In 1963, the U.S. government launched a secret mission that sent hundreds of people into space on a starship called Ascension. Their mission? To populate a new world. Now, nearly 50 years later, as the ship approaches the "point of no return," a murder on the ship threatens to create chaos among those considered as humanity's last hope.
This is the setting of Syfy's ambitious original mini-series Ascension. Recently, at the Syfy digital press tour, the cast of Ascension, sat down and talked about the series and its political connotations.
"This is like historical fiction," said Brandon P. Bell, who portrays First Officer Oren Gault. "It's really cool that there was once a project called Orion that has a lot of parallels to Ascension."
Life on the ship is different from life on Earth. Because the ship launched in the 1960s, its colonists did not live through major historical events like the death of John F. Kennedy, women's liberation and the civil rights movement. Strict laws also govern day-to-day life on the ship that set rules for a certain number of births (based on the ship's death rate) and the arrangement of marriages.
"I'm very excited about the concept of the show," said Al Sapienza, who portrays Councilman Rose, one of the ship's politicians. "It's a parallel society that is not influenced in any way by anything on Earth for 50 years."
For Tricia Helfer, who portrays Viondra, the wife of the ship's captain, this presented a challenge. "Although it's the early 1960s, our society is evolving in some ways, but with 600 people, it's moving much slower, like a small town as opposed to a big city," she said. "My character is strong, but she has to be the one behind, having to speak up in quarters as opposed to being able to speak up in public. I think my character struggles with wanting to have done more, even though she's in a position of power on the ship."
Things are a little different for the ship's head doctor, Juliet Bryce, as portrayed by Andrea Roth. "I am the head doctor," Roth said. "She has no knowledge of women's lib, but I think she's just naturally a stronger woman tempered by the ship's societal mentality." Roth pointed out that Dr. Bryce is beginning to see a shift in those societal attitudes, though, through her teenaged doctor who has fallen in love with a boy she hasn't been matched with.
Sapienza believes that equality is something that eventually evolves in such circumstances, though. "But there are always those forces that are self-serving that have their own reasons to keep things unfair for their own profits and their own power," he added.
Bell, who plays one of the few African Americans on the ship, spoke about how race factors into the ship's population. "It's a small microcosm of what the U.S. represents," he said. "That is intentional. We are to carry on the fabric of humanity, specifically the United States and what that looks like."
The ship has a self-created caste system, though: the upper decks and the lower decks. Occupation, along with aptitude tests, determine where someone lives. Bell's character, though, worked his way up from the lower decks.
Cast members pointed out that each of their characters have complexities and layers that play into the story of Ascension. Brian Van Holt plays Captain William Denniger, the man responsible for all 600 lives aboard the ship. "He's not without his moral ambiguities, though" Van Holt said. "He deals with some demons and how he deals with them is morally questionable."
Syfy executives are pulling out all the stops for Ascension, which premieres on the network on December 15. If all goes well, we may see the network approve the story for a future television series, much like its most similar predecessor Battlestar Galactica.