I had high hopes for the new Andromeda Strain miniseries, which airs tonight and tomorrow night on A&E. After all, the trailers looked pretty jazzy, and it was produced by both Ridley and Tony Scott — so there was double Scott power. And there were some great alien-virus-attack moments, along with some nice bits of scientific detective work that stayed pretty true to the book. Unfortunately, overall, the new version of Strain left me saying, "Wow, it's like a Sci Fi Channel original movie, only with an A-list cast." Spoilers ahead.

A&E's version of Andromeda flails around like a coked-up otter, especially in the first half hour or so. There's a satellite! And it crashes! And two pesky teens take it into a small town, where everyone dies horribly, much like you'd expect — and then, with no warning, we're suddenly lurched into trying to humanize the series' entire cast, in perfunctory, throwaway scenes.

Benjamin Bratt from Law And Order has a crazy ex and a teenage son with a moped. He wants moped boy to go stay with his sister. What will happen to moped boy? And some guy is a right-wing jerk, but it's okay because we later find out he's gay. But Will from Will And Grace is not gay, but is a hard-driving reporter with a substance abuse problem. Moped Boy is angry! We also meet the president of the United States, who drawls about how you have to throw the dice when you're hunting possum, because otherwise you'll be holding 'em when you want to be folding 'em. And Benjamin Bratt is secretly in love with one of his fellow epidemiologists, but Moped Boy thinks Benjamin Bratt is a know-it-all.


Actually, we see a lot of Moped Boy in the first half hour of the first episode, but then he's pretty much never seen again. He's symptomatic of the show's problem, which is that it has a humongous cast of characters — way more than the original novel or Robert Wise movie — and they're all completely one-dimensional, except for the movie's lurching stabs at making them compelling. By the time we get back to the virus killing everybody, we've sort of lost the thread thinking about Moped Boy and his failure to realize that Benjamin Bratt really does know everything. I had started to think Moped Boy was a major character, and wondered where he had gone.

So yeah, the new series follows the book and the movie — to some extent. There's an alien virus on that thar crashed satellite, and it's nothing like anything we've seen before. And it causes people to die instantly from blood clotting, or else (in a handful of cases) to go berzerk. And our five scientists go into a super-fancy underground bunker to figure out how to stop it.


But the new version has to get fancy, throwing in every bit of new tech you can think of — the virus comes down wrapped in a nanotech shield of "Bucky Balls" — and the super-mutating virus is like "stem cells" because it can transform itself and adapt to anything. And there's a whole complicated backstory about how the virus came from a wormhole — and maybe it came from the future! — because the army has a secret ebil project, Project Scoop, that Will from Will and Grace is investigating. It gets more and more complicated — the Bucky Balls are a code from the future — and we leave behind a lot of the classic simplicity of the book and 1971 movie.

That's the other problem with this version of Andromeda — the virus is built up to be such an incredible super-organism that mutates like five or six times (instead of, I think, three times in the book) and infects birds and rats. About three hours in, I started to wonder why everybody wasn't dead yet. Will from Will and Grace was running around the contagion zone for hours and hours, including one scene where he prays, and no infected birds or airborne radioactive strains do away with him. (We were hoping after a while.) Maybe Will and Moped Boy will get caught in a disaster together!


Yet for all that, we did enjoy the new miniseries. And parts of it were fun to watch while tipsy from all those Wiscon parties. Plus there's very little else to watch on TV right now, until the Lost finale and the return of Sci Fi's Friday night lineup. Bottom line: If you think of it as "Mansquito with an A-list cast" (and the cast did a great job with what they were given) then you'll probably enjoy it a lot. Just don't compare it too much to Michael Crichton's best novel, or Robert Wise's taut medical thriller.