Looking Back At STAR COPS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At STAR COPS

Matthew Kresal reaches across the stars.


The 1980s isn't a time looked upon fondly in terms of televised British science fiction. It was the decade that saw the end of Doctor Who's original run, and Jonathan Powell and Michael Grade all but killing the science fiction genre on the BBC. Yet, in the midst of all that, Powell commissioned a new high-concept genre series, albeit one with the twist of also being in the detective genre. Star Cops was the result and, even 33 years on from its short-run, remains an intriguing piece of work.

Star Cops was the brainchild of former Doctor Who and Blake's 7 writer Chris Boucher, who envisaged a series set in the near future when space opened into being a proper frontier. As a kid who grew up dreaming of space in the early 1990s, it was everything I could have dreamed of from space stations, space shuttles, and moon bases. Everything dreamt of in the 1980s when the Shuttle program was at its height that, for various reasons, never came to be. All of it realized here with reasonable accuracy and with some superb model work. While the occasional weightless scene looks dodgy, the realization of the world around the series holds up well as a vision of a future that never was.


One suspects, however, it was the detective aspect of the series that led to the series getting the commission from Powell. The near-future setting allowed for some neat twists on old crimes from industrial sabotage and espionage to the stealing of embryos and terrorists hijacking space shuttles. Threats and crimes tackled by the International Space Police Force, led by British police inspector turned Star Cops chief David Calder and surrounded by a cast of international officers, a move that feels quite forward-leaning today. Boucher (and writers Philip Martin and John Collee) tapped into still simmering Cold War tensions, which allowed for the occasional espionage-related plotline to seep into proceedings. The result was an intriguing mix of genres across its run.

Sadly, the show didn't last beyond an initial run of nine episodes. Why? The biggest culprit seems to have been the same problems that plagued the BBC's Moonbase 3 the previous decade and NBC's SeaQuest DSV the following: trying to reasonably present the near future, but without the more extreme SF trappings of aliens. It wasn't genre enough for the science fiction audience and too out there for fans of detective fiction. The series was also not helped by how cheesy it could be in places (there's a hilariously awful bit of fake zero-g acting early in the second episode, for example, with David Cadler's Spring getting into a seat). Or, for that matter, the fact Boucher and his fellow writers took to liberal use stereotypes when it suited the plot. That's without mentioning an opening credits sequence that could rival Star Trek: Enterprise for the most inappropriate choice of music to image with Justin Hayward's It Won't Be Easy played over the iconography of spaceflight.



More than thirty years on, though, it's the ideas and the plots that still stand strong. Boucher (and writers Philip Martin and John Collee) crafted an intriguing world with a solid bunch of lead characters. In some respects, Star Cops was finding its feet just as it ended.

Then again, isn't that the story of science fiction at the BBC in the 1980s?

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places. 

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