TV Science Fiction & Fantasy


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

A FOR ANDROMEDA. (1961) Television Serial in six parts. Peter Halliday, Julie Christie, Frank Windsor, John Hollis, Patricia Kneale, Mary Morris. Teleplay by (Sir) Fred Hoyle and John Elliott. Directed by Michael Hayes and others

ANDROMEDA BREAKTHROUGH. (1962) Television Serial in six parts. Peter Halliday, Susan Hampshire, John Hollis, Mary Morris, David Saire, Claude Ferrell. Various Directors including John Elliott.

A FOR ANDROMEDA.  (2006) Tom Hardy, Charlie Cox, Kelly Reilly. Screenplay by Richard Fell, based on the teleplay by Fred Hoyle and John Elliott. Directed by John Strickland.

● Novelized as A for Andromeda (1962) by Fred Hoyle and John Elliott, and Andromeda Breakthrough (1964) by Fred Hoyle and John Elliott.

   The British throughout the fifties and sixties did a series of Science Fiction serials for BBC Television varying from those aimed at younger audiences like City Beneath the Sea and Secret Beneath the Sea, to more adult stories by the legendary Nigel Kneale (Quatermass, The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass and the Pit, The Trollenberg Terror, The Broken, The Stone Tapes) whose work was often made into feature films, as well as other creators’ works such as Doomwatch, and the John Wyndam remake of Day of the Triffids, and the Tripods.

   At a time when most American SF was limited to anthology series like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits or children’s fare the British were doing intriguing SF with grown up themes, and of course a fair amount of monsters.

   A for Andromeda, created by BBC producer and creator John Elliot and Plumian Professor and Science Fiction author Sir Fred Hoyle in 1961, is one of the more legendary of these serials if only because of the young actress introduced as its title character, Julie Christie.

   The story is simple enough. In 1970 John Fleming (Peter Halliday) and his friend Brenner (Frank Windsor) are working at a civilian facility on a radio satellite designed to aid the military in intercepting radio traffic by potential enemies. To that end Fleming is scanning deep space as he fine tunes the satellite, a rebel pursuing his own interests at the governments expense.

   The arrival of a Judy Adamson (Patrica Kneale) a new security expert sent in as a public relations expert comes at an inopportune time for Brenner who has secretly been selling information to Intel a mysterious multi national group run by the mysterious Krautman (John Hollis).

   Everything changes when the computers detect a signal coming from space, from the Andromeda region, and when Fleming begins to decipher the code suddenly the military’s interception of radio traffic isn’t half as important.

   The coded transmission proves to be binary code for a super computer and the team is moved to a remote base in the Hebrides to build it, as Brenner is pressured by Krautman and his threatening chauffeur Egon (Paul Henchie)who even takes a few pot shots with a high powered rifle to scare Adamson off.

   When the computer transmits information for the creation of a biological entity Professor Dawnay (Mary Morris) is brought in and Fleming begins to question the safety of the project. Just what are the motives of the high handed alien intelligence behind the computer? Are they all being led down a rabbit hole by a malign alien intelligence?

   When Catherine (Julie Christie with dark hair) Brenner’s assistant is killed in an accident by the computer it creates a new biological avatar in her image, Andromeda, aka Andre (Julie Christie now an ethereal blonde) and destroys the “Cyclops” the previous attempt made by Dawnay.

   Meanwhile Adamson has closed in on Brenner and Krautman is pressuring Fleming as the latter becomes more and more convinced the computer is controlling Dawnay and the others around it as much as it does Andre, and when it attempts to kill Dawnay with a flesh eating bacteria when she questions it Fleming sees the only chance as appealing to Andre’s human side since the Prime Minister and the military can only see the super computer as a way to rebuild Britain’s lost glories.

   The Intel sub-plot is seemingly sidelined at this point, but comes back with a vengeance in Andromeda Breakthrough. The first serial stands alone, but is enhanced by the second.

   In the end Fleming succeeds in appealing to Andre’s human side and is able to destroy the computer while Andre destroys the instructions for building a new machine after realizing the computer will ultimately destroy her. Andre and Fleming escape pursued by the Royal Marines in charge of security to a nearby cave where Andre seemingly drowns in a pool and Fleming is arrested, but the world is safe.

   Andromeda Breakthrough picks up exactly where the first serial ended with Fleming under arrest and Andre (now played by yet another major discovery, Susan Hampshire of The First Churchills and Fleur in The Forsyte Family) supposedly dead. She isn’t though and soon, with Fleming, she is under arrest.

   That changes when Fleming, Andre, and Dawnay are kidnapped by Intel and Krautman and Mlle Gamboule (Claude Ferrell) and flown to the Arab kingdom of Azaran where Intel has rebuilt the super computer and needs their expertise.

   In the meantime Andre’s health begins to fail and Fleming and Dawnay rush to save her as the world’s weather begins to deteriorate and Andre traces it to an alien enzyme that threatens to destroy Earth’s fragile climate.

   With the new computer exerting influence on Mlle Gamboule and amid murderous storms and a revolution in Azaran Fleming, Dawnay, and Andre must fight to save the world and Andre and finally solve the puzzle of the mysterious alien message that began the whole thing while divining the secret of Andre’s creation.

   Both serials begin fairly slowly, but build up exponentially as they go on with more plot threads and character arcs than I can cover here, as you might expect of the serial form. Both deal with elements of the outside worlds reaction to these events that I’ve largely ignored here.

   A for Andromeda is, sadly, lost. It has been recreated using what footage still exists and titled stills from the series into a two hour feature that covers the story fairly well, and luckily most of the last two episodes are intact including the exciting ending. It was remade as a movie in 2006 starring Tom Hardy as Fleming, though unfortunately much of the plot is sacrificed and a different ending tacked on that does not allow for the events of Andromeda Breakthrough. It’s not bad, but truncating a six part serial into a less than ninety minute movie means a lot of vital story is lost for what becomes a basic Frankenstein story.

   The restructured original serial, the 2006 remake, and the entire six episode Andromeda Breakthrough serial are currently available on YouTube in decent prints, and while time has blunted some of the originals scientific edge both serials remain worth seeing.

   Most seem to agree the brunt of the writing on both the serial and the two novelizations was done by John Elliott with Fred Hoyle, despite being the author of such Science Fiction classics as Ossian’s Ride, October the First is Too Late, and The Black Cloud, is largely a technical adviser. Still considering Fred Hoyle is the man who coined the phrase “the Big Bang” (however sardonically) and whose Steady State Theory of the Universe has recently been back in favor (as flawed but useful) among many physicists attempting to understand the nature of the Universe that’s a pretty good technical adviser for any SF series.

   I read the two novels years before ever seeing the serial and still hold them in high regard as excellent SF thrillers of a kind of near future SF the British seemed to specialize in (John Wyndham, Charles Eric Maine, Christopher Hodder-Williams, Archie Roy, John Christoper, L. P. Davies etc.). Both held up well on rereading, though now I can’t help but see the characters in relation to the actors who played them. The books, published here in paperback by Fawcett Crest in 1967 when I was seventeen, were fairly seminal in my adult Science Fiction reading and expand on the serials rather than just aping them.

   In any case, that the two serials provided the screen with both Julie Christie and Susan Hampshire is a fairly good reason in and of itself to check them out.

   

CONFLICT. “The Man from 1997.” ABC/Warner Brothers, 17 November 1956 (Season 1, Episode 6). 60m. Jacques Sernas, Charlie Ruggles, Gloria Talbott, James Garner, Stacy Harris. Screenplay: James Gunn, based on the story “Of Time and Third Avenue” by Alfred Bester (F&SF, October 1951). [See comment #2.] Producer: Roy Huggins. Director: Roy Del Ruth.

   Conflict was an anthology series for ABC that generally provided straight dramatic shows featuring characters in “conflict,” for lack of a better word. One of these shows, however, was something special, at least for science fiction readers: a time-travel story that covers all of the tropes of that particular subgenre rather well, particularly when you consider how poorly SF stories were generally presented on TV back in 1956.

   The story begins as a young janitor (Jacques Sernas), only two months in this country, buys several large books in a used book shop, hoping they will help him learn English. When he returns to his basement apartment is that one of them is a comprehensive almanac for the year 1997. (A book published over 40 years in the future, I hasten to add.)

   He’s no dummy. He looks up to see which horse will win a race the following day, and he asks the brother (James Garner) of the girl of his dreams (Gloria Talbott) to place a ten dollar bet on the winner for him.

   Thinking that this is throwing money away, the brother bets on the favorite instead, which animal of course loses. But all this attracts the bookie’s attention, not one of the more savory of gentlemen in the world.

   In the meantime a mysterious man dressed all in white (Charlie Ruggles) is frantically trying the locate the book, naturally afraid that in the wrong hands, the future could easily be drastically altered.

   Since the episode is available on YouTube, you can watch it yourself from here. In your own time machine, in other words, without changing the past or present one iota. This is the thrust of the story, though: how to persuade the young couple to give up their dream of making a fortune from the book and do the right thing.

   Besides being a still entertaining relic from the past, also of note is the fact that seeing James Garner in this episode led producer Roy Huggins into casting him the very next year as Maverick, and the rest, as they say, is history.

   

   
   
UPDATE: David Pringle reminds me that “…the James Gunn who wrote the script is *not* James Gunn the sf writer, as some people might expect to be the case.

   “J. E. Gunn the screenwriter was born in 1920 and died in 1966, whereas J. E. Gunn the sf guy was born in 1923 and died, as many of us may remember, at the age of 97 in 2020.”

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. “Saga of a Star World.” ABC, 17 September 1978. Pilot episode; three hours. Richard Hatch (Captain Apollo), Dirk Benedict (Lieutenant Starbuck), Lorne Greene (Commander Adama), Herbert Jefferson Jr. (Lieutenant Boomer), Tony Swartz (Flight Sergeant Jolly), Maren Jensen (Lieutenant Athena). Others: John Colicos, Ray Milland, Lew Ayres. Writer: Glen A. Larson. Director: Richard A. Colla.

   If you asked a random person about Battlestar Galactica, they likely would either think of the late 1970s television series or the highly successful reboot from the early 2000s. That is, of course, if they had ever heard of the show at all. But few probably remember that Battlestar Galactica started neither as a tv show, nor as a franchise. Rather, the saga began as a lengthy made for television movie meant to capitalize on the Star Wars craze.

   Aired on ABC on September 17, 1978, the production was interrupted mid-broadcast with news of the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords. Later released both as a theatrical film and as a three-part TV series entitled “Saga of a Star World,” the movie piggybacked on the success of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and likewise combined mystical fantasy with hard science fiction.

   For those unfamiliar with the basic plot, it suffices to say that it’s a story about a group of humans living in distant space who must outrun a hostile robotic enemy (the Cylons) on their way to Earth. Commanded by the stern but fair Adama (Lorne Greene), the Battlestar Galactica is itself a ship (a battle starship). Among its best fighter pilots are Adama’s son Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch) and the maverick Starbuck (Dirk Benedict). Their chief enemies, at least in the pilot, are two human traitors. The scheming and sleazy Count Baltar (John Colicos) and the decadent Sire Uri (Ray Milland). Lew Ayres also appears as the president.

   I am not sure if I ever watched the three-part pilot before. Some of it seemed deeply familiar to me. Other parts less so. As much as I enjoyed the nostalgia value of the show, I couldn’t help but notice how slow-moving a lot of the pilot was. While there was certainly some excitement at the beginning, the movie bogs down into a rather talky meandering affair. That said, it certainly perks up again in the last forty minutes or so with a fun and exciting tale of wicked aliens seducing humanity into a gambling den slumber. The special effects, for the time, were quite good. And the music, conducted by Stu Phillips of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is iconic. I’m just fairly sure no one who watched it in 1978 would have thought it would be rebooted two decades later for a new generation.
   

AWAY. “Go.” Netflix, 60m, 04 September 2020 (Season 1, Episode 1). Hilary Swank as Emma Green, an American astronaut who is the commander of the mission; Josh Charles as Matt Logan, Emma’s husband and a NASA engineer who has washed out of the astronaut program because of a brain disease; Vivian Wu as Lu, a Chinese taikonaut who is also a chemist; Mark Ivanir as Misha, a veteran Russian astronaut who is also the space shuttle’s engineer; Ato Essandoh as Kwesi, a Jewish British-Ghanaian rookie astronaut who is a botanist; Ray Panthaki as Ram, the mission’s second-in-command; Talitha Bateman as Alexis “Lex” Logan, Emma and Matt’s teenage daughter. Creator/screenwriter: Andrew Hinderaker. Director: Edward Zwick.

   This is the kind of Science Fiction that I can still watch on either the big screen or small one. Minimal special effects (floating in low gravity environments) and quite a bit of effort on the producers’ part to get the science and engineering right. The basis of the story is simple: follow a diverse crew of five (the standard list of both sexes and various nationalities) as they begin a long arduous three year journey to Mars.

   In practice, though, it isn’t going to be easy. Due to a mistake Emma Green (a perfectly cast Hilary Swank) as commander makes on the trip from the Earth to the Moon, two of the crew are in near rebellion, even before the main part of the journey begins, and complications back on Earth do not make things any easier for her (Emma’s husband suffers a stroke, but without giving anything away, if he didn’t recover just in time, there’d be no series, or does he?).

   So it’s going to be a mixture of soap opera and space opera from here on out. I can anticipate the problems they’re going to have in both regards. I don’t think media critics are likely to praise this, but who cares. I enjoyed this, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the trip.

   

HAUNTED “Pilot.” UPN, 60m. 24 September 2002. Matthew Fox as PI Frank Taylor, Russell Hornsby, John Mann, Lynn Collins, Michael Irby, Bree Michael Warner. Director: Michael Rymer. The complete series is available on DVD.

   It’s been a couple of nights since I watched this, and to tell you the truth, it made such a little impression on me that other than Matthew Fox, the rest of the cast are only names to me. I’m going to take a very sad way out and use the Wikipedia description of the show: “Private detective Frank Taylor, whose marriage to Jessica Manning ended after their son was abducted, kills a pedophile, Simon Dunn, and almost dies himself. When he discovers he can now see the dead, he uses this ability to find a missing boy kidnapped by Simon, who now haunts him.”

               

   Part of the problem is that this is all claptrap to me. I watched this only because of the fact that Fox plays a private detective in this, not that that’s made very clear. The whole thing’s a muddle. Maybe it got better as time went on. Eleven episodes were aired before it disappeared for good. (A fact which is actually not so. Repeats have been shown on the Sci-Fi channel, Chiller, and Universal HD.)

PostScript: Kevin Burton Smith on his Thrilling Detective website liked the first episode better than did I, but he also goes on to say that the show would have been better if they’d played up the PI end of things, and that “the pop-up ghost gimmick was already annoying by the end of the show.”

   He also says, contrary to Wikipedia, that in the series’ first run on UPN, only seven of the eleven episodes were actually aired.

   

PERSON OF INTEREST “Pilot.” CBS, 22 September 2011. Jim Caviezel as John Reese, Michael Emerson as Harold Finch. Guest cast: Natalie Zea. Seriescreated by Jonathan Nolan; executive producers: Nolan, J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Greg Plageman, Denise Thé, and Chris Fisher. Director: David Semel.

   This series lasted for five years, but when it was first suggested to me that it was excellent and I really had to watch it, it was part way through the third year, and believe you me, I had no idea what was going on. Science fictional TV series like this one has a tendency to get that way, especially when the basic concept was so complicated to begin with.

   To wit: A former government contractor named Harold Finch is  the man who helped build a super computer program that… What the hell. I’m just going to quote Wikipedia:

   “…that is capable of collating all sources of information to predict terrorist acts and identify people planning them. The Machine also identifies perpetrators and victims of other premeditated deadly crimes, but, because the government considers these ‘irrelevant,’ he programs the Machine to delete this information each night. Anticipating abuse of his creation, Finch created a backdoor into the Machine. Tormented by the ‘irrelevant’ deaths that might have been prevented, he eventually decides to use his backdoor to act covertly. To escape detection, he directs the Machine to provide only a tiny fragment of data: the social security number of a ‘person of interest.’ The person may be a victim, a perpetrator, or an innocent bystander caught up in lethal events.”

   In the pilot, the social security number is that of a successful female prosecutor. What kind of problem is she having, or will she have? There are many low life characters in her life every day. Is she in danger? To help him find out, Finch recruits John Reese (Jim Caviezel) – and quoting Wikipedia again, he is “a former Green Beret and CIA agent now presumed dead.” Finch needs him as a leg man to investigate.

   It’s a great concept, and this the first episode is slickly done, with a twist or two that  brought a smile (or several smiles) to my face.. It’s no wonder the show went on to great success.

   I’m not sure, though, whether I want to invest the equivalent of five years’ worth of episodes, especially, as I said the outset, I think the show went off in directions that even those who made this pilot had no idea of that far in advance. Fringe was another series that I enjoyed for maybe two years before the plots became way way too complicated, at least for me.

   I welcome any advice you may have to offer on this.

   

TRAVELERS “Travelers” (2016). Canadian-American production. Netflix. 17 October 2016 (Season 1, Episode 1). Eric McCormack, MacKenzie Porter, Nesta Cooper, Jared Abrahamson, Reilly Dolman, Patrick Gilmore. Creator-Screenplay: Brad Wright. Director: Nick Hurran.

   It takes the full hour, but as the pilot episode for this series, it does exactly what it is supposed to do: Introduce both the players and the plot with just enough story to have we the viewer (me) anxious to see the next one.

   I can’t say that it’s a new idea (so I won’t), but you can tell me whether or not you’ve heard this one before: a group of travelers from a rather bleak future comes to our time and place to make some corrections. They do this by entering taking over their new hosts’ bodies at the time they would otherwise have died.

   I apologize if I’ve already told you more than you wanted to know. Me, I prefer going into a series totally cold and not having any idea what the whole story line is. At least I can’t tell you what’s going to happen next, what the team’s various missions are going to be, and for a very good reason: I have no idea.

   The series was on for three seasons, so at least more than few people found a reason to keep watching. This first episode was very stylishly done, with better than average acting on the part of all the participants. Each of the characters who have become hosts for the travelers is quite well drawn. In terms of the lighting and some of the locations, there are some elements of noir to the story. Not as much as in Blade Runner, say, but it’s there. Whether it continues, I do not know.

   

SPACE: 1999 “The Metamorph” ITC (UK); first run syndication (US). 04 September 1976 (Season 2, Episode 1).. Martin Landau (Commander John Koenig), Barbara Bain (Dr. Helena Russell), Tony Anholt, Nick Tate, Zienia Merton. Guest cast: Catherine Schell, Brian Blessed. Format creators: Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson. Writer: Johnny Byrne. Director: Charles Crichton.

   The premise of this series was laughable at best if you were to look at scientifically: an explosion on the Moon would be sufficient to throw it out of its orbit and head it traveling at apparent light speed out into outer space. (In reality such an explosion would have the Moon come crashing down on Earth or blow it up entirely.)

   But given enough suspension of disbelief, which I could at the time, and I still can now, this mean that the 300 plus inhabitants on the Moonbase there would have the trip and adventures of their lives. The special effects were both top notch and spectacular. The stories? Not so much.

   But truth be told, I enjoyed Space: 1999 more than I did Star Trek, which I often found boring and preachy. If it hadn’t been for Spock’s ears, the show would have gone nowhere. But I digress. Suffice it to say that the stories in Space:1999 were probably not as good as those as Star Trek’s, but while people may disagree with me on this, I found them a lot more fun.

   Case in point. In “The Metamorph,” the folks on the space traveling Moon are running out of titanium (if I remember correctly), and a what they think is a barren planet looks like a promising place to find some. Not so. The ruler of the underground civilization named Mentor – the ruler, not the planet – takes a survey crew captive, and plans to do the same to the rest of the crew. The reason? To suck the energy from their brains to feed his biological computer, which he plans to use to replenish his planet.

   It’s a close call, but everyone escapes, just in the nick of time, thanks to, .. Well, I guess I won’t tell you, but as a hint, one of the members of the guest cast above turns out to become a regular member of Moonbase Alpha for the rest of the second season. (There were only the two.)

   As I say, the story is weak. If you haven’t read and seen a version of it before, you probably haven’t read or watched a lot of sci-fi. But watching this last night brought a lot of good memories. All of a sudden I was a 30-something again.

   

PHILIP K. DICK’S ELECTRIC DREAMS “Real Life,” Channel 4, UK, 25 October 2017 (Episode 5). Amazon Prime, US, 2018 (currently streaming as episode 1). Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Rachelle Lefevre, Lara Pulver. Teleplay by Ronald D. Moore, loosely based on .the story “Exhibit Piece” by Philip K. Dick (If, August 1954). Director: Jeffrey Reiner.

   I have not researched this at all, but it’s quite possible (a hypothesis, then) that more of Philip K/ Dick’s work have been filmed for either movies or TV than any other SF writer. (Think Blade Runner as the most well known.) Not bad for a writer who pretty much only had a small cult following when he died in 1982, just as Blade Runner was about to be released.

   Electric Dreams was a 10-part anthology of Dick’s short stories as adapted for TV. One of his favorite themes in his early fiction was the question of what is real around us, and what is not. “Real Life” takes that idea and runs with it with considerable success, I think. A lesbian cop in the future with a flying car is wracked with guilt after being the survivor of the massacre of several of her colleagues. She’s advised to take a virtual reality “vacation” from her life…

   … and ends up in the body of a black billionaire who’s not only the head of huge tech company but also a vigilante by night, being dead set on revenging the death of his wife at the hands of …

   … the same master criminal he/she’s after back in the future. Not only in the quest for revenge the same in the two worlds, but so are many of the people and locations in each. The overridng question is, which of the two worlds in the real one?

   This is one of those stories, as televised, that starts off as confusing to the viewer as it is to the primary character in it, perhaps even more so, but when eventually the viewer begins to straighten him or herself out, the problem of which world is which still remains, to both the character and the viewer. I won’t tell you, of course, and that’s even assuming that I know even now, which I don’t. I really enjoyed this one.

   

COUNTERPART. “The Crossing.” Starz, 60 minutes. 10 December 2017 (season 1, episode 1).  J. K. Simmons (in a dual role), and a large ensemble cast, both primary and recurring. Created by and screenplay: Justin Marks. Director: Morten Tyldum,

   Shown on the premium channel Starz for two 10-episode seasons, the premise is both simple and complicated. The short description is that a parallel world to our has been secretly tapped into, and while much is the same in the two Earths, the paths for each have been rapidly diverging. The long version takes up the entirety of this, the entire pilot episode, without much of a direction of where the story is going to go from there.

   I’ve listed only J. K. Simmons as the star of the series, as the roles of everyone else revolve only around him. On our side he’s a downbeaten schlub for the company he works for, without no hope for promotion and not much idea what the company he works for actually does (which is tom monitor the point at which the two wolds meet). On the other side he’s the aggressive agent who’s been sent to our side to pave the way for – what exactly, the details will come later.

   As an actor, J. K. Simmos is a revelation. Just by body language alone, you know immediately which Howard Silk he is. It is an utter delight just to see him in action. I’m not a big fan of parallel worlds story lines such as this (I stopped watching Fringe when the emphasis changed from relationships between the characters on our side to uninteresting events happening on the other), but at the moment I’m OK with watching the next in this series, just to see where it’s going from here.

   

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