Wednesday, June 29, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #136: Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda: "Angel Dark, Demon Bright" (2000)


In the early 1970s, legendary Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry attempted several times to launch a new sci-fi TV series about the re-building of human civilization after a global nuclear holocaust.  The series pilots went under the titles Genesis II, Planet Earth and Strange New World, and the first two remain widely beloved by fans today even though they didn't lead to any regular series.

Following Gene Roddenberry's death, his widow, Majel, resurrected at least two of her husband's abandoned projects: Earth: Final Conflict (originally Battleground Earth) from 1997 to 2002 and Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda from 2000 to 2005. 

In the case of Andromeda, writer and producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe developed a clever variation  of the  Genesis II and Planet Earth premise.  

The new series was set in outer space instead of on Earth, and it involved a futuristic Dark Ages or "the Long Night:" a span of 300 years, following the fall of a great, United Federation of Planets-type alliance, here termed The Systems Commonwealth. 

Scientist Dylan Hunt, the hero of Genesis II and Planet Earth became High Guard Captain Dylan Hunt (Kevin Sorbo) of the Systems Commonwealth starship Andromeda Ascendant, a man out of time (exactly like his Genesis II namesake...) who vowed to restore order and civilization to the cosmos; to "drive back the night" and "rekindle the light of civilization."

In Andromeda's first episode, Dylan Hunt -- in his own time period -- suffers a betrayal from his Nietzschean first officer, and becomes trapped in the event horizon of a black hole along with his powerful High Guard warship. 

Three hundred years later, Hunt is rescued from his captivity (and the effects of time dilation) by a rag-tag scavenge crew that includes Captain Beka Valentine (Lisa Ryder), smart-ass engineer Seamus Zelazny Harper (Gordon Michael Woolvett), mysterious and purple-skinned space nymph, Trance Gemini (Laura Bertram) and a Magog man of God, Rev Beam (Brent Stait). 

Upon his release, Hunt soon learns that the Commonwealth has fallen and that the galaxy has slipped into that long night, into a new Dark Ages. 

Permanently separated from his beloved fiance, Sarah, Hunt asks the scavengers to join his cause and help bring order to chaos and restore the fallen, futuristic Camelot. 

Along for the ride is a Nietzschean mercenary, Tyr Anasazi (Keith Hamilton Cobb), who boasts an agenda and world-view entirely his own.

Once the Andromeda Ascendant is up and running, the quest to restore the Commonwealth begins, and Hunt continues his friendship with the ship herself, Rommie (Lexa Doig), who can appear as a hologram, on view-screens, or as an android...in the (lovely...) flesh.  

Aired in syndication (where it held the top-ranked spot for several years), Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda is a series of terrific highs and also some very depressing lows.  Most of the high points arrived in the first two years while Wolfe was still shepherding the program from behind-the-scenes. 

In particular, the early first season episodes do a better-than-average job of establishing a unique universe peopled by interesting and memorable aliens.  The genetically-engineered Nietzscheans, for instance, consider themselves a new embodiment of the proverbial "Ubermensch" and live by an Ayn Randian philosophy of enlightened self-interest,  One episode even puts Rand's The Fountainhead in Tyr's hands to make the point.  

Although Rev Beam has sometimes been termed a "useless" character, he too began as a rather interesting personality.  The Magog are bat-like berserkers who use human beings as living hosts for their young, and who, early in the Long Night, conquered Earth.  Beam is a strong contrast to his war-like people, however, a peaceful "man of God" and an intellectual philosopher to boot.  It's actually a bit disconcerting, at times, to see a hairy bat creature (with enormous claws) discuss high concepts such as morality and divinity, but also, perhaps, amusing.

"Angel Dark, Demon Bright" written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe and directed by Allan Eastman is one of Andromeda's best early installments, utilizing familiar time travel conceits to make a point about fate, destiny and even "God's will." 

The story begins when Trance makes a mistake piloting the Andromeda through the faster-than-light slipstream.  Her navigational error causes the ship to travel backwards in time three hundred years to the Witch Head Nebula, the location  of the climactic battle between the Systems Commonwealth and the Nietzschean Empire. 

It was here that the Commonwealth fell.  It was here that the Nietzchean Empire splintered.  It was after this battle that the Magog found an opening to exploit -- a weakened galaxy -- and swarmed into Earth's system.

Suddenly, in what might amount to a "cosmic joke," Captain Hunt is faced with an unenviable choice.  Should he intervene in the battle on the side of the Commonwealth, and attempt to stave off 500 Nietzschean warships?  Or, as Tyr suggests, should Hunt intervene on the side of the Nietzschean fleet? By doing the latter, he would enable the Nietzscheans to remain strong enough to fight the Magog to a stand still, thus saving Earth from invasion.

The set-up may remind you a bit of the 1980 sci-fi movie The Final Countdown, which saw the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz travel back in time to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Her skipper had to make a similar decision: either fight the Japanese and change American history, or stay out of the way and let destiny unfold as it was "meant" to. 

The commendable thing about Andromeda's variation on this story is that it focuses very strongly on each character's perspective about the debate.  Harper grew up on a planet Earth ravaged by Magog and Nietzscheans, and claims that the Neitzscheans were far worse.  When he sees that Hunt plans to leave the area without interfering in history, Harper secretly assembles a "fusion catalyst" to wipe out the Nietzschean fleet himself. 

This is not a strategy you would see Geordi LaForge, for instance, attempting on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  But the characters in Andromeda are not mere "aye-aye-sir" subordinates.  Rather they are individuals with a point-of-view and agenda that, sometimes, we don't find appropriate, well-considered, or right.

Meanwhile, Rommie -- literally a warship herself -- is upset that Dylan has selected to run away when so many other Commonwealth ships are in jeopardy.  "I don't like walking away from a fight," she establishes, attempting to choose between her sense of loyalty to Dylan and her sense of obligation to her own kind.

Tyr faces the same challenge.  If he warns the Nietzscheans of the coming battle at Witch Head, he could change his entire life.  The Nietzscheans could remain united instead of splintered into competing, argumentative "prides."  Where does his duty rest in this situation?  To the ship he calls home, or to the people who bred him?

These character moments arise organically and intelligently out of the time travel scenario, but then author Wolfe goes further and throws in an interesting narrative twist.  The Andromeda is set to leave without interfering, when the Nietzschean fleet shows up not with five hundred warships, but with 1,500 warships.  History clearly states that only 500 warships were present at the time of the battle, however, and so Dylan realizes that he is indeed destined to intervene.  He must destroy 1,000 Nietzchean warships to maintain the flow of history that Harper, Beka, and the others know and remember.

Despite Dylan's distaste for the Nietzcheans, the thought of killing 100,000 people in the coming battle sickens him.  "Destiny demands your actions," Rev Beam tells Dylan, indicating that the destruction of those 1000 ships is "God's will."

But Dylan isn't impressed.  He notes that human history is filled with incidences of people claiming God's will as the motivation for terrible crimes such as murder and even genocide.  I think it's pretty terrific how Andromeda reaches this debate about fate/free will, when "Angel Dark, Demon Bright" could have easily been a fairly mechanical, fairly unoriginal "time trap" story instead.  But this discussion of how humans reason and make life-altering decisions raises the material to an entirely different plateau.  Like the best of Star Trek, suddenly we're not merely pondering a space adventure, but our own experiences and history here on Earth.

Another, final bit of ingenuity in the narrative involves Tyr's third act revelation of a Nietzschean legend, one concerning an "angel of death" at the Battle of Witch Head Nebula. 

Again, it's an impressive surprise, a twist on expectations, and proof positive that early Andromeda -- though Trek-like -- was bound and determined to chart a unique, original course.

I should add as well that the final battle in the nebula is splendidly realized, and done so on an epic scale, as I hope the images in this blog post reveal.  The special effects in this action sequence are gorgeous and awe-inspiring.

I'll be honest: Andromeda is a TV series of highly variable quality.  Good episodes are followed by terrible episodes, and vice versa.  Some of the alien make-ups are absolutely dreadful, and the sets boast a threadbare, cheap look about them.  The performances range from incredibly poor to pretty good.  But in the first season, at least, there was some stellar storytelling, as this episode suggests.

Both "Angel Dark, Demon Bright" and one of the following installments, "The Banks of the Lethe" are emotionally-charged human space opera stories that very much outstrip the rote, safe brand of storytelling that the Star Trek franchise was offering at the time on Voyager and then Enterprise.

Andromeda has a lot of rough edges -- and a lot of  star dreck -- but in episodes such as "Angel Dark,  Demon Bright," this Gene Roddenberry-spawned proved itself quite adept at "rekindling"  the familiar space opera format and adding several new wrinkles.

9 comments:

  1. What an amazingly charitable review of a catastrophe of a show.

    You're right, it was (shockingly) one of the top syndicated shows of the time (if memory serves me correctly this lasted for quite some time).

    Personally, I always viewed this as a show for tweens. I was rather amazed when I saw the demographics of the show and learned that it had a solid adult viewing audience. Viewed from a tween perspective, it was just a boring, lackluster, not particularly imaginative, saccharine, unreflective show that took itself too seriously. The plots were inane, the characters bulletproof, the writing was uninspired, the relations among the characters were far more of a reflection of the way people related to each other at that time, the sets were disappointing (car seat belts as spaceship seat belts? please), etc.

    One thing I always thought the show had, but failed to capitalize on, was a rich tapestry of potential--Nietzscheans and the accompanying philosophical doctrines, an interesting history with a character that the audience can relate to (a poor man's Farscape), and the Rommie as conscious ship. None of these things, however, were enough to substantively engage the viewer. Again, I could be wrong, and you did not mention it in the review, but I really do think that the intended audience of the show was 8-14 year olds. From this perspective, many of the charitable things that you wrote make sense.

    A far harsher review would have been warranted if the audience was intended to be reasonably intelligent people over the age of 18. No?

    pete

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  2. Hi Pete,

    Thank you for your outstanding comment on Andromeda.

    Well, I did note in my review that the show had terrible lows and was often "star dreck," agreeing essentially with your point of view.

    Here's what I said exactly, which conforms, I think, to at least some of your "harsher" opinion:

    "Andromeda is a TV series of highly variable quality. Good episodes are followed by terrible episodes, and vice versa. Some of the alien make-ups are absolutely dreadful, and the sets boast a threadbare, cheap look about them. The performances range from incredibly poor to pretty good."

    That's not exactly a rave.

    In picking this episode to review, I selected an installment of Andromeda that I felt was far superior than the average (bad) episode.

    Why? I prefer to write about how and why a series or film works well, rather than write a negative review of something I just out-and-out hated. I just don't like to spend time on that; besides it's sort of stating the obvious, no? I can do that in one paragraph, as I did above. It's not like that opinion isn't stated here.

    "Angel Dark, Demon Bright" works well as an hour-long story, and makes effective use of the Andromeda universe as set-up by Wolfe.

    Definitely, not all episodes can say the same thing. I totally agree. But here I'm lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness, you know?

    Warmest wishes,
    John

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  3. Hello John.

    I've always been intrigued by Andromeda from afar and was never certain if I should purchase it for viewing or not.

    Lexa Doig, who appeared in the last two seasons of Stargate SG-1, certainly had my attention too.

    So yes I was always curious about this one and Lexx but never rolled the dice.

    Given your final assessments, especially the ones that paint a picture of a series far below Farscape production quality, makes me cautious still about rolling the dice.

    I'm not sure a handful of episodes is going to do it for me. But I really enjoyed reading this and getting a full take on the series from someone who is always objective towards his science fiction. It sounds like there were some highlights, but a good portion of extreme lows. I may continue to hold the dice. Thanks.

    best, sff

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  4. SFF:

    I think you are probably making a good decision.

    I'm doing a re-watch of Andromeda and have found some good stuff (like this episode) amidst the bad, but the production values are weak. Farscpae is far superior both in look and narrative.

    Some of the aliens in Andromeda are almost laughable in execution, particularly a "Rat-Man"-type character who appears in the pilot episode, and has a red nose, like Rudolph the Reindeer.

    The sets aren't particularly good, either. The performances are mostly sub-par, save for Sorbo and Lexa Doig. Sorbo -- at times -- does a really good job of channeling TOS era Kirk; which is very interesting. He's charismatic, at least. Doig is compelling, but on the downside doesn't have a whole lot to do. Cobb vacillates between being brilliant as Tyr and then, on occasion, overselling the character's "Nietzschean" nature. Again, there's so much up and down in this show...

    The storytelling itself is variable too, as I've noted. I would recommend happily this episode or "The Banks of the Lethe" so far from the first season.

    Great comment!

    best,
    JKM

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  5. I debated weighing-in on this one. Here's my $.02 - I liked it... back in 2000. I caught onto it after the fourth or fifth episode and went back and got the first few; after that I was hooked and I stayed hooked through about mid-2005. I was in my mid 30's at this time, and the show did appeal to me.

    It wasn't fantastic, but it was mostly entertaining, and I'm a sucker for just about anything sci-fi. Unfortunately, the longer it ran, the less interested I was. When the character of Trance Gemini change DRAMATICALLY (presumably to add interest) I think the show jumped the shark. Sadly, I stopped watching about 1/2 way into season 5. I've always wanted to go back and finish it out so I could close the book on Andromeda once and for all, but I haven't been able to pull the trigger on that yet.

    Anyway, it doesn't hold a candle to Farscape, but I did like it. I think the "history" of the collapsed civilization is what did it for me. It had resonances of Asimov's Foundation - which has always been a literary mainstay for me.

    ok.. that's it. I've said my piece.

    -Nick

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  6. BigNick0

    I am so glad that you wrote to contribute your perspective. I find myself very sympathetic to what you say. Several episodes of the show are indeed entertaining (including the episode I wrote about here...) and I agree that the concept of the collapsed civilization is great...extremely intriguing.

    I think you put your finger on the reason I am re-watching Andromeda and occasionally finding value in it. It's not a perfect series; not a great series. Some installments are downright awful. But every now and then, everything works just right. I appreciate that, and I appreciate your description of the series' values.

    Excellent comment. Stick around!

    best,
    JKM

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  7. Andromeda: I remember some early reviews comparing it to a cross between Roddenberry's Trek and the Genesis II/Planet Earth concept. (The irony is, Genesis II/Planet Earth would probably fly really well today, with the right cast; the subshuttles and the different civs on the surface are just fascinating.) I made an effort to watch the pilot. And I know I saw this episode (probably as a rerun) that you reviewed but had forgotten; I don't think I watched any other episodes. But I was very attracted to the time travel scenario.

    As BigNick0 said, the grand galactic empire rise-and-fall concept was an interesting hook. A postquel (as opposed to prequel) concept. It seems to have devolved into the lesser scenarios of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century of the second season, along with the Colonies-have-fallen-so-let's-see-what-else-is-out-there aspect of Battlestar Galactica The Original Series. And throw some Voyager and Lost in Space there, too. I had enjoyed Kevin Sorbo immensely as Herc but never really got into either Herc (or Xena_ because of timeslot issues (working nights and weekends), and the same thing happened to my attempt to watch Andromeda. I actually read more about this series than actually watched it, so those impressions are based on what I read. But at least the show lasted five seasons: How many of our beloved sf series lasted that long in one incarnation: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Doctor Who I and Doctor Who II, SG-1, etc.

    Thanks for the informative review and the chance to remember something I'd forgotten.

    Gordon Long

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  8. Gordon,

    I loved your comment here about Andromeda. The premise for the series was fascinating, and as you say, I kind of post-quel to the Star Trek franchise, with a fall of the Federation concept. I find this compelling, because every time I watch Star Trek I do have that thought: what comes after the UFP? What's next? A new apex of civilization and civility? Or a fall to a more primitive, fractured state? Andromeda provides a unique look at that idea, and I love the idea of the Long Night. But you're right, they did kind of mess it up after the second season, ending the concept for a more routine format.

    Andromeda was a very popular series, it seems, ranking #1 for a long spell of its five year run. So I know it has fans. I find the series incredibly variable in quality, but at this point in my re-watch (Season 1), I'm enjoying some of the episodes very much (while also finding several to actively dislike...).

    Excellent insights!

    best,
    JKM

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  9. Anonymous9:29 AM

    A nice reflection on a series I do have a soft spot for. I find I have trouble watching it now as some of it is just so bad ... but I also remember the promise I could sense in the show, and for that I will always love it. I wish there was more novels written set in the universe. It truly was an interesting universe.

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