So we didn't especially like Ascension's first chapter, which seemed to promise one thing and then deliver another. Fortunately, the second and third chapters had better pacing and some great moments... before ending with another huge moment of WTF. Spoilers ahead...
The first episode of Ascension ended with a somewhat rug-pulling reveal: the main characters are not, in fact, on a giant space ship making an interstellar journey to a vague "new world" … they were the unwitting, unknowingly earthbound subjects of a long-term experiment. And now, we've learned more about the purposes behind that experiment.
Ascension's chapters two and three benefited from a story structure that split the action between the people in fake space and the folks on the ground. Chief puppetmaster Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows) has been carrying on his father's work, overseeing Ascension's "flight" and becoming creepily obsessed with overseeing its residents.
He's none too pleased when his boss forces him to accommodate consultant Samantha Krueger (Lauren Lee Smith), brought in to help solve Ascension's first murder. Samantha — a taco-loving lesbian (yes, they went there) who immediately suspects Harris' pet project is motivated by a sinister purpose — soon becomes audience surrogate, playing Nancy Drew and bonding, as much as one can, with Stokes (Brad Carter), the falsely accused murderer who plunged from Ascension to Earth at the end of chapter one. She also befriends a conspiracy-theory blogger who has intel on exactly what kind of X-files Samantha is up against; it plays out like a spy thriller as she realizes her detective skills will be tested by circumstances more complex than solving a single murder.
The power struggles between Harris and his boss (and the shadowy, deep-pocketed corporate entity that she represents) are mirrored aboard Ascension, as Tricia Helfer's ice-queen Viondra struggles to keep her husband, Captain Denninger (Brian Van Holt), in his hard-won leadership position. The backstabbings and secret loyalties are strictly Game of Thrones lite, with shipboard madame Diandra believing, probably correctly, that "Sex is the true currency of the ship."
Other subplots of interest (including a teen romance doomed by the ship's computer-matching system, which would never deign to arrange a marriage between kids from different class-sorted decks) fade into the background — even the opening murder becomes a MacGuffin of sorts — once Ascension commits to revealing why the mission was "launched" in the first place.
Well, it kind of commits ... so watch your step amidst the plot holes.
The key figures that build toward this reveal — the show's second doozy — are Harris and Christa (Ellie O'Brien), a precocious child who was first introduced when she discovered the murder victim in episode one. The next two episodes see her hinted-at clairvoyant gifts growing, to the puzzlement of her shipmates ... and to Harris' diabolical delight.
Vaguely explained references to "implants," special vitamin shots, and eugenics are dropped in along the way, but it's soon made clear that Christa, who stares directly into Harris' hidden cameras and has dreams that teach her about JFK's assassination and 9/11, is what Project Ascension has been trying to create for 50 years: a psychic weapon with the ability to ... uh ... teleport people around the galaxy by shooting lightning bolts out of her eyes. (Not exactly out of her eye, but some serious Carrie White-type fireworks ensue whenever Christa's agitated.)
Yes, you read that right. The fake-spaceship has a girl who can teleport people across the galaxy, using anger-lightning.
This fantastical conclusion, complete with "chosen one" anointing (should we be reading too much Bible-ness into the show's title, and Christa's name?), makes for a killer final shot, as a hapless character who has never existed outside of a spaceship finds himself zapped to an alien world.
But there's a disappointing lack of catharsis for the rest of Ascension's population. The show's last act has them surviving a shipboard catastrophe that threatens their oxygen supply (thanks for those uncontrollable lightning bolts, kiddo), but their space-travel illusion remains miraculously intact. There's a lunge for depth, and some deeper ideas, but it's up against dialogue like "The star child must be born!"
And of course, the open-endedness of it all suggests this may not be the last chapter we'll get of this wannabe space odyssey.