Guilty Pleasures: Star Cops

star cops collage

Back in 1987 BBC2 screened a small screen cousin of the “hard” sci-fi of Outland, Moon, and more recently, Gravity, that fiendishly married the police procedural with the then “anything’s possible” concept of high frontier exploration – Star Cops.

The show was the brainchild of Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who scripting maestro, Chris Boucher. He’d also worked on earthly police shows such as Juliet Bravo and the implausibly crime-ridden tiny isle of Jersey show, Bergerac. Set in 2027 (how close that seems now!) it posits a surface bright future of near space international exploration, where 3000 or so people are working and living in orbiting space stations, a moon base, a colony on Mars and other further ranging vessels. Where humanity congregates, crime occurs, and earth bound maverick detective Nathan Spring (there’s always one, this time played by David Calder) is shunted sideways to lick the part-time ISPF (International Space Police Force, derogatorily nicknamed Star Cops) into shape. Nathan “Springs” into action by relying on his gut, forgoing modern reliance on computer logic.

His recruits include a cliche ridden mob if ever there was one, but this was shorthand to get to the meat of the plots. If they’re hard to like, at least they have a semblance of real humanity to them. There’s the gobby, slightly corrupt Aussie Pal Kenzy (Linda Newton), shouty American David Theroux (Erick Ray Evans), and Brit muscle gone to seed, Inspector Colin Devis (Trevor Cooper). Devis casually manages to insult just about every racial group or gender that crosses his path with an ill-thought epithet. In fact, the show was surprisingly earthy for a pre-watershed slot of 8.30 – characters routinely manage to get in the odd “bastard” and flip the bird. Devis mischievously offers to play “hunt the sausage” with Kenzy. The crime-solving cast is further fleshed out as the show continues with a demure female Japanese scientist Anna Shoun (Sayo Inaba), and a Zarkoff-like Russian, Alexander Krivenko (Jonathan Adams), whose pioneering research into bone marrow strength has made it easier for long term space habitation.

Like many shows, films and books of the day, it failed to see the collapse of the Iron Curtain, imagining the Cold War continuing in space, but otherwise, many of its guesses are on the money. It foresaw cyber terrorism causing a fatal crash in the Channel Tunnel, then yet to begin construction the following year. Other episodes dealt with DNA and sperm storage in zero-G, and mammoth multi-nationals with the influence of world leaders (Anna was fired from the Japanese Hanimed Corporation, for bringing shame to it).  Little Green Men And Other Martians sets up a 2001 A Space Odyssey– like con as a Mayan artifact is “found” on Mars, and people kill for it. Flat touch screens and a personal hand held computer called “Box” that Spring uses help avoid dating the show too much.

As said earlier, the show tried for real physics, including zero gravity. The first few episodes often had actors uncomfortably hauled around on wires, until some judicious miming was employed to speed up filming.  It was assumed the Moonbase the cops were based on and spinning space stations had some degree of gravity. A NASA astronaut Pete Conrad, who’d walked on the moon, visited the show and was generally pleased the verisimilitude of the production. Where it did fall down heavily was in the uneven approach to filming.

star cops helmet

Chris Boucher and producer Evgeny Gridneff didn’t see eye to eye: Boucher recalled that their “relationship started out at the bottom and worked its way down.” In retrospect, Boucher believes he should have just taken the producer role when the series was greenlit by the BBC’s Jonathan Powell. The first block of episodes were brightly, clinically lit, not very flattering to the sets. The middle section of episodes (there were only nine made out of an intended ten, cut short by a BBC technician strike) had the lighting dialled down as far as possible, characters usually only seen in partial silhouette, lit by glowing read-outs and comm screens. This is how it should have continued from the start – Noir in near-space. At the time most domestic drama was shot on videotape. Boucher realised this was a given with their budget, but deliberately scripted model exteriors and Earth bound scenes to be filmed instead, to highlight the difference. If the interiors had have all been shot darkly, it wouldn’t have been so jarring. In the end, the cheapskates at the Beeb videotaped everything.

Fortunately the model work is excellent. VFX whiz Mike Kelt picked up an award for the show from the Royal Television Society – in its first Visual Effects Award category. Ironically he had by then left the BBC, citing frustration at the the inability and lack of will to push boundaries in the organisation. “It was a really good place to learn to do the business, because it did everything from miniatures to pyrotechnics. There has never been and I suspect there never will be a better training ground. It is not the same nowadays. But once you have got to a certain level the challenges were being frustrated because there wasn’t the budget, the time or there just wasn’t the will to move it forward.” 

star cops model

“Star Cops must have played a part in that because that was pushing, as far as the miniatures were concerned, what the BBC was prepared to do. It was probably pushing it beyond what the BBC was prepared to do, and because we were so autonomous we could just go on and do it.”

Another stun bolt to the chest was the awful incidental music and atrociously inappropriate theme song, “It Won’t Be Easy,” by Moody Blues legend Justin Hayward. Producer Gridneff hoped that the theme would gently draw in casual viewers. It’s even worse than the theme song to Enterprise, and that’s saying something. Star Cops needed something moody and mysterious. Critic Kim Newman, who is otherwise reasonably forgiving of the show, has described the theme as the “worst single theme tune of any TV show ever.” Chris Boucher has said that he “hated the music. The incidental music wasn’t appropriate and it didn’t have the style and feeling it should have had.” Whenever I videotaped episodes back at the time of its original transmission, I would always fast forward through the credits later.

Star Cops never really stood a chance – it was scheduled mid-summer, up against BBC1’s then sit-com giant, Terry And June. David Calder described the timeslot as “an act of sabotage and absurdity.” Averaging only 2.2 million viewers per episode, it’s no surprise it wasn’t renewed, which was a shame. It really had potential, and is ripe for a revamp of sorts.

A few years back, there was a tribute in a BBC4 series called The Cult Of… Here is that episode. Sadly the show is no longer available on DVD, but you should be able to find most episodes online, if you are so inclined. Start here.


Originally posted 2014-07-30 11:30:22. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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