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Star Cops (1987)
Creator: Chris Boucher

review by Tony Lee

Lambasted by certain TV critics and more frequently mauled by serious SF fans, Star Cops is a regrettable failure, as both cerebral drama of near-future crime fighting, and astronautical farce of international bureaucracy with corporate intrigues. With its distinctly unimpressive mismatch of quite tawdry miniatures effects and excessively talky scripts, the much troubled production is a laughably cheapskate effort, so heavily compromised by BBC budgetary constraints that it now seems forever lodged deep in a tragic 20th century, cross-genre, limbo somewhere between The Bill and Space 1999.

Conceived by Chris Boucher (onetime Doctor Who writer and a Blake's 7 script editor) as a groundbreaking hard-SF series that would put characterisation and story before such blandly commonplace sci-fi TV elements as spectacular explosions and flashy special effects, and set largely on the Moon in the year 2027, Star Cops attempts to depict, with a measure of low-key realism, the problematic formation of an 'international space police force' struggling to negotiate, adjudicate and maintain a broadband jurisdiction on the high frontier. Sadly, even after it won a small but devoted audience, Star Cops ran for only nine (50-minute) episodes before getting axed, just when the show was - belatedly - hitting its stride.

The mainstays of Star Cops were hardboiled British detective Nathan Spring (David Calder, Chimera, Mists Of Avalon), charmless wannabe playboy Colin Devis (rotund Trevor Cooper), overeager American engineer David Theroux (black actor Erick Ray Evans), brash Australian Pal Kenzy (Linda Newton), and Russian diplomat Alexander Krivenko (Jonathan Adams), later joined by enigmatic Japanese doctor Anna Shoun (Sayo Inaba).

Although the show's makers never reached any of their major goals on Star Cops, the agenda is reasonably clear, and the varied cast and crew manage to overcome (often heroically) many seemingly insurmountable obstacles hindering the series' ambitious narrative development and ultimate aesthetic success. As such, there's plenty here to interest (and amuse) discerning viewers in search of entertainment value from obviously underfunded TV projects. What remains after the dust has settled is the fascinating idea of building an off-world security team, a squad of misfit individuals - each pursuing diverse personal aims, with strategic authority over all the patriotic colonials of different nationalities, belligerent corporate entities, and the fiercely independent pioneers. The 'star cops' investigated smugglers and thieves, kept a wary eye on suspected terrorists and, whilst lacking the glamour and sundry excitement of US genre TV flagship Star Trek, or the extraterrestrial warfare shenanigans of earlier British series UFO, this programme dealt with all-too human kidnappers, murderers, and saboteurs. At the very least, Star Cops is superior in almost every respect to 1990's lamentable and un-watchable sci-fi soap, Jupiter Moon. Yes, I realise that's not exactly a glowing recommendation, but it's a way of pointing out there are worse SF shows out there!

In the SF genre's ever-popular disaster movies and dramas of catastrophe, we can see how fragile the social order is, and yet this is simply art reflecting life. It only takes a petrol shortage or a railway strike, the threat of an epidemic (like BSE) or food rationing, to scare the general populace into overreaction. Such downbeat views and harsh realities are often reflected in the plots of Star Cops episodes and, every now and again, interaction between the characters takes a surprising turn, while the science fictional rationales are thankfully sometimes explored fully with some well thought out genre twists. In the manner of Cold Equations, we get a variant of the classic locked-room murder mystery where the victims are not actually dead yet and the crime scene is inaccessible to investigators for several years. There is the appealing conundrum of whether Nathan Spring's handheld device 'Box' is supposed to be a genuine artificial intelligence or simply a powerful computer. Also, Box is voiced by Calder so, in a rather 'phildickian' quirk, the cop appears to be talking to himself... or perhaps his nonhuman counterpart! This bit of Star Cops' prophetic puzzle was ahead of its time (especially for a TV show) in the depiction of wry social confusions engendered by a cyber-human lifestyle, then 40 years in the future.

Despite numerous hilariously shoddy weightless sequences, an irritatingly camp theme song by Justin Heywood (then noted for his contribution to Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds musical-adaptation, so the BBC must have thought he was a safe bet), and miscellaneous idiocies of TV production decisions (over-lighting of sets made early episodes look unconvincing, and it wasn't until they shot scenes with minimal illumination that the jinx of Star Cops' faux-NASA affect eventually wore off), providing ample evidence of botched creativity along the way from script to broadcast, Star Cops is nevertheless worthwhile small-screen viewing for SF fans willing to overlook its multitude of faults to discover the few moments when everything just clicks into place, albeit briefly, allowing something that's far greater than the sum of its parts to emerge.

The region 2 DVD package from Network (total 450 minutes, cert. PG) is comprised of three discs, with scant extras, yet there's an informative and somewhat enlightening commentary track on episode one from Chris Boucher, who - despite a few nervous hesitations - offers sharp criticism of certain actors, and also roundly condemns the stupidity of some BBC management practices.
Star Cops on DVD

Nathan Spring is not happy with the latest Microsoft security patches

Spring and Theroux brave the spaceways again

above pictures © BBC

www.starcops.com



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