Sunday, February 24, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: RoboCop: The Series -- The Future of Law Enforcement Gets Syndicated

In a Nostalgia Theater entry last month, I talked at length about the ill-advised line of RoboCop action figures that Kenner put out in the late '80s. But the myriad of ways that rights holders Orion tried to squeeze blood from their cyborg stone didn't end there. No sir. By the early '90s, the cash-strapped studio had been stuck in a sustained rough patch stemming from such box office nonstarters as "Weird Al" Yankovic's 1989 flop UHF, not to mention 1990's merely adequate RoboCop 2, directed by The Empire Strikes Back's Irvin Kirschner.

Thus, in a bid to keep the studio coffers flush just a little bit longer to stave off the encroaching advance of creditors, they were offered a half-mil infusion of cash from Canadian company SkyVision to license the Robo rights for television, a sum they happily accepted at the cost of retaining minimal involvement in the product (also no great loss given the execrable quality of their recent output). The resultant TV show hit the syndicated airwaves in early '94, mere months after the much-delayed RoboCop 3 flopped hard on the big screen and pretty much kiboshed future prospects for the movie series. Here's the intro:

RoboCop: The Series (not to be confused with 1988's RoboCop animated series) starred actor Richard Eden as RoboCop/Alex Murphy, the role that Peter Weller indelibly originated in the first two movies (and which Robert John Burke forgettably took over for movie three). Probably the bigest selling point, beyond the mere novelty of seeing the bionic bobby given the weekly TV treatment, was that it was developed by the first movie's writers Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier (their pilot script, incidentally, was a re-working of the duo's rejected script for RoboCop 2).

While the series was ostensibly set in the universe of the films, it uses only the first one as a jump-off point and essentially over-writes the two sequels, ignoring any character developments or changes to the status quo that they introduced. Another side effect of Robo's transition to the small screen, somewhat understandably given the limitations of the time, was that the hardcore, blood-drenched, profanity-laded world of Old Detroit had to be softened. Like, a lot.

Suddenly a key facet of the character's arsenal was the litany of "non-lethal" methods at his disposal to take down the various baddies. You'd see him shoot a cabinet so it'd fall over on a guy, or shoot a table-leg and have it tip over on a guy. Lots of things falling over on guys, basically. As we know, by then RoboCop was just as much a marketing and merchandising mainstay as anything else, so the kiddie audience had to be kept in mind lest an unintended controversy end up killing those action figure sales (and of course they had a toy line ready to go, natch.)

All that said, and even with the made-for-TV neutering, the syndicated RoboCop did a better job of capturing the black humor and social commentary of the first movie than either of the two sequels. The omnipresent influence of evil corporation Omni Consumer Products was also felt in every episode, though its Chairman (David Wise) was more of a benevolent figure than the scheming "Old Man" of the films, played by Dan O'Herlihy, and there was a gallery of recurring foes who made life difficult for the cyborgized Officer Alex Murphy.

Unfortunately for SkyVision, despite their having lavished more than a million dollars on each episode, RoboCop: The Series struggled mightily to escape its TV trappings, and with the too-obvious back streets of Toronto standing in for Detroit it never quite managed that feat. Also working against it, the show simply got lost in a glut of forgettable first-run syndicated fare. And so, RoboCop ended its run after a mere 22 episodes, not even making it to 1995. Too bad for SkyVision, which had gambled big on Robo and crapped out, and too bad for Orion, which didn't last much longer as a studio.

But even that significant setback didn't end Robo's live action escapades on the small screen. In 2000, in a bid to quickly cash out on the RoboCop rights before they reverted to MGM (which had scooped up all of Orion's assets in the wake of the company's 1995 bankruptcy), entertainment consortium Fireworks (which had in turn acquired SkyVision in '96) put a quickie mini bearing the title "Prime Directives" into production. Though they approached Eden to reprise his TV role, they ended up casting actor Page Fletcher, who made it a point not to watch any of his predecessors -- and boy does it ever show.

"Prime Directives" was conceived as a cash grab, and that's exactly what it comes across as. The budgetary limitations at every point are so evident that it makes the prior TV version look like Avatar in comparison. Set ten years after movie one, the mini has an obsolete Robo back on duty after his former partner is turned into the evil RoboCable. I missed this one during its initial TV airing on SyFy (then Sci-Fi) when it aired in '01, but I picked up the DVDs shortly thereafter, and was immediately mad at myself, the world, and random strangers after I finally did give it a watch. Here, see why:

From that clip alone (and don't worry, there are plenty more), it's clear that director Julian Grant did everything possible to show that this thing was a low budget hack job. After that, no great shock, it really was the end for RoboCop on TV...and everywhere else, pretty much. The first TV series is (unfortunately) only available on DVD outside the US, while "Prime Directives is (unfortunately) up for viewing everywhere. Next year sees MGM's RoboCop remake directed by Jose Padilha and starring Joel Kinnaman hitting the screen. The jury's still out on that one, naturally, but let's see if that ends up signaling a bold new rebirth for the brand or merely its latest death.

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