Taking a Look at Robocop the Series
By Jason Barney
February 16, 2021
COVID-19 has dominated our lives for almost a year. It is also the dead of winter, so it is natural for people to search for safe ways to spend their free time. As a writer and teacher, I’ve recommended my share of books over the last 12 months. However, we live in the 21st century, and most Americans find entertainment just a couch and a click away.
Many people post on Facebook, asking for series recommendations they might get drawn into. Last year, a popular answer was the delightful Schitt’s Creek. For the post-holiday weeks, The Queen’s Gambit and Bridgerton have received quite a bit of buzz.
For science fiction geeks, attention went to gobbling up the second season of The Mandalorian. That show is a pleasing distraction from the ugliness of the most recent Star Wars movies, where you need to pay attention to see if something logical could happen. In these isolated winter months, older shows might have some appeal. There are vintage runs that few have seen. They were produced decades ago and have been kinda forgotten. For example, the 1990s show Babylon 5 just arrived on HBO Max. Stargate SG1 is on Amazon prime. When these were produced, one installment arrived each week. If one installment was missed people prayed for reruns or spent a lot on VHS tapes.
Streaming has changed a lot. People binge.
At different times, Netflix has had all of the episodes of the Twilight Zone. Star Trek is pretty much everywhere, appearing on Amazon Prime, Netflix, and CBS All Access. It is now possible to find a lot of good, old shows with space adventures or futuristic settings.
Not all of the old science fiction shows are on the streaming platforms, though.
I am a child of the 1980s and one of my favorite films of the era was Robocop.
I didn’t see it in the theater. It was too violent and I was only 12-years-old. Later, it was one of the many VHS tapes Mom and Dad brought home from the local video store. I loved it. It joined the other cult action classics of the time, like Die Hard. Predator.
Success doesn’t always breed quality, and two ugly-to-bad sequels followed. If you liked the concept and the character, Robocop II and III were watchable. Barely. I vaguely remembered there was a Robocop television show. I recall watching the first episode, maybe, and then allowing my high school life to take over. Hanging out with friends. Reading books. High school basketball.
Now, 30 years have passed… It's winter, and we are in the middle of a pandemic.
Revisiting old science fiction from one’s youth is like going through an old photo album. It is all about the past, and the good memories are bundled in with the bad. One photo might be a gem. Others are present because someone just put them there.
I found Robocop the series on YouTube. I started thinking of lines of dialogue from the franchise I quoted with my brothers. My friends loved it, too. I am sure it was the choice of a lazy summer evening with them.
After watching years of Star Trek, The X-Files, and Lost, I know that my little internet find was nothing terribly special. In the grand scheme of the universe, most science fiction nerds would happily watch Firefly or Farscape rather than roll the dice on a totally forgettable show that only lasted one season. People pay for Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. YouTube is free. That’s how “ehhh” my little find was.
Still, when you have the time and childhood memories are involved…
It may be important to note that I went into memory lane not expecting much. I would still recommend the first film to anyone. I am thrilled there are internet rumors that the franchise once again has a heartbeat. There was an attempted film re-boot a few years ago that didn’t go anywhere, but a prequel TV show is possibly in the works, and another film may be in development. So my time and devotion were part research project, part revisiting the past, and a little bit of a desire to see how bad or good the obscure show was.
Having just finished the series, it wasn’t a waste of time.
Don’t get me wrong. I know most current science fiction fans would be perfectly happy continuing to watch The Expanse or just hoping that one of CBS All Access Star Trek shows gets better.
Robocop: The Series had 22 episodes, and unfortunately, they are not totally compatible with the films. Doing mental gymnastics to try and figure out how it all might fit together would be a different column. Suffice to say that one could watch the classic first movie, move onto the series, and then figure out what to do with the train wreck sequels… if they wanted to. None of the actors involved in the films carried over, and the assumption is that a bit of time has elapsed.
It doesn’t matter. The franchise is the cyborg. Fans tuned in to see the silver armor on the machine man. They wanted to witness the half man-half robot defend law and order. In the films, particularly the first, they got over-the-top violence cleverly wrapped into social critiques of a violent 20th century culture.
The showrunners changed direction. On the big screen a lot of bodies were shot up and graphic injuries were featured. The episodes soft serve the violence, but it doesn’t change much. The small screen adaptation was marketed to a much younger audience. Robocop confronts bad guys, but like a 1980s superhero, he never seriously hurts them. In this version, Robo shoots weapons out of the hands of criminals. Unfortunately, it makes confrontations seem as though teenage boys are misbehaving on the streets. It’s almost “After School Special”-like with the motivations of bad guys. It suffers from the era in which it was written. The early 1990s didn’t allow Dexter or Soprano levels of violence and it hurts the overall effort. As a parent I never want glorification of violence, but the first film wove it in masterfully. The absence of the sometimes gory reality of crime fighting doesn’t help Robocop’s hero status. Also, if the main character is sometimes elevated by the quality of the villain, Robo’s advisories are often silly, lacking, and one dimensional. Where Batman has the Joker, our favorite lawman is often going up against nerdy corporate types, unrealistic gangs, or just poorly written stereotypes.
One delight, however, is that the writers remained true to the character. In the films, which a lot more people saw, the balance between Alex Murphy and Robocop was very nicely done. In this gritty science fiction world, the viewer wants the mechanized hero to kicks ass. He is no longer a man. Alex Murphy basically died, and what’s left is almost all technology. There wasn’t much humanity. Robocop’s movements were stilted. His voice, computerized. His dialogue was unemotional. The scenes in the movies where the man’s memories resurface were critical, but not overdone.
Despite its flaws, the television show stayed true to this portrayal. There were opportunities to humanize Robocop, but they didn’t. Yes, we often see his face. We see the straight mouth and the motionless lips. Robo is frequently without the face shield, but we usually see an emotionless mask. The only glimpses of humanity are his voice. There are very subtle hints of frustration or satisfaction.
The writer’s devotion is evident when many of the surrounding characters are analyzed. Early in the series, Murphy’s son finds himself in a bad situation. The kid’s occasionally living on the streets, interacting with lawbreaking gangs. When Robo and the son have off and on contact, there are glimpses of the father Alex Murphy wanted to be. However, the character shows little or no emotion. He cares, and looks out for the boy, because that is what Alex Murphy would have done.
The cyborg always performs his duty. In the films, there were flashbacks involving his wife, and those continue in the series. Every few episodes he interacts with her, but it is obvious the machine has kept the shell of the man alive. Even when we encounter Alex Murphy’s parents, and Robo’s true identity comes into question, the machine is always there. Father and son share the camera more than once, but the writers kept us distant from Alex Murphy’s emotions. In so doing, these scenes are some of the best in the series.
The action sequences are hit or miss. It is treat for the hero to show up and save the day, which he always does, but anyone paying attention sees glaring consistency questions. It is great when Robocop’s armor is sparking, deflecting barrages of bullets. It is awesome when he fearlessly shrugs off the flames and explosions. However, the physical abilities portrayed over the course of 22 episodes are not at all consistent. In several of the first installments, Robocop comes across as a bit fragile, like a piece of second hand equipment purchased at a garage sale. Another example is his frequent physical and violent interactions with moving vehicles. Early on, Robocop gets tossed around violently, like one of the crash test dummies. Later, the portrayal is quite a bit different.
One common thread that works throughout is the social commentary. This was a wonderful element to the films and its inclusion makes the show watchable. The movie franchise pulled no punches about corporate greed, environmental pollution, or the problems with unregulated capitalism. On television, the critiques continued and they are almost as good.
The most visible of these is the use of two newscasters, who bring the events of the day to the citizens of Detroit. Their slogan, “Give us three minutes and we will give you the world” is a hilarious take on the attention span of the average American. Their goofy commentary and reporting is featured in almost every episode and always brings laughs. A series of commercials often accompany the news, featuring the not so subtle cartoon character, “Commander Cash.” These over-the-top 15 second spots highlight an economic superhero meant solely for kids. He tells them the only way to be good citizens is to buy products and participate in the economy. While parts of the series are innocently childish and limited, the writing for these spots was clever, spot on, and uncomfortably accurate. Commander Cash makes a live action appearance in the show, humbly played by the 1980s wrestler, Rowdy Roddy Piper.
For the most part, the science isn’t bad. It wasn’t great, but not bad. As the season begins, the brain and consciousness of one character effectively gets downloaded into the computer core running Detroit. At first this comes across as silly, but she comes and goes, and pleasantly grows on the audience. There are viruses that go after the newest technologies, police officers using energy shields, and a lot of allusions to a future that we may not want to live in.
So for nerds, the show is watchable.
With all of the streaming platforms available that offer better than average content, Robocop: The Series probably isn’t on most people’s “must-watch list.” There have been a lot of good, futuristic shows over the years. You might be sampling something like Orphan Black, The Man in the High Castle, or Westworld.
However, older science fiction paved the way years ago. You have to be a fan of the genre, but shows like Earth 2 and Seaquest are certainly worth taking a look at. That is in the ballpark of where Robocop falls. It has many, many faults. Once you get past the glaring problems, there is a bit of a charm to it. If you are looking for a silly distraction, this might be it.
There is a lot of science fiction out there. And it takes a long time to watch it all.
Sometimes it’s worth opening up the photo album and just letting the good memories, nostalgia, and iffy science fiction mix… a little bit.