Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Star Cops’

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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…

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

As previously mentioned, Chris Boucher’s most notable gig prior to creating and writing the bulk of Star Cops was four years on Blake’s 7, so it’s perhaps not surprising there is the faintest echo of that series here occasionally: not really in the style or stories, but in the way the regular cast is slowly introduced over the course of a handful of episodes. Certainly, as Conversations with the Dead opens, the ISPF is still very much a duo – Nathan Spring and David Theroux are the only full-timers, based on the Charles de Gaulle space station. The problem is that Spring just can’t hack it in zero gravity, and one of the jobs the episode does is show the establishment of the main office as part of Moonbase (which apparently doesn’t have any Star Cops of its own).

Apart from this, everything seems relatively quiet: the Americans have set up a new orbital platform, which no-one else is being given access to, and there has been an accident involving an Earth-Mars freighter: the engines fired at the wrong time, pushing the craft onto the wrong course, with no prospect of it reaching another outpost before the life-support is exhausted: the crew are effectively dead, but are still breathing for the time being.

The question, of course, is whether it really was an accident and if anyone is culpable for it. Spring and Theroux are set to handle the investigation, until something unexpected happens back on Earth: Nathan’s long-term girlfriend Lee is murdered while visiting his apartment, and Nathan himself implicated in the killing via a message which the murderer left on his home communications system. The investigation of the crime by the Earthside cops hardly fills Nathan with confidence: leading the investigation is Colin Devis (Trevor Cooper), who Nathan seems to know of and pegs as the winner of the All-England Cretin Championship. Devis’ sergeant, Corman (Sian Webber), seems a bit more on the ball, however.

The two investigations proceed in tandem: the ‘dead’ flight crew communicating with Moonbase while Nathan is haunted by his memories of Lee (the depiction of Nathan’s grief, in terms of both script and performance, is very effective). The killer seems to be playing with Nathan, luring him into a park in the middle of the night and killing a young street gang member who attacks him (the existence of these ‘urban apaches’ as an endemic menace was mentioned as an element of the series’ future world but mainly just suggests Boucher was a fan of The Warriors). The investigation of the freighter accident doesn’t go anywhere, though – but there is unexpected good news, as amongst the cargo are a couple of experimental cryogenic suspension pods the crew could, in theory, use to survive for the eight years until the freighter comes back into retrieval range. Now there’s a lucky coincidence…

In the end the two crimes prove to be unconnected in their substance – though both of them do seem to me to depend on the organisation of the high frontier being shockingly slipshod: people seem to be able to smuggle themselves and other objects onto space stations and space ships with the greatest of ease, to say nothing of vital systems being casually sabotaged. One of them is motivated by ego, while the other maintains the cynical vein of the first episode by being deeply political: Nathan and the other Star Cops are being used as proxies in a British intelligence operation against the American Department of Defence, with the death of Lee being considered acceptable collateral damage.

Looking at it again now, I wonder if this episode – and perhaps the rest of the series, to a lesser extent – doesn’t owe some kind of a debt to Edge of Darkness, which was originally transmitted less than two years earlier. The grieving detective, the political shenanigans – it’s all done in miniature here, and with markedly lower production values, but even so, there are certainly echoes. Edge of Darkness even alludes to the ‘high frontier’ notion central to Star Cops in its closing stages.

Needless to say, the Reagan-era Star Wars SDI also seems to have influenced the script, with the mysterious US station presumably having some military-industrial purpose to it – the episode suggests it is heavily armed, which doesn’t seem to be the case with any of the other stations and outposts in the series. I suppose it just goes to prove what everyone always says: when you set out to make a series about the future, you end up saying much more about the present. The 2027 of Star Cops looks very much like the 1980s now, more than it did at the time.

The rest of the episode is a bit more functional and less resonant nowadays. The second plot, about the sabotaged freighter, is mildly interesting but probably not the kind of thing that could work as the spine of a whole episode – the main thing that makes it interesting is that the model-work involved is really excellent, while the ship interior is… well, the BBC dodge the issue of having to build a set for the freighter, as we just hear the voices of the crew over the radio. A clever, distinctive and thrifty touch.

The other main job of the episode is to introduce Colin Devis, who fails to distinguish himself as a detective but by the episode’s end has shown himself to be a man of integrity and principle by attempting to expose the security forces for their part in Lee’s death. This, we are invited to assume, impresses Spring enough to hire him as the next member of his Star Cop team, with special responsibilities for comedy relief. It’s not entirely clear what Boucher is aiming for with this particular character – is Devis meant to be an amusing blunderer, or simply obnoxious and inept? – either way, the revelation that he’s committed enough to his ideals to sacrifice his career for them comes out of left-field. On the other hand, this may just be one of the things that happens when you’re working with the exiguencies of a fifty-minute time slot. I mainly recall Devis as the comic relief; I expect we shall see how accurate my memory is. So far, Star Cops is proving as solid as I recall, though.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »