Potpourri 2: Miscellaneous

Last word on Robocop. I wrote my final film school term paper on the Robocop franchise and the various spin-offs. I interviewed one of the writers and had access to some behind the scenes stuff, so I thought some of ya’ll might like it.



Early on in 1987’s satirical sci-fi actioner Robocop, Alex Murphy, a young and idealistic police officer living in a futuristic, distopian Detroit watches a children’s show with his son (Verhoven, 1986). The show is “TJ Laser” and it features a cartoonish law enforcement officer who dresses in a cheap plastic uniform and spins his gun before holstering it. In order to appeal more to his son, Murphy masters this trick. A few minutes later, in a sequence of unbelievable sadism, a street gang corners Murphy after a violent bank robbery. They shoot him over and over, blowing away his limbs one by one at point blank range. The scene continues for minutes on end as Murphy slowly bleeds to death before receiving a bullet to the head . And this is just the first act; the origin of the eponymous cyborg. By the end of the film people are melting in toxic waste and engaging in shootouts with scores of casualties. After the film opened to critical raves and did over eight times its’ ten-million dollar budget, the budding franchise experienced a shift every bit as massive and invasive as Murphy’s transformation into Robocop (Miner). It became children’s entertainment. By the third televised iteration of the character he had become almost totally indistinguishable from the cartoon action hero that the original included as a parody. So, how did this film, which was so violent and boundary pushing that its’ bloodletting earned it an X-rating from the MPAA turn into a Saturday morning cartoon aimed at children under the age of ten?
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“It might have been the title,” Said Michael Miner, UCSB professor and co-writer of the original film as well as several episodes of the television series’ (Miner). “It was ironic, you know? But at the same time, what else do you call the damn thing? But yeah, it sounded like a kid’s show and it had a level of name recognition, so that’s what it became.”

First, let us examine how a children’s television show based upon a film like Robocop could even come into existence. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and so too is the modern history of children’s programming. In 1978, during a period of activism, the FTC began enacting legislation designed to prevent advertisers from setting their sights on children under the age of eight. Their annual report noted, “A rulemaking proceeding to determine whether advertising aimed at children is unfair, and whether it adversely affects their health,” (Pertschuk 1978, 11). Later, in a section dedicated to unintended consequences the report notes, “The Washington Post reports that ‘the ABC television network is cutting back 20 percent of the advertising aimed at children. The move is an obvious response to an [FTC staff] proposal to ban or limit television advertising aimed at children,’” (Pertschuk 1978, 24). Public reaction to this type of legislation was largely negative. The 1970s were ending and the pendulum was quickly swinging toward the ultra-right of the burgeoning Neo-Con movement. This, in addition to immense pressure from children’s cereal and toy manufacturers eventually lead to the FTC losing its’ appropriations in 1979 (Pertschuk 1979). In 1980, the year of Ronald Reagan’s first election, the FTC regained its’ funding with lesser powers as part of the Improvements Act of 1980. Hidden deep within their yearly report was the first crack in the dyke of media regulation. Sandwiched between anti-trust protections for Food Co-Ops and revised rules on trademark protections was the following legalese doublespeak,

“The Improvements Act placed a three-year moratorium on the Commission’s authority to promulgate rules for unfair commercial advertising, required the Commission to publish the text of its proposed rule on children’s advertising, and limited further action on that rule to only those practices found to be deceptive. The Act withdrew the Commission’s authority to promulgate rules concerning standards and certification pursuant to Section 18 of the FTC Act.

(Pertschuk 1980, 21-22).

By the time that this section could be reviewed again it was already too late to stop the onslaught of non-stop marketing to children still too young to fully discern reality from fiction. With Executive Order 12291, Reagan expanded his executive powers to include personal oversight of reform of regulatory commissions (Office of the President). This signaled the beginning of his administrations aggressive movement toward deregulation and cooperation with corporate and business interests, a position diametrically opposed to that of the FTC just three years prior.

With old regulations removed and new Milton Freeman influenced Reaganomic Neo-Liberalism in place, it was only a short time before TV networks began their race to the bottom. Programs like G.I. Joe and Transformers, both of which amounted to little more than thinly veiled advertisements for their respective toy lines, became massive hits while educational programming all but evaporated, replaced by slick, vapid commercials spaced between 30-second advertisements for high fructose corn syrup, candy bars, and sugar-loaded breakfast cereals. “In the two decades prior to deregulation, kids’ consumer spending increased at a modest rate of roughly 4% a year. Since deregulation, it has grown a remarkable 35% every year, from 4.2 billion dollars in 1984 to 40 billion dollars in 2008 – an 852% increase,” (Barbaro and Earp, 5).

The decision to create a series based upon such un-family friendly material as Robocop might seem out of left field today in a post-Columbine world where everything a child might encounter has been checked and double-checked to ensure total, politically correct, moral purity. But in the laissez faire deregulated TV world of the 1980s (one of the many satirical targets of the original film, ironically enough), it made more sense. In fact, this was not even the first animated children’s series based upon a hard-R action franchise. That show was Rambo and Forces of Freedom, which premiered in 1986 (Chain). The series, which ran for 65 episodes ostensibly functioned as a clone of G.I. Joe, teaming Stallone’s monosyllabic anti-hero with a multicultural crew of special-ops soldiers who traveled the globe fighting Neo-Nazis in a variety of merchandising-ready outfits .

In essence, neither of these shows was truly a program. Rather, they were simulacra of television shows. They had the aesthetics and feel of a cartoon but instead existed purely for the purpose of brand extension and expanded marketing. It is of note that Rambo and the Forces of Freedom premiered shortly after Rambo: First Blood Part II bowed in 1985 and ended shortly before the illogically titled Rambo III entered production for a 1988 release. Similarly, Robocop, or Robocop: The Animated Series as it is sometimes called to avoid confusion with the later live action adaptation, premiered in 1988, just over one year after the release of the original film, and left the airwaves shortly before Robocop 2 began its’ troubled production during the writer’s strike of the late 1980s (Miner). These animated series served several purposes: they appealed to children already aware of the franchise but too young to see R-rated films in theaters, which hypothetically increased VHS sales and rentals, they introduced new potential audience members who might be old enough to see sequels down the line, they kept the brand alive in the public consciousness, and they opened new ancillary revenue streams in the form of action figures, t-shirts, lunch boxes, and so on, all of which are products that children are likely to buy where adults would be more reticent.

But, not to dismiss the series’ out of hand, let us examine their actual content. Robocop: The Animated Series, the first, and arguably best of the spin-offs, keeps a surprising number of elements from the source material. The opening credits depict a quick rundown of the first act of the original. The narration that begins each episode includes the lines, “After being fatally wounded in the line of duty, Officer Murphy is outfitted by OCP with bulletproof, robotic, titanium parts and computer enhanced motor capabilities. He has become the ultimate super cop. Robocop!” over this expository monologue the audience is treated to a variety of gunplay and somewhat disturbing imagery. Chief among these is the inclusion of Murphy’s murder in a POV shot with a bullet fired right into the center of the screen. Interestingly, this intro also covertly alludes to the film’s elements of the duality of man by showing Murphy spinning his gun as a human at the beginning and then showing Robocop spinning his gun as a cyborg at the end. Of course, all elements of sadness are absent, as is any irony in the fact that this image is identical to the satirical TJ Laser from the original, (Hill, Miner).

Within the show some of the basic elements remain the same; Robocop still has the same partner, he still fights in a futuristic Detroit, and occasionally he is even forced to contend with the larger implications of his pseudo-human form. But just as many things are diluted from the source material as are retained, most prominently the ultraviolence. Whereas the film features a near triple-digit body count, the series features absolutely no fatalities . In fact, despite his plentiful armament, Robocop most often avoids even using a weapon during battle. Too, even though the show features a variety of realistic guns, there are no bullets. Instead, all of the projectiles take the form of multicolored laser beams, most of which ignite explosions, unless they hit a human being, in which case they simply incapacitate him.

In a daring move for the Reagan 80s, the primary antagonist is named Dr. McNamara, over a decade-and-a-half years before the man would admit in Errol Morris’s searing documentary The Fog of War that his actions would have constituted war crimes had the US not come out victorious (Morris, 2004). Excepting this touch, which is in fact carried over from the source material, almost all elements of satire and social commentary are lost in this version. This makes sense on one level as proselytizing an ultra-ultra left wing doctrine in a children’s show would be wholly inappropriate, not to mention commercially limiting. But at the same time, it also serves to underline how strange it is that a film that was effective precisely because of the aforementioned axe grinding became a children’s cartoon at all.

These changes make sense only when one frames the argument within the context that Robocop should be a cartoon series. However, without the inky black satire the show becomes antithetical to the film, the point of which is that Robocop is an abomination, the lowest point of man, and a testament to our worst instincts. In removing this element and turning Robocop into an unambiguous hero, the show runners warp the essentially moral and humanitarian message of the original into a gleefully nihilistic variant.

Surely the makers of this series understood this, at least implicitly, if only because while Robocop is a great many things, subtle is not one of them. Also, both Miner and his co-writer Ed Neumeier wrote episodes for two of the three spin-offs and it would seem highly unlikely that they simply forgot their original intent. So, if it was not accidental, and not malicious given the original author’s inclusion in the creative process, what was it? Clues to the answer can be found within another part of the Robocop universe; the video games.

The first Robocop video game was released in 1988, the same year as the first TV series. A ZX Spectrum game it too roughly recreated the plot of the first movie. Unlike the TV series’, Robocop is still allowed to kill here, which he does, a lot. In fact, killing is basically the only thing he does in this game. However, as mindless as the violence may seem, it is in fact carefully orchestrated as the “discomfort zone” chart created by the developers clearly displays (Miner, East). The chart is split into three categories: the unacceptable zone, the discomfort zone, and the acceptable zone. Each category of the chart features a series of concepts and ideas. The unacceptable zone features cannibalism, sex, hero as the villain (ie Freddy Kruger), and — oddly enough for a video game that consists entirely of punching, kicking, jumping, and shooting — unnecessary violence. The discomfort zone features the difference between “Getting killed” and “being got” as well as the inclusion of real people versus a robot hero, unclear political messages set in the present day, and a comment that Mad Max is not funny because it’s too bleak. The acceptable zone is defined by “Aliens and Nasties,” robots, and property damage, (East).

This is the mentality that bred Robocop: The Animated Series. The show runners had an edgy property with a great potential to offend. But at the same time, it was also a property with great name recognition, iconic imagery, and toy-friendly aesthetics (Miner). Without the constraints of a governing body demanding some form of social relevance, or failing that, preventing producers from selling literally X-rated content to the prepubescent set, the show lost all integrity and became a crassly commercial mishmash of ideas that existed first to sell breakfast cereal and second to tell a worthwhile story. Clearly all they wanted was the name and the brilliant cyborg suit design, but in trying to keep some elements of the feature, they succeeded only in totally misrepresenting it.

And all of this is to say nothing of the very bottom of the chart, a parent approved “Fantastical Future,” which is exactly where the second animated series, titled Robocop Alpha Commando went. The multitude of problems with Robocop Alpha Commando begin with the title. What is an “Alpha Commando?” Moreover, is Robocop a police officer or some kind of military figure? The films certainly implied a growing link between the two, but there does not seem to be any commentary of that type occurring in this title, or anywhere in this show. Based upon the (ever-changing) proportions of his character model, it would be a fair guess to assume that he is an NFL linebacker. Whereas the original placed Robocop as an abomination and the first series positioned him somewhat ambiguously, the pilot of this final version out and out supports the idea that Robocop is not only just as good as a human being, he’s better. “There were three rules when we started Robocop. He can’t fly. He doesn’t get the girl. And he doesn’t have a kid sidekick. By Robocop 3 you had all thee. It was fucking ridiculous,” Said Miner. Robocop Alpha Commando not only has Robocop flying, it has him transforming into gadgets, using extend-o arms and…dancing on rollerblades. And that’s just the opening credits.

The whole arc of this franchise can be summarized in two key elements, the character of TJ Laser in the original, which existed as a parody of what people expected from the title “Robocop” and the discomfort zone chart created by the video game developers. It’s almost as if these two elements were taken as a coda. Every new version has served to strip away, piece by piece everything that made Robocop unique, boiling it down to a marketable name and a demographic appeal. Each new entry offers a step down the ladder of the discomfort zone chart. The original existed almost wholly in the unacceptable realm. The first series fell into the discomfort zone. The second animated series skipped the acceptable zone and went right to the most family friendly place of all. What began as a rallying cry against the policies of Reaganomics became a victim of that very same system that encouraged lowest common denominator thinking and crass commercialization. The narrative and politics subverted by a system that encouraged profit over all else, even as these were exactly the things that the original skewered. It is perhaps a testament to the presence of the original that it was fighting against the very economic and social climate that would eventually destroy the franchise, laws that were being passed and/or repealed in the year of the film’s initial release. By removing safeguards of responsible programming the policies of Reaganomics dumbed down the debate to the point where no one bothered to question whether it was a good idea to make a family-friendly Robocop, only whether it would be profitable. And just like Old Detroit, Robocop crumbled to make way for a new Delta City of mediocrity.

Source : http://outlawvern.com/2010/12/10/potpourri-2-miscellaneous/

Potpourri 2: Miscellaneous
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