Review: John Winterson Richards
Perhaps to avoid confusion with similarly named projects, but more likely for marketing reasons, 'Andromeda' was often known as Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda.
This is odd. For a start, it was made eight years after Roddenberry's crossing the real Final Frontier in 1991, being based, like 'Earth: Final Conflict,' on undeveloped ideas he left behind. Yet there are big differences between Andromeda and Roddenberry's own view of the future as suggested in the 'Star Trek' franchise. In Star Trek: the Next Generation, probably the closest he was allowed to get to putting his own vision on screen, he is optimistic, at least in his own terms, that Mankind will achieve the sort of future he considered desirable. He presents his Federation at this point as benevolent, historically inevitable, and more secular and less militaristic than in the original Star Trek, which was more a product of the Cold War.
Studio and network executives never really brought into that vision. Conflict sells. The most intriguing, and arguably the best, series in the 'Star Trek' franchise, Deep Space Nine, began a couple of years after Roddenberry left for the Undiscovered Country and probably could not have been made while he was still around. In that series Starfleet is forced to become more militant and there is a dark underside to the paternalistic Federation. Religion, albeit extra terrestrial religion, is more of a factor. There is a rather artificial "happy" ending, but any sense of its inevitability has been lost along the way in the cause of good drama.
Although Andromeda does not reference the 'Star Trek' universe, and was made, in Canada, by different producers for different networks, it continues some of the trends seen in Deep Space Nine. It begins with a catastrophe completely at odds with the cosy optimism of Star Trek: the Next Generation. The Systems Commonwealth, the equivalent of the Federation, is shattered. Historical inevitability is replaced by chaos. The only hope is a military solution in the form of an interstellar battleship trapped in time, the 'Andromeda Ascendant.'
One cannot help wondering how much of this is Roddenberry's idea, given how much it goes against the principles of his earlier work. While he had in interest in the dystopian in the 1970s, that was in the 1970s when everyone did.
Perhaps each series is a product of its time. The original Star Trek is an idealised version of John F Kennedy in Space. Despite its start in the late 1980s, Star Trek: the Next Generation has more of the mindset of the 1990s, when euphoria at the end of the Cold War prompted talk of "the end of history." In the same way, Deep Space Nine is more of an intellectual product of the later Nineties, when it began to be more obvious that things were not going to be that simple.
While Andromeda began well before the 11th of September, 2001, it displays much of the same thinking that influenced the reaction to that day when everything seemed to change. With Yugoslavia fresh in the memory, there was increasing support on both sides of the political divide for what was called "humanitarian intervention" or even "nation building," backed by the ideology of "neoconservativism" on one side of the political spectrum and "new liberal imperialism" on the other. Much as many later tried to forget it, or pretended to forget it, this was the thinking used to justify broad bipartisan support in both the US and the UK for "intervention" and "nation building" in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There is a definite parallel between this and the ideology of Andromeda. The whole business of the 'Andromeda Ascendant' is "humanitarian intervention" and the ultimate objective of its Captain is to rebuild the Systems Commonwealth itself - "nation building" on a grand scale. The means to this end is superior firepower. It is the perfect allegory for neoconservativism. For a while, this aspect of the show reflected the public mood, but it is probably no coincidence that it came to its end in 2005, around the time when growing insurgency in both Afghanistan and Iraq confirmed that "nation building" was not as easy or as popular as many had assumed.
The Captain, Dylan Hunt, is played by Kevin Sorbo, hot from the title role in Hercules the Legendary Journeys, and comparing his two star vehicles gives us another definite parallel. His Hercules is a good natured hunk who basically wanders around Ancient Greece and its neighbourhood looking for opportunities for "humanitarian intervention." His Dylan Hunt is much the same except with a spaceship and a much bigger area to cover.
Just in case we do not quite get it, one of the other characters makes the comparison explicitly early on in a rather heavy handed in-joke.
Yet, if he is not exactly Lord Olivier when it comes to emotional depth or versatility, Sorbo knows exactly what this sort of part requires and he delivers. Hunt, like Hercules before him, is nothing if not likeable, even if he can be a bit pompous and self-righteous when in idealistic mode. Once again, he probably sums up how many Americans liked to see their country at that particular point in history - strong and full of good intentions.
Anyway, he is pleasant company and it is not hard to see how he might attract others to follow him. He recruits a crew of questionable salvagers and occasional smugglers led by Beka Valentine, who becomes his second in command. Played with great charm by Lisa Ryder, she is a rare combination - at least on television - of a credible female authority figure and a fun-loving personality. A man would be equally comfortable taking orders from her or having a drink with her. She is the girl who wants to be Han Solo when she grows up but is in no hurry to do so. They should write more characters like her.
She has become, by default, the substitute mother/older sister figure for an overgrown child called Harper (Gordon Michael Woolvett) who happens to be an outstanding engineer. She has also been joined by Trance (Laura Bertram), a mysterious, apparently gentle purple skinned alien who is a lot older, and knows a lot more, than she lets on.
Beka's sympathy for misfits gives another berth to Rev Bem (Brent Stait), a member of a generally feared and hated race of alien cannibals who has found religion. This sympathetic portrayal of religion, even if only a made-up syncretic religion, is another departure from Roddenberry, who, although he rejected the label of atheist, disliked organised religion and fought to keep it out of his resolutely secular Federation in the 'Star Trek' franchise.
Rev Bem's race, the Magog, is only one of many we and the 'Andromeda Ascendant' encounter in a nicely textured, well drawn universe that had enough depth to sustain a far more substantial franchise. The most interesting are the Nietzscheans, who have raised the unsentimental philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche to the place of religion. Obsessed with the Will to Power and eugenics, they have built themselves into a Master Race - without using that term, of course. However, their great strength is also their great weakness: a Nietzschean's focus on his personal power and on producing his own genetically superior offspring does not make him very good at co-operating with other Nietzscheans.
It was therefore the Nietzscheans who overthrew the Systems Commonwealth in order to found their own Empire - only to have it fall apart due to predictable conflict among their various clans. They are represented on the 'Andromeda Ascendant' by mercenary Tyr Anasazi (Keith Hamilton Cobb) and later by the supposedly more respectable Telemachus Rhade (Steve Bacic). In both cases, Hunt has to balance their utility against his well founded suspicion that they might, for different reasons and in different circumstances, betray him without hesitation if it suited their purposes. That sets up a nice character tension that keeps things from getting too comfortable.
The technology of the Andromeda universe is also the product of some thought and originality. This is personified in the most interesting member of the crew of the 'Andromeda Ascendant,' the ship's computer or artificial intelligence. Known as "Rommie," it is, in accordance with science fiction tradition, given a female voice and face, both provided by actress Lexa Doig. It also downloads itself to an android, which is given the same voice and features. Some of the most entertaining scenes have "Rommie" interacting with "herself."
Guest stars include such genre favourites as John de Lancie and James Marsters - Q from Star Trek: the Next Generationand Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer respectively.
The end product is very enjoyable, especially in its early seasons. It becomes less compelling after the Systems Commonwealth is re-established - fairly early and relatively easily, it must be said - and the 'Andromeda Ascendant' returns to bring part of a hierarchy after its time as a lone beacon of hope.
If its world view, or galaxy view, might seem dated today, and the longer story arcs were not particularly involving, many individual episodes can easily be rewatched time and time again simply for the pleasure of hanging out with some interesting and agreeable characters. The scripts were sharp and occasionally touched intelligently on some Big Ideas. Its visual style was distinctive, even if its unavoidable reliance on CGI means it has not aged well. In retrospect, Andromeda is something of a half-way house between the original Star Trek and Firefly, and is at its best when it prefigures the latter's model of an ill-assorted but friendly gang of outsiders thrown together in a confined ship as they wander the immensity of Space.
John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 60 reviews for Television Heaven.
John's own Website can be found at John Winterson Richards and books by John can be purchased from Amazon:
Published on June 9th, 2020. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.