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Rediscovering ROBOCOP: THE ANIMATED SERIES

Back in my post a few years ago about my enduring fondness for the 1994 RoboCop: The Series, I talked briefly about how none of the other film and TV adaptations of RoboCop had really worked for me. I mentioned the 1988 animated series from Marvel Productions, which I had little memory of beyond an impression of it as “decent but nothing special, notable mainly for being unusually dark for a Saturday morning cartoon.” I wasn’t able to find it on video anywhere, so I couldn’t assess it beyond those vague recollections.

But today, I discovered that all 12 episodes of RoboCop: The Animated Series (or just RoboCop, as it was titled onscreen) are available on YouTube, and since that’s only a bit over 4 hours of content, I was able to get through it all in one day. I’m afraid it doesn’t hold up as well as I remembered. It is pretty faithful to the premise and approach of the original movie, as filtered through ’80s Saturday-morning cartoon sensibilities — lasers instead of bullets, no death, lots of robot fights, the occasional heavyhanded moral message. It’s not quite as dark as I remember, and not that unlike the live-action series in its storytelling approach. Unlike R:TS, though, it actually had the rights to all of the movie characters: Robo/Murphy, Anne Lewis, Sgt. Reed, the Old Man (by that name), etc. It also makes prominent recurring players out of several minor characters from the original film. Lt. Hedgecock, head of the SWAT team that tried to kill Robo in the movie, is his recurring foil in the series (voiced by Len Carlson), shown as a capable officer who’s blinded by his bigotry toward RoboCop as a cyborg and resentment at being upstaged by Robo’s superior police work. Dr. Tyler, the brunette woman in large glasses who was seen in the POV montage of Robo’s construction, is retconned as RoboCop’s actual designer, a stern woman who sees Robo as merely a piece of hardware. And oddly, Dr. McNamara, head of the team that failed to control ED-209 in its disastrous boardroom debut, becomes a cyborg-armed nemesis to Robo; he champions the ED-260 project (no word on what happened to the intervening 50 models) and is willing to hire criminals to attack or discredit RoboCop in hopes of getting ED approved as his replacement.

Robo himself is characterized pretty well, a logical and disciplined officer with an undercurrent of humanity, rather than the cartoony wisecracking action hero the second animated series (and the awful Prime Directives miniseries) turned him into. Dan Hennessey (the voice of Chief Quimby on Inspector Gadget) does a fairly good job playing him, echoing Peter Weller’s performance pretty well. However, R:TAS somewhat modifies Robo’s nature in a way that presages the 2014 reboot. Rather than being killed and having his brain used as a component of RoboCop, this version of Murphy is more like a quadruple amputee with robotic replacements for his missing parts. He’s capable of human things like eating normal food and catching a cold, and at least in the first 2-3 episodes he’s able to remove and put on his helmet as if it were just a motorcycle helmet, rather than something bolted to his skull. Also, for some reason, they reversed the order of his second and third prime directives, putting “Uphold the law” second and “Protect the innocent” third.  I find that rather disturbing. For all that OCP is an amoral, greedy corporation, one thing they got right in RoboCop’s programming is that protecting the innocent should be a higher priority than upholding the letter of the law. Reversing that order implies a more ruthlessly authoritarian system. It never comes up as a plot point, of course, but the reversal rubs me the wrong way.

Lewis doesn’t come off very well here. She’s frequently a damsel in distress and Robo sometimes condescends to her, though she sometimes makes a good showing of herself and saves Murphy. But she’s very stridently voiced by Susan Roman (Callisto in the ’90s X-Men), who constantly delivers her lines as if she were shouting to someone in the next room. There’s also a disturbing tendency to hint at an unresolved romantic undercurrent between her and Murphy, rather than playing them as proper partners. She’s often trying to get him to confess to feelings for her or jealousy toward another suitor, which he denies, and at one point she even takes him on a date and is quite unprofessionally upset when he needs to go stop a crime. Basically, she was a rather annoying character. As for Sgt. Reed, he’s mainly just the guy bossing people around, although he does get one focus episode.

The stories are mostly pretty typical ’80s cartoon fare, but there are occasional glimmers of intelligence, such as an episode where Murphy and Lewis are at odds over how to deal with a Robin Hood-style vigilante who attacks OCP on behalf of the poor (although of course he turns out to be a corporate rival trying to ruin OCP). And there’s some attempt at the corporate and cultural satire of the movie, including an episode built around a sleazy journalist based on Geraldo Rivera (reminiscent of the live-action series’ Umberto Ortega, only more overtly villainous). But it’s just so ’80s-cartoon, and even writers like Rich Fogel and Marv Wolfman can’t elevate it much above that level. The finale is particularly weird. As I mentioned before, it retcons the movie so that Clarence Boddicker and his gang are still alive, and it does go kind of dark as Robo pursues Boddicker relentlessly and comes close to killing him in revenge. But I realize that Robo already faced that choice in the middle of the movie, when he busted Boddicker’s drug lab and chose his duty as a cop over revenge. So it’s kind of rehashing an old plot point, although, admittedly, one that most of the young viewing audience presumably wouldn’t have seen yet. (But then, why even bring back Boddicker?) Also, there’s no real characterization of Boddicker as more than a routine villain, and the story is mainly about chasing down Boddicker’s super-helicopter with help from the Ultra Police, a team of sidekick characters created for the toy line but mercifully only seen in this one episode. It’s an odd mismatch between the serious themes of murder and revenge and the blatant toy-commercial treatment of the rest of the plot.

I could cite other complaints, like the failure to research Detroit; a couple of episodes claim that Detroit once had a subway system, which it never has, and the Geraldo-esque reporter works for TV station KRUD, even though Detroit is east of the Mississippi and thus uses broadcast call signs starting with W. But the biggest problem I haven’t mentioned yet is the animation, done by Akom, which was probably the worst animation house that worked on ’80s and ’90s American TV, and yet one of the most prolific. (They did most of the ’90s X-Men series and several seasons of The Simpsons, as well as all of Exosquad and plenty of others.) Their animation here is their typical sloppy, ugly, jerky, error-laden work. Which is a shame, since there are some impressive names in the storyboard department, people who’d go on to do terrific work for Warner Bros. and elsewhere in the ’90s, such as future directors Boyd Kirkland and Frank Paur. Their talent must have been buried under Akom’s shoddy execution.

In sum, R:TAS is still better than Alpha Commando or Prime Directives, but it’s objectively not very good. It was a decent try in its way to be faithful to the concepts and style of the movie while adapting them to the needs of an ’80s kidvid show, but it isn’t really a good fit, and the quality of ’80s kidvid cartoons on the whole was not that great compared to the work that some of the show’s own staffers would do in the ’90s and ’00s. So it’s an interesting footnote, but not that enjoyable an experience.

Thoughts on the ROBOCOP reboot (spoilers)

February 25, 2014 1 comment

I’ve talked in the past on this blog about my fondness for RoboCop: The Series and my opinions about the movies, so it seems appropriate to post my thoughts about the new movie version directed by José Padilha and starring Joel Kinnaman. I’ve seen mixed reviews, but it seems to be more popular with audiences than with critics, at least going by Rotten Tomatoes, so I figured it was worth a try.

I was never opposed to the idea of a RoboCop reboot; if anything, the issues of corporate power and robotic law enforcement are even more relevant today, so it seemed like a worthwhile and timely idea to revisit the concept in a way tailored to 2010s concerns rather than 1980s concerns. I wanted a film that would not try to copy the original, but would instead take the core concept in a distinct and fresh direction. Now, the last remake I saw of a Paul Verhoeven film, Len Wiseman’s 2012 Total Recall, was a big disappointment in that regard, superficially attempting something new but ultimately too slavish in its imitation of the forms of the original without the substance. So what I heard about this film’s fresh approach was encouraging.

And in that respect, I wasn’t disappointed. Padilha’s RoboCop is a radically different take on the premise, a more serious and realistic film than the comedy-satire Verhoeven made — perhaps fittingly, since its premise of a cyborg enforcer in a decayed Detroit is far closer to reality today than it was in 1987. Its version of Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) doesn’t even die; he’s just horribly injured and retains his identity and memories. And the story focuses more on his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son, and on the scientist who creates and mentors him, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), than on the criminals who attempted to kill him — although the machinations of the corporate executives led by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) are about as prominent as in the original. It definitely meets the criterion of being a novel take. There are a couple of subtle nods, but they don’t get in the way of the new story being told: The Basil Poledouris theme is briefly heard at times; the original Rob Bottin costume design is glimpsed as a “combat mode” concept (and there are some nice echoes of Bottin’s classic work in the first version of Murphy’s armor); a character at one point says “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar”; and there’s a variant on the original’s Directive 4, a program block prohibiting Murphy from turning on his corporate controllers, though it’s handled in a very different way (and Chekhov’s-Gunned in the opening sequence of the film). And the line “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” is used, but in a way that cleverly inverts it and gives it new meaning. So even in those rare cases where it references the original, it doesn’t feel gratuitous or derivative. (Though I admit, I was a little disappointed that Murphy never said “Somewhere there is a crime happening.”)

It’s also a very well-made movie, with good designs and cinematography and convincing CGI, though a couple of the big action set pieces seem a bit video-gamey. The cast is solid and effective. (And as a fan of the TV series, I’m pleased that much of the location filming was done in Toronto, where R:TS was made.) I don’t get why they had to gender-swap Lewis (Michael K. Williams), but they also replaced Sgt. Reed with a female Chief Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and built up Mrs. Murphy’s role as well as giving prominent roles to Jennifer Ehle as Omnicorp’s legal executive and Aimee Garcia as Norton’s assistant, so I guess it balances out.

But is it a good story? I felt it was rather slow-paced in the first act, taking quite a long time to establish things that could’ve been handled more concisely. But I appreciated that increased level of detail when it came to delving into Murphy’s family life (in the original, we barely met him before he was killed) and into the mechanics of his rehabilitation and operations. Once it got into the meat of the story, it held my attention quite adequately through the end of the movie.

But after the movie, I began to realize some things were lacking. For a movie inspired by contemporary concerns about drone warfare and the surveillance state, it didn’t really do anything with those concerns. It set up a political conflict between a senator and his constituents who didn’t want unfeeling robots to wield deadly force on US soil and the corporation that sought to increase its profits by putting drones n the streets, but we never saw any actual negative consequences to individual liberty or safety once Murphy’s emotions were suppressed to let him operate in full-on drone mode. If anything, the movie presented ubiquitous surveillance as a pretty unambiguous positive, letting Robo track down bad guys in mere moments. (And it just now occurred to me to wonder, why couldn’t the rest of the police use the same tracking software?) The only people he endangers in emotionless drone mode are criminals and corrupt cops. The only negative consequences to Omnicorp’s progressive dehumanization of Murphy were the emotional consequences to Murphy himself and his family, and those prove pretty easy to overcome. So not only does the film not have much to say about the issues it superficially engages with, but it has little in the way of stakes. It tries to make Murphy the test case and linchpin for a national debate about drone warfare — played out through talk-show segments hosted by Samuel L. Jackson as the type of pundit of which Stephen Colbert is a parody — but it’s all just Greek-chorus exposition that doesn’t really connect to the small-scale story of Murphy and his family and doesn’t have any real payoff or impact. So the attempt at social commentary is all telling and no showing, and no clear point of view on the issues really comes across.

Also, Oldman’s Dr. Norton is somewhat unfocused as a character. He seems at first like a total do-gooder, but then is shown being willing to do some pretty nasty and dehumanizing things to Murphy in the name of Sellars’s profits, but then ends up on Murphy’s side once again in the final act. Maybe they were going for something about how easy it is for decent people to be persuaded to obey immoral orders, the Milgram experiment and all that, but Norton’s inner life isn’t examined enough for any such arc to become evident. It’s more like he’s just switching back and forth between two ethical states to serve the momentary needs of the script.

So in the end, I think all I can say about this movie is that it’s decent. It’s easily the second-best RoboCop movie, but only because the two sequels to the original were so weak. It’s an adequately well-told and extremely well-made story without a lot of substance to it. It’s nowhere near as good as the original — not because it’s different, since it should be different, but because it’s just not as interesting or clever or substantial. It’s worthwhile for the production values and the performances, and for the freshness of its take on the concept, but it had the potential to be so much more, potential that it never really embraced.

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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DVD woes

As I mentioned in the comments to my previous post about my RoboCop: The Series DVDs, one of the discs has a flaw that made it freeze up in the final minutes of one of my favorite episodes of the show (“Heartbreakers”), and had trouble starting the next episode on the menu.  I’ve been driving around looking for a way to get it polished, since my attempt with a polishing kit from the drugstore didn’t help, and I was told there was a DVD/game buyback place that had a polishing machine.  So I took the disc in there to get it polished, and they said they got it as good as they could, and indeed I could see no sign of the scratches I’d noticed earlier.  But it still glitches at the same place, just a bit less so at first.

On the other hand, it plays perfectly on my laptop.  Which is great, but I don’t want to watch it just on my laptop.  Maybe it’d play better on a different, newer DVD player, and I do have one, but it’s not currently plugged in, since the DVD/VHS dubbing deck is in its place.

So I’m not sure what to do.  Would it be worth it to complain to the dealer and try to exchange it for another set?  What if that set had a different defect?  The packaging doesn’t hold the discs very well, so scratches may be unavoidable.  Maybe I should just live with it — and use the dubbing deck to make a backup DVD of that disc’s episodes from my VHS tape, just in case.  (As it happens, the tape they’re on has better image quality than the first tape I attempted to dub before I found out about the DVD set.)

Anyway, I guess I shouldn’t be too upset.  One way or another, I have the complete series on home video now.  And the disc is playable on some machines if not others.  Maybe the problem is just with the dubbing deck.

And one good thing about this Canadian DVD set, for all its bare-bones content and non-remastered image quality and bad packaging and inexplicably altered subtitle — it has all the original source music.  All the episodes that had licensed songs still have them intact and unreplaced, which I gather is often not the case for DVD releases of TV series.  Now, there isn’t much source music in the show, and generally I care far more about the original instrumental underscoring for a show than whatever songs may be stuck in, but I am glad to have the episodes as they originally aired — and the ending of “Heartbreakers” just wouldn’t feel right without “I Only Have Eyes for You.”

Anyway, my trip to the DVD buyback store wasn’t a total loss, since once I got the DVD polished, I browsed around for used DVDs.  And I now own the first two Spider-Man movies, all three X-Men movies (I already had the first), The Forbidden Kingdom, and Galaxy Quest, all for under 20 bucks total.  Well, assuming they aren’t damaged.  They all got a polish before they were handed over to me.

And I was expecting something much gentler and precise for a DVD-polishing machine.  These were basically grindstones, and the clerks just put a finger in the center hole and held the DVD loosely against the wheel as it spun.  Seems a bit haphazard to my untrained eye.  And it defied everything I’ve read online about how DVDs should only be polished with radial strokes, outward from the center.  But it must work reasonably well, or I guess they wouldn’t keep doing it.

You know, I remember back when compact discs were still a new technology, and one of their selling points was that they were basically scratchproof because of the redundant encoding or whatnot.  I gather that DVDs encode the data more densely and so they’re more vulnerable to errors as a result of scratches.  Still, it’s an oddly vulnerable technology for something so “advanced.”  At least vinyl records just popped when the needle hit a scratch.  Well, or jumped a groove if the scratch was bad enough.

RoboCop has arrived!

Well, my DVD set of RoboCop: The Series arrived the other day, and I’ve been happily making my way through the episodes.  Not so happy about the packaging, though.  It was the kind where three discs are sort of semi-stacked atop each other in each tray and loosely held, so two of the discs had come loose and one had scratches on it.  I was worried about whether it would play back okay, but I had no problems with it.  Still, to be on the safe side, I decided to take advantage of some of the empty DVD cases I bought for my tape-dubbing project and transfer the discs to them for long-term storage.  That required a little surgery on the outer cardboard box, though; I had to pull open the bottom and retape it more loosely so it could hold the disc cases, which were a bit too tall to fit otherwise.  And just now, I scanned the cover of the original interior box and printed out cover inserts for the DVD cases.  Turned out reasonably well, considering.

For some reason, this Canadian DVD release is titled RoboCop: The Beginning, which is inexplicable and misleading, since it’s set several years after the original movie (5 years according to the pilot, 3 years according to a later episode).  Also, the cover uses the “Part Man, Part Machine” portion of the RoboCop tagline, but leaves off the conclusion of the formula, “All Cop.”

As for the image quality, it’s evidently not digitally remastered; the images are okay, but sometimes seem a bit faded, the contrast too low, at least in night scenes.  I’d thought that was just a problem with my faded VHS tapes, but there’s a bit of it here too.

So this isn’t exactly a prestige treatment of the series.  But after 15 years of waiting, I count myself lucky to have it at all.

Going through the episodes has reminded me of how repetitive they tended to be, particularly in the first half of the season.  RoboCop was constantly being damaged or taken offline in the early episodes, making him seem like a bit of a pushover at times.  An implausible number of episodes involved RoboCop/Murphy’s wife and/or son getting into trouble and Robo having to save them without revealing his identity.  But then, I guess that’s no worse than Superman constantly having to save Lois and Jimmy.  It’s just the way episodic television tended to work back then.  And I can excuse the contrivance because I thought it was a good way to humanize RoboCop, to explore his dilemma of being unable to be a father and husband to them yet still longing to take care of them.

Also, the early episodes made too much use of Gadget, the Resident Cute Kid, often contriving things so that she figured out solutions that all the grownups missed, even though she wasn’t portrayed as particularly smart.  But as the season progressed, they improved the treatment of the character, making her less a knowitall and more a vulnerable figure needing guidance and protection.  And Sarah Campbell was pretty darn cute, managing to be amusing and kind of sweet rather than annoying.

Aw, heck, I freely admit RoboCop: The Series isn’t brilliant television, but it was consistently fun, had a terrific cast and a terrific musical score, and was a damn sight better than any other RoboCop sequel I’ve ever seen.  (Well, maybe the Marvel-produced animated series was decent, if unmemorable.  But the two feature sequels and the Prime Directives miniseries were dreadful and the second animated series was rather lame and too great a departure in the format and Robo’s characterization.)

RoboCop: The Series at last!

I am possibly the world’s biggest fan of RoboCop: The Series, the live-action TV series adaptation that ran for one season in 1994-5.  A lot of people consider it too goofy and toned-down, but I think people often miss the point that RoboCop was always intended as a comedy-satire.  As for the reduction of violence, I find that preferable to what was in the movies, and only responsible considering how popular RoboCop has always been with children.  It’s also more believable, since cops are obligated to use minimum necessary force.  Anyway, although it definitely tended toward goofiness and overused the cute kid in the early episodes, I think it was a fun, witty series with a great cast, great music, and interesting concepts of police futurism.  Richard Eden was my favorite RoboCop ever, including Peter Weller, and Yvette Nipar as his partner was breathtakingly gorgeous and an excellent actress to boot.

But for a long time, it was never available on home video.  I’ve had to rely on my VHS tapes from the then-SciFi Channel’s 1997-8 reruns, which are missing two episodes and which I’ve watched so many times that the image quality is badly eroded.  Now, last year I inherited my father’s VCR/DVD dubbing deck, and I’ve been meaning to get around to using it to archive my old videotapes in digital format.  I finally got around to starting that yesterday, and I decided to begin with my RoboCop tapes, because I wanted to get them archived before they eroded any further. So I got the first three episodes dubbed yesterday, and started on the fourth a little while ago.  But during a commercial break on the tape (which I don’t think I can fast-forward through while I’m dubbing), I wanted to remind myself what episode was next, so I went to Wikipedia to find the series’ episode list.  And while there, I noticed a notation that there had been a Canadian DVD release of the complete series last July!  It was so low-profile that I never heard about it.  Once I confirmed on TVShowsOnDVD.com that it was the full series and found that it is for sale on the American Amazon.com, I hastened to place my order — all while I was in the middle of dubbing an episode I no longer needed to dub.  Oops!  Well, at least I only wasted two DVD-Rs before I found out.  Still, I wish I’d thought to double-check its DVD availability before I began the dubbing.  Heck, I wish I’d known about this eight months ago.  This has been my home-video holy grail, and it’s been out there for a while and I didn’t even know.

But that’s okay.  RoboCop: The Series is finally on DVD, and I’m finally going to own it!  It’s a bare-bones set, no special features, but still — no more faded pictures, no more fast-forwarding through phone-psychic commercials from 1997, and I’ll finally get those two missing episodes I haven’t seen in over a dozen years.

And now, I must go.  Somewhere there is a crime happening.

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