This episode Space Precinct are doing their take on Star Trek‘s classic episode “Wolf in the Fold”, albeit with less misogyny.
An officer from the 79th Precinct is killed on 89th Precinct territory, and it transpires she and her partner were on the trail of a serial killer who looks like a less antisemitic Nosferatu and who seems to vanish without trace. Our heroes team up with the surviving officer, who gives Haldane a run for his money in gratuitous obnoxiousness (and the writing team do have fun with this, having the pair try and out-snark each other).
It eventually transpires, courtesy of a Tarn legend, that Nosferatu parasitically inhabits a host, emerges to do his killing, then disappears back into the host. And the host is, surprise, the surviving officer. Inevitably, perhaps, the officer gets shot and Nosferatu transfers to Brogan… but in a more interesting twist, Brogan then contrives to get himself electrocuted in a situation where the only available alternate host is Slo-Mo, who, once Brogan’s been medically revived, proceeds to delete Nosferatu from his RAM.
The good news on the diversity front is that Carson is back. The bad news is that he seems to be playing Generic Police Officer rather than Computer Expert, and indeed Carson’s area of expertise will continue to vary wildly depending on what the series needs him to do. But still, at least the human population’s a bit more genetically varied.
I should say, however, that I am now starting to notice the re-use of alien masks, though it says something that it’s taken 15 episodes. Less positively, though, the reuse of sets is getting really obvious: they’ve got one office, one flat, one entertainment venue, one street, and it shows.
Also, there’s an emerging trope of getting Castle into undercover roles where she’s got to wear sexy outfits. She does look nice in them but… don’t, writers. Just don’t.
Final (and positive!) world building point; the Brogan kids’ rooms are quite believably decorated, with random stickers on the doors and young Liz having an impressive collection of saccharine unicorn posters. Whoever did the set design on those has clearly been around preteens and early teenagers a lot.
Brogan and Haldane are facing an inquiry after shooting a suspect, and, mysteriously, the witnesses are changing their statements from saying that the suspect fired on them giving them no choice but to fire back, to that Brogan and Haldane fired on the suspect unprovoked. When even Castle changes her story, Brogan suspects some kind of mind control may be at work.
Meanwhile the precinct hosts a visiting officer from the interplanetary police; she is blonde and pretty and so Haldane takes up sexually harassing her for a change.
Anyway, spoilers, it turns out she’s the one mind-altering the suspects, though there’s a pretty good red herring about midway through (the inquiry chair is a new species of alien and we see him fairly obviously eavesdropping on our heroes). The motivation is to stop Brogan and Haldane testifying in the trial of a mob boss, which I suppose makes sense at least. She’s thwarted because she can’t alter the mind of Slo-Mo, the division’s robot assistant, though considering that cyberpunk was already a thing by 1994 the possibility of doing so should have been obvious.
We also finally get a non-White speaking character who’s not a criminal or a pizza delivery man: Carson, the division’s computer expert. NB: before anybody says “of its time” this is actually pretty unusual for Anderson, who were ahead of the curve in having a decent number of non-White supporting cast in the 1960s and 1970s, and certainly it’s inexcusable by the 1990s, the era of Deep Space Nine.
Given that the Brogan kids start appearing much less from about the middle of the series, and the annoying puppet pet disappears entirely, I think there must have been a behind-the-scenes overhaul halfway through, getting rid of concepts and characters that aren’t working, and addressing the diversity problem. it’s not enough to save the series though.
One of the witnesses is a Creon in what appears to be an interspecies relationship– he’s walking in the park with a human woman who’s pushing a pram. It’s unclear whether or not mixed Creon/human babies are possible (presumably it wouldn’t be with the Tarn, who lay eggs), but they could have adopted or something.
This is an escape-from-space-Alcatraz episode, but surprisingly not a ripoff of the excellent escape-from-Earth-Alcatraz movie The Rock, which wouldn’t come out until 1996. In true Space Precinct fashion, it’s got one really good subplot and a whole lot of WTF, and a couple of surprising guest stars.
On with the story. There’s a Creon crime boss who’s due to be shipped out to a prison asteroid known as The Rock, along with an escape artist with the tedious nickname of Houdini. Creon crime boss falls ill, so Castle and Took, who were supposed to be doing the driving, have to take him to the hospital and Brogan and Haldane are pulled off leave to drive Houdini. However, Brogan is so sad that he’ll be missing watching the World Series game with Haldane and his kids that Castle and Fredo, the other Tarn officer, fiddle the schedules, so it’s Castle and Haldane taking Houdini to the Rock.
WTF 1: why not just keep Houdini on ice until the Creon’s fit to travel?
However, the Creon’s henchman, Volker, played by Stephen Greif sporting an unexpected American accent, has (of course) staged a take-over of the Rock, by spreading a virus which kills the guards and the surviving prisoners. Castle’s got a cold which turns out to give her immunity to the virus, so (of course) she’s also got to snog Haldane to give him immunity. If there was the tiniest bit of chemistry between those two it might actually work sometime.
WTF number two: Haldane and Castle turn up with Houdini and innocently hand him over to one of the escapees disguised as a guard… and then Volker appears with a gun and takes them hostage. Why? Why not just let them tootle back to headquarters none the wiser?
We then get to the good subplot, which is that Houdini delightfully plays the police and the criminals off against each other, convincing both of them he’s on their side, until he’s got what he wants– which is the police cruiser, allowing him to escape with impunity.
On Earth, Tookie is having a bad feeling that something’s wrong with Castle, because Tarn have emotional connections to people they care about, and in a normal police series there’d be a lesbian subtext between those two, but alas, one of them is wooden as a plank and the other is swathed in ten pounds of latex and animatronics.
Anyway, the cops figure out something is wrong when the police cruiser turns up without the police. Chief Podly impersonates the Creon criminal so as to sneak a force into The Rock and re-take it (that’s WTF number 3, but at this point who’s counting). Brogan reveals he tape-recorded the World Series game so he can watch it with Haldane, and everyone’s happy, sort of I guess.
The other guest star this episode is some young guy named Ray Winstone, who probably will never amount to much.
This one starts out reasonably enough and then takes a sharp left turn into WTF Canyon.
A far-right populist politician who is campaigning on, among other things, an anti-police platform (remember, this was the 1990s, so that was still reasonably credible) is assassinated; Haldane manages to talk the killer into surrendering. However, the media pounce on the fact that Haldane disparages the politician in the process, and the politician himself turns up miraculously alive and using the assassination attempt, followed by the disparagement, as further proof that the police are incompetent and corrupt. The apparent assassin also turns out to be a longtime friend of the politician, so Brogan and Haldane, in disgrace over the abovementioned incident, begin quietly investigating to see if this all isn’t a stunt to boost the politician’s popularity. So far, so credible.
And then! The politician’s partner makes a call to the police alleging domestic violence; when Brogan and Haldane turn up they find him apparently killing her, and shoot him, and, guess what, he turns up alive again. It turns out he’s been cloning himself (using Tarn egg-sacs, tying neatly into the B plot of the Girl Officers investigating the kidnapping of said items from the local maternity hospital, because, you know, they’re Girls, and Girls Love Babies) and copying his memories into the clones. Brogan and Haldane steal the memory backup and hand it over to the media, who play the juicy bits live on television, and the politician’s supporters all turn on him (which recent real-world events would suggest shows rather too much faith in human nature). Yeah, you wouldn’t get that kind of story on NYPD Blue.
This is also a rare episode where Haldane comes across in a good light, showing his political conscience and being a bit sympathetic rather than just spouting one-liners and sexually harassing Castle. It’s a shame there’s not more of them.
I also have to shoutout to the production team for great compositing; we have several scenes where model shots of air-cars flying are credibly mixed with the regular actors performing. Also, the baby Tarn puppet is the cutest thing I’ve seen in ages.
Surprisingly not bad, though I am wondering a bit about the fact that so far the two best episodes have been ones about emotional abuse.
An illegal immigrant who’s been forced to wrestle in “snuff fights”, which are exactly what the name implies. He escapes but promptly runs foul of the immigration authorities. Brogan intervenes on learning the man’s son is still in the hands of the fight promoters and is being groomed to take his father’s place. Of course Brogan et al. go undercover, bust the operation wide open, save the kid, and persuade the authorities to regularise the pair’s status, while still finding time for Haldane to make jokes about kink (memo to bad guys: if you capture Haldane and Castle, just shoot them, don’t bother tying them up in a storage cupboard). But we’re still in awfully serious territory for SP.
Chief Podly, at one point, goes on a very familiar rant about illegal immigrants Coming Over Here And Taking Our Jobs– and when Brogan points out he and Haldane are immigrants, Podly swings without missing a beat into You’re One Of The Good Ones. Which is believable, but has also got me wondering about the colonial setup of Demeter City.
Is it actually a Creon city? If so, why’s it got an Earth name and why do all the Creons dress in human-style clothes? Is it a Creon city that the humans took over and now everyone’s living in a sort of awkward postcolonial situation, a kind of space Singapore? Is it some kind of human/Tarn/Creon collaborative effort?
As someone who’s very fond of Singapore (I visit there at least once a year for work), I like the idea that it’s a space-age equivalent, but speculating about it gets me into some dark areas: e.g. you can read it so that the Creons parallel the Malay population, the Tarns the Chinese, and the humans the Europeans, and there are occasional hints in the text of Space Precinct (including this episode) that Demeter City, under its facade of happy multiculturalism, has a lot of class and interspecies tensions that spill over into violence, suggests a similar sort of complex colonial history. But this never gets explored in the text.
The B plot this ep has one of the Creon officers having to look after his grandfather, an ex-police-officer with dementia. Although they tried to play it lightly, it still also struck me as believably sad.
Guest star alert: Steven Berkoff. Yes, the great stage writer and theatre director, known for pioneering an entire style of staging known in his honour as Berkovian theatre, is playing an organ transplant surgeon. At least he’s not wearing a google-eyed mask.
The story this episode is the stuff of many an urban legend-based cop show– two Creon criminals are killing off street people and selling their organs on the black market, passing them off as being from legit donors– but is more than usually full of plot holes. For instance:
The police become aware of the scam when the criminals are caught speeding, and then firing the corpse of one of their victims, in a capsule intended for space burial, at an apartment building. Why, just… why. Why any of it.
Chief Podly dismisses as coincidence the fact that a street person disappears just before Berkoff gets a convenient delivery of organs from a deceased asteroid miner of the same species– but when Brogan et al. learn that no miners have died on that asteroid in the past few years, they don’t then go to Podly and say “slam dunk!” they instead stage a sting in which Castle pretends to be a journalist and confronts Berkoff with this. And of course get into trouble for it.
The Creon organ-leggers kidnap Brogan with a view to harvesting his organs. In broad daylight, from his home in a middle-class neighbourhood. This does not end well for them, but you’d think one of them would realise the obvious flaws in the plan.
We also learn that even Brogan’s wife calls him “Brogan” (to be fair, in other episodes she does call him “Patrick”, but not here), and also that when she’s naked in a hot-tub and inviting him to join her, he’ll say he’s too busy. How they’ve managed to have two kids is a very good question.
There’s a B plot with Brogan trying to source some peanut butter, rare on Demeter City, for his daughter Liz, and I’ll say this for Space Precinct, it is awfully good at marrying up the A and B plots, even if it is in silly ways (Brogan leaves his details with an underworld contact who might have some peanut butter, and this leads to the Creon organ-leggers finding out where he lives).
…okay, that B plot in full because it’s just too completely whacky: Brogan has promised his daughter she can have whatever she asks for if she gets 100% on her math test. She asks for peanut butter. Which turns out to be unobtainable. In the course of trying to catch the organ-leggers, Brogan meets a Gavroche type street child (friend of one of the victims) and on the off chance asks if he knows where to get peanut butter; Gavroche suggests a certain dodgy diner, where the server says they might have some in later, and Brogan leaves his details, and, as I said above, hijinx ensjue. As the denouement to the B plot, Gavroche turns up at the end of the story with a jar of peanut butter as a gift to Brogan for cracking the case.
And finally, a side note: apart from one pizza delivery man and one petty criminal, every human on Demeter City that we’ve seen so far is White. As I said in the introduction, this will change before long, and it’s also less noticeable if you watch in broadcast order rather than production order, because the team are savvy enough to mix some of the more-diverse later episodes back in with the less-diverse earlier ones. But I’m watching in production order, so it’s pretty noticeable to me right now. However, we do have a new alien race this ep: they’re purple and have four arms and must have taken a hell of a lot of work, but they never appear again.
On the plus side, there’s some absolutely wonderful model work, including a sequence of Brogan and Haldane crashing their police car into a diner which is just delightful.
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!