Like that other TribuneRoddenberry show Earth Final Conflict, Andromeda has a promising concept and plenty of good background materials but is hampered by a weak cast and poor production values as well as uneven writing. As with EFC, things may improve or get much worse as time goes on.
The purpose of a pilot is to set up the show’s basic premise, introduce the characters and let us know what they’re going to be doing for the next few years or so and why we should watch and by that measure Under the Night sails through nicely. The situation, the crisis, most of the main characters and even a few of the gadgets are laid out nicely in the first hour. By the end of the episode, halted on a cliffhanger of sorts, even the average Hercules viewer will know what’s happening and why. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. A pilot should be compact and coherent without too much story clutter. It should set out characters that we’d like to get to know and suggest that we’ll get to know them more as time goes on. There’s the conflict, the crisis and everything wrapped up in a neat bow.
Andromeda’s pilot kicks off with a battlestations alert (ah but it turns out to be just a drill) introducing Captain Dylan Hunt and his genetically enhanced second in command. His genetic enhancement is demonstrated by his complete lack of a sense of humor and strong similarity to The Terminator. After exchanging some banter about Hunt’s upcoming marriage (this show’s equivalent of “he’s only got six weeks to retirement”) it’s time for the crisis. Andromeda answers a distress call and winds up in the trap set by the genetically engineered Nietzscheans. In show developer’s Robert H Wolfe’s DS9 episode “Let he who is without sin…” he suggests that the Federation is soft and corrupt and introduces the Essentialist movement which sees the Federation as being too weak in dealing with the Borg and the Dominion and thinks it needs to be shocked or torn down. Like the Essentialists of DS9, The Nietzscheans also think the Commonwealth has gone soft in facing the evil Magog and try and solve that problem by attacking the Commonwealth (rather than the Magog).
Since most of the battle sequence consists of Captain Hunt standing around in shock, watching as sparks fly from consoles, refusing to use heavy weaponry and muttering technobabble; it’s not particularly surprising that the Nietzscheans win easily. But just as Andromeda is about to be destroyed he executes a plan, somewhat disrupted by the sabotage of his first officer, which saves Andromeda but traps it in the event horizon of a black hole until a salvage vessel containing most of the show’s major characters comes along to tow it out and try to salvage it. Captain Hunt after getting over the shock of time lost decides to resist. This sets up the problematic arc of the episode in which we go from something very important happening at the beginning, crucial and meaningful conflicts to a petty state of affairs that basically degenerate into a shoving match between groups of people, most of whom we know will eventually team up to become the show’s cast. What this means is that the show is at its most gripping early on when the battle matters and at its least interesting towards its cliffhanger when the conflict really doesn’t matter very much. Still things may very well improve in the second half, though the preview doesn’t bode well.
Andromeda Concept and Execution – B-
The early portion of Under the Night is effective in its evocation of professionalism and the capabilities of a vast civilization but still most of this is told to us and very little is shown making the loss of the Commonwealth far less meaningful since we never actually saw it. And this is a problem that Under the Night’s writing suffers from over and over again. Rather than showing what’s going on visually, through behavior, through characterization; UTN tends to have characters recite flat statements at each other. Using the salvage vessel’s crew discussion as to what they’ll do with the money as characterization is about as subtle as a sledgehammer but it’s still the cleverest piece of characterization in the episode. The epic battle that ends up standing Andromeda centuries from home is shown as a confusing mixture of FX of varying quality that give no sense of space or direction. The actual bridge side of the battle consists mainly of technobabble and indeed the ratio of technobabble to plot ends up being pretty high. Since unlike the uniform effort of a production crew, each writer tends puts him own stamp on the show, it’s still too early to make any broad statements about Andromeda’s writing quality without further data.
One senses that there is a good concept here. On paper the Commonwealth, the High Guard, the Magog and the Long Night have a certain poetry and epic dignity. On the screen though the result feels small, silly and a look that is less epic SciFi and more Cleopatra 2525. Without a Star Trek sized budget and with a very weak production and special effects department that lacks the scale and ability of key Trek players such as Foundation Imaging or Michael Westmore, the Andromeda universe just isn’t being realized. Now SF shows including TOS itself have been known to stretch a dollar and find creative ways of making use of their resources to produce quality work but that requires talent and creativity which just doesn’t seem to be there at this time.
The key difference between a TV show and a novel is that the writer of a novel enjoys complete freedom to create whatever worlds he wants on the page and how well it’s realized is entirely up to him. There is no FX budget, no set decorators, no costume department, no casting or anything but the story. It costs just as much to write a battle with 50,000 spaceships as it is to write a love scene. A TV show though is a cooperative effort and the script, the writing is only the first part of the task and so writing alone does not make a successful TV show. indeed Star Trek’s success is not based merely on the quality of its writing, which often was and often is abominable, but on the characters and how the actors who played them came to define them, the look of the show and the atmosphere that combine to give it that certain feel that we associate with Star Trek. Any new show has to create that same vision and feel for itself just as Babylon 5 did which clearly established a vision and a sense of place and purpose that distinguishes one show from another just on a casual glance and the show’s pilot is the place and time to make that happen…or not. Right now Andromeda just looks like low budget SciFi TV and feels like low budget SciFi TV which makes it a good fit between Xena and Cleopatra 2525 and Earth Final Conflict which is exactly what Tribune wants. But as has been demonstrated with EFC, what’s good for Tribune is not what’s good for good science fiction.
Cast & Character – D
Surprisingly enough Sorbo is not the weak link in the Andromeda cast. In fact by contrast to his castmates, he’s actually pretty good at delivering heroic lines and going from light heroic banter to strong heroic tragedy. But then that’s exactly what he’s been doing for years now so we’ve yet to see if Andromeda will actually push any of his limits. As of now Dylan Hunt isn’t much of a character but more of a stereotypical Captain, this might just be a lack of exposure and backstory but Sorbo does demonstrate that he at the bare minimum has the persona to hold on to the role. This is no small feat when compared to the inability of Babylon 5 to find a Captain that could do the same.
Captain Ballantine his second in command makes no strong impression. Her backstory is an SF novel cliche. Her persona seems to be that of a younger Janeway. How she’ll mesh with Sorbo is a question of time.
Among the salvage crew though with Trance and Harper, Wolfe has managed to produce the two most annoying characters in a long time. Annoying to an extent that Wesley and Neelix never managed to be even after years of practice. As two refugees from teen dramas who somehow ended up on Andromeda, every moment of their screen time is purposeless, leeches away the show’s credibility and grates on the viewer. Harper is a character from a 90210 show by way of a beach party movie. He would be unnecessary and annoying as 30 second comic relief, as 42 minute comic relief plus supposedly being the chief engineer of a starship is a stunningly terrible idea. Paired with Trance whose alien makeup looks suspiciously like night cream and sounds like she’s supposed to be in Clueless, instead of a Science Fiction show its producers want to be taken seriously.
Andromeda herself is probably the strongest character concept yet though at the moment she’s more concept than character, and it doesn’t seem particularly necessary for a starship to show cleavage.
The Special Effects – B-
The quality of the special effects is mixed and ranges from upper Babylon 5 quality to shows that would have embarrassed the TOS production crew. Some of the high end animated scenes including the blasters emerging from Andromeda’s hull and the salvage vessel detaching from its crew pod to a TOS quality shot of a piece of the Andromeda shaking from unseen blasts and several mattes that don’t match the foreground or look extremely fake. Probably one of the worst offenders is the greenhouse room that Trance discovers which uses a matte whose look dates back to early TNG nearly a decade ago. And indeed even in early TNG, in episodes such as When the Bough Breaks, the results tended to be more creative and mesh better. A large portion of the special effects budget has been clearly expended on the battle scenes with the Magog which is thoroughly wasted since the battle without any structure or coherence. Far-off shots of the incoming Nietzschean ships use a matte background and aren’t placed in the same shot as Andromeda itself. The close up battle scenes are meant to show off Andromeda’s capabilities but don’t do anything of the sort. While the FX quality here is much stronger with a few exceptions, it would have been a lot smarter to exchange some of the shots of tiny ships flying past Andromeda and being blown up for narrative shots, improved time dilation effects and a shot of a Commonwealth space station or two.
The Aliens – C-
The aliens which often end up being the pivot of any SciFi show are created against the Roddenberry directive which emphasized the mobility of the actor’s face in portraying the alien instead goes for oversized monster masks that look as if they were borrowed from an 80’s horror movie, an impression that the actors only reinforce by constantly writhing around the humans like oversized vampire bats. The concept of the Magog may be that of terrifying superhuman aliens but in practice they look like rejects from a Tales from the Crypt episode. Each time one of them speaks you half expect to hear Jon Kassir narrating in the background. The Nightsider is annoying and chews the scenery so desperately it’s almost funny. But it isn’t. He does everything but stand on his head and carry around a giant neon sign reading “I’m slimy and up to something, I’m evil and can’t be trusted.” This puts him in the category of the Star Wars aliens who are basically just talking fantasy critters. The good Magog is a much stronger character but he still ends up going through the same shambling, snuffling and snorting routines that make it hard to take him seriously as a character and not a wind up toy. The good aliens consist of metallic suits that are predate even the original Star Wars movie and seem to have been borrowed directly from 50’s Invasion from Outer Space thrillers.
Since in Science Fiction aliens are meant to represent the other and to nail down the sense of really being out there, not being able to get the aliens right is bad news for an SF show. Earth Final Conflict has managed to go a very long way on Da’an alone. TOS went a long way based on Spock. But Andromeda lacks even the ability to put its equivalent on the screen.
Hopes for the Future
Andromeda needs to seriously rethink its production values, iron out its cast problems and come back stronger and more focused not just on its concept but on implementing that concept as it deserves to.