Code 404, review: As with the bungling DI John Major himself, this comedy only just about works
This brand new laugh-out-loud police series stars Stephen Graham and Daniel Mays
Viewers have been left reeling from one problematic remake of a 1970s classic, ITV’s “new” Van der Valk. Now we are hit with another, Code 404 (Sky One). This has more than a few nods to The Six Million Dollar Man, a highly successful American sci-fi series that first aired in 1978 about a crashed, technically dead US astronaut named Steve Austin (played with a certain wooden charm by Lee Majors). The white-coated scientists on the old show famously declared “we can rebuild him” and created the first “bionic man”. This cyborg with superhuman abilities cost $6m, of course, though the real-world expense of the primitive TV special effects must have enjoyed a smaller budget. Like RoboCop, Darth Vader and Inspector Gadget, the Six Million Dollar Man was an intriguing cybernetic being, one who made you forgive the silliness of his origins.
This time around it’s the corpse of a mockney London detective inspector, slyly named John Major, played by Daniel Mays. He’s been shot dead by gangsters and is the subject of high-tech experimentation. Code 404, presumably a reference to the online status code you get when the page isn’t found, is set in a dystopian Britain “a few years from now”. This, jarringly, is one where no one is wearing a face mask or exercising strict social distancing, so it is actually a bit less “dystopian” than our present set-up, but that’s a modern plague for you.
As Sky’s programme notes point out, the “augmented” DI Major is “a few quid short of six million dollars” because when he comes back from the dead, all the wiring has gone wrong. He has, for example, forgotten that a large object cannot be placed intact into a small space with brute force; mislaid the bit of acquired knowledge that cautions against taking vast quantities of cocaine; and thinks his assassin was a hood who went by the name “Heston! Heston Blumenthal”.
More worryingly, we also see via blurry flashbacks that he has no recollection of his rocky relationship with his wife Kelly (an even-wearier-than-usual Anna Maxwell Martin) and is unaware that his cop partner, DI Roy Carver (Stephen Graham), has since moved in with her. This makes his reconciliation with her impossible. Thus he is left with no past, no home, and no wife, which is funnier than it sounds.
The show is a bit of a cyborg itself. There’s some sci-fi in there, though Major’s special powers are currently well concealed. As DI Carver says, “he’s still a bit of a knob”, so there are plenty of wisecracks too, like when Major tracks down the crims who, startled to see him reincarnated, tell him that “you’ve come back as a really bad copper”. There’s an incidental crime drama plot and plenty of blood and gore. So we can see what the boffins and TV format surgeons at Sky were trying to create when they took on re-inventing the long-gone series The Six Million Dollar Man, but I can’t help but feel that Armando Iannucci, say, would have been a more skilled, wittier surgeon. As with the bungling DI John Major himself, Code 404 only just about works.