Big Finish Review: Star Cops - Mars Part 1
Star Cops ran for nine episodes back in 1987, but in true Big Finish fashion has been given a reprisal on audio. Set after the events of the two-part Mother Earth, but still suitable for newcomers to the series, Star Cops – Mars reunites David Calder as Nathan Spring, Trevor Cooper as Colin Devis and Linda Newton as Pal Kenzy for six more episodes, this time set on the red planet.
Star Cops – Mars has been written by Una McCormac, Guy Adams and Andrew Smith, produced by Emma Haigh and directed by Helen Goldwyn. Part 1 is available from the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on January 31st 2020.
It’s the near future, and mankind has expanded its presence in space. Maintaining law and order beyond Earth is the responsibility of the International Space Police Force, known colloquially as the Star Cops. Their leader is Commander Nathan Spring.
There are no Star Cops on Mars, and Nathan Spring intends to put that right. He travels to the red planet hoping to rally the colonists’ support for setting up an ISPF office, but he faces resistance from those who feel Mars has no need of police.
Soon, though, Nathan and his officers are involved in incidents of theft, violence and murder. They may get the chance to prove they’re needed, if they can get through their investigations alive.
The New World by Andrew Smith
Nathan, Devis and Kenzy arrive on Mars after a six-month journey from Earth. They’ve come to set up a Star Cop base, but Mars is a very different environment from the one they’re used to on the moon. They have their work cut out to convince some colonists of the need for law enforcement. They have no powers, no guns, and few friends.
Nathan sees an opportunity to prove their worth when there are reports of water thefts and disorder at a colony near Olympus Mons. He and Kenzy are invited to investigate, unofficially. Then a body is discovered, and the Star Cops have to work fast to prevent tensions escalating into further violence.
The Shadow of This Red Rock by Una McCormack
Nathan and Kenzy find themselves marooned in the Martian desert with a prisoner whose friends will soon arrive to attempt a violent rescue. Help arrives in the form of a reclusive colonist. Soon they’re all being chased across the desert by the prisoner’s friends, who seem able to anticipate every effort to shake them off.
Meanwhile, Devis has his own troubles. An attempt to come to his friends’ rescue goes wrong, and he finds himself at the mercy of colonists who hold his life in their hands.
Matters will come to a head in a perilous stand-off on the four-mile-high cliffs of the Mariner Valley canyon.
Whatever Happened to Gary Rice? by Guy Adams
After the Star Cops receive a cryptic message about a man who may once have worked at a colony in the Argyre Basin, they make their way there to investigate. They find a co-operative community that thrives by growing an organic food source, which it sells to other colonies. But no-one seems to remember the man the Star Cops are looking for.
Nathan visits a neighbouring scientific research base, where nutritionist Dr Julienne Grainger has information that may resolve the mystery of the missing colonist.
As the Star Cops get closer to discovering the truth, there are those who are prepared to kill to keep it secret.
The New World
The premise of this new string of Star Cops episodes – the colonisation of Mars – is a classic science fiction trope. The angle this series takes is introducing the Star Cops into that complex social-political context, and sets the police against many of the planet’s colonists who resist the presence of a police force.
The New World, written by Andrew Smith, introduces such themes as the perception of police presence while simultaneously building the world of the Mars colonies. Just as he presents the idea of Nathan, Devis and Kenzy recognising they must do their job well to earn the trust of the public and keep the peace, Smith does not hold back in exploring the rich science fiction setting.
Ideas of scientific advancement, terraforming, geological studies, tourism versus scientific pursuit, political treaties and private enterprise are all condensed into the opening story. There is a good opportunity for the following five episodes to selectively examine particular elements of this rich ideological backdrop.
The core trio of actors – David Calder, Trevor Cooper and Linda Newton – quickly ingratiate themselves with listeners: Nathan as the honest authority figure; Devis down-to-earth and instinctive; and Kenzy giving a different, uniquely Australian energy. Elsewhere, a variety of accents support the multinational identity of the Mars colonies. Plus, the score proves suitably eerie, electronic and “spacey”.
Smith balances introducing the series, building the science fiction world (through a fair amount of exposition), and canvasing character motives, all while crafting a plot for this first episode. He sticks the landing, and the result is an enjoyable hard sci-fi series with cops on Mars; everything it says on the tin, really.
The Shadow of This Red Rock
Episode two takes the story out across the surface of the red planet. By extending upon motives established in The New World and taking the action beyond the bounds of Obama Base so soon after the introductory episode, the series begins to take advantage of the shift from moon to Mars and resists stagnation.
The Martian desert with its varied topography is the setting this time, and the electrical storms on the planet’s surface are realised aurally with a truly atmospheric sound design. Writer Una McCormack, like Smith, manages to balance exposition with propelling the plot forward – perhaps more effectively here, given McCormack’s advantage to follow what was already established in the first episode.
There is perhaps less substance to the policing element of the plot setup – the episode leans more into the themes of Mars exploration than off-Earth policing. Still, the device of escorting a prisoner and evading violent attacks from who is essentially a local gang is familiar enough idea from real-world Earth, and McCormack does explore notions of law and jurisdiction in addition to extending the discussion around needing (or otherwise) a policing presence on Mars.
Science fiction themes are accompanied by real human backstories, primarily that of cartographer Grace Kavanagh (Elizabeth Uter). The human touch helps with grounding the drama; this is very Creative Writing 101, but is nonetheless greatly appreciated when much of the surrounding phenomena rely on hard sci-fi tropes.
The Shadow of This Red Rock is a solid middle episode that expands the story – both in plot and setting – of Star Cops, hinting further at an overarching thread while giving each of the three protagonists something to do.
Whatever Happened to Gary Rice?
Episode three features Nathan, Devis and Kenzy working to solve a missing person mystery, namely that of Gary Rice. The missing person plot is a new spin on the policing concept of the series, and continues the notion of exploring a different set of tropes in each story.
The planet-wide worldbuilding done so effectively in the previous two episodes is replaced here by an exploration of specific concepts: specifically big business and insurance companies in the context of Mars colonisation, plus ideas of sales, production, profit and the bottom line.
Adams does not hold back in his critical standpoint of large corporations, while also probing valuable notions of food sustainability. Rationalism and scientific inquiry – common themes in much of Adams’ work for Big Finish – also come into play.
With such a significant amount of explanation and exposition, the script becomes concerned with building the mystery through dialogue rather than actively pitting the police officers against antagonists (although that does eventually happen). For the first two acts, there is simply a lot of people sitting in rooms or walking and talking. Despite the wit of some of the dialogue in these scenes, the theory-heavy story often limits actors’ performances to almost reading the script rather than giving an emotional performance, which is the drawback for this episode.
The third of three episodes in Star Cops – Mars takes a slightly different angle on the Martian colonisation premise, and the revelation at the end of the episode propels the series in an interesting direction for the next set.
Dipping behind the scenes, listeners hear of how Andrew Smith was the one to suggest the Star Cops go to Mars, alongside an explanation of the extent of his research and the threading of plot points in the first episode that will come into play later on. Insight into the writing momentum of Una McCormack is also well worth a listen, as are the segments where David Calder, Trevor Cooper and Linda Newton each show their enthusiasm for and understanding of the Star Cops universe.
This audio Star Cops series will resonate most strongly with followers of the original television run. Despite this, the writing team has invested the characters with sufficient life and energy, and depicts the Mars setting with enough scientific verisimilitude, to create a reasonably entertaining three-hour story. This being part one of two, the plot arc is yet to be resolved, but this trio of distinct episodes gives first-time listeners a crash course in Star Cops and an immersive dive into policing on Mars.