Episode One :
Nathan Spring is introduced, a 41-year-old English Chief Superintendent. A policeman for 22 years, Nathan has several officers working under him, including "Hanson", "Langley" and Brian Lincoln. His father worked in computers, and, though he harbours an instinctive distrust of their judgement, he carries with him "Box". Box, a present from his father, is a communications device with interactive voice control. Nathan's favourite restaurant is the Chinese restaurant Lotus Garden, an unpopular restaurant that his girlfriend, Lee, hates.
American Flight Engineer David Theroux resigned from the American space program and works in communications and traffic control, as well as being a part-time "Star Cop". He, Nathan and the senior traffic controller are film buffs. Throughout the series Theroux wears a wedding ring on his left hand, but any marital or relationship status is never confirmed, with it suggested on more than one occasion he has an attraction towards Kenzy and flirts with her. (It may just be that Ray Evans didn't want to remove the ring for filming, but it is curious... and also something I never noticed until 2017).
Australian Pal Kenzy gets a cameo, revealing she is ambitious for the Commander's job, and also a keen poker player. However, her present winning streak is the first she's had "in months".
The International Space Police Force, "twenty so" part-timers that were unaffectionately tagged "Star Cops" by a journalist. Their progress is being monitored by Lars Hendvorssen, a parliamentary representative and described as a "self-made zillionaire and self-appointed guardian of the public purse". A communications space station Coral Sea is referred to, a development of the Allied Pacific Consortium. A (presumed news-only) television channel is in operation, WNB. The policeforce use computerwork extensively, and no longer make house calls.
Nathan is investigating case LS 3421, a drowning. He believes the case to be murder, but is pulled away to Eurostation Charles de Gaulle to solve a case involving a 2% failure rate in space suit backpacks. While in space, his understudy, Brian Lincoln, is promoted in order to force Nathan to join the Star Cops permanently as Commander.
Case LS 3421 was indeed murder, the drowned man's wife having paid for him to be killed. The backpack failure was organised by three executives from Pancontel, a Dallas-based Multinational attempting to wrestle the contract for backpacks off the Russians. The Charles De Gaulle's Traffic Controller was paid off to turn a blind eye to the murders...
Nathan and David's Movie-Buff Challenge:
A defining characteristic of Nathan and David, particularly in the first few episodes, was their mutual love of the movies.
The first episode is the story with the greatest number of film references, most of them between Keith Varnier's Controller and Theroux. In fact, the very first exchange occurs between them with:
Controller: "Can men of our profession worry about things like that? It may even be sacrilegious.... well..?" David: "If God did not want 'em sheared he wouldn't have made 'em sheep? Well, it's from The Magnificent Seven and it's a rule infringement - incomplete speech, ten bonus points to me".
It seems there are rules to this little game between David and the Controller - such as with this exchange later in the story: David: "That son of a bitch!" Controller: "One word clues don't count. Give me the year, the star and the director".
These exchanges between the two continue throughout, sometimes in the middle of a conversation. At one point they both drop into the exchange between Joel Cairo and Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon: "You always have a very smooth explanation" - "What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?" One possible reference (to Spider-Man) is the self-description of "your friendly neighbourhood traffic controller", yet the origins of the phrase "friendly neighbourhood..." pre-date Spider-Man and was used as an advertising slogan by Texaco in the 1940s-1950s, which is what Spider-Man was referencing.
In fact, so obsessed is the Controller, that when David accuses him of murder, he still retorts with "is that a quote?" "It's what you said" "What movie?" "How about the innocent American?" "Is that a movie?" The Controller also describes Nathan (who David thinks is about to sack him) by paraphrasing the 'knock your teeth out then kick you in the stomach for mumbling' line of The Big Sleep, which he incorrectly identifies as The Long Goodbye. David corrects him, only for him to retort: "Are you sure? Long Goodbye's more appropriate".
This takes us up to the end of their friendship, when the Controller is revealed to be a murderer: Controller: "Should be the perfect quote for this". David: "I don't believe that" Controller: "Sorry. Man's gotta do what a man's gotta do?" David: "It's from Shane, but I don't know what the next line is, and we were friends" Controller: "No, that wasn't the next line". (In the DVD commentary, Chris Boucher reveals that this is a common myth, and that the line wasn't actually said in the film).
So where does Nathan fit into all this? The first hint that he might be a buff comes when the Controller asks him if the 'romance of space' has passed him by. "Faster than a speeding bullet" is Nathan's reply, which is actually from the Superman TV Series of the 1950s. Superman again rears his head as Nathan does a typical 'flying Superman' pose while in a weightless area and asks David if he remembers him. This is quite an amusing little in-joke, too, as David Calder appeared as "3rd Crewman" in the 1978 Superman movie. Press releases at the time also indicated that Erick Ray Evans appeared in the same film as an extra, though that information is not recorded on the IMDb.
Yet how did Nathan know Theroux was a movie buff? Certainly, we don't see David give a quote on-screen in front of Nathan, yet he does seem to be aware of it as we get this exchange: David: "Oh, he's very young and very proud" Nathan: "Yeah... the graveyards are full of kids who are very young and very proud. The Magnificent Seven. Well what's the matter? You thought you're the only person who ever saw a movie? Remember Superman?" David: "Remember Deadfall?"
Nathan's final quote of the episode is just before he's about to be murdered, quoting Cody Jarrett from White Heat with "Made it, ma. Top of the world". This seems to genuinely touch the crooked Controller, who exclaims "He's a movie buff. You didn't tell me he's a movie buff". "Look," replies David, "I only just found out myself".
Star Cops was originally pitched as a radio serial, and, when it was commissioned for TV, this first episode was intended as a two-parter, to give the plots more time to develop.
Things to look out for:
We see evidence of the future's super-quick coffee making for the first time this episode. Between Nathan clinking his coffee cups, walking back from the kitchen and putting a cup of coffee in David's hand, only 16 seconds have elapsed.
DVD Commentary Highlights (Chris Boucher):
"David Calder was a really excellent performance, a really excellent actor. But in fact, was cast against the writing, in a way. The original intention was that Spring would be very young, in his 30s [...] and that Devis, who was going to become his, as it were, his partner, was going to be older than him. It's not a problem except that occasionally, there are lines that refer to age and refer to circumstance, which aren't quite right."
"I thought in this first episode, a number of performances were uncertain. Which is understandable, it's the first episode. When an actor is uncertain, frequently they overact. Again it's understandable. Never having been an actor myself, I can only sympathise. Having said that, when you write a script like this [...] you polish every speech so that they fit together. And when an actor leans on a line that doesn't require leaning on, it makes you very uncomfortable. No, it makes very you irritated. But, having said that, it is understandable."
"Box was intended to speak... when I wrote it... was intended to speak entirely with Nathan Spring's voice. Almost indistinguishable. In fact, ideally, when they're both close together, indistinguishable. But this was offered as an objection to the whole idea. 'You won't know', said the director, 'when Nathan Spring is speaking, and when Box is speaking.' Well that was the point. That was my intention. [...] It was details like that that got to me, I have to say."
"There's money in wars, even cold ones."
A starkly underrated episode, which isn't well regarded by many of the people who worked on it or starred in it. Like the best of Star Cops, it uses the story of Nathan Spring (the excellent David Calder) as a foundation.
With all of Star Cops, there's the feeling that it could, and should, have been even better than it is. Often it's just fundamentals, like the title of the series - which is used derisively by characters in the show ("A force of twenty-so part-timers, unaffectionately termed ‘The Star Cops'") - or the theme tune. Written and sung by The Moody Blues' Justin Hayward, while it's no "Nights In White Satin", it's a decent enough track, and details Nathan's internal monologue in much the same way the Red Dwarf song does for Lister... but Red Dwarf is a comedy, and its theme tune contains more bass and urgency.
From a production standpoint then - with the exception of A Double Life - this is the cheapest one, the one where all the flaws are up on screen for all to see. Theroux speaking without moving his mouth... exceptionally bad blue screen on the Charles de Gaulle... an astronaut dying in "space" with a clearly visible studio floor beneath him... the "weightless" scenes, with clearly visible Kirby Wires... Nathan "knocking out" the murderer unconvincingly... the list goes on.
It's a shame, because it screams out "cheap BBC show" and instantly disengages the viewers, causing them to look past some good performances and a witty script. Possibly it did appeal to some, as the ratings went up by 0.4 million the following week, but generally the ratings were on a downward trajectory, the season closing with only 1.2 million viewers caring enough to tune in.
An Instinct For Murder is a cynical plot, showing, not for the only time, how single lives are seen as being disposable compared to the lives of political entities. The conclusion, with Spring given "nowhere to go", may be slightly lacking in logic (surely Nathan could just sue for unfair dismissal?) but makes for a strong conclusion to a series that rewards... if the viewers are prepared to work at it.
A fresh look at the series for its 30th anniversary sees the fifth time(!) these episodes have been reviewed for this site. Should you care, then the episodes were originally reviewed around 1999-2000, followed by a quick update in 2001, then just three years later in 2004. Finally, they were again reviewed in 2008, before a long gap and this current 2017 take on the programme.
To give an indication of how the episodes have been received over the last 18 years (where does the time go?) I'll also list the average ratings each episode has received over the five reviews. In the case of An Instinct For Murder, it's always been a generally regarded episode on this site, attracting an average rating of 3.6 out of 5.