Space cops with no strings attached

Gerry Anderson is back with his new sci-fi cop show Space Precinct. Could this be his ticket from cult success to mainstream recognition? Maxton Walker reports
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JUST WHAT PLANET is Gerry Anderson on? Well, for the last 10 months, the man behind Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet has been ensconced on planet Altar, the fictional location for his latest series Space Precinct. The $36 million show (the most expensive ever produced in Britain) charts the adventures of Lieutenant Patrick Brogan (Ted Shackelford) and Officer Jack Haldane (Rob Youngblood) and their precinct colleagues (human and alien) in Demeter City, a New York-style metropolis. The whole thing is set at some unspecified time in the middle of the next century.

"I wanted to make a cop show for adults that children would watch," Anderson says. "I originally planned to make a kids' show but couldn't get the money to do that. Even when I decided to make it adult, it took a long time to get the cash together."

It can be difficult to comprehend just how successful Anderson's particular brand of television has been in Britain over the last 30 years. The Book of Cult TV, for example, gives him 17 index entries. Star Trek guru Gene Roddenberry by comparison merits only six.

Space drama is, of course, a well-tested formula. Science-fiction shows are always old themes which have been dusted off and launched skywards: Star Trek was Wagon Train, Red Dwarf was The Young Ones and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was Catch-22. Space Precinct could have been Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue. But instead Anderson has opted for something from the old school; more like Starsky and Hutch. Hence officers Brogan and Haldane. Their mission: to seek out new life and new civilisations, and then nick them.

But why did Anderson plump for the police format?

"American police shows are consistently successful. Every year the American networks have been saying `no more cop shows' but every year there's a police show and it would be a hit. Anyway, I'm absolutely fascinated by the New York police. In cinematic terms, with their squad cars, sirens and loudhailers, they're fabulous."

His decision to avoid the morally murky waters that NYPD Blue made its own, owes much to the fact that children form a large proportion of his audience: "I'm very conscious of the fact that children watch the show. And if it's shown around the world again and again every three or four years and seen by millions of people, I have a sense of responsibility."

A good reception in Britain is crucial for Space Precinct following disappointing viewing figures in the US. "They rushed it out and gave it very bad time- slots, which dragged the ratings down," he explains. However, TV bosses in America have decided the show has enough potential to merit a full relaunch in the autumn.

Despite shooting the series entirely in Britain, Anderson was still forced to go across the Atlantic to find the money. He sees that as symptomatic of a deep-rooted malaise. "It's a matter of huge regret to me that in this country, the film business is not taken seriously. I've been into the City and talked to jerks in bowler hats. They just don't believe that this is a bona fide business with profit potential."

Anderson is not alone. Doug Naylor, who co-writes and produces Red Dwarf, the only hit SF show to be produced and financed entirely in Britain for the last decade, agrees: "It was fantastically difficult for us to get the cash together for the first series of Red Dwarf. Imaginative fiction, whether comedy or drama, is just not taken seriously in this country."

But despite the hype, the $36 million question remains: is Space Precinct any good? Certainly the special effects are up to scratch and the alien make-up and animatronics are as good as I've seen. But even science-fiction shows are made or broken on how the audience take to the characters, which only time will tell. Anderson has had mixed success with his live-action series. Bad acting was the main culprit in the downfall of UFO and Space 1999.

When Space Precinct finishes filming next month, Anderson may just return to the scene of his biggest triumph: Thunderbirds. Polydor recently acquired the original series rights, and there is talk of a possible big-budget film. He has never made a secret of his regret at relinquishing the rights to the programme back in the Sixties. A chance to bring it back to life would go some way to assuaging his surprising doubts about his career. "People tell me I'm successful, but when I walk down the street and nobody recognises me, I never feel like a big success."

His need to feel mainstream recognition probably explains why he feels under such pressure to produce a Thunderbirds film (he is convinced it would have to be live-action, "possibly something along the lines of True Lies" ). And that could just provide a route to the platform he surely craves after 30 years of relentlessly cult status, as the doyen of a vibrant and rejuvenated British film industry.

Only this time, presumably, with no strings attached.

`Space Precinct', Sat 7pm, Sky One. The series will start showing on BBC from the autumn