As SyFy’s executives have watched shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Arrow–shows that should be natural fits for a network built around genre programming–grow into ratings juggernauts on other channels, they’ve been working to refine their core mission and focus in on shows that embody it. If a SyFy network is going to remain relevant, then it needs to be a network that doesn’t just give you the same sort of genre fare you can get anywhere–it has to do it bigger, better, and further out there.
As the channel’s execs have told us, if the mainstreamification of genre programming has raised the bar of success, it’s also created big opportunities and one of the ways they’re determined to exploit those opportunities is by focusing on the genres that other networks still don’t get right. And one of those genres is the one that helped put the network on the “prestigious, serialized TV show” map back in the mid-’00s, when Battlestar Galactica was changing lives and inspiring Portlandia-style binges: Space opera.
The latest attempt from SyFy to recapture the territory that it dominated with Battlestar is a show that takes as much from Mad Men as it does that earlier SyFy hit: Ascension, created by Phil Levens. Ascension–which premieres on December 15 with the first of a three-part mini-series, much the way Battlestar Galactica did–is a space-themed show with a heck of a high-concept premise: What if a massive rocket, part of a ’60s-era program to launch hundreds of Americans into outer space to find a backup planet in the event that the Cold War destroyed the Earth, was still out there today?
The resulting program is full of major plot twists and turns and features mid-century-style fashions, class issues, and exploration of gender roles. While the idea of an isolated core of humanity kept in a confined space, unaware if other people even exist outside of the ship, shares some surface similarity to SyFy’s most prestigious hit, it also has a unique point of view. As the network pursues not just programming designed to make a ratings splash, but also intended to compete with the best that TV has to offer during a golden age, Levens and Howe explained how you go about making an ambitious space show that’s grounded in earthly issues and strong characters.
Levens pitched the initial idea for Ascension a few years ago, while in a meeting at ABC. “My agent told me that they were looking for this or that, so I diligently pitched a couple ideas like that, and he said, ‘No, I’m not interested in that.’ He said, ‘What else do you have?’” Levens, sensing that this would be a good time to just go for it, asked, “Are you interested in the space program?”
The exec bit, and while it didn’t land at ABC, SyFy President Dave Howe jumped on the project when Levens met with him about it.
“I had read about the Orion project–it was actually a real project,” Levens says of the idea that became Ascension. “In the 1950s, they were planning on building these giant nuclear-pulse propulsion ships that, in one mission, could go to the moon, have all the men and supplies and materials needed to build a lunar base, and then take off from there to explore the galaxy. These guys were all planning on going and taking their children and wives with them.”
Levels was able to discover a historical program that didn’t get much play for a simple reason: It was a military project, and except for a short period in recent years when it was declassified (and later reclassified), the details have been short. “This was kind of top-secret stuff, because even to this day, if we’re really going to explore interstellar space, you’re going to have to use a system like the Orion system.”
Ascension has been in the works for a long time, but it didn’t exactly suck for Levens or SyFy that one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, directed by one of the biggest-name directors in Hollywood, is a space-themed film that came out six weeks before the miniseries airs. So did Interstellar whet the audience’s appetite for stories about space exploration?
“It’s a nice coincidence,” Levens admits. “It’s definitely in the zeitgeist. There seems to be movement toward space, and maybe away from the kind of navel-gazing a lot of stories have been doing.” (While Interstellar may have more than a hint of navel-gaze to it, Levens is too polite to say so.) “Space really is our last horizon–imagination just tends to go there, and people always have dreams and ambitions about how maybe there’s something better, or there’s answers out there.”
All of the trappings of Ascension’s plot may be “big space story,” but there’s a lot more going on here beneath that surface. Howe thinks of Ascension as a series in the mold of a Breaking Bad or Walking Dead, where the potential isn’t in the plot, but in the characters. “It’s provocative,” he says. “There are a lot of twists and turns. As soon as you get to a certain point, you’ll realize it’s a whole different kind of show, and it makes you think. It’s absolutely in the camp of smart, sophisticated, thought-provoking entertainment.”
As head of the network, it’s not a surprise to hear Howe say that–but Levens is also more interested in the themes that are much more grounded that what you’d expect from a show that takes place on a spaceship. The first episode of Ascension is at least as much murder mystery as it is space story, as the ship’s crew are forced to attempt to solve the first murder in its 50 years over Earth.
“I thought the idea was–where do we lose skill sets?” Levens says. “If there’s not crime, if there’s never been a murder, the idea of investigating a murder is still alien. How would you go about doing that? You’d have to use archival movies and books, from pre-1963 [the year that Ascension launched, in the show], to try and figure out the way we do stuff today that we all take for granted. Good storytelling is always when you can take common things, and come at it from another angle, and enlighten yourself or your audience.”
Levens shies away from comparisons to Mad Men, but the aesthetics aboard the ship, even though the show is set in the present day, make the comparison hard not to make. The show takes place in a culture that evolved very differently from our own. With a fixed population, the chance for styles and attitudes to evolve the way that they have in the real world would be limited–which means that, in many ways, it’s still the early ’60s aboard the ship.
“We didn’t stay purely in 1963, because the idea has always been that they would have evolved in their own way,” Levens says. “But it would have been a slower evolution, because they weren’t getting the latest fashions from France, or someone in New York saying, ‘This is the new furniture!’ or whatever.”
That goes beyond style to class issues, to undeniable racial elements, to sexism, and more. Aesthetics are definitely a part of it, but the style of the show doesn’t refer strictly to how the characters are dressed–it’s also the way they move in this very limited world.
“It was interesting to see the way that both their fashion and the other cultural elements would have evolved, without any other outside influences, because we kind of take for granted that we have cross-cultural influences constantly impacting us. But they didn’t have that. They only had themselves.”
2014, in other words, would look, sound, and feel very different without The Beatles, or the Black Power Movement, or the Vietnam War, or punk rock, or hip hop, or the Internet, or Taylor Swift. As much as Ascension appears to be about space, it’s about that version of the world, as well.