In the mid-1980s, Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson was making his way back to the U.K. after an unsatisfactory pitching trip to New York when he had a brainwave. If American TV execs weren’t keen on his marionette shows anymore and if police dramas like Hill Street Blues were all the rage, then why not come up with his own? His answer was Space Police, a 1986 pilot featuring Shane Rimmer (the voice of Scott Tracy) as an ageing NYPD cop relocated to an alien planet where he works alongside non-human police and residents. His co-stars were a series of extra-terrestrials and shape-shifting robots – a combination of stop-motion animation, puppetry and prosthetics.
Anderson hawked the idea around for a few years, getting some interest but not enough to turn it into a series. With the show looking increasingly creaky as special effects improved, he decided to reshoot a handful of scenes to try and generate the cash one last time, casting new younger actors (including future Red Dwarf Kochanski Chloë Annett, whose dad was the director) and calling it Space Police: Reloaded.
[See also: How Red Dwarf Fandom Broke all the Rules by Abigail Chandler]
He also turned to a young special effects technician called Neill Gorton, who at the time was working out of Shepperton Studios with someone who had collaborated on Anderson’s Terrahawks.
“I was working for a company doing a lot of models and props and things,” says Gorton now. “[Space Police: Reloaded] was a teaser and I got commissioned to build an alien for that. I’d been dabbling with this recording system which allowed you to pre-record dialogue and then pre-record all the movements so you could get perfect lip-synch onto an animatronic creature, which was kind of newish at the time. We shot it and everybody was crazy for it. That was that.”
The money to make it was secured, thought to be in the region of $36million then, equivalent to about $63.8m now, or £45m, a massive amount. “The reality was it had a bigger budget than Star Trek,” says Gorton. “Which you can’t really tell by looking at it!
“They never gave me a budget, they just kept on hiring people to build things.”Neill Gorton
Demeter’s Most Wanted
The show was retitled Space Precinct and the actors were recast. The main human beat cops were played by Americans Ted Shackelford (who took over as Brogan) and Rob Youngblood, with Danish actress Simone Bendix as their colleague, while character actors, movement experts and mime artists like Andy Dawson donned masks and prosthetics to fill out the alien ensemble, sometimes referred to on-set as the ‘background jellyheads’. The production took over two stages at Pinewood, erecting a permanent two-tier set of the main station. “It was a huge operation,” admits Dawson.
“I had been the co-creator of Thunderbirds F.A.B. – the stage show – which had been a big hit at the end of the 80s,” says Dawson. “We knew Gerry quite well and he invited us to be part of the series. More importantly, we could be in these costumes and actually manage to perform.”
While the central conceit of a relocated NYPD policeman remained, as Brogan found himself patrolling Demeter City on the planet Altor in the year 2040, so did the ambition of the special effects.
“Having an animatronic head having a conversation, exchanging dialogue and performing, delivering lines and lots of them, was really new,” says Gorton. “Outside people like Henson’s, no-one had really tackled that much.”
[See also: Farscape | The Creature Shop’s Strange Alien Lifeforms by Peter Ray Allison]
And this was going to be every week. Shooting an episode every ten days meant the production maintained two creature effects shops. Terrahawks alumnus (the late) Richard Gregory was based at Pinewood and charged with creating the two main alien races – the Creons and the Tarns. The former had a slightly fish-like quality with no nose and very wide-set eyes, while the latter boasted an extra eye in the middle of their forehead which they could use to levitate things through telekinesis.
Meanwhile, at Shepperton, Gorton did any other creatures. “We were dubbed the alien of the week team,” he says. “Anything that was not Tarn or Creon, we did. [It was] a new challenge for every episode. We had to rethink what we were doing each time.”
Gerry Anderson, who loved technology, was an early adopter of video phones and tried to use a proto-version to link the two workshops. “We thought we could hold up sculptures and show them over this video phone,” laughs Gorton. “And it was terrible – pixelated, eight-bit…”
Messing with my Head
While the aliens in the back of the shot tended to be pull-on rubber masks, the effects for the main cast were more sophisticated, particularly for a weekly TV show. The character effects were created by sculpting the alien visage around a cast of the actor’s head, then integrating animatronic motors into it so that operators could manipulate the mask during a scene. The finished head was then divided into two pieces to make it more user-friendly.
“They worked very hard to make it flexible and bearable on a weekly basis,” says Andy Dawson. “The whole chin section would be glued on and that would take several hours first thing in the morning. And teeth, that go over your own teeth. Then you’ve got the helmet part, which is separate and you could take off, so you can look and breathe.”
James Bond director John Glen, who helmed several episodes, joked that thanks to the make-up artists, people like Gorton and Gregory and the puppeteers, the aliens had a bigger on-set entourage than Elizabeth Taylor.
For the effects team, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to make the characters look like they were speaking authentically. A Muppet is in sync because the puppeteer is operating it and providing the voice. In Space Precinct, you might have a voice actor doing the dialogue, an actor like Dawson performing the scene and then crew members working the animatronic’s remote controls.
This is where Gorton’s pre-recording technique – pretty cutting edge at the time – came to the fore.
“It was a system that was built originally for lighting at gigs, to get the lighting in rhythm with the music,” he explains. “All the animatronics were operated by servo motors and we could link them via a computer and pre-program all the movements. So you could play back the audio and operate the mouth to be in time with the audio.”
In other words, the voice actor would record the dialogue and then Gorton or Gregory’s team would create channels and build up how different parts of the face would move. The director would call action, the other character would say his or her line and then, “we hit a button and the animatronic says back its line. You could have a conversation,” says Gorton. “It worked reasonably well. But the moment you’re on set and someone says they want to change a line of dialogue, you’re buggered! You had to run off and reprogram the thing.”
[See also: Farscape | Directing ‘PK Tech Girl’, ‘The Way We Weren’t’ and Muppet Melodrama by James Hoare]
For the actors, assuming they could handle being buried under all that latex, it was visibility that threatened to put paid to executing their roles properly.
“You’ve got your own mouth, but not your own eyes,” says Dawson. “So you’re coordinating with the puppeteer, the controller, about where you’re looking. Because you can’t tell where you’re looking. You’re really looking through tiny little peepholes somewhere above the nose. I remember being a judge in an episode and I had to pick the gavel up and hammer it, but I had no idea where it was. They made the eyes look at it and I would have to work out after a few rehearsals where to put my hand.”
And they didn’t tend to get much sympathy.
“A director would say, do this and you’d say, I can’t, like walking down the stairs or something. And they’d say what’s the problem and you’d go, I can’t see! They’d forget because someone’s operating the eyes and it all looks all fine… they’d forget that you’re completely blind. There’s a lot of work going on to make something look easy.”Andy Dawson
Everything was done at a frenetic pace, with both workshops building around the clock to produce all the necessary characters, particularly Tarns and Creons.
“They had a number of internal structures, the animatronic parts,” says Gorton. “Sometimes they would redress a background one with different hair and different paint job. Sometimes they would do a new sculpture. They would build a new sculpture over an existing mechanism. They were just constantly finding ways to make new Tarns and Creons.”
But while it built a loyal following, the viewing figures never amounted to enough to keep such an expensive show on the air. It wasn’t helped by the fact it was moved all over the schedule, particularly in the U.S. where it was broadcast in syndication, often in late-night slots. In Britain, it showed first in primetime on Sky One, before BBC Two picked it up to show just before 7p.m. (the transfer resulted in some more violent elements being excised from the episodes). But after 24 first season instalments, the writing was on the wall.
“I think we smelt a rat that it wouldn’t get to a second season,” says Andy Dawson. “It didn’t quite have all the right elements to hold it together. I think we knew that.”
Gorton suggests there was a bit of friction between the young tyros on the crew trying to do something really innovative and some of the older production people. “It feels very dated, which is a shame,” he says. “It was a missed opportunity.”
Certainly, the special effects teams have gone on to some spectacular things. Gorton is the CEO of Millennium FX and has worked on Doctor Who, The Witcher and Ex Machina. Gregory, who died in 2019, has credits including Skyfall and The Dark Knight. Their colleague Steve Begg is known for his work on movies like Kingsman: The Secret Service and Hellboy.
Gorton has no regrets. “I was running a creature shop, aged 24 or something, doing fun stuff, making monster suits and animatronic aliens,” he says. “There was a lot of people doing some really great stuff. No-one had seen that on TV at the time. It was cool to do something a bit different.”
Andy Dawson has a thriving career as a movement director, mime artist and theatre performer. He’s even been a mo-cap meerkat in a certain well-known series of ads. For him, the show induces nothing but fond memories.
“The most exciting thing doing the series, was doing the episode where the space precinct itself was damaged and it went on a tilt,” he says. “We had to all throw ourselves across the room – classic Star Trek move. Everything on the table was on nylons… we fell and pulled everything off the table at the same time as the camera tilted so it all looked like it slid off.
And I remember thinking this is so fantastically low-tech, really crude and stupid, but fun. To actually get a chance to do that was really great.”Andy Dawson
Shoutout to Companion member Henry Taylor who hasn’t met a sci-fi show from the late 1990s/early 2000s that he didn’t like.
Star Trek – Flying a 3-Foot Enterprise to the Dog Poop Planet: The VFX of Rob Legato
Gattaca to Gravity | Chris Watts on Faking it in VFX
Ben Falk is an entertainment journalist and author, who’s talked to scientists about whether Skynet will eventually take over the world and to cryptozoologists about who would win in a fight between a Xenomorph and a Predator. He is the author of books about Robert Downey Jr and Professor Brian Cox and particularly enjoyed writing the parts about how the latter helped make Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.