In brief: The best episode of Andromeda in months.
Finally, here's an episode that resembles what Andromeda once upon a time resembled. If last week's "Belly of the Beast" was Lightweight Cheesy Good, then this week is Genuine Substantive Good.
One of the interesting overall aspects about "The Knight, Death, and the Devil" is its militaristic theme. It presents Captain Hunt as a military man, and a fleet of High Guard starship AIs as soldiers. The theme runs through the hour, and on several occasions the discussion turns to that of one's duty. The military theme has always been an understated element on Andromeda, and here it becomes the focus of an intelligent story with some good, meaty dialog.
The plot's central idea is an intriguing one with great promise: A shipyard is seen as a POW camp because the ships are run by sentient AIs with no crews. Their crews were killed or captured during the High Guard's battles with the Nietzscheans three centuries ago, and once the war was over, the Nietzscheans confined the starships to a barren solar system (aptly code-named "Tartarus"). There they've sat while the Drago-Kazov have tried to come up with ways of erasing the AIs from the ships' systems without destroying the ships. If the Drago-Kazov erase the AIs, the fleet will be theirs to harness as a powerful weapon.
Naturally, I have some doubts from the standpoint of logic. For one, I continue to believe that this series overestimates the power of High Guard starships. Yes, the Andromeda is a powerful ship. But at the end of the day it's still only a ship. By the same token, the fleet of High Guard warships seen here are ships that could potentially fall into the hands of the Drago-Kazov. Yes, that'd be bad news for Dylan's new Commonwealth, but I still object to the Dylan Hunt Hyperbole™ that this spells no less than the conquering of the universe. Secondly, I have my doubts that the Nietzscheans have been trying to erase these AIs from the ships for 300 years (yes, 300 years!). In 300 years couldn't the Nietzscheans build a fleet of warships or at the very least hire better computer hackers? (And given that they've now finally found a way to crack the AIs, Dylan's timing on arriving at this situation is nothing short of immaculate.)
Our entry point to the story is an AI avatar named Ryan, who once embodied the Clarion's Call. After the fall of the High Guard, he escaped the POW camp with a mission to recruit an enemy Nietzschean pride of the Drago-Kazov. He never returned, an action now seen by the other High Guard AIs as an act of betrayal. In a way, it was, but Ryan had his reasons for not following through with the original plan — among them the fact that the universe had changed so much and seeking out a new conflict seemed rather pointless. Ryan is played by Michael Hurst, who turns out to be one of Andromeda's better guest actors on record. It also helps that the writers give Hurst's character a fair amount of depth, regret, good dialog, and ultimately redemption. As a thinking machine, Ryan is a far more solid and interesting guest character than most supposedly flesh-and-blood guest characters. Doubted and unproven at the beginning, Ryan by the end achieves the status of reluctant hero, caught up in military necessity. I appreciated nearly all his scenes.
At the shipyard we meet some other AIs that build additionally on the material. The Wrath of Achilles (Christopher Judge) is a powerful battleship with a thoughtful and reasonable AI willing to negotiate with Dylan. There's also Mila, another warship who serves as the microcosm for the immediate problem — that most of the AIs are not particularly keen on joining Dylan's cause, because they aren't interested in "swapping Nietzschean masters for humans." It's an intriguing point. Also very good, albeit brief, is Tyr's devil's-advocate discussion with Rommie on the matter, where he first calls the AIs machines that should either obey or be dismantled, and then reverses his argument and says perhaps the Commonwealth was treating the AIs as slaves if they've always been perceived as sentient beings.
Between this and "All Too Human," writers Miller & Stentz appear to be the series' experts on AIs, and based on the strength of the two shows I'd be content if they continued to serve that role. Dylan here plays diplomat to machines that he needs to be on his side, and I liked the story's point that it's because he gives them choices that they ultimately join him. Mila even sacrifices herself to allow the rest of the starships to escape with the Maru, further driving home the story's theme of military duty.
The show contains the requisite, now-Andromeda-trademark, bloodless shoot-'em-up B-movie action and stock-footage CGI space battles, but it's refreshing that they emerge from the story's logic rather than being superfluous detours.
There's also a B-story here, which I'm not quite so enthused about. It involves Beka trying, in Dylan's absence, to sign up World No. 50 of the Commonwealth. Her contact is Secretary Falin (Matthew Walker), who insists on speaking with Dylan before committing to join.
Oh, I liked the idea here, the fact that the series is actually focusing on a storyline involving the Commonwealth, much hinted at but almost never truly dealt with. And I was interested in the fact that this is the landmark 50th world. But this story comes out of left field. Six months ago the sentiment was that no one wanted a Commonwealth (remember Saphia's speech in "Last Call at the Broken Hammer"?). Now, suddenly, we have 50 worlds (an arbitrary goal at that), but no hint at how or why or when all these worlds went from skeptics to members.
Granted, Falin here is a skeptic. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out why he had to talk to Dylan or, for that matter, why Beka couldn't just level with him and explain that Dylan was off on a crucial mission. This leads to her impersonating Dylan with a device Harper rigs up that is the ultimate in digital puppetry (Harper's initial demonstration of this device is one of the funniest Andromeda moments in ages, and could've inspired a comedy episode). Beka makes an impassioned speech while pretending to be Dylan (a speech which, in a very nice touch, ends exactly the way a speech Dylan later makes to the AIs). Too bad she's exposed as a fraud because Falin punches star-69. Duh. Later, she makes a pretty good speech to Falin — with many valid points — on her own.
I wish I were more confident in the Commonwealth plot as a whole. By the end of the hour we have a new Commonwealth and, conveniently, a powerful military fleet for them. Both elements are all but conjured from thin air. Given that thought, it's nearly a miracle that "Knight" ever had the potential to be as good an episode as it ends up being. For that the writers deserve some credit.
Next week: Tyr's wife returns in a sequel to "Double Helix."
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