❉ 30 years on from the last episode of its one and only series, we look back on Star Cops.
“In 1987, a BBC microcomputer, the tape playing Walkman and video home recorders were still regarded with awe by the populace. Thirty years on, it is fascinating to compare the technological future of 1987 to now.”
Star Cops: A programme which lasted for only nine weeks during the summer of Stock Aitken and Waterman in 1987 and attracted a tiny audience thanks to its terrible late evening time slot on BBC2 which began when other channels were in the middle of their broadcasts. Yet it is still remembered thirty years on by those of us who saw it with deep love. There is even a book about the series in the pipe-line. Unfortunately, I’m not the one writing it.
In 1987, science fiction had a bad reputation at the BBC. It was regarded as cultish, generating low viewing figures and high budgets, watched by loud and demonstrative nerds. Doctor Who was on the verge of reinventing itself in a manner it should have done after its traumatic suspension the previous year. The Tripods had been cancelled after its second (of what should have been three) series. Yet Star Cops managed to get itself commissioned for BBC2, a channel safe from the clutches of sci-fi hating TV bogey man Michael Grade, the Controller of BBC1. Star Cops was to be handled by Chris Boucher, whose impeccable sci-fi credentials covered three excellent Doctor Who stories and his script-editing and writing for the monster, but polarising hit that was Blake’s 7. With experience on both Shoestring and Bergerac, who else could bring policing into the future?
Policing is what Star Cops was about. When genre magazine Starburst previewed the series in a brief and unenthusiastic article in 1987, they obviously had attended a BBC press screening where it was emphasised that this was not a science fiction. It was space cops and robbers but with a realistic and plausible futuristic angle. There would be no aliens, no teleports, no glitzy spaceships. Life and crime in space stations, moonbases and flights to Mars. The BBC had tried something similar in 1973, and Moonbase 3 tanked in the ratings, and the BBC were very disappointed. Ironically, the commander of Moonbase 3 shared his name with the lead actor of Star Cops… An omen indeed.
What Star Cops may have owed to Blake’s 7 was how the new space police force (nicknamed the Star Cops) were a type of dirty dozen (or whatever number they now were) in space. Its leader, Nathan Spring, was a copper who was forced into applying for the job no one else wanted, especially himself, since he was wanting to start a family with his partner Lee. He preferred old-fashioned policing rather than letting the machines decide on a whether a crime had been committed or not. This was also a nod to Blake’s 7 in that Blake and later his nemesis, Space Commander Travis, were both tried and convicted by computers. David Calder played the part with such conviction, cynicism, humour and warmth, you just loved him. He was the pivot for the series.
Spring’s second in command was an American, David Theroux, played by Erick Ray Evans. He was a cop who had a history of radical protest politics and was regarded with suspicion by his own people. A reliable side-kick but with secrets and phobias. He was missing from the last episode when the actor caught chicken pox.
Introduced in the second episodes is that force of nature Colin Devis, played by Trevor Cooper. Thuggish, insensitive, loud, chauvinistic, multi-married and racist, yet capable of admitting his errors, plenty of which he made when he first met Nathan Spring during an investigation which touched the commander deeply. His was the comic relief and the unpleasant reminder of how the British police was still being viewed in the 1980s, and trying to get away from. Contemporary shows still shied away from this image, comedies and science fiction could revel in it. Devis was the only character to have a sex scene, albeit off-camera. ‘Shut that bloody door!’ he roars.
Pal Kenzy, played by Linda Newton: high cheekbones, irresistibly cute, capable of pulling a hurt expression when she realises she cannot con her new boss, as her extortion racket is exposed, yet she manages to get herself back onto the pay-roll by an act of courage and bravery. She spent the rest of the series redeeming herself in the eyes of Spring. Oh yes, they got married. Betcha. Late to join the team was Anna Shoun, played by the sad-eyed Sayo Anaba. She was a Japanese biologist who had to spy and betray her own company as she exposed her employer as a murderer. By doing the right thing, although it was never spelled out, she had to leave what she regarded as her family but found a new one in the Star Cops. After a shaky start, she soon became a valuable member of the team, and certainly had the measure of Devis and faced his prejudices.
The series moved from Earth, first to a space station and then to a permanent residence in a moonbase, where they had good old fashioned artificial gravity. This cut down on the flying wires, CSO and mime needed to represent zero gravity. Here we meet Alexander Krivenko, played by Jonathan Adams, who, as has been pointed out, is to Star Cops what Charlie Hungerford was to Bergerac. i.e. on friendly terms with the major villains from each episode. The series was not afraid to show different nationalities as villains, some bordering on the stereotype. The Americans, French, Japanese and Italians are all represented. It is a multi-cultural world in Star Cops, but it is not quite Britain and its former colonies against the world! There are English villains, so relax. We are all villains.
The crimes of the future include the theft of frozen embryos, computer viruses which cause major disasters, cover ups of germ warfare tests, unethical medical experiments which result in murder, and the Mafia at work on the moon. The future is interesting. In 1987, the channel tunnel had not been completed, but here we see the operation room, over-stretched, under-manned and unable to prevent a disaster. Venice has vanished beneath the waves, telephones have been replaced by a form of Skype, and voice activated computers talk back to you. It is still a familiar world but the few times the outside broadcast cameras take to the real world, it is shy to show us anything less than futuristic designs. Even Rome is represented by a blurred video painting reflected on a rain-strewn window. In 1987, a BBC microcomputer, the tape playing Walkman and video home recorders were still regarded with awe by the populace. Thirty years on, it is fascinating to compare the technological future of 1987 to now.
Chris Boucher wrote some fine episodes as did John Collee and Philip Martin. With just nine episodes to choose from, it is churlish to select a favourite or even to point out the poor episode which still manages to feature some excellent moments. Christopher Baker and Graeme Harper directed the series, each with opposing philosophies. Bright and clean is the future, says Baker. Dirty, grubby and incredibly busy and stressful, says Harper. Both are right. Subtle video effects enhance the world, and with superb model work, the series is quite a visual feast for its time.
And the music. How Justin Hayward’s mournful ballad for the theme tune has been mocked and derided, but it made me sit up on first viewing. I was used to the usual militaristic or radiophonic themes science fiction dramas preferred, emphasising drama and danger. The lyrics make sense after the events of the second episode. It’s not just the Earth Nathan Spring will be missing. It was the second episode when I sat up and adored the series. I wasn’t expecting that plot development.
Could a decent time slot have saved Star Cops and encouraged a second series? Doubt it. Science fiction had its last gasp with Star Cops. It deserves to be remembered, it deserves to survive. ‘Anyone for Mars?’ asked Spring at the end of the last episode. A shame the answer was no.
❉ Michael Seely’s biography of director Douglas Camfield was published by Miwk Publishing in May 2017. Click here to order.