Star Cops – An Instinct for Murder


Star Cops, like Moonbase 3, only lasted one series and during its original transmission attracted fairly lukewarm approval and low ratings.  But unlike Moonbase 3, over the last few decades Star Cops’ critical reputation has slowly risen.  In 1999, SFX Magazine asked a panel of experts (including Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett) to rate the fifty best science fiction series of all time.  Star Cops was a very respectable nineteenth and SFX wrote that it was “the SF TV show SF writers love. It wasn’t perfect but it’s as close as TV will ever get to producing proper written SF.”

Series creator Chris Boucher had been a script-editor on both Blakes’ Seven and Bergerac, so he certainly had the experience to craft a SF detective series.  Set in 2027, it depicts a future where space travel is now an everyday occurrence.  There are thriving colonies on the Moon and Mars, five space-stations operated by various countries and deeper space-bound explorations are also becoming more common.  But with the increased number of people making regular trips into space there’s an obvious need for a professional space police force.

Up until now, the International Space Police Force (ISPF) has consisted of twenty or so part-timers, disparagingly nicknamed the Star Cops.  This needs to change – and what’s required is a permanent force of full time professionals, led by a new Commander.  It’s decided that Nathan Spring (David Calder) is the ideal man for the job – although Nathan is far from keen.  For one thing, he’s a most reluctant spaceman (he says that he always preferred Sherlock Holmes to Dan Dare) and for another he rightly suspects that he’s being pushed sideways by his boss (Moray Watson) who simply wants to get rid of him.

Nathan is an oddity – he’s a detective that prefers to think for himself, rather than let the computer make his decisions for him, which on Earth makes him something of a misfit.  Hence the title of the episode, An Instinct for Murder, which shows us two murders (one on Earth and one in Space) that are only solved by human ingenuity.  In both cases, there’s a plausible computer solution, but Nathan isn’t convinced by either and eventually he’s proved right.

On Earth, his maverick nature is seen as a liability, but out in Space – the new frontier – it’s an asset.  Or that’s how his boss tries to spin it to him.  It’s clear that Space is the new Wild West – somewhere which has been largely unregulated until now, but the arrival of a new Sheriff (Spring) will bring law and order firmly back.  And since he’s far away from any interference from his superiors, he can dispense his own brand of justice without constantly having to seek approval from the computer.

The episode opens with two murders.  Since they’re identical, you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s a connection between them, but that’s not the case.  The point that’s being made is that crime in Space is just the same as crime on Earth.  Despite the different environment, solving it will need precisely the same skills.

On Earth, we see a man out for a swim.  Two others catch up with him and drown him.  In Space, we see a man in a spacesuit orbiting the Earth.  Two others catch up with him and remove his oxygen supply.

Nathan isn’t convinced that the drowning was an accident (as the computer suggested) and urges his subordinate to investigate further.  In Boucher’s original draft, the first story was spread over two episodes and it would have seen Nathan investigate the murder himself.  As it is, the compression of the story to fifty minutes meant that he only has a peripheral interest the case.  To be honest, it’s not terribly central to the story (the man was murdered on the instructions of his wife) and neither are the Space murders (a series of deaths which the computer decides were caused by space-suit failures).  The murders simply exist to demonstrate Spring’s philosophy of detection.

Chris Boucher’s relationship with producer Evgeny Gridneff was uneasy from the start (apparently when they first met, Gridneff told him that all his scripts would need to be rewritten).  Although he was generally positive about many of the cast, especially David Calder, other aspects of the series irritated Boucher – especially Justin Hayward’s theme tune.  I like it, but I suspect I’m in something of a minority.  What’s interesting about it is that it may have been written very early during the production of the series.  The lyrics of “It Won’t Be Easy” seem to refer to how difficult it will be to maintain a relationship when there’s an Earth/Space divide.  I assume it’s about Nathan and Lee Jones (Ginnie Nevinson).  Possibly Heyward assumed that Nathan and Lee would remain an item throughout the series – as we’ll see though, her story has a very finite end.

Nathan’s rather a cliched figure (although thankfully Calder is able to make something out of even the most routine material) and his relationship with Lee is a prime example of this – he’s portrayed as a workaholic who has little time for anything else.  He clearly loves her, in his own fashion, but lacks the same insight with her that he brings to his police work.  The most obvious example is when he continues to book them into a restaurant which Lee dislikes!  After Nathan’s transfer to the ISPF is ratified, it means leaving her behind.  Boucher could have kept her as a regular during the series, but he does something much more interesting – which will pay off in the next episode.

Once Nathan’s “out there” he has to start assembling his force.  Some of the existing ISPF officers are worth keeping – such as David Theroux (Erik Ray Evans).  Others, like Pal Kenzy (Linda Newton), will later be viewed with more caution.  Kenzy only has a cameo here, but from her first scene it looks highly likely that she’ll be headed on a collision course with Nathan (although after a few episodes it’s just as clear that eventually, after many trials and tribulations, they’ll form a close working relationship).

As previously touched upon, the mystery of the murders very much takes second place to setting up the series format.  But thanks to the quality model-work (which remained consistently good throughout the run) and Calder’s strong performance, An Instinct for Murder is an impressive opener.

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