In brief: A number of intriguing ideas, but not nearly enough coherence, as clunky acting and narrative transition sabotage the proceedings.
What we have in "The Devil Take the Hindmost" are some good ideas that probably played very well on the page but end up only having about half the punch they deserve by the time they make it to the screen. Since I'm analyzing a television episode and not just a script, I can't call this episode anything resembling a success.
Which is a shame considering its ambitions.
I hate to belabor the point, but it comes down to performances, pacing, and narrative coherence. And in "Devil" it's just not here. There's a reason I repeat myself, and that's because these things are important. Andromeda has exhibited this problem, known as the vague and hard-to-specify concept of "story execution," for most of its first season.
What exactly is "story execution," anyway, since it's a term I seem to use so much? In short, it's the way an episode "feels" in its movement from point to point, beat to beat, in telling its story. Execution is that invisible combination of elements that brings it all together such that writing, acting, directing, and editing meld together into an hour of television where we're experiencing the story instead of experiencing its distractions. When the spell is broken with poor execution, it's hard to be swept away.
The story itself, a parable that pits pacifist faith against active self-defense before offering up a brave plot twist, brings Dylan and Rev to a world where Rev's mentor, Brother Thaddeus Blake (Mark Holden), teaches the ways of peace to the resident Hajira. The Hajira have maintained an existence of blissful innocence, even though they have "genetic memory," which means memories are passed from parents to their children and knowledge is retained.
The Hajira are now threatened by a group of approaching off-worlders who intend to capture and sell them into slavery. Dylan intends to teach the Hajira how to fight so they'll be able to fend off the slaver assault. The slavers are led by a man named Ursari (David Palffy), who serves as a relatively bland villain/adversary for Dylan once the action begins.
Blake is opposed to Dylan's efforts to train the Hajira how to fight. His reasoning: Since the Hajira have genetic memory, teaching them self-defense will start a cycle of violent tendencies that may be endlessly passed on through their generations. They will, in a sense, lose their innocence forever.
Will they? I must admit a bit of confusion about this "genetic memory" concept, which strikes me as particularly vulnerable to logic. How are these memories processed by a new individual with an infant mind? And if so many memories are retained, do the Hajira need to learn basic concepts as children? How far back do these memories go, and where did the Hajira come from? There's a lot of talk about innocence, but I must admit wondering if the Hajira ever had any sort of violence in their history, and I think it near impossible that they could've been completely free of conflict if they managed to survive galactic events as far-reaching as the fall of the Commonwealth.
But perhaps that's over-thinking the matter; the genetic memory is really meant as a fictional tool to tell the story at hand — albeit a sometimes uneven one. At one point the story breaks down into an issue of faith versus action. Blake destroys all the weapons Dylan brought with him, announcing that faith will see them through their crisis, not violence. Dylan asks why Blake bothered calling for help if faith was the answer to the problem. It's actually a pretty damn good question, but the episode glosses over it without ever offering an answer. More depth is necessary.
I'd better hasten to add that there are interesting pieces of information that are worthy of the series' larger mythos. For one, there's the idea of the Anointed, the founder of Wayism. The Anointed was a Magog, a being like Rev whose base instinct was to eat other sentient beings or use them as doomed vessels to host his progeny. The Way is one possible path to absolution for the Magog, which in the story's larger theme of "innocence" are beings who by nature are born without any.
It's interesting how Rev regards himself, as forever atoning for the sin of his very existence. When born, he hatched (for lack of a better term) from a humanoid whose fate was doomed by his birth. It's a nice detail that he keeps her picture with him, melancholy as he refers to her as his mother. For once we can see Rev not simply as Andromeda's Conscience At Large, but as a person whose moral desires and sense of self-responsibility are constantly suppressing his deep-rooted instincts as a predator. He found his way through the Way.
Unfortunately, as a production, "Devil" suffers, once again, from Andromeda's woefully lacking array of guest actors. If these guest stars were any more wooden, they'd have termites. Particularly bad is Mark Holden as Blake, whose role demands the conviction of religious righteousness but whose performance is one of torturously non-dynamic utterances of terse dialog. Tajira residents Tiama (Maya O'Connell) and her brother Arun (Darrin Klimek) don't fare much better; there are too many lines in this episode that feel hollowly recited rather than said with any emotion.
Where the story starts to turn truly interesting is when Tiama decides to take matters into her own hands by implanting herself with Rev's "genetic material" (the show is loath to be more specific about how a Magog impregnates another humanoid). She wants to bare a small army of fearsome Magog capable of fending off the slaver attacks. (It's a lucky thing Magog can gestate and grow to full size in the course of, apparently, a few days.)
Ordinary Magog would hatch and kill everyone in sight, but Rev suggests that these might be different Magog because Tiama might pass her genetic memories along to them. They could be, in short, "Magog born innocent" rather than born as instinctive murderers. Rev turns out to be right. This won't, however, spare Tiama, whose screams and death throes are of admirable potency.
Further, after seeing the Magog fend off the slaver attack, and realizing that they do indeed retain Tiama's memories, Arun and the other Tajira decide the way to protect their home is by bringing Magog into their entire gene pool, sacrificing themselves to create a settlement of Magog-Tajira hybrids that retain the Tajira memories.
This is a fascinating concept that elevates the episode to something more original than the uninspired battle of ideologies that seemed to form near the story's beginning. (Never mind that these people would have to be insane to willingly allow Magog to grow and eat through their entrails, an issue the story casually blows by.) If only the episode had spent more time on this aspect of the story and drawn it out into a more plausible time frame rather than rushing through these developments in the final two acts, colliding into the ticking-clock plot involving the slavers. Frankly, most of the plot before this, involving battles with the slavers and so forth, is not very interesting.
Also, and alas, like many other episodes this season, "Devil" features an unrelated B-story that serves little purpose except to give (some of) the rest of the regular actors something to do and make use of the standing Andromeda sets. This plot is a particularly guilty example of telling rather than showing — it's almost entirely conveyed through dialog between Beka and Tyr in the ship's corridors. Between scenes they (apparently) save an entire settlement from starving, but its barely clear how they do this. Confused subplots like this one are rarely a service to an episode because they only distract us from the main plot.
"The Devil Take the Hindmost" is a disappointment especially because it contains good ideas but can't overcome the problems in conveying them. It could've — and should've — been one of the season's best shows. But instead it's riddled with uncertainty.
The episode's last line is from Rev, who says, "We saved paradise by introducing the serpent." A thoughtful line, indeed. Then the show ends with an odd note of whimsy, with Tyr giving Rev a bemused stare that almost plays like humor. What's that about? It doesn't seem to fit given the darker implications that came just before. It's like the writers wrote the scene with one tone in mind, and the production staff filmed it with another. And here I am, not sure what to make of it. There's serious stuff in here, but sometimes it's played the wrong way. The end result is intriguing but too inconsistent.
Next week: A mysterious woman is not what she seems, which means people are gonna get beat up!
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