09 September 2011


In another segment of the oddities from the world of military sci-fi, we have the 1980's fusion between a toy line, cartoon series, realistic science and strong space war story that was called Starcom: the U.S. Space Force. STARCOM was created by Coleco Toys (who also made the misguided Rambo line) in the mid-1980's and was intended to be entire line of figures, vehicles, and playsets, along with other tie-ins, packaging all of this was Saturday morning cartoon. The STARCOM cartoon ran for all of 13 episodes around 1986 in the US TV market, however the toys lasted about two, both failed to attract ratings or sales. STARCOM quickly disappeared, but thanks to the internet and ebay, it is possible to remember elements of one's childhood. When FWS was started last year, I wanted to display all elements of military SF, including the oddballs of the genre, and STARCOM is certainly that, odd.

The Story of STARCOM: The US Space Force
It is around the year 2050, and the nations of Earth have begun to colonize the Sol system, chief among the colonizing nations is the United States , and the military/exploration arm of the United States government is the "Star Command" or STARCOM. Earth as colonies on most of the worlds closest to Earth, and an L-5 space station. STARCOM itself has bases throughout the Sol system. In addition, research stations operate around the system, are protect by STARCOM's second HQ, constructed on an hollowed out asteroid hidden in Saturn's rings.
The actually military of STARCOM was highly developed, with fighters, fighter-bombers that could dual as transports, air-lift armored vehicles, the Astro Marine Corps, and even the ability to more supplies. It was clear that  STARCOM was intended to a complete combined arms approach to waging war off-world. If one reads the STARCOM series bible than you get the scope and level of work that went into developing this "kiddy" cartoon into something more akin to Anime than typical 80's American cartoons. Just read their workup of the FTL system:
Transtar Warp Drive, which allows them to open a tunnel in hyperspace, allowing travel through a universe in which the speed of light is much faster than it is in this one. This provides faster-than-light travel without the problem of relativistic effects. This capability cannot be used among the innermost planets, because the strain on the space-time continuum too close to a star could cause the star to go nova, destroying all of the innermost planets. The safest distance for use of the Starbridges is outside the orbit of Mars."
So who was STARCOM fighting? Pirates? Yes, in the asteroid belt, but I don't think it was shown in the series, though.  Russians? Chinese? Aliens? Not as far as I can recall, no other spacefaring nation was shown in the series, and real enemy of STARCOM came from a disgraced scientist...
When it came to the main enemy of STARCOM, it was not rival nations, but a mad scientist who named himself "Emperor Dark", and operated from a mobile carrier-like vessel near Saturn. Dark, was a scientist working out of an underground lab on Mercury studying the "Obelisk", alien artifacts left by a race called "the builders." However, there was an accident, and Dark, the only survivor was forced to tunnel is way out. He blamed STARCOM for not mounting a rescue. This created Dark and his thirst for ruling over the Sol system, to accomplish his life goals, he hired goons, built robots, created the "Shadow Empire". and used several of these alien Obelisk...according the series bible, all Emperor Dark have to do was get several more to achieve power of the Sol system. While Earth's colonial ventures around the inner colonies, Dark rules most of the edge of the solar system, and his terrorism was preventing deep space colonization.

Why is STARCOM an Oddity?
Okay, keep in mind that STARCOM was intended as a kid's show when I explain this, the fictional US Space Force, STARCOM fielded a vast, combined arms forces, that was even divided into different branches, like the Astro Marines, the Star-Wing, Starbase Command, Star Artillery. These elements were shown on-screen, in the toys creating a highly developed combine arms and command structure, and was defined more than the archetype of military toys: G.I. Joe. Coupled with this combined arms off-world military is the realistic scientific portrayal of  the solar system and planets were shown as science understood them in the mid-80's.
The show attempted to balance the space combat with scientific missions. Several of the episodes depicted alien animal life in the icy oceans of Europa and airborne creatures floating in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. Next to the science was the new age theories of ancient astronauts known as the Builders, coupled with the rumored aliens structures on Cydonia, Mars.So, to recap this, we have a kid's show that shows old aliens, Obelisks that could rule the Sol system, a highly developed off-world military, science outposts, alien animal life on Jupiter and its moons, all set with a mad scientist and space battles....yeah, that's odd.   

The 1980's were a great time for NASA and its public relations, the Space Shuttle captured the imagination of kids like me, and NASA used this to further development of math and science among young people (Didn't work too well, I'm a history major). This came in the form of the Young Astronaut Council (yes, I was a member!), and it supported STARCOM with PSA tie-ins that were similar to the GI Joe PSA's (knowing is half the battle, and the other half is superior firepower). This relationship can be seen in the manner that scientific research is shown with a balance to the space battles, and how the planets of the solar system are shown from a realistic way, also, the perils of operating in space.

It seemed like during the Reagan 80's that every toy marker was after your parents' bucks with a two-fold campaign of the toys and the extended commericals, or also-known-as, the Saturday morning cartoons like Transformers, G.I. Joe, RobotechGobots, Captain Power...and so on. STARCOM was no different, it was created a toy line with a cartoon vehicle to market directly to the young viewers.Here is some of the reality of the toy verse the fantasy of the STARCOM universe. One of the cool elements of the toys was their MAG-LOCK...little magnets in the vehicles and figures...the series used this to allow our heroes to hold on in Zero-Gee.

The Reality of the Astro Marines  (Left)
The Fantasy of the Astro Marines (Right) 
 The Reality of Starmax bomber (Left)
The fantasy of the Starmax bomber( Right)

What happened to STARCOM: The US Space Force?
There is limited information on the series, and since I lived through its TV run, I'll take a guess what occurred to end the show only after 13 episodes. Here are, I believe, are the reasons that STARCOM series ended.When STARCOM hit the airwaves in 1987, it was the apex of the toy-driven Saturday morning cartoons, and this led to problems for STARCOM. My personal experience with STARCOM was that it was shuttled around the time slots, I often had to hunt down the series. Since the series was a bit of an oddity, broadercasters tried to fit in somewhere on the cramped schedule  So go the toys, so goes the TV show.
Like Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future before it, the toys were reason the show was developed, and if the toys didn't sell, then there was no reason for the show. The issue was that the STARCOM toys, in my personal experience were rare. Now, where I grew up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma was not a mecca for high-end toy retailers, but I lived near Tulsa, and I saw only the figure. Only two of my friends had some of the vehicles, mainly the STARCOM Starmax bomber. I only saw the entire STARCOM toy line in Albuquerque, New Mexico at Windrock mall. They had this epic display with a mock battle between STARCOM and their enemies, the Shadows. But in the end, if you cannot find it, you cannot buy it.
The size of the figure. This seems stupid, but if a child cannot play with it, than its of no use. STARCOM figures were smaller than the standard G.I. Joe size. Making it hard to integrate it into your other toys. I had visions as a kid, about waging war between my G.I Joe's and STARCOM, but because of the size difference, that was impossible. So, then you had to bug your parents for the entire line to play and STARCOM was expensive. I have never seen how much they cost back-in-the-day, but I remember that were pricey, and if my parents were going to spend the bread on some toys, I wanted Legos. The overall tone of military and space warfare, especially seen in the toys, put some parents off, especially if they had to buy G.I. Joe and Transformers, than it seemed they were overly militarized their nine year-old into a junior stormtrooper...and that's what to me.  

My STARCOM Memories...
Notice that his weapon? Portable Rail Gun...sweet!
 1986 was a good year to be a kid, and during those golden years, I watched STARCOM, but I never owned the toys, for the reasons above, and if you saw the toys among the dozens of war-toys stuffed into Toys R Us shelves, frankly, they looked unimpressive, due to their size being only two inches, next to nearly four standard size action figures. The cool things about the toys, was their Mag-lock feature, which allowed the magnets on the figures to attach to the vehicles and playsets, along with them being motorized. However, it was the TV series that has stuck with me for the last 25(!)years. It was an military science-fiction cartoon with some real science elements, a well-thought off-world military, and added in some alien mysteries that hit all cylinders for me. Thanks to the internet, I've sat down a watched a few...and...well...Things are never as you remember them, and STARCOM lives up to that. It is 80's product with firmly unrealistic battles, and cheesy dialog worthy of tortilla chips...but I can see the promise of the series and why I kept in alive in my head for all these years.

Simply, the best site for STARCOM:

Watch STARCOM online:


  1. Hmm... The first SF I read that featured strange alien life-forms living in the Jovian system was Cities in Flight. In the first novel, They Shall Have Stars, the US space program built a bridge made out of Ice-9 (the extreme pressure on Jupiter compressed ice until it molecular structure changed, becoming a strange, extremely strong substance) to test the theory behind the Dillon-Wagoner Gravitron Polarity Generator, or Spindizzy. First, a fleet of the most powerful spacecraft ever built had to tow a captured asteroid to Jupiter and drop it onto Jupiter, where it sank down and created a stable building platform. Several ships were lost, sinking down too low. These ships (and their crews!!) were now floating at the bottom of Jupiter's atmosphere, crushed completely flat. Then, a group of astronauts orbiting on a small Jovian satellite tele-operated robots to build the bridge out of Ice-9. An astrobiologist based off of one of the major moons found flying jellyfish drifting past a tele-operated laboratory, and also claimed to have found fossils on Callisto.

    It is possible that strange life-forms exist in the solar system. I found this paper written by Freeman Dyson discussing the possibility that warm-blooded plants live on Mars and that we might find frozen sea monsters orbiting Jupiter. I suspect life is much more common than some scientists suggest, and that strange creatures dwell in many inhospitable environments. Intelligence is probably rare, but primitive forms of life have shown themselves to be quite adaptable. Bacteria could live in the cores of comets. Sea monsters could dwell beneath the ice crust of Europa- well out of the "habitable zone". Warm-blooded plants could live on Mars, growing their own greenhouses to stay warm on the inhospitable desert planet.

    Check out this link. It is pretty neat! Freeman Dyson talks about strange forms of life that could exist in our solar system. He also discusses futuristic plans to colonize comets with genetically engineered Dyson Trees or live on Mars in living greenhouse plants.

    Christopher Phoenix

  2. It seems like Reagan was popularizing his "Star Wars" program with space army toys! "Evil Enemy" and all. I have to point out that real wars are never as simple as "This guy is bad, that one is good," which media likes to peddle. Often, both sides may have a mix of moral and immoral people, and both sides may have understandable reasons to have a conflict. Only cartoon villains cackle and rub their hands together while scheming to rule over the world in the name of all that is wicked and bad.

    As Ben Bova says, "In the real world, their are no villains. No one actually sets out to do evil. Fiction mirrors life. Or more accurately, fiction serves as the lens to focus what we know of life and bring its realities into sharper, clearer understanding for us. There are no villain cackling and rubbing their hands together while they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them."

    This is a brilliant observation that will serve any writer well. The antagonist may be driven by greed, neurosis, or the conviction that his cause is just, but he's driven by motivations not unlike the motivations that drive the hero. Even if a character's moral compass definitely points south, he or she still has a motivation that is understandable, unless they are totally insane.

    Military SF will be strengthened by portraying the antagonists in a complex, realistic manner. War is not about guns or bombs. War is about people (or other sentient beings) who cannot or will not settle their conflicts in a peaceful manner, for whatever reasons. The antagonists have motivations that should be explored as much as the protagonists. You could even turn the situation on its head, having the protagonist discover that the side he/she is fighting for is morally questionable, and the aliens are acting in self defense.

    A good example of realistic antagonists in SF is the Operative and Alliance in Serenity. The Alliance was clearly wrong when they attempted to pacify a whole planet with drugs. However, they thought they were creating a better world- that was their motivation. The Operative didn't kill people and track down Mal because he like doing it. He believed he was helping to create better worlds which he would have no part in, since he considered himself a monster. Even though he was an antagonist, he was still a sympathetic character, not a stereotype villain.

    Christopher Phoenix

  3. I grew up with Anime, where the villians are more three dimensional, look at Desslok from Starblazers, and Robotech's Breetai. I always hated when villians on kiddy cartoons would reveil their whole plan then the hero escapes...sigh. I always thought that the Kilrathi from Wing Commander and the Kzin from the Man/Kzin Wars were some of developed enemy aliens...then there is the Drac from Enemy Mine (1985).
    Recently, in the HALO series, the aliens of the Covenant are given gravity and realism.
    I think developing more fleshed out antagonists in MSF/SF depends on the story itself, while in works in Space:Above and Beyond, and BSG, it would not work in things like Starship Troopers...where the alien are so alien that it would be difficult to define them in human words...that is what I did for my own book, the Swarm were just too alien.

  4. Hello, William...

    When writing about alien races that are so alien that you cannon define them in human words, you should keep in mind that aliens will still have some basic similarities to humans. All living creatures wish to continue living and eliminate threats to their own kind. All living creatures need resources to survive. An alien species that is descended from a predatory ancestor, like humans, will have certain characteristics- like forward pointing sensing organs to pinpoint prey, teeth/claws/other sharp appendages/poisonous barb/electric shock/sonic blast etc. to kill prey, muscles to pursue prey, etc. Even if we can't talk to them or understand their motivations in human terms, it's a good bet that any alien species has the basic goals of surviving and propagating their species- and maybe we just got in the way. Other than those basic characteristics, they could be so alien as to be impossible to understand in human terms.

    Of course, it might be foolish to assume all intelligent aliens are descended from predators. Some writers have created interesting aliens that behave in a different manner from us because they arose in a different environment from different ancestors. For example, sentient crystals that live on a Kuiper belt object might have different view on existence than humans.

    Aliens in the universe could range from creatures similar to Earth creatures that have the same ecological niche in their environment -examples of parallel evolution- to beings so strange and alien that we might not recognize them for living creatures when we first saw them.

    Christopher Phoenix

  5. I have not seen much Anime... but I must say that what I have seen is rather interesting. In the West, animation is not taken as seriously. Not many adult movies in the west are animated.

    However, Anime is a medium that is used for a wide variety of stories- be they stories of future war, love stories, or anything in between. Anime is not like western animation at all. Anime is not just for children, and the Japanese have a different attitude than the West toward nudity and violence. This means than many Anime shows are more violent and sexually explicate than any Western animation.

    Some Anime shows are for children, but many have complex themes appropriate for older teens and adults. This makes it a good medium of MSF, I might add. Unlike western animation, complicated and realistic stories with complex characters are found in Anime.

    Christopher Phoenix

  6. Starblazers and Robotech entered me into a larger world of MSF, however, it seems lately that Anime and Manga are not exploring their MSF/sci-fi roots like they used to. It seems now that they are driven by shows like Bleach, Naruto. Sign. It seems when it got mainstream, the Japanese began importing more romanic/fantasy series. Sad days

  7. Starcom is now available on DVD. You can get it through Amazon.

    The real oddity about Starcom is that it had a big bad that you virtually never saw. The conflict was with his lieutenants and the hordes of robot drones. Who Dark was and what he wanted is flatly not addressed in the show at all (you have to go digging on the 'net to get the backstory).

    For all that, the show displayed a surprising level of scientific accuracy. The various fighters, bombers and shuttles used maneuvering thrusters for vector changes, EVAs were portrayed very NASA-like, and the show generally didn't go too far into "silly science". I won't say it was perfect, but it was still very very good.

  8. What I always thought was cool about the "Starcom" toys was how the smaller vehicles were built to fit into a standard envelope (sort of a 2" cube with cropped top corners) that could fit into the larger vehicles and be carried as a pod. The vehicles had spring-loaded or gear-driven "deployment" features that popped out wheels, wings, guns, and such when you pushed a switch. Other accessories (passenger pods, cargo pods, etc) were also available. A bit complicated for the time, but definitely fun to imagine how actual space-military stuff might work on standardized platforms like that.

    You make a good point about the 2"-figure lines not doing well. "Air Raiders" was the only other one I remember (the gimmick there being air-powered dart guns built into the vehicles). I can see why manufacturers would want to push that size, though; less plastic = less cost, and you can claim that "a figure is a figure" and sell them for the same MSRP as GI Joes.