Drill sergeant Mike Pinsky makes Sony drop and give him twenty for failing to nurture what could have been a classic show.
"Maybe we should have stayed home and waited for the war to come out on video."—Doc (voice of James Horan)
Johnny Rico (voice of Rino Romano) joined the war with high hopes. Cleaning the Bugs out of their holes on Pluto was not such a hard job. He had the support of the tightest crew of starship troopers in the galaxy, Razak's Roughnecks, led by the fearless Lt. Jean Razak (voice of Jamie Hanes). Rico also had his best friends from high school, sensitive Carl Jenkins (voice of Rider Strong) and tomboy "Dizzy" Flores (voice of E.G. Daily), along for the ride. He even had his unrequited high-school crush (voice of Tish Hicks) flying the Roughnecks to their missions. How could they lose?
But Johnny Rico is in way over his head. This simple clean-up operation is about to turn into a galactic war that will burn entire worlds to smoldering ruins and nearly destroy the human race. It will also turn Johnny Rico into a war hero—and the Roughnecks into legends.
There are no cute sidekicks. Comedy relief is kept mainly to sarcastic insults traded between rounds of fire. Half of the dialogue consists of military jargon. This is war.
Taking its lead from the continuing storylines prominent in anime shows, Roughnecks: The Starship Trooper Chronicles, was (and perhaps still is) an anomaly in the world of American cartoons. Few shows, even live action, have played out in such an atmosphere of unrelenting violence. Of course, it is nearly always "Bugs" getting killed, so I guess it does not really count. Still…
When Paul Verhoeven released his 1997 live-action adaptation of Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers, the reaction among science fiction fans was mixed. Heinlein's right-leaning bildungsroman about a single soldier's journey through the ranks of a planet-hopping combat squadron commanded much loyalty from some readers. The truth is, the novel really is not such deep stuff, one of Heinlein's "juveniles" which is perhaps more fondly remembered for its strong use of narrative voice (a nervous youth is straightened out by his commander's tough love) than its plot. Oh, and then there is the hardware. I remember reading the book back in the 1970s and thinking that the powered armor was so cool and that the details of ground-level combat felt realistic, at least to us kids.
Heinlein's book really served as a jumping-off point for arguably more complex meditations on the future of war (Haldeman's The Forever War comes to mind). Although one might argue that the status of any novel can be gauged by the variety and vehemence of the reactions to it. Love it or hate it, Starship Troopers is the book that all science fiction war stories refer to. So expectations were high when Paul Verhoeven, known for his grotesque satires (The Fourth Man, Robocop, and yes, even Showgirls counts in this vein), took the fascist undercurrents some have seen in Heinlein's novel and ran with them.
Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, like his earlier Total Recall, might be read as either a validation of grand war movie clichés or a brutal send-up, depending on how many fraternity buddies you bring along to the screening. Heinlein loyalists balked at the film's sarcastic tone and the lack of powered armor (Verhoeven claimed he could not get the special effects up to snuff). Still, the film did well enough for Sony, who produced Verhoeven's film, to call Foundation Imaging, the computer graphics company responsible for Babylon 5's groundbreaking effects and offer a television show that would expand Verhoeven's adaptation and hopefully sell some toys.
To paraphrase Clemenceau, war is too important to leave to studio executives. To illustrate, I will give you the short version of this complicated story. Sony hired one computer graphics company which dropped out after completing only a handful of episodes. Foundation came in, completed the rest of the series, but found itself so overwhelmed by the pace that it was forced to punctuate pieces of its ambitious 40-something episode story arc with flashback episodes. The lag between new episodes angered broadcast affiliates, who scheduled the show in poor time slots, and Sony, who slashed budgets and marketing muscle until Roughnecks: Starship Trooper Chronicles finally fell apart only a few episodes before its planned finale.
And now, all 40 completed episodes of Roughnecks (previously available on separate discs) are available in a 4-disc boxed set, so you can finally follow the story as far as it goes, even if that is not quite to its planned end. In spite of the hurdles placed in front of Roughnecks, the show manages to prove its mettle. Roughnecks relates the combat adventures of Razak's Roughnecks, from their initial battles on Pluto through to the ostensible end of the "Bug War." Chances are, if you have read this far, you have probably seen Verhoeven's film or read Heinlein's novel, but just to play catch up…
Human colonization reaches Pluto, only to find the planet already populated by a race crudely dubbed the Arachnids, or "Bugs." These hostile creatures go to war, diplomacy be damned. In the original Verhoeven/Heinlein continuity, the Bugs attack Earth first (although Verhoeven implies that the attack is actually retaliatory, a response to Earth imperialism). No such political subtleties are presented in the television series however. When we meet Johnny Rico and his pals, they are already enmeshed in combat, and we hear little about the war on a larger scale. The Bugs are the enemy, high command hands down orders to follow, and that is pretty much that. Verhoeven's sharp parodies of news propaganda from the live-action film have been stripped down to a single character, the embedded journalist Higgins (voice of Alexander Polinsky), who serves as sympathetic narrator for the story. Our heroes are stalwart and manly (even the females like Dizzy and Carmen). Bugs are icky and have lots of dirty tricks up their exoskeletons.
The series is structured as in story arcs, or "campaigns," usually running five episodes (meant to be run Monday through Friday). The DVD version edits each campaign into a movie version (about 97 minutes) with only a single credit sequence bookending the story. Seven campaigns, with one transitional episode and four compilation/flashback episodes. Each new campaign allows the CGI team to throw the motion-captured heroes into new environments—a desert world, a water world, a jungle, ice—to keep the repetitive battle format from getting stale. The motion capture technology was fairly new for its time, and the technical limitations result in occasional animation glitches (truncated movement, lack of surface texture). As the series progresses, you can see the animators working many of the bugs (no pun intended) out of the technology, especially in the facial details of the characters (notice how much they wear their helmets in the early episodes). You can tell the crew is pushing with each new campaign. Environments get richer; effects work (explosions and so forth) get more realistic. You can even pick up when the motion-capture software goes through another upgrade, as the character animation gets a little jerky for an episode, then smoother and more nuanced than before as the program is fine-tuned. The occasional digital noise and moiré patterns apparent on these DVDs can probably be chalked up to these source problems, I suspect.
I will not say much more about the story after the Roughnecks' initial sorties on Pluto and their journey to the water planet of Hydora, where the series starts to pick up speed. The characters themselves discover more about their Bug adversaries, gain new allies, and even lose a few members along the way. The carnage gets a little numbing after a while (try not to watch more than one campaign in a sitting), and the show does not really begin to develop its characters until about the third campaign. The ground-level view of combat allows for a variety of different narrative situations, although sometimes the writers rely on the same plot devices over and over. A character or two will get separated from the group; the others mount a rescue operation, during which somebody discovers a new secret about the Bugs. Does anybody in this fleet make a ship that does not crash at the slightest touch? Fortunately, for all its focus on combat operations, Roughnecks never glorifies violence: war is portrayed as scary and brutal as one might expect to get in an American cartoon aimed largely at pre-teens. The music tends toward minor-key creepiness and even the show's opening theme does not feel much like a patriotic march. There is no flag-waving fervor in Roughnecks, but an often oppressive portrait of men under the gun.
The only real extras on these discs are galleries of production art. An honest commentary track—or any commentary track at all—might offer a clearer explanation as to why the series abruptly ends in a cliffhanger. Fans of the show know that Foundation Imaging ran out of money before completing the final part of the story arc. Four compilation episodes (included on the final disc in this set as a "bonus feature") recycled footage from earlier campaigns in order to pad out the series to a full 40 episodes (giving affiliates 8 weeks of shows). Scripts were apparently written for the remaining shows, and producers spread the word that they were willing to complete the series, perhaps as a direct-to-video movie, if fans made enough of a fuss. Then much of the CGI crew was reassigned to the more merchandising-friendly Max Steel. Everyone's ambitious plans for Roughnecks evaporated.
You have to give credit to the artists of Roughnecks: Starship Trooper Chronicles for trying to push themselves throughout the course of the series. While they sometimes reach just beyond the limitations of their technology, they frequently create enough striking images to keep the audience engaged while the characters struggle to overcome their initial blandness. By the end of the series, you will find yourself caught up in the action—and then frustrated by the show's sudden anticlimax.
Perhaps Roughnecks is the perfect name for this series. It is rough, filled with fantastic potential that was never realized in its time. If corporate politics had given it room to grow—better timeslot and marketing, enough money to finish its story—Roughnecks could have become a classic. It is a good show, often quite entertaining. But the fact that it might have been even more than it is makes watching Roughnecks almost a little frustrating. And for Sony to throw this title onto the market without honestly admitting its culpability in destroying the show only adds to my discomfort. Thus, I will recommend you check out Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles and give the show the benefit of the doubt. This is one soldier in the war for good science fiction that fell before its time.
In the face of inevitable defeat, this court finds that Roughnecks has acted bravely and with conduct becoming an officer. Case dismissed. Live forever, apes.
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