13 March 2012

FWS Broken Promises: Starship Troopers

The original 1959 Robert Heinlein Starship Troopers novel is the founding classic of military science fiction, and created certain archetypes of the genre. Since the 1970's, different medias, from boardgames to films, have entered into the SST universe, however no one has been able to produce a faithful adaptation. In this ongoing process, the original work and themes of novel have been eclipsed by other more flashily works, causing for the very term of Starship Troopers to be altered in the minds of the population. In this segment of FWS broken promises series, we will examine the sad, and complex history of Starship Troopers. "let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings..."

The Promise of the Starship Troopers novel
One of the founding fathers of the golden age of science fiction literature was Robert Heinlein, and in 1959, his mind created a new kind of futuristic warfare, were the soldiers of tomorrow wear powered armor battle suits that allow of a few soldiers to have the power of many, highly mobile, dropped from space, all allowing for a kind of futuristic blitzkrieg. Heinlein added other layers to the story by explaining the military/politics of the Terran Federation, who becomes a citizen and how. All of this added together to be something different than the typical 1950's sci-fi, we-verse-the-aliens story.

Issues with the 1959 Original Source Material
Starship Troopers is considered one of the classics of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and continues to be in-print, readied and debated by generations of sci-fi fans, but its not without its problems that I think have prevented it from being accurately translated from the page to the screen. Starship Troopers is not alone in this regard, DUNE and I, Robot have been been mangled by the 'Hollywood treatment' for similar reasons...issues with the original material. Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers was not originally written to be a military science fiction story, some sources state that Heinlein wanted a primary book for younger readers about government. The genesis for SST was after Heinlein read an ad in the newspaper about banned nuclear weapon testing, causing Heinlein and his wife formed a group supporting nuclear testing, drawing criticism from his fellow sci-fi writers. SST was written has a written defense of his military service (Heinlein was in the US Navy during in 30's, was forced out due to a medical condition) and explaining some of his political views, which differ from the traditional views of sci-fi writers of the time. So, what was Heinlein trying to say with SST? Did he really what a society that hearkened back to Rome or Sparta, were only a select few could cast votes for the many, that only warriors, that risked all on the battlefield, be the only ones to say how the society was run?  Is that what he was saying with the requirement for Federal Service for a civilian to transform to a citizen? Or was Heinlein, like some sci-fi creators, like Asimov, Rhoddenberry, and Cameron, they use science fiction story to cloak the modern issue that they are addressing without suffering the slings and arrows of labels and insults. We have to remember that when SST was published in 1959, the World War II generation was fully engaged in our democratic/capitalism society, making, in someways, the society that Heinlein was describing in SST
While rereading Starship Troopers for this blogpost, I began to see the weakness of the novel, one was the strangle language choices that these futuristic soldier say, like "golly" and "gosh", which destroys some of the realism, then there is the slowdown of the text when Heinlein decides to go off on some lengthy written rants about society and the military, which are interesting but derail the novel, forcing the reader out of the fictional world.
Another element stopping a more literal translation from page-to-screen, is Heinlein bad military sense, which is shocking from a graduate of the US Naval Academy. Around page fifty, the book enters into the realm of stupidity, Rico is dumped in the Rockies for survival training, naked, then there is the throwing knife practice. Throwing your combat knife is one of most overused and tactically unsound archetypes in popular violent fiction. Throwing your knife away in a vein attempt to kill your target is stupid, and arming/training your soldiers to throw knives is also stupid. Unless you have the ninja level able to toss the knife directly into the face of your target, you're going to hit their center mass, where your enemy has the best protection, causing your knife-ninja-attack to be foolish. Beside, why is the Mobile Infantry training their troopers you use armored power suits to throw knives anyways?
This lack of military thinking extends to the firearms training, where they use blanks in a force-on-force training, but the book clearly states that there is one live bullet in 500 blanks on page 53: "and a nonexplosive bullet probably won't kill you unless it hits you in the head or the heart and maybe not even then." I call bullshit on that! Heinlein has a great imagination, but it did not extend to the future of force-on-force training for 23rd century! Nor does it extend to knowledge about gunshot wounds, neither. I've worked in a Trauma ICU for ten years, and any GSW down by a "hunting rifle" bullet mentioned in the book are nothing to play around with! Once again, I'm surprised at Heinlein's lack of detail or knowledge. But no where is this more apparent than when the subject of nuclear weapons. During the post-WWII era, there was talk by military planners and generals of using low-yield atomic weapons in various battlefield roles, like depth charges, torpedoes, mines, and the infamous M-28 Davy Crockett recoiless nuclear rifle. But, it seems odd, if not downright a bad bit of research for Heinlein would chose that the main armament of the Mobile Infantry to be atomic grenades, or having an sentry armed with an H-Bomb, then talks through Rico that the rifle is an old piece of technology no longer used. The very basic elements of ground combat do not seem to be at work in Starship Troopers...makes you wonder...
Another issue of the original text that seems to be holding back it from being translated into a visual medium is how bipolar the story is. One one hand, Starship Troopers is a novel about a strong human government's spaceborne infantry encased in powered battle armor fighting against insect hive-minded aliens. Then on the other hand, we have a 1959 novel, which is a first-person account of Juan "Johnny" Rico experiences going from high school student to an APS Mobile Infantry during a war with an intelligent Arachnids, and if you read the first 20 pages or so, when Rico's unit is raiding the Skinnies homeworld with micro-atomic grenades and jumping APS is sounds cool, bu then it slows down...way down. It follows Rico, going from civilian high school student to a soldier in the bug war, which much of the book is devoted to Rico's training, and lengthy sections of the political realities of the 23rd century Terran Federation, however, the Rico character is not that interesting, two-dimensional, and often just serves has a mouthpiece for the author. This leaves filmmarkers with a choice on which story layer that should make the film about...future military political situation or bug vs. armored human soldiers. It is difficult to imagine in the spacing of time that a movie has to hook the audience, that discussions over the interstellar politics would have on the film. After all, no one wants a film-lecture on 23rd century politics when there is a cool war going on. This forced Verhoeven to depiction the Terran Federation government as depressing and heavy-handed, and visually linking them to the 3rd Reich. Any visual work based on SST would have to 'jazz' up the few combat situations in order for the story not be like the very boring Japanese Anime series based on SST. The basic concept of SST sounds like a blockbuster, and that's what Sony Pictures and Paul Verhoeven were thinking with armored power suit infantry verse insect aliens, but the soul of the book was lost in the translation.

The First Shot: The 1976 Avalon Hill Boardgame
The first confirmed adaptation from the novel to another work was in 1976 with the Avalon Hill Games (read some rumors of a late 1960's or early 70's comic book adaptation, but cannot confirm it), who specialized in tabletop war simulations, and according to some, may have founded the concept.
The game uses an hexagon board, and counter-system to wage the 'bugs vs. Terrans' war via two players and three different factions in the war: the Federation M.I., the Bugs, and the Skinnies.
Unlike every other adaptations of the 1959 book, this games basically compels to the SST universe featured in the pages. Of course, there was 'rounding-out' of the military units, incorporating a more combined arms approach than the book mentioned. From scans of the game's boxset, there is a number of written resources, adding to the depth of the overall SST universe. I personally do not own this game, so I cannot expand on the additions that Avalon Hill Games made to the novel. If anyone does own the game, please let me know! This is NOT one of the broken promises of the Starship Troopers universe, this 1976 game honored the original work, plus adding a little spice to favor the game without destroying the original taste.

Uchu no Senshi: the Starship Troopers OVA (1988) 
Uchu no Senshi means "Soldiers of Space" and was the 1988 Japaneses animation attempt to bring the 1959 book to the small-screen, by Sunrise/Bandai Visual. The story of Juan Rico was broken up over 150 minutes divided over six parts. Only in the last episode, "Carmencita" is about the M.I fighting the Bugs, the rest is about the training of Rico and the beginning of the Earth/Bug War, presenting the war it in a different fashion than the novel or film, more low-key and distant to the characters. While the novels, games, books, and films show the Bugs being an insect/crab like aliens, but in the OVA, the enemy, who are never named, are more like Jelly-Fish than killer crabs from outer space.
One of the coolest elements of the OVA was the design of the APS, and their weapons, which included assault rifles and a heavy machine guns. A few years ago, someone posted the entire six-part limited series on the internet with subtitles, and I caught it before youtube took it down. The truth about Uchu no Senshi, according to me, is that is closer to the original source than the 1997 film (so,e elements from the OVA made into the 1997 film), but taken as a whole, Uchu no Senshi is a bore, with little action, one-dimensional characters, jellyfish-like Bugs, flat animations all add up to lukewarm presentation of Starship Trooper. Unfortunately to us Anime and/or Starship Troopers fans, Uchu no Senshi was not made available to the US, but a few fans own the Japanese Laserdisc and burn DVD copies for sale, or post them on youtube from time to time. There are "powered suit" figures/models, made by Studio Nue around 2000, and do come up for sale on ebay for about $40.

The original sin: The Starship Troopers 1997 film
It maybe harsh to call the Starship Troopers film, the "original sin", but  with the success of the film, every other SST work has patterned themselves after same style and fictional universe that Verhoeven setup with the 1997 film, causing this to be the fruit from the tree of forbidden knowledge, damning all SST projects since. Unfortunately, this film had its fate sealed the moment Paul Verhoeven became involved, because it changed the favor and style of the film, without a single frame being filmed . No other work in the realm of SST impacts the common culture perspective like the widely seen $105 million 1997 Paul Verhoeven film.
Original, the Dutch director was going to make a film called 'Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine' , it wasn't until deep in the pre-production phase that the crew become aware of the novel! Starship Troopers the flim was the beginning of what was to be be a string of broken promises that failed to delivery a logical future war epic, not to mention something resembling the original text. Certain elements were taking from the text, including whole sections of dialog and plot, and somethings work, but most do not. What we are left with is a over-the-top gory action film with a few good actors, some very good SFX, (especially with the Warrior Bugs), but  completely dogshit plot that leaves massive holes in logic and common sense. I do not hate the film outright, in fact, I think it maybe one of the most pure MSF films ever made, but it doesn't change the fact that it set up SST for a hard life.

Starship Troopers: Hero of the Federation (2004)
Rumors of a live-action sequel for the Verhoeven-envisioned SST universe came and went over the years, but then in 2004, we finally got a sequel, and it was as welcome as dogshit on the bottom of your shoe. The odd thing was that the producers of the SST:HOTF was intended to distance themselves from some elements of the Verhoevenian style, bring the movie to more of the action/horror realm, rather than a future war film. Ironically, this departure from the Verhoevenian style was a major criticism of the film, along with "taking itself too seriously", which I thought the series needed badly, and still does. But alas, this one really broke the promise of the book and set back the entire SST universe as a whole, by simply being a bad film, from low-production value SFX, terrible acting, and bad script. What the film did in the minds of the wider audience, was put a dead-nail into the coffin of the live-action SST films from devianting from the mold that Paul Verhoeven had set up in 1997.

Starship Trooper 3: Marauder (2008)
Unlike SST:HOTF, the third film, Marauder, has the return of Casper Van Dien has Rico, Marauder powered armor, and a rather good plot with action and politics. I rather liked SST 3 and enjoyed what it was trying to do, return Starship Troopers to being a bloody good time film. But like all other live-action SST films, it broke the promise of the original novel by being uneven in story, campy, and worshiping at the feet of Verhoevenian mold. Then there is the plastic/rubber "God" bug at the end of the film...ugh. I don't think that the markers of SST: 3 Marauder, even if they wanted to, they could not deviant from the Verhoevenian style, after the raping of SST:HOTF got from fans and critics. So, there was little choice in the way that the third film was going to be.     

Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles (1999-2000)
One of the more interesting productions in the SST universe was the syndicated cartoon CGI series Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles that ran for 36 episodes, ending on the eve of a titanic battle for Earth has the Queen-Mother of the Bug race was beginning their invasion. Roughnecks, while produced by Paul Verhoeven, is a fusion of the 1959 novel,  the 1997 film, along with the producers own interpertation of the key events in SST lore. For example, the series is focused on the Roughnecks, and has characters names pulled from the film, but are not the same characters, the series opening on the aftermath of the Battle of Plato, same as the book, and incorporates the role of the other forgotten alien race of the book, the Skinnies, and the Mobile Infantry's power suits, but instead of micro-atomic grenades, they use a form of the film Mortia rifle. It also forged new elements, rounding out the Earth's Strategically Integrated Coalition of Nations (SICON) military, like dropships, and armored vehicles, more bugs' organic war machines, and developing the Skinnies fully from a few pages in the book to characters in a key role in the Earth/Bug War.    
The broken promise of this series, that could have the ROBOTECH of its generation, was the shitty careless handling of the series by the TV networks, often airing them out of order, repeating them, or at bad times, like 5am. Watching the series today (on youtube) is difficult on the eyes, but not on the ears. The dialog of the Roughnecks was very good, especially for a "kid's show", giving the show appeal to all types of viewers, and allowing for the enjoyment of today. But that doesn't apply to the CGI SFX , which have not aged well. While state-of-the-Art back in the day, they are nearly comical today, the simply lack of detail in the faces, and 'doll-eye's effects' hamper full enjoyment, which mostly likely not been the case if the series had been traditionally animated, like ROBOTECH.  

What should be done to save Starship Troopers
Now that a reboot of the live-action films is being looked at by Sony Pictures, we can hope that is a big step in reestablishing the Starship Troopers brand back to something respectable, not a movie known for blood, bugs, and boobs. Depending on how the studio sees SST reboot making money, it could be a hybrid of the book and the 1997 movie, however there is another hope to save the promise of the original book: miniseries. Much like Shogun, V, or DUNE, there needs to be a good old made-for-TV-miniseries. Only a few hours with slow-boiling pace could cover the complexities of the subject matter that Mr.Heinlein put forth in 1959, just has the nation was facing the Red Scare. On the realistic side, the original material would have be jazzed up, just look at the bore most of the SST Anime OVA was...there would have to be elements of Verhoeven's glory goodness....oh, and Armored Power Suits.

The TWO New Starship Troopers Productions
It seems that Starship Troopers is going to be split into different franchises, one will be based on the vision and style laid down in the Verhoeven 1997 movie, and then there is the Neal Moritz remake. This is similar to the rumors that run around the Battlestar Galactica universe, where there projects in the works based on the Ronald Moore BSG universe and another based on the 1970's classic universe. The odd element is, that both of these upcoming SST productions are sanctioned by Sony Pictures. 
The future production of the Verhoeven SST universe is the upcoming (around late 2013?) CGI animation film that is directed by Shinji Aramaki, who directed the recent crop of Appleseed CGI films, one of the HALO: Legends segments, and the upcoming Space Pirate Captain Harlock Anime film. Adding to the film's weight is producers Eward Neumeier and Casper Van Dien. If this is successful, than this could be the future of all Verhoeven-themed SST works. It is unknown, at this time, if SST: Invasion will be a sequel to 2008 film and feature the armored power suits. Here is the basic plot from the film's website:
"A distant Federation outpost Fort Casey comes under attack by bugs. The team on the fast attack ship Alesia is assigned to help the Starship John A. Warden stationed in Fort Casey evacuate along with the survivors and bring military intelligence safely back to Earth. Carl Jenkins, now ministry of Paranormal Warfare, takes the starship on a clandestine mission before its rendezvous with the Alesia and goes missing in the nebula. Now, the battle-hardened troopers are charged with a rescue mission that may lead to a much more sinister consequence than they ever could have imagined...."
The second project is the Sony Pictures, live-action, complete reboot of Starship Troopers. This project was annocuned in December of 2011, with an barebones mention of an film producer from Sony Pictures named Neal Mortiz has ordering a script from writers Edward Miller and Zack Stentz (Thor and X-Men: First Class). At the moment, there is no news about this remake.

A good blog entry on the SST OVA Uchu no Senshi:

A good comparison between the book and the 1997 film:

An write-up of the 1982 TRS-80 SST data-tape computer game

here is a good blow-by-blow of Uchu no Senshi:

Discussion of the why there isn't a SST TV show:

io9.com discusses the 1959 novel

website about the Uchu no Senshi powered armor:

another website about Uchu no Senshi powered armor

  • The band YES has a song called 'Starship Troopers' from 1971 Yes Album, lyrics doesn't seem to match up with the book though.
  • The first video game based in the world of SST is an 1982 data-tape game  for the Radio Shack TRS-80, called Klendathu.
    Much of the SST Mobile Infantry uniforms from the 1997 film reappear in Firefly.
  • Most ATARI website list a strategy game for the 400/800 XL/XE computer called Starship Troopers/Invasion of the Mud People. I've spent an hour trying to locate any hard facts about this very rare 1982 title, but with no success. It could be related to the TRS-80 data-tape game..
  • There was an 1987 pick-our-adventure-book based in the SST novel-universe titled: Combat Command in the World of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers by Mark Acres


  1. Good piece, enjoyable read.
    I have to disagree with flaming of the Verhoeven film (probably because I'm Dutch too ;), because he tried to make a film 'based on' SST, and to use it as a mirror or counter-view to many other contemporary military/scifi movies. Yes it had its plot (worm) holes, and people hated it a lot because of it's ending (Rico *NOT* being the ultimate bug killer). But hey, that was Verhoeven's point - doing something different than expected!

    Well, we can debate it endlessly, but suffice it to say that I agree that SST The Movie was a missed opportunity, and Roughnecks a vastly underappreciated production - still one of my favourite 'cartoons' to this day.

    Again, good piece!

  2. Thanks for the comment! The 1997 film greatly vexs me...I like it, and watch a few times a year, but then again, I'm a fan of Verhoeven's other films: Total recall and of course, Robocop. The Verhoeven style worked so well with Robocop, it was bloody prefect, but somehow it didn't with SST. Then again, I think that the original text is very hard to translate to a film or series, and Verhoeven did the best job he could. I feel bad about flaming Verhoeven, because I respect elements of his style and his look of blood in combat. For all of its flaws, the 1997 film nailed the Bugs and have Michael Ironside in a film is never a bad thing. Once again, SST the film vexs me deeply. Thanks for reading!

    1. In all honesty I liked how the movie had it's style compared to other movies and provided good action. Also I felt bad for Riko and how his girlfriend ditched him for some a-hole that could fly a ship.

      Watching the whole film and going over some bits today, I realized that the Federation is really messed up. It's true that the bugs were really violent and aggressive, but it seems like the Federation is not that different. I mean I don't want children fighting over automatic weapons or screaming the words "die, die" on national television anytime soon. Same goes for declaring all criminals guilty instantly.

      The rest of the film however made me kinda like the Federation, like the little things such as how non-racist or non-sexist it was. I think if the military was competent and the people less messed up it it would be less frightening as an idea.

  3. As a fromer Marine. I can assure you that Survival training is indeed part of Marines/ Soldier training especially units such as paratroopers and special forces. While knife throwing has little use in modern warfare. Knifes, Tomahawks, Machetes, Sabers and swords have made a surprising return in the modern urban warfare in Afghanistan and Irak. (Troops demanding , buying such weapons and USE them!)It is not the large scale tank warfare you know of WWII or an allout WWIII against the Warshaw Pact. It is dirty house to house fighting. Rifles are not the best weapon and sometimes a battle axe (yes!) is a very handy tool and weapon. Same holds true for WWI trench warfare. Trench raiders used knifes a lot and the famous knife maker Randall made a trench knife with steel knuckles for Trench fighting. Special forces commandos from Mossad to Spednatz, from Navy SeALS to Marines train to fight and kill with knifes. The famous Sykes Fairban Knife carried by the British SAS is not a tool, it is meantfor one thing only..Killing!
    Marines (and every military unit kown carry combat knifes and are trained to use them. A para trooper (or MI) could be stranded without his suit (Because damaged or out of power) and must survive and use any and allmeans to defend himself. Using both familiar and alien weapons ..so training a soldier to throw knifes gives the man an extra skill, condidence in an edged weapon and trains hand eye coordinatio to judge throwing other weapons (rocks, sticks,axes) thrown weapons are as humanity and throwing knifes did not start out in the Circus.
    You argue that Heinlein made grave military errors dspite the fact he was in the Navy. Let me ask you where did you get your military expertise?

  4. At one time, I was quite good with a tomahawk...being raised in Oklahoma and all, and own a current military copy of one. I am prepping a blogpost on modern military edged weaponry.
    The Martial art I took, Jeet Kune Do trained me to use a knife, and I rather enjoy the Sykes Fairbairn knife design. I do not doubt the role and purpose of the knife, and the lines about throwing knives being a little old-fashioned, comes from another marine's website. I also do realize the role of the sharpened rock spears from the stone age.
    In terms of military expertise comes from most of my family being military, and that I am a trained historical researcher...my paper on the historical effect of AK47 won a few awards in 2009. I just simply read a great deal and use my brain to bridge the gap between the written word and the hard reality of battle. Some comes from years of MilSim Paintball...yeah, I know...not the same thing.
    I've never serviced for a number of reason, but I admire the brave people that go into combat on my behalf, and I thank you for your service.
    I could not help but notice your name and wonder if you are indeed a female? And being a former Marine, I could use your insight on the role and future of female soldiers/marines for a incoming blogpost.

  5. Hi William, I've been a Starship Troopers fan since age 11. Per you comments on the Avalon Hill board game, I found a copy of the rules, senarios, etc. Hope this is what you were looking for.
    Best regards,Mike T.

  6. I think the problem with SST fan's perceptions of Verhoeven's film is that they miss the point that it's not really an adaptation of the novel, strictly speaking. The film is a satire that takes the novel as inspiration, but builds upon it and takes it in a completely different direction. To give an example, what struck me on first seeing the film is how the MI and Bugs are portrayed very similarly: the MI troopers in battle are running around like a swarm, not in any kind of military formation, just like the Bugs, and when the battle begins, both groups just kinda... smash into each other. It was when I saw this (and it's a visual clue, the MI don't seem to have tactics that I can see) that I realized what Verhoeven was doing. The point was that the society of SST and the Bugs were one's that reduced its members to mindless automatons, indoctrinated into a collectivist and militaristic society that had no real care for the lives of individuals, who are sacrificed in vast numbers and seemingly carelessly. Once you realize the film's a satire (both RoboCop and Total Recall are also satirical, so it's not that hard to figure out), you start to understand what Verhoeven was trying to do.

    This isn't to defend Verhoeven's appropriation of SST. It would have been better if they hadn't pretended to be making an adaptation (which they obviously weren't), and simply made an original film. That being said, Verhoeven's film is IMHO one of the greatest critiques of militarism in general and of Heinlein's SST in particular, so I can't say I wish it had never been made. And besides, it's a great film in its own right...

  7. There is a new Starship Troopers movie out now called "Traitor of Mars" that, while still hewing to the Verhoven line, is much improved over it with proper MI jump troopers and better tactics.