Ascension cast: The retro sci-fi show is 'Mad Men meets Star Trek meets Lost'

When the journey on the spaceship Ascension begins this December on Syfy, viewers will find themselves on a blast from the past that takes place in an alternate retro sci-fi timeline, and one that might just recapture the network’s previous success with Battlestar Galactica.

Loosely based around the actual atomic-powered spacecraft of Project Orion, the 6-hour miniseries (and likely ongoing series) is about a covert craft that was launched by the U.S. in Kennedy-era 1963. The U.S.S. Ascension was to carry the smartest men, women and children to populate a new world, and 50 years into the journey, a mysterious murder -- the first on board -- takes place. 

“It’s Mad Men meets Star Trek meets Lost,” summed up actor Al Sapienza at this week’s Syfy press tour in Orlando, where he was joined by costars Tricia Helfer, Brian Van Holt, Andrea Roth and Brandon P. Bell.

Premiering Dec. 15 at 9 p.m., and airing over three nights, Ascension is a big-idea kind of show, and the return of Helfer to the network makes it feel like this could be Syfy’s next BSG

The world on the ship is a small microcosm of what U.S. society looked like in the early ’60s, with the intention of preserving that. 

“I’m very excited about the concept of this show, and the parallel society, not influenced in any way by what’s happened on Earth in 50 years,” said Sapienza, who plays Councilman Rose. “We don’t know John Kennedy got shot, we don’t about know the civil rights movement or women’s lib; our input from Earth stopped in 1963.”

But to maintain balance, there is genetic pairing, arranged marriages and limits on how many children can be born -- which looks to be part of a major plot point. 

“There’s a birthless ceremony every year, so it depends on how many people have passed away as to how many children can be born,” said Helfer. “So many couples on the ship will never have the right to have a child.”

She teased that her character, Viondra Denniger, and her husband, Capt. William Denniger (Van Holt), have opted out of having a kid.

Additionally, a self-created caste system is in place. It was not initially established when Ascension launched, and it consists of the upper decks and lower decks. But the system allows for a lower-decker like Bell’s African-American character Oren Gault to achieve second-in-command status despite the civil rights movement never happening on board.

Gender equality is also skewed in this timeline, and Helfer’s Viondra has gained behind-the-scenes power through her sexuality and position as the captain’s wife.

“She stands behind her man, but is the steel in his spine,” said Helfer. “She works hard to stay in power; she grew up in the lower decks and made her way up, and is determined to stay there.”

Meanwhile, Roth’s Juliet Bryce is the Ascension’s head doctor and has a job of importance. But Bryce’s teenage daughter is flexing her muscles and trying to push beyond the restrictive rules of their on-board life. 

Speaking to this, Helfer said their world has evolved in the 50 years since they launched. 

“It’s not exactly like Mad Men; it is its own society that has evolved in its own way, but a society of 600 people evolves much slower.” 

Sapienza said he thinks that evolution is any human culture, but on Ascension –- and anywhere that the status quo is challenged –- “there are always those forces that are self-serving, with their own reasons to keep things unfair.”

Some of the other threads the series follows: A ground government is tracking the starship, and the craft is nearly at the point where they won’t be able to turn around and head back to Earth. In conjunction with the first murder on board, people are starting to panic.

He revealed that, aside from his character, most of his co-stars play the first generation born on the vessel. And their children mark the second generation. So the brain trust of Ascension may be deteriorating.

“President Kennedy picked the smartest people, and most qualified, to take this journey,” he said. “Well, as you know, you could get a perfect score on your SATs, but your kids may not be so bright. This is the second generation, so you don’t have (what was the phrase Kennedy used?) the best and the brightest.”

Still, some things never change, even in an alternate sci-fi timeline. 

“Interestingly enough, even though we’ve had no influence from Earth, politics have evolved in the same way as on Earth,” said Sapienza about his character. “I’m self-serving, put myself ahead of the good of the ship and am having an affair with the captain’s wife -- I’m the perfect politician!”

Speaking of the captain, Van Holt introduced his character as a natural-born leader in charge of 600 passengers but “definitely not Captain Kirk,” and referred to Helfer’s Viondra as “the real captain.” 

“He’s not without his moral ambiguities,” he said. “He deals with his demons, and his outlets are morally questionable.”

Wrapping up the panel, Bell said the purpose of the Ascension mission is “super righteous” because they’re leaders on a new frontier.

He added, and his co-stars agreed, that a show compared to Mad Men, Star Trek and Lost has the makings to be the focus of social media conversations.

“It’s extremely socially relevant and has the ability to be one of those shows people will want to talk about the themes,” he said. “There are so many parallels to what’s going on currently to what’s going on on the ship. Social media is the new water cooler talk, and there are so many angles and elements to Ascension that lean into that that it’s something people will want to discuss,” said Helfer. “I’m looking forward to engaging.”

“It’s a forward-thinking show ... plus, we’ve got a great-looking cast,” joked Van Holt.

Will you be tuning in for Ascension's maiden voyage? Let us know in the comments!

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