Houston, we have a problem with CBC’s Ascension

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Ascension‘s three main astronauts Brandon Paul, Tricia Helfer and Brian Van Holt

In space, no one can hear you scream, “Change the channel!”

Earthlings should listen for that sound shortly after 9 p.m. Monday as Ascension lifts off on CBC.

The six-part space opera has already aired Stateside on the SyFy cable network. Episodes were shot last summer in Montreal with Lionsgate and Canadian partners Sea to Sky co-producing along with NBC Universal.

Brian Van Holt (Cougar Town) plays the skipper of a gigantic, interstellar space ship on a 100 year mission. Almost everyone else in the cast is Canadian, including Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galatica) as the captain’s wife and chief steward and Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal) as the Earth-bound son of the brilliant scientist who dreamt up this trillion-dollar enterprise. Jacqueline Byers (90 Days), Andrea Roth (Rescue Me) and Wendy Crewson (Saving Hope) are all along for the ride.

Co-creator Phil Levens explained to TV critics last year that Ascension is loosely based on a decades-old secret military plan to colonize space. The “Orion Project” was presented to President John F. Kennedy in the early ‘60s as a hedge against a possible nuclear holocaust. The idea was that hundreds of people would be sent into space on a 100-year mission. Their ancestors would eventually find a hospitable planet and start a peaceful new world.

Kennedy apparently spiked the project when he realized it was being weaponized. “He was terrified because they had built a death star,” says Levens.

Ascension asks what if Kennedy had said yes and launched Orion in 1963. Sunday’s pilot episode takes place 51 years into the mission as a murder on board the spacecraft unnerves the crew and colonists.

As one character says in the pilot, the whole mission has a “Father Knows Best exploring the universe” feel.

It just doesn’t feel like Father Knows Science. A few key scenes in the pilot take place in a resort-sized swimming pool supposedly on board the space station. There’s no attempt to explain or address gravity or weightlessness, so it looks more like a Holiday Inn than the Starship Enterprise.

The premise reaches for the stars but may have been brought down to earth by executive producer Jason Blum. Better known for low budget horror flicks such as “Paranormal Activity,” Blum seems lost in space trying to navigate, in his words, a 100,000 square foot spaceship as opposed to a 1,500-square-foot haunted house.

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Gil Bellows had a blast on Ascension

Then there’s Leven’s pilot script, aimed straight at Planet Soap. There’s a class struggle subplot involving the upper and lower decks, a sensitive child who seems to know the future and, in a nostalgic nod to the ‘60s, a stewardess who is sleeping  with the captain.

Bellows says he had a blast working on the project, enjoyed the cast and crew and hopes to do more episodes. The sets are still standing, but Ascension doesn’t seem to have enough lift.

Read more from Bellows on Ascension in this feature I wrote that appears in today’s Toronto Star.

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