Iain Coleman offered me a guest post on Star Cops ever so slightly too late to make it in for the holiday run of them I did, so I held it for later. Since running one this week massages my schedule such that all the Children of Earth entries fall into the same writing week, here it is.
It is 6 July 1987. The Pet Shop Boys are at number one with “It’s a Sin”, having knocked The Firm’s “Star Trekkin’” off the top spot a week earlier. The European Community has passed the Single European Act, a key step towards the European Union as we know it today, and a court in Lyon has sentenced the city’s former Gestapo leader Klaus Barbie to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. And at 8:30 pm on BBC 2, the first episode of Star Cops is broadcast.
Star Cops was created by Chris Boucher, who wrote five of the nine broadcast episodes. By this time, Boucher was an old hand at TV SF, having written three well-received Doctor Who serials before moving to Blake’s 7, where he was script editor on all four seasons as well as writing that show’s best episodes. After killing off Blake and his crew he had moved on to script editing established BBC police dramas Juliet Bravo and Bergerac.
As a cop show set in outer space, Star Cops combined both major strands of Boucher’s career. With its blending of genres, it was intended to appeal to a cross-over audience. Unfortunately, it never achieved high ratings and met with limited critical acclaim. Its initial nine-episode run was never repeated, and there was no second series.
To understand what went wrong, we have to understand spaceflight in the 1980s, and the toxic influence of Cold War military thinking upon the US space programme.
Space has been militarised for as long as there has been space travel. The early successes of space flight were as much public demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missile capability as they were forays into extraterrestrial exploration. The R-7 Semyorka rocket that launched Sputnik 1 and kicked off the Space Age was the world’s first ICBM, and by putting a beeping ball into space the Soviet Union was demonstrating that it could put a hydrogen bomb over Manhattan. More advanced missiles were similarly pressed into service to launch larger spacecraft, manned and unmanned, over the following decade.
And not all these payloads were as innocent as Sputnik. Low Earth orbit became the ultimate observation post for military reconnaissance, with spy satellites capturing the movements of military forces on the Earth below, and eventually the US would launch a constellation of signalling spacecraft to allow its troops to pinpoint their positions anywhere on the globe. (You have a deliberately degraded civilian version on your phone.)
But in the 1980s this militarisation became suddenly threatening, with the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Immediately nicknamed “Star Wars”, this merrily gung-ho idea was to station armed spacecraft in orbit that would be able to destroy Soviet ICBMs in flight, whether with interceptor missiles or with powerful X-ray lasers, the latter being advocated by Dr Strangelove himself, Edward Teller.
It was technically unfeasible, but it caught the imagination – on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Reagan sold it to his people as a high-tech shield from communist aggression, while the Kremlin feared that the Americans would be emboldened to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike without fear of retaliation. The increase in Cold War tension was palpable. Never has bullshit come so close to destroying humanity.
It was in this environment that Star Cops was created. Set in the near future of 2027, when space flight is routine and people live and work in Earth orbit, on the Moon and further afield, it follows the adventures of a small and not terribly respected police force as they solve the crimes these space colonists commit. As lead character Nathan Spring (David Calder) is fond of saying, “Where there’s living, there’s policemen”.
The setting is a familiar one. The long-standing plan of the space colonisation enthusiasts, going all the way back to Wernher von Braun’s landmark series of articles in Collier’s Weekly, was to establish a permanently manned space station in low Earth orbit, serviced by a reusable spacecraft capable of frequent, cheap, reliable flights. This would be the staging post for routine travel to permanent bases on the Moon, and these in turn would provide the shipyards and launchpads for human exploration of the Solar System.
This plan was forcibly set aside by President Kennedy, who wanted to beat the Soviets to the Moon for Cold War propaganda purposes and couldn’t give a toss about dreams of space colonisation. After the Moon landings had petered out to public apathy, the colonisers returned to plan A, lobbying furiously for their space station / reusable launcher combo. But it was the seventies, money was getting tighter, and the budget just wouldn’t stretch to the full package. NASA could have a space station or a launch vehicle, but not both.
In the greatest strategic error in the history of spaceflight, they chose the space shuttle.
Like most mistakes, there seemed to be good reasons for it at the time. In this case, the main attraction was that the Air Force was willing to contribute a crucial chunk of funding to the project. But the price was that the shuttle would have to fulfil certain military capabilities – and the design complications this introduced were to prove the shuttle’s undoing.
The Air Force had some bizarre fantasies about manned spacecraft at war against the Soviet menace, and the shuttle had to be built to fit that vision. Even the shuttle’s iconic delta-wing shape is down to military demands. A civilian spacecraft can manage perfectly well without wings, but the Air Force insisted on the winged glider design so that the shuttle would have enough cross-range manoeuverability to take off and land at Vandenburg Air Force Base within a single orbit, so as to carry out fast reconnaissance missions in wartime or snatch Soviet spacecraft out of the sky.
All this meant the shuttle was ludicrously over-specified for its actual peacetime missions. This didn’t just make it more expensive to build: it made it more complex, more costly to maintain, and more prone to go wrong. It never came close to managing enough flights to amortise its design and construction costs, and the extent of the repairs and reconstruction needed after each flight meant that it was a reusable vehicle in name only.
The shuttle never achieved the dream of cheap, routine access to space, but the image had to be maintained even if it meant turning a blind eye to risks. In PR terms, it worked. The shuttle became the harbinger of human conquest of the High Frontier. Every launch carried the implicit promise that human space exploration hadn’t ended with Apollo, that Moon bases and space industry were, if not imminent, at least on the way. A generation was growing up with the space shuttle as its symbol of its future in space.
Then, on 28 January 1986, 73 seconds after launch, the space shuttle Challenger blew up. In June of that year, the Rogers Commission report on the disaster exposed the crippled, corrupted reality of America’s manned space programme for all the world to see.
The rise and fall of Star Cops coincides with the rise and fall of the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle programme began its first test flights in 1981, when Boucher began pitching Star Cops as a radio series, and the first episode was eventually commissioned for TV in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. The political conditions of the space shuttle program run deep in the structure of the show.
In case after case, the Star Cops reveal not only the contradictions between the transcendent idealism of the High Frontier true believers and the reality of human imperfection, but also the contradictions between visions of peaceful space exploration and the realities of the military-political-corporate complex. Such cynicism is commonplace in TV cop drama, but unusual in popular TV SF – indeed, only Boucher’s prior work on Blake’s 7 really goes this far. But Blake’s 7 hid its political awareness under camp and tinsel, while Star Cops has the realistic setting that allows Boucher to put his message front and centre. Crucially, this near future is still divided along national lines, so Boucher can attack militaristic Americans directly instead of metaphorically.
The nationality factor proves to be a two-edged sword, tempting writers into portraying characters as national stereotypes instead of individuals. In Boucher’s hands this works well enough: when he writes a cigar-chomping gung-ho trigger-happy American, it is specifically as an attack on the Reaganite attitudes that were so terrifying at the time, and he has already established a sympathetic and heroic American character as one of the main cast. Other writers were less thoughtful, and the character of Anna Shoun in particular, introduced by writer John Collee at the producer’s behest, ticks every box of Oriental stereotypes, much to Boucher’s disdain.
The problem with Boucher’s attack on militarism is that Star Cops is too close to its target to avoid becoming a casualty. The show was conceived in a world that saw space stations and Moon bases as the coming future, and however much it might have exposed the naivety of the civilian space movement and the sinister motives of its military backers, it still depended on that popular expectation to justify itself as mass TV entertainment.
By the time it hit the screens, however, the future had changed. The Challenger disaster had put space flight back in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, and the world of Star Cops had lost its plausibility,and hence its potency. When a show’s selling point is the realism of its future setting, how can it survive when the audience loses faith in that future?
The first sign of loss of faith came from BBC senior management. Star Cops was given an awkward slot on BBC2 and never achieved high enough ratings to justify a second series. It is impossible to say whether a better timeslot would have made the show a hit, or whether it was doomed in any case and Jonathan Powell was right to cut his losses. However, the latter may be closer to the truth, and not just because the zeitgeist had moved on. Even if that O-ring had held tight in Challenger’s solid rocket booster, Star Cops would still have been a troubled production.
Boucher was at odds with producer Evgeny Gridneff from the start, and later expressed his regret that he hadn’t had the confidence to produce the show himself. One of his frequent complaints is that he had written his scripts to take careful account of the nitty-gritty of TV production at the time, such as the contrast between video and film shooting, and Gridneff had completely ignored all of this.
In one particularly egregious example, Boucher wrote Nathan Spring and his girlfriend having meals at a restaurant with private booths whose walls featured computer projections of beautiful scenery. So, two actors sitting in front of a blue screen – cheap as chips. In the final production, the restaurant is a conventional set with lots of furniture, extras and so on, with the main characters sitting at a table in the middle of it all. So far, so needlessly expensive, but the real absurdity comes when the meal is interrupted by a news announcement. In Boucher’s conception, that would just mean switching the blue screen background to a TV news clip. However, the production isn’t able to do this with its restaurant set, so instead a waiter has to wheel a portable TV up to Spring’s table on a trolley in order to show him a newsflash. It’s risible, and one cannot watch the writer’s DVD commentary on that episode without having Boucher’s plaintive cries of “I wanted a booth…” echoing in ones mind long afterwards.
Thanks to this and many other production misfires, Star Cops never achieved escape velocity, despite some clever writing, an outstanding central performance by David Calder, and a bitingly cynical final episode that holds out considerable promise for a second series that never came.
When looking for the cause of a disaster like this, the question is how deep do you go? A rigid O-ring did for Challenger and its crew, but the more fundamental failure was in NASA management and political priorities. Even that, though, is a consequence of the misconceived decision to go ahead with the shuttle project at all. The ultimate question about the shuttle programme is not “what if the O-ring had held?” or “what if NASA management had been more open?”, it is “what if NASA had done something entirely different instead?”
So – what if, after Blake’s 7, when he was first pitching Star Cops, Chris Boucher had done something entirely different?
What if he had moved on to Doctor Who instead?
That’s just idle speculation, of course. There’s no reason to think that Boucher would have been offered the opportunity, or that he would necessarily have taken it. Doctor Who was largely a training ground for novices at this time, and it would be only natural for the BBC to deploy an experienced script editor like Boucher on higher profile productions such as Juliet Bravo and Bergerac, and to chuck the likes of Eric Saward and Andrew Cartmel at Doctor Who to sink or swim as their talents and luck allowed. But it’s a tempting idea nonetheless, if only because the timing would have been just about right for Boucher to take the place of Eric Saward, whose increasingly dysfunctional tenure as script editor eventually collapsed in Doctor Who’s darkest hour.
By contrast, the hypothetical JNT-Boucher years could have been very effective. In particular, Boucher’s keen appreciation of production realities and writing to make the most of limited resources would have been a good fit for JNT’s cunning accounting. The quality of the scripts would doubtless have been improved, and there would certainly be a strong political, anti-military, anti-corporate flavour to the stories. More world-weary than the youthful idealism of the Cartmel years, but no less passionate.
Instead, Doctor Who itself fell victim to the pervading culture of militarism, its whimsical intellectual hero edged out of his own story in favour of a parade of interstellar mercenaries and space marines. Fortunately, in this case the blow was not fatal and a determined rearguard action allowed the show to survive, albeit underground for a time, and eventually to emerge victorious.
No such luck for Star Cops. Too close to the military-spaceflight complex it was attacking, it became collateral damage in the collapse of its target. An obscure victim, rarely mentioned in the casualty lists, but mourned nonetheless by the few who knew and loved it.