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"Hercules in Space" actually worked out much better than anyone anticipated…
Andromeda—AKA Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda—debuted in syndication back in 2000, the second production spearheaded by Gene's widow Majel Barett Roddenberry (after Earth: Final Conflict). Andromeda is based on an original premise developed by Roddenberry back in his immediate post-Star Trek phase. It's a theme that Roddenberry explored more than once: one man's fight to restore civilization in a universe that has fallen into chaos.
In Andromeda, that man is Captain Dylan Hunt (Kevin Sorbo, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys). But by Season Four, Hunt's quest to restore civilization has been fulfilled. There's little else for a former High Guard Captain to do but wander around the universe and fight evil. Season Four was the show's last season as a pure syndicated series (it thereafter moved to the SciFi channel), and its first without actor Keith Hamilton Cobb (All My Children), who had returned to his soap opera roots by assuming the role of Damon Porter on The Young and Restless. Unfortunately, Cobb's departure seems to have been a blow from which the show has yet to recover—Season Four is a meandering conglomerate of loosely-connected stories that lacks the fun and panache of Andromeda's early years. And yet, it's still better than a lot of action-oriented TV today, and definitely worth a bit of attention.
Facts of the Case
Andromeda is set far, far in the future—roughly 3000 years from now, as a matter of fact. For nearly ten thousand years, the Systems Commonwealth, a peaceful confederation of thousands of inhabited worlds spread across three galaxies, had been the predominant force for civilization, justice, and peace. Traveling the vast distances between worlds was easy, thanks to "slipstream" drive systems, which exploit quantum super-dimensional "cords" between large, massive objects to allow a ship to surf its way across vast distances.
But the Commonwealth's power, while lasting, proved to be finite. A race of genetically-engineered superhumans, the Nietzscheans (whose moral and ethical codes are based on the works of—you guessed it—Friederich Nietzsche), launched a sneak attack on the Commonwealth. (They were angered because the Commonwealth had cut a deal with a dangerous race called the Magog.) They failed in their attempt to take over the Commonwealth; instead, they caused its collapse, leading to an intergalactic Dark Age.
Right at the onset of the Nietzschean civil war, a High Guard Glorious Heritage starship named the Andromeda Ascendant (commanding officer: Capt. Dylan Hunt) fell victim to a Nietzschean attack, and was crippled. Hunt managed to keep the Andromeda together long enough for his crew to abandon her, but thanks to the betrayal by his First Officer, a Nietzschean named Gaheris Rhade, Hunt is unable to save the ship, which falls into the gravity well of a black hole.
Three hundred years later, the Commonwealth is a distant memory, but the Andromeda Ascendant is still stuck in that black hole. At least until the crew of a small space-tramp-steamer, the Eureka Maru, discover it and manage to dislodge it from the black hole's gravitational influence. To their surprise, they discover someone alive on board—Dylan Hunt, the captain of the ship. For Hunt, mere seconds have passed since the ship fell into the black hole's orbit, thanks to relativistic time dilation effects. But in those perceived seconds his entire world has completely disappeared.
Hunt sees the chaos and suffering that the former Commonwealth members are now enduring, and decides he has to do something about it. The solution is clear to him—he should strive to re-form the Commonwealth. Within a couple of episodes, his new skeleton crew is formed, consisting primarily of the salvage crew from the Eureka Maru. The Maru's captain, Beka Valentine (Lisa Ryder, Forever Knight), becomes Hunt's de facto new First Officer. Her engineer, an immature whiz kid named Seamus Zelazny Harper (Gordon Michael Woolvett, Mission Genesis), helps fix up the Andromeda. After leading a mercenary attack sponsored by the fellow who had originally paid Valentine to salvage Andromeda, an outcast Nietzschean named Tyr Anasazi (Cobb) decides instead to join up with Hunt, whose zealous belief in his cause seems to amuse him. Another mercenary, a cute little purple girl named Trance Gemini (Laura Bertram), joins the crew as well. Rounding out the motley bunch is a Magog named Behemial (Brett Stait, Mystery, Alaska), whose bestial nature has been tamed by his devotion to a religion known as "Wayism," for which he is a minister—hence his nickname "Rev Bem."
Then there's the Andromeda herself—she's an artificially intelligent ship with an immense computing capacity and a relatively full capacity for emotion. Before long, Harper manages to re-create the android "ship's avatar" for Andromeda (Lexa Doig, Jason X), who becomes a valued part of the crew, and who is affectionately nicknamed "Rommie."
(Spoiler alert—spoilers for the first three seasons of Andromeda follow!)
Season One began with the discovery of the Andromeda, and Hunt's decision to fight for the revival of the Systems Commonwealth. The remainder of Season One followed the trials and tribulations of Hunt's quest to sign up worlds for his new Systems Commonwealth. At the end of the season, a bit of a problem with a backup copy of Rommie's personality file leads the Andromeda straight into the middle of Magog territory, where they discover a massive contraption headed directly for known space: a "world ship" chock-full of trillions of hungry, feral Magog. The Magog are being led by a mysterious dark power called the Spirit of the Abyss, their God and Creator.
Season Two began by dealing with Dylan's dual attempt to (a) reform the Commonwealth and (b) warn the peaceful people of the three galaxies about the impending Magog invasion. Meanwhile, Harper has to deal with the fact that he was captured and implanted with Magog larvae on the World Ship, which is a guaranteed death sentence for him.
Halfway through the season—specifically, as of the episode "Ouroboros"—the show went through a sea change behind the scenes. Co-creator Robert Hewett Wolfe was sacked by the show's syndication producer, Tribune Entertainment, because they didn't like the direction he was taking the show. They wanted something less arc-structured; a show that viewers could pick up midstream without becoming confused. (In other words, a show like, oh, I don't know…Star Trek?)
Some significant changes took place on the show as well. Trance went from being a child-like purple girl to a more serious, more mature amber-colored woman (this was explained as being Trance's "future self"). Rev Bem decided that his experience on the World Ship with his people had caused a crisis of faith, and left the crew to do some soul searching. (Actually, actor Brent Stait just couldn't handle the makeup required for the Rev Bem character any longer—it was causing allergic skin reactions—and asked to be written out of the show.) Harper was also cured of his Magog problem.
The second half of Season Two consisted primarily of stand-alone episodes that didn't advance any of the Commonwealth or Magog storylines. The season ended with the formation of a new Commonwealth, and the disappearance of Tyr and Beka.
Season Three brought a new creative direction to the show, thanks to new producer/head writer Bob Engels (Twin Peaks, SeaQuest DSV). The season was also primarily stand-alone episodes, but with a subtle arc built in concerning Tyr's quest to restore the power of his almost-extinct Nietzschean clan by claiming the remains of the original Nietzschean "progenitor" Drago Musevini. The season ended with Tyr's machinations to use a Nietzschean uprising against the new Commonwealth to consolidate his own power, betraying the crew of the Andromeda in the process. As the season ends, the new Commonwealth appears to have been fractured to pieces by civil war, bringing a premature end to Dylan's dream.
Which brings us to Season Four…
This first DVD collection of Andromeda's fourth season contains the first five episodes of the season, in their broadcast order:
• "Answers Given to Questions Never Asked"
• "Pieces of Eight"
• "Waking the Tyrant's Device"
• "Double or Nothingness"
I had never watched a single episode of Andromeda—ever—prior to receiving this disc for review. I was a complete novice with respect to the show; in fact, I was only dimly aware (thanks mainly to commercials on the SciFi Channel) that it even existed. But, as you can probably tell by now, I've taken a bit of a shine to this little show. It's not the greatest science fiction series ever made, but it's highly entertaining and has a lot of good, plain fun in it.
Unfortunately, the show's greatest moments were in its first two seasons. The change in creative direction after the mid-Season Two removal of Robert Hewett Wolfe was fairly dramatic, and not necessarily for the better. The Robert Engels era shows (Season Three and beyond) are, as Tribute wanted, a bit more accessible to a novice fan like myself, mainly because they're essentially all self-contained stories. But the show lost something when Roddenberry's original vision—that of one man fighting a lone battle to rescue civilization—was given less story emphasis.
This show had a lot going for it in its first two seasons—a truly great evil race, the Magog (they're a breed of intelligent pack animal that keeps its prey alive to serve as hosts for its offspring, like the aliens in Alien, and there are a gazillion of them); a charismatic lead actor in Kevin Sorbo; strong supporting characters in Beka and Tyr. Heck, even Harper—who can be a bit grating—grew on me after a while. And the babeage is outstanding. If you're a straight human male and you don't find Lexa Doig attractive, well, you're brain damaged. It's as simple as that.
But this mixed bag of Season Four episodes shows what has become the Andromeda's greatest problem: inconsistency. And it isn't a problem that started with this season—it's been a hallmark of the Engels era. There are fantastically crafted stories like "Harper/Delete," with its intricate clockwork of a plotline; but there are also dull and forced stories like "Double or Nothingness," which falls flat at every turn, or completely confusing stories like the season opener. (I've now researched the complete run of the show to date—and I still don't know what the heck's going on in that episode.) It's a crapshoot—there's just no pattern or consistency in the quality of the writing from episode to episode.
It's also clear how much Keith Hamilton Cobb is missed on this show. The original character group was…well, it was classic Roddenberry, which means it there was almost a 1:1 parallel to Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation in terms of the roles each character served. Dylan = Picard/Kirk; Rommie = Data/Spock; Tyr = Worf; Beka = Riker/McCoy; Trance = Troi; Harper = Geordi/Scotty. Only Rev Bem was a truly original character—which makes sense, since ST:TNG generally sidestepped the concept of religion (except in episode-specific contexts). But the core triangle here—Dylan, Tyr, and Beka—were integrated more closely than the loose ensemble on ST:TNG. From a dramatic standpoint, the three balanced each other almost perfectly, like the three branches of government. Hunt is strongly idealistic, sometimes to the point of being blinded to, or willfully ignorant of, reality. Beka is a realist, but that realism is tempered by both her own self-interest and her sympathy for Dylan's idealistic goals, which often pulls her in completely opposite directions. Tyr is utterly self-interested, but also has his own peculiar brand of idealism that led to his otherwise inexplicable alliance with Dylan and Beka. The intricate checks and balances contained in this tripartite relationship was a rich source of potential plot elements; one the writers used extensively, especially toward the end of Season Three.
But then, thanks to the uncertainty that always surrounded the show between seasons, Cobb made his decision to return to the soap world. And Tyr was gone. Here, in Season Four, that triangle has become a line—an entire dimension to the show has been lost. Sorbo and Ryder still hold up their end of the bargain, but they lack the yang off of which they can play their respective yins. Tyr was a strong and serious character with oodles of screen presence on a show that deliberately took itself a bit less seriously than is typical in the genre. Losing that bedrock character was a great loss for the show, and only added to the sense of being adrift already triggered by the inconsistent writing.
(Note that a replacement for Tyr was brought in after these episodes—but that will be discussed in the review of the next collection of Season Four episodes…)
On the other hand, the show has just a really terrific cast. Sorbo has consistently shown me that he's more than just an aging male model thrown in front of a camera—he's one of the few legitimate "hero"-types working today. (R.I.P, Chris Reeve…) He's charismatic, eminently likeable, and clearly doesn't take himself too seriously. Yet he still manages to be believable in the role of a leader of men; a person people would willingly jeopardize or sacrifice their lives for. Yes, there is a bit of the tongue-in-cheek feel of Hercules here—but Sorbo knows when to avoid that when it's in the interest of dramatic quality to do so.
The remainder of the cast—all Canadians—have grown into their roles quite nicely. Lisa Ryder is highly underrated. Beka Valentine has been an interesting and well-acted character throughout the entire series, and this set of episodes is no different. Woolvett (as Harper) has some very specific mannerisms that, as mentioned above, can get a bit grating. But he's consistently that way, which makes those mannerisms just a part of the character, rather than a flaw in the actor's performance. Doig, besides being drop-dead gorgeous (I really can't understate that…), turns in a quirky and often funny performance as the artificial-yet-human ship/avatar. Laura Bertram (who seems very sweet and nice in her interview, included as an extra) does a respectable job as Trance…but the old purple Trance was much more fun and interesting than the Mark II Golden Trance. Bertram as Purple Trance was outstanding—ever since the change, she's been merely pretty good.
There are also the dim outlines of a season-long story arc in these five episodes; an arc concerning political backstabbing and betrayal among the Commonwealth's leadership—machinations that may force Dylan to choose an alignment with one Triumvir in opposition to the others. But at this point, it's all very hazy and indistinct.
The shows are presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen format, which generally looks very good. Several extras are included. Besides the aforementioned interview with Laura Bertram, which runs about half an hour, there's a Kevin Sorbo blooper reel, a set of deleted scenes from the episodes (none of which are essential, but some of which add a bit of extra detail to the stories), and a behind-the-scenes documentary on the show's visual effects. There's also a small gallery of costume design sketches, and copies of the promo commercials for these episodes. What's missing? Commentaries. There aren't any. Still, ADV did a decent job putting together some extras here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I had major issues with the audio tracks on these episodes. The shows are presented in Dolby 2.0 Stereo—but I found the tracks to be poorly mixed. When played in stereo, dialogue was difficult to understand; the mix tends to bury voices within the sound effects and music. This is the first TV show on DVD where I'd have to say that the Pro Logic broadcast mix you hear on SciFi is much better than the DVD audio. And that's a shame.
But really, the biggest negative for this set is the absolutely ridiculous price point at which ADV issues these discs. Most of these Andromeda sets contain four episodes; this one has five. But when you average it all out, the cost per episode of Andromeda on DVD is nearly $10. Ten bucks an episode! To put this into context—at that price point, the full set of Star Trek: The Next Generation would cost close to $2000. Gunsmoke would cost more than land in Beverly Hills. Meet The Press? The annual GDP of Belgium. My point is this: Andromeda is a niche show, and niche shows tend to be expensive on DVD. But $40 for a four- or five-episode set is simply price gouging.
As much as I have come to enjoy Andromeda, I simply can't recommend this particular set for purchase. The episodes are just too uneven. But more importantly, I can't recommend the purchase of any television show at the cost of $10 per episode. For the price of a little patience and a $6 videotape, you can get all five of these episodes about two months from now, when they appear in the rotation of daily Andromeda episodes on SciFi. Given that, I frankly can't think of any reason that would lead someone to purchase this set at this price.
But don't get me wrong—Andromeda the show is worth watching if you're a fan of fun, action-filled science fiction. The Scales of Justice presented here reflect only the show's quality, not the set's price. It's just a shame that this isn't a viable vehicle to introduce more people to the show. It really is a lot of fun at times.
The cast and crew of Andromeda are sentenced to one season's probation—but only if they bring back Purple Trance. ADV is sentenced to hard time in the debtor's prison to which they seem intent on sending fans of Andromeda—and Farscape, for that matter. Boo!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• Meet the Cast: Laura Bertram (Trance)
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