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Set in 1970, a team of scientists decipher a mysterious signal from space and discover that it provides instructions to build a powerful super-computer. Once built, this computer provokes argument between two of leading team members, Fleming and Dawnay, over the machine's real intentions as it provides further instructions to create a living organism, which Dawnay starts to develop. Later it appears to compel lab assistant Christine to commit suicide, and when the organism is fully developed, it appears in the exact form of Christine, and named Andromeda. But what is the purpose of this "creature" ...? Written by
'A For Andromeda' (AFA) is renowned as one of the great science fiction series of the 1960's. Produced by the BBC in 1961 and co-written by revered and controversial scientist Fred Hoyle, the programme made a star of Julie Christie and also featured a superb performance from Peter Halliday as the scientist with a conscience, Dr John Fleming.
AFA is basically the story of the events following the receipt of a message transmitted from the Andromeda galaxy. The message, once decoded, gives instructions for building a massive and very advanced computer. Once built, it is clear that the computer is not a gift, it has its own agenda and after giving instructions on 'building' a giant eye, it then gives out some DNA coding which leads to the creation of a beautiful girl called 'Andromeda' (Christie). What makes this even more sinister is that she is a blonde replica of a brunette lab assistant who apparently committed suicide in the computer block....
What follows is a superb drama, and the interplay between Mary Morris' Professor Dawnay and Dr Fleming is something that is impossibly rare in modern science fiction - superb characterisation, superb dialogue, and genuine unease being built through the discussion of ideas alone. Is it good, is it evil, or is it just so far beyond our understanding that we can't hope to grasp what is happening? Dr Fleming, whose scientific curiosity was instrumental in its creation, cannot come to terms with what is happening and is burdened by guilt. The other side of the coin is Dawnay, who is driven by her scientific curiosity to see what will emerge, regardless of the outcome.
The story is complicated by the world situation. It is set in a near future where a large corporation called 'Intel' (spooky!) calls the tune and Britain is a minor power. The British hope is that the computer will help to increase their position in the game of world politics.
The story has often been criticised by devotees of the 'Quatermass' school of science fiction for being too slow and wordy, but this is a sad comment on the critics rather than a valid flaw in the series. AFA is not just a 'sci-fi' story - it deals with many concepts and ideas, as well as the basic human struggle of everyday survival. We don't even know if the enemy is an enemy - it is a story of ideas and suggestion, and such it is superb. If you want to know how good it is, just compare it with two recent films that have blatantly stolen its initial premise - 'Species' and 'Contact'. I rest my case!
Sadly, like so much TV produced by the BBC in the 1950's, 1960's and early 1970's, it doesn't exist anymore, having been wiped. There are some extracts remaining, mainly filmed inserts and the last 15 minutes or so of the final episode. There are also rumours of an episode existing in the hands of a private collector, but this has yet to be confirmed. It is a terrible loss, for which the BBC can have no valid excuse, but for them it is just one of many.
However, the series was remade in Italy in 1971, as 'A Come Andromeda', so it is possible to see it and visualise what went on, even if you don't speak Italian. And, perhaps more importantly, the series writers Fred Hoyle and John Elliott turned out a novel that is a superb work in its own right, and is a worthy substitute for the series itself. Combine the Italian series and the book and you might at least feel you have gained a glimpse into what was a ground-breaking and superb series.
The story doesn't end here, however. What is less well known is that there was a sequel, 'The Andromeda Breakthrough'. This featured the same cast, with the exception of Julie Christie, who, for whatever reason, was replaced by Susan Hampshire. This series does exist in its entirety in the BBC's vaults, but they seem unwilling to release it, which is a shame because it is a seamless and logical progression of the original story, leading to a revealing and satisfying conclusion. There is also a Hoyle and Elliott novel of this story, which is every bit as good as AFA, so if you can't get to see the series, then the book is, again, a worthy substitute.
In summary, AFA was epoch-breaking television, the like of which has rarely been seen since, and also features one of the most under-rated and underused actors of the late 20th century - Peter Halliday, whose performance as Dr John Fleming is not only superb, but is perhaps a defining role in science fiction.
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