Preview: The Andromeda Strain (mini-series)

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

In the US: Memorial Day, 9pm/8c, A&E
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Didn’t I say you should own this a while ago? Oh wait it’s a remake. A mini-series in fact. Let’s start again then.

Michael Jurassic Park/Westworld/Disclosure/Rising Sun Crichton’s first novel was The Andromeda Strain, a scary little book that asked the question "What if an alien virus that was absolutely virulent and lethal came to Earth? What would it be like and how would we deal with it?" After becoming a bestseller, it got turned into a rather excellent movie (which you should own) back in the early 70s.

So do we need a remake? Interesting question, too. Before watching this two-part mini-series, I’d have said no, even if it is "presented by" Tony and Ridley Scott, especially since it’s showing on A&E, which hasn’t done much decent for about a decade.

But you know what? It’s not half bad. It’s different in a lot of ways. It’s better in a lot of ways, too. But is it the best Andromeda Strain so far?

A U.S. satellite crash-lands near a small town in Utah, unleashing a deadly plague that kills virtually everyone except two survivors, who may provide clues to immunizing the population. As the military attempts to quarantine the area, a team of highly specialized scientists is assembled to find a cure and stop the spread of the alien pathogen, code-named Andromeda.

Is it any good?
This is where I was surprised. At first, I thought it was going to be a typical piece of dumbing down. The Andromeda Strain was, as mentioned earlier, one of the most scientific of science fiction movies, almost glorying in science for science’s sake. It had no pretty faces, no massive explosions, just a load of scary ideas depicted on a cold, technical stage, with some wonderfully claustrophic music by Gil Mellé.

And at first glance, we got none of that. We get a load of pretty faces, including Benjamin Bratt (Miss Congeniality), Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), Ricky Schroder (24), Andre Braugher (Thief), Viola Davis (Traveler) and Christa Miller (Scrubs). There’s soapiness, with ex-wives, children, ex-lovers, etc, popping up out the woodwork. There’s a junky journalist (McCormack) looking for a scoop. The military are all over the place with their big guns, explosions, nuclear weapons and more. And the music doesn’t compare in the slightest.

But… the thing about both The Andromeda Strain and The Andromeda Strain, since the movie is a faithful recreation of the book, is that they just stop short of greatness. It is very much a first novel, and I imagine if Crichton were to write the book today, he’d come up with this version.

In science, you normally solve one problem and the bigger picture has to arrive another day. So the book never explains where Andromeda comes from or what it really is. You have to accept it’s arrived from outer space and it needs dealing with. There are also all sorts of convenient happenings that don’t make much sense and odd leaps that never really get explained. 

This mini-series essentially fills in the blanks, takes a look at the other plot problems, and re-arranges everything, comes up with better solutions and tones down the scientific hyperbole. Loopholes around mutation, pHs and more are squashed – quite sensibly. Pages long explanations of decontamination procedures are reduced to a few minutes, thankfully.

Part one is probably the more faithful of the episodes, and if you’ve watched the film or read the book, you’ll think you’ll know where this is all going. Part two pulls the rug out from under you, so don’t think you know what’s going to happen next. Major plots become minor; minor plot points become major; Andromeda becomes even more scary than the book’s Andromeda: this isn’t your daddy’s Andromeda Strain.

But it’s all a little more implausible. It’s not unscientific: there have been nearly four decades of scientific discoveries in biology since the book was written and this takes in bacteriophages, et al. But there are certainly points where you do have to suspend disbelief considerably, particularly when Andromeda is at its most contagious. Worse still, the gaps in Andromeda’s background and function are filled in with pure science fiction, making the threat less general and less likely.

It has other flaws, too. There’s the usual Tony Scott militaristic bombast, even though he’s not the director. In making Andromeda more virulent, the plot requires more people to be affected than just poor old Piedmont, making it like an episode of House, with "who’s next and how are they going to die?" being constant questions. And the whole junkie journo plot is just pointless, serving purely to add a conspiracy theory element to a story that didn’t need it.

All the same, it’s a pretty good three hours of sci-fi, with some surprising twists and some quite scary moments. Although old-school fans will miss and probably prefer the quietly clinical movie, this isn’t a bad updating. It’s pretty smart, if implausible at times, and there’s a nice paradox that opens the way up for an obvious sequel if it’s successful.

Here’s a trailer/behind the scenes documentary with a few spoilers:




  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.