[26 May 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
This is terra incognita.
—Bill Keene (Ricky Schroder)
“If you set out to deliberately exterminate mankind, you couldn’t do better than Andromeda,” says Bill Keene (Ricky Schroder). He knows what he’s talking about, apparently, because he’s not only a very upright major in the army, but he’s also a hotshot virologist. Equally adept with an M-16 and a recombinant polypeptide, he’s the ideal action researcher, the go-to hero in today’s science-fiction world. Sure, he has a bit of history with his current team leader, microbiologist Dr. Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt), but really, that only sets up they’ll both be competing for the most effective action-researcher, multiplying the excitement potential for Tony and Ridley Scott’s update of The Andromeda Strain.
In fact, the A&E miniseries, airing over two nights, offers a few more physically fit and non-nerdy doctors, and conveniently deposits them as a group inside the Wildfire Lab, a super-duper subterranean facility. Here they are tasked with figuring out what’s up with a mysterious virus that arrives in Utah via a crashed satellite of unknown origin. Loosely based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 bestseller (which also inspired Robert Wise’s 1971 movie), former cinematographer Mikael Salomon’s film follows the team’s race to discover the virus’ source and makeup. It’s a race because the thing is brutally fatal, indicated in a few opening scenes that show smalltown locals in desperate death throes—including one retired general who is so distressed by the effects (which apparently make some victims “paranoid”) that he cuts off his own head with a chainsaw.
Lucky for the team (conducting a sweep of the town before they’re sent underground), he does this in a hardware store with a surveillance camera, so they can marvel at the act and then argue about what it means. When exobiologist Angela (Christa Miller) suggests they continue to look for survivors rather than nuke the entire town, Bill, reliably hardcore, responds, “Maybe they’re dead now, havening drowned themselves or burned themselves or cut their own freakin’ heads off!” Amid all the science-speak and stern warnings about important principles, Bill’s tendency to go for the blunt outburst makes him all the more endearing.
It also helps that his tension with Jeremy has to do with Desert Storm, when he decided to destroy a seeming cache of Saddam’s biological weapons before the doctor could run tests. Of the miniseries’ several departures from the book, such topical references are the most rousing. When one of two survivors from the town wakes inside the lab, announces immediately that they can’t hold him in this “creepy” place. “I know my rights!” he roars, coughing and sputtering because he’s a drunk and old, “I’m no damn terrorist.” Right, but he’s no damn action-researcher either. Angela tells he has to stay put, so he designated heroes—including bioweapons expert Tsi Chou (Daniel Dae Kim) and pathologist Charlene Barton (Viola Davis, great again in an un-great role)—can get on with their business, including what it is about his drinking and coughing that kept him alive while his neighbors all died.
It’s not like the lab is a terrible place to be (and it is the site of the slam-bang actionated climax, where every one of the scientists gets to do something sensational and selfless). Here the scenes are sleek, blue-lit, and synthy-musicked, like CSI (see especially their entrance from the contaminated outside, when they remove their hazmat suits and walk naked through shooting foam and splashy water jets, in slow motion). Repeatedly they ponder projections of microscopic entities and ask, “What the hell is that?” or Stone’s favorite, “I’ve never seen anything like it!” The lab even occasions the requisite rumination on the Human Condition, uttered here by Angela, concerning time travel: “I think a linear time frame is a key part of what it means to be human,” she tells Jeremy. “If our really important choices could be sampled like a box of chocolates, then our decisions would lose their meaning. What would be at stake?”
Good question, especially in the context of The Andromeda Strain: what is at stake? Because the lab scenes are slow by definition, the series turns frequently to supporting stories, ranging from flashbacks that show moral turning points (Tsi was involved in a terrible accident with weaponized hemorrhagic smallpox in Shanghai, which he explains to Angela by saying, “It was a different time back then… every country, including yours, was experimenting,” while you see him working desperately over a dying child) to information gathering by the miniseries’ invented character, intrepid reporter and cynical cocaine addict Jack (Eric McCormack, grizzled), who follows the story involving the U.S. government’s involvement in the virus. For while it looks like an alien business, and even invokes talk of wormholes and time travel, the virus is also a means to raise the oh-so-current issue of government deceptions. “No further details are forthcoming,” he says during a standup near a military action, “including when this deployment will be over. When have we heard that before?”
Such cheap shots are underscored by the fact that President Scott (Ted Whittall) adopts a Bush-like cadence when speaking (lying) to the press, hoping to keep the likely panic contained and give his crack researchers time to fix the problem before he has to fess up about the virus, and a few other things. While he keeps getting campaign cautions in one ear, he’s also attuned to what his military advisors have to say, in particular the most fabulously named General Mancheck (Andre Braugher). While Mancheck comes in with longstanding animosity towards both Nash and Stone, he’s a practical man and a soldier first, such that he’s soon butting heads with the Director of the National Security Council, whose name is almost as excellent as his, Chuck Beeter (Barry Flatman).
In fact, the miniseries’ science fictiony material, now being old and familiar, is not nearly so interesting as its repeated thumps on the military. One holdover from the book, the Odd Man Hypothesis, forms the basis of a direct hit, when the army determines, Stone reports as soon as they arrive at the lab, by “an extensive battery of tests… that unmarried males were more likely to make the right choice during a crisis.” Thus Bill is the guy entrusted with the code to stop the lab’s self-destruct mechanism should such a decision need to be taken (the lab sits atop a nuclear device, which turns out to be even more unfortunate than it sounds).
The team refers to the selection of Bill as Odd Man more than once, assuming that it has to do with his macho army-guyness, or, as Charlene judges, “So, you were looking for the man most likely to kill himself [significant pause] and us?” The men look sheepish and go along, but none of them know quite how odd the choice is. For Bill’s life experience has been shaped by his military career because he’s gay. While the series’ choice for this identity has little to do with the killer virus plot or its subplots concerning corporate influence in the U.S. government and destruction of the environment (specifically, the mining of undersea hypothermal vents, an initiative the president supports), it has everything to do with the series’ critique of military structure, tradition, and assumptions.
Bill’s few minutes of coming out make The Andromeda Strain suddenly seem relevant. While the President Scott worries about his reelection and General Mancheck assumes control where he has none, Bill makes the series’ most compelling assessment: “It’s ironic,” he tells Charlene, “that the army’s extensive battery of psychological tests has conclusively determined that the person they’re most afraid of is the best suited to make the right choice in this crisis.” Boo!