Right from the start, it’s obvious this series is really just a standard police-department drama, complete with all the cliches, albeit slightly transposed into the far future of, erm, 2040 (or maybe not; it’s unclear from the title sequence if that’s the year or just Brogan’s badge number. Considering that Gerry Anderson’s earlier series gave us an alien invasion by 1980 and a functioning moonbase by 1999, however, a near-future date is on brand).
The characters are all police-series cliches. We have our hero cop, Brogan, transferred in from New York to Demeter City with a trailing wife and kids struggling to adjust and make friends; our wise-cracking, womanising young smartarse cop, Haldane; our outwardly-cold but inwardly-caring woman cop, Castle. The city is multi-species, with humans rubbing shoulders with different sorts of aliens. Someone is apparently knocking off all the drug dealers of Demeter City, with a B-plot about a bag lady who turns up claiming to be alien royalty. In and of itself, that’s not terrible; so far, so NYPD Blue.
As well as the nice model work, there’s a teensy bit of CGI that’s not unconvincing.
Less good points: everything about it is boringly predictable. I’d guessed the murderer straight away (though admittedly I’ve also seen Space: 1999, which helped). Brogan suspects his teenage son is doing drugs with a dodgy friend… only of course it turns out, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine style, that it’s all perfectly innocent. The bag lady? Spoilers, she is alien royalty.
Much more seriously, we never actually learn what the murderer’s motivation is. And nobody seems to question it because, well, drug dealers are bad so it’s only natural someone would want to kill them. But I’d expect a little more: ex-junkie? Parent/sibling/child died of drug overdose? Home planet devastated due to drug extraction?
There’s a small role for a pizza delivery man, played by some British kid called Idris Elba. I wonder what happened to him? I should look him up on IMDB.
Saddle up, buckaroos: I’m about to watch Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct, so you don’t have to!
First off, a shoutout to Alison Scott, who suggested I do this. She has many projects, but check out her most recent, the Octothorpe podcast for science fiction fans, at the link. It turns out Space Precinct is also coming out this autumn on BritBox, so those of you who do want to watch-along, can do so, at least for as long as you have the stamina.
Space Precinct was a live-action series by the co-creator of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, UFO, Space: 1999 and other 1960s and 1970s series I love shamelessly. While his puppet series are fairly solid, Anderson’s record on the live-action front is always patchy: UFO and Space: 1999 both have moments of sheer brilliance, and moments of sheer WTF, and not in a good way. Space Precinct, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), is almost entirely on the latter end of the spectrum.
In some ways it’s a victim of bad timing: coming out in 1994 meant that it just preceded the space opera boom of the late 1990s (Star Trek: Deep Space 9/Voyager, Babylon 5, Andromeda, Farscape, Firefly). But it’s got a lot more wrong with it than just that.
I would argue that throughout, its biggest problem is too much ambition. The plots are incredibly complex, and usually fall flat as a result. Most of the aliens have got complex full- or partial-head masks with animatronic eyes, which must have been very difficult to do (they blink! They roll!), but make them look weirdly muppet-like and don’t let much of the actor’s personality come through. There’s a tragic logic visible here: you can see the effects team thinking “everyone laughs at Star Trek because of the Cornish-pasty-headed aliens, let’s show them how it’s really done”, and yet Michael Dorn and/or Nana Visitor with a bit of crinkly latex are way more convincing.
About the only complex thing that consistently works is the models. They’re beautiful and brilliantly done, and there’s a lot of compositing that mixes models and live action work near-seamlessly. The effects team includes some big names, including Neill Gorton, who would go on to dominate the look of Davies and Moffat-era Doctor Who.
Also a shoutout to the alien makeup team. You can’t mistake any given Creon (or Tarn) for any other Creon (or Tarn). While they must have four or five masks they’re re-using in rotation, you can only tell if, like me, you’ve binge-watched the series in quick succession, suggesting the makeup teams are working overtime making each alien character look distinctive.
On to the setup! Our hero, Patrick Brogan, is a New York cop transplanted to the 89th Precinct of outer space settlement of Demeter City. The population is mixed-species, but dominated by humans and two particular alien species: Creons, who look sort of like bulbous-eyed fish, and Tarn, who are teal-skinned space-elves with a third eye that gives them telepathic and telekinetic powers. There seems to be some decent attempts at worldbuilding: e.g. the Tarns all have human names but the Creons all have names like Podly and Romek (possibly Tarn names aren’t pronounceable by anyone else) and the Tarn have a religion which requires household shrines. Everyone wears human-spec clothing, though everyone also seems to eat everyone else’s cuisine (which, having lived and worked in a few postcolonial places, does ring true).
Supporting human characters include Haldane, a wise-cracking smart-arsed young officer whose personality is entirely built around sexually harassing Castle, a female officer whose personality is entirely built around being female. Among the aliens, we have Took, or “Tookie,” a female Tarn officer who is best friends with Castle and in any other cop series would have a massive lesbian subtext, but it’s hard to do that with a googly-eyed muppet. There’s also Fredo, the Other Tarn Officer; Chief Podly, a Creon with an inexplicable Irish accent; and Orrin and Romek, two Creon officers who mostly exist to do the comic relief subplots. Minor recurring characters include Brogan’s wife and kids, who turn up almost every episode regardless of whether or not it’s relevant to the story; and, halfway through the series, someone in the Anderson operation apparently notices that the entire human regular cast and almost all of the human one-off cast is White, meaning the division acquires a computer expert, Carson, who happens to be Black. Finally, there’s Slo-Mo, the division’s robot, who reminds me of nothing so much as the awful “comedy Black sidekick” trope one gets in 1940s films, except the 1940s comedy Black sidekicks have more agency.
With all of that in mind, it’s time to enter… the Space Precinct!
In the interests of completism, and possibly masochism, I decided it might be worth reading and reviewing Ben Bova’s novel The Starcrossed. This book always comes up when The Starlost is discussed because, as the title suggests, it’s based, albeit loosely, on Bova’s time as technical advisor on the series.
The novel is set at some unstated time in the relatively near future: there are rejuvenation techniques, 3D holographic televisions, and legal marijuana, although pollution and climate change are getting worse (in a near-the-knuckle satire, the city of Los Angeles has taken to dyeing the smog pretty colours and perfuming it to make it more attractive). A television company, hearing of a revolutionary new 3D production technique, decides to make use of it with a blockbuster space opera written by Ron Gabriel, a popular SF writer, which is a sort of mashup between the concept of The Starlost, and Romeo and Juliet (two lovers from feuding clans of space-faring merchants run away together, fleeing from planet to planet with their families in pursuit).
Hijinks inevitably ensue as the production is moved to Canada to save costs: the Canadian production team prove to be hopeless incompetents, a Neanderthal hockey star is cast as the male lead to improve local ratings, the scripts are sourced from a high-school writing competition (something which I’ve heard asserted about the actual Starlost, but I wonder if it isn’t something that Bova made up which bled out into popular perception). Eventually it becomes apparent that the production company is just using the production as a cover for embezzling investor funds, and it all goes, well, south. Bova does, however, give his series the happy ending that The Starlost never had, perhaps a bit of wish-fulfilment, and incidentally invents the deepfake in the process.
As a satire of 1970s TV production it’s, well, okay I guess. The portrayal of the Canadian TV industry as small-scale and incompetent seems a bit ironic in hindsight, but then, at the time of The Starlost, it was. The parade of evil Hollywood executives, profiteers, drug-addled directors, prurient censors and ageing stars is entertaining, though not terribly original, and the SF elements are fairly slight but used to good satirical effect.
It doesn’t really provide much insight into The Starlost, however, mostly reading like the author’s rant against television production more generally. Some of it’s plainly not true: For instance a scene where model designers are shown as having no understanding of design or physics, which is certainly not the case for The Starlost‘s actual model team. Although Robin Ward might not be the greatest actor in the world, he’s certainly not a belligerent thug along the lines of “Francois Dulac”, the hockey player in The Starlost, Gay Rowan isn’t an ageing star rejuvenating herself to stay current, and the series never recruited any brilliant but drug-addicted Hollywood directors. Ron Gabriel, the Harlan Ellison-alike character, rings true as an antagonistic figure, but Ellison walked out on the series much faster than his fictional equivalent did. Beyond that the Canadians of the early 1970s were small-scale operators with a lot of anti-American chauvinism, I can’t really see much of the actual production experience in it at all.
Generally, then, I’d say it’s an interesting coda, but not one which really explains much about what actually happened to turn The Starlost from a good idea into the mess it became.
No, not the Gerry Anderson 1990s cops-in-space series, though I’ve been asked to do that one next by readers who like making me watch bad television so they don’t have to, so I’ll be starting it in October, after a couple of palate-cleanser articles. You were warned.
Meanwhile, on The Starlost, Garth decides to split with the hero trio (now back in their cotton shirts) for no sensible reason (he says they’ve been wandering the Ark for months and achieved nothing, which is fair, but how the whole “we’re all gonna die if we don’t move the Ark” thing will be furthered by him going solo is unclear), and takes a left turn into a whole different subgenre.
Suddenly we not only find that the Ark has some kind of police force (who have apparently been keeping tabs on the trio but doing nothing about it), but that there’s a whole interplanetary federation of humans who are engaging in interplanetary political shenanigans, cold-war espionage, and so on, which this police force are involved with. Meanwhile, Devon and Rachel literally spend the episode in a stalled elevator.
All the usual The Starlost problems are there, too; weirdly flat acting, characters whose motivations and personalities change from minute to minute (first the police chief is begging Garth to join the force, then he’s accusing him of inviegling his way into the force to spy on it), bizarre inconsistencies in how the Ark works and how much danger it’s in (Garth keeps on about how he thinks he can build a life here with the police force, while the rest of us say “until you meet your firey doom, that is”), and velour jumpsuits that must make going to the bathroom a challenge.
And the whole series ends with a sort of a whimper. Devon and Rachel trudge off on their seemingly futile quest, and it’s ambivalent whether or not Garth will rejoin them or stay with the police, suggesting that someone was making a desperate bid to keep the series going by changing the format completely, making it a series about space cops in an interplanetary federation and sidelining the quest story.
But then again the series forgot its USP a while back, turning from a story in which the hero trio visit biospheres with different cultures and different problems into a formula where the hero trio wander into a workplace led by an older man with a female sidekick, get into trouble, and wander out again. At this point it was probably unsaveable, so ending it there is probably merciful, for the characters as much as the audience.
The hero trio find a lab full of apiculturalists (beekeepers to you and me) and before long we’re in not one but two bonkers bee B-movies, as one of the scientists, attempting to communicate with the bees, winds up pissing them off mightily, and then we discover the whole hive is being controlled by four giant telepathic mutant bees who are mind-controlling the leader of the project.
This really ought to be wonderfully insane, along the lines of one of the more balls-to-the-wall LEXX episodes or possibly a late 1970s Hammer movie, but this is The Starlost, so it’s curiously flat.
There are two good guest star performances (sadly there are four guest stars), and some really appallingly badly researched biology (the scientist who’s trying to communicate with the bees thinks they communicate by humming, for a start, and that’s before we get into the whole impossibility of giant bees), though there’s a nice shoutout to the then-ongoing Washoe experiment when one scientist observes that chimps are good at sign language.
Continuity: the hero trio are wearing brown velour jumpsuit or leisure-suit combos, like “Gallery of Fear”, with no real explanation why, or what they’ve done with their usual outfits. Once again the scientists know about the accident (which is firmly back 200 years in the past again), but don’t seem inclined to try and do anything about it.
The Ark is being buffeted by some external force, and the hero trio discover that there’s an astronomer on board, the titular Farthing, who has moved the Ark into the path of the titular comet, just so he can observe what they’re like from the inside. So the hero trio are all, “wait, you moved the Ark! Hurrah! Tell us how and we’ll do the same!” and then three-quarters of the episode involves watching them do that, although not enough to get it out of series-motivating peril apparently.
I say “apparently” because this episode seemed more than usually confused about timelines. There seemed to be the implication that Farthing’s comet-chasing was what set the Ark off course, and that the Ark went off course recently, both of which contradict the setup. The episode also featured a lot of what I now think of The Starlost‘s trademark radical personality shifts, with Farthing and his (female, of course, though at least she’s an engineer) assistant seesawing from “the Ark is doomed and there’s nothing we can do about it” to “let’s save everyone with Science!” over and over within a span of minutes.
I don’t know what the record order was, either, but if it was recorded before “The Alien Oro”, it would explain where the hero trio got their spacesuits.
This episode did, surprisingly, have one or two bits of good dialogue, both down to Farthing: “What I say goes, and I say, you go,” and “Can he [Devon] do it?” “I don’t think so, but I got tired of arguing with him.”
Oro’s back, suggesting that someone on the team has an Oro fixation. Anyway, he announces that he’s going to save the Ark by shipping it out to his planet, and it only takes the hero trio three-quarters of the episode to work out that Oro’s people want to cannibalize the Ark for its resources and aren’t too bothered about the welfare of humankind.
An unexpectedly entertaining addition this week is Tau Zeta, an android that looks for all the world like a human-sized version of one of those 1950s tin toy robots. It’s got the voice of a CBC TV announcer, and the metatextual ability to bleep swearwords. And for some reason it’s knocking about the Ark. A surprisingly useless addition this week is a scruffy old man who appears in the first scene trying to break into a biosphere and is castigated for doing so by Devon, apparently with no regard for the irony this causes. The scruffy man is otherwise completely unnecessary to the plot, but hangs around till the end of the story anyway for some reason. Possibly to give Garth something to do, since he can’t very well fall in love with Tau Zeta (though that might at least have been entertaining).
The end of the episode sees Oro, now a fugitive from his people after failing in his mission (spoiler alert, he loses a debating contest with Devon, which doesn’t say much for his abilities), left to wander the corridors of the Ark. Since he never gets another chance to return, I suppose that makes him a Chekhov’s gun that never got fired.
Devon gets injured saving Garth from himself, and thus we learn that the Ark has a biosphere of medical personnel complete with space ambulance. Why we haven’t seen them in earlier episodes where someone’s been injured or fallen ill, like “The Alien Oro” or “Lazarus in the Mist” is never explained, but oh well.
And yes, they know all about the Ark being off course, but they haven’t done anything about it because they’re doctors, not engineers, Jim. Which is ludicrous because 1) plainly not all of them are, the space ambulance crew aren’t for a start, and 2) it’s been centuries, you’d think some of them could retrain in that time.
Anyway, the story rapidly degenerates into a sort of parody of a medical soap, as the Young Handsome Brilliant But Heartless Surgeon could save Devon but is too obsessed with a distress call from an alien spaceship to try, leaving Old Overlooked But Moral Surgeon to step up to the plate. Of course the two reconcile in order to save Devon *and* the aliens.
One of the highlights of the story is Bill Kemp as the space ambulance captain. Canadians of certain generations might remember him as one of the stalwarts of The Wayne And Shuster Comedy Show (if you don’t, here he is playing the Hockey Hall of Fame Chairman in “The Unholy Goalie”, and as the Postmaster General in the Question Time sketch), and, probably because of his background in comedy, he is able to deliver frankly ludicrous lines with absolute conviction. Also, there’s some colour-blind casting in the ambulance crew, which is nice.
One of the lowlights is the alien makeup. The alien spends most of the story hidden behind a digital effect, and the reveal is supposed to be a “twist”, but, given how bad it looks, they might as well not have bothered.
The hero trio discover an art gallery staffed by a mysterious blonde, who tells them it all belongs to someone called Magnus. The Computer With The Good Beard (he’s so pretty! So pretty! So pretty! <click the link for the explanation>) is strangely reticent as to who Magnus is. Spoiler alert, it turns out we’re in the Rogue Supercomputer Episode. You just knew there was going to be one, what with Keir Dullea and all.
So, yeah. Magnus was put on the ship to help the original bridge crew, has the power to cast convincing illusions, and tries to persuade the hero trio to remove the restrictions on his actions so that he can “help” them. Not being too bright, they almost fall for it, and would do so if Magnus himself hadn’t, rather stupidly, given them access to a projection of the Ark’s original commander who explains why Magnus was restricted in the first place (but who is otherwise completely useless, and can’t even tell them where the backup bridge is). Devon of course has to destroy Magnus, who manages to resist the temptation to sing “Daisy, Daisy” as he does so.
Continuity: for the last couple of episodes, the hero trio have been wearing the spacesuits they put on to go into the depressurised zone where Oro was, but now they’re back in their peasant smocks.
Also, the guest star’s performance is pretty good, adding more support to my hypothesis that everyone is directing themselves.
Richards is a scientist and political activist from a dome where, as the Computer With The Good Beard eventually informs us, there was until recently a functional two-party democracy. Then one of the parties, the “Control Party”, took over, imposed restrictions, declared the other party illegal and arrested its officials, and began running rampant through the environment.
With the dome in irreversible ecological decline, and learning about the Ark’s dire situation, Richards decides that the only thing for it is to flee the Ark in a lifepod with his daughter Valerie (Canadian gen-Xers, say hi to a very young Nerene Virgin, later to play the unforgettable Jodie on children’s edutainment programme Today’s Special), and blow up the Ark itself to give its inhabitants a merciful death.
Unfortunately, all of that’s just interesting backstory which is mostly wasted: the lifepod fails to eject, and Richards is forced to disarm the self-destruct mechanism with the aid of the hero trio. Which involves a kind of miniaturisation process (it gets heavily explained three times) whereby people project tiny versions of themselves into a microchip, and so most of the episode is taken up with Devon and Richards thunking clunkily around the microchip set, while Garth, out of his usual job since Valerie has a boyfriend, mostly sits at the computer finding out the abovementioned backstory, before eventually someone twigs to the fact that it might be a good idea to get him into the microchip as well, because technical guy.
The ending makes no sense whatsoever. Richards (spoilers!) sacrifices himself to save the Ark, and everybody immediately goes misty-eyed about what a genius and humanitarian he was, and nobody points out the obvious, i.e. he was the one who put the Ark in danger to begin with. Valerie and boyfriend trot happily off back to their biosphere, with no one apparently concerned about the fact that it’s been taken over by Nazis. The whole story about the death of democracy, which I think a lot of us right now would like to hear, just stays as backstory.
To end on a more positive note: all the guest stars this week are Black (we’ve seen a bit of diversity in the Omicron episode, but that’s been it so far), and there’s no plot reason for this, making it colour-blind casting. However, I’m inclined to unkindly suspect that the reason Valerie has a boyfriend rather than being Garth’s love-interest-of-the-week is due to the production team worrying about how an interracial relationship, even a chaste and largely implied one, might play south of the Mason-Dixon Line.