11 February 2018

FWS: Military Sci-Fi Toys: Britains SPACE Toys (1981-1987)


There are some toys that are mysterious even if you owned them. In this installment of Military Sci-Fi Toys, we will looking at a mysterious military science fiction toy that I had back in the 1980s after a trip to my grandparents. My family is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I spent a great deal of time there as a kid. Back in the 1980s, there in Winrock Mall (which is now gone), there was very cool toy store called “Toys By Roy”. This was the first place I saw STARCOM: the US Space Force, the Matchbox ROBOTECH toyline and some other exciting toys from Europe. One of them was this collection of small (1/32) astronauts-soldiers battling all manner of evil red helmeted aliens. There were entire armies of these space soldiers and their foes, it seemed to cover a good portion of the store, and my grandmother (the best in the world) bought me several packages of toy space soldiers. I still have them to this day. Recently, my daughter dug them out of a box of old toys at my Mom's' house in Houston, and memories came flooding back. After an hour of searching online, I came across the proper name of my long-lost military sci-fi toy soldiers: Britains SPACE, and the genesis of this blogpost.

What is "Britains"?
Beginning in 1893 and founded by an brass clockmarker by the name of William Britains, this toy company is one of the world’s oldest that has been a favorite of generations of children and collectors. What set the W. Britains Company apart in 1893 was the hollowcast of toy soldiers that lower the price and increased the production that could finally unseat the German companies’ domination, especially Heinrich, of the toy soldier market in the 19th century.
However, W. Britains Senior could not enjoy the success of his company for long, he would die in August of 1907, but the company remained a family business until around 1983/1984. The first major challenge for the company came after the bloody First World War, in which millions were dead, Europe in ruins, and millions more traumatized by the spectra of modern warfare…not a great time to be in the toy soldier business. To prevent bankruptcy, Britains diversified into their “Farm” and “Zoo” toylines in the 1920’s. During the 2nd World War, they ended toy manufacturing for wartime production. Once the war was over and metal again could be used for toys instead of bullets, Britains returned to the toy business, but the era of metal toys was ending and plastic was on the rise. 
In 1966 or 1967, Britains ended mainstream production of their metal hollowcast figures in favor of more plastics, but contained diecast vehicles. Their core business of toy soldiers began shifting due to the influx of cheap plastic army men, and the more expensive painted Britains soldiers were losing. At this time, the company was living on their Farm line. The Britains that I knew came about when a limited collectible diecast toy soldier line had done well in the collector/souvenir market.
This caused the company to market collector sets of famous units, such as the Coldstream Guard, more heavily in the 1980’s. Around this time, Britains would develop their “Super Deetail” 54mm line that featured Zamak bases for the painted plastic features to be fitted into, making them secure. This Super Deetail umbra line was developed to soldiers of all time periods along with the infamous Space series. The 1980’s would be time of expansion for Britains, but several of its new toylines, like Space and Hospital, would fail spectacularly, causing the company to be sold to Dobson Park Group around 1983/1984. They would hold on to the company until the American model maker, ERTL, would buy Dobson Park Group in 1997. Then ERTL was swallowed by the larger American company of Racing Champions. In 2005, a smaller company by the name of First Gear was able to buy the Britains name and toy soldier lines from Racing Champions. They would control Britains until 2016, when the company, was again sold, to the Ohio-based company of The Good Soldier LLC. We shall see if this where the hollowed Britains name will rest.

Overview of Britains Space Line
Seeing the hot trend of science fiction toys, the historic toy soldier company of W. Britains decided to jump in with both feet into this new frontier. From 1981 through the cancellation around 1987, Britains would re-develop the overall Space toyline twice in a vain attempt to gain traction in the toy market, but it was to no avail. At the heart of the Space toyline was 54mm static toy soldier-like humans, cyborgs, mutants, and aliens. Some of the 1/32 figures were designed to pilot various vehicles and spacecraft, while others were similar to standard Britains toy soldiers in a Zamak metal base with all manner of Space Age weaponry that resumed the classic ray guns of science fiction. One of the key selling points was the modularity that came from the interchangeable vehicles that could be interconnected across the entire line, allowing for some creativity, but not the level of Legos. The vehicles were all manner of space-based and ground-based futuristic vehicles with some monsters thrown in towards the end of the lifespan of the toyline for the mutant and cryborg characters. Besides the toys themselves and the Britians toy catalogs, there is no related tie-in products. 

The Historical Context of Britains SPACE Toyline
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of great change in the United Kingdom with a troubled stormy economic, rollercoaster politics under the leadership of hawkish Thatcher, trouble Northern Ireland, and international turmoil that was topped off by the 1982 Falklands War. Adding to the time period was the rise in popularity of science fiction spurred on by Star Wars, which had a great deal of the UK in its DNA. Great Britain was rich soil for science fiction given it was the home of Dr. Who, Thunderbirds, UFO, and Blake's 7. In addition, the United Kingdom music scene was exploding with post-punk, New Wave, and world music. During this time of change, there was an influx of American toys into the British toy market causing the native toy markers to response, as Britains did with their Space line.  

The History of Britains Space toyline
We are going to start at a familiar place with the origin story of so many science fiction toys of my childhood: 1977's Star Wars. Due to the success of science fiction toylines in the late 1970s, Britains decided to invest heavily into a sci-fi space soldier toyline complete with modular vehicles that were up to the same quality as their other lines. The launch of Britains SPACE 1/35 (54mm) toyline in 1981 was virgin territory for the historic toy company and there was great risk at this time in the toy stores due to the sharp competition. From 1981-1982, there was just two lines release: the human Stargards and the Space Aliens, and while the human forces got a limited number of vehicles, the Aliens were only infantry until 1982. In 1982 and continuing into 1983, you could buy a massive boxset of the Stargard and Space Alien soldiers and vehicles that could be altered. These were sold separately, of course, with army-building figure packs. In 1983, the toyline was diversified with the new Cyborgs and the Mutants. Both were introduced with figures only and it wasn't until the "Star System" rebranding in 1985 that the Cyborgs and Mutants lines got a "vehicle" of their very own. From 1983-1984, only a new vehicle was added and it was during this time that the struggling family-owned company was sold to new owners: Dodson Park Group.
While never confirmed, there is strong evidence to suggest that the new owners saw the bleeding of the Space toyline and decided to give it one last major change with the 1985 redevelopment of Britains Space to Britains Star System. While there were major changes to livery, names, and even new vehicles and figures, it was the same story. Sadly, this were the information trail grows cold and the last two years of Britains Star System existence, 1986-1987, are relatively unknown. At some point in 1987, Britains cut their losses and cancelled their sci-fi toyline. Despite several sales of the company, none of the new owners have ever moved to reissue the 1980s Space or Star System line.

The Toyline:

The Stargards (1981-1984)
These are the original human figures/faction for the line and were the only ones to get vehicles upon the initial 1981 release.  Dressed in yellow accented with red reinforced combat spacesuits with “fishbowl” type clear space helmets and armed with laser pistols and rifles and had a red/silver sticker on the chest. Male and female Stargard members were released with various hair colors, with some being custom designed to pilot the various vehicles of the line. When it came to the vehicles of the Stargard forces, all of them were in yellow/red livery, all were modular and it seems like only a few were released:  small bubble cockpit spaceship (9110), an landing pad (9116), a portable space DE cannon (9115), and a futuristic space car (9114).
These vehicles were either sold separately or in various massive boxsets. One released around 1982-1983 was packed with the Alien vehicles, these represented the bulk of the vehicles in the original line (set number 9146). Due to the limitations of the information available online, I believe that only two more vehicles was added, a heavy laser cannon hauling vehicle with two figures for both factions. 

The Forcegards (1985-1987)
With the new owners of Britains and an attempt to save the expensive Space toyline, there was renovation and relaunch, christened “the Britains Star System” with the Stargard being replaced by the Forcegard in 1985. Instead of the yellow and red paint job, the Forcegard were white and red with the same laser DE weapons as before. With this new rebranding in 1985, came an expansion of the vehicles, also recolored in red/white livery.  A total of six modular vehicles were released under the new “Star Force” human faction line with the “Force Station (9241)” being the largest, and others being reprinted re-releases of Space line vehicles. There was a boxset released of the vehicles and loose Forcegard soldiers (9240) released in 1985.

The Space Aliens (1981-1984)
The main foe of the Britains Space toyline was the “aliens”…seriously, that was their name. These red-helmeted humanoid aliens wore black armored spacesuits and used the same laser weaponry as the Stargard. When the Space line premiered in 1981, the Stargard were released with figures and vehicles, but the aliens were only infantry, no vehicles. That changed in 1982 with the release of three green painted vehicles: the saucer-shaped spacecraft (9120), the odd “space grab” that were robotic arms (9127), and the space cannon (9125). These modular vehicles were packaged in several box sets, or sold separately. In 1982-1983, there was massive boxset of both of Stargard and Alien figures and vehicles (9146). In 1984, the Space Aliens line got a wheeled vehicle that hauled a large space laser cannon artillery piece that featured two specially designed alien vehicle crew members (9128). The original red-helmeted Aliens line would hang around until the relaunch in 1985. 

The Star Raiders (1985-1987)
By 1985, it was clear that the Space toyline needed a new infusion to increase sales, and that came with the Britains Star System toyline. As with the new Forcegard, the old Aliens were renamed the “Star Raiders” with a new orange/blue livery and several new vehicles to match the Star Force humans. The Star Raiders had with only repainted vehicle from the original line and one reworked along with four new vehicles, including the massive “Raider Station (9291)”. There was a “Planet Raiders” boxset (9290) that combined the basic vehicles and some loose Raider soldiers released in 1985. 

The Stargard Cyborgs (1983-1984)
By 1983, it was clear that the new science fiction line of Britains was in trouble and two new figure lines were added to spice up the line. For the human faction, the Stargard, were given a cybernetic ally, the “Stargard Cyborgs”. These were figures that looked more at home in a classic Dr. Who episode than a military science fiction toyline. They look like some thing the Cybermen experimented on and then rejected. These oddly shaped silver-colored figures were laser-armed Stargard figures retrofitted with rubberized heads and body parts that have not held up over the time due to melting issues.     


The Forcecyborgs (1985-1987?)
With the major 1985 reboot of the Britains Space line into the Star System, the Cyborgs were altered in interesting ways. The original 1983-1984 cyborgs were silver in color and armed, the new Forcecyborgs were now purely defensive as mentioned in the 1985 catalog. In the few images I found, the new white and red livery Forcecyborgs are not armed, but some seem to be fitted with ping-pong paddles? These misfits were gifted with an oddball cybernetic dragon-like creator, called “the cybertron”. 

The Alien Mutants (1983-1984)
When new figure lines were added in 1983 to boost low sales figures, the Space Aliens line was gifted with an new monstrous ally: the mutants. These rubberized twisted green-and-red humanoid forms were a very 1950’s B-Sci-fi movie enemy topped off by red laser ray-gun blasters. The original look of the Alien Mutants was altered after only one year during the 1985 rebranding and relaunch of the entire Space line after the new owners took over.




The Mutant Raiders (1985-1986)
Much as was done with the other Britains Space line when switching over to the 1985 Star System rebranding, the Mutant line was repainted and renamed to the “Mutant Raiders” to fit under the new Star Raiders faction via the blue/orange livery. They were also given a “vehicle” in the form of a green dragon-monster called “mutantron”. It is believed that this line was cancelled in 1986.





Britains Space vs. Britains Star System
There is one piece of commonly held knowledge about Britains venture into science fiction toys it is that it failed…but Britains didn’t let it go down easily. From all accounts, the Space line was in trouble within the first years and attempts were made to remedy the situation by the company. In 1983, the Stargards and Space Aliens were both given new (ugly) allies: the Stargard Cyborgs and the Alien Mutants. When this soft interdiction did not work to improve sales, the new owners of Britains, Dodson Park Industries, took improves steps to either bring the line to profitability or cancel it. That renovation gave us new vehicles, new colors, and a new name: “Star System”. Under the new banner of Britains Star System, the human faction was renamed “the Star Force” and their astronaut foot soldiers were “the Forcegards” with a new white and red livery. This renovation was extended to the line of new modularity space vehicles as well with similar coloring. The cybernetic allies of the Star Force were also renamed to the Forcecyborgs and so given the same white/red treatment and their laser weapons were taken away. The red helmeted aliens were altered to “the Star Raiders” with new orange and blue livery and the same was applied to their mutant allies.  Added to the evil allies of the Star Raiders, we got the Terror Raiders that were monster-like aliens that remains me of GI Joes’ Star Brigade. It was here, under the new banner of Britains Star System, the line made its last stand from 1985-1987.


Why Did the SPACE Toyline Fail?
The brilliant element often missed by those discussing the power of the Star Wars toyline in the 1970's is that it gives a context to the toys and shared experience via this context. Tie-in toys were nothing new even in science fiction circles, with Buck Rogers beating Lucas and Kenner to the market by four decades. What Star Wars masterfully did, along with Kenner, is that toys lived in a well-known and defined world. This world was created by one of most popular movies of all time. This made playtime easier especially between mates. With this popularity of the films, came the widespread popularity of the toys.
You go over to a friend's house and they would have Star Wars toys allowing for shared play in a fixed universe that everyone understood. Britains SPACE toys did not have this. Not even close. To some limited degree, their toy soldiers did. Every kid knows the purpose behind war toys and engaging in mocking battles with toy soldiers. Once again, Britains SPACE toyline did not have that either, especially in 1981 with no enemy force vehicles to engage the Stargard against or form interesting toy storylines...alien foot soldiers. Lambs for the slaughter, especially when compared to the Kenner SW toylines.
By 1987, Britains abandoned its baldy failing outer space toyline, a rare failure for the company...so why did this toyline fail given the popularity of science fiction toys and the company itself?  Part of lays in the fact that Britains SPACE line did not have any tie-in product to sell the concept further nor add any more advertisement exposure to the market…but that doesn’t always help as we saw with the similar STARCOM toyline in 1987. Not helping the case of these space toys was that while Britains did have a recognizable name in the UK as well as aboard, these space toys were outside their core business model and this caused the company to invest heavily into their Space line. That decision would lead to the end of the company as we knew it.
However, as someone who had some of these toys back in the early 1980's, I can see why this imported (and expensive) toyline failed due one important factor. That one important, but elusive, factor of any toyline is playability. This factor can greatly depend on the child themselves, how much of the toyline they can afford, availability of the toyline in their location, and the child's social nature, along with the intractability of the toys in the line.  All that being said, I think one area that the Britain's SPACE toyline failed is in its playability due to the small, unposable nature of the figures themselves.
Toy soldiers are a staple of toys-aimed-at-boys since ancient times and Britain's was a historic manufacture of toy soldiers. My brother and I both had Britain's toy soldiers and when I spied these space soldiers, I bought them due to the name. While I enjoyed the regular toy soldiers from Britain's in a limited fashion, I was mystified what to do with these fishbowl space helmet wearing space soldiers. I cannot remember playing with them in any way and they rested at the bottom of an action figure plastic bin for over two decade. As with the Hasbro’s Air Raiders and Coleco’s STARCOM toylines, the figures of the Space line were about the size of a AA battery and they could not be used with your other 3 ¾ figure lines, and this limited play and interest.

The Legacy and Impact of the SPACE Toyline
I've said it before that the internet is a good measure on how a toyline is thought of today and its lasting impact from its original release date. During the research phase for this article, I reached out to a United Kingdom website devoted to all things Britian's and Ian was good to response and his answers informed on both of these elements. The current legacy of the Space line was fairly limited and even boxed figure sets and vehicles go for far less than other Britain's toylines. Ian told me that the majority of Britain's WWII toys sells for £50-£100 while the SPACE toys barely get a fiver on bid sites! A majority of the boxed items for Britain's Space line are decorated with all manner of reduced price stickers. Not a good sign.
This informs us of the part of the impact at the time of release. Ian also told me that most of his mates were discussing Star Wars toys at school and not Britain's Space toys, which is the demographic Britain's was seeking. Once again, not a good sign for the sales department. According to ever source I can find all conclude that the impact of the toyline was far less than hoped and it was a failure in the UK and overseas. This was a hard blow for the historic British toy company due to the time, effort, energy, and money that had been invested into this new venture. Some sites cite the failure of the Space toyline as a major result for Britains being in financial difficult in the 1980's. The fact was that by 1984 the company being sold to Dobson Park Industries Ltd when no one in the family wanted to take over the toy company...was that due to the failure of the Space toyline? Despite being debated, some have accepted that the Space line helped end the original company and this become part of the story of the Space line to this very day. Currently, Britains still existed and is back to its core business under a small Ohio-based toy soldier company called The Good Soldier LLC.

Could Britains Space Toys Been a Success?
Maybe. That’s a big maybe. There is no way that Britains could have or would have invested into developing a 3 ¾ action toyline similar to dominate lines of G.I. Joe or Star Wars. Britains could only developed the toyline in a similar nature to the rest of their ranges. That being said, Britains should have placed more attention to developing the space combat angle of the line and created some more akin to a giant army in space than the astronauts-with-rayguns. In addition, Britains should have created more military-type space vehicles that appeared to be proper warships and futuristic armed ground vehicles. Some of these suggestions were undertaken for the 1985 “Star Systems” mid-run revamp with more modular vehicles, new figure lines, and recolors of the older figures.
But, the die was cast. I think the biggest element that could helped the toyline be more of a success would have a tie-in product to soft sell the fictional universe. This did not have to be a cartoon series, but it could have a boxed wargame that could have used the figures and vehicles as the pieces in a tabletop future war simulation system. While I was thinking about how Britains could have saved their Space line from the bargain bin, I realized that Coleco’s STARCOM: The US Space Force attempted to undertake a more unified marketed MSF toyline complete with cartoon and it didn’t help either and Britains could have done what they never had done before, a massive marketing campaign, and it is likely that the toyline would have failed anyways.

Next Time on FWS...
There is once in a blue moon that FWS goes a single blogpost without mentioning Starship Troopers in some form or another. The 1959 novel continues to be a major influence on military science fiction both in the west as well as the east even to this day. While FWS has discussed the various adaptations of SST throughout the years, especially in the west, we've barely discussed one made in 1988 in Japan: Uchu no Senshi. This Bandai Visual/Sunrise OVA production was released in 1988 on several LaserDiscs, but was never released in the west. In the next installment of the new Future Wars Stories of the East: FWS will be FINALLY devoting a whole blog article on the 1988 Starship Troopers OVA after many comments and emails.

6 comments:

  1. Great article, very well researched and written. I was a huge collector of Britains toy soldiers as a kid and remember seeing these guys at my local toy store. Despite being a huge fan of Star Wars and toy soldiers this line held no interest for me. The main reason I remember passing on this fare was that the figures did not have a "cool" factor. The weapons they had seemed terribly designed and outdated by the 80's. Had they made the figures look more like Boba Feet or Stormtroopers I would have bought loads of them despite no cartoon or comic tie in.

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  2. Thanks for the comment and I thought that could have been a reason behinds the slow sales. While "retro" may be cool, it is not to most kids, especially those of us in the 80s. Pity they did not look more like STARCOM or Boba...damn that would have been cool!

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  3. Yes poor design seems to me one of the main reason this line failed. I would have been the key demographic for this sort of thing. I had hundreds of 1/32 scale toy soldiers ( Marx, Airfix, Britians) and having grown up in the 70's was a Star Wars addict. By the time this line came out I had more spending money and would have easily bought lots of these guys. By the way I just discovered your blog and have been going through it. Superb stuff keep up the good work.

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  4. Oh man, I cant wait for the review on that wierdly accurate /unfaithful version of starship troopers.

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  5. Great article, a friend of mine and I had several of these between us, including the green ships. I ended up swapping all mine with him for something else. The Britains soldiers line were always the soldiers that the richer kids had at our school, because as they came painted and were die cast, they were always more expensive than say a box of Airfix, which were affordable. I have the whole range of those now. Great article.

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  6. This post is very professional and rigorous, depicting the evolution of British military science fiction toys in detail.

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