Skip to main content

I always preferred Sherlock Holmes to Dan Dare.

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/oathsome. 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 toonatural 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 2% 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).


Commander: What they need is a good copper up there.
Spring: Out 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.


Box: It will be a long and unreliable process.
Spring: I 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.


Spring: Hard to tell them apart anyway.
Commander: You don’t believe that?
Spring: Oh, why not? Same men, same means, same victims. What’s the difference?
Commander: The head of an international space force would be able to see the difference.
Spring: Yes, 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 Sleep, Shane 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 it’s own clear sense of style and personality, so its left to Calder and Boucher to propel us forward rather than the production team.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

You use a scalpel. I prefer a hammer.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
(SPOILERS) The latest instalment of the impossibly consistent in quality Mission: Impossible franchise has been hailed as the best yet, and with but a single dud among the sextet that’s a considerable accolade. I’m not sure it's entirely deserved – there’s a particular repeated thematic blunder designed to add some weight in a "hero's validation" sense that not only falls flat, but also actively detracts from the whole – but as a piece of action filmmaking, returning director Christopher McQuarrie has done it again. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible accomplishment, the best of its ilk this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.