They Could Have Been The Next Doctor Who (But They Weren't)
A tribute to the many and varied - and variable - shows that stepped into the breach while Doctor Who was off the air, but never quite took off.
Between the end of 'Classic' Doctor Who and the arrival of New Doctor Who, or so newspaper columnists would have us believe, there was a big massive gap in the TV schedules where 'sci-fi' should have been. Yet every so often, and in fact more often than you’d think, somebody somewhere would try to get a new hit series off the ground. These efforts were, sadly, invariably doomed to failure - for a variety of reasons and not all of them connected to the quality of the shows - but some were more interesting than others and in a couple of cases even managed to generate cult followings that thrive to this day. Even if in some of those cases, you do have to worry about anyone who would call themselves a 'fan'. Here's five of the most, erm, 'distinctive' attempts.
Star Cops (BBC, 1987)
Or, Where It All Started To Go Wrong. Created by Chris Boucher, who had ‘form’ in Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 on one hand and Juliet Bravo and Bergerac on the other, Star Cops was a deliberate attempt to unite two different sets of genre fans with a series that used a subdued near-future setting to create unusual plot twists (e.g. a ‘murder’ case in which the victim has yet to die) for solid detective yarns populated by offbeat characters. It was good enough to have hooked them both too, but behind-the-scenes conflict put the BBC off the series, ridiculous scheduling and dodgy acting - not to mention a rotten theme song which had nothing to do with ‘stars’ or ‘cops’ but everything to do with overwrought production-heavy tuneless eighties soft-rock balladeering - did likewise for viewers, and the good men and women of the International Space Police Force were never seen again.
Interceptor (ITV, 1989)
The only game show to make it onto this list, which may seem strange but if you’re thinking that, then you really have no idea what this show was all about. Typically high concept fare from Chatsworth Television, the people behind the itself already barely explicable Treasure Hunt, Interceptor involved two competing teams searching for a key to open the other’s treasure-laden backpack, all the while tailed by ‘The Interceptor’ - black-clad stuntman Sean O’Kane, who pursued them in a hi-tech helicopter (along with co-pilot ‘Mikey’) in the hope of zapping their backpacks with a lock-jamming Lazer Quest-style ray gun. Unmissable stuff, not least due to The Interceptor’s fence-vaulting eagle-screeching lunacy and the presence of former tennis prodigy hostess Annabel Croft, who set many an adolescent pulse racing, but that high concept was just too high for the average viewer. It folded after just one series and a Christmas special, by which time Chatsworth were already at work on something called The Crystal Maze.
Jupiter Moon (BSB, 1990)
Hang on, a soap opera now? Yes, but this one’s in space! Short-lived satellite station BSB’s attempt at challenging the ratings dominance of Coronation Street and EastEnders related the lives and loves of a group of students at a university situated on, you guessed it, one of Jupiter’s moons, with the cast including the before-they-were-famous likes of Anna Chancellor, Lucy Benjamin and Jason Durr, and the crew including one Ricky Gervais. Not that he puts it on his CV, mind. It was never, ever going to work, even despite the fact that creator William Smethurst was a long-serving producer of enduring (and very much down to Earth) radio soap The Archers. Nonetheless, Jupiter Moon actually somehow managed not only to outlive BSB itself, with the remaining unscreened episodes later picked up by The Sci-Fi Channel, but also to acquite a huge and devoted fan following. The future's really not as sophisticated as it seemed back then.
Crime Traveller (BBC, 1997)
Giddy with the relative success of sci-tech counter-espionage Saturday evening ratings-winner BUGS, the BBC commissioned crime writer Anthony Horowitz to develop another high concept sci-fi smash hit that could run in rotation with it. What they ended up with was... well, where to start? The ‘Crime Traveller’ in question was one Jeff Slade (Michael French), a detective with access to a time machine that allowed him to solve cases by visiting the past. His jaunts into history, however, were governed by a frankly ridiculous set of ‘rules’ ranging from travel into the future being impossible due to it not ‘existing’, to a load of codswallop about some sort of ‘loop of infinity’, all of which simply served to heighten the ‘drama’ and reduce the actual sci-fi thrills, and if implemented in certain other more successful shows would have reduced them to about two and a half episodes in total. Adding to the bafflingness was some pretty ropey acting and a will-they-won’t-they-don’t-ask-me-I-don’t-care romantic subplot. The show’s failure to make it to a second series has often been blamed on a regime change at the BBC, but it could just as easily have been due to the sharply and rightfully declining ratings. Or the ‘rules’, come to think of it.
The Last Train (ITV, 1999)
A trainload of passengers get accidentally cryogenically frozen (erm, if you say so), and wake up decades later to find that they are the only surviving humans, their only hope of further survival in the post-apocalyptic landscape lying in locating the fabled top secret research project known only as ‘ARK’. Derivative, clunkingly realised and mercilessly mocked by Lee & Herring it may have been, but somehow it became utterly compulsive ‘so bad it’s brilliant’ viewing and there are countless fan sites devoted to the series. No, really.
You can find the full version of this article, covering dozens of other shows including Moon And Son, Virtual Murder, Space Precinct, BUGS, The Vanishing Man, Invasion: Earth, CI5: The New Professionals and many more, in my book Well At Least It's Free, available as a paperback here or from the Amazon Kindle Store here.