Sixty Years Of ‘A for Andromeda’

An appreciation of the cold SF thriller whose first episode went out on 3 October 1961.

When coming up with ideas for a long running science fiction serial in 1963, the team assigned decided not to let it revolve around a computer. Instead, they went for a time machine. Doctor Who wouldn’t fight a sentient computer until 1966, and viewers with amazing memories may have recognised the sound effects. This was because in 1961, A for Andromeda was transmitted, and its story of a supercomputer and its beautiful and sinister slave designed by a distant civilisation, was a huge success. With one exception, the audience figures increased each week as viewers became hooked by the intriguing and exciting plot. It quickly spawned a sequel, a continuation from the moment they left off. The BBC had found its new Quatermass.

The ideas came from astronomer Professor Fred Hoyle, a well-known broadcaster who was never short of a controversial and iconoclastic theory during his eventful lifetime. He believed certain viruses were brought to Earth by meteorites. He had recently written a novel called The Black Cloud, an eye-opener if you love old fashioned technology and pages of technical detail. He was invited to meet with BBC writers and producers in a Cambridge pub near where he worked and for a couple of hours, he related the basic plot and ideas of the story. It was seasoned dramatist John Elliot who turned them into scripts, each 45 minutes long and later into excellent books, my first experience of the tale.

The Quatermass serials took television into new territories of horror and the uncanny, but A for Andromeda is very different. It is a cold, hard technological science fiction thriller (yes, it has spies, murders, and foreign agents). We are dealing with radio telescopes which were comparatively new, and the government at the time were expanding their investment in them. Computers were ever advancing and were massive objects housed in hot rooms, and we were not too far away from the end of valve technology, the pitfalls of which Hoyle describes in The Black Cloud, as well the problems of feeding code into the machines with strips of hole punctured cardboard. One error renders the program useless. The patrician bow tie wearing Professor Quatermass is replaced by the angry young scientist in the shape of John Fleming played by the electric Peter Halliday, and he brings the menace to us – a computer and an artificially created humanoid – Andromeda herself.

The story moves along at a cracking pace. It begins with the opening of a new radio telescope, the receipt of a signal from the direction of Andromeda, the decoding of the signal into plans for a super-computer, Fleming impatiently urging the government into the building of said machine which they do at a military rocket base in the Scottish isles (no doubt Quatermass visited from time to time). Having achieved his goal, Fleming decides it is too dangerous and wants it destroyed. And that’s just the first two episodes. Instead, it is switched on and we watch as the machine learns through displaying formulae humans can recognise what kind of intelligence it is dealing with. Then it gives us the code to create life. Considering the work going on studying DNA at the time, who knows what we would be discovering in ten years’ time?

At first these are simple cells but then they grow into something they nickname the cyclops, a blob kept alive in a nutrient tank but with a human eye. The machine then creates a humanoid, Andromeda, a replicant of a technician the computer inadvertently killed while it studied her, both played by Julie Christie. Cyclops is callously disposed of, and Andromeda demonstrates her worth to an eager government, desperate for the glory of a new golden age. But this enchanting messenger from the gods – is she benign, or a spearhead for an invasion? She is the mouthpiece of the computer, but what does it want? The government want to use her amazing skills to destroy orbiting satellites and all poor Fleming can do is brood, get drunk, get angry, pick fights, force a kiss on her to teach her the difference between nice and nasty, and pit himself against the machine. But by upsetting its stratagems he triggers reactions that will kill, and the machine wants Fleming out of the way. A flawed hero, somewhat, perhaps the best kind.

The world of 1971, as envisaged in 1961, wasn’t too different a place. Who could have predicted the massive social changes seen within that decade? As a piece of drama, it is first rate, coming across like a dramatised documentary except the acting is as strong as any from this period of television. Terse, rapid, dramatic delivery of line and the passage of time is established through rapid montages and strange electronic music composed by Eric Siday for music libraries which Doctor Who fans may recognise.

A for Andromeda boasted a strong cast, augmented by the magnificent Mary Morris, playing a man’s role and is superb. She crosses over into The Andromeda Breakthrough for its entirety and is more proactive than Fleming’s defeated character. Julie Christie is magnificent, and tugs at your heart strings as she wrestles with her compulsion to obey the computer that tortures her before finally discovering those human qualities within herself and rebel and become one of us. The rest of the cast is made up of those familiar and dependable faces such as John Hollis who plays a foreign agent for Intel; he also has more to do in The Andromeda Breakthrough. Frank Windsor was in the first three episodes and was shortly to join Z Cars and become a household name. Anthony Valentine appears as a guard in the final episode.

The two Andromeda serials were made and shown when the BBC’s drama department was waiting for Sydney Newman to arrive after working out his contract at ABC. The former head, Michael Barry had left the BBC just before production began on A for Andromeda to work in Irish television and one of the people he recruited was A for Andromeda’s producer/director Michael Hayes.

We are lucky to have two full Quatermass serials to watch. All that survives from the first five episodes of A for Andromeda are a handful of clips and film sequences. Episode 6 survives but without its introduction, and from the last episode its final reel. The DVD release reproduced producer Michael Hayes’ off-air telesnaps and magnificently knitted it all together, the closest we will ever get to watching it. I would take the recovery of another Andromeda episode over any other programme (except Doomwatch). Heresy I know…

❉ ‘The Andromeda Anthology: A for Andromeda/The Andromeda Breakthrough’ DVD was released 24 July 2006 by BBC DVD/2 Entertain.

❉ A longstanding contributor to We Are Cult, writer Michael Seely’s biography of Douglas Camfield, ‘Directed by Douglas Camfield’, is available from Fantom Publishing and he has also contributed a chapter to a new edition of Barry Letts’ autobiography ‘Who and I’ also available from Fantom Publishing

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