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Posts Tagged ‘An Instinct for Murder’

If we are going to talk about Chris Boucher’s Star Cops (and, you guessed it, we are) then we may as well get something out of the way and discuss the theme music right at the start. Now, I am aware my taste in such matters is not entirely in tune with the popular consensus – I am one of the few people I know who finds ‘Faith of the Heart’, a.k.a. the theme tune from Enterprise, to be quite a pleasant listen – and that no less an authority than Kim Newman, someone whose judgement I usually find impeccable, has declared that the Star Cops theme is ‘the worst theme tune of any TV show ever’. What, worse than the theme to Captain Zep – Space Detective? Sample lyric, ‘Across the stars, he’s on his way, it’s Captain Zep to save the day!’ (I know you’re curious. Go and google, I’ll be here when you’ve had enough, which could well be very soon indeed.)

The theme from Star Cops, known either as ‘It won’t be easy’ or ‘Theme from Star Cops‘, depending on how imaginative you are, is a mid-tempo piece of blues-pop by Justin Hayward. It’s not really my usual cup of tea, but I must confess to finding it rather agreeable – it has a sort of lugubrious wistfulness to it which appeals to me. That said, it is an unusual choice of theme for a hard SF TV show – I believe the logic behind it was that people who wouldn’t necessarily choose to watch a hard SF TV show might stumble across the mid-tempo blues-pop, find themselves charmed by it, and stick around for the following fifty minutes or so of gritty police procedural and variably-realised zero-gravity effects.

The tune carries on playing into the opening sequence of An Instinct for Murder, written by series creator Chris Boucher himself and first broadcast in July 1987 (in the baffling slot of eight thirty in the evening on Mondays). This segment at least is strongly conceived and quite well realised: a man goes for a swim in a lake, only to be set upon and drowned by two scuba divers. This is intercut with an astronaut on a space-walk being attacked and his suit sabotaged by two other figures in space-suits. The stuff in the lake is passably done, the spacewalk sequence surprisingly good, considering this is a BBC series from the middle 1980s, and it does give the theme tune a chance to reach an epic guitar solo which doesn’t usually get heard over the credits (it’s just getting started when they finish).

Overseeing the investigation of the death in the lake is our hero, Nathan Spring (David Calder), whom we quickly learn has little time for computer analyses of incident reports or the arms-length approach to police work which has become standard at this time (it is a recognisably near future: publicity for the series indicated it was set in 2027, not that there’s a great deal of reference to this in the actual script). The computer suggests it was an accidental drowning, but Spring is not convinced, rather to the exasperation of both his underlings and his superiors.

Largely, it seems, to get rid of Nathan, his boss has forced him to apply for the post of commander of the International Space Police Force: currently a part-time force of twenty or so, which the major powers would like professionalised. Spring doesn’t want the job, and his girlfriend (a slightly shaky relationship is skilfully suggested) wants him to get it even less, but the script is very clear about the political aspects of all this, and Nathan soon find himself heading for the European space station Charles de Gaulle, in Earth orbit.

There he meets the local ISPF inspector, David Theroux (Erick Ray Evans), whose real job is as one of the station’s traffic controllers. Theroux is making his own investigation into a string of mysterious suit failures, which the computers again have decreed to be within the realms of statistical probability. However, the death of a visiting politician while on a space-walk gives the issue a sudden urgency, and Spring and Theroux find themselves working the case together.

The first job of An Instinct for Murder is to establish the world, characters and format of the show, so perhaps it’s not really surprising that the actual murder mystery here ends up feeling a little under-developed: it turns out the killings are an attempt to discredit the Russians, who currently have the contract to do space-suit maintenance, and perhaps stoke up the coals so the Cold War burns a little hotter (like virtually everyone else, even in 1987, Star Cops completely fails to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union). Then again, this is always a problem when doing a detective story in an SF setting: you need to establish what’s normal and routine and possible in this world before you can start showing the anomalies and oddities which make up the clues the detective needs in order to break the case.

In other respects, however, the episode does a very solid job: you can tell Boucher is working incredibly hard to keep Star Cops grounded in reality and entirely free of the fantasy elements which usually dominate television SF (Boucher had previously written twelve strong episodes of the BBC’s premier science-fantasy show as well as script-editing the whole of Blake’s 7). It’s very cynical and naturalistic – even the title is meant ironically, and there’s a running gag about people quoting lines from The Magnificent Seven at each other, something which is utterly believable but the kind of thing which never happens in most TV series nowadays.

In terms of the near-future setting – well, again like everyone else, Boucher didn’t anticipate smartphones – at one point Nathan wants to watch the news in a restaurant and the waitress wheels in a small black and white TV on a trolley – but teleconferencing seems to be routine, even if people seem to favour huge wall screens over laptops or tablets (this does work well visually, though). Nathan even has his own virtual assistant, a small portable AI called Box, although it’s made clear that this is not common technology. Box mainly functions as a plot device and is rather reminiscent of Orac from Blake’s 7, though less obnoxious.

The episode doesn’t get everything right – for some reason Boucher doesn’t name the two most important guest characters, who are billed simply as ‘Commander’ and ‘Controller’, which is an odd touch, and while the special effects (‘Weightlessness by Eugene’s Flying Ballet’ – though, to be fair, the same company had the same gig on 2001) are as good as the BBC could manage on this kind of budget at the time, that’s still not saying a great deal. But the setting is intriguing, Calder is an engaging lead, and you do want to see where they take the series next. For a series which was essentially strangled at birth by the BBC, and marked the end of serious science fiction on British TV (at least, for many years afterwards), this is much more promising than its reputation might suggest.

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