Initially, Syfy’s The Ark is a rough ride — and not only because the premiere episode opens with a catastrophic event that destroys much of the spaceship it’s set on, along with most of its passengers.
Its premise feels borrowed from countless other sci-fi tales. Its heroes seem to have been plucked half-formed from a factory of tired tropes. And its tone is off somehow, as if showrunners Dean Devlin (Leverage) and Jonathan Glassner (Stargate SG-1) haven’t yet decided whether to lean into the grimness of its survival drama, or into the jarring uplift of its credits theme.
Yet just as the ship’s crew begin to rise to the occasion, so too do their series’ disparate elements. The Ark may never be admired for its thematic profundity, or its brave ideas, or its nuanced character development. But by the fourth hourlong episode sent to critics (of a 12-episode season), it finds its own groove as a bit of exciting, undemanding fun.
To The Ark‘s credit, it knows perfectly well that its narrative is well-trod territory, and therefore doesn’t waste time overexplaining. The specifics are these: 100 years in the future, Earth has become so uninhabitable that humanity’s last hope lies with the colonization of other planets. What we are watching is the first such mission, comprising 400 military personnel, scientists, engineers and other carefully selected craftspeople to blaze a trail for other civilians to follow.
But when disaster strikes, the 150-ish survivors find themselves yanked out of cryosleep a year early with only a few weeks’ worth of food and water to sustain them. Because the incident also wiped out all of the high command, leadership falls to the three highest-ranking military officers on board: charismatic Lt. Brice (Richard Fleeshman), ambitious Lt. Lane (Reece Ritchie) and levelheaded Lt. Garnet (Christie Burke) — the latter of whom steps up to become the ship’s de facto captain, to obvious resentment from the other two.
Under such panicked, desperate circumstances, the show’s lead characters range at first from unmemorable to unlikable. Lane’s dark mutterings about “survival of the fittest” paint him as borderline villainous; ditto Cat (Christina Wolfe), a self-absorbed influencer whose knee-jerk reaction to severe (and severely necessary) water rations is to flout the rules with a relaxing shower. But characters ostensibly designed to be winning also feel miscalibrated. Scientific wunderkind Alicia (Stacey Read) fills the stereotypical role of the nerd who talks too much when she’s nervous, but The Ark overshoots the mark so that she lands initially as exhaustingly mannered rather than amusingly quirky.
Still, if The Ark struggles at first to write people worth liking, its saving grace is an adeptness at spinning stories that make us root for their survival regardless. Put another way: You don’t need to love a fictional person to enjoy watching them come up with crazy or creative ways to wriggle out of near-certain doom. At a time when far too many TV projects bill themselves as 70-hour movies or whatever, The Ark strikes a refreshing balance between season-long mysteries and episodic thrills. It is never short on plot: At one point, its crew is trying simultaneously to figure out what hit their ship and solve a murder and avoid an asteroid field — all while working through grief, exhaustion and mutual suspicion. Yet The Ark‘s crisis-of-the-week structure keeps the pacing brisk and easy to watch.
Here and there, The Ark might call to mind The Martian with its interest in creative problem-solving. (There’s even a dorky scientist, played by Ryan Adams, who figures out how to grow veggies using human waste as fertilizer.) Or maybe there’s a bit of Battlestar Galactica in the insularity of its population and in the relentlessness of those existential threats. But this show has no similar ambitions of musing about human nature or commenting on real-world events. Its mission first and foremost is to entertain, which comes with its own benefits. Its lack of interest in being too brainy, too deep or too “realistic” — in taking itself too seriously, in other words — allows it to throw in the kind of reveals that could eventually push The Ark toward weirder and wackier territory.
And although the show’s occasional attempts to inject sex and romance into its drama remain awkward (among its cringiest moments is Cat, newly appointed the resident mental health specialist, all but waggling her eyebrows as she tells Lane and Brice, “I’ll take you two separately, or both at once”), some humor and camaraderie do start to shine through around the third episode. Time will tell if the cast ever fully jells into a cohesive ensemble, but I found it easier to warm to the characters as they warmed to each other and to their new roles in this makeshift society — in particular Kabir (Shalini Peiris), the terminally exhausted doctor, and Felix (Pavle Jerinic), the principled head of security.
By the fourth episode, The Ark is clicking well enough to deliver its boldest outing to date. As the crew members fall one by one to a mysterious ailment, each starts to see eerie hallucinations representing their darkest fears or their dearest fantasies. Then, as if that weren’t enough, the series uses that opportunity to drop a major, amusingly absurd reveal, and to hint at another. The gamble pays off: Not only do the visions deepen each of the major players just as we’re finally starting to care about them, in ways both funny and heartbreaking, but the escalation had me cheering them on in their race for a cure. By the end, I found myself gleefully yelling at the television over the cliffhanger. Not bad for a series with such bumpy beginnings.