, I hate that question.
BILL McGOLDRICK: A lot of long talks with Phil
BRIAN VAN HOLT: By the way, it’s true; a lot
of conversations with Philip Levens. What kind of
research? I studied the time period.
TRICIA HELFER: Yeah, studied the ’60s.
BRIAN VAN HOLT: The literature at the time,
the movies at the time, and tried to go back and get
a sense of the vibe, the feeling of that era.
TRICIA HELFER: Which, conveniently, right
after I was cast, CNN ’60s series, the documentary
series, started, so that was —
BRIAN VAN HOLT: Perfect timing.
TRICIA HELFER: — perfect timing, to work out
on the treadmill and study at the same time.
AL SAPIENZA: And it’s interesting, for an
actor, it’s the opposite of what you normally do.
For a role, you have to research what you don’t
know. For this one, you just had to forget what you
knew, like you have to imagine what it would be like
if there were no civil rights, if there was no
Martin Luther King, there was no Malcolm X, if there
was no women’s lib movement, and total equality now
in most places in the United States, like what would
society be like without that? And it’s basically
Mad Men, you know.
So it’s Mad Men meets Star Trek meets Lost.
QUESTION: That actually kind of leads into my
question, because I wanted to ask about the gender
roles on the show. I guess this is for the ladies. As you play
these characters on the show, does your character
struggle with the fact that there is no women’s lib
TRICIA HELFER: You know, I think one of the
things I found interesting about the show is how,
obviously, it was the early ’60s, but our society
has also evolved in some way, so it’s not exactly
like Mad Men. It’s not exactly like going back to
1963 or 1962. It’s its own sort of society that has
evolved in its own way, but a society of 600 people,
so we evolve much slower; a small town as opposed to
a big city.
And so, I did find it interesting. I play a
very strong character, and my character is strong,
but yet she had to be the one behind and maybe speak
up in the chambers, you know, our quarters, as
opposed to being able to speak up necessarily in
public, in a group. I think my character struggles
with wanting to have done more. And I think in one
way, admires the doctor, and I think I say to you at
one point, your character, you’re lucky you found
something meaningful to do on the ship. So my
character struggles, even though she’s in a position
of power on the ship, she struggles with it not
being necessarily what she wants to do mentally and
ANDREA ROTH: And I am the head doctor, so even
though 50 years has gone on, a female is — you
know, I am the head doctor. So we have no knowledge
of the women’s lib, and I think we just have
naturally stronger women tempered by a societal
genteelness, I guess, is sort of what attracted me.
BRIAN VAN HOLT: Yes.
QUESTION: I actually am a little — I don’t
want to say confused by that, but I just want to
ask, do you guys think that even without radical
movements to push for equality, that even in a
society like yours, it’s just a natural instinct to
eventually evolve into equality?
AL SAPIENZA: That’s a good question.
QUESTION: And then my other question was, does
the entire show take place on the ship?
BRIAN VAN HOLT: The entire show takes place on
ANDREA ROTH: If I could jump into that first
one about, in terms — oh, I just lost what I was
going to say.
AL SAPIENZA: Would we naturally evolve with
equality rights, and you know, that was the
question. I think my answer is absolutely. It’s
the right thing. So hopefully, in the human
condition anywhere, eventually, just my opinion,
yes, of course it would, because — but there are
always those forces. They’re self-serving and have
their own reasons to keep things unfair, and their
own profits and their own power. And that goes on
in the ship a little bit, too.
TRICIA HELFER: Well, you’re right. It does
sort of naturally — it is naturally evolving,
because the younger generation, your daughter, for
instance, is kind of fighting —
ANDREA ROTH: Feisty.
TRICIA HELFER: — and wanting to get further
than she necessarily is expected to, and things like
that. So yeah, without a big movement, I think it
BILL McGOLDRICK: And I think it’s important to
remember, this is the first generation that’s been
born on the ship. Some of these characters were
very young kids when they were first brought on
board, so those movements —
ANDREA ROTH: No, none of us.
AL SAPIENZA: I’m the only one. I’m the only
one that was alive when we walked on the ship.
And another interesting point about this show,
and me personally as an actor — I did the Sopranos
and House of Cards. I’ve done some interesting
projects. I think the concept here is amazing and
the writing is amazing.
President Kennedy picked the smartest people on
earth and the most qualified people to take this
journey. It’s based loosely on the Orion project.
Well, as you know from yourselves and your friends,
you could get a perfect score on your SATs — well,
and have your kids not be so bright. Right? So
this is the second generation. So you don’t have
the smart — well, what was that phrase that Kennedy
used? The best and the brightest. You don’t have
them. This is the second generation running the
ship, and there’s — and in a matter of months,
we’re going to reach the point of no return. We
can’t go back to earth. So people are panicking a
little. There’s a murder that takes place that —
we never had a homicide before. Everyone is freaked
out about it, and we don’t know why.
And in answering your question, there is
another parallel study. This ship is sponsored in
the U.S. There is the government, the government
story about whether, you know, on ground — I don’t
want to go into it too much, but it’s a fantastic
thing that you will see as you watch the show. But
yes, there’s the government — you know, the ground
government following this as close as they can. But
ANDREA ROTH: I also wanted to say that we were
populated, like my parents were incredibly smart
doctors and intellectuals, and the people who
actually chose to go on the ship at that time were
quite progressive, and you know, especially in their
thinking. Therefore, I think their children would
have been raised with — you know what I mean? They
were allowed to sort of give their own values on the
ship, so I think my mother would have instilled that
QUESTION: Is there ever going to be a
backstory on how the parents were actually picked
for this mission, speaking of picking the best and
BILL McGOLDRICK: You’ll get a lot of those
answers, for sure.
QUESTION: And one other question; is there a limit to how
many children are —
: Yes. We have to stay the same
BILL McGOLDRICK: You will definitely get that
answer as well.
TRICIA HELFER: Just like there’s genetic
pairing and matching, arranged marriages, so to
speak, there’s also a birth list ceremony. You
know, the captain and Viondra gave up their right to
have children, but there’s a birth list ceremony
every year, so it depends how many people have
passed away as to how many children can be born. So
many — many people, many couples on the ship will
never be able to have the right to have a child.
AL SAPIENZA: And there’s a constant population
that has to be maintained. People have to die in
order for people to be born.
BRIAN VAN HOLT: It’s a self-sustaining ship,
so we can only allow a certain amount of people on
the ship, so we have to monitor the number of the
AL SAPIENZA: It brings up a bunch of
interesting questions, that if this — that if this
were to really take place, like controlling a
society and having it evolve itself. Philip’s an
intelligent guy, the man who wrote this. It’s a
very interesting concept.
QUESTION: This is kind of a thick question,
but also a serious question. How is there a black
guy on the ship, if you all boarded in the 1960s,
AL SAPIENZA: You’re right. And he’s the XO,
second in command.
QUESTION: Yeah, but wouldn’t there presumably
be like all white people on the ship?
BRANDON P. BELL: It’s a small microcosm of
what the U.S. represents racially, so there’s
sprinkles here and there, but that’s the intention
of it. We are to carry on the fabric of humanity,
specifically regarding the United States and what
that looks like on Proxima. So everything is very
specific, from birth lists, resources, even genetic
makeup, and the look of the ship in terms of the
people and the ethnicity is very specific to that.
AL SAPIENZA: And there was a self-created
caste system on the ship that didn’t come in the
BRANDON P. BELL: Right.
AL SAPIENZA: There are things called the lower
decks and the upper decks. The executives, the
officers, the politicians, they’re in the upper
decks. The maintenance people are in the lower
decks, and depending on where you fall on your
aptitude test, is where you are going to work. He
came from the lower decks, and he worked himself up
to run the ship.
And one other point, and this is just my
opinion, again. In 1963, the smarter people already
believed in equal rights; the northeasterners, the
more educated people already thought it was wrong.
And I’m not being, you know, political here, but I’m
saying — you know what I mean? But the smart
people in ’63, you brought up this point, they were
on the ship. So anyway, you know what I mean?
QUESTION: I’d like to hear from all of you on
this, but Al, you mentioned Mad Men versus Star Trek
or meets Star Trek meets Lost. Those are basically
all big staples on Twitter, on social media. Do you
think Ascension is going to lend itself well to sort
of a social media conversation, debates back and
forth, and are each of you excited and willing to
get engaged in those debates online?
AL SAPIENZA: Me? I’ll answer first quickly.
Can I tell a really quick story, like a real
BILL McGOLDRICK: Sure, Al.
AL SAPIENZA: Let me tell what I saw in the
pool here this morning, right, and I make no
judgment on it, none whatsoever. But I saw a woman
in this pool in a burqa, completely dressed from
head to toe, swimming with her baby, and ten feet
away was like a 50-year-old woman in a bikini with
her children. And I was thinking like, the
diversity of mankind. No other animal in the animal
kingdom has that diversity. You can get a lion
that’s a little bit cranky and they bite you one
day. But basically, we’re the only animal that’s
we’re from here to here. You know, we’re poets and
we built the Verrazano Bridge, and then we’re
selfish warlords. So, we have an opportunity, and I
think this show, the concept of this show is
brilliant, and I’m just as excited about it as you
guys are, and I can’t wait to actually see it.
The potential here to have these debates are
tremendous, and the potential of where this show
could go is tremendous, and we’re all going to find
out, you know, in December, exactly how it lands on
people. And I’m hoping that — I have high hopes
for this. I really hope it lands where I think it’s
going to land.
But yes, my answer is yes.
TRICIA HELFER: Social media is the new
watercooler talk, right, and there are so many
angles and elements to the show that lead into that,
I think. I think it’s something that people will
want to discuss, will want to see how somebody else
feels about it, that type of thing.
So, I’m all good and looking forward to
engaging. I have to bump up on my technological
BILL McGOLDRICK: We’ll teach you. We’ve got
people for that.
BRIAN VAN HOLT: I feel the show will
definitely provoke conversation and debate, and I’m
looking forward to it. I have to — I don’t tweet
or — I got to join this tweeter thing everybody is
BRIAN VAN HOLT: I think the captain of the
ship, which never really happened, needs to tweet
about it. But yeah, I think it will provoke a lot
of conversation. It’s a forward-thinking show and
BRANDON P. BELL: I certainly hope so. I think
it’s extremely socially relevant. The historical
fiction aspect is really cool, and I think it
definitely has the ability to be one of those shows
where people want to talk about the themes that are
so relevant within them. There are so many
parallels with what’s going on currently, and what’s
happened, with what’s going on, on the ship. If you
have the best and the brightest in the room, what
could happen? If you had time and resources for
them to continue living in that room, what would
happen? And I think that’s essentially what we all
aspire to see at some point. It’s the ideal
situation. It tries to be utopia in a sense, but
perfection is always impossible, and so things are
— there’s tons of surprises and there’s wonderful
stories and characters, and I definitely feel
strongly in hoping that people connect. I really
think that’s possible, and it will definitely create
some thoughtful conversation for sure.
AL SAPIENZA: Plus we’ve got a great looking