Home > Reviews > Why I love ROBOCOP: THE SERIES

Why I love ROBOCOP: THE SERIES

First off, good news: I hooked up my regular DVD player again in place of the DVD/VHS dubbing deck, and the glitchy RoboCop DVD plays perfectly on it.  So I guess I don’t have to worry about returning the DVD set.  It’s odd, though, since both players are 2008 Sony models, and the dubbing deck is, I would’ve thought, a more high-end piece of equipment.

I wanted to talk more about why RoboCop: The Series, which is generally discounted and dismissed, is my favorite incarnation of the franchise.  Part of it is that none of the other sequels and adaptations onscreen (I haven’t read any of the comics) were all that great.  I’ve just finished watching all three RoboCop movies more or less back-to-back thanks to Netflix streaming, and while the second and third films aren’t as bad as I suggested in an earlier post, they’re both very flawed, particularly the second one.  The original RoboCop is a classic; despite being more violent than I like, and despite having too many villains whose interrelationships are rather nebulously defined, it’s got a strong and effective core story and character and is a cutting satire of ’80s corporate and media culture.  But RoboCop 2 loses this; it does some good work with the RoboCop/Murphy character in the first half-hour, but then abandons that and degenerates into a graceless, crass exercise in excess, where satire is replaced with gratuitous ultraviolence.  (And it’s rather astonishing to say that of the two films, it’s the one by Paul Verhoeven that manages to be subtle.)  The third movie is an improvement, with more restraint and more heart, but too broad and cartoony in some respects, with too much effort to turn RoboCop into a walking toy with interchangeable accessories.

There was also a RoboCop: The Animated Series from Marvel in the ’80s, which I don’t remember well enough to comment on.  I recall it being decent but nothing special, notable mainly for being unusually dark for a Saturday morning cartoon, though still avoiding death; they even retconned the movie so that Boddicker’s gang was arrested rather than killed.  The second animated series, RoboCop: Alpha Commando, was rather silly and too great a departure in format; I didn’t watch it much.  And don’t get me started on the Prime Directives miniseries, which did a terrible job casting and executing the RoboCop character.  The actor they cast was too short for the costume and didn’t get any decent movement coaching, so he just flailed around in the suit and looked like a little kid in an oversized Halloween costume.  And I found the writing and execution of that miniseries so unpleasant that I gave up on it after, I think, less than two installments.

So RoboCop really hasn’t had much luck with followups.  Of all of the attempts, RoboCop: The Series was the one I find most successful.  I mentioned before that part of this is that I prefer the diminished violence of the show, but it’s more than that.  The essence of RoboCop isn’t the violence, it’s the character.  And I think R:TS is the only incarnation — including the original film — that really fulfilled the potential of RoboCop as a character.

RoboCop is intriguing to me because of what he is.  He’s not just Officer Alex Murphy in an armor suit.  Alex Murphy died at the hands of Clarence Boddicker and his gang.  Boddicker fired a bullet through his brain.  Much of what made Murphy is gone forever.  His brain, as explained in the series, was intended merely to handle his autonomic systems, something the human brainstem could do better than any existing technology.  His creators didn’t expect any of Murphy’s memory or personality to survive.  But somehow, perhaps because of the life support used to maintain his brain and the stimulation it received from being part of RoboCop’s cyborg systems, some elements of the dead man’s memories and personality began to re-emerge, and blended with the programming that made RoboCop a model law-enforcement officer.  And that synergy created a being who was neither man nor machine, but combined the best of both.

At least, that’s the series’ interpretation of the character, and it’s one that works wonderfully for me.  It didn’t really come through in the movie; once Robo remembers who he was, he’s basically acting like a man rather than a machine.  And the film sequels tend to follow that lead to a large extent.  But Richard Eden and the writers of R:TS did a fantastic job of creating a RoboCop character who was not Alex Murphy, who couldn’t pretend to be, but who retained the best qualities of Murphy blended with and enhancing the best qualities of RoboCop’s police programming.  This was a character who was instinctively good.  He couldn’t not serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law.  But underneath the programmed prime directives was a very human conscience interpreting their letter in a wise and humane way.  To me, it made him a truly heroic character, a being who possessed great power but would never abuse it, never stint in his duty to do the right thing.  That’s so much more admirable than some cold-blooded killing machine like he became in RoboCop 2, or than the revenge-driven rogue cop he was in much of the first and third films.  Moreover, the series’ RoboCop was written as extremely intelligent, not just a gun-toting thug but a skilled detective and an imaginative problem-solver.

Eden’s RoboCop didn’t have the emotional intensity of a human, and he tended to be stoic and robotic in his delivery, but you could hear the humanity underneath, sense the understated emotion, whether kindness toward others, sadness at his isolated state, or his moral conviction about doing the right thing.  Richard Eden did a better job than anyone since Leonard Nimoy at conveying emotional depth with the barest minimum of outward expression and affect.  (It’s also fascinating how soft-spoken Eden often is, a marvelous contrast to this intimidating metal giant.  It’s just one of the ways that Eden plays RoboCop far better than Peter Weller ever did.)

To me, no other incarnation of RoboCop handled the title character this well.  The second movie did well in its first act (introducing themes elaborated on in the series, though they aren’t in continuity with each other) but then marginalized the character for most of the rest of the film.  As for the third movie, I recall an article in which the filmmakers said they weren’t sure how to make RoboCop interesting and thus focused more on the ensemble cast around him; but although it takes nearly 20 minutes for Robo even to show up, I find they did a decent job with him, though they didn’t really add anything to his characterization or explore it as well as the first film-and-a-quarter did.  The Prime Directives miniseries and the Alpha Commando cartoon both reduced Robo to a generic wisecracking tough guy, losing everything that made him distinctive as a character.

But RoboCop: The Series embraced the character of RoboCop, this unique hybrid entity, and ran with it.  The first few episodes show the same tendency as the movie sequels to sideline Robo and focus on the surrounding cast, but as the series went on, they made more use of Robo, embraced his character rather than marginalizing him.  His wife and son were frequently featured.  His father and mother appeared in two episodes, and in “Corporate Raiders,” his father actually discovered who he was, leading to a poignant finale.  He gained a kindred spirit in Diana (Andrea Roth), the murdered secretary whose brain was secretly used to control MetroNet, the integrated system that ran Delta City.  Diana’s great power made her a somewhat literal deus ex machina at times, but she could relate to “Alex” (she was the only person who called him that) as no one else could.  The OCP Chairman (David Gardner) had an avuncular relationship with Robo, and was true to the more benevolent persona he had in the first film rather than the ruthless corporate exploiter he became in the second.  Detective Madigan was Murphy’s longtime partner, with more history with him than Lewis had in the movie (seeing as how he was killed on his very first shift in Metro West).  And so on.  There was a large ensemble, but most of them existed to interact with RoboCop and illuminate his character.

And yes, I’ve acknowledged that the first half of the season tended to be overly goofy and overly formulaic, but by the back half, they’d really found their groove and the stories got a lot stronger. While the series retained its campy villains and broad, biting satire, it also got deeper, richer, more poignant in episodes like “Heartbreakers” and “Corporate Raiders.”  There was more exploration of the supporting cast, with “Illusions” and “Nano” giving Yvette Nipar great opportunities to show what a fine actress she is, “Mother’s Day” focusing on Blu Mankuma’s Sgt. Parks, and “Heartbreakers” giving a featured subplot to Ed Sahely as Robo’s chief technician Charlie Lippencott as he met Diana in cyberspace and began a doomed romance with her.

And unlike so many series cancelled too soon, it had a great ending.  The finale, “Public Enemies,” reunited the three main recurring villains of the series for the first time since the pilot, had RoboCop save the President from their schemes,  and ended with a terrific, uplifting sendoff.  They must’ve known they probably weren’t getting renewed, and fortunately this was before serialization became an all-encompassing fad, so it was possible to end a series at any time without leaving a dozen unresolved story threads hanging.  So they were able to give this 23-episode series a finale that feels really satisfying.

Another thing I like about R:TS is that, unlike most TV sequels to movies, it’s not too hard to treat it as part of the same continuity as the original film rather than an alternate reality (though it does blatantly contradict the sequels, despite being made after them).  After all, its pilot was a rewritten version of the sequel script that RoboCop creators Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner wrote before being let go from the project (which is why it disregards the film sequels they were uninvolved with).   Sure, it made some changes.  For odd legal reasons, they were able to use the character of Murphy/RoboCop and the name Jimmy for his son, but couldn’t use any of the other character names from the films.  Sgt. Reed and Anne Lewis were replaced with Sgt. Parks and Lisa Madigan, Metro West was replaced by Metro South, the Old Man was called the Chairman (though sometimes addressed as “old man” as an epithet), etc.   Still, it’s reconcilable with rather little fudging.  In the film, Murphy had just transferred from Metro South to Metro West, so it’s easy enough to assume that Madigan had been his partner before Lewis.  And Parks is a very different character from Reed, far more avuncular, so it’s easy to see them as distinct individuals.  Perhaps in the 3-5 years between the film and the series (the date references are inconsistent), the Metro West precinct was torn down to make way for Delta City, and RoboCop was relocated back to Metro South.  The gentrification may have driven the poorer elements southward and turned Metro South into a more dangerous precinct than the original film suggested.  “Pudface” Morgan seems to have been based on Emil from the first film, his face deformed in a toxic-waste accident, but given the polluted corporate dystopia in which RoboCop takes place, it’s possible that Robo could’ve had two separate confrontations that ended in bad guys getting exposed to toxic waste.  As for Charlie Lippencott, there was no sign of him in the movie, but maybe he was in the background somewhere, just off camera.  Maybe he took over the job of supervising RoboCop after a series of corporate purges gutted the original team.   As for Murphy’s family, the film said they moved away, but maybe that just meant they moved to a different part of Detroit.  And Murphy’s wife wasn’t named in the original film, so her name Nancy in the series isn’t a contradiction (since I’m disregarding the film sequel where she was called Ellen in the script — though the name wasn’t stated onscreen as far as I could tell).

Even the different levels of violence between the first movie and the series aren’t that hard to reconcile, contrary to popular belief.  If you really take a good look at the first movie, Robo’s tactics in his normal patrol aren’t that much more violent than in the series.  In the convenience store robbery, he disarms the perp and tosses him through a glass case.  In the attempted rape, he uses a precisely aimed trick shot to disable rather than kill.  In the hostage situation, he pulls the guy through a wall and tosses him out a window.  At the gas station, he again uses precise aim to shoot Emil’s bike out from under him.  Sure, in the film’s more graphic interpretation, these would’ve more likely been crippling or fatal than in the show’s more cartoony reality, but then again, Emil didn’t seem too badly hurt by his bike crash, and Verhoeven’s exaggerated violence is just as cartoony in its own way.  Later, when Robo regained his memory and went after Boddicker in the drug lab, he was freer with the gunplay, but even there, he often took theoretically nonlethal shots to the shoulder, hip, etc.  And his level of violence can be explained as lashing out in retribution for what was done to him.  He attacks Boddicker and almost strangles him, but then remembers that he’s a cop, and so he chooses to proceed by the book, arresting Boddicker and letting the justice system deal with him rather than giving in to base revenge.  This is crucial: it shows us that RoboCop does not cavalierly throw away life, but, like any good cop, uses only as much force as he needs to.  Later, Robo is more violent against Boddicker’s gang, but they’re armed with weapons that could kill him, so it’s justifiable as self-defense.  Sure, he says he’s not here to arrest Boddicker, implying he intends to kill him; but he doesn’t actually pull the trigger when he has the chance, and when he finally takes out Boddicker, it’s unambiguously in self-defense.  As for his takedown of Dick Jones in the end, it seems excessive, since the R:TS RoboCop would’ve just shot the gun from his hand Lone Ranger-style.  But at this point, Robo’s targeting was damaged, so a kill shot was the only reliable way to uphold Directive 2, “Protect the innocent.”  Thus lethal force was justified.

So there’s really not that great a difference in the violence levels of the original movie and R:TS, just a difference of presentation and emphasis.  In both, RoboCop’s preference was to use nonlethal force when practical, as any police officer would be trained and required to do (and R:TS’s showrunner Stephen Downing, an ex-cop, certainly knew this).  When he went beyond that in the film, it can be seen as an aberration due to his turbulent psychological state (as in the drug lab) or an escalation justified by the circumstances.  Sure, his nonlethal tactics in the movie were harsher, more crippling, but it was just the OCP tough-on-crime programming guiding him at that point; as Murphy’s persona re-emerged and became integrated with the RoboCop program, it could’ve given him more of a conscience as time went on, made him more judicious in his use of force as seen in the series.

The problem with RoboCop 2 is that it made RoboCop a casual killer, little more than a thug.  With one exception, where he lets a gunman live to squeeze him for information, every single shot he takes in the film is a kill shot.  That’s not what he did in the first movie, and that’s not what any plausibly portrayed police officer would do.  It’s just part and parcel of the second film’s gratuitous excess.  As for the third film, it toned down the violence for a PG-13 rating, so RoboCop doesn’t use much lethal force, but he rarely had the opportunity, and it does seem he would have if he could.   Certainly he’s more driven by revenge than law enforcement for much of the film.  (I doubt there’s a police-procedural justification for torching an office with a flamethrower.)  So really, RoboCop: The Series is truer to the original film’s portrayal of RoboCop’s approach to the use of force, and truer to legitimate police procedure.  Which is yet another reason why I think that of all the sequels and spinoffs, it’s the most faithful, legitimate continuation of the original concept.

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  1. Matt
    March 11, 2012 at 2:31 am

    I look forward to checking this series out. Well written review, thanks!

  2. Robocop Fan
    July 14, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    This was an excellent article. Thank you for sharing! I love Robocop: The Series too, and I also agree that Robocop 3 is better than Robocop 2. Also, whether ultra violent or non violent, it’s crucial to have a lot of heart in a Robocop story to go with the dark satire, I feel.

  1. December 31, 2014 at 10:48 pm

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