SyFy’s Space Opera ‘The Ark’ Is a Joyless, Airless Trip to Deep Space02/01/2023
Space travel used to be romantic, both in real life and pop culture. These days, space travel is kind of a bummer. In the real world, rocketship rides are now most associated with billionaires, for whom such trips represent one small step for objectivism and one giant leap for their egos. Meanwhile, on television, NASA is getting spanked by Russia in the space race, and most shows are about voyagers who only venture beyond the atmosphere out of desperation. Whatever happened to genuine interstellar wanderlust?
If anyone was going to bring back Roddenberry-style space romps about quixotic adventurers for whom exploring the unexplored is its own reward, it would be Dean Devlin and Jonathan Glassner. Devlinco-wrote 1994’s “Stargate,” while Glassner helped adapt the film into the durable drama “Stargate: SG-1.” Both are avowed Trekkies who have spent the bulk of their careers making deep space exploration look rewarding relative to its risk. So it’s a real shame that “The Ark,” Devlin and Glassner’s new SyFy series, is such a dispiriting journey.
“The Ark” takes place 100 years hence, as thousands of crew members and passengers have joined a mission to find the nearest planet capable of supporting human life. There’s no explicit mention of why humanity is so desperate to find a new habitat, but the implication is always the same with this subgenre, and “The Ark” is no exception. Presumably, if those aboard the Ark One fail, Earth will fully collapse thanks to climate crises and tribal wars over dwindling resources. For this motley crew, space isn’t the final frontier, it’s the last resort.
Making matters worse, the Ark One’s passengers are jostled out of cryosleep when an unknown catastrophic event ± an explosion or collision or some kind — kills hundreds and leaves the craft in bad shape as it hurtles off its course. With so much of the crew lost to the incident, leadership falls to Sharon Garnet (Christie Burke), an officer who had previously enjoyed a low profile to go with her low rank. Now she’s under a microscope, trying to right the ship and clashing with James Brice (Richard Fleeshman), a rakish hotshot with a higher appetite for risk.
It’s a decent setup, but one quickly overwhelmed by its brutal pace. The Ark One is beset with cascading failures, and the early episodes turn into a sort-of sci-fi procedural as the team works to extinguish every new fire. With the characters under a constant state of emergency ± sometimes narrowly avoiding death multiple times per episode — there’s not much time to get to know the characters or invest in their journeys. Every member of the deep ensemble is introduced, but they never quite feel like more than vessels for nonstop exposition.
The tone of “The Ark” never seems right, from the broad humor to a victorious score that often clashes with the bleak circumstances. The premise is too dark for the light-handed execution and the show plays more like workplace comedy than survival sci-fi. And it doesn’t help that the performances, particularly by the two leads, are aimed squarely at the cheap seats. “The Ark” never feels like the exact same show from one scene to the next.
The show’s distracting production design makes immersion a challenge. The sets in particular are smooth and overlit, far too antiseptic to resemble a place people actually live, and none of the locations has a character distinct from the others. The visual effects don’t fare much better, though sci-fi television often struggles with budgetary restrictions. The Ark One’s design is generic, all non-descript, brushed-metal whirligigs clearly based on the tenets of sci-fi spacecraft design, which holds that there is no such thing as too many moving parts.
The last of the four episodes sent to critics does settle into a more interesting groove, mostly because the characters finally get a moment to breathe. A nifty plot device that illuminates the secrets and motivations of nearly every character, but reveals just enough to intrigue without overwhelming. More of that ingenuity could have gone a long way in elevating “The Ark” beyond downtrodden space fatalism. As it is, the show, like any long-haul trip, will have you pleading to know how far off the destination is.
“The Ark” premieres on Syfy on Feb. 1 at 10 p.m ET/PT
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