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.

Space Precinct episode 16: “The Witness”

The 88th Precinct has a new and quite keen human officer. There’s also been a spate of murders of petty criminals on his patch. It takes our heroes a surprisingly long time to join the dots.

Complicating this, the Other Tarn Officer, Fredo, has a daughter, Estes (no, I don’t know either) who is having psychic visions of the murders and eventually winds up catatonic, either from the trauma of doing this, or from the fact that her parents are obsessed with her passing her telekinetics exam and are pressuring her at every turn.

Tarn children are a lot less cute than Tarn babies.

Seriously, what is it with this series and the emotional abuse of children and teenagers? Fredo and his wife clearly love their daughter, but Mrs Fredo’s first words on learning her daughter is catatonic are basically “oh no, she’s got an exam in a few days, will they let us reschedule?” When the poor kid finally comes out of it and passes her exam, her Dad celebrates by buying her… an educational toy so she can pass the next exam. I give it five years before she’s shaving her head and joining a drop-out cult.

There’s also a subplot about a boringly stereotypical evil reporter, who is irresponsible enough to announce on live television that there’s a witness to the crimes and she’s in the hospital and practically shouts “hey, murderer, come and get her,” and somehow does not wind up on the end of a charge of endangerment. 

Worldbuilding note: Tarn households have what appear to be shrines, with a kind of cthuloid image as the focus. It’s not a plot point, either, but a background detail, which is nice, as alien religions only usually feature in these sorts of things if there’s a direct relevance to the story.

Fredo’s living room: note shrine.

Finally, in one of little Estes’ storybooks we see dark-skinned Tarns. We have not seen any dark-skinned Tarns in Demeter City and I am now having some rather dubious thoughts about this.

Space Precinct episode 15: “Predator and Prey”

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). 

See what I mean? Nosferatu.

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.

Space Precinct episode 14: “Takeover”

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.

I don’t want to be too negative about this episode, so here’s some lovely creature makeup for you. Isn’t it great?

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.

Space Precinct episode 13: “Two Against the Rock”

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.

RIP Stephen Greif 23 December 2022. I stewarded him at a couple of Blake’s 7 conventions, he was lovely.

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.

Space Precinct Episode 12 (halfway!): “Divided We Stand”

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.

See what I mean? Isn’t this the cutest thing ever? Squee.

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.

Space Precinct, episode 10: “Seek and Destroy”

Buckle up, folks, because this episode’s plot is a *wild* ride.

A Tarn and a human are brutally murdered. They both work for the same company, they both own dogs, and a strange alien of the latex-prosthetics-and-human-eyes type was seen near both crime scenes. When Brogan and Haldane track him down, he kidnaps Brogan and tells him that his planet was invaded by some aliens called the Omeara (believe me, I keep wanting to put in an apostrophe), and Demeter City is next unless he stops them. For some reason Brogan actually believes this guy. After a third murder, Haldane and Brogan discover that all three victims were on the board of a company called Demeter Dogs, which claims to have developed a vaccine to protect dogs against Creon Fever, which is otherwise fatal to them (still with me?) and is now also selling Golden Retrievers to the people of Demeter City. As our hero cops work out that the dogs have a silicone chip implanted in their brains which can be triggered by a combination of the “vaccine” and a remote-control device, the O’Meara, sorry, Omeara, have identified Brogan and plot to murder him by giving his daughter one of the Demeter Dogs. The dog is triggered and it takes Brogan and Haldane far too long to hit on the idea of breaking the remote control, which they do before it savages the Brogan offspring of course. The bad guys are brought to justice and the vigilante strolls off into the sunset, but the Brogans can’t keep the dog because a) the vaccine was a fake, and b) episodic series have a reset button.

This one’s gone to the dogs.

I have many questions, of course, like, why bother with the fake vaccine at all and not just have the silicone chip trigger, and why everyone seems so chill with Vigilante Man who at the very least has obstructed police proceedings, and why the O’Meara, sorry, Omeara, are killing off people who are collaborating with them. But they will not be answered.

High points include learning that on Demeter City, rather than working up a sketch of a suspect from witness’ statements, they just get a Tarn to scan the witness’ memory and print off a picture. Which is sort of cool. 

The O’Meara, sorry, Omeara, look suspiciously like Lord Voldemort, though I can’t find any direct connections between the effects teams on the early Harry Potter movies and this one (the effects director on this series is Neill Gorton, later to do an awful lot of Doctor Who, but as far as I can tell he never worked on Harry Potter, or at least won’t admit to it on his CV). The attack dog puppet is hilariously fake-looking.

Also, I actually spotted a non-White extra in the police station, but it is still a bit of a mayonnaise festival around there. 

Lots Of Things on the BSFA Longlist!

No FitzJames and Moyo stories this year (though I have published one, “The Little Friend” in Fission #2), but Management Lessons from Game of Thrones and three short pieces, “Mnemotechnic,” “The Memory Spider” and “The Slow Deaths of Automobiles” are all on the BSFA Award Longlist! And two out of three of those are stories about Things.

Congratulations to all my fellow listees!