Fred Taylor: A glimpse of my own future, and a girl to boot

March 31, 2006

Friday, 10pm, BBC Four

In 1961, when I was just out of short trousers and preparing to take my science O levels, the BBC first brought A for Andromeda to our TV screens. I knew I wanted to be a scientist and have something to do with the space age that was just dawning, but I had no real feeling, not even in my dreams, for what sort of person I would then become. No role model, in other words.

But then, after being riveted to a 14in black-and-white screen in our home in a remote Northumbrian village for six weekly episodes, I no longer had any doubt. I wanted to be like John Fleming, the feisty young astronomer who understood what was going on while all around him the Establishment preened itself and dithered. He recognised that the noise picked up from the distant Andromeda galaxy by the new large radio telescope (set in a thinly disguised Jodrell Bank Observatory) was binary arithmetic. Then he interpreted it as instructions for building a modern supercomputer and, using that, a living being. Effortlessly conjuring up the funding and a team of cardboard characters in support, he actually built the machine and the creature, a vision of sinister loveliness played by the 19-year-old Julie Christie. Fleming was so cool that when he kissed his heart-stoppingly beautiful creation it was for scientific purposes only. He wanted to show her that she had emotions, even though she had been created from a computer program.

I never forgot that scene (nor, I imagine, did the actor Peter Halliday, who played Fleming brilliantly). God, it was wonderful. I never looked back; I wanted to be like Fleming and find out what's out there, using as much high technology as possible: the girl would be a bonus.

Forty-five years on, if no longer much resembling Fleming, I have become a less accomplished version of his creator, Fred Hoyle, who was a professor at Cambridge University when he wrote the story on which the television drama was based. How would I take to A for Andromeda now? What effect might it have on today's scientifically minded 16-year-olds? A remake of the drama is the only way to answer these questions, as the tapes of the original series have not survived.

So here it is, and although I wanted to like it, it was perhaps inevitable that I wasn't very impressed. As with almost every remake, whether on the large or the small screen, the essential lack of originality means that raw excitement and inspiration are replaced by a certain mechanical slickness.

Something about the new production did intrigue me, however, although it took me a while to realise what it was. With the passage of time, the hero's mantle has shifted. Fleming's moody brilliance now makes him look like nothing more than some kind of malcontent postdoc; in 2006, the person who coolly assesses what is happening, understands it in depth and changes the world is the sixtysomething professor Madeleine Dawnay. In the Sixties version, she was portrayed as a butch figure. Now, played by Jane Asher, she is the wise leader who keeps the scientific team working together, calms the politicians and keeps the funding flowing.

The future is built into this story in so many ways. Hoyle was even more of a genius and visionary than any of us realised.

Fred Taylor is Halley professor of physics at Oxford University.

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