A decade before Robocop was patrolling the streets of Old Detroit ABC was trying to get their own robot cop to the masses, without much success. In May of 1976, ABC released a pilot movie called Future Cop; it was about a grizzled veteran street cop who finds himself partnered with an android. Now earlier that year the network had a go with almost that exact same premise in a show called Holmes & Yo-Yo; it was about a clumsy down-on-his-luck cop who is partnered with a somewhat bumbling robot. Both of these shows failed. While Holmes & Yo-Yo was played for laughs Future Cop was played more like a straight police drama; it was easily the better of the two and is the one we will be looking at today.
In the pilot episode, we are first introduced to Officer Cleaver (Ernest Borgnine) who only responds to calls he believes are worthy of his time, but when he does get on a case there is no stopping him. In the opening scene, when his cruiser is blocked in during a high-speed pursuit, he decides to proceed to chase after a stolen Porsche…on foot. Overly dedicated or stupid is the toss-up there. When his partner Officer Bundy (John Amos) is asked to describe Cleaver he responds, “You can’t get him to jump for a drunk and disorderly or a husband and wife squabble, but he’s got three beyond the call of duty commendations and a Medal of Valor. Bottom line he’s the best cop I’ve ever known, and I wouldn’t work with anyone else, but where is it written I have to like him?”
Over at the labs of the Synthetronics Corporation Doctor Avery (Ronnie Claire Edwards) is trying to sell the city on the idea of trying out their prototype bio-synthetic android as a police officer. The Commissioner is against the idea of a “Crazy robot out there, shooting up the streets,” but he is assured that Haven (Michael Shannon) is incapable of violence, “He has a failsafe system programmed against it.” This mollifies the Commissioner enough for him to allow an eight-hour test run in the field, and he decides to stick Officer Cleaver with the duty of riding with this new type of cop. What is terrible here is that he doesn’t inform Cleaver that his new partner is a machine. Worse is the fact that to ensure Haven can’t accidentally shoot anyone his gun will be loaded with blanks. So an oblivious Cleaver is teamed-up with a partner who is unable to commit a violent act and is carrying a gun full of blanks. I’m guessing the Commissioner wants Cleaver dead because he’s giving him a partner that can provide no backup whatsoever.
Cleaver discovers his partner is a robot when Haven is shot full of holes while trying to take down a car theft ring, but once patched up Haven becomes Cleaver’s partner while Bundy takes a well-deserved promotion to Tactical. Unfortunately for Bundy this promotion only lasts for the pilot episode as in the six following episodes we see him riding shotgun with Cleaver and Haven. Question: Are there any police forces that have three patrolmen per car?
Future Cop is not a terrible television show, but it doesn’t do much to go beyond the standard police procedural shows of the 70s. Clever, Bundy and their robot partner Haven tackle crooked fight promoters, gangsters after government witnesses, drug smugglers, card cheats, and in one two-parter a mad, mad bomber. Not much that you wouldn’t have seen on an episode of Adam-12 or Starsky and Hutch, but this show is supposed to be about an advance android super cop, right? Sadly Haven isn’t all that super; he’s not bulletproof (just repairable), he isn’t particularly strong (he can take out a guy with one punch, but that’s about it), and he isn’t even faster than the average human, and he is always in danger of running out of power and malfunctioning. This isn’t the kind of thing fans of shows like The Six Million Dollar Man were expecting. Sure Haven does have some extraordinary abilities; his sensors can detect and analyze a dozen things faster than a crime lab, his encyclopedic memory bank can pull up a vast array of facts and he can hear and see incredibly well, all really useful abilities for a war on crime but not all that exciting.
What does work really well is our lead actors; Ernest Borgnine and John Amos are both terrific as solid streetwise beat cops, and Michael Shannon delivers enough “Fish out of water” comedy as a robot learning how to be “Flexible” when it comes to performing his duties. Even though the three of them are uniformed police officers, ones who are supposed to be pounding a beat, they are constantly going off on their own to solve crimes as if they are plainclothes detectives. Haven ends up going undercover as a boxer, a Navy non-com, a baggage handler, and a high-stakes poker player. Why the show didn’t just make them detectives and skip the patrol aspect of the show is beyond me.
Of course, the real drama was off-screen as science fiction writers Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova sued ABC and Paramount for copyright infringement as they had written a spec script base on a short story of theirs called Brillo. The lawsuit netted the two a $337,000 judgment. Though I’m pretty sure being sued by Harlan Ellison is something that happens to most people in the industry.
After airing its pilot, and seven consecutive episodes, ABC decided to release a second pilot movie entitled “Cops and Robbins” where the aforementioned Bundy has been promoted and now Cleaver and Haven have become roommates. This did not help things. For most of the episode, we got our two leads babysitting the six-year-old daughter of a key witness to the murder of Cleaver’s old partner, and though the kid is cute and all this did not lead to riveting television. Most of the “comedy” stems from Haven not understanding how to deal with children, at one point Cleaver has to stop Haven from explaining sex to the little girl, and then the episode comes to a complete halt when our not-so-dynamic duo decides to hide out at the Knott’s Berry Farm Amusement park.
It’s no surprise that this last-ditch effort did not provide a stay of execution, and the show was cancelled once and for all. This, of course, hasn’t stopped other networks from trying that formula; in 1992 we got Mann and Machine, a few years later we got Total Recall 2070, and then Almost Human with Karl Urban in 2013. Not one of those shows lasted more than one season. Will this premise ever be successful? Only time will tell.
Future Cop: The Complete Series
Future Cop hangs completely on the chemistry of its three leads, and as such that portion of the show works quite well, but as a science fiction show it fails to really do much with the premise. Haven comes across as if Encyclopedia Brown was a cop, and audiences were expecting a bit more than that.