In brief: Some iffy execution in places, but it works as a premise-setter and moves along swiftly. Good, not great; series shows promise.
Answering a distress call from a distant star system, Captain Dylan Hunt (Kevin Sorbo) of the Systems Commonwealth High Guard starship Andromeda Ascendant arrives to evacuate a colony threatened by a rogue black hole. The distress call turns out to be a trap set by the Nietzscheans, who have been planning a massive surprise war effort against the Commonwealth for years. Hunt's ship is ambushed. Facing a grim situation, Hunt orders his ship's evacuation and attempts to use the black hole's gravity to aid in an escape. The risky maneuver combined with the gravity effects of the black hole leave him suspended in time for 300 years. What does one do when the world as he knew it has disappeared?
That sets the stage for the first half of the two-part premiere for Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, the latest TV show based on Roddenberry notes, developed by Deep Space Nine alum Robert Hewitt Wolfe. My general impression for "Under the Night" is that it's good, not great, reveals that this series has potential, but that such potential must be exploited to find success. As it is only half a story, I find I don't yet have a mission statement to evaluate; we won't get that until part two. In the meantime, we get some decent action scenes and we're effectively introduced to an assortment of characters. The story serves as a good backdrop for establishing the series' initial elements, although the plot itself does not exactly provide great strides in originality.
The episode opens with a big battle and some nifty special effects. I'm particularly impressed with the bold, artistic design of the Andromeda itself, which has a fresh look that sets it apart from recent Star Trek starship incarnations. The battle and subsequent war arises from the malcontent the Nietzschean society holds for the Commonwealth High Guard.
Aside from the good special effects during the battle, "Under the Night's" opening setup scenes are probably its most uncertain. There's not enough about them that seems fresh, and the introduction of the Andromeda in its first fly-by lacks the awe it deserves — especially given how cool this ship really looks. There are also some problems with a couple key characters in the early scenes. I for one found Hunt's pilot — supposedly a sentient alien bug — to be painfully unconvincing; this type of alien costume design has been dated for the better part of two decades, maybe more.
The other, bigger problem here involves Hunt's traitorous first officer, a Nietzchean named Gaheris Rhade (Steve Bacic). Bacic's acting choices imply a cold dispassion apparently common for Nietzscheans, but the performance leaves much to be desired. There's a key scene of exposition set on the Andromeda bridge that doesn't work at all. It features lines of dialog sandwiched between firing weapons and finally a speech by Rhade that is so woodenly delivered that I was shaking my head in disappointment. (And sorry, but exposition in between flying bullets should be reserved solely for Riggs and Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon pictures.) Nietzscheans may be cold, self-proclaimed superior people who are genetically engineered, but Rhade is simply an unconvincing muddle of random tones. The ensuing hand-to-hand fight scene works better, mostly because it's set eerily against the backdrop of time literally grinding to a halt. (The series' weapon of choice, used here and elsewhere, is known as a "force-lance," a retractable multi-purpose staff that can fire projectiles as well as perform the various duties of a Mag-Lite.)
What we learn from Rhade's tirade is that the Nietzscheans have become fed up with the Commonwealth's constant compromises with alien aggressors; the last straw for the Nietzscheans was the Commonwealth's peaceful resolution with the Magog, an apparently nefarious race who "eat other sentient beings" and "reproduce by rape."
Three hundred years after Rhade is killed in this struggle and Hunt is frozen in time, enter the starship Eureka Maru, which is engaged in a salvage operation to pull the Andromeda Ascendant from the clutches of the black hole's gravity forces. It's here where "Under the Night's" sense for characters begins to take hold. The ship is captained by the competent and forceful Beka Valentine (Lisa Ryder), who has charge of a small crew-for-hire. They are all employed by scheming opportunist Gerentex (John Tench), a nasty guy from a race called the Nightsiders.
Valentine's crew is a fairly interesting set of personalities, of which the story gives us a nice little sampling. The resident techie/pilot is Seamus Harper, played by Gordon Michael Woolvett with a convincing and sarcastic madcap exuberance. Harper gets some decent one-liners (including the obligatory Hercules in-joke) and plenty of contemporary riffs on lines including "Let's kick some ass!", "We rule!", and "I am a god!" (It's reassuring to see Generation X is still alive and kicking several millennia from now.) I like that the typical dialog rules imposed by Trek have been relaxed.
There's also Trance Gemini (Laura Bertram), the purple girl with a tail. We don't learn much about her, other than that she's a bit naive and ditzy; at one point she has to be reminded to put her space helmet on before opening an airlock.
Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch so far is pithy Rev Bem (Brent Stait), a Magog with a social conscience. The fact that he's a Magog gives the character a useful dose of guilty baggage; he wants to make amends for the suffering his people — himself included — have inflicted on others. Like the other characters, we don't learn much about his past yet, but the door has been opened a crack and I think I can see something of substance behind it.
Despite the brief character insights, the story moves along at a pretty fast clip: The goal is this crew's attempt to remove the Andromeda from the clutches of the black hole so Gerentex can sell it for a huge profit. Once the Andromeda is extricated, however, Hunt returns to normal time and realizes the severity of his situation.
The crew of the Eureka Maru boards Andromeda, but Hunt is not planning to let them simply take his ship, not even after Harper explains to him that the Commonwealth lost the war against the Nietzscheans and has been gone for 300 years. The fact that the Commonwealth has fallen is obviously a major point this series will be playing. It was huge (it "spanned three galaxies" and had "over a million member planets"), so even if much of it dissolved one would think there are still traces or even large segments of it to be found. (The question of how the Nietzscheans alone could bring down an organization with a million planets is a bit puzzling to me, but we'll take it at face value for now.)
For the moment, Captain Hunt's only ally is the ship herself. The story utilizes the concept of a ship with its own sentient intelligence. It's aware, and it has its own personality. It speaks to Hunt in the form of a holographic image (Lexa Doig), which even comes preprogrammed with an outfit featuring a low neckline. (The only remaining question: If Andromeda is sentient, does she have the choice of what to wear to work?) Hunt has a rapport with Andromeda that goes beyond the rapport any Star Trek captain would have with their ship. The ship here is an individual, which of course is a potentially compelling story point.
Since Hunt does not intend to give up his ship quietly, Gerentex brings out the Big Dudes With Big Guns™ — mercenaries he brought along just in case of such a confrontation. The head mercenary is a very big Nietzschean named Tyr Anasazi (Keith Hamilton Cobb), whose sole action in "Under the Night" is to walk in looking very menacing while holding a large firearm so we can be sent into cliffhanger mode — nothing more, nothing less. For what it sets out to do, I suppose it's effective.
Given the setup sans resolution, I don't have much to say about "Under the Night" in terms of riveting themes. Not until part two, anyway. This first episode of Andromeda is primarily a plot-based adventure with a good glimpse at some personalities. As far as production goes, it looks like a good deal was done with less money. There are of course rough edges, and Andromeda doesn't have quite the polish that larger-budget sci-fi shows like DS9 or Voyager had coming out of the gates. But the technique (some of the uneasy performances notwithstanding) is solid. I particularly liked the gritty, more claustrophobic production design on the Eureka Maru, and the pervasive use of hand-held cameras whenever we were there. All the characters here are closer to ground level than Trek characters, which is a nice change of pace. I especially appreciate that Valentine sees her crew members more as equals than as subordinates.
Is "Under the Night" a great launch for Andromeda? No. But it gets the job done, and in the end it gets its hooks in. It's entertaining, and I'm interested. Not bad for a pilot.
Next week: With intruders on his ship, will Hunt have to play Die Hard?
Next episode: An Affirming Flame