When you talk about lost BBC science fiction shows, most people think about all the missing Dr. Who episodes.
While I regret their loss as much as the average (Classic) Whovian (and would particularly love to see far more of Patrick Troughton’s run!), there are other programs whose loss I regret as much — or perhaps even more.
The most obvious are the four missing episodes of Nigel Kneale’s legendary The Quatermass Experiment (which, sadly, due to a meddlesome fly wandering onto the screen of the kinescope recording part 2, were probably never saved). But almost as great a loss was the remarkable 1961 serial, A for Andromeda.
Written by Astrophysicist and SF writer Sir Fred Hoyle, it was the Beeb’s first adult SF serial since Quatermass and the Pit, and it offered viewers a dizzying blend of bleeding edge scientific speculation and some very strange and clever story ideas. It was moderately successful — so much so that they made a (somewhat inferior) sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough — and Hammer films at one point planned to make a movie version.
So it comes as a shock that, as was their practice at the time for shows that were recorded on videotape, the BBC taped over this landmark story. Only fragments remain, including a complete copy of episode six (of seven). And yet the sequel survived unscathed – as did an Italian remake.
So, when BBC 4, in the wake of the success of the new Christopher Eccleston Doctor Who decided to try its hand at making new SF dramas, it came as little surprise that their second effort was a remake of the legendary serial (a year later, they would add a third and final effort, Random Quest, based on the John Wyndham story).
In many respects, it seems to have many of the same problems that plagued their Quatermass remake the year before: they compressed seven forty-five minute episodes into an hour and a half, and there are a lot of elements that just feel underdeveloped or even rushed. For example, the brief reference to the espionage subplot of the original (now apparently carried out by the Americans instead of a big corporation) only seems to be in there to explain the death of a major character. It never gets referred to again.
Once again, the new version has been limited to a single set of locations, which makes some of the developments seem rather unlikely. How many radio telescopes — even one where they’re currently in the middle of an amazing computer research program — just happen to have a biologist and all the supplies she needs to create life in a test tube on hand?
Still, there’s a lot to like here. We’ve got a dense, intelligent SF drama, built around an intriguing set of ideas — even if the movie Species, ahem, “borrowed” the most totally outrageous idea, the notion of a signal from another star system carrying the instructions for building a living being designed to eliminate us. Okay, this one plans to do it with brains and superior technology, but, hey, you don’t need H.R. Giger to design that monster. We’ve got a very young Tom Hardy and an even younger Charlie Cox, a decade away from Daredevil. Kelly Reilly manages to make her two parts, the ill-fated Christine and her alien copy, Andromeda, very different, although I’m sure the makeup helps.
I’ll admit I miss Mary Morris who played Dawnay in the original. She was perhaps the most formidable of the many Number Twos in The Prisoner, and the remake could really have used her strong screen presence and her decidedly non-Hollywood looks.
I have to give them credit for the design of the alien supercomputer, with its hollow sphere of circles and the intense light inside. It sure doesn’t look like anything that Bill Gates would have dreamed up, but of course, that’s the point. However, I don’t think the scene where Andromeda is revealed really works as well as it should: the idea that they can’t quite make out what they’ve grown in the box until they open it up is hard to buy (I have a sneaking suspicion that the blobby “cyclops” creature the computer creates first in the original serial may have inspired the thing in the glass box in the Who episode, The Terror of the Autons).
In our day and age, however, it is always welcome to see a story that emphasizes the problems caused by giving in to a sudden burst of passion — and which also suggests a something romantic to the relationship between Andromeda and a main character later in the story without having to resort to mere physical expression.
On the whole I liked this one, despite its flaws. It would have been far better had they made a six or seven part serial instead and kept more of the complexity of the original. But I’d say that about the Quatermass remake as well. A lot of people will find this one rather slow, I suspect, particularly if you don’t find the science or the ideas as interesting as I do. But then, that’s probably why it is hard to find intelligent SF these days, whether in the movies or on TV.
Certainly, it is worth a look for anyone who loves the various versions of Quatermass and the strain of dark and unsettling SF that shows up in many of the British genre films of the era. I suspect that there are a few Whovians out there who will find it worth a look as well.
Although those who love the new series will probably think this one is too slow.
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