A look back
A LOOK BACK AT ROBOCOP: THE SERIES
By Flynn Cook
Many a movie franchise has been lucrative enough to attract a Television audience. Take a look at the popular Stargate: SG-1 and Kung-Fu: The Legend Continues for example, and all have added to the franchise's popularity. Some films have even spawned (or helped spawn) an animated series or two, which are regarded in high respects, shows such as The Real Ghostbusters and Batman: The Animated Series, just to name a few. But there's one show that is often overlooked and typically downtrodden. It was launched at the most inappropriate time and added to the fall of its franchise, due to its perceived shortcomings. It had modest ratings and the highest of aspirations, dying before it could really start.
If you haven't gathered, we're talking about RoboCop: The Series.
Usually misunderstood for its attempted satire, and looked down upon by RoboCop fans for its lack of violence, the show receives less credit then it truly deserves. This retrospective will hopefully shed some light on the forgotten and underappreciated series, which given a good time slot, could have run for much longer.
The time was 1993. Orion Pictures, now a subdivision of MGM and Skyvision Entertainment saw the terrible box office returns for the feature film RoboCop 3, and read the terrible reviews. However, MGM still saw promise in the Paul Verhoven-started franchise, and hoped to try and bring RoboCop into the households of America, as a prime-time syndicated television series. MGM placed the blame for the failure of RoboCop 3 on the screenwriter, famed comic book scribe Frank Miller, and thus decided that the cure for RoboCop's failure was to bring back the original screenwriters for the first film; Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner.
MGM commissioned Skyvision to produce 21 one-hour episodes of the show, and a two-hour pilot. Screenwriters Neumeier and Miner were asked to start the series off with a bang, so they wrote the pilot movie. Interestingly, the duo decided that this was their chance to resurrect their original script for the film RoboCop 2, (Which had been rejected by Orion due to it being "too bizarre") and with a few edits, the script was re-written into the pilot for the RoboCop television series.
They essentially wrote out the two sequels that they didn't pen themselves, erasing the continuity established by Frank Miller. RoboCop has moved back to Metro South, (As Murphy, he transferred from Metro South to Metro West at the beginning of RoboCop) Lewis is not his partner, and OCP never went out of business. Within, the show continues the social satire established as a standard in the first film. We continue to see the all-informative "Media Break" news service. We see commercials for an extremely bizarre talk show called "What's On Your Mind?" (Which discusses subjects such as the US Military posing nude for charity) and instead of prison, criminals are put into the "Henry Ford Clinic for the Morally Challenged." Also present on television in RoboCop's world is the OCP superhero/advertisement "Commander Cash," who convinces citizens to spend mass quantities of cash; he would also appear later as an adversary for RoboCop to tussle with.
I'd guess that Neumeier and Miner did not script the alternate for Lewis, Sergeant Reed, add the resident child or bring Robo back to Metro South. It is quite possible that those aspects were changed by Skyvision to avoid copyright infringement on the non-essential characters, as if they only wanted to license RoboCop himself and OCP for the series.
The replacements, Detective Lisa Madigan and Sergeant Stan Parks, are essentially just Lewis and Reed with different names, though perhaps watered down. The OCP CEO, instead of being called "The Old Man", was re-titled "The Chairman". The "resident child" I mentioned, which was adopted by Sgt. Parks after the pilot was named Gadget. She was allowed to roam freely throughout Metro South. Also, Ellen Murphy, RoboCop's wife, was re-named "Nancy Murphy."
At the time, television violence had been severely cut back by the order of parents across the nation, due to the antics of the multi-colored Power Rangers. Thus, RoboCop was not allowed to follow in the path set by the first film. This is perhaps unfortunate, because RoboCop had always been meant to be an extreme concept, and the limitations of television at the time only further watered down the image of RoboCop in the wake of the reviled third film.
Due to the new limitations, RoboCop was only allowed to use his gun to place a electronic 'tag' on his foes to track them later, or use it take a felon out of commission the long way; by shooting down something like a chest-of-drawers, to fall onto a criminal and incapacitate them. This gimped violence hits home for fans of the character, and unfortunately colors the deeper appreciation for the show they should have.
The lowered violence was cause for the later writers of the series to re-visit RoboCop's other abilities, quite imaginatively. The series called for RoboCop to use his amazing strength, his voice/stress analyzer (which can detect lies), and his Thermographic vision, which allows him to track heat signatures. Whereas the films played inside the box of "he has a cool gun," the series writers took advantage of the other inherent abilities that the character has, showcasing his potential more than the films did.
A side-effect of RoboCop's inability to kill was his only returning foe: William-Ray "Pudface" Morgan, a strange cross between a classic American gangster, and Freddy Kruger's bad skin. This 'arch-enemy' appeared on the show several times, and I'll freely admit: he's a bit hammy. Morgan's awful face was revealed to be RoboCop's doing, and thus Pudface hates RoboCop dearly for his disfigurement.
The budget was quite good. Each episode could go as high 1.25 million USD to film. To go along with these lofty budgets, the writers gave the viewers excellent scripts. Each episode was interesting, entertaining, and with an hour run-time, there was plenty of room to perfect the pacing of each script.
The writing, above all else, was the true highlight of the show. As mentioned, Robo's abilities were creatively used, and the writers used those abilities to portray Murphy as something of a detective for the first time in the franchise. Each week, viewers were presented with an interesting storyline, with a road of discovering for the character to follow. RoboCop constantly is found using his hand-based interface spike (which fans of the films will certainly remember), to upload and find clues. By the episode's end, he always solved the mystery, and had captured the perp. The writers also focused on Murphy's tortured soul, resulting, in true RoboCop fashion, in emotionally-charged scenes involving Murphy's former life, whether from old friends or family. Throughout the series, Madigan occasionally nags Robo to tell his wife and son about who he is, but each time, RoboCop responds with a resounding 'no'. The pilot ends with him saying: "They need a husband... and a father. I cannot be that. But I can protect them."
Both Peter Weller and Robert Burke refused to portray the cyborg policeman in the series. Therefore, Skyvision was forced to cast a new RoboCop. With some training, the replacement, one Richard Eden, quickly became a fan favorite in the role. Eden intensely studied the performances of both Weller and Burke, soon becoming able to emulate them in appearance and behavior. Eden himself truly understood RoboCop, it seems; each step he took was measured, replicated precisely from the actors before him. Eden also understood the psychological aspect of RoboCop, always portraying him as emotionless and almost cold, with a touch of sadness. There is an errant wistful quality to him, which is perfect for the character.
The Chairman of OCP, instead of being evil as the sequel films established, was portrayed in the series as less unscrupulous, more reasonable. The Chairman is reasonably caring, though still a businessman. He even knows RoboCop's true identity! Despite his businesslike manner he still brings a subtle, friendly warmth to the show in his scenes. Yvette Niper portrays Madigan as someone equal to Lewis; just as tough and Robo's partner--half the time.
Another character which became a regular on the show was RoboCop's head technician, Charlie Lippencott. He was at-times comic relief, though never annoying. The pilot also introduced an ongoing character, ripped directly from Neumeier and Miner's original RoboCop 2 script. Diana, an OCP secretary who, in the pilot, is killed by evil OCP execs, and her brain is put into cyberspace as "Neurobrain", which runs Delta City. However, like RoboCop, there was a ghost in the machine and she was retained her mortal persona, becoming a friend to RoboCop, and perhaps a kindred spirit as well. She appears to characters of the show as a projected hologram of her former self.
Of course, this editorial/retrospective wouldn't be very good if I didn't include a couple of the best episodes.
The Human Factor is a fan favorite, which pits RoboCop and Murphy's father, a former cop himself, against a spider-themed criminal hell-bent on destroying OCP, one who had been captured by Murphy's father before his retirement. There is an excellent, errant drama to the pairing of father and son, and in a later episode the two cross paths again, resulting in the revelation of Robo's identity.
Prime Suspect, based on the RoboCop comic book mini-series from the time, sees RoboCop framed for the murder of a crooked televangelist, and results in RoboCop being hunted down when he refuses to be arrested. How do you frame RoboCop, you ask? Why, you simply make yourself a copy of RoboCop's gun, and dispose of it, seeing as RoboCop is the only one that can fire his own gun.
Here's an admission for the cynical. Was the show a bit cheesy? At times, sure. Many action shows of the time were. However as a big fan of the character and the franchise, I can attest that it all comes down to how willing you are to really pay attention. If you can look past the occasional silliness and the usual cynical way you might view pop culture, you will find that it's something of a hidden gem. It's is pure to the source. RoboCop was about more than violence.
Although the show had many great things going for it, the show failed to out-perform other shows. With its high budgets, the powers-that-be decided it wasn't worth continuing. The programming for the show was terrible; most didn't know about it, and it was put in on the worst time slots. I recall that it was broadcast at seemingly random times!
By now, the show has made its way onto DVD in most regions. I suggest it for everyone who never saw it, and for those who did to give the show a second try.
Thank you for your co-operation. Stay out of trouble.