Space Precinct Pilot: Space Police: “Star Laws”

Because I’m a completist and a masochist, I watched Gerry Anderson’s Space Police, the sort-of-not-a-pilot for Space Precinct, last night so you don’t have to. It’s on Disc One of the DVD set The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson, if you’re interested. The single episode is entitled “Star Laws”, and I see what they did there.

The most ambitious and head-trippy and yet strangely on-brand thing about it is the production. It is a series with almost no live actors in it. All the alien races are puppets: Shane Rimmer, as Brogan, is the only human, and he spends 90% of the story interacting with puppets through clever use of cutaways (and occasional humans in masks for when he has to stand by one, or when one has to walk). There’s another character who’s played by a human, sometimes, but she’s an android whose face is a holographic overlay or something and she turns back into an android for the puppets-only action sequences.

This works better and worse than you’d think. On the one hand, it means they can get more alien-looking aliens and more complicated action sequences than Space Precinct. On the other, it did sort of feel like a 1960s Anderson kids’ series that was trying to be grown-up and not quite succeeding. More on this later.

More alien-like aliens, but are they convincing?

It’s got a similar sort of multi-species city setup as Space Precinct, only the main cop aliens are a kind of anthropomorphic cats, and one of them had a mask so different to the others I wasn’t sure if she was meant to be the same species as them. The bad guy is a fat Mafia slug that’s a clear riff on Jabba the Hutt, though he has the nice detail of eyes that change colour when his emotions change. 

Also, Slo-Mo is a character in it, and a way more interesting one than in Space Precinct: he has TV screen eyes with which he conveys information, sometimes subversively (e.g. secretly telling his fellow cops the sportsball scores during a briefing, or flashing subliminal images at Brogan to induce him to drink a soda pop). The precinct is the 44th, meaning that the 88th in Space Precinct is probably a shoutout.

Good points: the production’s magnificent as always, and there’s some entertaining shoutouts to Blade Runner (e.g. a holographic billboard that closes its eyes in terror as a police car drives through it). The plot is pretty much nicked from an episode of Captain Scarlet (the bad guys, trying to strong-arm the cops into releasing their mate, cause a monorail carrying the President to run out of control), but Captain Scarlet is a good series so that’s okay. The integration between the puppet shots and the live action is near-seamless.

The soundtrack sounds like a cross between Vangelis and Wendy Carlos’ score for A Clockwork Orange, which is interesting even if I wasn’t sure it worked all the time.

The main problem the story has is that it can’t seem to make up its mind what audience it’s aiming for. Space Precinct reportedly had trouble with American executives thinking it was a kids’ programme (and then getting alarmed by all the sex, drugs and violence), but its writers and production people were clearly aiming it at the teens-and-adults demographic. Space Police, though, keeps segueing wildly between adult elements (mafiosi, seedy bars, murders) and kid elements (all the villains have cutesy names like I Ball and E Ville, there’s a robot dog named Megabite, there are excruciating puns and charismatic cat-people). 

Actually the cat people are simultaneously cute and creepy.

Before I watched Space Precinct, several people told me “it can’t make up its mind if it’s a kids’ or an adult show and the aliens are all puppets,” which, while it’s sort of true, is much more the case for Space Police. The aliens in Space Precinct are mostly people in masks, and, while it suffers from weird shifts in tone, it’s more that it tends to go from cop-show-in-space to WTF-did-I-just-watch. So I wonder if, as with the rumour that The Starlost‘s scripts came from a high-school writing contest actually originating in The Starcrossed, it’s one of those cases where a critique got started somewhere else and attached itself to the series.

As a coda, the second DVD contains a trailer for what seems to be a halfway point between Space Police and Space Precinct. Starring Haldane and Castle as well as Brogan, and also featuring what seem to be prototypical Creon and Tarn aliens (though the Tarn, interestingly, has Star Trek style latex prosthetics rather than an animatronic mask, and the Creon mask is way more animated than the ones we finally got), it also reuses puppet and effects shots from Space Police. According to an article on the official Anderson website, this was the pitch that got Space Precinct commissioned.

Space Precinct episode 24: “Deathwatch, part II”

Catch up on Part I here! So it turns out the meteor is in two parts, they both need to be assembled for the alien to enter its breeding cycle, and the possessed MI officer is trying to get it to the farm and assemble the parts. For those of you who don’t want to watch the episode and haven’t already guessed, he succeeds, but our heroes are able to destroy the alien through a very gratuitously established Chekhov’s Gun.

As a finale for the series I suppose it succeeds inasmuch as it contains most of the familiar Space Precinct tropes, including Brogan trusting someone on incredibly flimsy evidence, Brogan going rogue in pursuit of justice, Brogan’s work-family conflict (it’s his wedding anniversary, of course), Chief Podly undergoing another violent character swing (having spent the past episode telling his officers not to get involved with the missing persons case, he’s now taking the opposite stance).

There’s some minor end-of-season development, too, in that Haldane and Castle admit their feelings for each other, though frankly there’s less chemistry between Haldane and Castle than between Castle and Took. Also Brogan’s family turn out to love him anyway and accept the vagaries of his job, though his wife still calls him “Brogan”. Carson gets a few more lines than usual. There’s also the only bit of location filming I’ve seen on this series, which is not a good thing as it makes the Creon and Tarn masks look really really fake.

Really unconvincing on location and so are the Tarn masks.

All in all, I’d say Space Precinct is the only series on record to have ended with a bang AND a whimper.

Space Precinct episode 23: “Deathwatch, Part I”

It’s Space Precinct’s final two parter, so are they going to go out in a blaze of WTF characterisation, overly ambitious plotting and exciting model work? Indeed they are.

An asteroid crashes onto a farm in what appears, from the characters’ outrageous accents, to be somewhere in the Southern US (but is apparently not too far from Demeter City). The farmer is possessed by the asteroid, murders a farmhand and turns up in Demeter City under a different name, purchasing a dilapidated block of flats and pressuring the tenants into selling up. Brogan and Haldane become involved when he hires thugs to start enforcing the message and one of the tenants, a fierce old lady, calls the police. Meanwhile Castle and Took are investigating the disappearance of the farmhand, only to find the farm under military guard. There’s also a sinister pair of military intelligence types (OR ARE THEY?!) blocking Brogan and Haldane’s investigation of the slumlord. The episode ends with the slumlord burning down the building and getting killed, the sinister military types acquiring the asteroid, and one of them getting possessed by it. Freeze frame, roll credits.

The story seems to be trying to turn Haldane into a more likeable character, having him make friends with the old lady and also finally admit to Castle that he fancies her. On the other hand Podly is off into sheer irrational territory, telling Brogan and Haldane to drop their investigation and implying the old lady’s making it up, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and likewise dismissing Took and Castle’s missing persons case as not police business (maybe it’ll turn out he’s being pressured too, but IDK, that sort of character inconsistency is normal for Space Precinct). We also learn that Romek lives with his mother.

The only woman in Demeter City that Haldane doesn’t sexually harass?

While the model work is good as always, there’s some really quite over-the-top violence in the scenes with the thugs intimidating the tenants. Piers Haggard is back behind the camera and he’s good with that sort of thing, so maybe that’s why. One of the tenants is surnamed Luton, which may or may not be an Anderson productions in-joke.

Space Precinct episode 22: “The Forever Beetle”

Strap in, buckaroos, this is another completely bonkers one.

Brogan’s childhood pal Murph turns up unexpectedly, crashes on the sofa, borrows Brogan’s car, etc. etc. Brogan, meanwhile, is busy investigating the theft of the titular beetle, a specimen of an endangered species which turns from a beetle into a butterfly (yes really) and which secretes a chemical in its womb (yes, really) that can help regenerate amputated limbs. `All those people involved with this series, and apparently not a single one was at school the day that science class covered insects.

Most of the writing and production team don’t know how one of these works: official!

Shortly after the audience (but not Brogan) learns that Murph is the one that stole the beetle, Brogan’s car blows up, apparently killing Murph, and two thugs burgle Brogan’s flat, failing to acquire the beetle but traumatising young Matt, who happens to be home. As if his sister and mother having PTSD wasn’t enough.

Young Matt then acquires a gun from somewhere, and we get a weirdly pro-gun message for a British show (even one two years pre-Dunblaine) as both of Matt’s parents tell him that they understand he was just doing it to protect the family and they love him, rather than adding “…but statistically guns in the household lead to increased rates of homicide and suicide, and this is clearly just a trauma response on your part, so maybe go learn karate or something instead.” Presumably they were still hoping to sell the series to the American market, though I’m not sure how well a series encouraging teenage boys to tool up would have gone down there either.

Anyway, it turns out Murph isn’t dead, of course, and Brogan has to face the truth about his pal, and it all gets resolved with everybody apparently forgetting about the beetle, which quietly turns into a butterfly and sods off.

The B plot this episode has Castle and Took breaking up a barroom brawl and arresting the main perp, only to discover that he’s a sportsball star so the entire precinct are willing to give him a free pass even though he’s plainly guilty. The twist is that he then gets arrested for domestic violence and all the cops who’d supported him turn against him, which I suppose ties in nicely with the Brogan/Murph plot about having to acknowledge that someone you like isn’t very nice, and it’s good to have an anti-DV message in a story like this, but still.

There’s also a subplot involving young Matt acquiring a tarantula, which I think was meant to tie into the beetle plot (maybe the thugs mistake the tarantula for the beetle? IDK) but just sort of fizzles out and suggests the story needed another editing pass.

Oh, and the Brogans’ animatronic pet is <shudder> back, though it doesn’t do very much.

Trivia point: when I searched for “The Forever Beetle” on YouTube, the third result down was the official video for “Penny Lane”.

Space Precinct episode 21: “The Fire Within, Part II”

It’s all as I said last time: Haldane didn’t murder Samina Podly, it was a cunning ruse to get the cultists onside and get them to reveal their ultimate plan. Which is, of course, a con: provide signs that the end of the world is coming, get the believers to give the priests all their worldly possessions in exchange for a spot in the sacred bunker, then burn everyone in the sacred bunker to death while absconding with the loot.

And then things go into classic Space Precinct WTF territory, as the cathedral turns out to be a spaceship and the cult leaders fly off into a high-speed-space-chase with the police. I honestly can’t believe I just typed those words. But that’s basically what happens. Followed by another cop series cliche as the heroic characters trapped with the bad guys wrest control back just in time to save the vehicle from crashing into the police station. Except the vehicle is a cathedral.

Apparently the cult leaders have done this sort of thing before and plan to do it again, which seems odd since that is the sort of modus operandi that it would be pretty easy to get local police stations to look out for (“New apocalyptic cult in town? Check their cathedral for booster rockets”), but there you go.

More continuity this episode, as the Tarn judge from “Protect and Survive” turns up refusing to give the police a warrant to arrest the cult leaders. I wonder if this wasn’t intended as a season finale at some point, given the number of shoutouts to earlier episodes, and that it’s traditional for this kind of space opera to have an exciting, or something, two parter as either a season finale or a mid-season hook.

Space Precinct, however, is always pushing the envelope, or something (see “the cathedral turns out to be a spaceship”, above), and so we have one more standalone episode and one more two-parter to go.

Also, my autocorrect has learned the word “Podly.” This is not a good thing.

Space Precinct episode 20: “The Fire Within, Part I”

The YouTube channel I’m watching these on combined both episodes into a single movie, but I couldn’t stick more than 45 minutes, so I just watched up to the cliffhanger midway through, and will cover the second half next week.

There’s a new religion in Demeter City, the Pyrists, who worship a fire god, and who think it’s a miracle when one of their priests spontaneously combusts. The police are somewhat less certain (with the exception of Took, who is taking a break from asexual lesbianism to try out Pyrism), particularly when another priest, who asks to talk to Brogan privately, also meets a rather fiery death.

Haldane’s going to fancy one of the priests. No prizes for guessing which.

Since the Pyrists have seen the faces of all the major characters except Haldane, who was on holiday, Haldane gets sent in for an undercover operation with Podly’s daughter Samina, who’s a cop in another precinct, as a partner. Haldane is apparently beguiled by a pretty priestess and starts getting way too enthusiastic, to the point where he exposes Samina as a narc and murders her. Freeze frame, run credits. Did Haldane convert? Is Samina dead? I’d say the answers to both questions are pretty obvious, but they do have to end on an exciting cliffhanger I guess. And you do have to wonder how she managed not to die.

This episode’s got a few surprising pieces of continuity: Podly’s daughter Samina, and the fact that she’s a cop and her Dad’s not too happy about it, were first mentioned in “Flash“, and Romek’s famous cop grandfather from “Illegal” also gets a namecheck. It’s not exactly Babylon 5, but it’s nice that each episode isn’t totally standalone.

Space Precinct episode 19: “Smelter Skelter”

Despite the nonsensical title, this one is actually a really good episode. We begin with a quite brutal scene of a gang robbing a jewellery store, where (of course) Brogan’s wife and daughter are shopping, and for the rest of the story Brogan’s wife and daughter have quite credible PTSD symptoms: Mrs Brogan becoming passive and withdrawn, young Liz having random anger fits, Mrs Brogan smashing crockery while laughing hysterically, eventually a collective eating-ice-cream-out-of-the-tub scene.

The Brogans acting like a reasonably normal TV family for a change.

And the plot? A physicist at the local university invents a machine which can put a hole in literally anything. Sacked when he refuses to share his data, he, understandably, tries to sell his invention to a businessman who owns asteroid mines. The businessman, however, uses the machine to conduct a series of increasingly complicated thefts, starting with the jewellery store– which might sound contrived, except it’s plain throughout that he’s a thrill-seeking psychopath who gets off on getting away with things. For instance, having discovered that the wedding ring he stole at the jewellers belonged to Brogan’s wife, he ostentatiously wears it any time he talks to Brogan. Of course, eventually he aims too high and gets hoist by his own universal-hole-drilling-machine, but for once it all makes sense.

It’s good to see that Space Precinct can pull it off once in a while, it’s just frustrating that it doesn’t do it more often.

Personal side note: my friend Andy Hopkinson was on the models team for this series, and his photo of Kaldor City for the interior of the CD booklet from “Occam’s Razor” is in fact photoshopped from one he took of Demeter City.

Space Precinct episode 18: “Friends”

An appropriate title, as this episode we learn that Castle and Took share a flat, but the chemistry between them is still zero, particularly since all they seem to talk about is Haldane. So much for the lesbian-cop cliche.

Since it’s 1994, you knew that sooner or later there was going to be the computer hacker episode, and this is it. Featuring such cutting-edge and exciting uses of computers as hacking into the 88th Precinct’s fire alarm system, stealing corporate records, and disguising your identity with CGI. At least they’re trying to be up-to-date I guess? It’s more cringe than retro, I’m afraid.

So the plot, which is surprisingly lean this week, involves three university students who are followers of the radical revolutionary Karel Tarik (no relation to Karel Capek or Taren Capel, sadly), and who are doing anti corporate computer crimes to raise money and stick it to the man. When one of them gets arrested, the other two attempt to get him out; they don’t, but they do manage to kidnap Castle and hold her to ransom. That’s basically it.

There are two absolute howlers in the dialogue. One of the hackers says “I thought cops didn’t care about police procedure,” which may be a meta comment on all those TV series about Maverick Cops Breaking The Rules, but even so, boy howdy. And towards the end Brogan says “Sometimes I forget what a responsibility it is to be a parent,” which left me muttering “sometimes you forget you *are* a parent, Brogan, now go apologise to your wife and kids for ignoring them again.”

We also get a good look at one of those Tarn house shrines, and unfortunately it looks like what I took for tentacles on the central figure is actually a stylised beard. Still looks pretty cthuloid, though, and, as I said, props to the team for introducing Tarn religion as a background detail without letting it overwhelm the story.

Finally, when working undercover, Castle wears a Louise Brooks wig that suits her very well indeed.

Castle looking absolutely gorgeous and not exploitatively glammed-up when undercover, just for a change.

Space Precinct episode 17: “Hate Street”

Unexpected celebrity this week is behind the camera. Yes, Piers Haggard CBE, director of Blood On Satan’s Claw, Callan, Quatermass and many others, is slumming it in Demeter City. Perhaps that’s why this is a more-than-usually serious episode, to wit:

The story starts out powerfully, with a gang of neo-fascists targeting Xyronite migrants. Five minutes in, we’ve witnessed three deaths, two of them children, and some very credible social dynamics as citizens of Demeter City waver between compassion for refugees and poverty-driven xenophobia (the leader of the gang even trots out, yes, the “they’re taking your jobs” line). 

Before you can say, “what’s happened to my Space Precinct?” though, the story shifts focus, and it becomes all about Brogan’s bounty-hunter ex-girlfriend turning up on the trail of the fascist leader, and we’re back into tedious territory as Haldane gets the hots and Mrs Brogan gets jealous. She’s getting sexually harassed, er, chatted up by one of her workmates as well, and just once I’d like to see someone on Space Precinct have a healthy relationship.

I think perhaps this encapsulates Space Precinct, and what’s right and wrong with it. On the positive side, it is genuinely trying to be a serious cop story in space, dealing with problems like racism, exploitation, child abuse, even global capitalism. The worldbuilding is credible; the alien races are at least on a par with Babylon 5 in backstory terms (and arguably better developed than the equivalents were in B5 after only one season). On the other, it nearly always manages to trip up that serious side with some nonsensical subplot, cringeworthy sexism, and/or annoying characters either regular or one-off.

See what I mean? These guys are believable Neo-Nazis and actually scary even with a ton of latex and animatronics on their faces.

Finally, it’s a winter-set episode, and the model team are plainly having a delightful time doing tiny little snow-covered cityscapes.