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!