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Batten down your hatches, boys and girls – CBC is getting into the sci-fi racket.

You may have heard about Ascension (CBC, 9 p.m.) a new foray into space fiction for the public broadcaster. It has been heavily promoted with giant billboards and such. It's an acquisition, Canadian-made but not a CBC production, a drama commissioned by American cable channel Syfy as a six-parter that might, if popular, become a full-tilt continuing series.

The billboards and promos don't give you the full sense of it. "Be Part of Mankind's Last Hope" is the slogan used. Indeed. Mankind's last grope is more like it. It's a sexy soap opera set in space, on a giant phallic ship where the goings-on are outrageous. In fact, reviewing it recently for The Hollywood Reporter when it aired on Syfy, critic Tim Goodman joked, "There are, in fact, so many naked butts parading around Ascension … that Syfy could have called it Asscension instead."

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True enough. And there's a grabber right at the start – a comely young woman named Lorelei (Amanda Thomson) disrobes to her undergarments and goes for a swim. It is to be noted that said undergarments are of the retro variety.

And that's the first hint of the clever-but-crazy concept. Here's the gist: In 1963, the U.S. government launched a secret space mission sending several hundred men, women and children on a 100-year journey aboard starship Ascension to eventually populate a nice planet somewhere. It was a military operation, so hardly anybody knew about it. As Ascension starts it is 50 years into the trip. Some of the original population have died, children have been born and grown and it is among them, the young, that doubts have coagulated.

They are, they know, trapped. They exist in the equivalent of a small and small-minded town floating through space. Their social status is pre-established. They are either upstairs or downstairs people. Also, their partners for procreation have been

preselected for them. Hence, in advance of the selection process, they engage in passionate affairs.

So, anyway, it turns out that, postswim, Lorelei is dead. This kick-starts the drama. We meet the ship's gruff captain, William Denninger (Brian Van Holt), who clearly has no idea what's actually happening on his vessel. A central character is his wife, one Viondra Denninger. (Try saying that out loud after a tipple.) She's played by Tricia Helfer, who is terrific as a manipulative, sex-mad amazon and does it with formidable relish. I'm telling you, what she gets up to would make you blush scarlet.

There's a lot going on. Mainly, there is a seething, slow-simmering revolt. Below decks, the people who do the actual work of keeping this fake world going are fed up. They're slaves, essentially. In the upper decks, it's Peyton Place, but the young are growing cynical. Meanwhile back on Earth, in the present, one Harris Enzmann (Gil Bellows), the son of the now-dying scientist who launched the secret Ascension project, is trying to keep an eye on it. And he's horrified to discover that a young academic who has been studying his father's work, may have found out about the Ascension mission.

You can see the richness of the material here. The society stuck in 1963, pre-feminism, pre-gay rights, pre-Internet, pre-everything that helps define the present. The simmering revolt by the young on the ship is the sixties revolution. And there is the matter of where the ship is headed and why – what sort of now-dated utopia are they supposed to establish?

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While there's plenty of sizzle and ooh-la-la moments in Ascension, there is also a creaky quality to the dialogue (it's written by Adrian Cruz and Philip Levens) and a rheumatic quality to some of the acting. Apart, that is, from the copious canoodling. The standing army of Canadian TV actors is well-represented with Andrea Roth, Wendy Crewson and John Ralston in lead roles.

One thing – Syfy aired Ascension over consecutive nights and CBC is spreading it over six Mondays. The Syfi strategy works better. There's a twist at the end of episode one and you don't want to wait a week to feast on the next portion of drama. But feast on it you will, especially if you're into the fun of the sexy soap-opera material. The sizzle is red-hot at times.

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