In brief: I wouldn't call it riveting, but it's slightly better-executed than part one, and comes packaged with a palatable mission statement.
The argument can definitely be made that "Under the Night" and "An Affirming Flame" could easily have been a single two-hour premiere (and perhaps viewers might even have been better served that way, but no matter). Episode #2 for Andromeda clearly belongs more to Episode #1 than to itself.
Overall, I think "Flame" works a little better than "Night" because it comes packaged with the general series mission statement that without which no pilot episode is really complete. We also get a chance to become better familiarized with the characters' behavior in the midst of the show's action. But like "Night," this is not a great hour of television but instead a reasonably entertaining, not-too-serious one. I'm interested in who these characters might become under the circumstances of the show's newly established premise, but I also don't yet see tons of originality.
The end of "Under the Night" left us hanging with Nietzschean mercenary Tyr Anasazi menacingly bringing in the Big Guns to clean house on board the Andromeda Ascendant. Within the first few seconds of "An Affirming Flame," the guns come out blazing as Anasazi mows down Andromeda's security drones as he makes his way to the bridge. Of course, the nice thing about robotic opponents is that they can be involved in action scenes and indiscriminately destroyed, decapitated, etc., and since they're robots that are not "killed" we thus have PG-level "action" without actual "violence." (The Phantom Menace employed this insight at length.)
The fight scenes here resemble the stylized action of Hercules or Xena, especially when Captain Hunt, armed with his trusty force-lance, faces off against the bad guys. There are a couple scenes here that feature Force-Lance Fun [TM pending], and I enjoyed them on their level of stylized choreography. This sort of action is hard to take very seriously (which is obviously beside the point, since, just to show off, a female mercenary android does an amusingly gratuitous front walkover while moving toward Hunt to kick him around some more), but it's fun. Based on these first two episodes, it appears choreographed fight scenes will be an Andromeda staple along the lines of Hercules — or, for that matter, Star Trek: TOS. (Although, I didn't understand what Anasazi's flying disc-blade things were suppose to accomplish during one fight scene with Hunt.)
Aside from the Die Hard-like cat-and-mouse games early in the episode, the plot of "Flame" serves to slightly flesh out some of the characters' personalities and to separate Valentine and her crew from their slimy employer, Gerentex (John Tench). It's not too long before Valentine begins to wonder if maybe they're on the wrong side in this battle for control of the ship. Let's face it: Gerentex is a first-class jerk. He doesn't just want the ship; he also wants Hunt tracked down and killed. When Trance (our resident space cadet) vocally disagrees with Gerentex and says she quits, Gerentex shoots her dead. Nice guy.
Personalities begin to emerge after Trance is killed. Valentine reveals her captainly qualities in taking responsibility for those under her command, as well as maintaining the roles of leader and calm voice of reason as she solicits opinions for action from her crew.
Harper shows that he's the young hothead ready for revenge against Gerentex ("I say we kill him!"), and seems quite willing to take everybody out ("I was thinking a really big bomb") if given the opportunity.
Rev Bem still gets my vote for most complex character so far. He's religious and philosophic, and when he speaks, there's a definite air of wisdom and experience behind the voice. He offers Harper a word of caution on traveling down the road of violence, which is not a new theme, perhaps, but is still an honorable one.
Anasazi, the head mercenary, is a laconic, introspective man of mystery who projects most of his thoughts here through glances and calm stares. He clearly doesn't respect Gerentex but is still going to do his job as best possible. His hope is to prove his value so he can be accepted in Nietzschean society. (The idea of a subset of humanity being Nietzschean — and apparently primarily anti-Commonwealth — is an intriguing one that screams of future development.)
When Gerentex realizes he's not going to be able to steal the Andromeda from underneath Dylan Hunt, he decides to return with the reluctant Harper to the Eureka Maru and push the Andromeda into the black hole ("If I can't have the Andromeda, no one will"). This is what forces the alliance between Hunt and Valentine's crew aboard the Andromeda — and ultimately also Anasazi, who is also left stranded with everyone else when Gerentex flees. They must work together to figure out how to escape the black hole before they're sucked into it.
Meanwhile, Gerentex has Harper try to hack into the Andromeda computer, using a link Harper plugs directly into his skull, like the characters in Johnny Mnemonic. This leads to the show's most ingenious special effects sequence, in which we see Harper trying (and failing) to poke around inside Andromeda's mind, which promptly kicks him out. (The sequence somehow reminded me of Tron.)
Like part one, "Affirming Flame" is pretty fast-paced. Crises are resolved quickly and simply. I'm no physics expert, but the solution to Hunt's black-hole problem strains credulity (essentially coming down to "let's blow it up with huge bombs!"), and before we know it, Dylan & Co. are off to the next crisis, tracking down Gerentex to retrieve Valentine's stolen ship.
In the midst of these events, the episode does a few things for staking out some territory for Hunt's character and actions. He's a fair negotiator, but one with an edge; he agrees to help Valentine get her ship back, but only if she agrees to a condition that he refuses to name until later. Hunt also rejects the notion of helplessness, as when people die on his watch, even if not under his control. When Andromeda reassuringly tells him that there was nothing he could've done to prevent bad results, he doesn't accept it. Kevin Sorbo's performance gets the job done, though it seems the story hasn't yet put great demands on him.
But he does get to deliver the series' mission statement. He intends for the fallen Commonwealth to live on through his ship — and he'd like to try to restore an ideology that apparently no longer exists. He intends to seek out others who might want to help change the world for the better. He starts with the crew of the Eureka Maru by inviting them onto his ship to serve as his crew. The idea is essentially one of finding something more meaningful and constructive in life rather than living from one uncertain score to the next. It's about thinking big and grand and doing something difficult, because the hard tasks are usually the one worth doing. I tend to think that's a pretty universal theme in our society, one we as individuals like to think we'll live by before our lives are over (though not always to be followed through on), and it's one I certainly can live with as a starting point for this series.
Of course, "An Affirming Flame" is far from perfect. I for one didn't find much use in seeing Trance shot and killed only so she could be brought back to life under uncertain off-screen circumstances. (As Andromeda puts it, not able to explain it herself, Trance was dead, and then "she got better.") This was intended to advance the story through the other characters' responses to her death. Obviously it wasn't intended as a dramatic surprise, since you don't kill off one of your regular characters in Episode #2. But it's still an odd chain of events that ends with Trance's less-than-riveting reappearance. I'm not sure what it was supposed to mean, if anything.
The point seems to be to make Trance something of an unpredictable mystery. We know nothing more about her now than we did after "Under the Night," and from the looks of things, that's intentional. Unfortunately, that still makes her the least compelling character on the ensemble. Her ditzy personality so far is not capturing my attention.
I also really could've done without Gerentex's overwrought villain antics. Tench plays the part so far over the top that Gerentex becomes an absurd cartoon character. Restraint would've been advisable here. Sure, Gerentex is a creep and a fountain of deceit, but that can be portrayed without resorting to the kinds of excess we end up with here. The way he was portrayed in "Under the Night" worked better than in this episode, where he careens out of control until he seems like the star of his own Saturday-morning cartoon show (Teenage Mutant Ninja Nightsiders).
By the end of "An Affirming Flame" we have an established premise and initial goals that are not too much unlike previous Star Trek-like premises, from both Gene Roddenberry's and Rick Berman's reigns. The idea of exploring the unknown, of course, parallels the original Trek concept. The concept of several overlapping/clashing societies and a diverse set of characters is reminiscent of Deep Space Nine. And the notion of a ship stranded out of its element with characters of varying agendas is similar to the early stages of Voyager.
Given the mystery of the once-powerful and now-uncertain Commonwealth, an abundance of mysterious societies with different values, and a chaotic universe with no overriding sense of structure (apparently), the elements are here to make Andromeda a good exploration series with its own interesting, original mythos. The elements are also here for it to be a routine revisit to the very visited Star Trek concept. Which will it be? Only time will tell.
Next week: Children of the Commonwealth?
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