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Space travel used to be romanticized, both in real life and in popular culture. These days, space travel is a bit of a bummer. In the real world, rocket trips are now associated with billionaires, for whom such trips are one small step for objectivity and one giant leap for their egos. Meanwhile, on TV, NASA is being slapped by Russia in the space race, and most of the shows are about travelers who only venture out of the atmosphere out of desperation. Whatever happened to a true love of interstellar travel?
If anyone was going to bring back Roddenberry-style space treats about fictional adventurers for whom exploring the unexplored is their own reward, it would be Dean Devlin and Jonathan Glassner. Devlinco wrote 1994’s Stargate, while Glassner helped adapt the film into the blockbuster drama “Stargate: SG-1.” Both are avowed Trekkies who have spent the better part of their careers making deep space exploration seem rewarding for its risks. So it’s really a shame that Devlin and Glassner’s new SyFy series “The Ark” has been such a frustrating ride.
“The Ark” takes place 100 years later, when thousands of crew members and passengers join a mission to find the nearest planet capable of supporting human life. There is no explicit mention of why humanity is so desperate to find a new home, but the meaning is always the same with this subgenre, and “The Ark” is no exception. Presumably, if those aboard the Ark One fail, Earth will collapse entirely thanks to climate crises and tribal wars over dwindling resources. For this diverse crew, space isn’t the final frontier, it’s the last resort.
To make matters worse, the passengers of Ark One are snapped out of their cryogenic sleep when an unknown catastrophic event — an explosion, collision, or some sort — kills hundreds and leaves the craft in disrepair as it derails. With much of the crew lost in the accident, command falls to Sharon Garnet (Christy Burke), an officer who once had a low profile to match her lower rank. She is now under a microscope, trying to correct the ship’s course and clash with James Price (Richard Fleischmann), a failed birdie with an even greater appetite for risk.
It’s a decent setup, but it’s quickly overwhelmed by its brutal pace. The Ark One has successive failures, and the early episodes devolve into a kind of sci-fi procedural as the team works to put out each new fire. With characters in 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 set is introduced, but they never feel like more than vessels for non-stop showcasing.
The tone of “The Ark” never quite feels right, from the broad humor to the often triumphant conclusion contrasted with the grim circumstances. The premise is too dark for light execution and the show feels more like a workplace comedy than a survival sci-fi. And it doesn’t help that offers, particularly by a couple of applicants, are aimed squarely at the cheap seats. “The Ark” never feels like the same show from scene to scene.
The show’s distracting production design makes immersion a challenge. The collections in particular are smooth and overlapping, too antiseptic to resemble a place where people actually live, and no site has a distinct character from the others. The visual effects aren’t much better, though, as sci-fi TV often suffers from budget constraints. The design of the Ark One is generic, and all the nondescript, brushed-metal swirls are clearly based on science fiction and spacecraft design principles, which state that there’s no such thing as too many moving parts.
The last of the four episodes submitted to critics settles into a more interesting groove, mostly because the characters finally get a moment to breathe. A neat plot device that sheds light on the secrets and motivations of nearly every character, yet revealing enough to thrill without overwhelming. More of this ingenuity would have gone a long way in hoisting the “ship” beyond the oppressive fatalism of space. As it is, the view, like any long-haul trip, will have you begging to know how far away the destination is.