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A for Andromeda (1961)
A for Andromeda

This is the first part of my review of the BBC's DVD box set The Andromeda Anthology .

Recently, the BBC realised that there was enough interest in their archive material for there to be mileage in publishing DVD sets of old black and white and often incomplete material other than Doctor Who. The first of these box sets collected all that was left of the three Quatermass serials, and this one does the same for A for Andromeda (1961) and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough (1962). At the time they started to put this together this was even braver of them, because all that was left of A for Andromeda was half a dozen shortish clips amounting to perhaps half an hour out of seven 45 minute episodes. However, they were in luck, because a full single episode (#6 The Face of the Tiger) came to light recently, was negotiated back into BBC hands, and has scrubbed up very well indeed. They had another piece of luck in that a large number of telepics (which the BBC has decided to call telesnaps, apparently for no reason other than to be different from fandom) had been made at the time, and were also available.

So what they do is tell the story using captioned telepics, and slotting in what clips they have, as well as the sixth episode, in their correct order. (The scripts themselves are also available as PDF files, and we intend to run through the whole shebang again with the scripts on our laps.) This works surprising well, at least for the fan. We watched the whole of A for Andromeda in this way last night, and did not get bored for an instant. The captions are not on screen for too long – indeed, they may whiz by too quickly for slow readers or those not used to reading subtitles. They are stripped to the bone, and but they do tell the story with all the characters (it's a big cast) and detail the twist and turns of the very snaky plot.

As it happens, The Face of the Tiger is a key episode, and the other long piece of film that survives is the ending, which definitely helps. It may be that a good memory helps too. While there were things I had forgotten, my memory of key points and characters was pretty accurate.

What also survives is my opinion that this was a great piece of TV, and that the recent short remake was totally botched. One of the reasons for this, I can now see quite clearly, was that the makers of said remake misunderstood the nature of the beast. A for Andromeda is, indeed, science fiction, with one of the few original (then) ideas ever used on TV SF at its heart. However, like all good SF it is about a lot of other things too, and in this case, about the consequences of experiment and of scientific curiosity, and, above all, about the politics (internal, governmental, commercial) of scientific breakthroughs. Today, it would be marketed as a techno thriller, rather like Paul Mcauley's White Devils - SF at its core, but designed to appeal to people who don't like SF. It's got spies in it, and a commercial combine up to no good. It has about twenty major characters, who include the Prime Minister and various other members of the Cabinet. It has missiles over flying the UK as a threat. It has conflicts about computer time. It has people getting killed and shot at. One of the heroines (there are half a dozen strong female characters) is a government agent, and so on.

The remake stripped the story not only to the basic SF plot – it then proceeded to strip out elements of that basic plot to make a narrative that, to put it bluntly, wasn't strong enough to last the 90 minutes of the remake. The pacing of the original was 60s TV pacing – slower than we would expect nowadays, and much more wordy. However, the complex and flawed hero of the original, John Fleming, did not sit around staring silently at a spinning disco ball for what feel like desperately dull half hours – he didn't have time – but his modern incarnation did! (Yes, I know they were probably only a couple of minutes, but they felt like half hours, which is my point.)

Unlike the modern remake, where the setting was a military radar station (and started with a ludicrous rock climbing sequence), the original starts with the opening in 1970, of a new and highly advanced radio telescope. This makes the reception of an extra-terrestrial signal a lot more likely. Once a physicist – Fleming – realises that the signal contains instructions, in binary, for building and programming a computer (built with our technology and looking just like you'd expect a 60s – and even early 70s – computer to look) the action is transferred to a military computer centre. Likewise, when the computer produces biological information, they call in a biologist (Madeline Dawnay). This is a lot more logical than the idea that the necessary scientific expertise would be sitting around in a radar station, however advanced. Or that the experiments would be allowed to continue there.

One thing in the orignal that could have been dispensed with as destroying tension and holding up the action are the framing sequences, where the chief scientist working the radio telescope is interviewed some time later. However, it was characteristic of the time.

Also characteristic of the time are the low-key FX – not that they need much – and badly choreographed action sequences. Kaufman and his chauffeur Egon, the representatives of the mysterious Intel Corporation are over-the-top heavies, in a plot strand left hanging, though it will become more important in Breakthrough. (There was always meant to be a sequel.) Some of the proto-technobabble was plainly not written by Hoyle, or, if it was, he failed to consult colleagues in the biological sciences. However, there isn't a lot of it and most of the science makes sense. Trains arriving at station somewhere "north of Skye" do not, though.

It is, however, in the writing and the acting that A for Andromeda shines. Apart from Kaufman and Egon, and possibly some of the politicians, the characters are well developed and far from stock figures. They are all in shades of grey rather than right or wrong, black or white. Julie Christie does sterling work in her double role of Christine and Andromeda even though her wig is fairly obvious as the latter, where she embodies threat and vulnerability, intelligence and naivety. Fleming (Peter Halliday), the emotional heart of the story, is irritating and admirable and reckless and stubborn by turns. Madeleine Dawnay (Mary Morris), the biologist brought in to interpret the computers later offerings is intelligent, prickly, edgy and single-minded and, at the last, compassionate and courageous. The security agent, Judy Adamson (Patricia Neale) is conflicted but efficient. Esmonde Knight adds necessary gravitas as Professor Reinhart. Even the military are, on the whole, reasonable – and some people even change their minds when confronted with evidence. It makes a change.

Did I love it? Of course. Would I recommend it? Well, with so little left it isn't exactly something for the casual viewer. But if you saw it first time round? If you saw the recent remake and couldn't understand what the fuss was about? If you are interested in the history of television in general or SF on television in particular? Then yes.
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