In brief: A powerful, well-conceived storyline, featuring tough choices, strong characterization, and thoughtful discussion.
Time travel is a reliable, oft-used standby for science fiction, so when I saw the trailers for "Angel Dark, Demon Bright," I was a little hesitant; it didn't exactly look like a particularly original hour of sci-fi.
My worries were grossly unfounded. "Angel Dark" is by far Andromeda's best episode yet. It's another take on the time-travel episode, yes, but it accomplishes so much with its premise. In what it crams into an hour, almost without seeming to, it's kind of groundbreaking.
There are so many interesting story themes here — history, destiny, faith, random fate, the high costs of war — that the episode is practically bursting at the seams. But not in a way that ever overwhelms the narrative, because the script is confident and thoughtful. The story brings together an array of character attitudes and important backstory to create something with a lot more substance than your run-of-the-mill time-travel adventure. There's real weight here, compelling moments of tragedy and necessity. Characters are forced into agonizing over and ultimately making impossible — but required — choices.
The story: A freak occurrence during slipstream travel (with Trance at the wheel — hmmm, more on that later) somehow sends the Andromeda back in time nearly 300 years. The members of the crew find themselves on the eve and doorstep of a crucial battle, the Battle of the Witchhead Nebula — the last stand before the fall of the High Guard and thus the Systems Commonwealth. The battle was a turning point, but not in the way one might think, since the High Guard was more or less already beaten. The battle would instead have enormous consequences for the Nietzscheans, whose towering losses would make it impossible for them to survive their own internal fighting and thus make possible the subsequent invasion and widespread destruction of the Magog.
Now that they've found their way into the middle of a historic battle, can one ship named Andromeda make a difference in the course of history? More importantly, should they?
There are of course all the usual time-travel paradox issues that come cropping up when analyzing a story like "Angel Dark," and I certainly had my share of questions. But what's refreshing about this story is the way the paradoxes figure into arguments for (or against) key actions taken in the course of the episode.
At first the question is whether Hunt and his crew should help another High Guard ship, the Renewed Valor, commanded by Captain Yeshgar (Jo Bates), and join the battle against the Nietzscheans. This is quickly established as a moot issue and a futile would-be endeavor, since one additional High Guard vessel will not turn the tides in a battle where the Nietzscheans will vastly outnumber the High Guard forces — 500 ships to 100.
Dylan's decision is to leave history alone and plot a reverse slipstream course back to the future. Other characters, however, have different opinions and intentions, which is where "Angel Dark, Demon Bright" really begins to turn interesting.
Harper, for example, secretly rigs a really big explosion in the nebula that he hopes will take out half the Nietzschean fleet when it arrives. There's an exposition scene where he explains his master plan to a hand-held mini-cam. It's an interesting mix of humor and chilling undertones, in which Harper is joking irreverently with the camera while talking about mass destruction and the deaths of tens of thousands. Somehow, the character's persona justifies the mixed tone of the scene. Harper doesn't play like he takes much of anything seriously, but deep down there's repressed rage brewing. Here he feels his actions are justified: Having grown up on an Earth in ruins, his thinking is that any possible future is better than one where the Nietzscheans hold enough power to be oppressive.
Andromeda may not be the first one you would expect to have an opinion on the matter, but there's a brief scene where Rommie reveals a certain pride in being ready for combat, and explains that by nature she doesn't like to retreat ("I'm a warship, and I don't like walking away from a fight"). Andromeda may do what she's told, but I like the fact that she has a stance.
Tyr, naturally, has an opinion of his own every step of the way, which is particularly interesting to hear because there's a well-argued voice of reason behind it. He calls Harper on his "useless, biased emotionalism" and uses logic to suggest that helping the Nietzscheans might save lives in the long term. A united Nietzschean empire might be brutal when they wield their power, but with Nietzscheans in control, fewer would be slain by the Magog.
But that itself would be only a mixed blessing; as Dylan observes, the Magog leave a lot of death behind, but "they came and went like locusts," ultimately allowing the universe to get on with business. An oppressive Nietzschean empire might be much tougher to bring down, and longer lasting.
This all puts a huge strain on Dylan. Kevin Sorbo turns in his best Andromeda performance to date — tortured but not overplayed — as a man with the weight of what might literally be the galaxy's fate on his shoulders. It's an intriguing dilemma, which prompts a good deal of soul searching and philosophical discussion. Which is the better (or worse) of two evils? The death and destruction brought by the Magog or the terror wrought by the Nietzscheans?
We get a couple dialog scenes between Dylan and Rev. Although I have to admit that the Meaningful Rev Bem Dialog Scene [TM] is beginning to play like a cliche (complete with overindulged musical underscore), I will also say that the scenes here are interesting. Between Dylan and Rev, we get the episode's deepest discussions of destiny and fate ... or perhaps a cosmic joke, as Dylan puts it. How can it be that impossibly arriving upon a situation of such huge significance is a random occurrence? Dylan doesn't believe in fate; he believes in free will — making his own fate. Rev asks him how it possibly could be that arriving at this critical juncture is anything but divine will. It's a credit to the story that both views are worth pondering.
This is particularly true once the show drops its real twist on us: It turns out that when the Nietzschean fleet arrives, there are actually 1,500 ships instead of 500, despite all historical records assuring that there should be 500 ships present. So what about those other 1,000? Could it be that they were destined to be wiped out before the High Guard fleet arrived to engage them? Could it be that Harper's weapon of mass destruction was the instrument used to create history as it "should" — as it "must" — unfold?
Indeed, as Tyr ultimately reveals, the Nietzschean historical account of the battle includes a mysterious agent of death emerging from nowhere, with a weapon that wipes out two-thirds of the massive fleet that should have paved the way to Nietzschean victory. That surprise was engineered by Seamus Harper, born three centuries after the events had (maybe) already happened. Andromeda taking action might not contaminate the timeline ... because not taking action might contaminate the timeline. But who's even to say what is "right"? Here we have characters defined by what they think they know, but how can they know anything at all? The dilemma of the time paradox is made all the more tantalizing because of the story's consideration of Rev's belief in a cosmic divinity.
The story has other character vignettes, like when Tyr agonizes over his own choice — whether to flee Andromeda in the Maru to warn the Nietzscheans of their impending doom, or to stay put and survive, since fleeing would mean certain death. Self-survival is incredibly important to Nietzschean individuals (particularly those with no children). Like in "Double Helix," the story reveals Tyr playing all his options, waiting for the last best moment to commit to a path.
And ... then there's Trance, who has the role — if it's at all possible — of being a regular character that implicitly symbolizes that much-here-discussed unknown force in the universe that brings all these questions of destiny and random fate together. How does she play such a role? By simply continuing to provide the implicit part that has been provided for her so far — the constant Trance Is More Than She Seems act. To date, Trance's character and Laura Bertram's take on her shallow ditziness has not impressed me one bit, despite the implied strangeness under the surface. But here, it works wonders.
Here, Trance does come across as knowing much more than she lets on, with pauses and weird, subtle glances at key moments of plot revelation. If you watch her reactions closely, you almost get the impression she set the events of the story in motion deliberately. But the story doesn't reveal all its cards (for which I'm grateful), and lets a little mystery go a very long way. For once, nearly everything about Trance clicked into place and had me wondering not simply what she was thinking, but what in the world she represents. It's like she's Cosmic Significance Personified and not even aware of it herself.
Strictly on the tangible plane, she has a standout scene with Tyr that uses her ditzy innocence very well, while revealing an underlying perceptive intelligence that talks Tyr out of one course of action and into another. Good work; I have new hope for the character, because this is intriguing.
By the time the episode's conclusion comes around, Dylan has had to concede to destiny in an action that will kill 100,000 Nietzscheans. Harper's explosion is powerfully depicted as a violent hellfire, ensuring that the impact of the death toll is not lost upon us.
In the course of this complex story we've seen characters with motives and opinions of wide variety, even as the way history "must" play out seems to dictate they take certain actions. In reality, the cosmic plan here is Robert Wolfe's ambitious script, but because of the way the story is assembled, the story depicts a cosmic plan dictated by a universe whose authority cannot be appealed. The lesson here might be that you cannot escape destiny. What happens in this story might be argued as a job for God ... which Rev is certainly prepared to suggest.
"Angel Dark, Demon Bright" is an excellent time-travel outing with a narrative heft that will leave you thinking. After it's over, you realize that there's more under the surface, and probably even more under that.
Next week: Beka is reunited with her troublesome brother.