In brief: Some good underlying elements, but with plenty of logical gaffes and capped off with silly, hollow, cartoon action.
"Last Call at the Broken Hammer" is a meditation on leaders who inspire, and the pieces are here for a reasonably palatable hour — except for some questionable story logic and an absurd ending that goes for broke in the cartoon-violence category. Here's an episode that has a credible character who looks Dylan Hunt in the eye and tells him his Commonwealth mission is a futile endeavor nobody wants — and also an episode that features a Big Body Count™ that plays like the latest silly variation on the Magog assault of "Its Hour Come 'Round At Last." I gotta say: Andromeda has some decent ideas, but it's also about as subtle as a brick to the face when it comes to loony action sequences. Apparently, the bigger the guns, and the more bodies we end up with, the better.
The titular Broken Hammer is a bar on a backward wasteland of a planet. (One almost wants a voice over from Obi-Wan: "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.") Maybe the Broken Hammer should be called a saloon since it comes with batwing doors. Yes. Also because the people here have a tendency to get into shootouts, like in the Old West. An early scene has a misunderstanding that results in a local named Gorejon (Gavin Buhr) getting shot in the leg. I suppose it's the Western region of the Greater Magellanic Cloud.
Dylan & Co. (Beka, Tyr, Trance) have come to this planet by way of the Maru in search of one Isabella Ortiz, an almost mythic leader who years ago was able to create an alliance of 20 worlds, much to the ire of the nefarious anti-government Kalderans, who put Ortiz at the top of their most-wanted list, dead or alive. Ortiz's alliance has since disintegrated and Ortiz herself has gone into hiding, but Dylan thinks she could be a valuable advocate of the new Commonwealth.
The bartender at the Broken Hammer, Saphia (Enuka Okuma), supplies some information that later might have you wondering why she would supply it in the first place, considering Ortiz does not want to be found and Saphia knows who and where Ortiz is. Perhaps Ortiz is really a local named Cory (Rachel Hayward). Cory looks like the photo of Ortiz that Dylan has. But the events of this story suggest that finding someone by showing their picture around might simply be a big waste of time.
Cory and Saphia, in any event, know what's going on, and while Dylan is trying to sort out the question of where Ortiz might be, the Broken Hammer suddenly comes under attack by the Kalderans, who want Ortiz dead.
Now the episode turns from a Western into a war movie, where characters are holed up in a small building being pounded with mortar shells from a distant enemy battalion.
As pure atmosphere, some of this works reasonably well. The constant barrage of shells shakes the bar with each impact; kudos to the sound guy for the convincing rattle of glasses and liquor bottles. While the fact that we almost never see the Kalderans until the final assault eventually turns into a liability for the show, there's a certain appeal to a situation where danger can be heard but not seen. (DS9 followers may be reminded of "The Ship," where Sisko's crew was trapped inside a crashed Jem'Hadar warship with shells landing all around them.)
When Trance gets her tail shot off while protecting Saphia (apparently the tail just wasn't working out during production), she fits the war-movie pattern for "wounded hero who must be patched up." It's not original, but it's effective; the back room of the bar serves as a makeshift ER, and Trance gets some good moments.
Plenty of this, however, does not work. During action sequences, confusion arises from the fact we don't see a single Kalderan for the first half-hour (or more) of the show — not even when they're within the sight of our own characters who are shooting at them. I'm not sure if this was intended to build "suspense" in hiding what the enemy looks like until the Big Showdown, but as watchable action goes, the result is muddled. There's very little sense of why things are happening, and instead only the vague sense that something is happening. There are good and bad ways to depict chaos, but several of these borderline-incoherent sequences are unconvincing precisely because they fail to make sense of the action. Often it's like our characters are shooting at invisible figments of their imagination.
At one point, Tyr leaves the bar to do ... something. I've forgotten what, assuming I was ever entirely sure. It's something that delays the Kalderans in reaching the bar, although I'm not sure how. My theory: If you're trying to create a claustrophobic sense in your drama, keep the major players inside the building under siege. Tyr runs around outside but the camera doesn't follow him; the results are several scenes that are hard to follow and even harder to explain.
From a story point of view, there's value to be found in Dylan's search for Ortiz. Basically, Dylan's looking for a good leader. In the process he ends up showcasing his own leadership abilities during the crisis: He knows what needs to be done to defend the bar, when, and how. Through his maze of extracting true identities from Cory/Saphia/Ortiz comes the story's message that real leaders are in short supply. Some leaders might be have-beens who gave up their heroic ways because they learned their missions were futile. Ortiz would be one of those.
First it appears Cory is Ortiz. Later it's revealed that Saphia is Ortiz. The two swapped identities to throw off those who might be hunting for Ortiz. My only question: Why bother having anyone look like Ortiz? If you're trying to avoid assassination attempts, why have someone so close to you pretend to be you? You're still too close to the danger.
But never mind. The episode's best moment comes after Saphia's identity has been revealed, and she tells Dylan flat-out that he's wasting his time: "Nobody wants a Commonwealth, captain. There's just too many people invested in the status quo, too many people with money and weapons and power. You're no better than me, Dylan Hunt. Hell, give it enough time, you will be me." It's a great point; I only hope the writers address those implications head-on someday.
There's another character here, named Jadis (Michele Morand, who is Gordon Michael Woolvett's real-life wife), a frightened, pregnant woman whose fear leads her in a moment of desperation to shoot Cory dead, believing that she is Ortiz and that handing over her body will persuade the Kalderans to abandon their assault. She's wrong, of course, and Cory becomes a senseless casualty. I appreciate that Saphia berates herself for giving Jadis the gun in the first place, but the episode and other characters let Jadis off pretty easy for a selfish act of murder, scared or not.
It's refreshing to report that this is an episode of Andromeda that actually benefits from effective, straightforward, functional guest performances. These characters are not deep or with particularly complex dimensions, but they serve their purpose without ever making me cringe, which for Andromeda guest actors so far is pretty high praise.
But "Broken Hammer" is oddly reluctant to have characters that can go through the hour without changing motivations — sometimes in contrived and needless ways. In addition to the constantly morphing role of Cory/Saphia/Ortiz, there's also Hsigo (John DeSantis), the alien with the monster-like face and growling voice. There's an attempt midway through the episode to give him some depth, which I appreciated. He explains to Beka his dissatisfaction with Ortiz, who gave him false hope and got him involved in a painful struggle that led to a dead-end life. Beka tells him it wasn't all Ortiz — that he must've believed in the cause at some level or he wouldn't have participated.
Fine and good, but then what about when he realizes Saphia is really Ortiz and makes a move trying to kill her? At this point three people shoot him more than a dozen times, which is dramatic overkill (again, subtle as a brick to the face). But not only that, there's subsequently a throwaway line where Dylan concludes Hsigo was a Kalderan informant, a needless plot snippet that comes out of left field. Having such wild changes in motivation (one coming posthumously) is simply a bad way to go about creating a convincing character. This isn't a person; he's a pawn of the script.
Pretty harsh, really, the way the writers try to give Hsigo some momentary depth, then decide to use him for target practice. Contrast his fate to that of Jadis, who kills Cory and is all but forgiven. I guess it's the variable motive — scared versus angry — that makes the difference.
Everything comes down to a big finale in which the Kalderans, who look like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, come charging through the door so they can all get shot in another one of those Mega-Action scenes that litters the floor with corpses. It's executed okay on its cartoon level, I guess, but I for one think any group of space travelers dumb enough to mount an assault in this "we're just fish in a barrel" manner is pretty worthless as an enemy. They're no more than action props in what feels like the final level of a video game.
It's revealed early on that the Kalderans are "pack hunters" who spend time collectively coming up with a battle plan and then "follow it through to the bitter end." Okay, but if charging through the front door one after another to certain death is the best strategy they could come up with ... well, then, they're hopeless morons — which cheapens the victory of our heroes and the drama of the episode as a whole. I'll say it now — I don't want any more alien bad guys who are suicidal on principle. It's a waste of time.
I'm beginning to realize that when it comes to violence, Andromeda doesn't bring any kind of sophisticated edge to it (like, say, DS9's "Rocks and Shoals"), and instead simply glorifies it. It's shallow and glib, played for shoot-em-up "fun." I'm certainly not one of these anti-TV-violence crusaders who will gripe that there's too much violence corrupting our fragile youth. But I'm also not going to sit here and tell you that a big shootout with a bunch of incompetent Ninja Turtles is thoughtful or meaningful in any way. I guess this is the difference between smarter shows and Tribune "Action Hour" Entertainment.
What the creators of Andromeda have yet to realize is that intensity isn't determined simply by the quantity of violence. It's all about the context and feelings involved. What could've been a deeper ending with more plausible combat (remember DS9's "Siege of AR-558"?) is reduced to a laughable cartoon.
A shame, because the theme on leadership is a relevant one. If only the producers would show better leadership for this show by not using their action payoffs to pander to the lowest common denominator, we'd all be better off.
Next week: The Rommie Show.