Send in the Marines: The Failed ‘Operation: Aliens’ Cartoon and the Kenner Toys it Inspired
In 1977, Star Wars changed the game completely, not just for movies, but for toys as well. The impact of George Lucas' landmark sci-fi epic is well documented, but perhaps nobody knew just how vital to the industry Star Wars was than Kenner. As the sole licensed toy manufacturer at that time, Kenner was acutely aware of Star Wars' successes at retail. As such, the company was eager to line up licenses like Ridley Scott's Alien in an attempt to recapture that magic with a whole new audience and brand.
While a complete line-up for Alien toys was planned, including 3.75" figures much in the vein of Kenner's own Star Wars collectibles, only an 18" Xenmorph made it to market. But not for long. Deemed too scary and creepy to be a children's toy (which makes complete sense given HR Giger's design), the Alien toy was yanked from shelves. The rest of the Alien line never saw the light of day outside of Kenner's doors (though those designs were revived and released a few years ago by Super7 and Funko). Even with that misstep, Kenner hadn't given up on the idea of making the Alien franchise a Star Wars-like success.
With the release of 1986's Aliens, interest in the franchise was rekindled. However, instead of an atmospheric nightmare, James Cameron's Aliens was an action-packed thrill ride. Where the characters of the first movie were blue collar workers left to fend for themselves after being hung out to dry by their employers at Weyland-Yutani, Aliens featured soldiers with outspoken personalities and big guns. There was a larger number of aliens for them to blow to pieces, and there at the center was the familiar hero, Ellen Ripley. Aliens was quotable and memorable and it had all the ingredients Kenner could have hoped for. There was still one problem --- it was rated R.
Prior to this particular time in American television and film history, it was practically unheard of to create toy line based on an R-rated feature. But with the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, GI Joe, Transformers and other similar cartoons with toy lines, companies like Kenner began teaming up with big studios to crank out family friendly versions of movies like Robocop, Rambo and Police Academy. Why try to create a new idea when building up an existing brand would be that much easier? Once the cartoons made these very violent or vulgar movies accessible for kids, the toys could hit the market, and everyone would swim in massive amounts of money. If that's not the American Dream, I don't know what is.
Despite the success of Aliens at the box office, it wasn't until production on 1992's Alien 3 began that the idea of a cartoon based on the series was broached. Instead of crafting a 22-minute animated series around Ripley's time at an all-male space prison, the concept wisely followed Aliens, and teamed the lone survivor of the Nostromo with the Colonial Marines to battle the Xenomorph threat around the galaxy. Twentieth Century Fox partnered with a Korean animation studio (the identity of which remains a mystery to this day) to develop the show, and once again leaned on Kenner to craft the toy line. With a cartoon, the mature content was diluted enough that this time the line stood a chance.
It's a shame then that the cartoon never aired a single episode.
Alien 3 arrived in theaters in May 1992, and the plan was for Operation: Aliens to hit airwaves that following fall. Kenner's action figure line was well into development before the cartoon was due to arrive, but come the fall of 1992, Saturday mornings were still sans Aliens. Sometime during that summer, Fox pulled the plug and no one knows the exact reason why. Rumors range from Fox being incredibly disappointed in Alien 3's box office returns and reception, to the studio execs seeing the pilot and realizing there was just no way to turn Aliens' ultra-violence into something suitable for 6-12 year old kids. No one aside from the Korean animators and a select few at Fox has ever seen actual footage of the show. The only remnants of the show are some poster art and a random smattering of screenshots from what was likely a teaser reel.
We might actually have never known Operation: Aliens existed if it wasn't for a random board game and the Kenner action figures.
Released in 1992, Kenner's Aliens toys were steeped heavily in the concepts of Operation: Aliens. Ripley was back, this time as a full-fledged member of the Colonial Marines and not just a special contractor for The Company. So was Hicks, the only other Marine to make it off of LV-426, even if he was killed of in the beginning of Alien 3. Being dead didn't seem to matter much to the Aliens toy line though, as Bishop, Apone, and Drake all got figures in the line, too. Vasquez and Hudson would eventually get their own toys, but only in the UK. The redesigns weren't unfair to the likes of Ripley and Hicks, but Apone got a stereotypical backwards hat to show his urban side, while Bishop turned from a humanoid android into a more robotic creation that look suspiciously like Robocop without his helmet. You know, because Kenner had to show he was a robot and not a human like the other Marines. The rest of the series featured a number of different Xenomorphs, including the warriors and Queen from Aliens, but also a number of strange hybrids.
Perhaps the only thing Kenner's Aliens toys took from Alien 3 was the idea of Xenos that would alter their appearance based on the lifeform from which they hatched. In the first two Alien movies, the creatures primarily relied on humans as hosts, so we only saw a few slight alterations to the formula. With Alien 3, we saw the dog Xeno, and for the first time learned the monsters could take on the attributes of any host, and weren't always bipedal threats. Without that little bit of lore to back it up, Xenos like the Mantis and Bull could have been perceived as nothing more than the Aliens version of Thunder Whip or Deep Dive Batman (also Kenner creations). Then again, Kenner did put out the Atax Armor figure, which dressed up one Marine to look like a Xeno Queen. Maybe that film concept was just a lucky coincidence.
Kenner may have pivoted the Aliens toy line away from the animated series, but it still shared some of the concepts through mini-comics created with Dark Horse Comics. There were 13 total comics, with each character's particular issue telling a new chapter in an ongoing story. Technically, the Aliens line featured just 12 comics, with the 13th chapter being offered with the Aliens vs. Predator two-pack that preceded the launch of the Predator toys and the waning days of Kenner's Aliens. The 12 comics told a mostly complete story however, and they might give us our best idea of what Operation: Aliens earliest episodes may have been like.
Only two of the comics list any writer of any sort (Dan Jolley) with others leaving out the idea of scripting out entirely, but each of the dozen mini-comics featured at least two different artists such as Mark Nelson, Joe Phillips and Karl Kesel. While the action figures themselves, which were based on the cartoon designs, establish a hilarious picture of a PG version of the Aliens universe, the comics take things to a whole new level of ludicrousness. Aside from yucking it up while fighting against the deadliest organism mankind has ever encountered, you also get tremendous scenes like this:
That's right. When cornered by a Queen in the jungle, the Colonial Marines just drop a big ol' jar over her like she's a bug on the patio. While Weyland-Yutani clearly designed the Evac Fighter to capture Xenomorphs for further study and weaponization (and Kenner designed it to sell more toys), the Marines merely use it as a catch and release device. Since you can't release the creatures back into the wild though, Bishop ends up dumping her into an active volcano. Hardly seems fair.
Later, the Marines respond to distress call at a colony that may as well have been transported straight from the Wild West, and encounter civilians dressed up like cowboys. That can only mean that here the Xenomorphs will have been birthed from livestock. Of course, this location doesn't have anything so harmless as sheep; it's got bulls. You can probably guess what happens next. Many of the comics play out in this fashion, with Ripley and the gang investigating a new threat, eliminating it in a creative way and then moving on to the next colony. Comics do tell stories chapter by chapter, but the breakdowns of these narratives feel very much like an episode of a show that never materialized.
By 1995, the Aliens toy line had wrapped up almost entirely, though a few sporadic repaint releases sprung up from time to time. That wasn't always supposed to be the plan however, as concept art exists for a possible "Power Brigade" extension for the line. These figures would have incorporated more mech suits that could be considered as more agile power loaders, and could have featured cap-firing action. Kenner was no stranger to this toy feature, as it was used in the Robocop line a few years earlier. Rumors also exist of a possible "Predator Hunters" wave, which would have added Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch into the action figure universe. Prior to NECA's release a few years ago, there had never been a Dutch figure offered in conjunction with the Predator license. To have had Dutch and Ripley teaming up to take down the galaxy's biggest threats would have been a real treat. Sadly, it was just not to be.
Though a few companies tried to revive the license for both Aliens and Predator at various points over the last 20 years, it wasn't really until NECA's revitalization of Predator in 2011 that things picked back up again. The Predator line has been such a success over the last five years that NECA has dipped back into the Kenner designs to rework them for a modern audience. The same is true of the company's Alien figures, which will see a Kenner Ripley released to kick things off on Aliens Day. The Xenomorphs will get their chance to shine in some retro designs in the coming year however. Despite being out of the game for a very long time, Kenner's impact on Aliens is clearly still felt today.
And it's all thanks to a cartoon that never got made.