Ten years before Brent Spiner’s Data had to convince a ship full of gently skeptical crewmates that an android could be an asset to their crew, there was Future Cop. I mean, we all remember Future Cop, right?
No. Nobody remembers Future Cop. But that’s okay. Mill Creek Entertainment’s budget-priced 2-DVD complete series set is here to rectify the situation.
Future Cop is the story of Haven (Michael Shannon), a “biosynthetic android” police officer who’s being beta tested on the mean streets of 1970s Los Angeles. The LAPD’s Commissioner, unenthusiastic about having to lumber his officers with a walking, talking, badge-wearing, gun-carrying tech demo, assigns two of his crustiest, most senior officers to “train” Haven. Enter Officers Joe Cleaver (Ernest Borgnine) and Bill Bundy (John Amos). Cleaver discovers the truth about Haven by accident on the “rookie”‘s first day of duty, but is sworn to keep that secret from Bundy, his partner of many years.
Hilarity, as one might gather, ensues, but only for a little while: Future Cop ran for a pilot plus six episodes on ABC in 1977 before the show was cancelled. A year after its premiere on ABC, Future Cop was “re-piloted” with the same cast and crew under the title Cops and Robin, which aired as an NBC movie-of-the-week in 1978. Cops and Robin is included at the end of the second disc on this set, and it feels like another movie-length episode of Future Cop.
Future Cop is a fun show; all of the scenarios that you can envision with this premise happen as you would imagine them. That, perhaps, was the show’s downfall – it’s just a little bit predictable. But hard-driving cop show action was never going to be Future Cop’s forte; it’s meant to be a fun, fish-out-of-water buddy cop show. The one attempt to do serious drama, the glued-together two-parter “The Mad Mad Bomber”, loses the flavor of the lighter-hearted episodes. (Amusingly, the opening credits on that story feature an abrupt voice-over announcing “The ABC Friday Night Movie!”)
It’s also surprisingly forward-looking for 1977: a test scenario enacted for Haven in the pilot episode forces him to decide if the suspect holding up a grocery store is an elderly white woman, or a token ethnic character. Surprise: it was the old lady. And because he has sensors that do a nitrite test on the fly, Haven apprehends the correct suspect. It’s a nice little piece of anti-racial-profiling humor for nearly 40 years ago. (To be fair, though, other episodes reinforce typical ethnic/gender stereotypes of the ’70s, so Future Cop really doesn’t feel that much like the future.)
Video and audio quality on the DVDs is pretty average for a four-decade-old show, but the decent image and sound quality are a huge step up from the previous state of affairs (i.e. wondering if the master copies of the episodes still existed at all). The discs themselves are bare-bones: just the show, nothing else. But as obscure as this show is (even Wikipedia and IMDb don’t have 100% correct episode titles as of this writing), to expect anything in the way of bonus features is to expect too much. The menus are basic, functional, and quite ably show off the fact that even the publicity photos for this show haven’t been kept in great shape.
The sad thing about the lack of bonus features is that there’s one hell of a story behind the making (and the eventual fall) of Future Cop: immediately after the broadcast of the pilot in 1976, science fiction writers Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova sued ABC and Paramount because the basic storyline of the series – android cop alongside a crusty, curmudgeonly human cop – was almost identical to a script they had adapted from their own 1970 short story, Brillo. The Brillo pilot script was shopped around Hollywood in 1973, and ABC optioned it, but allowed the option to expire…and then Future Cop went into production. Ellison and Bova waited for four years to get their case before a judge and jury, who took only four weeks to decide in their favor. ABC, Paramount, and a former Paramount executive shelled out over $300,000 in damages in early 1980, the largest punitive award in a plagiarism lawsuit up to that point in American legal history.
There’s no word on whether or not Ellison and Bova are getting a cut of Future Cop DVD sales, but it is known that Harlan Ellison used part of his lawsuit proceeds to lease a billboard directly across from the Paramount lot in 1980, bearing the warning “WRITERS! DON’T LET THEM STEAL FROM YOU!” in enormous letters. Obviously, there was enough of a saga there to make for at least one really juicy bonus featurette, but probably not one that would’ve made the show’s rights-holders very happy ? and given the obscurity of the show itself, probably not worth the expense of producing such a documentary.
Fans of outdated genre TV have a new treat to look forward to, as do students of TV: whether one attributes the Future Cop premise to Ellison & Bova, or to the nominal writers of the series itself, it casts a very long shadow over the genre. Everything from Automan to Mann & Machine to Almost Human owe a debt to Future Cop. It’s a snapshot of the state of TV science fiction before Star Wars: keep it cheap by intermingling with a “modern day” genre. If Future Cop didn’t achieve escape velocity in early ’77, it wasn’t going to fly under a different title in 1978 either: the audience’s expectations of the genre had changed. (Perhaps tellingly, the premiere of Cops and Robin was paired with an episode of the Buck Henry sci-fi sitcom Quark on NBC.)