The classic trope of what happens to humanity when a vacuum in leadership, combined with the stresses of a dangerous situation, is wonderfully and creatively on display in the newest SYFY offering, The Ark.
The Ark takes place 100 years in the future when planetary colonization missions have begun to help humanity survive. Brought to you by executive producers Dean Devlin and Jonathan Glassner, the show is billed as a deep space “pressure cooker.” One episode in, with the Ark’s command structure obliterated by an accident in space, it doesn’t take long to feel that pressure building.
It’s always so interesting to watch what happens when established leadership disappears, and the varied characters and personal agendas that try to step in to fill the void – or simply get their way – start to slowly manifest themselves. In The Ark’s first episode, “Everyone Wants to Be on This Ship,” it doesn’t take long to start seeing the edges of the tapestry begin to fray and a variety of folks start to reposition themselves within the ship’s hierarchy.
SPOILER ALERT – from here on, some details will be revealed, so beware of SPOILERS.
What I truly found enjoyable in the opener was that the tension kicked off immediately and didn’t really relent for the length of the episode. 400 people are in hibernation, five years into a six-year mission to a new planet they will colonize, when all hell breaks loose. Bolts start flying, beams start to buckle, and alarm horns start going off, it’s a wonder shambles of terror. Lieutenant Sharon Grant is the first to awaken and realizes immediately that there’s danger afoot.
From there, it’s whirlwind of destruction and chaos as Ark 1 sees the destruction of not only a portion of the ship, but the loss of all its top officers, most of its resources and just a bit of its ability to control the impulses of some of its residents. When it’s over, only 150 people remain and the game then becomes, how do we reach our new home on Proxima B in just over a year?
And with that, The Ark takes off on a nice little exploration of how humanity responds to extreme adversity and the stresses and strains that come with it. Devoid of recognized leadership and authority, a trio of lieutenants – James Bryce (Richard Fleeshman), Garnet (Christie Burke) and Spencer Lane (Reese Ritchie) attempt to step into the vacuum. But even that, in that key moment when Garnet proclaims that she’ll lead the mission to the finish line, Bryce and Lane react in a way that guarantees you there will be drama forthcoming.
In fact, and I’m sure you’ve seen it on the trailer, Lane, who is a bit of “devil’s advocate” kind of guy, calls out Garnet on her decision-making without input from the others – a decision that will use some of the ship’s resources. He looks her square in the eye and says, “No one put you in charge, we’re just tolerating it.” There’s the question – how do you decide who puts whom in charge in this situation?
It’s a crushing few words from Lane, words that portend the stresses to come in their relationship, particularly when she immediately calls him out on his loud and public grandstand play about her decision-making. Christie Burke does a wonderful job of combining the forced calm she feels a leader in this spot needs, with a clear internal struggle with her new role that she may feel she’s not ready for. There’s so much written on her face during the many interactions she has. It’s well done.
Are Garnet and Lane both correct? Clearly. But in the heat of the moment, it reveals a chink in the armor of their collective leadership. it’s an interesting study in what happens when those that are left are faced with creating their own leadership hierarchy – and getting the respect that hierarchy needs to keep things working smoothly. By the way, Ritchie feels like a guy who can go either way – become a trusted ally in the struggle, or lead a mutiny to wrest control of the ship. His “survival of the fittest” comment to a fellow crew member gives you some insight into where he stands – or may stand in the future.
In some ways, the “lost in space” trope is always so interesting because space, by itself, is intimidating and has a wonderful way of letting you know that, in truth, you are at its mercy – alone in a tube just trying to survive. And that’s what we have in The Ark, a group of people who now face the daunting task of trying to simply survive for a year with too few resources and more than a few people with their own agendas to pursue. I noted on Twitter that I was getting a little “Lord of the Flies” vibe in this thing.
Aboard The Ark we are informed that there are more than a few who are not who they appear to be, having used the age-old computer hack to assume identities that would get them chosen for the project. We have backstories that are yet to be filled in, we have our first murder, we have poor decisions (with strict water rationing, a woman wants to sneak in and have “a rinse off”).
People bitch about the food rationing, question the leadership decisions and, in short, seem quite incapable of pulling together on a large scale to make things work. Humans being humans, right? In the midst of what must feel like impending disaster, there’s selfishness and immaturity. What it really tells us is that those qualities aren’t television qualities, they are real human qualities. There’s a humbling statement already being made about us in the here and now. And I don’t disagree.
The Ark has all kinds of folks, youthful nerds, grizzled veterans, lots of smart people, and plenty of potentially interesting storylines that I’m sure we’ll take a dip into as we move along. But they are humans, with human frailties and differing views of their own personal situation. Clearly, the needs of the many will not factor into some of the decisions the few or the one make moving forward.
So, while the folks on The Ark figure out how best to use resources, how to divvy up power, how to grow food in a smuggled-aboard super soil, and even cover up a murder, we will be watching with equal parts enthusiasm and, I’m sure, shock. The Ark is on its way and if the opener was any indication, things will get even more interesting.
Full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of Dean Devlin, having loved Independence Day and found a fandom I really enjoyed surrounding the TV show “The Outpost.” It seems in the world of sci-fi and fantasy adventure, I’ve landed on a kindred spirit. I have been looking forward to this show’s arrival for months and though I usually follow “the rule of three,” it only took me one episode to land on the emotion of “what’s next?”
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