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Are you a good poker player, Commander?

Television

Star Cops
4. Trivial Games and Paranoid Pursuits

 

Another great Boucher title, and (fanfare) the first episode directed by Graeme “Graybags” Harper. Suddenly there are scenes shrouded in semi-darkness, the Moonbase isn’t floodlit and everything from video monitors (from the other side looking out, effects-enhanced) to camera placements (an overhead shot! A conversation reflected in a shaving mirror!) have care and thought attached. Add in a sterling performance from Daniel Benzali (a veteran of both The X-Files and Season One of Murder One) firing sparks of Calder, and you have a piece that is a step up on every level.

KrivenkoWhy are you so unfriendly?
DevisMaybe because you’re not.
KrivenkoHave you always been so paranoid?
DevisHave you always been so nosey?
KrivenkoCuriously is what makes me a scientist.
DevisSuspicion is what makes me a policeman.
KrivenkoThen we have nothing to say to each other.
DevisI think that just about says it all.

Well, almost. New Moonbase commander Alexander Krivenko Jonathan Adams really loves his hammy Russian accent, and isn’t all that far from The Invisible Enemy’s Professor Marius for comically exaggerated foreign scientists. He’s entertaining (at this stage), though, and that’s an important get out. If he were dull and rigid he’d just go down on the growing list of Star Cops stereotypes. His interaction with Devis (who has no one to be sexist towards for most of the duration) is some of the most enjoyable in the episode where Benzali’s Commander Griffin isn’t involved (the only unfortunate aspect of the above exchange is the wah-wah joke music that concludes it).

SpringSince I sacked Inspector Hubble, your State Department can’t seem to make up its mind if I’m the Anti-Christ or anti-American.
GriffinSame thing.

Griffin is as much of a broad stereotype, complete with cigar. But Benzali is such a pro you’d hardly notice. He even gives his character’s rampant sexism some flair, although it’s a little alarming to hear his innuendo on having Kenzy on the pool table of his Ronald Reagan space station (in light of the following year’s The Accused particularly so). Kenzy has wangled her way off desk duty, to Spring’s disdain (“That bloody woman. That woman is a menace”).

Boucher doesn’t necessarily time his reveals quite well enough. It might be that he needs ninety minutes to allow his plots develop towards a finessed conclusion. Here, Griffin and his second Lennox (Robert Jezek) discuss the fate of missing blood specialist Dr Goodman, helpfully revealing matters to the viewer before Spring gets the chance. Which feels like a bit of rush to the end, based on the idea that Spring is clever enough to have worked it all out (this might fit into the gamesmanship/bluffing theme, except that Spring isn’t as calculating as Griffin thinks).

On the other hand, we’re inclined to side with Spring when he reacts to Griffin’s protestations of innocence regarding knowing the detail of Goodman’s work (“I don’t believe a single word”). Except that, this is a space bug, “one that likes the vacuum as much as it likes the air”. It represents a lucrative weaponised virus that clearly works, so sealing Goodman up in his lab and sending it off into space seems like the least likely of possible solutions to their problem. It’s the only element suggesting this might not be at military behest, but one would have expected the military to leap on its potential.

The identity of Dilly Goodman (Marlena Mackay, whose American accent could use some work) is also a neat twist (albeit following the twist of Devis’ partner in Conversations with the Dead), although her World Press Association scoop ending is on the cheesy side. More satisfying is Spring sealing an agreement for Star Cops to be posted on US stations.

Krivenko’s crackpot interruption of the salvage crew like a doddery old boffin (“I have been wondering, why is it welded closed?”) isn’t such a great moment, but the whole business with the salvage team raises questions of just how viable space travel for the average person is by this point, and how pervading “stuff” out there is. The salvage team could be off-cuts from Vengeance on Varos bickering couple and, while Harper shoots these scenes expertly, Boucher needs to drop greater hints if we’re to buy into the idea that space salvage is a going concern.

Other concepts are more plausible, though. The artificial gravity of the US station (via some decent model work; in 2001 homage agreement, Harper includes a bit of Strauss at the start), while Nathan using Box to rig the pool game is a nice sequence that has him in favour of the machines for a change (it also riffs a little on Blake’s 7’s Gambit, albeit that was written by Robert Holmes). There are also off-hand little references (space travel is possible without any major bone damage).

The episode pretty much revolves around suspicions of and between US and Russia, which is (not so) nicely topical again. The Russian here is disarming and magnanimous, whilst the Americans are self-regarding and standoffish (not in favour of international policing); Boucher is pretty much on board with the Griffin’s dismissal that “Europeans have always been naive where the Russians are concerned”. This does serve to ensure an undercurrent of murky goings-on until Griffin pulls the plug. Krivenko might just be putting on an act, and we don’t even know that Dilly isn’t who she says she is until David stumbles upon the information.

This is one without an outright crime per se, yet it’s all the more absorbing for it. Boucher and Harper expertly navigate the layers of intrigue, only fudging the reveal. And Harper is a godsend to the series (check out the reflections in the space helmet, a 101 for how to create the illusion of a vaster environment; his use of light in the show was much more astute than the average TV director). If I were to put the dampers on anything here, besides the crap depiction of internationalities, it would be the movie references. They’re all too obvious, with Gone with the Wind featuring and a John Wayne line (last week’s had Shane).

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