“The Andromeda Strain” Breaks Ground With Gay Sci-Fi Character

It’s
microbes versus humans, and the microbes are winning.

It’s
an old premise for the new A&E miniseries The Andromeda Strain, based on the 1969 techno thriller by Michael
Crichton, a book that pioneered and popularized the very genre of storytelling
that mixes actual science with action-oriented accessible popular
entertainment.

But
this time around, the cast of characters is markedly different than it was in
the original novel or its 1971 film adaptation. This time, one of the
characters, Major Bill Keene, played by Ricky Schroder, is gay. It’s perhaps
the most high-profile example to date of a leading gay character in an American
science fiction or genre movie.

“It
was my decision,” screenwriter Robert Schenkkan tells AfterElton.com regarding
the inclusion of the gay character. “The novel was written in 1969, and all the
scientists were white heterosexual males.” (One of the male characters was
changed to female for the original film version.)

“If
you’re going to update the story, which is our mandate, you have an obligation to
reflect the world as it is,” says Schenkkan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning
playwright of The Kentucky Cycle.

The Andromeda Strain tells the story of a highly
lethal pathogen that arrives on Earth via a downed satellite, eventually killing
all but two of the occupants of a remote Utah
town. A group of diverse medical
specialists is assembled at a secret underground laboratory to try to unlock
the secrets of the microbe, which is rapidly mutating and spreading beyond the
quarantined area. Major Bill Keene is one of the specialists.

From left to right: Ricky Schroder, Benjamin Bratt,
Christa Miller, Daniel Dae Kim, Viola Davis

The
gay character is one of the miniseries’ leads, but there is only one brief
mention of his homosexuality, in a scene between him and Dr. Charlene Barton,
played by Viola Davis:

DR BARTON: How about you? You gotta girlfriend back home
tying ribbons around old trees?
MAJOR KEENE: No ball and chain for me.
DR BARTON: Can’t get a date, huh?
MAJOR KEENE: If you don’t ask, I won’t tell.
DR. BARTON: I always thought that was a stupid-ass policy.

While
there is a brief hint of romance between two other heterosexual characters,
none of the scientists’ personal lives factor into the story much. In a way,
the incidental nature of Major Keene’s gayness — it’s more back-story than anything
pivotal to the plot — is almost as remarkable as his appearance in this
prominent science fiction miniseries, which had a reported cost of $15 million.
It’s an example of what many gay viewers have long called for: characters that
just happen to be gay or bisexual, not characters whose sole function in a plot
is to somehow “deal” with their gayness.

Schroder as Major Keene

But
according to Schenkkan, the character’s gayness is based, in part, on an
element in the original novel. In the book, Crichton invented the notion of the
“Odd Man Hypothesis” — the idea that an unmarried man with no personal ties is
the most dispassionate and logical in a time of crisis. As a result, it is this
person — Major Keene in the miniseries — who is given the only key able to stop
the underground facility’s self-destruct mechanism, should the lethal virus
somehow escape containment.

“In
thinking about who this [‘odd man’] would be in a military context, I thought
he might be gay,” says Schenkkan. “This is something that many people in the
military unfortunately have to deal with,” he adds, referring to the military’s
policy of expelling its openly gay members, something that makes ongoing
romantic relationships difficult for gay service members.

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