A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The late 1980s were a dark time for television science fiction: Blake’s 7 was but a dim memory, Dr Who was rapidly self-destructing and Star Trek: The Next Generation wasn’t even a distant dot on the horizon. For SF fans, it was all a bit bleak … so when news started to trickle through of a new Chris Boucher science fiction-cum-crime series set in the near future, a little flicker of hope was kindled.
All the omens were good: Boucher had an excellent track record in both genres (Dr Who and Blake’s 7 on the science fiction side, Bergerac and The Bill on the crime side), the BBC gave it a front cover on the Radio Times, together with a multi-page article inside and it was scheduled to screen mid-evening on a weekday, signalling that it was a ‘serious’ drama and would therefore, with any luck, avoid the dead hand of ‘family programming’.
I remember clearly sitting down with my family to watch the first episode, in the summer of 1987, and being immediately hooked. Even though it juggled scene-setting with telling the central story (of two parallel but unrelated murders) we all thought it was excellent – well-acted, fast-paced and refreshingly different.
The premise was straightforward: when man eventually establishes a permanent presence in space, he will need policing because, as the lead character in Star Cops – Nathan Spring – is wont to point out wearily, ‘Where there’s living, there’s crime.’
The Star Cops universe encompassed five earth-orbiting space stations, two permanent bases (on the moon and Mars) and the 3,000 souls living on and commuting between them.
It is 2027 and Nathan Spring (played by David Calder) – an old-fashioned, earth-based police officer, is sent into space very much against his will to organize and lead a permanent, international, police presence on the bases and stations – the International Space Police Force, or ISPF ‘known unaffectionately as the Star Cops’. His intuitive, intellect-driven working practices are drastically at odds with 2027 policing, which relies heavily on computers and probabilities – and it’s this very human approach which makes him a thorn in the side of his superiors but a very effective police officer – and ultimately results in his being promoted sideways into space. ‘Spacemen are ten-a-penny,’ his commanding officer tells him. ‘What they need out there is a good copper.’
As the series progresses, he assembles his team, starting with his Number Two, the American David Theroux (Erick Ray Evans), closely followed by Englishman Colin Devis (Trevor Cooper) and Australian Pal Kenzy (Linda Newton) who, in an interesting and – to me – wholly new plot twist, is fired by Spring for corruption then manipulates and blackmails her way back into her job. Along the way the nascent ISPF copes with murder, drug running, embryo kidnapping and sabotage in tightly plotted episodes with very little slack.
It quickly became obvious that Star Cops was not going to be a tired re-tread of all the science fiction tropes from the past 25 years. Spring is no hunky space jockey: he’s a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a stomach that hates zero gravity, and he spends much of the first couple of episodes trying to maintain his dignity while convulsively clutching the screwed-down equipment and looking distinctly green around the gills.
Nor are there wobbly latex aliens, Boy’s Own heroics or show-stealing special effects. It’s very much a character-driven series which works on the assumption that, however advanced the technology and however extra-terrestrial the locations, people will always look, sound and behave like people. And so it is that the plots owe more to the detective and crime genres than science fiction. The location is not the raison d’etre, it’s just the backdrop for well-crafted and often quite complex stories of industrial espionage, betrayal and political intrigue – albeit one which offers many new and interesting ways of murdering, stealing and cheating.
Unlike Star Trek’s shiny, multi-cultural, everyone-gets-along world, the denizens of the Star Cops universe have arrived in space with their bigotries and self-interest intact. Nor is a happy resolution of all problems guaranteed for every storyline.
In one episode – one of the strongest – ‘Other People’s Secrets’ – we meet a bad-tempered, sexist maintenance engineer (Barry Rutter) who routinely reduces his young female assistant to tears. Disaster strikes the base, giving said young female assistant the opportunity to prove her worth in a crisis. In almost any other series, this would cause the scales to fall from the engineer’s eyes and be followed by a grudging ‘You’re okay really – we can work together’ sort of scene … but in Star Cops, he goes right on being a total bastard. It’s wonderful.
That acute psychological accuracy was one of the factors which gave the series its refreshing edge. Others were the almost nerdish attention to the technicalities of living in space … the claustrophobia, the weightlessness, the ever-present danger of something going horribly wrong (NASA, the McDonnell Douglas Corporation and the astronaut Pete Conrad were all advisers at various points in the show) … and the vivid sense of how hard it is living cheek by jowl with a bunch of people you wouldn’t necessarily choose as friends. Life on the moonbase is not an exciting roller coaster ride, it’s long stretches of tedium punctuated by sheer terror.
Above all however, it was the quality of the writing and the acting (particularly from David Calder) which stood out. The scripts were sharp, articulate and believable. These were real people in a convincing setting talking the way real people do and living their lives as best they could. They squabbled, they talked over each other, they were boring, funny, predictable, mouthy and so, so human.There was nothing glossy or glamorous about them or the lives they lived. By the end of the final episode, the relationships between the main characters were working well, there were narrative threads starting to reach out in several hopeful directions and everything was poised beautifully for a second series.
But it never happened.
Those nine episodes were all that were ever made.
The reaction of both the critics and the public was mixed, to put it mildly, and the programme never really found its target audience. Billed as a detective show in space, it was too much crime and not enough geekery for many SF fans, and too much geekery and not enough crime for detective show fans. And the scheduling didn’t help.
It had been a troubled project almost from the beginning.
Chris Boucher had had major creative differences with the producer, Evgeny Gridneff, from the outset (he later said the relationship ‘started out at the bottom and worked its way down’).
There were two directors involved, who favoured strikingly different approaches, especially regarding the physical look of the programme (one liked things bright and clinical, the other used so little light that sometimes the only illumination is coming from computer screens) – all of which resulted in a lack of continuity and a general feeling of ‘bittiness’.
Due to industrial action at the BBC, they had to scrap one episode completely, and then when they came to film the final episode, one of the lead actors – Erick Ray Evans – went down with chickenpox, leaving Chris Boucher and the remaining cast with the last minute task of divvying up his lines between them.
Somewhere in this torturous process, the BBC management of the time seems to have lost whatever confidence they ever had in the series – as plainly evidenced by where it ended up in the schedules. Its ‘regular’ slot – if such it could be called – was on BBC2 from 8.30pm to 9.20pm on a Monday, putting it in direct competition with not only the hugely popular sitcom Terry and June but also the flagship Nine O’clock News. (To add insult to injury the fifth episode was moved to 9.55pm). Add to that the fact that it was transmitted in the television ‘graveyard’ months of July and August, and it begins to look as if it was being set up to fail. David Calder himself called the scheduling ‘an act of sabotage and absurdity’.
In the intervening 30 years, Star Cops has only grown in stature, as SF fandom has come of age and become ever more encompassing and accepting of other genres. It’s now seen as being ahead of its time and, indeed, one of the best science fiction series that the BBC ever produced. It wasn’t perfect by any means. As Chris Boucher himself has admitted there was some slightly lazy stereotyping and one or two or the supporting performances were a bit lacklustre, but there was so much that was good and fresh about it that they override the flaws – many of which would probably have been ironed out had it ever made it to a second series. And there was much that was excellent – and prophetic. The hardware still looks convincing. Spring’s laconic personal computer – prosaically named ‘Box’ – was a particularly clever plot device. Voiced by David Calder himself, it enabled Spring to effectively soliloquize and was a non-intrusive way of revealing the complex character’s inner life without flagging up ‘Big Psychological Insight follows …’.
And, then there was the highly contentious music, which you either love or hate. Many people, even those who love the show, hate the music – especially the theme song, ‘It Won’t Be Easy’ by Justin Hayward. I’m not one of them. Yes, it’s unlike any SF theme tune you’ve ever heard, but I agree with Evgeny Gridneff in his contention that it signalled from the very beginning how different Star Cops was from what had gone before. Those who say it has nothing to do with the subject matter of the series have plainly never connected the words with the events in Episode 2 …
The BBC, which has of course produced many excellent and successful drama series over the years – most of which have carried its name and reputation around the world, also has an unfortunate track record of allowing series to die when they should have survived. Star Cops is on that melancholy list.
In the late 1980s, it shone a light into the darkness of television science fiction – a light that seems to be growing brighter with every passing year.
(If you’re sufficiently intrigued to want to watch Star Cops, there is a recent DVD release available, and the entire nine episodes can (currently) be viewed on-line.)