Lately, I’ve concluded that a TV show can only be good or enjoyable if you set realistic expectations for it. The era of Peak TV has created a swath of content that is consistently incredible (or that at least has the production budget to look like it is), but a consequence of that is viewers misplace their standards. You’re not going to get an HBO-level series from a broadcast network, and you won’t get something reminiscent of Netflix’s peak from a traditional cable network. Sometimes it takes a while, but well-established channels have a niche that they have carved out for themselves, and that is theoretically enough for them to build a consistent following.
Syfy’s niche is clear enough from their name, and their new series The Ark is an easy addition to their roster of science fiction content. The series follows the crew of the Ark 1 Vessel as they travel from a dying 22nd-century Earth to Proxima B in hopes of colonizing it and finding the first of many new homes for humanity. The first four episodes (the only episodes available for review) open with a malfunction with the ship that causes its crew and passengers to be woken up from cryo-sleep to find that the commanding unit is dead. Alongside that, they have been woken up a year before they were supposed to be without enough resources to survive for the rest of their journey. It’s a great premise for a space opera despite the base concept being well-explored across the genre. The reality of outer space is infinite and vastly unexplored, and that gives a lot of creative agency to any story with space exploration as a backdrop.
A great story needs more than a good base concept, though. The Ark has the bones for an interesting drama, but it’s consistently unable to build up the muscle it needs on top of them to grab you. Like I said before, a show only has the chance to be good if you set realistic expectations for what it will be, but that only gets you so far. Lieutenant Sharon Garnet (Christie Burke) has the makings of a character that could have a great arc, but she—and a lot of the other characters—are often handed their personal development instead of growing into it. Things capital-H Happen to every character on this show, and while they absolutely do process these events and show some personal growth afterward, everything feels sort of empty. You obviously can’t have a show without some conflict, but there is something about The Ark that feels like the it’s going through the motions of being a TV show instead of thriving as one. Lieutenants Lane (Reece Ritchie) and Garnet are constantly at odds, there’s a burgeoning love triangle between Angus (Ryan Adams), Alisha (Stacey Read), and Baylor (Miles Barrow), Cat (Christina Wolfe) is seemingly the shallow and selfish PR face of the mission, but might be the only person who understands how everyone feels about being trapped in a metal tube in space. These are all things that can feed into a great series, but The Ark feels like it’s wearing a mask that says “I Am A TV Show!” instead of simply using those elements to expand upon its developing world.
Part of the issue comes from the ensemble cast being too large. This is not to say that there are characters that don’t have a place in the story. The people we follow all have a purpose on the Ark 1, from the bridge crew to the ship’s med-bay, but it’s just too hard for The Ark to give us a good balance. There are 10 people introduced to the audience in the pilot plus all of the secondary characters that are used to fill out their plotlines and story arcs, and laying the track for that would be hard for any writer, even the greatest ones of all time. We are told who these people are in a way that is almost too succinct, and especially in the case of the previously mentioned love triangle, that means that their interactions feel rushed and like they’re happening just for the sake of it.
Where the character work can seem fast-paced and hollow, the larger danger at hand often feels dragged out within each episode, while also feeling hurried in the grander scope of the season. The first three episodes are where the most danger is faced, and it feels weird to say that I wish that danger had lasted longer, even if things got repetitive after a while. It comes down to the show very quickly moving on from the worst circumstances these characters face as a whole in regards to the ship then to interpersonal drama that lacks depth because the people involved also lack depth. Or in other words, the show lacks balance because so much is happening. With so much going on, there is not enough time to develop the most important parts of the series, and that is the core failing of the show.
The Ark is not all bad, of course. A widely under-appreciated aspect of science fiction is the art of world-building, but the truth is that it can make or break a show. While there is not a ton of information revealed about the state of Earth beyond the fact that climate change has continued to rear its ugly head, there is certainly more to be seen when it comes to Garnet’s past, the Global Space Administration, and Trust—the company that funded the voyage—and that has the potential to be the most interesting part of the series. While the story The Ark presents doesn’t live up to its potential so far, it would be absolutely nothing without its world-building, which proves that, if the show suddenly stops going through the motions and beefs itself up, it has a solid foundation to stand on.
All this is to say that if you want a straightforward space opera with a few solid mysteries and the looming danger of the void, The Ark is just that. It’s an easy watch, it doesn’t make you use your brain an unreasonable amount, and it has a good premise that is easy to follow and care about. It isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, and it should not aim to. The best part about it is that it’s exactly what someone should expect if they flip to Syfy. The most important thing is that it has the basic structure to grow into something really good, it’s just unfortunate that it isn’t there yet.
The Ark premieres Wednesday, February 1st on Syfy.
Kathryn Porter is a freelance writer who will talk endlessly about anything entertainment given the chance. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists, and features, follow @Paste_TV.