Science fiction on British television dates back to 1938 (a half-hour production of Karel Capek’s R.U.R., the 1922 play which brought the word “robot” into the language). But prior to Doctor Who in 1963, two landmarks of British TV SF loom. The first were Nigel Kneale’s trio of six-part Quatermass serials, broadcast between 1953 and 1959. The second was the seven-part A for Andromeda from 1961 and its six-part sequel of the following year, The Andromeda Breakthrough.
Both serials were written by Fred Hoyle (a distinguished astronomer best known for the “steady-state” theory of cosmology and also an author of SF novels beginning with one of his best, 1957’s The Black Cloud) and longstanding TV scriptwriter and producer John Elliot. For some reason, A for Andromeda seems less highly regarded than the Quatermass serials and is mainly notable for introducing Julie Christie to the world. The Andromeda Breakthrough tends to be thought of as a worthy but rather dull follow-up. Critics at the time were sniffy at this mix of SF and spy-thriller conventions, but it was hugely successful with the public. 13 million people watched the final episode, two million more than had seen the finale of Quatermass and the Pit, and many people who were there at the time have vivid memories of it to this day. Its influence can be seen in such otherwise dissimilar films as Contact and Species. A proper appreciation is bedevilled by the fact that so little of A for Andromeda still exists. We have the scripts, Hoyle and Elliott’s novelisation, a collection of telesnaps, some small clips, but until very recently, that was it. The existence of an copy of an entire episode in private hands had been rumoured for years, but it was not until 2006 that it was returned to the BBC, which presumably made this DVD release viable. Fortunately, The Andromeda Breakthrough survives in its entirety.
A for Andromeda is told in flashback, each episode beginning with Professor Reinhart (Esmond Knight) remembering the main events, which take place in the then near future of 1970. A team of scientists, among them Dr John Fleming (Peter Halliday), pick up a radio signal which seems to come from the Andromeda Galaxy. The signal is deciphered and found to contain instructions for building a supercomputer. But it soon becomes clear that it has an agenda of its own, not least when it uses the DNA of lab technician Christine (Julie Christie), who has apparently killed herself, to create a humanoid being, known as Andromeda.
Various plot complications follow, including an attempt to steal the data by Dennis Bridger (Frank Windsor) to the shady Intel Corporation fronted by Kaufman (John Hollis), leading up to a climax at Thorness Base in the Hebrides.
The Andromeda Breakthrough dispenses with the Reinhart flashbacks, but it follows immediately on where A for Andromeda left off, though sufficient information is given in the opening episode to bring the viewer up to speed. The two serials are so intimately linked that they form one continuous story. Fleming, Andromeda (now played by Susan Hampshire) and Professor Madeleine Dawnay (Mary Morris) are kidnapped and taken to the Middle-Eastern state of Azaran (with the help of some location shooting in Cyprus). It seems that Bridger did succeed in selling the data and a second supercomputer has been made. Meanwhile, outbreaks of severe weather point to a bacterium designed by the computer and Andromeda and accidentally poured down the sink by Dawnay, which threaten the end of life on the planet.
Compared to Nigel Kneale’s bias towards the gothic and horrific, Hoyle and Elliott’s storylines cleaves to the more rational end of SF. By any standard, it relies heavily on dialogue rather than special effects to drive its ideas – is Andromeda good, or evil, or something we simply cannot comprehend? It’s certainly a talky piece, but the talk is literate, not to mention literarily allusive, and worth listening to, and it pays off with greater character involvement (and stronger acting) than you often see in the genre. Both serials are ahead of their time, especially in their depiction of women in a working environment: Mary Morris’s Professor Dawnay is every bit the equal, if not the superior, scientist to Fleming. As with any long serial, it’s best to watch it the way it was designed to be, one or maybe two parts at a time, rather than attempting to take it all in one marathon sitting. That way, if you can adjust to the pace, you may well find yourself gripped. The Andromeda Breakthrough is an underrated follow-up. It’s such a shame that we cannot really appreciate its predecessor as we might like. We can of course read the novel, or watch the faithful Italian remake of 1972, or the BBC’s own 2006 remake, but none of those are the same thing. Nor sadly, is the reconstruction with telesnaps and clips which is available on this DVD, but short of a miracle find it’s the best we will ever have.
2 Entertain’s release of The Andromeda Anthology is, as usual for their releases, encoded for Regions 2 and 4. It comprises three discs, the first and last dual-layered, the second single-layered.
Disc One contains a reconstruction of A for Andromeda. This is made up mostly of telesnaps from the collection of director Michael Hayes. (Telesnaps were still photographs taken by John Cura of the TV screen, which for many programmes including this one are the only surviving visual record). As there is no off-air sound recording known, these telesnaps are set to mood music. Captions explain action and dialogue and cover a few scenes where no telesnap was taken. Included in the reconstruction are the following clips, in sequence: “Opening Titles” (0:54), “The Message” (0:24) from Episode 1, from Episode 2, “Christine at the Computer” (0:17), “Bridger Sells Out” (5:19), “Fleming and Judy Discover the Body” (0:25), “The Team at Work and Cliff-Top Sniper” (1:40), “Reinhart and Judy Greet the Helicopter” (1:00). The next live-action segment is the recovered Episode 6, “The Face of the Tiger” (43:07). From the final episode we have “Andromeda Contemplates Her Orders” (0:13) and “The Finale” (14:52). The entire reconstruction runs 147:17 with twenty-four chapter stops. Six of these belong to “The Face of the Tiger”, while the others allow you to skip forward to the episode breaks and the next extract.
The Andromeda Breakthrough takes up the other two discs. For some reason the six episodes aren’t split three and three, but two and four. Disc Two contains “Cold Front” (44:09) and “Gale Warning” (42:39), while Disc Three has “Azaran Forecast” (44:59), “Storm Centres” (42:44), “Hurricane” (41:40) and “The Roman Peace” (47:38). Both discs have Play All options.
Both serials were shot in a combination of 405-line black and white videotape for interiors and 16mm film for exteriors. Needless to say, given its sub-SD origins, this will never be state of the art, and the DVD transfer is as good as it probably will ever look. The sound is the original mono, cleaned up for this release and it serves its purpose well enough. Dialogue is always clear and audible. The hard-of-hearing subtitles are accurate on the whole, but I did spot one mistake: Kaufman’s line “She is nothing” is rendered as “She is nursing”. (Read it in a heavy German accent.)
All the extras are on Disc One. Commentaries are available on “Bridger Sells Out”, “The Face of the Tiger” and “The Finale”. The first chat is between Frank Windsor and Michael Hayes, and doesn’t say much in its five minutes – mostly they talk about how young Windsor looks and talk about John Hollis’s striking bald head, and how much more work as an actor he had after shaving it. The remaining two commentaries feature Michael Hayes and Peter Halliday. These are cosy, friendly chat sessions from two men who have clearly not seen this material in very many years and their memories are inevitably patchy. A moderator, as on some of the older Doctor Who stories on DVD, might well have had better results. There is no commentary on any of The Andromeda Breakthrough which seems a missed opportunity, even for just one episode.
The other extras include a short extract (1:40) from a 1961 edition of Points of View, presented by a Robert Robinson who seems spookily no younger than he was a decade and a half later, when I used to watch him presenting Ask the Family and Call My Bluff. This was the programme where the clip “The Message” was found, and here it is again, accompanied by viewers’ letters read out by Robinson, plus comment from a Gerry Anderson-style Mickey the Martian.
The featurette “Andromeda Memories” (34:36) has an obvious problem in that many of the key personnel on either side of the camera are dead. That includes both writers, but Patrick Moore is on hand to talk about his friend Fred Hoyle with the help of some archive footage. Of those who are still alive, the major absentee is Julie Christie. However, Hayes, Halliday, Patricia Kneale, Susan Hampshire and Frank Windsor are on hand to give a fond though not entirely uncritical look back. It’s pleasant but not the most essential of such featurettes.
The remaining extras are a stills gallery (rather cutely called “P is for Photo Gallery”, 9:43), which covers both serials. For those with DVD-ROM facilities, the shooting scripts of all seven parts of A for Andromeda are available as PDF files. Also available are cuttings from Radio Times for both serials, including brief articles and readers’ letters.
Given how many vintage programmes no longer exist at all, we should be lucky that some of this groundbreaking serial does remain. This DVD set is valuable for including The Andromeda Breakthrough as well, a sequel that has been difficult to see before now, and is certainly worthy of reappraisal.