To say that Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a controversial novel is a literary understatement. For every scholar/author/book critic who champions the work as a masterpiece of military science fiction, there is another waiting in the wings apt to dismiss the book as a plotless fascist screed. Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 big screen adaptation of Starship Troopers gave members of both groups an occasion to unify against what is largely recognized as a technically impressive, if wholly brainless, action movie. Yet two years later the visual aesthetic of Verhoeven’s, ahem, “masterpiece” yielded one of the more impressive animated series of the 1990s. I refer to Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles. Having recently discovered that the entirety of this series is now available to watch, legitimately, on youtube and crackle.com, I thought it fitting to say a few words about this often over looked bastard child of Robert Heinlein, Paul Verhoeven, and Richard Raynis.
The series follows the exploits of Alpha Team, a rifle squad within the Strategically Integrated Coalition of Nations’ (pronounced Sci-Con) mobile infantry. Note here that the morally dubious Terran Federation is a non-entity. Among the troops, Alpha Team is commonly known as Razak’s Roughnecks. The cast of characters share more in common with Verhoeven than Heinlein, but not necessarily to their detriment. Dizzy Flores remains a woman, though she is a little more level headed with her affections toward Johnny Rico than in the movie. Rico, despite a slight shade of brown in his complexion, is still very much Johnny and not Juan. Razak is an amalgam of the novel’s Mr. DuBois and the movie’s Lt. Rasczak. Oh and Xander Barcalow is in the series; he’s still a pompous swaggering subordinate-seducing asshat. On a positive note, none of the movie actors, save for a late entry from Clancy Brown as Sergeant Zim, reprise their roles in the animated series. Thus the characters all feel quite distinct from what Casper Van Dien and friends brought to the movie, especially Carl Jenkins – Sorry, NPH.
One of Verhoeven’s most infamous crimes against Heinlein’s novel was his treatment of the mobile infantry. The mad Dutchmen stripped the MI of their power armour, as well as their clothing from time to time, and turned them into an ill-trained rabble that only occasionally got the job done and even then only through brute force and superior numbers. Where Heinlein saw the MI and Fleet as precision instruments, Verhoeven turned them into a sledge hammer and collection of the worst Top Gun clichés, respectively. The mobile infantry of Raynis’ Roughnecks lean much closer to Heinlein than they do Verhoeven. Orbital insertions through drop pods are the word of the day. All troopers wear powered environmental suits with select members of each squad piloting “marauder” exo-suits. It’s not exactly shoulder mounted nuclear rockets, but it’s more than a few steps in the right direction.
So what about the bugs? Raynis actually kept Verhoeven’s bugs for the series. Call me a heretic, but I liked Verhoeven’s bugs. I could never get past the idea that space arachnids would develop firearms; there’s something too human-centric in that notion especially when a species is capable of evolving sub-species suited to individual tasks (warrior bugs vs worker bugs in the novel). Plasma bugs, tankers, and warriors, as seen in Verhoeven’s movie, feature prominently in Roughnecks first story arc. As the series moved on to new campaigns, so too came new bugs. To balance this Verhoeveian influence, Roughnecks’ brought the Skinnies, an alien race mentioned in the first chapter of the novel but ignored in the movie, into the galactic conflict. Just like in the book, the Skinnies began as allies of the bugs but gradually shifted their loyalties to SICON.
Partly because it was aimed at a young adult audience and partly because it’s hard to sell space facism on television, Roughnecks put politics in the back seat. It’s still there, but it’s much more subtle than Neil Patrick Harris decked out in his jack-booted future-Nazi regalia. One particular episode sees Lt. Razak fighting to stop SICON from giving Rico a lobotomy when he presents prolonged symptoms of post traumatic stress. Another episode sees Karl Jenkins breaking under the pressure that SICON is putting on him to militarize his psychic talents. The enduring theme is that the troopers on the ground know much more about war than the Sky Marshall and Generals. There’s even a bit of character death, as well. People don’t die with the frequency that they did in something like Exo-Squad, but there is an evident human cost to the bug war. Not bad for a YA audience.
Though the animation looks a bit stiff by contemporary standards, Roughnecks has aged fairly well as far as late 90s CGI productions go. It’s comparable to any late season episode of ReBoot, and leaps and bounds beyond Voltron: The Third Dimension.
While Roughnecks isn’t what I would call a “must watch” sort of series, it’s a certainly worthwhile throwback to the early days of computer generated animation. It’s more sophisticated than the movie that served as so much visual inspiration, but it’s still likely to make novel purists grind their teeth.
Overall score: +2, maybe even a +2.5
Would you like to know more? Here’s the first episode.