Books

Above The Law: The Unofficial Guide To Star Cops (Paul Watts) – Book Review

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 tells us the following: “To every thing there is a season”. For TV aficionados, this rings especially – and at times all too painfully – true; many programmes have racked up just a single outing, popping up in the schedules for only a limited run, then disappearing into the archives, untroubled by any prospects of longevity or posterity.

One such example was Star Cops, a ‘one-hit wonder’ which graced the nation’s screens for just nine weeks. Buried away on BBC Two over the summer of 1987, scheduled up against ratings big hitters like Terry and June, it barely made a dent with TV viewers; with a maximum of just over three million people tuning in, the show sank without trace, and all plans for a second season were swiftly scrapped by what was then an extremely science fiction-averse Auntie Beeb (which had just made its first attempt to kill off Doctor Who).

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The programme was set in the year 2027, and based around the International Space Police Force, the organisation that is responsible for enforcing law and order in the ‘high frontier’ beyond the confines of Planet Earth. The ISPF – which has the rather derogatory nickname of ‘Star Cops’ – is headed up by Commander Nathan Spring (David Calder), who oversees an initially ragtag, dysfunctional bunch of officers hailing from all across the globe.

Star Cops was created by Chris Boucher, who had written for Doctor Who, as well as script editing and writing episodes of Bergerac, Juliet Bravo, and Blake’s 7. Originally pitched as a radio drama, Boucher retooled his idea for television instead, looking to combine his experience of both science fiction and police dramas, and bring something to the screen which was able to fuse the two genres together. However, his notion of a ‘Bergerac in space’ was not without its problems along the way, and had a troubled production.

When it eventually launched onto television, it burnt up on reentry, shining brightly but briefly, seemingly destined to live on only in the memories of its devoted fans. In the 2006 BBC Four series The Cult Of…, author Kim Newman opined that if Star Cops had carried on, then it might have come to be regarded as the BBC’s finest science fiction show. There were long since deleted VHS and DVD releases, but the Star Cops renaissance began when Big Finish announced in 2017 that it had obtained the rights to the series, and was making a continuation of it for audio.

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Having been unavailable for years, the original TV series was added to BritBox in 2020, so it was just the right time for a long overdue reappraisal of the show. Paul Watts’ Above The Law: The Unofficial Guide To Star Cops delivered just what was needed, coming out around the same time as the series made its streaming debut, making an ideal companion piece; however, after the initial print run of the book sold out, the independent company behind its release – Miwk Publishing – sadly decided to call it a day, making any possible reissues appear to be off the cards.

Fortunately, another indie publisher – Ten Acre Films – has picked up the rights to a number of Miwk’s titles, leading to a limited edition reprint of Above The Law, giving anyone who missed out first time round another chance to pick it up. For anybody who loved Star Cops, this is certainly a ‘must-have’ compendium, demonstrating not only a clear, abiding love for the subject matter, but also a devotion and dedication to detail, unearthing and compiling so much information about the programme from its gestation through to its production, transmission, cancellation, and eventual rebirth.

However, the book also provides a valuable overview of the state of broadcasting in the UK at that point in time, giving us some important context as to the precise topography of the television landscape in the mid-to-late 1980s. Above The Law offers a potted history of the parallel development of both science fiction and Police programming right up to Star Cops’ debut, showing how tastes and styles had altered over the decades, as well as how homemade SF had fallen out of favour with programme makers, following the appearance of glossy, high-budget American imports.

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As well as a comprehensive chronology of the history of Star Cops, Watts also looks in detail at each of the nine episodes, discussing such topics as themes and continuity. In addition to this, there is also a commentary piece for every story, and Watts has chosen to pick a series of guest writers to provide them; this is a smart move by Watts, as the range of voices employed here gives a useful range of different perspectives on the series, providing much food for thought when looking at its tone and content.

Rounding out Above The Law is a thorough examination of Star Cops’ triumphant return, courtesy of Big Finish, with details of how the show rose Phoenix-like for a new life on audio. With this revival not only being fully licenced by the BBC and Boucher, but also reuniting the surviving original cast, Watts ensures it is treated with equal reverence to its televisual progenitor, and worthy of also getting an equally detailed study. The Big Finish adventures are a legitimate continuation of the series, and Watts certainly does them justice here.

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Given that more than three decades have actually gone by between the making of Star Cops and this study of it being written and published, Watts has done a remarkable job of putting together such an informative, densely-packed book, which includes unearthing some rarely-seen images from behind the scenes. Star Cops has unfairly been given short shrift, not receiving the recognition it deserves for giving a grounded, believable look at life in space not too far from now, as well as offering compelling drama; Above The Law definitely helps redress the balance.

If you still need any further convincing about whether you should buy this, Watts is donating all of his proceeds from Above The Law to the Alzheimer’s Society, so not only will you be enriching your own bookshelves, but you will also be helping a worthy cause. A good book should be hard to put down; as far as Above The Law is concerned in this regard, then to quote the lyrics of the Star Cops theme, it won’t be easy.

Above The Law: The Unofficial Guide To Star Cops is available from Ten Acre Films.

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