9. Little Green Men and Other Martians
It’s one of those ironies that Star Cops feels like it’s really coming together just as it gets kyboshed (it was planned as the tenth episode, the ninth falling by the wayside due to strike action). Chris Boucher and Graeme Harper converge for a densely plotted, twisty little number that even tantalises with the prospect of aliens (proper science fiction!) showing up. That would be too far out, of course…
Spring: We’ve got drugs, Mayan sculptures, dead pilots. How many cases have we got going on here?
As Spring opines, there’s enough material here for an episode double the length of Little Green Men and Other Martians and, as with a couple of the earlier Bouchers, it feels like it’s rushing a bit to reach the finishing line. It turns out that the aliens are a big archaeological con, picking up on the Chariots of the Gods craze (Were the ancient Gods really astronauts? A bit passé by 1987, but that makes it better for this kind of take on the idea, in a way).
A 2000-year-old Mayan sculpture has been planted on the Mars surface to create a revenue stream for the museum that will host it. Along the way, a picture leaks, and the instigators indulge in a spot of murder and sabotage to keep their tracks covered. This is a solid idea on Boucher’s part, since it doesn’t require fabricated evidence that would eventually be torn apart; the object itself is real, it’s just where it allegedly comes from that isn’t.
If I’m honest, some of the method seem a little OTT (blowing up a passenger freighter bound for Mars, having already dispatched several pilots), and ringleader Philpott (Nigel Hughes, about as threatening as Chris Addison and just as appealing), who has a profoundly rubbish name for a villain, is rather unconvincing in the lengths he is willing to go to (which include blowing himself and the Star Cops up with him). But with an episode as pacey as this, one you have to really concentrate on to keep up with, it’s a relatively minor failing.
There’s even a greater sense of scale than on previous super saver outings. Harper opens on an atmospheric shot of the Martian surface, with a suitably eerie soundtrack, and there’s a whole sequence in a convincing-looking shipping silo. There’s also a bustling flight control, and a very Boucher line in unshiny futures where under-resourcing leads to important details being missed. For a series doing its best at real science though, Harper’s decision to include an explosion sound effect for the sabotaged freighter is glaring.
A drug smuggling plotline appears in the mix, which turns out to be a red herring (“It’s a lot of trouble to go to for powdered beef casserole”), and there’s a knowing wink at the stereotypes of the nosey journalist. Roy Holder (a memorable Krepler in Harper’s The Caves of Androzani) comes on in a raincoat (“And another thing; it doesn’t rain on the Moon”) and equipped with a hip flask (it’s got water in it). He tries everyone’s patience, but his lead is rock solid and Spring would have been blown up with the freighter if it wasn’t for him.
Throughout the episode, Spring is due to imminently depart for Mars, in order to set up a Star Cops base there. He’ll be leaving David in charge (Erik Ray Evans missed out on the final episode due to a dose of Chicken Pox; his lines we’re divided between the remaining regulars and, to be honest, I only missed him when I realised he kept being referenced without making a showing), and Pal is initially only concerned about getting the deputy spot.
So she says. Actually, she’s cut up about Nathan going (it’ll be a couple of years, which sounds about right), even more so when she thinks he’s dead. Theirs is a nicely low key, growing mutual respect, and I’m not sure how welcome developing it further would have been in a second season. Although, I’m sure some tension would have been eked out of the situation, this not being a happily ever after world.
Vishenko continues to be a sore thumb even here, however. It’s not Jonathan Adams’ performance per se, unlike some of the regulars, it’s that his character is just too broad for a supposedly grounded series. Perhaps he’d have been less involved in a season two, if they were at least partly Mars-based.
Ending Star Cops like it did at least resulted in none of the fallout that followed the cancellation of The Tripods two years before. That was cut off before the grand finish, an act of sheer bloody-mindedness emblematic of a corporation that continually behaved with embarrassment over science fiction. Perhaps the strangest thing is that Star Cops was commissioned in the first place, although that may have had more to do with its niche slot on BBC2. Who knows the precise reasons for it being dumped at an unholy time (8.30, midway through any challengers on one of the other main channels) and season (the height of summer), but it’s suggestive that even if it had miraculously done well there was little inclination to follow it up.
Is that a shame? Well, it’s fifty-fifty. Star Cops really needed Boucher’s direct oversight rather than that of producer Evgeny Gridneff, the man he saw as ruining it. The first four episodes, although not perfect, are consistent in actualising the touchstone of germane space-based detective work, and the finale very much picks up that baton. In between, the best we see is lip service to the setting, and one wonders if it wouldn’t eventually just have fallen apart, such that the not-at-all-what-it-sounds-like title became a more accurate depiction of the show, a Dempsey and Makepeace in space. There are glimmerings here of a melancholier, Morse-esque series with a twist, one that with sufficient investment and disinclination to indulge inappropriate fireworks, could have been something special. A reboot of The Wild Frontier might do well in the current landscape even, if viewers were able to get past the misleading title.
Star Cops ranked:
1. Little Green Men and Other Martians
2. Trivial Games and Paranoid Pursuits
3. Intelligent Listening for Beginners
4. In Cold Blood
5. Conversations with the Dead
6. An Instinct for Murder
7. Other People’s Secrets
8. This Case to Be Opened in a Million Years
9. A Double Life