LOS ANGELES | Tricia Helfer wasn’t looking to do another sci-fi project after “Battlestar Galactica” but “Ascension," an “event” series on Syfy, posed so many questions she couldn’t ignore it.
“It’s more about the ‘what if?’ than funny-headed creatures and sight gags,” the Canadian-born actress says. “To me, science fiction is really about the wonder, not the ‘Oh cool, look at this.’”
According to the series’ back story, 600 people were sent into space at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy wanted them to find a new world in case the old one blew up. A 100-year journey means some of the inhabitants on the ship will never know life on Earth – or Proxima, the planet they’re expected to populate. “There’s no contact with Earth, so they don’t know if it still exists,” Helfer says.
Midway through the trip (when the series begins), there’s a crisis – a woman has been killed. “A lot of the people who started on this ship have died,” says Executive Producer Jason Blum. “There are a lot of conflicts going on. Should they turn around and go back to Earth, which they’ve lost touch with? Or should they continue?”
Helfer plays the ship’s Chief Steward. She’s also the captain’s wife who’s both manipulative and dangerous. “She supports her husband but she’ll do anything to stay in power,” Helfer says. “She wants to go to Proxima but the murder really shakes these people to the core.”
Helfer was so interested in the story, she asked producers to show her more episodes. “This was a project that definitely drew me in.”
Because the ship left in the 1960s, inhabitants didn’t go through the sexual revolution, didn’t see some of the changes Americans did during the past 50 years. “There are definitely sensibilities of the 1960s,” Helfer says. “But there are changes.”
Helfer’s Viondra and her husband, William Denniger, are among the people who worked their way to the top. They’ve also agreed not to have children because the ship can’t handle overpopulation. “There are arranged marriages so they will get the best offspring,” Helfer says. “That keeps people in line. Everybody on the ship has to be useful. Everybody has a place.”
The Dennigers know they won’t get to see Proxima because they’ll probably be dead before it reaches the planet.
“She feels like she’s the mother of the people on the ship – the mother of humanity if Earth did blow itself up.”
William, meanwhile, wonders what his legacy will be since “he’s definitely in the middle,” according to Brian Van Holt, who plays the captain. “The guy in the middle tends to be forgotten.”
Adds Helfer: “They both started out on the lower decks and it’s a hierarchal society. These two have given up their right to have a child but they’re a power couple. She wants their life to have some meaning.”
As with “Battlestar Galactica,” Helfer’s first series, “Ascension” is character-driven.
“I didn’t just go into sci-fi,” she says. “I grew up without a television. I went to very few movies. I’m not exactly educated in terms of any genre. My dad was fascinated with ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek,’ so the only movies I did see as a kid were sci-fi.”
On “Battlestar,” Helfer played Number Six, a humanoid. She followed the role with parts in “Burn Notice,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Chuck” and “Lie to Me.” She also did voiceover work for videogames, winning the VGA Award for “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty” as Best Performance by a Human Female, and was the lead in Sofia Vergara’s series “Killer Women.” In it, she played a Texas Ranger.
That kind of distance, she says assured her it was OK to do another science-fiction series.
“If you don’t know the ending, it gets a little nerve-racking,” Helfer says. “In a movie, you know the beginning, middle and ending. Here, I like to think I’m experiencing and living through her. Viondra doesn’t know how it’s all going to end.”
Because Helfer has been on other series that have died before they’ve had a resolution, she’s glad “Ascension” will have some closure.
Still, she says, she has learned “you move on when shows don’t make it.” “Killer Women” was “just starting to find its feet and we moved on.”
"Ascension" airs at 8 p.m. Dec. 15-17 on Syfy.