Blast from the Past – Star Cops
“I always preferred Sherlock Holmes to Dan Dare.” – Nathan Spring
As we dwell on the late 80s era of Who on our Faces strand, it seems like a good time to remember a small series which should have had a bigger impact. A combination of Detective drama and hard si-fi that went under the unappetising name Star Cops.
It was commissioned by Jonathan Powell at the BBC for broadcast in 1987, from the pen of Chris Boucher who had sent him a couple of draft scripts originally pitched at Radio. Boucher was a regular writer on BBC TV, having worked on police procedurals (Juliet Bravo, Bergerac) and Sci-Fi series (Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who).
Set in 2027 it sees the first tentative steps of humanity into the solar system, with around 3000 people regularly employed and living in orbiting space stations, Moon Base & outposts, a colony on Mars and exploratory vehicles moving further afield. A combination of Government and commercial interests seeking to exploit space. Where there are people, and rules to be broken, you need policemen. By international agreement a small force of part time Police composed of engineers and administrators has been established. The International Space Police Force (nicknamed “The Star Cops”) is a shambles. Frankly, they need a leader who knows something about Police work, and the series explores how Nathan Spring (David Calder) is appointed and his efforts to introduce some professionalism to the outfit.
“You leave Earth and anything you forget to bring with you will kill you. Anything you do bring with you which doesn’t work properly will kill you. When in doubt, just assume everything will kill you.” – Nathan Spring
It’s brilliantly paranoid in the way only Cold War eighties drama can be. Spring is engineered into taking the job by superiors who feel he is a difficult anachronism. He resists the trend for using computer probabilities to determine if crimes are worth investigating, preferring his instincts. A friend is killed by spies from his own Government to force him down an investigative path. He finds himself stonewalled by International non-cooperation and corporations with secrets to hide, while investigating old crimes with new sci-fi spins to them.
Throughout the series he picks up a motley collection of “waifs and strays” to join his team. This series sees some pretty broad brush characterisation (some accusations of stereotyping are long lived) but as the series goes on you see some of their back stories. It reveals one of the themes of the series, which can be summed up in the Philip Larkin sentiment “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad”. Parents both real and substitute are shown to have a profound influence on the way the lives of both the Police and the people they investigate turned out.
There are some real questions about the morality and use of technology as well. Some of the plots seem eerily prescient today. “Intelligent listening for beginners” seems to see the Channel Tunnel (construction began the year after filming) come under terrorist cyber attack with a worm virus, causing a fatal crash. In a world of allegations of cyber warfare, it seems way ahead of its time. Automated death delivered through computer code signalled by William Blake poetry.
“O Rose thou art sick…”
With all this goodness, how could it fail? Well, the theme song by Justin Heyward is widely seen as one of the worst atrocities in Sci-Fi history. Its title “It won’t be easy” does summarise production though. The BBC appointed Producer Evgeny Gridneff to work with Chris Boucher. They got on like a house on fire, and we all know how unpleasant a house fire can be. Boucher has said their relationship “started out at the bottom and worked its way down”.
For the first block of filming Gridneff appointed Director Christopher Baker who he had worked with on All creatures great and small. He shot it under harsh unforgiving lights to give it a clinical feel. Boucher bought in veteran Who director Graeme Harper who turned down the lights and gave it a dingy, lived in look. Conflict broke out from the cast when Baker came back to film the third block, as Calder and the rest of the cast wanted to maintain the Harper approach. Then, one of the final episodes had to be abandoned due to strike action, leaving an unusual run of nine 50 minute episodes.
There was, unfortunately, a backlash in some elements of Doctor Who fandom even before it aired. Aware of the issues surrounding the Colin Baker sacking, there was automatic assumption was that this interloper would drain BBC resources from producing what it should be producing – Doctor Who. Happily, I ignored the calls to “Boycott Star Cops”.
The BBC then released it on a Monday night. At 8:30pm. On BBC Two. In the height of Summer (July – August). David Calder has described the timeslot as “an act of sabotage and absurdity”. It got 2.2 million viewers on average, a number in which I was a firm and unapologetic supporter, even though it got some dire reviews at the time.
“..the invisible worm that flies in the night..”
So – another one bites the dust, as a second series was not commissioned. Its problems seem to mirror those of that period of Doctor Who at the BBC. Some pretty strange appointments at senior level and, after initial excitement, a retreat from promoting the new series as it should have been. Years later, a lot more people seemed to see the light I saw, and realise it wasn’t that bad in retrospect. It did well on video, and got a reasonable DVD release in 2004. It’s a shame it couldn’t find the audience, because with a few rough edges knocked off, and with a cohesive production philosophy behind it could have been something great.
David Calder is his usual wonderful self in it, and Trevor Cooper as Colin Devis deserves a special mention for bringing an astonishing amount of charm to a character who was cheerfully sexist and bigoted. Both took part in a BBC4 documentary “The Cult of Star Cops” and talked with a mixture of enthusiasm and candid regret about the project. The show is both optimistic that we’ll get “out there” tinged with a realisation that we’ll take the worst aspects of humanity on the journey. It’s flawed brilliance.
It really is an astonishingly bad theme tune though.
Bits and Pieces
- NASA, Space technology contractors and an actual Astronaut were widely consulted on the models and technical aspects of the show (Zero-G, etc) to try to develop feasible ideas for model work of space stations and moon vehicles.
- BBC4 are doing a retrospective on Science Fiction later in the year. The “Cult of” programmes on Blake’s 7 and Star Cops may be featured.
- Did I mention the atrocious theme tune? It was released it as a single. It didn’t sell well.
Try before you buy
The first episode, An Instinct for Murder is available on YouTube.
It’s currently out of press. There are rumours of a re-release but it keeps dropping from order supply lists. I’ve seen the 2004 DVD release go for silly sums on e-bay. I’ll update as and when it occurs.