Tricia Helfer, Brian Van Holt Tricia Helfer, Brian Van Holt

While a generation of kids in the '60s (me among them) obsessed on shows like Lost in Space, the U.S. secretly launched a mini-civilization of 600 pioneers into the cosmos on a century-long excursion to find a new world. That's the nifty high concept behind Syfy's potential backdoor-pilot miniseries Ascension, which begins a three-night run Monday (9/8c through Wednesday).

Ascension is the name of the humongous multi-level vessel, which looks like a retro cruise ship (with stuck-in-the-'60s fashions to match), complete with a faux beach providing recreation for the interstellar Kens and Barbies. The plot kicks in as we are introduced to the descendants of the original voyagers, 50 years into Ascension's quest, the new generation suffering the claustrophobic and existential effects of being trapped on a lifelong journey to which they never signed on. An onboard murder exposes class and generational schisms above and below decks, where "sex is the true currency on this ship," according to the captain's duplicitous and unfaithful wife (Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer). Can social revolution be far behind?

The suspense and mystery would be far greater if more of the often woodenly played characters were inspired by Helfer's seductive verve. Still, the more we discover about the nature of the mission — including cutaways to observers on Earth, led by Gil Bellows as the son of the scientist who concocted this great experiment — the juicier and more surprising Ascension gets, with its unsettling detours into social Darwinism. The less revealed about the story the better. Let's just say that if you make it to the end of Monday's introductory chapter, you'll very likely feel compelled to see where else this unusual space/soap opera is heading.

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