Sleepers – Simply Media DVD Review

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Back in the mid 1960’s, Russian spymaster Andrei Zorin (Michael Gough) sent two Soviet moles to Britain.  As “sleeper” agents, their mission was to assimilate themselves into British society and await further orders.  But those orders never came ….

Fast-forward twenty five years and the two agents, Sergei Rublev (Nigel Havers) and Vladimir Zelenski (Warren Clarke), have gone native so successfully that they’re now indistinguishable from the real thing.  Both have flourished in the capitalist West  – Rublev, today known as Jeremy Coward, is a successful investment banker whilst Zelenski, now going under the name of Albert Robinson, is a happily married man with three children, holding down a job in a Manchester brewery.

The last thing they want to be reminded of is their murky Soviet past, but when Albert’s secret Soviet radio suddenly starts transmitting it seems to spell the end of their British adventure.  Albert contacts Jeremy (the pair hadn’t met since parting shortly after their arrival in the UK) and together they ponder their next move.  But the arrival of the hardline Major Nina Grishina (Joanna Kanska) spells further trouble for our two hapless heroes …

Broadcast across four episodes during April and May 1991, Sleepers is a fondly remembered comedy drama by John Flanagan and Andrew McCullough.  Flanagan and McCullough continue today to hold down dual jobs as actors and writers (both took the opportunity to act in Sleepers).  Their first joint writing credit was the 1980 Doctor Who story Meglos and they would go on to contribute to a number of popular series such as Robin of Sherwood, Boon, Pie in the Sky and Peak Practice..

Much of the appeal of Sleepers rests upon the performances of Nigel Havers and Warren Clarke.  Havers (b. 1949) had built up a solid list of credits throughout the 1970’s, but it would be during the 1980’s – with films such as Chariots of Fire and diverse television series like Don’t Wait Up and The Charmer – that he’d really become established as a leading actor.

Clarke (1947 – 2014) was incredibly busy during the 1970’s and 1980’s, racking up an impressive list of appearances in both films and television series (A Clockwork Orange,  The Sweeney, The Onedin Line, Minder, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Reilly: Ace of Spies, The Jewel in the Crown, etc etc) without ever really becoming a leading man – that would come later with Dalziel and Pascoe (1996 – 2007).

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It’s the contrast between Rublev/Coward and Zelenski/Robinson which really appeals.  One was sent up North and the other established himself in the South.  There’s the lovely possibility that if Jeremy had gone to Manchester then he’d be speaking like Albert now and vice-versa.  That might have been interesting to hear, but it was probably safer that both actors played to type!

Back in 1991, the Cold War was definitely thawing, which meant that many spy stories began to look backwards to the good old days of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  This sense of past glories is touched upon in the opening episode, The Awakening, after a secret room beneath the Kremlin is found to contain a replica of an English town. Covered in cobwebs, it’s a perfect time capsule of the mid sixties. As the power is restored, a record player springs back into life with She Loves You by The Beatles playing, whilst Adam Adamant Lives! flickers into life on a tiny black and white television.

Such a construction may seem far-fetched, but there’s evidence to suggest that such places existed and were invaluable in training agents (plenty of examples can be found in fiction, from the Danger Man episode Colony Three to the Jack Higgins novel Confessional).

Quite how this ghost town was suddenly discovered or why Nina and Oleg PetrovskI (Christopher Rozycki) are so interested in it is a bit of a mystery. If it was a training ground for an operation decades ago, why should it be important now? Nina visits Zorin, but he’s nothing more than the shell of a man – babbling about 1960’s popular culture (quoting from A Hard Day’s Night and the Billy Cotton Band Show).

The gorgeous Joanna Kanska is suitably intimidating as the ice-cold KGB Major Nina Grishina . Arriving in Britain, she heads off to speak to Victor Chekhov (David Calder), their man in London. Calder essays a fairly broad performance as possibly not the most convincing Russian ever. For some reason he seems to have more of an American accent than a Russian one.

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Nina and Victor couldn’t be more different. Victor considers that the Cold War is well and truly over and so asks both the CIA and MI5 for their assistance. Nina is horrified (to her, both are still the enemy) but involving both the Americans and British helps to ramp up the comedy. This is particularly evident with the cash-strapped MI5, where even fairly low-key expenses (a meal at Burger King) are examined very closely. In future the agent is advised to “stick to coffee. I want a bit less of these flame-grilled Whoppers.”

Once Albert and Jeremy meet up, the story can really start. Albert doesn’t want to return to Russia since he can’t bear the thought of being parted from his wife and children. Jeremy might not be married but he’s got plenty of good reasons to want to stay as well. “I’m on 300 grand a year. I’ve got a flat in town, a cottage in the country, a string of girlfriends and half a bloody racehorse. Think I’m going to give it all up for a bowl of red cabbage and a bedsit in Vladivostok?”

It’s undeniable that the plot is a little contrived in places, this is never more evident than when Albert and Jeremy decide to chuck the radio transmitter in the river and then do a Cossack dance to celebrate. After they’re arrested by the police, Jeremy tells the constable that they’re the Moscow State Circus (!). It’s difficult to believe that two trained (albiet very rusty) agents would behave so rashly, especially by mentioning Russia.

Sleepers sets up various mysteries, such as why Albert and Jeremy were in the crowd at the 1966 World Cup final. It’s amusing that the Russian archive film shows the disputed England goal at quite a different angle, something which Chekhov decides he can turn to his advantage. But British Intelligence, who are monitoring him, get quite the wrong end of the stick and decide that it’s all part of a Moscow plan to destabilise British society with the help of football hooligans!

As might be expected with a spy story, not everything in Sleepers is quite as it first appears, something which becomes very apparent in the closing episodes, whilst various running gags – such as Boris, a toy monkey owned by Albert’s daughter – also help to enliven proceedings. And whilst the serial may have a comic feel, there’s also various dramatic beats scattered throughout the four episodes – these are used to break down the facades that Albert and Jeremy have built around themselves.

Ironically, Albert’s not good at keeping secrets. His wife instantly senses that something is wrong, although she jumps to the conclusion that he’s having an affair. Clarke is excellent as the conflicted Albert, as is Havers as the apparently more confident Jeremy. But Jeremy too is racked by doubts as his past returns to haunt him.

Sleepers is a confident comedy thriller which features British, American and Russian intelligence agents all chasing different agendas, some of which are completly illusionary. With the luxury of four episodes it has the time to develop character and incident at a leisurely pace, although it never feels drawn out.

Sleepers is released by Simply Media on the 24th of October 2016. RRP £19.99.

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Star Cops – Little Green Men and Other Martians


Why has the respected investigative journalist Daniel Larwood (Roy Holder) travelled to Moonbase?  It may have something to do with the persistent rumours that something has been discovered on a recent Mars expedition.  Is there really life on Mars?  Although possibly he’s more interested in a drugs smuggling ring that’s uncovered after a shuttle pilot is killed in a crash.

With Theroux on leave and Nathan soon to depart for Mars, it leaves the Star Cops rather stretched as they try and make sense of the various pieces of the puzzle.  But all this is forgotten when the shuttle carrying Nathan en-route to Mars explodes …..

After a run of four episodes by other writers, Little Green Men and Other Martians saw the welcome return of Chris Boucher.  Roy Holder is perfect casting as the crumpled journalist Larwood whose arrival is greeted with some dismay by Kenzy (the pair of them have history).  It’s implied they had a relationship when Kenzy was younger (Larwood at the time was writing an article about her and her friends).  The article clearly didn’t turn out well – Kenzy was upset to be painted as a student militant, although Larwood counters that Kenzy and her friends weren’t actually as radical as they appeared to be.

As the interest in the Martian finds increases, more journalists start to arrive.  Susan Caxton (Lachelle Carl) has a memorable first meeting with Nathan.  Unknown to him, she enters the office as he’s talking on the RT to Devis.  Colin is transporting two suspects in the drugs case in one of the Moon Rovers and Nathan is happy to play along with Devis’ suggestion that he takes them outside for a walk and leaves them there.  And since they’re miles from anywhere it’s certain they’ll die – so Nathan suggests recording their deaths as spacesuit failures

Afterwards, Caxton asks Nathan if he was joking, although Nathan’s completely unrepentant.  This firmly places him alongside old-school coppers like Jack Regan of The Sweeney who were perfectly happy to put whatever pressure they could on suspects in order to get the information they needed.  For Nathan, the rights of the individuals would appear take second place compared to the misery that drugs cause.  Carl’s first appearance in the episode was via a news report on-screen and many modern viewers would probably instantly recognise her since she had a similar newscaster role in numerous episodes of Doctor Who between 2005 and 2010.

The news that Nathan’s on his way to Mars to set up a new Star Cops base was clearly laying the ground for the projected second series (one that sadly never came).  But if it had, you could imagine this episode might have ended on a cliff-hanger showing the shuttle explosion and Nathan’s apparent death.

As it was, the shock of Nathan’s death doesn’t last very long before it’s revealed he wasn’t on-board the shuttle after all.  But before he returns from the dead it’s quite obvious how his “death” has affected Kenzy.  The increasing affection between the pair of them is also demonstrated earlier on when Nathan leaves for the shuttle.  Nathan, being typically British, offers to shake Kenzy’s hand but she decides she wants a hug instead.

It does seem strange that Nathan tells her he’ll be gone for several years.  If so, why isn’t he taking anybody else with him – how can he establish the Star Cops on Mars all by himself?  This does then seem to be contradicted at the end of the episode when Nathan asks the others if they’d like to come with him and set up the Martian base.

Star Cops had to contend with many difficulties and several of them came towards the end of the production block.  One whole episode, Death on the Moon, was never made to due to industrial action and this episode also had serious problems.  Erick Ray Evans succumbed to Chicken Pox shortly before the story was due to go into the studio, so the script had to be hastily rewritten – with virtually all of Theroux’s lines given to Kenzy.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it gave us one more opportunity to see the Nathan/Kenzy partnership in action – surely something which would have been developed even further if the Mars-based series two had ever gone into production.

Although Little Green Men and Other Martians was a complex and confusing story at times, it was still a strong closer to a series that has plenty to recommend it.  Alas, a summer BBC2 slot at a less than ideal time sealed its fate as ratings struggled to reach two million.  VHS and DVD releases (although now long deleted) helped to bring the series to a new generation and whilst the 1987 vision of 2027 is undeniably clunky at times, it’s still a programme which has aged remarkably well and is well worth tracking down.

Star Cops – Other People’s Secrets


Living in an enclosed environment, like the Moonbase, can be highly stressful for a number of reasons.  Recognising this, Krivenko has invited Dr Angela Parr (Maggie Ollerenshaw) to the Moon.  Dr Parr is a psychiatrist who is working on a project about space psychology.  From Krivenko’s point of view it will allow Moonbase personnel to talk about any psychological problems they may be suffering from and Dr Parr will gain valuable research material.

But not everybody welcomes the idea of strangers snooping into their private lives.  Kenzy, in particular, is violently opposed to meeting a psychiatrist.  So when Nathan insists that all of the Star Cops have attend a meeting, it’s fair to say that Kenzy’s not best pleased.

But maybe Dr Parr has come at just the right time, since Moonbase has been suffering from a series of niggling technical breakdowns.  At first it just seems like wear and tear, but the increasing regularity causes Nathan to wonder if it’s deliberate sabotage.  Hooper (Barrie Rutter) is the highly overworked senior maintenance man who appears to be cracking under the strain of keeping the base operational.  Could he be responsible?

Also making a visit is safety inspector Ernest Wolffhart (Geoffrey Bayldon), who’s far from impressed with what he sees.  And when a major incident causes a decompression of Moonbase, there’s a real danger that lives will be lost.

Other People’s Secrets is the episode of Star Cops that most resembles Moonbase 3 (this is a compliment by the way!).  Because Star Cops was a more wide-ranging series (it made frequent trips back to Earth as well as several off Moon excursions) it lacked the claustrophobic nature of Moonbase 3.  In the earlier series it did seem that each week somebody was going to crack under the strain of living and working in such an unnatural environment.

This theme, full of dramatic potential, is developed quite well here.  There are several suspects as Nathan and Theroux hunt for the saboteur, but it’s not really a whodunnit as the guest cast is rather limited.  Barrie Rutter is very beardy and perpetually angry as the maintenance wizard Hooper.  He tends to vent his anger on the nearest available target, which in this case is his unfortunate assistant Beverley Anderson (Leigh Funnell).

Star Cops never really had a reputation of attracting familiar names as guest stars, but Other People’s Secrets is an exception as Geoffrey Bayldon (Catweazle himself) gives a lovely performance as Wolffhart.  Bayldon provides us with a good character study of a man who appears to live for his work (he’s already past retirement age, but he’s still working).  When we learn that he’s a widower, this seems to make sense – although it later becomes obvious that Wolffhart is a flawed man who shouldn’t be working in Space.

I wonder if the inclusion of Dr Parr was a tribute to Moonbase 3‘s own Dr Helen Smith?  I’d love to think that it was a genuine homage, but it’s probably just a coincidence, although they are similar characters in several ways.  Perhaps the most ironic similarity is that both of them find it impossible not to get involved with their subjects – Dr Smith had several dalliances, whilst Dr Parr is shocked to discover Colin Devis is amongst the Moonbase crew (they used to be married).

When the Moonbase decompression accident occurs, everybody has to find shelter in the nearest room, which is then sealed tight.  With only a limited oxygen supply, there’s nothing that the occupants can do except wait to be rescued.  Although Devis, who finds himself locked up with his ex-wife, has another idea.  “Fancy a game of hide the sausage?” he memorably asks her.

It’s perhaps predictable that Nathan and Kenzy find themselves trapped together, but sex isn’t on their minds (or at least it isn’t on Nathan’s).  Instead, in a key piece of character development he tells her about his father.  Nathan’s father worked as a computer salesman and was the best that the company, Recondite, ever had.  But it later became clear that he was stealing blueprints from his company and eventually he was caught by a keen young copper.  It’s never explicitly stated, but the inference is that it was Nathan who arrested his own father.  Both Calder and Newton are once again excellent in this scene.  Calder has the bulk of the lines but it’s Newton’s reactions that really help to sell the intensity of what we see.

Easily the best of the non-Boucher scripted episodes, Other People’s Secrets is memorable for several reasons – most notably the Nathan/Kenzy heart-to-heart but also for the fine guest appearance of Geoffrey Bayldon.

Star Cops – A Double Life

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The Star Cops investigate an unusual kidnapping.  Three embryos belonging to the wealthy and influential Madame Assadi (Nitza Saul) are removed from a facility on the Moon.  All the evidence (including a genetic fingerprint) points to James Bannerman (Brian Gwaspari) being responsible.  He has a watertight alibi though – at the time the crime was committed, Bannerman (a noted concert pianist), was giving a recital at the Royal Albert Hall.

After Bannerman is abducted by Madame Assadi he seems fated to suffer a traditional Arab punishment for theft (the loss of his hand).  Nathan has discovered the true culprit, but time’s running out to save Bannerman from a life-changing fate ….

There’s an awful lot wrong with A Double Life, especially the plot which is so full of holes that it really doesn’t hold up to any sort of close examination.  For example, when Nathan hears that the embryos have been stolen he orders an immediate lock-down of Moonbase.  This is reasonable, although it’s less clear why he decides to keep two exits open – surely until a thorough search has been completed there should be no movement out of the base?

His next bad move is to assign Anna Shoun to guard one of the checkpoints.  The mysterious kidnapper is easily able to overpower her and make his escape.  Anna is naturally distraught but Colin has no sympathy at all for her – in his eyes she lacks the strength to be a decent officer.  Although Theroux and Kenzy react angrily to Colin’s statement, it’s hard not to agree with him – but her failure here is simply laying the ground for the climax of the episode.  We later see her team up with Colin to track down the kidnapper and after Colin is captured, she has to save the day.  This helps her gain Colin’s respect and cements her place in the team (not the most subtle piece of character development, but it works after a fashion).

After the kidnapper had got past Anna, it becomes confusing as to whether he’s still on the Moon or has somehow returned to Earth.  Considering how powerful Madame Assadi is, it’s difficult to credit that Krivenko wouldn’t have ordered a complete cessation of travel until the embryos were located (especially since we later learn that both his and Nathan’s jobs might be on the line if a successful resolution isn’t found).

A number of ransom demands are broadcast, but the Star Cops are unable to track their location.  That is, until the last ten minutes of the episode when Theroux suddenly realises that the signal’s originating from a disused mine on the Moon.  Had he twigged this earlier then the episode would have been a lot shorter!

The revelation that Bannerman’s father, a noted geneticist, created a clone of Bannerman provides the solution about how he can apparently be in two places at once.  His clone brother, Albi, is everything that James Bannerman isn’t – bitter, twisted and poor.  Alas, this doesn’t help Bannerman, who never even knew he had a brother, and will be the one to suffer since Madame Assadi is unable to lay her hands on Albi.

Although the plotting is more than a little suspect, the major pleasure of the episode is the developing relationship between Nathan and Kenzy.  There’s still a slight edge to their conversations, but it lacks the anger of their earliest encounters.  And when Nathan travels Earthside to negotiate with Madame Assadi, he decides to take Kenzy with him.  They make a marvelously mismatched pair – Nathan is precise and logical, whilst Kenzy is impulsive and emotional.

But it’s Kenzy’s approach that works when they are finally granted an audience with Madam Assadi.  Nathan’s appeals to see Bannerman are refused and it’s Kenzy’s more direct, angry approach that wins the day.  Although Nathan tells her, tongue in cheek, how smooth she was, she did get the job done, which was the main thing.  Also of note is her oh-so Eighties dress sense – complete with rolled up sleeves.  Maybe by 2027 they will have come back into fashion!

The studio-bound nature of the production is another problem.  It would be easy to imagine that this was a fairly low-budgeted episode in order to balance out the other, more SFX heavy, ones.  Some of the CSO shots – Bannerman performing in the Albert Hall, the outside of Madame Assadi’s mansion – really don’t look convincing.

But even though it’s quite flawed, I still can’t regard it as a total write-off. Possibly my affection for Star Cops in general has always meant I’ve cut it some extra slack, but whatever the reason, if you don’t dwell on the plotting and the cheapness of the production there are some good moments to be found.

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Star Cops – In Warm Blood


Pluto 5 is a survey vessel which has returned to the Moon’s orbit after a journey of several years.  After they fail to respond to hailing calls Theroux is sent up to investigate.  A macabre sight awaits him – all eight members of the crew are dead, and they now resemble little more than mummified corpses.  Pluto 5 was owned by Hanimed, a multinational drug company who are a generous sponsor of space research.  They send one of their junior employes. Dr Anna Shoun (Sayo Inaba) to investigate.

A the same time, Krivenko is concerned about Christina Janssen (Dawn Keeler).  Janssen is a respected research scientist working in isolation who hasn’t responded to any calls for the last sixty hours.  Nathan is persuaded to investigate, but he’s too late – Janssen is dead (and in circumstances similar to the deaths on Pluto 5).  When Nathan learns that Janssen has a connection to Hanimed it seems to be far too much of a coincidence.  He believes that Anna might be able to uncover the truth, but her fierce loyalty to Hanimed makes her vetry reluctant to betray any confidences.

In Warm Blood was the first of three consecutive scripts written by John Collee.  It’s a decent effort, although there’s no real mystery to the story.  The connection between Hanimed, Pluto 5 and Christina Janssen is established very early on – so it’s not difficult to work out the way the plot will develop (especially when taken in context with a news clip which mentions that Janssen had previously been criticised for using unsuspecting people as guinea pigs in medical trials).

Sayo Ibaba isn’t terribly good in a rather unrewarding part, since Anna is painted as a literal, humourless, one-dimensional character.  She’ll have a few nice scenes over the closing three episodes but she’s easily the most superfluous of the regulars and had the series been commissioned for a second run it’s easy to imagine Anna would have been quietly dropped.

The scenes aboard the Pluto 5 are nicely shot by Graeme Harper, who manages to ramp up the tension and claustrophobia as Anna, Kenzy and Theroux investigate the stricken vessel.  The realisation that one of the crew members is unaccounted for is the setup for a classic horror-movie shock as the decayed corpse makes an unexpected appearance!

Even though the body count in this episode is quite high, there’s still quite a humourous edge to the story.  Colin Devis is primarily used as comic relief, although his casual racist attitude towards Anna, whilst in character, is somewhat wince-inducing.  Another strange move is Nathan’s decision to send him to infiltrate Hanimed HQ back on Earth.

Devis is many things, but an undercover operative he is not.  As in previous episodes, Star Cops seems to operate in a world where the internet doesn’t exist.  Nathan wants the inside scoop on Hanimed, so he has to send Devis to their building in order to tap the main computer (nowadays, of course, somebody would just gain remote access).

His brilliant plan for gaining access to Hanimid’s inner sanctum also has to be seen to be believed – he boldly strides up to a visual recognition screen and claims to be Richard Ho.  Ho is the president of Hanimed and it’s fair to say that nobody would ever confuse the two.  Devis gets himself arrested and Nathan is forced to go Earthside.

This leads into a very decent climax, which sees Nathan and Ho (Richard Rees) clash.  Nathan now knows that it’s a Hanimed drug which is responsible for the deaths and he convinces Ho that he’s spiked his drink with the same drug.  It’s a very maverick cop approach, but it does gain results (even if in real life you know that Nathan would be, at best, suspended for pulling such a stroke).  Calder’s top-notch in this scene as he mercilessly baits the unfortunate Ho.

Anna finds herself out of a job after passing information to Nathan, so he offers her a job with the Star Cops.  Like Devis, she had nowhere else to go – but only time will tell whether she’ll make a good Star Cop or not.

Star Cops – This Case To Be Opened In A Million Years


An aborted launch of a Santoni-Italia rocket triggers a radiation alert (Santoni-Italia have a contract to transport some of the Earth’s nuclear waste out into deep space).  Luckily there was no leak, but the question is, what went wrong?

By a strange coincidence, Krivenko had already asked the Star Cops to examine the workings of Santoni-Italia.  As Nathan is forced to return to Earth for seven days leave, Theroux and Devis pay a visit to Carlo Santanini (Michael Chesden).  They find him less than helpful and the enquiry isn’t helped by Theroux’s strange behavour – ever since the radiation scare he’s been deeply distracted.

En-route to Earth, Nathan decides to spend his holiday in Italy – thanks to a chance meeting on the Moon shuttle with Lina Margello (Vikki Chambers).  But once he arrives he’s attacked and almost killed by a disgruntled ex-Santoni-Italia employee and it’s only the start of his nightmare.  Drugs are planted on him and large sums of money are deposited into his account.  He’s clearly being set up – but why and by who?

This Case To Be Opened In A Million Years was the first episode of Star Cops not to be written by Chris Boucher.  Philip Martin had been commissioned to write two scripts, but the second (Death on the Moon) was never made due to industrial action.

This story is notable for the many and varied bad Italian accents and the rather clumsy plotting.  Last episode it was the Americans who were painted with a broad stereotypical brush, here it’s the Italians.  There’s some gloriously ripe fake Italian accents, but the best (or worst, depending on how forgiving you are) must surely be Carl Forgione’s tour guide.

As I’ve said, the plotting on this one is a little suspect.  Immediately after the launch accident Nathan is required to return to Earth, which does leave virtually no time for Santoni-Italia both to decide they need to discredit him and to work out a plan.  Lina is planted to subtly guide him to Italy, but what would have happened if he’d gone somewhere else for his holidays?  Presumably they would have pursued him, but it still seems an incredibly long-winded and inefficient way of doing things.  And just because they target Nathan, do they think that would stop the investigation?  Surely they realise he’s not the only Star Cop on the Moon?

Erick Ray Evans doesn’t have a particularly impressive episode as Martin’s script asks a lot of Theroux and sadly Erick Ray Evans’ limitations are rather exposed.  Linda Newton and Trevor Cooper are much more solid though.  With Nathan on leave, Devis basically acts as Theroux’s deputy and Cooper’s comic timing is certainly in evidence.

Time seems to have passed since the events of the last episode as Nathan has lost the antagonism he felt towards Kenzy.  This thawing of relations is reciprocated by Kenzy, who obviously feels comfortable enough to tease him (telling him at one point that Aunty Pal knows all about relationships!)  This is quite a change from the barely concealed dislike they both had for each other in Trivial Games and Paranoid Pursuits.

There’s no particularly familiar faces amongst the small guest cast, but for me the most notable appearance was from Stewart Guidotti.  For those with a love of pre-Doctor Who British science fiction, he’s best remembered as Geoffrey Wedgwood from the Pathfinders trilogy of the late 1950’s/early 1960’s (a clear influence on the early days of Doctor Who).  But I have to admit that without spotting his name in the credits I’d never have twigged, since by 1987 he was definitely no longer the fresh-faced lad from Pathfinders!

This Case To Be Opened In A Million Years is watchable enough, but outside of the interaction of the regulars it’s pretty undistinguished stuff.

Star Cops – Trivial Games and Paranoid Pursuits


After firing the American Star Cop Kirk Hubble, Nathan isn’t exactly flavour of the month with the U.S. government.  Paying a visit to the American Space Station Ronald Reagan, Nathan admits to Commander Griffin (David Benzali) that he’s not sure whether he’s now regarded as the anti-Christ or just anti-American.  To Griffin, the two are pretty much interchangeable.

Nathan’s diplomatic overtures to Griffin aren’t helped by his obvious dislike of the man and the later arrival of Pal Kenzy is yet another complication.  Both Griffin and the Star Cops have been contacted by Dilly Goodman (Marlena Mackey) who tells them that her brother, Dr Harvey Goodman, working on the Ronald Reagan, has gone missing.  But Griffin, and his subordinate Pete Lennox (Robert Jezek), claim there’s no record of him ever having stepped foot on the station.  Nathan and Kenzy have to form an uneasy alliance in order to uncover the truth.

It’s fair to say that Star Cops painted various nationalities with a rather broad brush – clearly demonstrated here by Commander Griffin.  He’s an incredibly xenophobic, resolutely patriotic American, with no time for anybody else’s point of view (and holding, of course, a particular hatred for the Russians).  Because it’s such a two-dimensional character, it’s lucky that director Graeme Harper was able to cast a good actor – Daniel Benzali.

Although born in Brazil, Benzali later carved out a successful career in American television (he’s probably best known for playing Ted Hoffman in the first series of Murder One).  Benzali is able to bring some much needed depth to the cigar-chomping cliche that is Griffin and this makes the sparring between him and Nathan much more palatable.

It’s obvious right from Nathan’s arrival at the Ronald Reagan that he’s not a welcome visitor.  His shuttle is allowed to dock at the furthest port away from the living quarters and there’s nobody to meet him when he steps onto the station.  Griffin’s attitude is that he can find his own way, since he’s a detective.  Characteristically Nathan isn’t perturbed by these slights and when he eventually reaches civilisation he’s greeted by Lennox who seems surprised he didn’t lose his way.  “Did you expect me to?” asks Nathan.

The conflict between Nathan and Griffin is at the heart of the episode and it’s certainly much more interesting than the crime (the disappearance of Harvey Goodman).  What’s particularly entertaining about their verbal jousting is how so much is left unsaid – the inferences are clear, but the specifics are rarely spelled out (at least not until the end).

The arrival of Kenzy is greeted with very different emotions by Nathan and Griffin.  Nathan might have had to take her back on the force after she saved the day at the end of episode three, but he’s kept her strictly office-bound and given her nothing more exciting to do than filing.  So when he realises that Threoux’s sent her out to join him, with details of Dr Goodman’s disappearance, to say he’s far from pleased is a considerable understatement.

Griffin, on the other hand, couldn’t be more delighted to see her and it doesn’t take a mind-reader to understand the reason why.  Nathan’s also keen for the two of them to spend some quality time together – that way he can tap the Commander’s computer to find out if there’s any information on the missing Dr Goodman.

Back on the Moon, the new Moonbase commander Alexander Krivenko (Jonathan Adams) arrives.  Viewed with suspicion by some, especially Devis, he seems fascinated by all aspects of police procedure and is keen to treat the Goodman disappearance as a test case.  Judging by some of Devis’ dialogue, it would seem that in the Star Cops universe, the repressive polices of the Soviet Union are still alive and well – although Krivenko is an open and straightforward man.  But it’s not surprising that the likes of Commander Griffin view him with extreme disfavour.

Slight though the mystery part of the episode is, the interactions of Nathan/Griffin and Nathan/Kenzy make this well worthwhile.  This was the first of Graeme Harper’s four episodes and there’s some nice directorial flourishes – for example, the shots of the viewscreen as seen from behind the screen.

Not the best that the series has to offer then, but solid nonetheless.

Star Cops – Intelligent Listening for Beginners


Nathan and Theroux travel to one of the Moon’s distant outposts to speak to Michael Chandri (David John Pope).  The work that Chandri is conducting is highly secret, and also hidden behind many layers of security, but eventually Nathan is able to prise some facts from him.

Chandri has developed an intelligent listening system which can scan the world’s chatter and isolate key words.  By using this, Chandri says he’s discovered that a group of terrorists – named the Black Hand Gang – plan to hijack an Earth to Moon shuttle.

Elsewhere on Earth, a series of accidents (at an industrial plant and in the Channel Tunnel) are attracting attention.  Computer failure is given as the official reason, but maybe there’s a more sinister explanation.  And Nathan also has some personnel issues to deal with, namely two crooked Star Cops – Hubble and Kenzy.  He decides to fire both of them – but Pal Kenzy isn’t going to take her dismissal lying down ….

When Intelligent Listening for Beginners was scripted many of the concepts were definitely futuristic – indeed, the Channel Tunnel wouldn’t open until 1994, some seven years after the episode was transmitted.  And the notion of a computer which could isolate words from the world’s chatter was also pure science fiction (or if it was a reality it was kept tightly under wraps).

The revelation that the computer failures at the chemical plant and the Channel Tunnel were caused by a worm (also referred to as a virus) seem obvious from a modern perspective, but back in 1987 this was something else that would have been new to many people.  It’s notable that the internet doesn’t seem to be part of the future we see here – in both cases the computer virus was hard-wired into the system and triggered by a code-phrase (a quote from William Blake).

It later becomes clear that Chandri’s intelligent listening system doesn’t work and he’s engineered these disasters himself.  The reason?  He remains in thrall to his dead father and always lived in fear of his father’s disapproval.  So if he can generate disasters and claim that his intelligent listening system was on the brink of locating the terrorists (before it too succumbed to the worm) then he can somehow save face.

Yes, Chandri is quite, quite mad.   David John Pope does manage to invest him with character though, rather than just portraying him as a gibbering lunatic.  Also, it’s nice to see what the Kandy Man looks like in the flesh.

There’s some slightly clumsy scripting, such as when Nathan first meets Chandri.  He admires his collection of books and just happens to select a volume by Blake.  So when it’s later discovered that each disaster is preceded by a computer message quoting Blake it’s easy to put two and two together.

In fact there’s some general clumsiness all round in this one.  Erick Ray Evans sometimes struggled to deliver his dialogue naturally (but when you have lines like “don’t patronise me, you supercilious bastard” it’s understandable I guess).

The highlight of the episode is Nathan’s first meeting with Pal Kenzy.  Nathan’s convinced that she’s crooked and fires her.  But she’s not prepared to go quietly and tells him she’ll be back (Pal has friends in high places apparently).  As luck would have it, Kenzy and Devis are both traveling back on the shuttle when it’s hijacked.  Quite why terrorists would attempt to hijack a shuttle is a bit of a mystery – it’s only traveling from the Earth to the Moon, so it’s not as if they could really turn it around and pilot it somewhere else.

Ignoring the whys and wherefores (and also that the terrorists are pretty inept) Kenzy and Devis are able to save the day.  The resulting publicity makes them both heroes and Kenzy cannily uses it to praise her boss Nathan Spring.  When Theroux asks him if he’s planning to reinstate her, Nathan wearily tells him that she’s reinstating herself.

There’s some impressive model-work in the story (although the model of the lunar buggy does look rather too much like a model, it’s still impressive).  The opening at the chemical factory is quite energetic, as various stuntmen fling themselves off buildings and fly through the air with great abandon.  Chandri’s motivations are a little strange (although after watching some of the erratic characters in Moonbase 3 maybe less so) but by the end of the episode the core team – Nathan, Theroux, Devis, Kenzy – are present and correct (although Kenzy has yet to earn Nathan’s trust).

Star Cops – Conversations with the Dead


After Nathan’s girlfriend, Lee, is murdered at Nathan’s home back on Earth, a distraught Spring returns to assist.  But the officer leading the investigation, Colin Devis (Trevor Cooper), is very antagonistic towards Nathan.  Does he believe that Nathan is implicated or is he simply enjoying the chance to needle a superior officer?

Meanwhile, the Star Cops have moved to a permanent base on the Moon.  Theroux, now acting as Nathan’s deputy, has a strange case to deal with.   A freighter bound for Mars fired its rockets too early which means there’s no way for them to regain their course – and with only a limited oxygen supply the two occupants face certain death.  That is, until Professor Paton (Alan Downer) makes a suggestion …..

Conversations with the Dead manages to juggle two plots simultaneously and by the end of the episode Nathan has another new recruit – Colin Devis.  He’s not someone who Nathan would necessarily have chosen if he’d had a free hand though.  Earlier on, Nathan tells Theroux that Devis is “one of the department’s all time cretins. British, native and all-time record holder. A cretin’s cretin in fact “.  After hearing this, Theroux ironically ponders if Nathan’s going to recruit him.  But since Devis later puts his own career on the line to help Nathan, it’s obvious that he feels honour bound to offer him a job.  So the “cretin’s cretin” does end up with the Star Cops after all.

The feeling that the Star Cops are something of a home for waifs and strays is further reinforced in the next episode, Intelligent Listening for Beginners, as Pal Kenzy cannily manages to manipulate the media in order to force Nathan to reinstate her.  And later on in the series, Anna Shoun is another officer who Nathan recruits mainly because his investigation has caused her to lose her existing job.

Lee’s death is a jarring and unexpected moment and it puts Nathan very much on the back foot.  Calder is, as might be expected, excellent throughout the episode – as Nathan gropes around in the dark for a reason why “the only friend he had” was killed.  But whatever is happening seems to be targeting him as well, which is confirmed by an enigmatic message – “Lee Jones has been dealt with. You are next.”

His quest for the truth is hampered by Devis though and his hostility towards Nathan doesn’t quite ring true.  If he’d had been part of the conspiracy it would have made sense, but since he’s not it just implies he’s not a very good copper (something he glumly admits at the end).  Given this, it makes him even more of a lame duck appointment to the Star Cops.

Back on the Moon, Theroux is kept busy investigating the mystery of the malfunctioning freighter.  It’s interesting that we never see the interior of the freighter – instead we only ever hear the voices of the two crew-members as the (admittedly very nice) model flies through space.  Was this a budget choice or as scripted I wonder?

The freighter story is very much the “b” plot as all the action is still taking place on Earth, although some of it could have been staged better.  I’m thinking particularly of the attack on Nathan in the park, which looks terribly unconvincing.  But better is to come when Nathan returns to Space and is later joined by Devis’ assistant Corman (Sian Webber).

Lee’s murderer is heading for a top-secret unmanned American Orbital Station and Corman, along with Nathan and Theroux, are in pursuit.  Since the police are politically neutral, they have a perfect right to approach the station and extricate the murderer.  And boarding the station is exactly Nathan is supposed to do.

Lee’s murder took place for precisely this reason – to give a British intelligence agent (Lee’s murderer) a legitimate pretext to approach the station.  Once on-board, he’ll attempt to learn everything he can about the installation before he’s arrested and taken for trial – later, no doubt he’ll mysteriously disappear.  But Nathan isn’t prepared to be a pawn in anybody else’s game and his solution will ensure that the secrets of the station remain with the Americans.

Given Chris Boucher’s previous writings (especially Blakes’ Seven) it’s no particular surprise that Conversations with the Dead demonstrates a deep distrust of authority.  Exactly who Corman works for isn’t made clear, but it’s obvious that she belongs to a shadowy part of the British government.  The murder of an innocent (Lee Jones) appears to be regarded as a small price to pay for the intelligence that could be gleaned from the station.

The personal angle of the case, and how it impacts Nathan, is the best part of the story.  Trevor Cooper’s first appearance as Devis is, as I’ve said, a little off – but over the next few episodes he’ll strike a better balance between portraying Devis’ less appealing character traits and his skills as an officer (especially when the core team are all together on the Moon).

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.