Cops and Robbers and Androids

In an interview years ago, comics writer and editor Denny O’Neil once said something to the effect of “Comics and TV and movies, they’re post-industrial folklore.” I don’t remember what the interview question was– probably something about Batman– but that quote has always stuck with me. Probably because I’m endlessly fascinated by how tropes evolve in popular culture, and how many times people keep circling around the same basic idea. Sometimes they even evolve into a sort of sub-genre all their own.

Like, let’s say, cops with android partners. One’s a weary street-smart cynic about the human condition, the other’s a mechanical literalist who’s baffled by human foibles. They learn REAL humanity from each other… and fight crime!

Sound familiar? It should. It’s been done a lot.

The granddaddy of this particular trope is Isaac Asimov, who set out to prove that it was perfectly possible to write a science-fiction version of the fair-play mystery in The Caves of Steel. The veteran detective Lije Baley is partnered with the android R. Daneel Olivaw to solve the murder of an ambassador. It proved so popular that Asimov followed it up with The Naked Sun, and a few decades later, finished out the trilogy with The Robots of Dawn.

Asimov wrote many more stories about R. Daneel, and eventually used him to tie together his Robot series with his Foundation stories, so it gets overlooked that these novels essentially founded the cop-and-robot crmiefighting genre all on their own. But the books are very cool mysteries in their own right, and stand as some of the finest work Asimov ever did in the field of SF.

People keep trying to make Caves of Steel into a movie, and it certainly seems like it would be a natural fit for film… but somehow it’s never quite been done. The closest anyone ever got was a BBC production in 1964 starring Peter Cushing as Baley that, sadly, was not preserved. There’s a few clips but no fully-intact copy of the entire production.

Last I heard, it was in development at one of the big studios with a script by Akiva Goldsman. Frankly, if that’s true, I’d rather it not get made at all. (A look at Goldsman’s other credits should explain why, if you were wondering.)

Probably the most successful iteration of the idea would be Robocop.

The story of the idealistic young policeman Alex Murphy who’s killed in the line of duty and resurrected as the cyborg Robocop has, so far, given us three movies…

…two live-action TV series…

…two animated TV series…

…and a number of comics and games, even.

Most recently the original was remade as a big-budget motion picture in 2014.

Some of these are pretty good; most of them range from mediocre to cringe-inducingly bad. But whatever their merits, the various Robocops don’t really fit the template. For one thing, Robocop started off as a human being and a lot of the stories are about him salvaging his own lost humanity, proving he’s NOT just a machine. For another, he’s clearly the lead; his partner Anne Lewis (renamed Lisa Madigan in the TV show) is a veteran cop, true, but she’s mostly a suppotring character, the stories aren’t about the partnership between the two. For the real Asimovian cop-and-android experience, we have to look elsewhere.

There have been a bunch of different TV shows that have tried it, but none of them survived past the first season. In the seventies, there was the blink-and-you-missed-it sitcom Holmes and Yoyo.

The only time this show gets mentioned any more is when someone does one of those breathless nostalgia internet lists of the Ten Worst Sitcoms of All Time, or something like that. It cratered, deservedly, after six epsiodes. I saw it when it aired– yeah, I was a big bionic fan, I fell for the ad, I was fourteen, don’t judge me!– and it was indeed excruciating.

Another effort best forgotten would be 1992’s Mann & Machine.

Another grizzled cop forced to work with an experimental android, the twist this time was that the android partner was a superhot sexy babe. It was every bit as dumb as it sounds. Canceled after the fourth episode aired, only nine in all were produced. It has never been released on home video but is nevertheless a convention bootlegger’s evergreen.

Much better, but hardly more successful, was the odd mishmash Total Recall 2070, a 1999 effort trading on the movie’s name but incorporating hardly any of its actual content.

This partnered the android-hating detective David Hume with android “alpha-class” Ian Farve and set them in a murky conspiracy plot involving the Rekall corporation. It was a Canadian production done on the cheap, and came off as a sort of odd hybrid of various Philip K. Dick stories run through a blender; it stole a lot more of its riffs from Blade Runner than from the movie it is actually named after. Still, it had its moments.

Very similar to Total Recall 2070 in its tone and premise, but infinitely better executed, acted, and budgeted, was Almost Human.

This had the same basic premise as Total Recall 2070 — an android-hating cop is partnered with an android innocent and slowly they learn to respect each other — but it was just a better show all the way around. Karl Urban as the damaged veteran cop, especially, was a delight. But it was just too expensive to produce and despite a vocal fan following, Fox killed it after the first season.

The most interesting of these failures– not so much for its content as for its behind-the-scenes history — is one that got its start in that venerable old SF institution, the fiction digest Analog.

In August 1970 Analog published “Brillo,” a story that was a collaboration between Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova about the deployment of a prototype law-enforcement robot partnered with veteran patrol cop Mike Polchik. It didn’t make the cover, but it was a terrific story, and it had legs. Later it was reprinted in both Ellison’s collection Partners in Wonder and in Ben Bova’s Future Crime. (The robot’s name comes from a pun that Ellison swears is Bova’s — robot cop=”metal fuzz.” Brillo.)

Ellsion adapted it for a television pilot, also called “Brillo,” that would be a series about the ongoing adventures of Mike Polchik and his robot partner. Paramount rejected the pilot but then produced a remarkably similar series called Future Cop.

There were cosmetic changes. The story was set in the present day, not the near-future, and the robot Brillo was changed to the humaniform android Haven. But the real thieves’ fingerprints weren’t on the concept but the characters — in particular, Ernest Borgnine as veteran cop Joe Cleaver. Cleaver pretty much IS Ellison and Bova’s Mike Polchik, in both appearance and demeanor (to this day, when I reread “Brillo” I can’t help but picture Borgnine as Polchik.)

The series got off to a sputtering start and only lasted eight episodes, and that’s counting both the pilot movie and the last-ditch effort at a reboot, Cops and Robin. But that was more then enough for Ellison and Bova to sue and win a judgement of $337,000.

I picked up the DVD set from Goodwill for three dollars a week or so ago, mostly out of curiosity and a vague memory of enjoying the pilot movie when it aired, back when I was in high school and all about the bionic super shows. Revisiting it today, I have to admit that for a seventies gimmick show it was okay.

Certainly, Julie and I got three dollars’ worth of entertainment out of it and it was the springboard for writing this column so it’s even deductible. But as much as we enjoyed it, I still feel like I’m complimenting a shoplifter on his good taste. On the whole, I’d rather have had the actual Brillo TV show. If you are curious, that pilot script can be found in Brain Movies Volume Four of the series of books collecting the teleplays of Harlan Ellison. The books are spendy but worth it…. Brillo almost replaces I, Robot as my number-one pick for the Ellison script that I wish to hell had gotten made. But only almost.

That’s the list as far as I know, but I still think the definitive cop-and-android show has yet to happen. Maybe The Caves of Steel will finally get made and be brilliant. But I doubt it. In the meantime, I still can watch reruns of Almost Human and read Brillo… and sigh a lot.

Back next week with something cool.

14 Comments

    1. Yes, we did see it. Mostly enjoyed it despite being hugely annoyed by the origin-centric plot. The Saint doesn’t NEED an origin. He’s a roguish thief who sees justice done to gangsters that have it coming. The end. The Saint, Conan the barbarian, Mike Hammer, the crew of the starship Enterprise… they don’t need an origin to get the audience on board. And shoehorning one in, the way movie people keep trying to do, just makes the story lumpy and awkward. When Rayner and Dushku were doing the rogue thievery thing that Saint pilot shone. The interstitial origin stuff stopped it dead, and the Big Reveals About The Past were mostly an irritant. It was irksome.

      1. M-Wolverine

        Yeah, it’s one thing when you have a superhero or someone doing something beyond mortal men (or women) and having to explain why they can do that. A little background is OK, but we don’t need everyone’s psych history laid out to us. When James Bond is just giving you snippets of his past, even in his beginning missions like Casino Royale, that’s good. When we need to know what daddy issues Blofeld has, that’s bad.

      2. There really are a bunch of people in high positions at multiple studios who were at some point handed a copy of Campbell’s book and told “the is The Formula, you must do this.” And so they do. They have been told that there is only one story, “The Hero’s Journey,” and that all scripts have to fit that template. They believe this. As a result, when they read a script they ask “Where’s the mentor? Where’s the Call to Action? Where’s the Refusal of the Call?”

        Of course, the Hero’s Journey is an origin story and only an origin story. If one of these people decides to make a movie with a clear hero, they have to make an origin story. Even for a sequel. Even for the 15th film in a franchise. The Hero’s Journey is Law. It is received wisdom from on high and must not be questioned. Where’s the Belly of the Beast scene?

        1. Le Messor

          The way Campbell’s book is talked about on commentaries and the like, it took me a very long time to figure out it isn’t the only way to write a story.

          I know somebody who keeps pointing out that in the first place it’s meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

          1. frasersherman

            There’s a wonderful moment in the May Parker Spider-Girl series where she’s trapped in a mindscape and constantly complaining about how everything seems to be modeled on the hero’s journey (“What, another mountain?”).

          2. Back around 2001, I took a storyboarding class with a Disney animator. The entire semester was built around the Hero’s Journey. He used storyboards from Disney’s Hercules, and we went through and checked off the steps exactly as the template demands. Ever since, I can’t help but see it in every damn film.

  1. Le Messor

    ” with a script by Akiva Goldsman. Frankly, if that’s true, I’d rather it not get made at all. (A look at Goldsman’s other credits should explain why, if you were wondering.)”

    SCREAM!
    I was not. I am familiar with his debits.
    I keep looking him up on IMDb, and making a personal boycott of movies with his name attached (which is kinda tearing me apart about Discovery). You’re tearing me apart, Akiva!

    There were two Robocop TV series? I only knew of one.

    Almost Human
    Today is wayyyy too cold a day to be looking at that poster.

    “despite a vocal fan following, Fox killed it after the first season.”
    Where have I heard that before?
    (The other day I was watching Batman: The Animated Series, and a villain comes on and says: “I’m Firefly!”. In my head, I wrote a bit of bad-ass dialogue for Batman: “Sorry, Firefly… you just got cancelled prematurely!”)

    “Brillo almost replaces I, Robot as my number-one pick for the Ellison script that I wish to hell had gotten made.
    Especially since the I, Robot that did get made got a script by Akiva Goldsman – wrapping this whole article up rather nicely. 🙂 (and 🙁 )

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Ha! As soon as I saw the subject of this post, I was wondering if you’d mention Holmes and Yoyo, and sure enough. Honestly, though, I don’t remember much about it, as I was all of 8 years old when it aired. My older sister mainly watched it (and I recall once she speculated that Yoyonovich, Yoyo’s ‘real’ name, might be Croatian 😛 ).

    By the way, I think Star Hawkins and Ilda fit into this category don’t they? I know, they’re P.I.s and not cops, but close enough…

  3. frasersherman

    I actually enjoyed Mann and Machine. Future Cop works for Borgnine, if nothing else (and I thought the pilot demonstrated some of the potential for a robot cop very well). Total Recall? I think I made it through one episode.
    Condor is another pilot in this genre: anti-terrorist in near-future setting gets assigned beautiful android partner.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    As bad as Holmes and Yo-Yo was, it was still better than that series, Turnabout, that John Schuck did, with Sharon Gless (where a married couples minds switch bodies). Freaky Friday it wasn’t. Sad thing was that John Schuck was just too good of an actor to be wasted on that kind of junk. Always liked him on mcMillan and Wife, and as the Painless Pole, in MASH (movie) and in Star Trek and Babylon 5. He also had a nice episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, as an ex-jock turned wannabe-sportscaster.

    70s sci-fi tv could be really frustrating; even when they had a good idea, it was buried under a low budget, a Fugitive template, or a combination of both. 60s sci-fi tv always seemed so much better. Star Wars kind of opened doors; but, even at their best, Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers struggled with formulaic scripts.

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