“Once upon a future time... in an age when interstellar travel is commonplace... there are two opposing forces in a desperate race for knowledge and a fight to defend freedom.”
Like many cartoons from the late 1980s, Starcom: The U.S. Space Force was inextricably linked to the toy line of the same name, and its main purpose was to gently encourage children to pester their parents about buying the merchandise.
And they ought to have pestered vehemently; these toys were fantastic, with their no-batteries 'Power Deploy' features and their 'Magna-Lock' panels. Each vehicle and playset had a ratcheted, spring-loaded mechanism, normally activated by a button, that would cause the wings to unfold to full extension, or a gun turret to rise out of the vehicle, or some such exciting event. The figures were 2 1/4” tall, with a tiny magnet in each foot; perfect for attaching them at a clumsy horizontal angle to a radiator or fizzy drinks can, or, better still, to the vehicle panels themselves. The men had a little moveable translucent visor on their space helmets that was far too easy to lose (or chew), because it was made from fairly flexible plastic and held in place by hooking it over two miniscule nodes on the side of the figure’s head.
The toys were first released in America and the U.K. in late 1986/early 1987 by Coleco Toys (the company that produced the monstrous Cabbage Patch Kids) but lasted a mere two years before the company filed for bankruptcy, when the line was purchased and subsequently re-distributed by Mattel in 1990 with very minor changes (for example, a few of the vehicles were repainted).
The cartoon lasted only thirteen episodes (incidentally, exactly the same amount as another stunning 80s cartoon series, Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, tragically cut down in its prime), and first aired on September 20th 1987, the initial run lasting through until mid-December that year.
It is set in the future, during the colonisation of the Solar System, when Earth has become a pollution-free 'resort' of sorts, and there are human colonies on planets, moons and space stations throughout the galaxy.
The U.S. Space Force itself, dubbed Starcom, comprises three disciplines; Starbase Command, Starwing, and the Astro Marines (very much mirroring the navy/air force/army split of modern militaries), and the three main characters are each involved in a different 'battle group'.
-James 'Dash' Derringer is the classic hero figure – brave, good-natured, witty, and with a certain disregard for the rules. A maverick Starwing pilot with a frankly ridiculous talent for flying.
-Paul 'Crowbar' Crobin is the joker of the three, likeable and funny, but with a greater affinity to machines than to people, and, again, with an unnerving talent, this time for fixing things. A mechanics and electronics expert in the Astro Marines
-John 'Slim' Griffin, as nicknamed by Dash himself, is a big muscular black guy who steadfastly sticks to the rules and constantly chides anyone who breaks them. A member of Starbase Command, and not a risk-taker in any way; can often be heard saying, “That’s not in the handbook!”
The three are best friends of sorts, often found hanging out together off-mission (and often found flung together in the heat of any battle), and they play off each other’s strengths in tight corners when defending the galaxy from...
the bad guys.
The only real disturber of the peace and threat to the colonization program is the Shadow Force, led by the ingeniously named Emperor Dark, with his token bushy eyebrows, pointy beard, and slightly eccentric hairdo.
Originally working as a scientist for Starcom, studying the mysterious Obelisks that had been discovered on Mars (thought by some to be artifacts left behind by ancient alien builders), he became disillusioned with the organisation’s methods, which led (upon him taking matters into his own hands) to an explosion, and his apparent death. Of course, he survived, with a little help from a fragment of Obelisk, and, after refurbishing and modifying some Robot Drones built himself a huge spaceship/base of operations as a means of recovering more Obelisks from different parts of the Solar System and using them to become some kind of god.
Dark’s three favourite officers (General Torvek, General Vondar, and Malvanna, a woman shrouded in mystery) are often found commanding missions to disrupt Starcom facilites or steal Obelisk pieces, and these are carried out by the Shadow Force’s countless Robot Drones. Frighteningly, Dark can see through the optics and hear through the audio receptors of these robots, and so use them to keep tabs on his backstabbing followers.
With technology and resources on a grand enough scale to rival that of Starcom, the peacekeepers have their hands full, with the most exceptional soldiers consistently finding themselves in the thick of the action as they defend the colonists against the destructive Shadow Force agents.
Of course, all of this is pointless if none of the spacecraft are good.
Luckily, they are very cool indeed.
Starwing’s prestige vehicle is the Starmax Bomber, a powerful and versatile ship with sleek lines and copious weaponry. Flown by a crew of three, they carry a Warp Drive engine and are launched from Starbase hangers.
Starmax Bombers are capable of carrying two Starwolf fighters; one Magna-Locked to the top of the ship, and one tucked away in the cargo hold (launched with a Power-Deploy procedure). These one-man beasties have a big laser cannon on each wing, and an excellent way of unfurling as they take off.
StarCom’s forces also include a number of ground-based and cargo-lifting vehicles, but all the best action in the cartoon revolves around the space dogfights, and the battle starships really were the pick of the toys.
Distinct from the clean, white and grey forms of the U.S. Space Force’s machines, Shadow Force’s vehicles are black and dark purple, with jagged, triangular profiles.
The equivalent to the Starmax is the Shadowbat, able to carry two small fighters on its wings, with a long range and a very strong primary laser.
The fighters are called Parasites; small and agile, like little offset pyramids, with miniscule wings that extend slightly and railguns that pop out of the sides.
Again, the Shadow Force had a number of other vehicles, but these were the two which featured most heavily in the cartoon. (All of the machines seen on the programme were available as toys, amounting to 24 different vehicles, 38 separately carded figures, and 8 larger 'playsets'. They all came in red boxes, and regularly appear on internet auction sites and at car boot sales.)
Starcom episodes generally feature the Shadow Force’s latest plan to threaten the peaceful inhabitants of the interplanetary communities, with Dash, Crowbar and Slim doing their best to foil and thwart Emperor Dark and his minions, often incurring the wrath of Admiral Brickley (or his delightful PA, Lieutenant Kelsey Carver) by sidestepping regulations. The banter between the three main characters is refreshingly sarcastic and witty compared with some of the other cartoons of the era, and a lot of the science used in the plots is spot on.
Some of it, however, is downright imaginative.
At http://www.nemesisworld.com/starcom/starcom_bible.html there exists a transcript of the 'Starcom Bible'; an astounding document rescued from oblivion as Coleco closed down, which contains detailed explanations of the scenario, personnel, vehicles and locations of the Starcom universe. It shows a real depth of back-story and character motivations, as well as some interesting descriptions of the high-technology portrayed.
One of the best examples of this is in the section on the Starmax Bomber:
“The Starmax Bombers all carry the 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.”
I’ve never heard such an inventive way of tiptoeing round Einstein’s famous theory, especially not in a justification for a toy.
It’s a shame that the concept of Starcom wasn’t successful enough to save Coleco, nd run on for more episodes – I think it had legs.