Sci-Fi legend Dean Devlin returns to television with an uninspired crew.
A saying goes for bad thespians: “They can’t act their way out of a paper bag!” When it comes to the ensemble for the latest Syfy channel original series, these people can’t act their way out of a deep space cryo chamber. The Ark, also streaming on Peacock, is an intriguing science fiction premise in search of capable hands that can live up to the material, but there are none to be found in this part of the galaxy.
It begins with a crash. Lt. Sharon Garnet (Christie Burke) wakes up in her cryo chamber, surrounded by hundreds of crew members onboard a giant spaceship, Ark One. Their destination is the most habitable planet after the Earth finally dies. But an explosion causes catastrophic damage to the ship, and only a small group of workers escape their sleep pods in time.
The good news is the ship is still on target to reach their destination. The bad news is they wake up one year too early, and they only have enough food and water for a month. Plus, they’ve lost all communication back home, and all the commanding officers and specialists are dead, leaving only the grunts of the ship in charge. Lt. Garnet grabs the leadership role herself, but nothing in the directing, script or performance shows the weight of this burden besides Burke narrowing her eyes and yelling stuff like, “I didn’t ask for this!”
The series is created by Dean Devlin, who was a working actor until he co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day, two of the biggest sci-fi blockbusters of the 90s. Devlin has a sharp mind for science fiction, and the dilemma he creates in The Ark is juicy. With limited resources and no comms, how does an inexperienced crew figure out how to survive on a spaceship for a full year? The most successful parts of the pilot episode are when the characters are in a room just figuring stuff out. How much food to ration? How much water is okay to use for irrigation when they need all the water they have for survival?
It makes for a great video game, but this is a TV show, which generally requires well-written characters we want to spend time with on a week-to-week basis. The best Devlin and his crew can muster are characters like Cat Brandice (Christina Wolfe) who’s main trait in the pilot is being blonde and sneaking a peak at a hot co-worker’s junk after just seeing hundreds of people torn apart in space. There’s also Alicia Nevins (Stacey Read), who the show wants to be the lovable nerdy girl but instead makes her talk one million miles per hour without saying anything of substance.
Devlin has never been known for whip-smart, electric dialogue, but without great performers there to elevate the material, things can get rough. Bill Pullman is not walking through that door to turn a corny speech into an all-time patriotic sermon. Instead, we’re forced to watch Burke try her hardest giving a middling inspirational speech early in the episode that has the emotional impact of a 4th of July sparkler.
The show even screws up its best idea, which is that all the “experts” on the ship are killed off, leaving the lowest ranked workers on the ship to have to rebuild from scratch in a situation where they have no competence. It’s a great way to build stakes, in theory. Even though the show goes out of its way to let us know all the important people are gone and these are the plebes, the main characters still know what they’re doing for the most part.
Nevins starts the show working in the waste management department, but by the end of the episode she’s revealed she has two master’s degrees and single-handedly reboots the ship’s computer systems with her coding skills. Whoever staffed this mission must have been looking at the wrong resume. There’s also a young man named Angus Medford (Ryan Adams, not that Ryan Adams) who’s on board because he was famous for growing plants in the desert back on Earth, but luckily he brought all his special soil and can farm on a spaceship with no sunlight.
The Ark is an interesting concept on paper, but there’s nothing here that hasn’t already been done elsewhere. The perils of searching for a new Earth was perfected in the second half of Wall-E. The “Problem Solving in Space” genre already has Gravity and The Martian (lots of farming in that one too). Even the central premise of the show, waking up early from a hyper sleep on a long journey, is a short but hilarious bit in the little seen 1997 Disney film, RocketMan, starring Harland Williams. It’s a compelling thought experiment, but that doesn’t mean we need to join this doomed mission.
The Ark is now available on SyFy & Peacock