Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Altor Limits

15 – 17hours 43mins – 1994-5
Created by: Gerry Anderson
Executive Producer: Gerry Anderson
Starring: Ted Shackleford, Rob Youngblood, Simone Bendix, Jerome Willis, Nancy Paul, Nick Klein, Megan Olive, Mary Woodvine, Gary Martin, Lou Hirsch, Kieron Jecchinis, Rob Thirtle, Tom Watt

“The name’s Brogan. Lieutenant Brogan. For twenty years I was with the NYPD. Now? Well, let’s just say I transferred to another precinct.”

Ah, now this takes me back! Master of the marionettes Gerry Anderson’s mid-90s sci-fi police procedural was avid weekly viewing for 12 year-old me some fifteen years ago. I even collected all of the Vivid Imaginations action figures and vehicles (and I’ve still got them all… though no longer out on display, I should clarify!!). 15 years on and having finally been released on R1 DVD in a complete series set (the double episode R2 DVD collections have long been deleted and sell for extortionate prices online), I was able to revisit this inventive mix of model work and life-action drama with a fresh pair of 26 year-old eyes.

As the above-quoted dialogue – which played as part of the title sequence every week – indicates, this future-set series sees its middle-aged New York-born protagonist, Lieutenant Patrick Brogan (Shackleford), and his cocksure young partner, Officer Jack Haldane (Youngblood), adjust to life in a new precinct; one which gravitates above the planet Altor and allows them to keep watch over the goings on in their main jurisdiction: Demeter City.

But it isn’t just human criminals the boys in blue are now chasing, for Altor is populated by all manner of weird and wonderful alien creatures. The two main species are bug-eyed Creons – such as their precinct Captain, Podly (Willis) – and telekinetic Tarns – such as fellow Officer, Took (Woodvine) – but the planet is also the stomping ground of various assorted beings from beyond the Rim. And as the 88th Precinct frequently discover, not all of them are the law-abiding type…

It is obvious that the show’s crew spent a lot of money on this project. The creons and tarns all wore extensive and technically complex face masks – many of which were created but few, it seems, were recycled – while the other extra terrestrials were kitted out in all manner of bizarrely inventive prosthetics. Furthermore, the sets and model work were numerous yet painstakingly rendered (and oftentimes blown to smithereens by the end credits), giving the streets of Demeter City a dilapidated Blade Runner vibe. It didn’t shock me to learn that each 43 minute episode cost over $1million to produce.

If my memory serves me correctly, the all-too-short 24 episode run was broadcast in the UK on BBC 2 in the 6pm slot which I have come to regard as the “Star Trek: TNG slot”. A family-friendly tea time transmission, coupled with the kid-centric merchandise, would give you the impression that Space Precinct is a bright, kooky show, but that isn’t necessarily the case: murder, assault, racism, hookers, corrupt politicians, foetus-napping, animal cruelty, religious cults and drug dealing are just some of the rather adult themes the show dealt with. Some of it is frankly scary stuff, and I’m sure Auntie Beeb must have edited the hell out of numerous episodes.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however; wisecracking duo Officers Orrin (Jecchinis) and Romek (Hirsch) contributed the humour, while the flirtatious undercurrent which sizzled between Haldane and the pretty Officer Jane Castle (Bendix) was always good for a smirk. The precinct’s R2 D2-alike RSA unit Slomo (Martin) was also clearly designed with a toy in mind, while Brogan’s two children, Matt (Klein) and Liz (Olive) gave a child’s eye perspective to proceedings – pets, gadgets and incomprehensible idioms (“prime elders”, “orbital”, etcetera) to boot.

But herein lies the rub: Space Precinct is very much a schizophrenic series. I’m not even entirely sure if the writers knew who their prime audience was – and it does often lead to many stories dawdling in an awkward middle ground. For instance, the eeriness of body-invader Enid Kmada (Richard James) in episode #14, “Predator and Prey”, is purposefully counteracted with a frankly asinine story about a goofy ape-like creature being found in a bin(!) and befriended by the bumbling Orrin and Romek.

Elsewhere, the mature storylines are spoon-fed to such a degree that they are immediately predictable, much to the detriment of any mystery. Primary culprit is episode #4, “Double Duty”, where a serial killer is “somehow” evading identification – but Haldane gives away the “third gender” twist of a green-haired alien in the opening line of the prologue! Also guilty: “The Witness” (#15), where newly transferred officer Morgan (Todd Boyce) is introduced and given far too much screen time to be anything other than the psychotic lance killer.

The episodes which stayed with me from my first viewing a decade and a half ago were “The Snake” (#5) and “Time to Kill” (#6). In both instances this is due to the distinctiveness of the villains. Having now rewatched them, I was disappointed by how little the eponymous blackmailing reptile appeared in his own episode – he is despatched far too early, making way for the tension of a bomb threat climax fit for Jack Bauer. “Time to Kill”, meanwhile (which I always remember garnered a 15 certificate in the UK), is a terrifically morbid and ultra-violent riff on The Terminator, even if the “reset button” outcome is all too obvious when all the main cast other than Brogan are killed off!

My favourite episodes are those which let a linear story unfold and there is no mystery to be spoilt: Episode #12, “Two Against The Rock”, which sees a flying Alcatraz fall foul to a prisoner takeover, is an edgy, enjoyable affair, while “ Hate Street ” (#16) is an astonishingly brutal look at racially aggravated crime. Special mention must also be made to “Smelter Skelter” (#18), which opened with a viciously tense bank robbery which put Liz Brogan and her mother (Paul) in peril, then documented their coming to terms with the shock, and the two-part epic “The Fire Within” (#20, #21), which covered a wealth of ground in a story remarkably diverse to any other told in the series.

In a CR@B Shell: Worth checking out, if only for nostalgia’s sake, but cop show savvy adults will grow weary of the all-too-apparent plot devices. It’s a shame because there was much promise in this short-lived sci-fi: Space Precinct’s affable characters are a force to be reckoned with and the visuals are lightyears ahead of their time.

No comments:

Post a Comment