In brief: The series shows promise on its big-picture front, but many of the episodes themselves have left much to be desired. Overall, a more disappointing season than I had expected.
Welcome to the first Jammer Review of an entire season of Andromeda. The format for this article will follow the same look and feel of previous seasons/series I've reviewed. The first lengthy section has capsule reviews for each of this season's episodes; the second lengthy section has a commentary on the season as a whole. Altogether, this makes it the most comprehensive review of Andromeda that I'll write this year (to recycle a phrase). Feel free to agree, disagree, or punch your computer screen. Followed by trashing the room you're sitting in. (No, don't do that.) Let's begin.
Part 1: Capsule Reviews
Under the Night — Air date: 10/2/2000. Written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
Pilots can be difficult to rate, as "Under the Night" was to some degree. I wasn't thrilled with it, but nor was I disappointed. Simply put, this episode gets the job done. It establishes the Commonwealth premise, freezes Dylan Hunt in time for 300 years, and then pulls him out after The Fall, where he must start his life over again. The story moves fairly efficiently, although suffering occasionally from moments of undesirable exposition (like Rhade's poorly delivered speech about why he is betraying Dylan), and moments of questionable production (I still can't help but chuckle at the bug costume that's supposed to represent the Than). The regular characters are adequately established (save Tyr, who would get plenty later), as are some major backstory pieces involving the Nietzscheans. A marginal recommendation.
An Affirming Flame — Air date: 10/9/2000. Written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. Directed by Brenton Spencer.
Better than "Under the Night" by a bit, "Affirming Flame" is essentially a Die Hard premise with Captain Hunt as John McClane. The inane first few minutes show Tyr Anasazi blowing away a bunch of robots, which accomplishes the weird job of setting the stage with little promise for a character that would later turn out to be the season's most interesting. Meanwhile, Trance dies and then un-dies, which paves the way for revealing some character traits among Beka's crew. Alas, Trance's mysterious death is about as effective here as what her general air of mystery would be for the bulk of the season — which is to say, not all that much. Gerentex turns out to be more of a cartoon character here than in part one, albeit not as much as in "Fear and Loathing in the Milky Way." Despite my qualms, we have a story that accomplishes its major goals and helps itself by supplying Dylan's (and the series') Mission Statement: Rebuild the Commonwealth.
To Loose the Fateful Lightning — Air date: 10/16/2000. Written by Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer. Directed by Brenton Spencer.
A common theme this season of "good intentions, not-so-good execution" is abundantly clear in "Lightning," which is a parable on the evils of hate carried out with some very bad and unconvincing plot developments. We have a group of children who have been descended from the Commonwealth, but with no explanation for how they've survived on their own in such harsh surroundings with no resources or opportunities to learn. The concept itself simply defies explanation. Meanwhile we have Dylan playing the part of Captain Dunce, voicing his worries about these youngsters' violent tendencies while at the same opening the doors that allow them to take ships and weapons and destroy an entire star system and billions of Magog. Hello? Put these problems next to a grossly inappropriately hidden subplot about Harper building Rommie's android body, some frankly annoying teenage performances, convoluted issues about the High Guard elevated to godliness, and a poorly conceived ending, and you have one of the series earliest episodes doubling as one of its worst.
D Minus Zero — Air date: 10/23/2000. Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz. Directed by Allan Eastman.
A passable show that sets some of the ground rules for space combat on Andromeda. I liked the tension between the characters, particularly between Beka and Dylan (which can be summed up with one nice exchange — Beka: "I'm not big on trust." Dylan: "Then it's time to learn"). The underlying story is simple, featuring Our Heroes vs. the Bad Guys, and the issue is simply how Our Heroes deal with surviving the unprovoked attack by the silent, faceless Bad Guys. If execution then becomes everything, I'm pleased to report that the execution here is good, with narrative clarity and character interaction that works, as Dylan comes to realize, in Tyr's words, "You haven't the first idea how unforgiving this universe has become." Too bad what came out of the setup here is later a disappointment: Given all the secrecy here, it makes little sense that these bad guys are the Resters, whose extremist terrorism shown later doesn't track with the ominous secrecy here.
Double Helix — Air date: 10/30/2000. Written by Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer. Directed by Michael Rohl.
One of the season's best, this episode is the first clue that the Nietzscheans would become the most interesting standing element in Andromeda's freshman season, and that Tyr would become the most interesting regular character. Tyr is a completely convincing persona of self-survival — of "doing what's best for Tyr." Keith Hamilton Cobb can turn Tyr on a dime from calm to exploding with emotion to calm again, and make it all perfectly plausible. Equally good is Dylan struggling to find his own answers about Nietzscheans, as he recalls his relationship with Rhade, his first officer who betrayed him. The connections between the flashbacks and the current plot evoke nicely drawn parallels, showing one of the best examples this year of a meshing A-story and B-story, something that hasn't always gone well. The story's plot itself — involving the Than/Nietzschean conflict that Andromeda gets puled into, isn't nearly as important as all the backstory and tests of loyalty that come with it.
Angel Dark, Demon Bright — Air date: 11/6/2000. Written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. Directed by Allan Eastman.
As far as I'm concerned, this is by miles Andromeda's best effort to date. Time travel is hardly a new idea in science fiction or anywhere else, but what "Angel Dark" does is tell a story where time travel becomes the avenue for one of the heaviest and most provocative television stories I've seen in quite some time, where characters must make impossible choices. The depth and implications of this story are extraordinary, inviting us to stop and consider the cosmic significance of a single ship at a single, crucial moment in history. It's not about saving the Commonwealth (which is already beyond saving at this story's juncture); it's about minimizing suffering in the universe. Dylan and his crew are forced by fate, divinity, destiny, something, into making the decision to kill tens of thousands of people, such that war and history will play out the way it should ... or must. For once, Trance is put to good use by demonstrating her Knowledge on a Higher Plane alongside dialog and character interaction that really works, using her as a true piece of the story that subconsciously knows what's going on at higher levels while consciously not, if that makes any sense. Virtually every character has a key moment and intriguing arguments. If Andromeda could approach this level of sophistication every week, we'd be in great shape.
The Ties That Blind — Air date: 11/13/2000. Teleplay by Ethlie Ann Vare. Story by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz. Directed by David Warry-Smith.
"Ties" is a labored, convoluted plot that begins to look more and more like Swiss cheese before it's all over. The fundamental problem is that it becomes very difficult to care about Beka's brother, Rafe, through all this mess. Who is he working for? Who isn't he working for? Who cares? The story is in love with its cons and audience deception but doesn't do enough to convince us that anyone involved has much at stake. It strikes an odd note of disconnect, wandering through a plot with no emotional undercurrent. There are some attempts at sibling chemistry between Beka and Rafe, but they can't redeem a story full of uncertain exposition. The story at various points involves the Wayists, the FTA, and the Resters. None of it is memorable, and none of it figures out what it's trying to say. Rafe bounces around the plot while we're constantly left unsure which side of the game he's on, or who he's working for or double-crossing. By the end, the lesson apparently is that Rafe is mostly about himself — a predictable resolution that was telegraphed from the outset.
The Banks of the Lethe — Air date: 11/20/2000. Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz. Directed by David Winning.
This episode is unremarkable and full of sappy sentimentality, but it could've been saved by good acting. Unfortunately, the key guest performance here — by Sam Sorbo as Sara — is one of the show's biggest liabilities. A shame, because Kevin Sorbo is actually quite good in many of these scenes — scenes that, alas, sink because they can't fly without both players carrying their weight. The idea of crossing 300 years in the name of love is true but trite, and worse is the way the story has no real focus. Do we really need ships attacking in the present and in the past, in a way that doesn't add up? The idea of trying to outsmart predetermined fate is your typical example of time-manipulation confusion (without the benefit of thought evident in "Angel Dark, Demon Bright," an episode whose messages are contradicted by this one's). Meanwhile, the issue of the Perseids joining the Commonwealth is relegated to the back burner as an afterthought, which given this series' mission statement is a gross injustice. When the most entertaining scene is of Harper blowing up melons, we're probably in trouble.
A Rose in the Ashes — Air date: 11/27/2000. Written by Ethlie Ann Vare. Directed by David Warry-Smith.
A disaster. It's a cheap hour of dreck where absolutely nothing works, featuring a premise — no, an entire story — hammered together out of bland cliches and scraps of Socially Redeeming Content with no vestige of insight. The prison "action" is pathetic, starting out with a lame yard fight between Dylan and an oversized Muppet, and then eventually going on to include remote-controlled helicopters with machine guns, somehow built by people who can't even grow their own food. Trance is exploited as a contrivance device of the worst kind, Rommie runs out of battery power after being "in a cage in a studded leather bikini top and disco pants" (to quote Lexa Doig), Dylan naively delivers several Meaningful Dialog Scenes that require endurance to sit through, and the ending is so badly implemented that it's unintentionally hilarious. There is no rose in these ashes.
All Great Neptune's Ocean — Air date: 1/15/2001. Written by Walter Jon Williams. Directed by Allan Harmon.
Here's another example of "good intentions, not-so-good execution," in which the whodunit plot is rehashed as a way of showing the sad aftereffects of long-ago tragedies and prolonged political strife. I'm of the opinion that the politics and moral issues should be the prime focus when the politics and moral issues are what's interesting. "Ocean" apparently thinks otherwise, thrusting the whodunit to the forefront as if it mattered. The plot operates on assumptions that probably don't hold any water, like the idea that the murderer would know Tyr would end up alone with the victim long enough to be framed for the killing. The key clue in the investigation turns out to be something so silly as the presidential music not being played at a crucial moment. And the unimpressive guest stars manage to sabotage the proceedings yet again, most notably Mikela J. Mikael as Colonel Yau. It's nice that a murder mystery had its roots in Andromeda-style Larger Themes (where even the killer has noble political intentions), but the story's details are far too banal to be of any genuine interest.
The Pearls That Were His Eyes — Air date: 1/22/2001. Written by Ethlie Ann Vare. Directed by David Winning.
Sigh. The shoddy middle of the season dragged on with this mediocre installment, which benefits from some angst-ridden backstory for Beka regarding her drug-using father, but with far too much transparency to be compelling. The "corruption of capitalism" message is almost painfully obvious; the moment I saw John de Lancie as Uncle Sid, I knew he was the villain and I knew his motives were all about protecting his empire and little else. Fortunately, de Lancie can turn even an underwritten role into something worth watching; here he balances menace and charm together into a package of overall self-serving pragmatism. But the episode's cause is not helped by a pedestrian, mostly disconnected B-story about Andromeda waiting out a storm in space while dealing with a con man. Nor by the cartoon-level action involving henchmen who look like they stepped off the pages of a comic book. Nor by Our Heroes jumping out of a window onto the decks of their ship. The ending also strains credulity, resolving itself with dialog that assumes Beka and Sid can actually believe what the other has said when neither is in a position to do so.
The Mathematics of Tears — Air date: 1/29/2001. Teleplay by Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer. Story by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz. Directed by T.J. Scott.
Perhaps the best cure to the mid-season blues is this fundamentally silly but imaginative and entertaining sci-fi piece, which takes some pretty outlandish ideas and spins them together into something worth watching. If for no other reason, this episode is worth the hour's view for the climactic showdown on the Maru between the main characters and the robots of the Pax, Andromeda's long-isolated sister starship gone mad. This extended finale features inventive stunt scenes and blasters firing, all underscored by Wagner. Yes, Wagner. And it ends with one of Tyr's best lines of the season (though he's had many to pick from). Aside from the technical work, the story rides on elements of classical tragedy, featuring an AI that is deeply warped and wounded. It's not a masterpiece by any means, but it demands respect for its ingenuity.
Music of a Distant Drum — Air date: 2/5/2001. Written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
This is probably the best episode of Andromeda that I can't bring myself to recommend. Yes, we have all sorts of tying together of Nietzschean culture and the further fleshing out of Tyr's backstory. Yes, the Drago-Kazov Pride is established here as a noteworthy piece of Andromeda mythos. But many elements of the plot are completely on autopilot, with derivative action including stranded characters, amnesia, hostage taking, and boring goons as the Drago-Kazov players who terrorize everyone else. The relationship between Tyr and Yvain can't generate the chemistry to become anything resembling moving, although it does manage to muster pleasantness. "Drum" might be a perfect example of the Andromeda pattern right now: a show that proves its creators care about the series' bigger picture, but an episode that on its own merits is markedly underwhelming. It's a respectable outing that can't transcend the limited reaches of average.
Harper 2.0 — Air date: 2/12/2001. Written by John Whelpley. Directed by Richard Flower.
This one can squeak by with a pass. The episode is probably the season's most significant in terms of setting up plots that will play out in the early stages of season two (after the finale, "Its Hour Come 'Round At Last"), revealing the connection between the Magog and the shadow-man, and the mysterious cover-up at the massacre of Brandenburg Tor. Aside from larger arcs, the concept of one brain holding all knowledge is an interesting one, if not original. Jeger is a bit of a cliched thug and the camp surrounding him sabotages many of this show's attempts to be more serious. I'm also a bit annoyed that the mass of information is stored somewhere (apparently in Trance's tattoo, no less) but never mentioned again by any of the characters. But for once Harper's hyperactive craziness is more than justified, and we get to see him bounce off the walls in a way that is sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic.
Forced Perspective — Air date: 2/19/2001. Written by Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer. Directed by George Mendeluk.
Here's yet another that can be herded into the "good intentions, not-so-good execution" camp. Probably the biggest problem is how it puts forward issues tied to exceptionally complex situations of government, and then tries to deal with those issues in simplistic, unconvincing ways. The show thinks it can solve its problems (at least to the satisfaction of the audience) with hopeful last-minute dialog. Dylan doesn't kill Venetri — fine and good — but having Dylan offer simpleminded "solutions" to the strife on planet Mobius undermines the story's whole notion that some situations are not easily solvable. Trying to extract hope from hopelessness or uncertainty is only clouding the issue here; the end result is a muddle. Trance's speechmaking about good intentions borders on condescension, while MacKenzie Gray's performance as an overly anguished Venetri is uncomfortable to sit through. The show is thoughtful in stretches, but the ending can't pull it together.
The Sum of Its Parts — Air date: 2/26/2001. Teleplay by Steven Barnes. Story by Celeste Chan Wolfe. Directed by David Winning.
Note to creators: In my opinion, Matthew McCauley needs to be reined in when it comes to trying to forcibly cue emotions with his scores. Few things annoy me more than music that tells me when sentimental notes in the story are being played (as here when Trance gets misty-eyed over the forthcoming death of HG). HG is disappointing as a sci-fi creature, roughly at the same Convince-O-Meter level of the bug costume in "Under the Night." But I digress; the real problem is that this show is more like the sum of parts plundered from the Star Trek and general sci-fi archives. The "Consensus of Parts" is about as close to the Borg one can get without violating copyright laws, and I'm still baffled as to why Dylan wants to meet the dangerous Consensus anyway, unless he has some sort of death wish. The latter half of the story includes elements that look like they were ported in from a cheesy supernatural thriller, although the final act manages to benefit from some ideas that are in the spirit of sci-fi imagination. Unfortunately, everything here has been done before, and better.
Fear and Loathing in the Milky Way — Air date: 4/9/2001. Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz. Directed by David Warry-Smith.
Argh. "Fear and Loathing" plays like an hour of testosterone combat, with Harper and Gerentex sneering and barbing and arguing and posturing until even Trance gets fed up and bitches them out. Good for her. I'm honestly not sure if this is supposed to be a comedy; either way, I'm not enthused. There are a few good lines and moments, and I especially liked Trance's "I can get away with things because I'm cute" speech, but those moments are in contrast to many others where Gerentex turns into a complete self-parody, or borderline-laughable "action" where "bounty hunters" with big guns chase Harper, et al, through cave sets. (These creatures look like they were borrowed from the production of a 1950s Saturday-morning serial, and I'm not exaggerating.) There's also a subplot that has little to do with anything, which is haphazardly edited into the episode. Granted, we did acquire the Perseid slipstream diary here, which the Continuity Patrol happily notes would later be used as the impetus for "It Makes a Lovely Light," but that's not enough to justify an hour that so often prompted the word "argh" to be generated by my brain's Onboard Reviewing Processor.
The Devil Take the Hindmost — Air date: 4/16/2001. Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz. Directed by Allan Eastman.
File this one under "shows that should've been better than they were," or perhaps, "good intentions, not-so-good execution #12." Rev gets some respectable depth, especially as we begin to realize how he has values and desires that are constantly suppressing his inner-instincts that direct him to be a predator. You know me — always a sucker for the characters filled with self-torment. Unfortunately, this one doesn't come together to become a well-working story. The early acts suffer from routine plotting characterized by only occasionally insightful dialog. And good guest performances once again prove to be in incredibly short supply — or no supply. Even the best-written characters are only as good as the actors who portray them, and here the characters are only so-so while the acting can't even reach mediocrity. The resolution involving the Magog-Tajira hybrids is a gutsy and original idea, but by this point the episode has run out of time and crams all the issues surrounding this solution into less than two acts when, really, the episode could've sustained such an idea for twice that length.
The Honey Offering — Air date: 4/23/2001. Written by Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer. Directed by Brad Turner.
More Nietzscheans = more fun. That seems to be the trend of this season, where Nietzscheans provide instant depth and political intrigue to the stories they populate. "Honey Offering" begins with a perhaps overly traditional story about a Nietzschean woman of high social standing who's to marry into the royal family of a long-standing enemy pride as a symbol of peace. Andromeda is to provide her transport. When she turns out to be an assassin, the game is on, with Dylan as the one who must stop it. It works mainly because we have action scenes that exist in context and guest actors who are mostly solid. And because we have Nietzscheans and their volatile history of self-preservation and inflexible principles. I'm not so sure the ending bears scrutiny — Dylan is able to incite a war by leading entire fleets around with the Maru — but I do enjoy the grand notions of galactic chaos that are shown.
Star-Crossed — Air date: 4/30/2001. Written by Ethlie Ann Vare. Directed by David Warry-Smith.
I still can't think of any good reason to give a High Guard warship's AI the capacity to love. "The Mathematics of Tears" supplies pretty conclusive evidence for why it is in fact a very BAD idea. Nevertheless, we have "Star-Crossed," which is not weakened so much by the question surrounding this foundation, but by the fact that Rommie is thunderstruck by love so instantly and without due or believable motivation. Android Gabriel, as played by Michael Shanks in an unaffecting performance, is a colossal bore who never convinces us that he has the ability to catch Rommie's interest, let alone ours. The episode also introduces Gabriel's super-warship, the Balance of Judgment, apparently controlled by the Resters. Subsequent developments that reveal the Balance's AI founded the entire Rester cause beg the question (not sufficiently answered) of why it did so, and how it recruited its human following. As a story arc, the Resters are decidedly this season's big weak point. I liked some of the implications of an AI torn between its directives and its desires, but the final act drowns in the tears of its own maudlin excess. With all due respect to Lexa Doig, I prefer her (and my starships) with a level head and a grip on the emotionalism, not crippled by agonized sobs.
It Makes a Lovely Light — Air date: 5/7/2001. Written by Ethlie Ann Vare. Directed by Michael Robison.
This traditional television bottle show turns out to be a winner because it puts Beka in a tough spot and allows her to make mistakes. It also permits the other characters to challenge her about these mistakes, meaning we get external and internal character conflict. One could say Beka is determined to a fault — it's a determination that leads her down a dangerous path into drug use and instant addiction. As message shows go, this is hardly opaque, but I did like that the arguments are presented without preaching anti-drug polemics. The story acknowledges that drug abuse is destructive but without needlessly moralizing. Tyr, ever the pragmatist, even turns a blind eye as long as Beka's drug use is of benefit. The episode contains one of my all-time favorite Harper moments, when he drops the sarcasm and hyperkinesis and shows some sobering sensitivity. It'd be nice if this episode wasn't the last word in Beka's struggles with addiction, but we'll see.
Its Hour Come 'Round At Last — Air date: 5/14/2001. Written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. Directed by Allan Eastman.
The season finale is a good example of too much ambition and not enough workable insight. The goal of the action was apparently to be so extreme that it would come across as intense and exciting, but I can't say that goal was accomplished effectively. The problem is that the relentless Magog assaults are so incredibly pervasive that they become mechanical, repetitive, and eventually completely implausible. With every Magog corpse that hit the ground, my suspension of disbelief was further eroded, until the whole thing took on the air of a very loony technical exercise: How Many Magog Can We Kill? My theory is that enemies should be fearsome through their qualities, not simply their quantities. And more here proves not to be better, as the Magog are fish in a barrel. That's a shame, because "Its Hour" boasts some of the best production values of the season, a number of Andromeda-mythos points that could (followup-permitting) have vast consequences on future episodes, and some good character interaction between Harper and Tyr, and Dylan and Beka. But because the show is an oversold cliffhanger that seems to offer No Way Out, I'm unsure what we're looking at right now, and don't feel that this provides enough on its own merits. Time will tell whether it works as a piece of the puzzle.
Part 2: Season Analysis
"Be careful what you wish for; you might get it."
— old saying
With the close of Andromeda's first season, one that overall I found to be a disappointment, there's an irony that has not been lost upon me.
Andromeda, in its broad strokes, is the anti-Voyager.
From all accounts, Andromeda's fictional universe is one that has to some degree been planned and pre-considered from day one. Like most TV series, the show works from a background "bible" that explains what the show's premise is about, describing the major players, and in this case probably even hinting at some important events that will take place sometime during the course of the show's life. There are societies that I know exist (or will exist) in this universe but have not yet made it to the television screen. The show's official Web site provides details about the societies and history of this fictional universe, which is sure to be mined in future episodes. I think it's beyond safe to conclude that gradually we will see a lot more of this universe's makeup on the TV screen.
So Andromeda is, in theory, a show that wants to be a series with its own carefully constructed mythos, as opposed to the Voyager-like pattern where our gallant crew boldly goes forth to encounter this week's random adventure. Sure there will be standalone shows here, but there will also be another agenda: the Big Picture.
The crippling problem with this first season of Andromeda is that it also is the anti-Voyager from an execution point of view. That's not a good thing, since Voyager is usually exceptionally well-executed from a technical and pacing standpoint. Andromeda is fraught with problems when it comes to script pacing, directing, acting, and just flat-out filmmaking. The result is a freshman season that overall I felt was less enjoyable and involving than this season of Voyager, despite the noteworthy number of established elements we've already seen in this universe.
Andromeda's premise gives it a structural balance that lies somewhere between Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Like DS9, it's about building something (the Commonwealth) and the relationships between different societies. Like Voyager (and the Treks before it), Andromeda is about exploring the unknowns of space, where the unknown is made up of the vast areas that were once part of the now-fallen Commonwealth. I've heard the argument made that Andromeda might as well be another Star Trek series simply because of the premise of people on a starship out exploring the galaxy. There's merit to that argument, because Gene Roddenberry's idea of what space exploration should look like is abundantly apparent on Andromeda. It doesn't take a genius to see that Andromeda is modeled on the past decade (and more) of Star Trek's general look, tone, and feel. The differences come in the underlying premise and characters.
Tricky part is, if you're replicating Trek without being called Trek then you really need a fresh angle. Heck, I've been arguing that Trek itself needs a new angle. So if you're Andromeda, how do you do Trek better than the guys over at Paramount, who have umpteen seasons of experience and a bigger budget at their disposal? A frequent problem with Andromeda so far has been a lack of exploiting that fresh angle. We hear a lot of general noise about the Commonwealth, but it seems to be a vague and peripheral aspect of the series at this point rather than a specific one. The series lives in the Commonwealth lore of the past ("Under the Night," "Angel Dark, Demon Bright," "Mathematics of Tears," "Forced Perspective," "Its Hour Come 'Round At Last," etc.), rather than the present. Fine and good — this demonstrates how history is important — but there's a significant problem about Dylan Hunt's mission, which is that there doesn't seem to be real urgency to it. Dylan comes across as the crazy loner trying to change a universe that may very well be unchangeable. Also fine and good, but we've seen very little evidence beyond blind idealism on how he thinks this rebuilding is supposed to happen and what other cultures really think about it. The few episodes where we've had worlds join the Commonwealth ("All Great Neptune's Ocean," for example) played this important angle as background noise, which simply will not do.
There have also been a few painful cases of "been there, done that" syndrome. A key violator, for example, was "The Sum of Its Parts," which had a machine society that played like a blatant rip-off of the Borg. And that was hardly the only familiar element this season. No one has re-envisioned the notion that space combat means a shaking camera and flying sparks (though that's admittedly not the biggest issue in the world), and nearly all alien civilizations seem to be human. Are they? Because I'm not even sure.
And following in Voyager's footsteps of What Today's TV Must Be has been Andromeda's temptation to succumb to excessive, lackluster action scenes. Andromeda, let's face it, does not have the budget and resources of a Star Trek production like Voyager, DS9, or the new Enterprise. Yet, oddly enough, even more than Voyager, its creators have made the decision to have some sort of major action scene just about every week, even if the story doesn't justify or need it. Many of these scenes are presented with a madcap zeal that makes the series harder to take on its Serious Intentions.
I've already come to intensely dislike the ship's "internal defense system," which is nothing more than a way to create contrived action of the worst kind — that which does nothing for the story and exists only for the sake of itself. In "The Ties That Blind," Tyr and Trance go running through the ship (in super slo-mo with lotsa sparks) while the internal defense system shoots at them in a perfect example of gratuitous, mind-numbing action. Our crew is also shot at needlessly in "The Mathematics of Tears." Of course, when it would make perfect sense to use this system, during the Magog onslaught in "Its Hour Come 'Round At Last," the plot has already turned it off. (Roll eyes here.)
These sort of scenes are distracting, often illogical or unconvincing, and not exciting. I don't understand the motivation. You'd think with a limited budget the show would step back and rely more on dialog and storyline than on action scenes, but go figure. (Actually I do understand the need for action to some degree, because the show is being advertised and sold into the syndication market as an action hour, but that doesn't change the fact that a lot of it hasn't worked.) The season's best-executed raw action was in the finale, "Its Hour," but even there it didn't entirely work because the action was upstaging the content and went too far into excess to keep the story from running off the rails. Action works best when it's an organic part of the story that serves a purpose, like in "The Honey Offering" (where Nietzschean chaos was the point); the two-part premiere (where characters had strong motivation); "Music of a Distant Drum" (where Tyr was on the run from enemies well established by backstory); and especially this year's true standout, "Angel Dark, Demon Bright" (which had big space battles with equally big consequences).
Action isn't a bad thing. Not at all. Done well, I like action. Besides, even lame gratuitous action is not nearly as big an issue for me as the next point, which is probably my biggest problem with Andromeda right now — the guest acting. I don't know how to say it without either being untruthful or by sugar-coating the matter, so I'll just say it: The guest acting on this series thus far has been abysmal. I'm not sure how to account for this, whether the blame falls on the actors or the directors. But whomever is responsible, there have been so many, many shows this season that have suffered because the guest stars were not credible.
The stage was set in "Under the Night" with Steve Bacic's wooden performance in the important role of Gaheris Rhade, and John Tench hamming it up as Gerentex (which he later reprised even more hammily in "Fear and Loathing in the Milky Way"). That was just the beginning, and unfortunately the pattern followed along these lines all season, with key guest actors delivering sub-par performances that undermined episode after episode. Some guest stars have been acceptable or even good (John de Lancie was engaging despite an underwritten role in "The Pearls That Were His Eyes"), but too many have been a liability to their episodes, whether it was portrayals of Hayek in "To Loose the Fateful Lightning," Sara in "Banks of the Lethe," Colonel Yau in "All Great Neptune's Ocean," Venetri in "Forced Perspective," Thaddeus Blake in "The Devil Take the Hindmost," Gabriel in "Star-Crossed," or most everybody in "A Rose in the Ashes." It's literally amazing how long this list goes on; this is something that needs to improve dramatically and immediately.
Andromeda also reveals an odd mix between the mysteriously subtle and the glaringly obvious. There are elements of some of the stories that are so subtle that sometimes I think I missed something or am watching ambiguous hints dropped by the writers (witness most of Trance's existence). Other times scenes come filled with obvious dialog, blunt one-liners, or simpleminded violence.
This dichotomy is sometimes evident among the regular characters. Some of the characters often have a comic-book attitude to them. Beka and Harper both feature a snappy, sarcastic, in-your-face "edgy" sense of humor that sometimes hijacks the characters and makes them come across as one-note. (One of my favorite moments was when Harper dropped the sarcasm act and existed as a serious human being for two minutes in "It Makes a Lovely Light.") Rev — even though I like him — has probably a few too many pithy, musically cued Meaningful Dialog Scenes that should be preceded with title cards that say "INSIGHTFUL SPEECH AHEAD"; he seems like a convenient conscience sometimes, though I was heartened by his depth in "The Devil Take the Hindmost" (among other shows) and think he's got plenty of potential. Efforts to give characters some development are appreciated, like Beka's backstory concerning her brother and father, and Harper's troubled past of growing up on a Magog-infested Earth. But I'd like to also see these characters in the here and now in well-oiled stories that use more areas of their personality. The Beka/Dylan and Tyr/Harper interaction in "Its Hour" is a good start.
Although each character has his/her own points of interest, so far the two characters who seem to me as consistently well-rounded and convincing are Tyr and Dylan. Tyr, my favorite of the Andromeda bunch, is the perfect mix of elements — he's threatening yet cautious, smart but sometimes impetuous, funny but in a dry and cynical way, and with a central Nietzschean backstory that provides most episodes he's in with an immediate angle. Plus he gets all the best lines, delivered with that deadpan style Keith Hamilton Cobb has mastered. Dylan is interesting because he's a motivated leader with a believable and tempered attitude — though sometimes he can be slow to catch on, or inconsistent (sometimes following rules like a career military man while other times taking extreme actions like in "The Honey Offering"). And, well, there's something about his conviction that's appealing; rebuilding the Commonwealth may be one of the most absurd ideas ever hatched, but this guy's gonna try it. Based on the evidence I've seen this season, Kevin Sorbo is an effective but not riveting actor; he paints Dylan with a workable mix of seriousness and levity, knowing when and when not to take plots too seriously.
And then there's Trance. (Deep sigh.) Trance is the ultimate frustration, because we know there's more to her than meets the eye ... but that unfortunately becomes exactly the problem, because the writers have focused too much on Trance being weird and elusive in an unspecified way such that she has little value as a character in most stories. Laura Bertram's take on Trance comes across as too relentlessly innocent and sweet, when we know better. She's cute and innocent and hiding something and that becomes the beginning and end of her character ... and it isn't working for me. Indeed, I find it downright annoying. Trance's weirdness hasn't come out of anywhere or led into anyplace; she's like one of those damned mysterious, always-deferred-payoff X-Files characters — which is not a good thing since I consider The X-Files to be one of the infuriatingly worst shows on television, precisely because its deferred-payoff mysteries are an unintentional self-parody. I'll have nothing against Trance as a symbol rather than a character if it's interesting or meaningful, but so far — with the exception of "Angel Dark, Demon Bright" — I haven't seen nearly enough depth in Trance that makes her hidden agenda/meaning remotely worthwhile. It's a gimmick without payoff. Patience is a virtue, yes, but there should be a better reason for her existence in the here and now.
Despite the fact that I can't recommend this first year of Andromeda, I am hopeful about its second season. I'd better stress that this year of Andromeda, despite a lot of awkward implementation, managed to establish a number of story arcs and that the effort on the part of the writers to eventually reveal a bigger universe has been made abundantly clear. The relationships between the Nietzschean prides and the ideology behind their cultures is good background, and the role of the Magog and the mysterious shadow-man who appeared in "Harper 2.0" and "Its Hour Come 'Round At Last" show promise. (By contrast, the use of the Resters and FTA ended up an unsuccessful mess.) I only wish "Its Hour" had explored its ideas more thoroughly rather than overreaching by way of Yet Another Pointless Cliffhanger, borderline-comical action extremes, and plunging our heroes into a pit of such desperation that we begin fearing the dreaded Reset Button — though the season premiere might allay those fears.
There wasn't often hope for Voyager to transcend itself, because it was content to stay within the safe confines that had been established in the seasons preceding it every year. Andromeda strikes me as a series with ambition and a desire to go somewhere and do something new. It has the possibility to offer very rich character and civilization stories on a grand canvas that we can step back and admire. Its writers genuinely care what the fans think, as evidenced by their candor and participation in online fan circles like SlipstreamWeb.
What the creators need to do is work on the execution of their stories in getting there, with vastly improved performances, less frenetic and confusing pacing, significantly better flow between A and B-stories, more coherent visual design of action sequences, and more evidence that the writers on this show (aside from mastermind Robert Hewitt Wolfe) hold keys to what Andromeda and the Commonwealth is about and are willing to share some of the finer points with the audience. Despite all the groundwork, I still feel very much uninformed, and too many adventures along the way have been less than stellar. About the only episode this season that I found truly groundbreaking was "Angel Dark, Demon Bright," while a lot of shows — an awful lot — landed in the realm of mediocrity. When I can only recommend nine of 22 episodes (some of those barely squeaking by into recommendation territory) that to me says something about the current state of the series.
I will admit that my expectations for Andromeda were high — perhaps unreasonably so — which might be a partial reason why I found this season disappointing. Hype — which this series came full of prior to its premiere — can be a powerful advantage that can equally powerfully bite you in the ass. That may be the case here, at least from my perspective. If I'm being hard on Andromeda, it's because I expected something fresh and so far I feel I've seen too much that's familiar.
The rest of the case might be that this series has potential but has not yet realized it, and has had problems when it comes to story execution. That's okay; it's only one season and another one waits just around the corner. Weaknesses involving acting, production issues, and story implementation — though currently plentiful — are likely to subside as the series continues. I will be watching for that improvement in the coming season, and hope to see this series mature and expand.
Next: Season 2