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I always preferred Sherlock Holmes to Dan Dare.

Television

Star Cops
1. An Instinct for Murder

 

I know it’s a cardinal crime, but I do actually like the Star Cops theme song. It’s both cheese- and synth-tastic and quite melancholy, which fits the show. I also think it suits the titles nicely, which are still quite evocative and creative (especially the astronaut’s space boot in the moon dust too). An Instinct for Murder is rather an ungainly opener, probably the side effect of creator Chris Boucher compressing an opening two-parter into just the one episode.

I hadn’t revisited the series (which can currently be found in its entirety on YouTube) since the ’80s, but I remembered it as a patchy affair (for a detailed background of the show, I’d recommend The Anorak Zone’s dedicated sub-site). As a fan of Doctor Who (and Blake’s 7), At the time, I was well aware of the credentials of Chris Boucher (and of Philip Martin, and especially the directorial chops of Graeme Harper), but I probably fell into the category of seeing it as neither fish nor fowl. The series wasn’t science fiction enough (the only aliens in it are hoaxed) nor deductive enough, although its notable that this was the same year another rumpled old school detective (space travel makes Spring sick) made his debut, not so far from David Calder’s Nathan Spring; Inspector Morse.

British TV was in such dire SF straits at the time, anything would do. Which consequently made for some interesting failures; The Tripods had been cancelled in ’85, Doctor Who had been cancelled/gone on hiatus, come back and had its lead actor sacked (the debut of Sylvester McCoy, in a series so amateurish it made Star Cops’ least laudable effects look like ILM at their best, was only a few months away from broadcast), Knights of God, which had been delayed a couple of years, was also shown that autumn. Red Dwarf would arrive the following year, and taking the comedy route enabled it to be one of the genre’s few success stories of a period where no one seemed to have the will and/or ability to make good science fiction. Star Copsgot dumped in the summer, in a difficult timeslot and seemed doomed to the orbital scrapheap before it even got started

I well recall the Radio Times cover for the series, but mostly I recall being surprised by the salty dialogue, which was fairly vulgar/oath-some. Certainly, compared to any other science fiction, and even to most detective shows. I recall too that aside from Calder the acting didn’t always seem that impressive. But I also recall an upward tick in finding its feet, and that Harper’s episodes, who had already leapt out due to the suddenly vital, professional job he did on Who, were a massive step up from Christopher Baker’s work.

Not that Baker’s work here is exactly bad, but it epitomises the problems of overlit ’80s BBC science fiction, shot on video and devoid of atmosphere. This approach did the effects work no favours, nor the obviously cheap sets and ’80s styled costumes (futuristic shoulder pads). That said, the model work is often excellent throughout the run; it’s anything in Zero G or using blue screen that creaks and groans. And, while I like the theme, Tony Visconti’s incidental music is frequently overbearing and inappropriate (nothing to the eardrum bursting offence that is Keff McCulloch, though).

The problem was that Star Cops (as Kim Newman says, it’s a terrible title) was on the one hand going for verisimilitude: realistic characters and dialogue. On the other it was hamstrung by sometimes iffy production values and a setting that worked against the pacing of a classic cop show. Instinct for Murder does an effective job setting up its stall with the opening sequence of the show; a montage showing crimes both earthbound and in space (drowned and suffocated respectively); the emphasis is clearly that murder is murder wherever it takes place. And, more than once in this 2027-set opener, I was put in mind of the substantially grittier but also science factual (-ish) Outland.

It’s notable that the Earth murder is solved with a ream of exposition in the final scene from Spring’s smug boss (Moray Watson, who appeared in Doctor Who’s Black Orchid), but the main space investigation is also dealt with in a manner that is almost perfunctory. Baker injects little pace into the proceedings, and there’s little in the way of build up or emphasis on the mystery. At points dialogue is almost too natural and informal in delivery, such that it washes over you and you don’t really take it all in.

Admittedly, the scheme of An Instinct for Murder isn’t particularly arresting, although the statistic-based scam has the veneer of plausibility; conglomerate Pancontel wants to swipe away the spacesuit servicing contract away from the Russians by staging accidents; as long as suits remain within the two-percent standard, suspicions will not be alerted.

The capability of the human mind to go to places the machine cannot is particularly emphasised here; computers do not allow lateral thinking, so Nathan sees ways the crimes could be committed they do not (such as killings through space walking from another station, meaning the crew on board the one where the astronaut dies are all accounted for).

It’s fairly obvious that Keith Varnier’s space traffic controller at the Charles De Gaulle Euro space station must be implicated, simply because there’s no one else in the episode with a speaking role who isn’t accounted for. His motivation is also fairly rote (he thought they were only smuggling when he first started taking bribes, you know).

CommanderWhat they need is a good copper up there.
SpringOut there.

It’s basically Calder who holds together and smooths over the opener. He eases us through the sometimes-awkward transitions and introductions. Nathan doesn’t want the gig with the International Space Police Force (the Star Cops label is “a cheap journalistic jibe that stuck”), but it isn’t as if his life on Earth is a bed of roses anyway. He’s inattentive towards girlfriend Lee (Gennie Nevinson) and needs reminding by his pocket personal computer/AI Box (voiced by Calder) of appropriate behaviours (“She prefers you to do these things in person” he suggests when Nathan asks him to book a table). Box is very much in the Orac tradition, albeit passive and enabling the writer’s godsend of having Nathan essentially talk to himself. He has an advanced gadget no one else has (see also the Liberator) and the relationship between the two serves to emphasise the gap between logic and intuition.

BoxIt will be a long and unreliable process.
SpringI know, Box. That’s what life tends to be.

On the one hand the show has a super advanced iPhone-AI, on the other, a TV monitor is wheeled out for Nathan to watch a news update at a restaurant (this wasn’t in Boucher’s conception; much else also wasn’t, including the idea that Earth scenes be shot on film; everything ended up on crummy video). But, aside from the obviousness of some of the sets, there isn’t a sense that this 2027 is a massive bungle that looks terrible now. Just cheap.

Even the envisaged America-Russia tensions have swung back round to being feasible. The attempts at multiculturalism are rather cloth-eared though, like a cruder version of the kind of thing we saw in ’60s Patrick Troughton Doctor Who. So people are racist/xenophobic (“He wasn’t a bad bloke, for an Italian”), but care is taken to identify the truly international nature of space. We’re introduced to future regular Australian Pal Kenzy (Linda Newton) briefly, but most of Nathan’s time is spent with American David Theroux.

Erik Ray Evans’ limited acting skills are evident when put in a scene with a pro like Calder who makes it all so easy, but the two do at least have a rapport. And Evans isn’t stinking the place up (not yet), even if he’s no Olivier. Elsewhere, Varnier comes across like a prototype Captain Jack (that’s Torchwood’s one). Watson is great, though, as the never-changing-no-matter-when pain in the arse superior; Boucher can always be relied upon to take cynical swipes at the order of things.

SpringHard to tell them apart anyway.
CommanderYou don’t believe that?
SpringOh, why not? Same men, same means, same victims. What’s the difference?
CommanderThe head of an international space force would be able to see the difference.
SpringYes, he should, shouldn’t he? Maybe they’ve chosen the wrong man for the job.

As a solid opener should, An Instinct for Murder has positioned its hero where he should be for future cases to unfold, but it has done so at the expense of mustering interest in the central crime(s). The move referencing (including The Big SleepShane and The Magnificent Seven) like much here falls a bit flat, and the sight of Spring in a trench coat in the last scene is evidently an overt nod to both the movie traditions of the detective genre and the leap he’s taking from the Earthbound field.  What Star Cops lacks at this point is its own clear sense of style and personality, so its left to Calder and Boucher to propel us forward rather than the production team.

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