Looking back at Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct

To mark the 20th anniversary of Space Precinct, Kyle takes a walk down Demeter City's memory lane to explore the show's highs and lows…

Cops in space. It’s a neat idea, right? The concept is rich with potential, but it’s surprising just how underused it’s been. Gerry Anderson first approached it back in 1986, when he made a pilot for Space Police, which failed to sell and so remained unaired. The show starred Shane Rimmer (the voice of Scott Tracy in Anderson’s Thunderbirds), and followed the exploits of a human cop working amongst aliens. For whatever reason, this incarnation of the show never saw the light of day, and remained buried for eight years.

In 1994, the series resurfaced with a new title, new actors, new aliens, and a less comedic tone. Space Precinct 2040 was a standard police show – crimes are committed; our plucky heroes chase the perps down – but transferred to Demeter City, a bustling, crime-ridden sprawl on Altor, a world far beyond Earth.

The series starred Ted Shackelford (of Knots Landing fame, a man of staggering all-American qualities) as Lieutenant Patrick Brogan, freshly relocated from New York to Altor, and Rob Youngblood (previously seen in everything from General Hospital to MacGyver) as Officer Jack Haldane, Brogan’s younger, hotter, more Kirk-esque partner. Each week, these two would investigate crimes usually committed by a mix of human and alien scumbags, engaging in the kinds of detective work, chases, and shoot-outs we’ve seen in many cop shows, but this time in a colourful, imaginative world of flying cars and three-eyed telepathic aliens. 

Not so lost in space

The 90s seemed to be a golden age of the police TV series – NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order – and perhaps Anderson tapped into this at the right time to resurrect his long-forgotten idea. While many of these shows focused on the gritty underbelly of the modern city, Space Precinct 2040 brought a similarly ‘urban’ feel to the exotic locale, with a cityscape and sleek aerodynamic vehicles akin to Blade Runner‘s futuristic LA and Spinners.

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For the most part, the show still stands up today: the writing is fairly strong; the ideas are fresh and exciting; the banter between Brogan, Haldane, and their colleagues is witty and amusing; and the alien prosthetics and sets aren’t too far from some things you’ll see on the new Doctor Who (take that as you will). There’s also the novelty value in the show being a British creation – in the mid-90s, such a science-fiction-heavy concept originating out of our little isle was pretty unusual. On the negative side, some of the model work has aged less elegantly, and the acting can veer towards a high cheese-factor at times. In 2014, it’s also jarring that the series is only set 26 years into the future – it’s surprising nobody suggested they place it further ahead, perhaps closer to the twenty-second century.

Still, all things considered, it’s a shame Space Precinct 2040 never really took off – like much of Anderson’s work, it’s become something of a minor cult series, though nowhere near as recognised as the likes of Space: 1999 and Captain Scarlet. The series enjoyed some popularity at the time, however, but clearly not enough to keep it in the game long-term: there were action figures (though they’re pretty shocking); there was a short-lived UK-only comic series, published by Manga Entertainment (which also printed Topps Comics’ run of The X-Files in Britain for a while); there was even an annual – the quintessential English Christmas gift. The first several issues of the comic were collected into a trade paperback in late 1995, titled The Last Warrior: written by Ian Carney and beautifully illustrated by John Erasmus, this is an absolute gem, delving deeper into the mythos and providing scenes the show’s budget would never have allowed for. Free of its televisual constraints, this is still well worth a read, and shows just how far the concept could go in a more liberated medium.

Only one series of Space Precinct 2040 was produced, and a key factor for its struggle to find a hold is its scheduling. In the UK, the show was originally shown on Sky One, before hitting BBC 2, where it held a 6.45pm slot on Monday evenings – a decent slot at the time, especially for something designed to appeal to kids and adults alike. However, in the US, it was dumped in late-night slots, where it withered and faded away. Apparently, American television stations were somewhat perplexed by the show’s child-friendly stylings combined with the fairly-serious police elements, which led to its untimely demise.

It’s a shame a second series was never commissioned, as there was – and still is – plenty of fun to be had in the show. Given the futuristic timeframe, the alien setting, and the range of species to explore, the show could go almost anywhere it wanted to. One stand-out episode remains Time To Kill, which follows Brogan’s quest to track down and apprehend a time-travelling killer. Though some of the make-up, fight scenes and effects in this episode appear a little bit dated, it’s still an entertaining, exciting instalment that shows just how inventive the series could be.

It’s all about character

Much of the series’ success is rooted in the characters’ likeability. Brogan is your basic stoic leading man: a loyal husband and father, an honest cop, and handy with a gun (which also bared slight resemblance to Deckard’s iconic pistol in Blade Runner). Haldane was a charming ladies man, a little too hot-headed but with a heart of gold; he was also forever trying to woo Officer Jane Castle, a pretty English lady (played by Simone Bendix) who largely rebuked his advances with witty put-downs. These three were the basic spine of the show, working together to bring down the myriad perps and forming a close bond which saw them risk their jobs, and lives, for each other on various occasions.

The alien characters were also given familiar human traits. Captain Podly was your token no-nonsense, straight-talking superior, only graced with a delightful Irish brogue and a truly bizarrely-shaped head. Officers Romek and Orrin were a comedic double act, exchanging lighthearted quips and trying to get one over on each other, but clearly best friends. Slomo was a cute robotic administrator in the vein of R2D2. Taken together, these helped flesh out the police department and the wider world, forming a nice, close-knit ensemble.  

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Space Precinct 2040 was released on DVD in various volumes in 2002, and a region one box set is available, but they can be expensive. Even though this is the twentieth anniversary, it seems unclear whether any special re-releases are forthcoming. However, Richard James (who portrayed Officer Orrin) has released a new book, Space Precinct Unmasked, covering his time on the show, with additional input from cast and crew. As I mentioned earlier, the trade paperback of The Last Warrior also comes highly recommended for fans who might have missed it in the past nineteen years.

While it’s definitely not to everyone’s taste, Space Precinct 2040 remains a pretty distinctive show, and is well worth checking out for fans of Anderson’s other work.