Lost Gems: A for Andromeda (1961)

Julie Christie in A for Andromeda

Odd though it seems, the late 1950s and early 60s was the prime time in TV history for intelligent sci-fi. America had The Twilight Zone, we’d already had all the Quatermass serials and various plays. Sci-fi was smart.

In fact, so smart was sci-fi that the Beeb turned to noted cosmologist Fred Hoyle and said, “How would you like to write us a TV show?” which he did. Surprisingly, it turned out to be pretty good.

A for Andromeda is now the kind of show that other shows and movies steal from. Look at Species. Look at Contact: they’re basically A for Andromeda at heart. The Earth gets a message from outer space that contains instructions on how to build a machine. With some reluctance, humanity does as it’s told and then begins to wonder if it was a good idea after all.

A for Andromeda‘s machine is a computer which then goes on to create life in the form of Julie Christie, who, it turns out, humanity really does need to worry about. Not much of the show survives, but what does remain is available on DVD. That still makes it a Lost Gem. Cue the weird old title sequence and one of the only remaining episodes.

“The Message”
Britain, 1970 – a new radio telescope, designed by the young scientists John Fleming (Peter Halliday) and Dennis Bridger (Frank Windsor) under the supervision of Professor Reinhart, has been built at Bouldershaw Fell. Shortly before its official opening, the telescope picks up a signal from the distant Andromeda Nebula. Examining the signal, Fleming realises that the signal is a computer program.

“The Machine”
Fleming is permitted to use the computer facilities at the London Institute of Electronics, where he is aided by Christine (Julie Christie). Using the computer to decode the message, Fleming realises that the message contains a set of instructions for the construction of another, more advanced, computer and for a program to run on it. Bridger, meanwhile, has sold out to an international conglomerate, Intel, represented by the sinister Kaufmann (John Hollis). The British government decides to build the computer – at a military establishment at Thorness in Scotland. The computer is switched on and begins to output its first set of instructions.

“The Miracle”
The team at Thorness is joined by the biologist Madeline Dawnay (Mary Morris). The computer is outputting instructions for the creation of living cells. Fleming becomes nervous, worried that whatever lifeform they are creating may not have humanity’s best interests at heart. Dawney proceeds with the experiment, however, synthesising a primitive protoplasmic lifeform. In the meantime, Bridger’s leaking of Thorness’ secrets has been discovered. Bridger is confronted by Ministry of Defence agent Judy Adamson (Patricia Kneale); fleeing he tumbles over a cliff to his death.

“The Monster”
It is now 1971 and the protoplasmic lifeform, now nicknamed “Cyclops” on account of its giant eye, continues to grow. Fleming has become ever more sceptical about the project, certain that the computer has its own agenda. He comes to realise that two terminals positioned either side of the computer’s main display have the ability to affect the brainwaves of those who stand near it. His warnings are not heeded, however, and Christine, mesmerised by Cyclops and by the machine, is compelled to grasp the two terminals – she falls to floor, killed by a massive electric shock.

“The Murderer”
Following Christine’s death, the computer outputs a new set of instructions – this time for the creation of a complete human embryo. Fleming is horrified and demands that it be killed. He is ignored. The embryo rapidly grows to maturity; everyone is stunned when it is revealed to be a clone of the deceased Christine. The creature – which they name “Andromeda” – quickly learns to communicate and is brought before the computer. The computer, realising its instructions have been carried out, destroys Cyclops as it has been superseded by Andromeda.

“The Face of the Tiger”
Andromeda is put to work developing a program to enable Britain to intercept orbital missiles which a foreign power is firing over British airspace as a demonstration of power. Using the missiles designed by Andromeda they are successful in destroying one of the missiles. The Government is now determined to make full use of Andromeda, not just for defence but also to aid industry. Fleming continues to make trouble and has his access to the computer revoked. He is horrified to discover that the Government has made a trade deal with Kaufmann and Intel for the rights to a new enzyme that Andromeda has developed that heals injured cells. By this stage, Dawnay is also beginning to have doubts about Andromeda – she agrees to aid Fleming by entering a program into the computer to convince it Andromeda is dead. The program is quickly discovered and reversed by Andromeda. However, the computer soon exacts its revenge – it corrupts the formula for the enzyme, making Dawnay and her assistants sick.

“The Last Mystery”
It is 1972 and the message from Andromeda has stopped transmitting. Fleming has been able to determine the correct formula to counteract the effects of the enzyme and save Dawnay. Fleming, Dawnay, Reinhart and Judy now agree that Andromeda must be stopped – however, the military now have control over the project. Andromeda tries to kill Fleming but fails; she confesses to Fleming that she is a slave of the computer which is working to take over humanity. Fleming gains entry to the computer room where he takes an axe to the machine, destroying it. Now free of the machine Andromeda is able to access the safe that contains the copies of the original message with the instructions for building the computer which she burns so that the machine cannot be rebuilt. She flees with Fleming to one of the islands near the base. Pursued by soldiers, they hide in a series of caves on the island. However, Andromeda is apparently killed when she falls into a deep pool. The dejected Fleming is brought back to Thorness by the soldiers.

Is it any good?
Of course, with so little remaining, you have to have been there to know for sure and memory does cheat.

For everyone else, following the remake, I’d have happily consigned this to the dustbin of history. The sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough, wasn’t much cop either, so that would have led me to think “A for Andromeda: surely that had to be pure, slow-moving arse”.

Yet following the NFT’s 2006 showing of the remaining episodes, I changed my mind because it really isn’t half bad (as you can probably tell from the YouTube vid). While a little slow-moving by modern standards A for Andromeda is actually intelligent and it has Julie Christie in it, which are a great combination.

It was certainly good enough to generate that sequel, in which Fleming and Andromeda (now played by Jane Asher) go on the run together, and to inspire both Contact and Species. Indeed, Italian TV station RAI made an Italian version called A come Andromeda in 1972, all of which does still exist on YouTube – here’s the first episode:

But I can’t tell for sure. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure it’s a Lost Gem.

PS Hmm. Maybe should have thought this one through a bit harder before writing it. Oh well. Just enjoy the vids.