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Friday, December 10, 2010

SPACE PRECINCT: THE COMPLETE SERIES -- DVD review by porfle


Looking like a kiddie show but playing like a futuristic primetime cop series, Gerry Anderson's SPACE PRECINCT: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1994-95) may take an episode or two for members of its target audience to realize what they're watching.  I didn't really like it myself at first, but boy, did it ever grow on me.

Despite its Saturday-morning look, SPACE PRECINCT is a sci-fi variation of the traditional hardboiled cop show complete with sexuality, violence, and other adult themes.  Familiar cliches abound, but with a subtle satirical edge that never veers into farce or self-mockery.  The characters and situations are always realistic enough to be taken seriously even though the show itself is one big, elaborate elbow in the ribs.

Ted Shackelford plays Lt. Patrick Brogan, a former NYPD cop who's now part of the 88th Precinct, which happens to be in orbit around the distant planet Altor.  Brogan's a devoted family man and a good, honest cop, but he's not above bending the rules a little when the situation calls for it.  His main beat is gritty metropolis Demeter City, a bustling hotbed of crime and corruption that looks like something out of a bargain-basement version of BLADE RUNNER, complete with flying cars (known here as "hoppers"). 

Since this UK show is produced by the same guy who brought us "Thunderbirds", "UFO", and "Space: 1999", everything's done with obvious models and the hoppers zip around on wires, but that's part of the fun.  Once you get used to it, it looks pretty cool--in fact, the SPFX guys manage to pull off some awesome "car" chases and stage an endless number of entertaining crashes and explosions.  This model work often has an updated "Flash Gordon" vibe which tends to give my inner geek a real buzz.  (Some CGI does crop up occasionally, mainly in the outer space shots.)


Down on ground level, the life-sized inner city sets are appropriately grimy and foreboding as lowlifes lurk in the shadows and crime runs rampant.  Here we find the main draw of SPACE PRECINCT--a variety of wonderfully designed aliens sporting some of the most lifelike, expressive animatronic masks I've ever seen.  The movements of the eyes and facial muscles in conjunction with the actors' performances creates a stunning effect which really makes these characters come alive despite a certain "cartoony" quality. 

In addition to its human population, Demeter City's two main alien races are the Creons and the Tarns.  Creons resemble gnarly versions of E.T. with big wide-spaced eyes and prunelike skin, and comprise most of the city's blue-collar element.  Tarns are somewhat more streamlined in appearance and sport a third eye which gives them limited telekinetic and mindreading abilities.  With Demeter City serving as a melting pot for the surrounding star system we also get to see a wide variety of other alien species with similarly ingenious design.

Back at the precinct, Brogan's cocky but capable young partner Jack Haldane (Rob Youngblood) is forever trying to break through the romantic defenses of beautiful Officer Jane Castle (Simone Bendix, who looks just plain awesome in uniform).  Her partner, Aurelia Took (Mary Woodvine), is a sensitive, soulful Tarn who uses her third-eye powers as an interrogation aid.
 

Buddy cops Orrin and Romek are a couple of likable Creon sad sacks who provide much of the comedy relief, while another Creon, Captain Rexton Podly (Jerome Willis), is the stereotypical gruff, hardnosed boss with a heart of gold.  ("Sometimes," Podly philosophizes in one episode, "reality takes a hammer to your dreams and smashes the hell out of them.")  Rounding out the group is a diminutive robot named Slomo who actually manages to not be overly cutesy.  On the homefront, Brogan's strongwilled wife Sally (Nancy Paul) and tweener kids Matt and Liz provide moral support and also feature prominently in several storylines.

While Shackelford, Youngblood, and Bendix are talented enough to give their thinly-drawn characters sufficient depth and charm (Shackelford in particular is so good here that I've been forced to forgive him for being in "Knot's Landing"), it's those alien characters that I find so mesmerizing.  Brimming with personality, each is capable of expressing subtle emotions in closeup (Officer Took in particular), with surprisingly convincing results.  Although you never forget that they're actors wearing articulated big-head masks, the effect is never less than impressive.

Stories alternate between cop-show staples, "X-Files" strangeness, and pure sci-fi, sometimes in various combinations.  The wide-ranging array of plotlines include black-market organ harvesting ("Deadline"), a Terminator-like cyborg with its sights set on Brogan and everyone around him ("Time to Kill"), interspecies racism ("Hate Street"), and a new, highly-addictive drug that causes its users to spontaneously combust ("Flash").  Things get tense in "Body and Soul" when Brogan and his son Matt find themselves trapped in a derelict spaceship that's on a countdown to self-destruct.


"The Fire Within", a two-parter from late in the season, starts out on the dull side as Brogan and the gang investigate a shady fire-worshipping religious cult.  But part one ends with a bang and part two builds to a spectacular finale with movie-level thrills and suspense. "Deathwatch", another two-parter which brings the series to a close, features a deadly alien spore that threatens to wipe out all life on Altor.

"James Bond" alumnus John Glen directs several episodes of this flashy, fast-moving series, with a rousing musical score by composer Crispin Merrell.  British viewers will probably recognize more of the guest stars than I do--"Divided We Stand", for example, features Suzanne Bertish of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Ray Winstone's name shows up in the end credits for the prison-asteroid hostage drama "Two Against the Rock" although he must've been playing an alien because I couldn't spot him.  Also appearing in various episodes are Burt Kwouk (THE PINK PANTHER series), Maryam D'Abo, ALIEN 3's Danny Webb, and Christopher Fairbank (BATMAN, THE FIFTH ELEMENT).

The five-disc DVD set from Image Entertainment is in 1.33:1 full-screen with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.  There are no subtitles or extras.  Total running time for the 24 full-length episodes is 17 hours, 43 minutes.  Again, Simone Bendix looks awesome in uniform.

It's a shame this series didn't last longer, because it just gets better and better during its single season.  Kids may find the stories too grown-up, while many adults will initially be put off by its seemingly juvenile veneer.  But for the discerning geek who thinks a cross between "Jason of Star Command" and "Hawaii Five-O" sounds like a cool idea, watching SPACE PRECINCT: THE COMPLETE SERIES is like going to Disneyland and riding all the rides.


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