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Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

If you’ve spent much time nosing about the dimmer recesses of this blog, you will know that there are not many things I enjoy more than an obscure old horror movie, more likely than not a gothic horror movie. It’s always a pleasure to find another one of these things floating around on the internet, especially when it’s an obscure version of a famous story – it’s getting to the point where I find it almost impossible to predict whether any given film or play will be available free-to-view or not, so it’s always worth a look, I find.

Which brings us to the BBC’s 1977 adaptation of Dracula, which for some reason they decided to call Count Dracula – the world was at close to peak Dracula in the 1970s, especially at the back end of the decade when there was this one, the John Badham movie with Frank Langella and Werner Herzog’s superb remake of Nosferatu, so I suppose tweaking the title a bit was one way of standing out from the crowd. For a long time all I knew about this production was that the BBC treated it so seriously that all other vampire-related dramas were banned that year, for fear they might appear to be sending it up. That said, the young reader version of Dracula at my school had a picture of Louis Jourdan on the front, presumably because it was cheaper to license than one of Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi.

Anyway, this version of the story has turned up on TV in various different forms, both as a single (rather lengthy) film and in two- and three-episode chunks. I watched it one sitting, which was more or less okay, though I would completely understand if you fancied stringing it out over a long weekend or whatever; I doubt it would make a great deal of difference. It might even make a nice companion piece to the BBC Dracula from the start of the year.

The most obvious difference between the two BBC Draculas is that this one is the startling degree of fidelity on display back in 1977: this is, in fact, probably the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel ever brought to the screen. It opens, obviously, with young solicitor Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) being packed off to the Carpathians to close a deal with the enigmatic Count Dracula (Louis Jourdan). As we’re talking a BBC budget, it’s largely a stock-footage version of Transylvania (looking not unlike the woods from all of those Hammer horror films), and we never see Castle Dracula in long shot, but the virtues of BBC costume drama – acting, costuming, direction – certainly compensate.

One element of the novel they do dispense with (and, ironically, one of the few bits which the Moffat and Gatiss version retained) is the idea of Dracula initially looking like an old man and gradually rejuvenating thanks to the restorative properties of human blood: here, he starts off looking like Louis Jourdan at the age of roughly 55 and more or less stays like that for the rest of the programme. I think Jourdan makes a very good Dracula, rather like Claes Bang in the recent show: he has a nicely understated foreign-seeming quality, and most of the time comes across as rather enjoying his own malevolence – perhaps he’s a bit too much of the predatory womaniser (albeit with claw-like nails and hairy palms), rather than the actual predator, but I think it’s impossible for any single performance to be the definitive Dracula. This one, as noted, is certainly of a high standard.

The story unfolds with all the bits you’d expect, perhaps subtly tweaked (‘Don’t trust mirrors,’ the Count cheerily advises Harker, after notably failing to show up in one – a rather neatly done bit of video-tape magic). Dracula crawling down the sheer wall of the castle doesn’t quite work, but Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s brides, after a rather sedate start, turns into something unexpectedly shocking and unsettling.

Soon enough Dracula heads off to Whitby, drawn (it is implied) by his desire to get his teeth into Harker’s fiancee Mina Westenra (Judi Bowker) and her sister Lucy (Susan Penhaligon). Yes, that’s another change from Stoker, though I’m not sure what making them sisters really achieves; amalgamating the characters of Arthur and Quincey (which Gerald Savory’s script also does) at least cuts some of the dead wood from the dramatis personae. Everyone else is present, from Van Helsing (Frank Finlay) to Renfield (Jack Shepherd).

And it all proceeds quite faithfully, as noted. That’s the one word you’re almost obliged to keep using when talking about Count Dracula – it’s not quite the filmed text of the book, but it’s a damn sight closer than any other version of the story I can think of, and by quite some distance too. Given that many people just aren’t that familiar with the novel, I think this is obviously a point in the programme’s favour: it’s nice to have at least one ‘accurate’ Dracula to go with all the oddly variant ones which appeared down the years.

On the other hand, this approach does throw into sharp relief some of the structural flaws and possibly-regrettable choices that Stoker made when writing the thing. Dracula himself gets some good lines in the first hour or so, while hosting Harker at the castle, but once he departs for England he’s largely reduced to a walk-on part, appearing or disappearing in a cloud of special effects when not gorging himself on one of the actresses. Finlay is a very charismatic, authentic Van Helsing, and it is simply very regrettable that Van Helsing and Dracula only get one scene together: the same is really true of Dracula and Renfield (Jack Shepherd resists the temptation to chew the scenery and is mostly very effective). There is also the pace of the thing, which is a bit sluggish even with the final act and the Club of Light’s journey from London back to Transylvania heavily trimmed down.

By choosing to simply be a vessel for Stoker, the film does give up the opportunity to put its own spin on the story of Dracula (doing this is arguably what makes the best adaptations so successful), and perhaps it does come across as a little staid and dry as a result. Nevertheless, provided you are not foolish enough to be dissuaded by late 70s BBC production values (a mixture of film and videotape, some distinctly peculiar video effects, a timpani-heavy score from Kenyon Emrys-Roberts) there is still a lot to offer you here if Dracula or vampires are your thing, especially if you’ve never battled your way through the novel (no shame in that – I didn’t manage it until I was thirteen). In the end, you come away wanting to see Jourdan and Finlay play these characters again, and that’s usually a sign of a Dracula which has got all the most important things right.

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There’s nothing quite like pointlessly diluting your brand, is there, and so we shall take another break from reviewing movies old and new and looking at cult TV shows to examine another obscure play from over forty years ago. Well, maybe this stuff qualifies as cult TV as well, I don’t know – it seems to be a curiously elastic term which expands to cover everything from Supermarket Sweep to The Bridge. Up for consideration this time is a play I mentioned a little while ago when discussing Abigail’s Party: the 1974 production Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke.

Clarke was an acclaimed and controversial director who is best remembered for a series of political, naturalistic plays concerned with topics such as racism, the death penalty and the situation in Northern Ireland. Penda’s Fen is a wholly different kind of beast, and apparently Clarke himself, who was recruited to the production by Rudkin, never completely understood what it was supposed to be about. Perhaps this explains some of the play’s weirder and more outlandish images. Or perhaps not: the whole thing is like a sort of lyrical fever-dream set in the heart of England.

Penda’s Fen begins with classical music playing over beautiful shots of the English countryside – but then what looks like barbed wire is superimposed on the image and a hand, disfigured with some kind of burn or scar, rises into view to grasp at it. It’s the first of many striking images and, like many of them, the significance of it only becomes clear (or, at least, less obscure) later.

We spend most of the play in the company of Stephen (Spencer Banks), a boy in his late teens who is, shall we say, a lad of strong opinions. His father (John Atkinson) is the local clergyman, so it’s just as well that he is a devout adherent of a certain brand of Christianity; his politics are equally uncompromising and he also seems to be staunchly homophobic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all this means that he is a bit of a misfit at school, mocked and disparaged by his peers – and his teachers too, to some extent. The scorned do well to look scornful, as Aldous Huxley nearly said, and he is hostile to a local left-wing writer named Arne (played by Ian Hogg from Rockcliffe) when they meet, and Arne shares his belief that a secret military facility has been built somewhere in the vicinity.

It seems that Arne may have a point, when a young man out in the fields is found horribly burnt, and the police and army camp out around his hospital bed. (It looks like Penda’s Fen is about to turn into something resembling Edge of Darkness, but this plot point never actually eems to go anywhere.) The play has a curiously impressionistic quality to it, where it’s often not entirely clear how events are connected, but this seems to be the catalyst for a sort of existential crisis which besets Stephen: he dreams of angels, demons, and an erotic encounter with a male classmate. He discovers not only that his father is responsible for a number of almost-heretical works of theology, but that he himself has been adopted. His sense of his beliefs and himself is deeply shaken as the play continues, where he has more bizarre visions, including an encounter with Edward Elgar and a climactic audience with King Penda, the last pagan ruler of England and a symbol of…

Well, that would almost be telling, wouldn’t it? If you take a long hard look at Penda’s Fen and render it down to its essentials, it is basically just a story of the coming of age of white middle-class boy who learns to look beyond the clear-cut certainties that have previously comprised his beliefs. This is a horribly reductionist view of the play, however, missing out much of what makes it such a startling cultural artifact. It’s obviously the product of a somewhat rarefied intellectual sensibility – there are casual references to etymology, classical music (the dream-Elgar Stephen encounters imparts to him the ‘solution’ to the Enigma Variations), and theology – in 1974 it was apparently perfectly okay for a mainstream TV drama to include lengthy discussions of the nature of the Manichaean heresy.

However, what makes the play so visually striking are the fantasy elements that are perhaps responsible for much of its reputation and the continued interest people have in it. Angels and demons fill the screen, ancient kings manifest from out of thin air, Stephen witnesses a ritual where children are ritually mutilated while their smiling parents look on, the ground cracks open, threatening to engulf the action… much of this is done with a primitiveness that makes it all the more jarring. I should really it make clear that this is not a ‘naturalistic’ fantasy (there’s an awkward oxymoron for you) – it is always quite clear that the play is operating in the realm of symbolism and metaphor, rather than ‘real’ supernatural creatures: lazily putting it into the same category as a play like The Stone Tape would be a mistake.

At the heart of the play is the English countryside, which Rudkin clearly envisions as the heartlands of a kind of principled dissent, home of a spiritual awkward squad including Penda and Edward Elgar, possibly including Jesus as an honorary member and with Stephen as their latest representative. Near the conclusion of the play he laments the fact that he now finds himself questioning his faith, his political beliefs (he can no longer be sure he’s the pure-blooded Englishman he formerly thought), and his sexuality. But Penda’s apparition suggests there is no shame in any of this, that there is merit in being an outsider and a revolutionary. A play which initially looks to be in the lyrical-pastoral mode turns out to be a paean to the radicals and the misfits (not entirely surprisingly given this was initially shown in the Play for Today strand).

Put like that, the message sounds glib, but the play is powerful in both its imagery and performances, striking for its intelligence and willingness to challenge the viewer. It’s one of the most experimental pieces of TV drama I’ve ever seen, but it was clearly made with commitment and skill by Dudkin, Clarke, and the BBC. It would probably be disastrous if something like Penda’s Fen was shown on TV every week. But it must have been wonderful to live at a time when new dramas like this were always a possibility.

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Genre’s a funny old thing, especially when you start playing games with it. I used to watch a lot of rather formulaic American TV shows and in some cases the only specific episodes I can remember are the ones which stirred a big dollop of fantasy or horror into an otherwise naturalistic set-up: both CHiPs and Matt Houston did episodes about alien abductions, while there were also episodes of Quantum Leap featuring vampires and the Devil. As we have recently touched upon, British series have sometimes done the same thing – just today they repeated the episode of The Saint with the giant ants in it, while we’ve been talking about those episodes of The Avengers which included things like alien plants and genuine telepathy, rather than the usual tongue-in-cheek whimsy. (I suppose it works the other way too: the various Star Trek series would very occasionally do a show which was SF only in virtue of its setting.)

In conjunction with this, I recently mentioned the Bergerac Christmas special from 1986, which is a) exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and b) memorable for being properly scary (at least it was when I was not yet in my teens). Bergerac, for those not in the know, was a sort of precursor to modern shows like Death in Paradise and Midsummer Murders, in that it was built around competently-presented detective story plots (with perhaps a touch more action to them than usual), occurring against an attractive, escapist background. To pay for the thing, the BBC went into partnership with an Australian network, and quite possibly the Jersey tourist board too, given this is where the series is largely set.

Our lead character is Jim Bergerac (played by John Nettles), a detective with the (fictitious) Bureau des Etrangers, a usefully vague fictitious branch of the Jersey police. Bergerac has the two essential attributes of a 1980s TV detective, namely a memorable car (a 1947 Triumph roadster, it says here) and a complicated personal life (he is divorced and has a history of alcoholism).

The Christmas show in question is entitled Fires in the Fall, and was written by Chris Boucher (this must have been one of the last things he did on the show before departing to focus on Star Cops, which we have also discussed recently). The tone is quite properly set by a scene in a darkened graveyard and what sounds like a child’s voice chanting a nursery rhyme. Yes, this is going to be a bit spooky. The plot itself gets underway with Bergerac’s father-in-law, local tycoon Charlie Hungerford (Terence Alexander), asking for his help in exposing a man named Raoul Barnaby (Barrie Ingham) whom Charlie believes to be a fake medium (widescale cognitive dissonance ensues for anyone used to John Nettles himself playing a character named Barnaby in Midsummer Murders).

Barnaby has been attempting to insert himself into the good graces of wealthy local widow Roberta Jardine (Margaretta Scott), a friend of Charlie’s, by trying to contact her late husband. Jim and his partner Susan (the great Louise Jameson) duly attend the seance, something Susan is not entirely pleased about following a rather eerie experience at an old house she is involved in selling. Further odd events ensue at the seance, with the voice of a young girl being heard, strange scratches appearing, and a grave in an one of the island’s cemeteries bursting into flame at the same time.

Barnaby appears convinced he has been contacted by the spirit of the girl whose grave was interfered with, and goes to the press with this – a scummy reporter (Paul Brooke) duly appears – which in turn forces Bergerac’s boss to task him with finally closing the case on the girl’s death. Apparently she was the only victim of a spree of arsons back in the 1960s, but what is the connection to the Jardine family? It turns out the cop who was assigned to the case back then retired after it went nowhere – well, not quite ‘retired’, but took a well-paid job with Jardine’s company. There are also some irregularities involved with the firm of undertakers who handled the interment.

Bergerac thinks he’s cracked the case – the arson attacks back in the 1960s were the work of Mrs Jardine’s disturbed son, who is known to have committed suicide. Bergerac thinks he killed himself out of guilt, after being responsible for the girl’s accidental death, and the family covered up the scandal. Now Mrs Jardine’s rapacious niece (Amanda Hillwood) has uncovered the family’s dark secret, and – in partnership with Barnaby, an old associate of hers – is using it to damage her aunt’s mental stability to the point where they can fake her suicide, allowing them to inherit the family fortune.

So far, a satisfying and clever detective story, as smart and cynical as the best of Boucher’s work elsewhere. The supernatural trappings just seem to be set dressing, fun though they are. But what was that scene with the spooky old house all about? Before we even have time to ponder that, things abruptly take a different turn. Mrs Jardine abruptly rumbles Barnaby as a fraud after he affects to receive messages from her dead son. The corrupt copper involved in the cover-up (Ron Pember) and Barnaby himself are found dead in mysterious circumstances, with a black-robed figure seen near them shortly before, both times.

It turns out that the dead son did not in fact die: he was just horribly burned and smuggled off to a Swiss sanatorium by his mother, with the story of his death put about to facilitate the cover-up. Now, it seems, he is back in Jersey, and seeking revenge on the individuals involved in his mother’s murder (quite why he offs the bent copper is a bit of a plot hole). It also seems that he used to live in the spooky old house where Susan had her scary experience at the start…

Cue a rather creepy sequence where Susan is stalked around the old house again by the cowled spectre – all of the set-piece ‘phantom attacks’ are very well directed, with Tom Clegg the gentleman responsible. Perhaps running and screaming is a bit less than Louise Jameson deserves as a performer, but Bergerac was a show with a very large and unwieldy regular cast at this point (there’s Bergerac, his girlfriend, his ex-father-in-law, his ex-wife, his daughter, his boss, his boss’ secretary, two other detectives from the Bureau, and a nightclub owner of his acquaintance) and I suppose this was as elegant a way of incorporating all of them into the plot as any. It’s almost a shame they don’t make more of this horror angle, but the script still manages to bring it into the resolution of the main story: the villain confesses to the murder after glimpsing Nemesis over the shoulder of an oblivious, genially sceptical Bergerac: an almost uncannily creepy moment.

And Boucher still hasn’t quite finished – the final twist of the episode is that the believed-dead son has not snuck back to Jersey, killed his mother’s tormentors and then escaped. According to the Swiss staff, he has been there in the sanatorium all the time. Nettles delivers this information with a completely straight face, in complete contrast to the amused scepticism about the supernatural that’s been going in. It’s very nicely pitched, in fact: it’s up to the viewer to decide whether this a simple case of the Swiss staff getting it wrong, or some sort of psychic projection, or something even stranger and more obscure. Anyone who doesn’t like Christmas ghost stories is afforded just enough wriggle-room to be able to avoid feeling peeved.

At the time this felt like a fun seasonal change of pace, but it seems that Bergerac did its first horror-tinged episode earlier in the same season (I should say that every other episode was shown in 1985) – What Dreams May Come, starring Charles Gray (and very much informed by Gray’s appearance in The Devil Rides Out). The annual excursion into something a bit supernatural became something of a Bergerac tradition (I remember my teenage sister being genuinely scared by 1990’s The Dig, about a Viking burial site with a spectral guardian), but I don’t think any of them were quite as effective as Fires in the Fall (maybe the ninety-minute run-time helps the story and atmosphere develop). No-one, I think, would describe Bergerac as a genuinely classic piece of TV, but this is a solidly entertaining episode.

 

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Chris Boucher’s return as writer for Little Green Men and Other Martians at least means the series gets a sort-of-worthy final episode, although the behind-the-scenes ructions which had blighted the production of the show did not relent – apparently, Erick Ray Evans went down with chicken pox and couldn’t appear in the episode at all, leading to David Calder and Trevor Cooper going through the script themselves and divvying up his lines between them. It has to be said that the absence of David Theroux does not leave a glaring hole in the team: Evans has a certain kind of presence, but Theroux is less strong a character than Kenzy, Devis, or even perhaps Anna Shoun.

Anyway, the episode lives up to the promise of its title by taking us to Mars, which is initially realised through some impressive model footage of a Martian rover travelling through a dust storm. However, this is followed by a much less than impressive scene shot on a visibly tiny studio set. One of the Martian surveyors discovers something absolutely astonishing, that promises to bring him vast fame and fortune, buried under the Martian surface – but what?

The rest of the episode is set on Moonbase, pretty much, although people do talk about Mars a lot – not least because Nathan is about to go out there, possibly for an extended period of time, to set up the Martian branch of the ISPF. He seems to be genuinely reluctant to go, and this seems to be more than just concerns about the extended period in zero-gravity (as usual, the series skips over just how long it takes to travel anywhere). The whole episode has a rather touching tone of elegiac resignation to it, as though all concerned realised that this would be the end for Star Cops.

Before his departure, however, he has other other things to worry about: an investigative journalist (Roy Holder) who Kenzy once knew has arrived, in pursuit of some kind of story, but what? Could it have anything to do with the presence of a curator from one of Earth’s wealthiest museums, apparently here to make a sale of some kind? How does this tie in with rumours of something utterly incredible having been found on Mars? Surely the death of a freelance shuttle pilot in a crash and the presence of drug dealers on the Moon can’t have anything to do with it?

Well, naturally, all these things do in fact tie up with one another, resulting in possibly the series’ most fiendishly convoluted plotline, and one which the episode really struggles to contain and do justice to. You really have to keep your head on straight and your mind focused to keep track of all the ins and outs, but in the end it proves to be rather clever.

My recollection of the episode – I think I may have seen it just the once before, properly, back in 1987 – was that it concerned an actual attempt to fake evidence of an extinct Martian civilisation. But the memory cheats, naturally, and what the story is actually about is a conspiracy to suggest contact between ancient Earth civilisations and some kind of intelligence on Mars, all in the cause of swindling people out of massive amounts of money, naturally. That’s a bit more plausible, though I wonder how long the deception would have held for.

As noted, perhaps it’s as well that Erick Ray Evans was off sick, as the episode does have a lot going on already – perhaps too much. A subplot about a designer drug operation on the Moon feels particularly short-changed, with a few key events happening off-camera. It seems a little odd that Boucher chose not to include these but did insert a subplot concerning an American news anchor visiting in connection with the Martian discovery (in one of those amusing resonances, the actress involved, Lachele Carl, would later acquire a certain type of fame for playing a virtually identical character across many episodes of another BBC genre franchise).

In the end, though, this is a solid conclusion to the series and a return to form after the weaker non-Boucher episodes. Whatever the issues with the over-ambitiousness of the plot, the characterisation is as strong as ever and you do get a sense of the various individuals genuinely having become a team – the others seem genuinely upset when it appears that Nathan has been killed, while a sincere affection does seem to have developed between Nathan and Kenzy.

In this respect, as with may others, it’s a shame that Star Cops never got a second set of episodes, but it’s a little difficult to see how the proposed idea of incorporating Martian Star Cops and ISPF officers on the deep-space outposts could have been integrated into the format that had developed. (I know that Big Finish have produced a well-received set of audio dramas continuing the story – slightly ironic, given Boucher originally conceived of Star Cops as a radio show – but, things being as they are, I doubt I’ll be listening to them.)

Star Cops remains a fairly obscure cult series even in the realms of TV science fiction, notable, perhaps, as being the BBC’s last attempt to initiate proper full-blooded SF for an adult audience for many years – there was Invasion: Earth in 1998, and then virtually nothing series-wise until the revival of Survivors in 2008 and then Outcasts in 2011. Could things have been different? I’m not sure: Star Cops got a reasonable push at the time (a Radio Times cover, even), but it was unsympathetically scheduled and very little about the series screamed that it was a prestige production. One has to ask the question: even with the biggest budget and the best scheduling, and (if we’re speculating) Chris Boucher being allowed to write all the episodes and even produce the thing himself, did and does an audience even exist for this kind of realistic hard SF show?

I am tempted to say no, even though I would love to be proved wrong. So I suppose we should just be glad that such a marginal series got made at all. For all its flaws and technical shortcomings, Star Cops always has good performances at its heart, and the best moments of the Boucher scripts include some of the most intelligent and witty writing I’ve ever seen in BBC science fiction. No-one would argue, I think, that this series isn’t seriously flawed, but it’s also a definite gem.

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Other People’s Secrets (the last of the John Collee Star Cops scripts) has the feel about it of what I suppose I would call mid-season filler – the kind of epiode they do on the cheap to save money, hopefully without it being too obvious. Everything has been pared down to the essentials. There’s very little new model filming (a few stock shots are re-used), only the most basic new sets, only a handful of visiting characters, and – and perhaps here one might suggest this is a detective show which has gone overboard when it comes to economising – hardly any actual crime to investigate.

As even the Star Cops themselves admit, it is a slack period, without very much going on in their line of work. Krivenko, however, is busy with a visit from an old friend, safety controller Ernest Wolfhartt (the fine character actor Geoffrey Bayldon, perhaps not getting the material he deserves). Unfortunately his visit coincides with a spate of minor technical malfunctions – Nathan’s new communications system blows up while Wolfhardt is in the ISPF office, the electronic card table in one of the rec areas likewise goes haywire while he is around, and so on (why bother with an electronic card table? what’s the problem with normal cards?).

It just puts more pressure on Moonbase maintenance, which seems to effectively consist of one man – Hooper (Barrie Rutter, one of those where-have-I-seen-this-guy-before? actors, but apparently a celebrated theatre director as well), who is exceptionally brusque and Northern. He’s giving a very hard time to his assistant Anderson (Leigh Funnell, in what appears to be her only TV or film appearance – no, she wasn’t even in The Bill), which doesn’t help the situation.

Everyone is getting a bit stressed out, which may be why a psychologist is coming to Moonbase to assess the state of key personnel. Talking to Dr Parr (Maggie Ollerenshaw) – one of Devis’ many ex-wives, if you can believe that – is of course voluntary, except for the Star Cops (Krivenko has called in a favour from Nathan in the hope this will encourage others to volunteer). Well, Anna is of course happy to comply, David seems indifferent, Colin Devis seems mainly preoccupied with a bad case of sexual frustration, and Kenzy flatly refuses to see the shrink.

This is pretty much the plot of the first half or two-thirds of the episode: slice-of-moonbase-life character stuff, for the most part, with the possible suggestion that someone actually is sabotaging minor Moonbase systems for no apparent reason. Then, of course, there is a major incident and part of the base is depressurised: everyone is forced into sealed areas and other refuges while waiting for help to arrive.

What this means in writing terms is a chance for characters to get stuff off their chests to each other in extremis – a common scriptwriter’s tactic but a reasonable one all the same. For whatever reason, the main beneficiary is Nathan, who reveals something of his own backstory – the break which launched his career came when he cracked a case involving corruption at a computer manufacturer’s, the revelation being that the collar he felt was that of his own father. It’s a reasonable bit of writing and well put-across by David Calder. Counterpointing this are a bunch of scenes building up to a punchline which is the alarming sound of Colin Devis in the throes of passion (thankfully the visuals are left to the viewer’s imagination).

If you subscribe to the idea that Other People’s Secrets is basically there to be cheap filler, which is really the most charitable way of viewing it, then it is a success: which is to say it exists, it fills in a slot in the schedule, it keeps the BBC from having to show the test card for fifty minutes or so on a Monday night (to paraphrase the late Terrance Dicks). Beyond this? Well, it’s really very marginal stuff. The idea of doing a hard SF crime show in space is already a fairly fringe one – someone has suggested that rather than appealing to both crime and SF fans, the SF in Star Cops alienated people who enjoyed detective shows and the detective work put off SF viewers – and the notion of doing an episode of a hard SF crime show set in space which doesn’t actually contain any crime is on the verge of becoming provocative.

Well, there is a crime, sort of, but it’s very minor and the culprit, when caught, admits to not really knowing or caring why they committed it. The episode is really about the odd things that people do in extreme circumstances and when under pressure – as I said, it’s really character stuff for the most part, but the problem is that the Star Cops characters are drawn with such a broad brush for the most part that there doesn’t seem to be much to uncover here. Nathan Spring is the exception, being by far the most complex and best played of the lot of them. But the others? David Theroux is mostly laid-back, occasionally a bit prickly, and likes movies; Kenzy is something of a loose cannon and clearly has some kind of issues she doesn’t want to talk about; Colin Devis is coarse, blunt, over-sexed and often more than a bit bigoted; and Anna Shoun is very nice and Japanese. Krivenko is, as noted, the mayor of space, a decent guy trying to do a difficult job and willing (regretfully) to pass some of his problems on to the ISPF. To be fair, Krivenko is the main beneficiary of the episode, getting a few nice scenes where he and Wolfhartt talk about their lives and what any of it all means.

I suppose the fact that, by this point in the season, Star Cops had such a substantial regular cast meant that this kind of bottle show was a viable proposition – it would have been hard to manage much earlier in the run – but it feels like the show treading water. The fact it’s the penultimate episode really is a bit unfortunate, but the fact that one of the two final stories (Philip Martin’s Death on the Moon, apparently something of an Agatha Christie pastiche) was abandoned due to an electricians’ strike means that this is where it ended up. It is what it is: hardly an example of the show at its best, but then it was never meant to be.

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If I say that A Double Life (once again written by John Collee) feels like the dud of the bunch when it comes to Star Cops episodes, it’s not because it’s appreciably much more awful than any of the others – it’s just that the things that distinguish the best episodes just aren’t there, and the weaker elements which have crept in as the season has progressed are more prominent.

The episode opens in an embryo storage facility on Moonbase, which is a surprisingly substantial set considering it isn’t that central to the story. Someone breaks into one of the freezers and extracts three embryos before making his escape. The ISPF are clearly on it, as they are investigating the scene of the crime within ten minutes, identifying traces left behind by the thief. Or, given he has stolen some embryos, is he in fact a kidnapper?

Owner of the stolen tadpoles (as Devis describes them, with characteristic coarseness) is Madame Chamsya Asadi (Nitza Saul), immensely wealthy and influential widow of a noted international arms dealer, on the moon to have the embryos implanted (apparently, and I’ve no idea if this is backed up by actual science, the odds of success are much higher in microgravity). She is highly displeased about the crime, not surprisingly, and could use her clout to make life very difficult for both Krivenko and Nathan.

Unfortunately, after a good start, the Star Cops drop the ball a bit: Anna Shoun, who is searching anyone leaving the base, is overpowered by the criminal, who makes good his escape. (This just strengthens Devis’ belief that she’s not cut out to be a police officer, and the pair’s relationship and his attitude towards her is at the heart of one of the episode’s more effective plot threads.)

Here the episode starts to go a bit wobbly: Anna, desperately trying to make amends for her error, spends hours working on a photofit of her attacker, but wails to Nathan that she keeps coming up with a photo of the famous international concert pianist James Bannerman (Brian Gwaspari) – we have already seen Bannerman giving a concert at the Albert Hall, courtesy of wobbly CSO effects, so we know he is important to the plot. Now, you or I would probably say, ‘well, let’s check the records for anyone who looks a bit like James Bannerman,’ and take it from there. However, Nathan, in a credulity-straining move, decides to take this at (literally) face value and see if Bannerman has a motive, and it indeed turns out that his father (a famous geneticist) was allegedly murdered by Asadi’s late husband.

Despite the fact that Bannerman was giving a concert at the exact time the crime was committed and thus has a pretty good alibi, Nathan nevertheless packs Theroux off to Earth to interview him (Gwaspari goes for a rather peculiar non-specific accent) and test his DNA. It’s a match for that found at the crime scene! But how to explain his alibi and the fact we know it’s someone else?

Literally the most exciting photo from this episode I could find, which should tell you something…

Here comes improbable development #2: hang on, says Nathan, what if there are actually two James Bannermans (Bannermen?) – his father was a geneticist who was estranged from his son, but he could have had the lad cloned. (This would have happened in 1995, apparently.) Once again this wild leap in the dark proves to be entirely accurate, but before they can track down the clone (courtesy of another inspired intuitive leap – the episode is stuffed with them), Krivenko tells Asadi of their suspicions regarding Bannerman, and he is kidnapped by the Arabs. Can the Star Cops find the clone and rescue the embryos before Arab justice means that Bannerman will never play the piano again?

Well, one thing you can say about this episode is that the general improbability of the premise and plotting does rather take one’s mind off the presentation of the Arabic characters. On the one hand, it’s not quite as provocative as the way the show handled Japanese and Italian culture in the previous two episodes – but on the other hand, they are presented as generically ‘Arabic’ rather than belonging to a specific nationality (shame: if there had been even a whiff of Madame Asadi being Egyptian, this piece would have been titled Nile Delta and the Bannermen, but you can’t have everything I suppose). Also, Asadi is no respecter of international law, is quite happy to use her power and influence to get her own way, and there is the whole element of the climax revolving around a character having his hand cut off for being a thief. With all this going on it’s hardly worth mentioning the unconvincing way the Middle East setting is handled, or for that matter Madame Asadi’s curious choice of a fur hat in a number of scenes.

Oh, I suppose it just about hangs together, but the witty, intelligent, and cynical show which Star Cops was for the first few weeks seems to have turned into something in danger of just being knockabout sci-fi gubbins, with perhaps a few grittier elements to it (Devis is still an obnoxious borderline-racist, although he modifies his views by the episode’s end). It’s about nasty clones and people with laser pistols, suddenly, with not much attention paid to the subtleties of the investigation or the political angle of the story.

Also – and this may just be a personal thing, I admit – Collee seems to have been under the impression that all SF episodes must conclude with a jokey tag scene at the very end, so the story finishes on a big laugh. (A convention established by original Star Trek and consolidated by Space: 1999, amongst others.) The previous one, with Devis pretending to be a karate expert and hoiking himself through the air, was okay if a bit iffy – the one in this episode is simply obvious and cringey. I’d completely forgotten about it, and even as I was watching it thought, well, they could do a gag where… but it would just be stupid. And even as I was watching it, they did exactly the joke I thought they wouldn’t go near.  This isn’t a completely awful episode, but parts of it come very close.

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Exhibit B for the ‘Star Cops can be a bit iffy when it comes to national stereotyping’ prosecution is John Collee’s episode In Warm Blood, which was apparently a slightly fraught production behind the scenes: production on the series was, we are given to understand, largely characterised by creator Chris Boucher and producer Evgeny Gridneff not getting on or sharing a vision for the show, with relations reaching something of a nadir around this point. The particular bone of contention was Gridneff’s decision to introduce a new regular character without Boucher’s agreement. One is tempted to side with Boucher, if only because… well, we’ll come to that.

As the episode gets underway, top of the ISPF’s agenda is the return to lunar orbit of a survey ship, the Pluto 5, which has been to the asteroid belt. Now, however, the crew are not responding to communications from Moonbase, and so the ISPF send up a team to investigate. There is a bit of a dark-and-spooky vibe to all of this, leading up to the moment when Theroux spies something through the cockpit window that momentarily gives him the ab-dabs. The crew are all dead, and – more than that – appear to be virtually mummified, or dessicated.

The Pluto 5 is under the purview of Hanimed, a major international pharmaceutical company, and in order to get permission to board the ship, the Star Cops have to accept the presence of a Hanimed employee on the team, a Japanese doctor named Anna Shoun (played by Sayo Inaba – the actress may be Japanese even if the character’s name blatantly isn’t). Anna Shoun keeps bowing to people and talking about her loyalty and gratitude to the company which is as a mother and father to her.

Nathan is all set to join the mission until Krivenko, whose role in these plots is basically to be the mayor of space, make Nathan’s life difficult, and complicate the stories, makes a personal request: a friend of his, a medical researcher named Janssen, is not answering her own radio, and Krivenko wants Nathan to make sure she’s okay, as a personal favour. Reluctantly Nathan agrees.

It turns out that Janssen is also dead, apparently having committed suicide somehow, but the condition of her body – and her orbital module – is eerily similar to that of the Pluto 5: in both cases, death seems to have overtaken the occupants very rapidly, and the internal heating is turned up to 41 degrees – due to a systems failure on the ship, but seemingly intentionally in Janssen’s pod. Nathan digs a little deeper and discovers that Janssen was funded by Hanimed, and that she cut off communications just after the problems with Pluto 5 became apparent…

I am tempted to conclude with ‘could there possibly be a connection?’ but that would be a bit fatuous, wouldn’t it: of course there is. What ensues is another story basically taking a pop at the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry: suffice to say that the sinister and ruthless head of Hanimed, Richard Ho (another fantastically authentic Japanese name, I think you’ll agree) has been treating the crews of the corporation’s space flights as unwitting guinea pigs, carrying out unauthorised human testing on new drugs, which in this case has gone disastrously wrong.

Well, fair enough – it’s another fairly coherent episode, albeit with a couple of questionable plot developments. At one point Nathan decides to try and infiltrate Hanimed HQ in Tokyo (thriftily realised in the usual Star Cops manner), but ends up sending Colin Devis, possibly the least credible covert operative since Ridge in Doomwatch – maybe even worse. (This ties into a comic-relief subplot about Devis trying to pass his medical so he can stay in space.) Devis naturally gets caught so quickly you wonder if this was Nathan’s plan all along. The episode concludes with Nathan confronting Ho in a sauna and basically beating a confession out of him (well, not quite, but there’s a degree of physical coercion involved) – which makes one wonder how Nathan plans to make his charges stick; the ‘confession’ doesn’t seem to be recorded, which may be as well for our hero, considering the methods he employs. As you might begin to expect, the level of intelligence is a bit lower than in the Boucher-written episodes.

That said, I’m not sure this assessment quite does justice to the Japanese elements of the story, which are at least as badly handled as the Italian ones in the previous episode. At least the Italians in that one looked Italian and had Italian names – the employees of the Japanese megacorporation here have names that are either Bavarian or Chinese in origin, and Richard Rees (the actor playing Ho) doesn’t even look especially Japanese – Rees had a decent TV career playing characters from a wide range of ethnicities, including Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, and so on. The old stereotype of Japanese people being fanatically devoted to their companies is in full effect here, too, although – after a little tough love from Nathan – Anna Shoun eventually decides to do the right thing and expose Hanimed’s activities. (We should probably also touch on the tag-scene gag of this episode, which sees Devis making cod-Japanese sounds before attempting to flying-kick the office furniture, all for comic effect.)

I’m still not sure why the producer thought the series was crying out for the addition of Shoun as a regular character, though, as she’s really not much more than a cardboard cut-out at this point. Presumably it was just a case of providing a bit more gender balance, as the regular cast is very blokey up to this point. Well, fair enough, and full marks to the show for casting someone actually Japanese as their Japanese doctor (with a Bavarian name) – but Sayo Inaba never seems particularly comfortable acting in English, regardless of the slimness of her character. (Four episodes of Star Cops may in fact constitute the bulk of Inaba’s acting career, based on her IMDb entry at least.)

Anyway, six episodes in, Star Cops finally has the complete regular cast that will see it through the rest of its run (another three episodes). I find it really hard to decide if this story is better or worse than the one about the Mafia, but I am sensing a definite drop in the general quality of the episodes when Chris Boucher isn’t writing them. Having done the Italians and Japanese, if memory serves the next episode is the one about Arabs. Seat-belts duly fastened…

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Well, what do you know: no sooner do I suggest that Star Cops is, in one sense, the anti-Gerry Anderson space hardware show (no sign of a launch or landing sequence) than the very next episode, This Case to be Opened in a Million Years, opens with a rocket blasting off from the Moon. Well, almost: there is an accident on the launch-pad and the vehicle is destroyed. Cue red lights and alarms, and everyone getting into not very convincing hazard suits, for the abortive launch is by an Italian company whose business is firing nuclear waste into deep space, never to return.

An investigation of this near-disaster is obviously on the cards, but before Nathan and the team can get onto it, the personnel department get into the commander and inform him that he’s spent too long in a micro-gravity environment and needs to spend a week on Earth. Nathan is about as delighted as you might expect by this, but regulations are regulations and he heads off, leaving a strangely-subdued David Theroux in charge.

On the flight back to Earth, Nathan finds himself sitting next to a predictably glamorous and outgoing Italian woman, who suggests he spend his leave in Rome – even to the point of making a date with him at the Roman catacombs in a few days time. Unfortunately for Nathan, but fortunately for the episode’s budget, Rome is lashed by continuous torrential rain, and he is forced to spend the next couple of days in his hotel room. He’s all for leaving town but has no way of getting in touch with his date and simple English good manners prevents him from blowing her out. Things get even worse on the tour of the catacombs: not only do the catacombs look rubbish (you can really, really hear the budget creaking in the Italian-set sequences of this episode), but he is attacked by a sinister figure whom he is forced to kill in self-defence.

It turns out the dead man was a Moonbase engineer whom the ISPF recently busted for drug possession, apparently out for revenge: but things inevitably get more complex than that. Large amounts of money have been deposited in Nathan’s account and heroin is planted in his hotel room – he unwisely sticks his tongue in this and enjoys an Apocalypse Now-style freak-out, which the local cops can only interpret in the most negative way. He is being framed – but by whom, and why?

Meanwhile, the rest of the team is working the investigation into the crash on the moon – the assassin in Italy was formerly employed by the waste disposal company, which no-one pays much attention to, strangely enough. The main issue is that they’re not being allowed in to inspect the wreckage, as it is apparently much too radioactive to safely approach – Devis isn’t convinced by this, but finds once again that Theroux seems reluctant to press the issue. Kenzy has also noticed something going on between the head of the company and the Italian-Australian boss of a mining concern – some days everything seems to have an Italian connection…

Nothing wrong with that, of course, but on the other hand the series doesn’t necessarily handle this element with the greatest of subtlety. I’m beginning to wonder if the charge of racial stereotyping which is regularly laid against Star Cops may not in fact have an element of truth to it, because we are not terribly far from Allo Allo! territory here. ‘Ere we-a go for da English-a speakin’ tour-a!’ cries the guide in the catacomb guide, ‘English speaking’ clearly being a relative thing in 2027. The local Italian cops are likewise a fairly dodgy bunch, the inspector always having a fag on the go, and so on.

‘Allo, I am an Italian-a stereotype-a.’

And beyond this, of course, there is the episode’s main revelation, which is that the Sicilian Mafia has infiltrated the high frontier, and apparently every person of Italian descent in orbit or on the Moon is a card-carrying member of the organisation (well, maybe not literally card-carrying). The plot turns out to revolve around a racket where uranium ore dug up by the miners is smuggled back to Earth under the cover of the waste disposal company’s operations, to get around regulations on dealing in plutonium – it hangs together, but it lacks the political angle present in Chris Boucher’s scripts that gave them a little bit of extra edge.

Oh, well – it’s not like this is a flat-out bad episode (though the sequences set in Italy are a near thing), it just trades in stereotypes and the plot is fairly ordinary. What’s curious is that the character spine of the episode, for want of a better way of putting it, is what’s going on with Theroux and his issues with the high levels of radiation involved in the crash and its investigation. It turns out that his father was caught up in another radiation accident years ago and died as a result of his exposure, which has left David with a marked reluctance to take any chances in this area (it’s hardly a phobia, in the circumstances).

Fair enough, and potentially some good stuff there, but it’s mostly presented as a what’s-up-with-Theroux? mystery and only really addressed in one short scene near the end: this is to set up Nathan going alone into the area where the nuclear waste is theoretically stored, getting into trouble, and being rescued by David, whose loyalty to Nathan wins out over his fear. Potentially reasonably effective, but it isn’t really developed enough and Erick Ray Evans, playing Theroux, doesn’t get much benefit from it – Kenzy and Devis get more to do in their investigation of the dodgy mine and its Mafia connections.

I suppose it may be that what’s happening here is that Chris Boucher, creator of the series and writer of the first four episodes, is clearly very SF-literate – you can spot the influences and references throughout his scripts for Blake’s 7 and elsewhere. Philip Martin, on the other hand, while best-known for the well-regarded surreal crime drama Gangsters (I haven’t actually seen this, but I suspect it’s my kind of thing), has less of a track record in the actual SF genre, his work tending to mix well-known tropes with not especially subtle satire. Perhaps that’s true of this episode too. It’s his only contribution to the series, though, so we’ll never know if greater familiarity with the format would have produced better results.

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One of the things I’d forgotten about Star Cops is how closely connected the episodes are – the early ones at least. I suppose it is another expression of the Blake’s 7 influence on the series. Certainly, episode four, Trivial Games and Paranoid Pursuits, has close ties to the preceding couple of stories. As it opens, the atmosphere in the main ISPF office on the Moon is not ideal, as Spring has Kenzy answering the communicator and doing the filing – he may have been forced to reinstate her, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to let her back out into the field. Suffice to say she is not happy.

Nathan Spring, however, has other things on his mind – namely, a trip to the American station Ronald Reagan to try and persuade the commander of the American orbital presence to let him put Star Cops on US satellites and outposts. This will be an uphill struggle, as the Americans are instinctively suspicious of this kind of international judicial agency (this rings very depressingly true) and they have it in for Spring personally on a couple of grounds: sacking a corrupt American Star Cop in the previous episode, and forcing the resignation of the Moonbase co-ordinator in the one before that. (The new co-ordinator is a Russian, installed years ahead of schedule, and the Americans suspect Spring of deliberately wanting a Soviet in this key role.)

Nathan goes over to the American station and completely fails to hit it off with Griffin, the commander there. Griffin is played by Daniel Benzali, possibly known in the SF tribelands as the incompetent surgeon who nearly kills Picard in a TNG episode, but also as the leading man of the first season of Murder One, and he does the best he can with a character who’s written as a borderline-paranoid cigar-chomping American nationalist. Some magnificently insincere conversations where Spring and Griffin pretend to be civil to one another ensue, including a moment where Spring uses Box to sabotage Griffin’s gravity-controlled pool table so he can win.

As the requirements of the plot would have it, while all this political hardball is going on, another American-related issue is developing – a woman contacts the ISPF, telling them her brother is a microbiologist working on the Ronald Reagan, but not only can she not get in touch with him, the Americans are claiming they’ve never heard of him or his work, and the module he supposedly leased from them – OMZ-13 – doesn’t even exist. Is the woman just a nuisance looking to cause trouble, or is there something else going on? The new Russian co-ordinator (Jonathan Adams) takes a keen interest in this, which makes a suspicious Devis rather uneasy – but the new man is following everything that happens. Such as a couple of scrap and salvage dealers who have found a sealed module adrift in deep space, the only marking on it being the code OMZ-13…

There are many good things about this episode, but the whole element with the salvage dealers makes me scratch my head a bit. They are presented as a couple of rough-and-ready independent operators, almost the high frontier equivalent of rag and bone men, desperate for scrap to keep their venture going and dreaming of getting rich. But they have their own space shuttle! How can you still be dreaming of getting rich if you’re already able to afford your own orbital vehicle? But as ever, their presence and eagerness to take chances is crucial to the plot.

I must also say that this is one of those episodes with perhaps one layer too many of conspiracies and obfuscation. A key character turns out to be not who they presented themselves as to begin with, which is perfectly acceptable and fits nicely into the cynical, politically-motivated world of Star Cops. However, who they really are and what their agenda is is, at best, left implied. Are they a journalist? A Russian agent? Either way, how did they know about the cover-up which is at the heart of the story? I must confess to scratching my head once more.

It’s also the case that some of the model-work in this episode is not quite up to the same standards as in the first instalments. This may be due to a change of director: Christopher Baker, who did just over half the series, has been replaced by Graeme Harper. I know virtually nothing about Christopher Baker, who seems to have been a journeyman doing things like Emmerdale Farm and Z Cars for most of his career, but Graeme Harper has acquired a degree of celebrity for his unusually stylish and energetic work on a number of British fantasy series (not that he hasn’t spent his share of time doing EastEnders and Hollyoaks). Some people say the difference between Baker’s episodes (pristine, brightly-lit) and Harper’s work (grimy, gloomy) is instantly apparent, and I suppose there’s a degree of truth to that in this episode – but it’s not like you’re suddenly watching a different show.

While we’re here I suppose this would be a good time to address a couple of little niggles that keep occurring to me throughout all the episodes. For a series which isn’t averse to making the occasional raid on 2001 (there’s a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of that in this episode), there’s not much sense of how the infrastructure of space travel actually works – it’s almost like an anti-Gerry Anderson series, in that you almost never see a vehicle landing or taking off, and rarely in flight. Maybe this was a conscious creative decision (in order to avoid looking like Space: 1999 or whatever), although it certainly synergises well with the series’ low budget. Maybe it’s leaving just a bit too much to the imagination though.

The other thing is – well, it’s really just a small thing, and I fully understand the reasoning behind it for dramatic purposes, but whenever two people have a conversation over the video-link, no matter where they are, there’s no sign of any time lag. I’ve seen video-links from opposite sides of the Atlantic which were painful to listen to because of lag and people talking over each other, and yet here we have people on the Moon chatting to folks back home as if they were in the next room (there should be two or three seconds lag, minimum). As I say, it would make for long and boring scenes if they took scientific accuracy too seriously in this regard, so I can see why they fudged it – but for a series which trades heavily on its hard SF credentials, it’s just a tiny bit wobbly.

But back to the good stuff! Quite apart from the continuing sense that the idealism of living on the high frontier has become terminally compromised by all the cynical political concerns people have dragged up with them out of Earth’s gravity well, this episode has got great characterisation and some cracking, acerbic dialogue. The ISPF is not a cosy outfit where everyone is friends: you really do get a sense that these are people who work together but don’t necessarily like each other or have much in common outside of work. But it’s also very quick and cleverly written, much more so than… well, I don’t really watch a lot of modern TV drama, to be honest. Maybe that’s part of the reason why. On the whole the strengths of this episode just about outweigh the weaknesses.

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The only on-screen trailer I can ever recall for Star Cops (which ran in the middle of a double bill of Dracula, Prince of Darkness and The Evil of Frankenstein, and thus could have been specifically targeted at 13-year-old-me) declared that it is set ‘just forty steps on the road of time’ away (presumably a reference to that 2027 dateline from all the written publicity). As we have noted, while the actual late-2020s date now looks hopelessly ambitious, and some of the geopolitics is likewise out of date, much of the first couple of episodes stands up pretty well as a credible depiction of the near future.

This is not really true of the third episode, Intelligent Listening for Beginners (I must say, I do like Chris Boucher’s taste in episode titles – the fact they’re not all called things like Computer Virus or The Secret of Outpost Nine somehow make me feel like I’m being credited with intelligence). The story begins with a strange message flashing up on the screen at a chemical plant somewhere in (cost-effective) Britain – ‘Oh rose thou art sick’. Readers with a classical education will of course instantly peg this as a quote from William Blake, which turns out to be relevant to the plot in a way which has not aged well. The systems at the plant start to malfunction, leading to a disaster which the director does his very best to realise on an obviously low budget; the fact that all the plant workers appear to be dressed as supermarket bakers does not help.

Meanwhile, Nathan Spring and David Theroux have been requested to visit the remote, high-security moon outpost of multi-millionaire Michael Chandri (David John Pope). The moon buggy is a decent model (somewhere between Captain Scarlet and Red Dwarf), and the dialogue between the two of them is fun (more movie quote swapping, with Nathan using Box to cheat), but the sequence is made rather aggravating by some of the worst incidental music I’ve ever heard (I still have a fondness for the theme tune, but will happily concede the music here is awful).

It turns out that Chandri doesn’t need the ISPF’s help, but can offer them a sort of lead: he informs them of a plan by an anarchist group to hijack one of the scheduled Earth-orbit flights. When Nathan asks the reasonable question of what Chandri’s source is for this, Chandri only alludes to the fact that he is working on an intelligent listening computer system – basically, an AI capable of sifting out significant pieces of information from (as Nathan puts it) ‘the babble of all the world’.

Unfortunately, Chandri can’t offer more than that very vague scrap, so it’s really back to the daily grind for Nathan and David: which means trying to get the Star Cops’ house in order. Nathan has been using Colin Devis to entrap corrupt officers – behind David’s back, which annoys the American no end, but his promotion to officially being Nathan’s second in command helps a bit. One of the bent Star Cops given the shove is Pal Kenzy – what the hell kind of a name is that? – an Australian, played by Linda Newton (the character briefly appeared in the opening episode). Kenzy is not pleased, especially as she has come to HQ to try and sell Nathan on the idea of arming the Star Cops with a laser pistol produced by a company she just happens to have a relationship with.

Laser pistols don’t really chime with the atmosphere Chris Boucher has worked hard to establish, but there is the glimmer of an interesting idea mentioned in passing: the weapon can be fine-tuned to the point where it only affects people with specific levels of skin pigmentation – ‘finally, a racist weapon!’ says Theroux, far from delighted. This possibility never gets explored, but it strikes me as a fine premise for a provocative piece of SF, particularly nowadays.

Back on Earth, there is another disaster: computer failure leads to a head-on collision in the channel tunnel (the act of parliament authorising the tunnel’s construction was passed three days after this episode was transmitted, although I doubt there was a connection). (Again, it doesn’t seem like a very well-designed system if that can happen, while the director is clearly stumped when asked to come up with a thrifty establishing shot for the tunnel itself: he just sticks a camera on a beach and films the sea, before cutting to trains rattling around in semi-darkness.) Once again, based on messages received by the system, William Blake seems to be the prime suspect…

The early parts of this episode are pretty good, with strong character moments and fairly interesting world-building going on. Unfortunately, when it comes to resolving the story Chris Boucher comes a bit unstuck, partly due to history having overtaken him. It turns out the computers in the plant and tunnel control, not to mention Chandri’s own outpost, contain ‘worms’, programmes which replicate, take over the system like a disease and then ‘kill’ it. ‘You mean, like some kind of a computer virus?’ cries Nathan Spring, to whom the concept is clearly new. Yes, the plot is partly about computer viruses, which were still a fairly new idea in 1987. It seems very quaint that no-one in 2027 has heard of them, though. Also, Boucher suggests that the viruses are essentially hard-wired into the system architecture – he seems to have completely missed the possibility of anything resembling the internet coming into existence. Not being able to predict the future doesn’t make Boucher a bad writer, it just makes this episode difficult to take seriously.

When police interviews go bad, 2027-style.

Of course, it has other flaws – spoilers incoming! – apparently Chandri is so driven to match his own father’s successes as an inventor and businessman that he’s staging all these disasters to prepare for a similar attack on his own systems, to cover up the fact that his intelligent listening AI doesn’t actually work: his tip about the hijacking was given to him by American intelligence as a subject for investigation by the AI, and he’s passing it on to the ISPF in the hope they can turn something up he can take the credit for. Whoa, baby! There’s a lot to take in there. Chandri isn’t really fleshed out enough as a character for all these unlikely acts to be plausible, and it does all seem rather contrived.

So, plot wise, it’s a weak episode, though the character interaction between the different regulars is snappy and fun – suffice to say that Kenzy has wangled her way back onto the team by the episode’s end, much to Spring’s annoyance. (The implication is that he attempts to get her fired from her position on one of the space stations, which seems odd as she’s theoretically only a part-time Star Cop, and would presumably have another job which is nothing to do with Nathan.) I will also just mention in passing that Devis also comes across as a bit too unreconstructed a bloke for the setting: he’s like a cross between Gene Hunt and Willie Thorne (visually, at least). Oh well, all part of the mix, I suppose.

There are some ways in which the episode is kind of on the money, in that it seems very likely that the kind of intelligent listening software Chandri is working on does actually exist in the real world now – certainly these systems pop up in fairly realistic thrillers, and have been doing so for over a decade. But the business with the computer viruses is just, well, quaint, when viewed from a 21st century perspective, to say nothing of some of the iffy character motivations. An okay episode, but not up to the standard of the first two.

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