Last night, wanting to see how VHS looked on the new set, I dug out an old guilty pleasure that I haven’t watched in a while. And since this was my first time watching it fresh for some time, I figure I might as well chronicle the experience. I give you: Robocop: The Future of Law Enforcement—the pilot episode of the short-lived Canadian-made Robocop TV series of 1994. Spoilers ahead…but this is a ten-year-old show, so I think it’s a little bit too late to worry much about those.
Robocop: The Future of Law Enforcement, reportedly based on the first draft script for Robocop 2 by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner (writers of the original Robocop), ignores the cinematic Robocops 2 and 3 in favor of tying into the original movie (from which a few clips are briefly seen in flashback). There’s still a Dan O’Herlihy-esque Chairman (David Gardner) running OCP, and Robocop’s partner is still alive—though her name has been changed from the movie for some reason. (Still, Robocop does refer to her having figured out who he was, and a video clip in the opening credits of the TV show (but not the pilot movie) assigns her the movie partner’s line, “Murphy, it is you,” so she’s apparently meant to be the same person.)
As the movie opens, OCP Vice President Chip Chayken (John Rubenstein) and medical-doctor-cum-computer-scientist Dr. Cray Z. Mallardo (Cliff De Young) are working on creating a supercomputer for OCP, to be called MetroNet, that will control the utilities of all of Delta City. Unbeknownst to the Chairman, however, the computer needs a living brain in its control module to do the work—and Chayken and Mallardo are abducting and euthanizing Delta City’s homeless (with the help of an anarchistic but none-too-bright youth gang creatively called the Dogtown Boys) in order to obtain one. Their problem is, they just can’t seem to find a good brain. (Neither could whoever wrote the script, apparently, but I digress.) Apparently Spock’s wasn’t available.
When the latest victim is a friend of Robocop’s partner Lisa Madigan (Yvette Nipar), and a spunky young runaway (Sarah Campbell) sees Chayken in the act of abducting him, Robocop (Richard Eden) is drawn into the investigation. Meanwhile, after yet another brain transplant failure, Mallardo and Chayken hit upon the idea of using the brain of Chayken’s mousy, klutzy secretary Diana Powers (Andrea Roth). This time the transplant takes and MetroNet comes on-line—complete with Diana Powers, whose consciousness now exists as a ghost in the machine a la Alteira Cunningham from the stories in the Cyberpunk 184.108.40.206. and CyberGeneration roleplaying games. (And true to the cliché, the mousy secretary has now become a hot cyber-babe, thanks to the removal of glasses, restyling of hair, and addition of a slinky lamé dress.)
Mallardo now decides to use his control over MetroNet to crown himself the new Chairman of OCP. It’s up to Robocop to bring Mallardo and Chayken to justice—and rescue Diana Powers before Mallardo, who is none too thrilled that she is still around and foiling his schemes, can delete her from his computer. But will this still be possible after Chayken gives a mutilated killer with a grudge (James Kidnie) a weapon that can kill Robocop?
There are a few things to dislike about this movie (and hence the series) so I’ll get them out of the way before going on to the good stuff. First of all, consider that the original Robocop movie was one of the most violent movies made for the mass-market in its day—so violent that director Paul Verhoeven had to cut and cut and cut just to get an R rating. (It would be interesting to see if he still had to cut as much today, in the era of Kill Bill and Sin City, but I digress.) So whose bright idea was it to make this, of all franchises, into a family-oriented TV series? It is just wrong on so many levels to see Robocop step out of a car that just got blown up by a missile, march into a gang-occupied building, and take out thug after thug with a series of…trick shots that drop chandeliers and wardrobes onto them. Yes, that’s right. Where the movie Robocop would casually shoot them right through the heart or the eye in an explosion of gore, the TV series Robocop…drops furniture on them. This would make sense for someone with a nonviolent code of honor like MacGyver, but for Robocop it just doesn’t. In a way, it undercuts some of the themes of the original movie that explored the connections between violence, machines, and humanity.
Next, let’s consider the writing and acting. Where the Robocop movie went for ultraviolence coupled with biting satire, the TV series is written in more of a camp style, like they were applying a light shade of the Adam West Batman treatment. Some of the dialogue is a bit unbelievable, and the rest of it is very unbelievable. Some of the acting is a bit over the top, and some of it is way, way over the top. Particularly Rubenstein and De Young as Chayken and Mallardo—although, in their defense, I suppose it could be argued that a couple of villains whose grand scheme involves mugging indigents for their brains couldn’t really be played any other way. A special mention should also be made of Jennifer Dale, who plays Chayken’s girlfriend Fanny LaMour (what a name!)—the domineering, Faginish supervisor of a Family Services facility that sends unwanted kids to the Dogtown Boys. This seems to be the kind of role in which she specializes; see my ePinions review of the Once a Thief TV movie for another such Jennifer Dale appearance. And the Dogtown Boys, with their trite catchphrases about “making the square whole” (apparently this feat of geometric rectitude is to be accomplished by killing off elderly homeless people)…well, the less said about them, the better.
And let’s not forget the maudlin element. We have the cute runaway orphan who spies Chayken doing his dirty work and doesn’t want to go back to LaMour’s orphanage, so she ends up getting adopted by the gruff police sergeant (Blu Mankuma). And then we have Nancy and Jimmy Murphy, Robocop’s wife and son, the tired, hoary old cliché that has been dragged out and paraded around in every Robocop movie or TV show to come down the pike. Leave the dead (or in this case, cyborged) horse alone, please!
It’s not all bad, though. The Robocop TV series might be campy, but as long as you don’t go into it expecting another Verhoeven mind-twisting gorefest, you might find you can enjoy laughing at the cheesiness of it all. It might be guilty laughter, or even loud groans, but if you can enjoy badfeelm, this one falls squarely into the “so bad it’s good” category. No boring mediocrity here!
The production values of the show are actually pretty good, taking into account its made-for-TV nature and the mid-90s time period. There is some fairly obvious CGI, and a bit of sped-up video, and the computer displays are laughable in the way that Hollywood depictions of computers usually are, but it’s clearly got a decent budget and cinematography. The music quotes liberally from the Pouledoris score to the first Robocop movie, which is also good.
And director Paul Lynch occasionally shows a flash of real cleverness amid all the camp. For instance, there is a scene where Mallardo and Chayken sit in a van and discuss what to do about Diana’s ghost—while Diana reads their lips via a parking garage security camera. This scene is staged and framed in exactly the same way as the famous scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey where the astronauts sit in a pod and discuss what to do about HAL (who is reading their lips). There is also a sly reference to another Paul Verhoeven film when a character, about to mess with Robocop’s memory, says that he will see what he can do about Robocop’s “total recall”. And watch for an outrageous cameo appearance by a certain sixties sitcom star.
The last vestiges of the satire from the original movies can still be found in the “Media Break” TV news segments and the fake TV commercials that accompany them (some of which were arranged to fall at the end of a real commercial break). Of particular interest are the animated “Commander Cash” commercial, a different one of which would appear in each episode, and a couple of appearances by a Geraldo Rivera-spoof tabloid talk show host named Umberto Ortega.
I suppose I should confess that a major part of this show’s appeal for me, back in the days when it was on TV, was the Diana Powers cyber-babe character—not just because she was pretty hot, but because she was similar to a character in one of the stories I wrote about back then. For me, it was almost like seeing something I’d written appear on the screen.
In the end, I have to give the Robocop TV-movie pilot a mild recommendation, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its campiness. It would have been interesting to see what the cinematic Robocop 2 would have been if they had shot with a more violent, less campy version of this script instead of the one they actually used. But that’s all academic now. As it is, The Future of Law Enforcement is still quite watchable in spite of its faults. Don’t expect anything too great and you won’t be too disappointed.
Good luck finding it, though. The only time this show has been released on home video was when the pilot movie and a handful of episodes hit VHS (which is now long out of print). It has never been released to DVD; perhaps the producers feel that nobody would care to buy it. Perhaps they’re right. I really feel it’s a shame, though. I’d like to be able to have the whole series and rewatch it; I seem to recall there were a few decent episodes in there.
(Update, 06/19/2017: Ah, the wonders of the Internet. The whole series is now available on DailyMotion. It’s definitely a nostalgia trip!)