Saturday, December 04, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 124: Space Precinct (1994 - 1995)


Just a season after Steven Bocho and ABC-TV brought extreme grittiness (not to mention four-letter words and bare behinds...) to televised cop dramas with the popular NYPD Blue (1993 - 2005), veteran British producer Gerry Anderson premiered his own unique take on the cop genre: the futuristic adventure, Space Precinct. 

This one-of-a-kind science fiction TV series from the nineties had roots going all the back to a never-aired pilot film -- Space Police --  in 1986.  Covered in Starlog Magazine at the time, the drama starred Shane Rimmer as an Earth cop named Brogan working in a very, very  alien environment.  

By 1994,  when the concept finally went to weekly series, American actor Ted Shackelford (Knots Landing) assumed the role of Officer Patrick Brogan, a family man  and  officer working in the 88th Precinct in Demeter City, on the distant planet called Altor. 

The suburbs.
And -- in an eerie repeat of what occurred with Space: 1999 in 1975 -- absolutely no one knew what to make of the new Anderson drama. 

Specifically, Space Precinct aired sporadically in syndication across the United States, often at 3:00 in the morning.  It hardly dented the pop-culture bubble.

Apparently, many station programmers weren't certain if  Space Precinct  was an adult drama, a kid's series, or something else entirely. The adult narratives about drugs ("black crystal") and sex suggested the former. The fanciful alien make-up design and cops-and-robbers-styled action indicated the latter.  

Frankly, no one had ever seen anything quite like it. 

Just before Thanksgiving of this year, Space Precinct was officially released on DVD here in the States by Image Entertainment.  Now, sixteen years after it first aired, modern audiences can judge for themselves the quality of the program.
From "The Snake," a booby-trapped Omega Tanker.

In brief, I'll state this: if nothing else, Space Precinct is truly a fascinating historical artifact.  

This is so because the Anderson venture is one of the last sci-fi TV programs to rely almost entirely on miniatures and models rather than CGI in terms of depicting alien space ships and environments. 

Much of the episodic action of Space Precinct occurs in a colossal Blade Runner (1982)-styled future metropolis rendered completely in miniature, and often with impressive results.   

Across the episode catalog, audiences see the waterfront ("near the anti-gravity processors"), parking decks ("Protect and Serve"), mom-and-pop shops ("Enforcer"), the spires of the Hotel Nirvana ("Protect and Serve"), futuristic crack-houses ("Double Duty") and other facets of the metropolis.

The program's ubiquitous flying cars, or "hoppers," are also small, meticulously-detailed models -- moved about on wires -- and there are some really terrific craft designs highlighted in Space Precinct.  

Standard issue police cruiser.
The futuristic apartment complex/space station that orbits the planet is absolutely gorgeous, for instance, and the standard-issue police cruiser -- a multi-engined, fighter-type affair -- is the utilitarian but fun workhorse of the series' action.

Commendably, the miniatures are even used to buttress the series' pervasive and droll sense of humor.  In an episode called "Double Duty," an impressive space colossus appears in space over the orbiting precinct house, and is the punch-line to a very funny joke about an alien race seeking its lost queen.

In another episode, there's a whimsical little pizza-delivery hopper that gets pulped during a chase. And in yet another show ("Body and Soul"), the miniature work evokes a kind of anxiety or terror.  An impressive space derelict -- covered in space dust -- is discovered crashed on the pitted surface of Merlin's Asteroid. 

The big drawback to this old-school special effects approach is simply that the ships/vehicles don't always look entirely convincing while in motion over  atmospheric Demeter City.  Sometime, it is all too clear you're  watching highly-detailed miniatures.  In the worst shots, it's one step up from a Godzilla movie of the 1960s. In the best shots, the Space Precinct visuals really do pass muster, even almost two-decades later.

Interestingly, the space-bound chase scenes -- which don't have to deal with rain, fog and other atmospherics of city-life -- are still uniformly excellent today.  In keeping with the cops and robbers, daily-life-in-space milieu of the show, these chase scenes, on occasion, even feature the futuristic equivalent of "driver's side air bags" -- inflatable ejection pods used in the event of an accident.  Again, the intent of such devices seems to be to evoke bemusement or humor.

Anderson-quality pyrotechnics.
Also, well in keeping with the Gerry Anderson legacy and tradition, every episode of Space Precinct features at least one gigantic, incredibly impressive explosion. 

In "Protect and Serve," a futuristic parking deck gets totalled in glorious, fiery fashion; in "Body and Soul" a prototype derelict spaceship self-destructs after a tense countdown..  In "The Snake," a mad bomber detonates a space freighter in the interstellar void, and so on.

Perhaps even more importantly than the miniature effects, the alien creature designs of the series forecast the fascinating approach of Farscape (1999-2003); namely the incorporation of puppets into the mix so that the featured aliens truly seem like aliens...and not just like lightly-retouched humans with rubber ridges on their foreheads or noses.  It's a revolutionary approach that differentiates it from its contemporaries in America (namely TNG and DS9).

Now, Farscape really and truly mastered this method of creating memorable alien creatures.  Space Precinct made the same valiant attempt  about five years earlier, but not on such a flamboyant and wholly successful scale. 

That said, the aliens featured in this series -- largely a rogue's gallery of cosmic criminals -- are a pretty fascinating and entertaining bunch.  After a few episodes, you don't really consciously process the fact that you are actually watching animatronic puppets.  Therefore the creature designs -- while initially startling and a little too whimsical for my taste -- ultimately prove effective.

In terms of behind-the-scenes personnel, Gerry Anderson -- as always -- assembled a top flight crew.  Here, the late, great cinematographer Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi [1983], Octopussy [1983], Lifeforce [1985], Runaway Train [1985] and A Fish Called Wanda [1988]) shoots several episodes.

Amongst the directors helming individual episodes are such vets as John Glen (The Living Daylights [1987], Licence to Kill [1989]) and Sidney Hayers (Circus of Horrors [1960].   Their expertise is needed and well-deployed, especially because some of the sets (interior and exterior) seem cramped and even impractical for shooting.

Writers on Space Precinct include Marc Scott Zicree, and J. Larry Carroll.   Zicree's stories, in particular, are very enjoyable, and successfully transmit the jaunty, almost tongue-in-cheek vibe of the series.   For example, Zicree laces his efforts with little in-jokes and tributes to other famous genre programs. In  Zicree's "Enforcer" there's a joke about a "bruise the size of a horta's egg," and a passing reference to a crime called a  "1701 in progress."  

As you'll recognize, these are both fun and knowing Star Trek references.


"It's a Whole New World"

The sun sets over Demeter City, on the planet Altor

Set in the year 2040, Space Precinct follows the busy happenings in Demeter City's 88th precinct, an orbital space station and headquarters for the planet Altor's multi-racial police force.

Twenty-year NYPD veteran Patrick Brogan (Shackelford) has recently transferred to the 88th from Earth, and is slowly adjusting to life on this strange alien planet.  He has brought along his wife Sally (Nancy Paul), his son, Matt, and his daughter Liz.  Together they live on another space station, the "suburb" orbiting the city-planet "downtown."

At the precinct house, humans, Tarns and Creons work together to police the dangerous city below, which is named for the Greek Goddess Demeter, who -- appropriately -- held power over "the law" and controlled "the cycle of life and death." 

Officer Castle (Bendix) and Officer Took -- a Tarn -- interview two witnesses.
For easy reference, the Tarns seen here are sort of "Yoda Heads," three-eyed aliens with telepathic/telekinetic abilities and elfin ears. 

By contrast, the Creons are the bug-eyed "E.T. Heads," and seem more like the (Irish?) working-class folk of Demeter City.  Captain Podly, a man who pulled himself up "from the street" by his bootstraps, is a Creon.

Brogan's human partner in the precinct is the hot-blooded Jack Haldane (Rob Youngblood), a younger officer who shares a flirtatious/adversarial relationship with the gorgeous Officer Janet Castle (Simone Bendix). 

Right off the bat -- in terms of appearance and behavior -- long-time science fiction TV fans will find the banter and relationship between Haldane and Castle highly reminiscent of the Tony Verdeschi/Maya relationship on the second season of Space: 1999.  But strangely, the imitation is okay.  The characterizations on the show are not deep in any meaningful sense, and the scenes between these would-be lovers add another fun, romantic element to the proceedings.

In each episode of Space Precinct, Brogan, Haldane and Castle go up against criminals in Demeter City, and Space Precinct lovingly and faithfully resurrects every cliche of the cop genre and then updates each for the future milieu. 

Two Creon police officers bracket the station robot, "Slo-Mo."
In other words, various episodes involve corporate malfeasance ("Body and Soul,") drug dealers ("Double Duty") blackmailing bombers ("The Snake"), con men running protection rackets ("Enforcer") and the ever-popular witness protection and stakeout ("Protect and Serve.") 

But, commendably, the writers do their darnedest to marry these cop genre cliches to solid science fiction concepts. 

One of the finest episodes, "Body and Soul," turns the bitter hologram replica of a Howard Hughes-type tycoon into a murdering monster with a God Complex, for instance. Another show, "Body Double" uses an Alien-like xenomorph as a mob-land assassin.

Space Precinct also relies heavily on tried-and-true cop cliches for the depiction of its main characters.  There's the occasionally wrong-headed superior (the aforementioned Captain Podly) and the cop-with-the-traumatic past (on the bomb squad, no less...), Janet Castle.  And Brogan, of course, is overworked, even to the point where he can't take time to enjoy a candle-light dinner with his lovely wife.
Writing plainly, I can't argue that this sci-fi series is particularly deep, but in a way it reminds me -- in a positive light -- of the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which was essentially James Bond in Space (or Mission: Impossible in Space). 

Haldane (Youngblood), Aleesha, and Brogan (Shackelford)
As was the case there, here you get exactly what you pay for: a cop show set on another planet, with every story adapting the conventions of the cop genre to the weird, futuristic setting

Two elements of the series render Space Precinct enjoyable.  The first is the sense of pace: the series is downright frenetic and action-packed.  It never stays put too long in any given scene, so you don't have time to linger on the elements that don't work (largely the human performances and some risible dialogue).  

Secondly, if you watch several episodes of Space Precinct back-to-back you will quickly glean a feeling for the program's quirky sense of humor.   In the aforementioned "Body and Soul," for instance, there's a talking elevator that quotes Samuel Johnson (!).  In "Double Duty", there's the great joke with the bag lady from "Megalon 7" (there's your Godzilla reference...), and it features a special effects punch-line that left me cackling. 

In point of  fact, some episodes of Space Precinct even do offer a kind of elegant story structure.  For example, "Double Duty" is all about the assumptions that people make on a day-to-day basis.  Those assumptions are all perfectly reasonable, but nonetheless wrong.  In police work, such closely-held assumptions can be dangerous, even deadly.

All three storylines -- A, B, and C -- in the episode transmit this idea.  At home, Brogan is worried that his son, Matt, is hanging out with the "wrong crowd." 

An alien-esque assassin.
On the job, the "Bag Lady" wanders into the station and tells fanciful stories about how she is actually an alien queen. 

And finally, Haldane romances a beautiful, green-haired (!) witness who is mysteriously at the scene of every crime.  In each of these tales, we arrive -- along with the characters -- at the wrong conclusion.  It's a kind of charming, fun story, in its own strange, distinctly Space Precinct-ish way.

So, sixteen years later, how is Space Precinct?  Well, it's kind of a gas.  I can't argue that it is consistently or even occasionally deep or meaningful.   But on the other hand, it's never boring, frequently funny and rather enjoyable.   In other words, the series is entertaining. 

Again, my feeling about science fiction series is that they don't all have to be the same.  Today, series don't need to be judged against the yardstick of Star Trek anymore.

Space Precinct is a truly weird hybrid, drawing its manic, silly energy in equal parts from cop dramas like Fort Apache: the Bronx (1981) and TV series such as Star Trek, plus the amazing -- if perhaps antiquated -- special effects tradition of the Gerry Anderson canon.

If this description sounds appealing to you, book passage for Demeter City, and make sure your tongue is tucked firmly in cheek and your expectations are stowed safely in check.

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:51 PM

    I agree with everything you said here about this series. I watched the recent Sci-Fi channel marathon (I refuse to refer to them as SyFy), and the DVD series is definitely on my Christmas want list.

    The series was lots of fun. I remember first seeing it at some crazy hour late at night when it first aired. I couldn't believe it was given such a terrible time slot. Like you said, the stations didn't know what to make of this type of show.

    The effects were fantastic and the pace was fast. Sure, the miniatures weren't always 100% convincing, but they were always a marvel to look at. They just don't make 'em like this anymore. And the humor was entertaining for the most part. Some of the acting was a bit dodgy, but the show was just plain fun. A very enjoyable show. I hope the DVDs sell well - the show deserves a second look, especially if you're an Anderson fan.

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  2. Okay my friend- coffee in hand. Looking forward to this one.

    Quick aside. Yes - that was a very guarded recommendation on Seaquest indeed. : ) Also, watched Predators yesterday and it was very good. I enjoyed it. It was exactly as you articulated the film, the core of which is true to the original and the mythology.
    ----
    So, You know I'm a fan of Gerry Anderson [FAB Friday, UFO, Space:1999, Thunderbirds]- love them!

    But, like a great artist that has lost it, I've been really reluctant to check out Space Precinct.

    I'm looking forward to your thoughts on this one.

    "historical artifact"- not exactly what I look for in a science fiction classic. : )
    Mind you, I'm certainly okay with it if everything else works.

    I will say, I enjoyed your selection of images. I'm a big fan of miniatures and models and it looks reasonably good. And since I'm okay to some extent with early Godzilla I would probably enjoy the experience.

    Thanks for the behind-the-scenes and factual information regarding those involved on the show. Anderson could pull talent. That man has some serious pull for television.

    By the way, it's hard to believe Tony Verdeschi is no longer with us. He was so young back in the second season of Space:1999.

    Space Precinct... hmm, would this qualify as guarded? : )

    Seriously, it sounds like it has some of the energy of a Farscape and I completely connect with that, but I get nervous it's a little too kid-oriented. But your terrific look back was an entertaining ride.

    So if you had to choose, Buck Rogers or Space Precinct if you were going to that desert island and you could only pick one.

    : )

    Excellent examination as always.
    SFF

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  3. Hello my friends,

    Anonymous: I think we see the show very similarly. If you don't take Space Precinct too seriously, it's a fun and wild ride. It is entertaining, and there's no reason to say that entertaining is not enough!

    SFF: I'm glad you liked Predators. I thought it was very good. Very true and respectful in spirit to the original intentions of the franchise.

    Seaquest -- yes, guarded!

    Now, if I had to choose between Space Precinct or Buck Rogers...I'd go with Buck. I like Space Precinct, but it doesn't have the added bonus of "nostalgia" attached to it.

    Farscape is pure genius. This Gerry Anderson show is...entertaining. But the episodes do go by fast. You can consume the whole set in like three days, and feel pretty good after the experience. Honestly, I enjoyed watching Space Precinct. Light as a feather (and stiff as a board), as it were...

    I was just talking the other day to someone about Tony Anholt; mourning his early passing. I thought of him a lot while watching Space Precinct.

    If Netflix offers Space Precinct as a rental, I recommend you try a disc out, and see how you feel after four or five installments. The miniatures are good, the aliens are fun, and the stories have a nice sense of drive and humor.

    best,
    JKM

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  4. Thanks for the input John... and yes, mind slip, Tony Anholt. Sad to see he's gone. I'll place this on watch. Have a lovely Sunday.

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