Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Great 'Operation: Aliens' Mystery ... Solved?

The Internet Is In America gets to the bottom of the proposed Aliens cartoon from the early 1990s - complete with EXCLUSIVE comments from the TV exec who tried to get the show greenlit!


By: Jimbo X
JimboXAmerican@gmail.com
@Jimbo___X

Remember around 1992, when Kenner's badass Aliens action figures hit store shelves? If you actually grew up in the era, odds are you vividly recall them because they were totally unlike anything else available in toy stores. I mean, how surreal it was to walk down the aisles of Toys R Us, just gawping at the rows and rows of cartoony Ninja Turtles and Captain Planet figurines, only to get hit right in the cornea by nightmare fuel in plastic form like the Bull Alien and the Queen Face Hugger outta' nowhere? Hell, even the "good guys" in the toy line looked more like G.I. Joe personnel possessed by that thing from Tetsuo: The Iron Man than your rank and file action figure heroes. Toss in extravagant accessories like the Evac Fighter (which solved the xenomorph problem once and for all by bottling them up like grasshoppers in a Mason jar) and the Alien Queen hive playset (which was literally the He-Man Slime Pit as designed by H.R. Giger) and you had all the makings of an all-time great tie-in toy line ... and that was before they added freakin' Predator to the expanded brand family

Of course, the things being as cool as they were, I suppose we all overlooked a staggering number of peculiarities about the line. For starters, how come Kenner put out a line based on a six-year-old movie when its sequel came out just months before the toyline was launched? And just who the hell were all these original space marines like O'Malley and Atax supposed to be? And was it just me, or did the space marines themselves look a little more cartoony than they did in the movie? These, assuredly, were all thoughts we had in the back of our heads, but since we were too busy making xenomroph rib cages explode and reading those rolled up Dark Horse comics that came with every action figure, none of us, I suppose, ever felt the desire to dig into the matter any deeper.

Well, fast forward a quarter century later and some newfound intel has come to light. As it turns out, the Kenner toys weren't merely (and belatedly) cashing in on the classic 1986 James Cameron flick, they were an honest-to-goodness attempt at garnering a Saturday morning cartoon on Fox Kids!

By now, you've probably heard something about what was initially titled Operation: Aliens. The long and short of it was that, in the early 1990s, some Korean animation studio put together - well, something - that tied into the Aliens mythos. Now, whether or not a full-fledged pilot was ever produced remains undetermined, but it does appear that they put together some sort of animated project featuring Ripley, Hicks and a whole hell of a lot of insectoid monsters with hyper-phallic probosces.

But that, however, is just the beginning. As the fine folks at AliensCollection.com have so painstakingly curated, there was indeed a small armada of Operation: Aliens merchandise queued up in the prototype phase. That includes everything from No. 2 pencils to Alien Queen wristwatches to co-branded Tiger Electronic handheld video games to - heaven help us - what appears to be Alien bubble bath gel.

The writing is pretty much splattered all over the wall: there were undoubtedly some big, BIG plans for Operation: Aliens, so what happened early on in development talks to deprive us of some half hour chunks of chest-burstin', face-huggin' sci-fi horror cartoon action in between reruns of Eek the Cat! and Super Dave: Daredevil for Hire

Granted, the idea of an Aliens cartoon for the ankle-biter set does sound a little - iffy. But then again, there were a ton of animated children's programs released around that timeframe that were likewise built around hard-R adult franchises like Rambo and Robocop and Police Academy. Lest we forget, Fox went as far as to develop a cartoon based on The Toxic freakin' Avenger - if they could turn a gore-and-nudity-soaked Troma franchise like that into action figure fodder, producing a kid-friendly Aliens show was comparatively a walk in the park. Which leaves the great Internet hoi polli and relentless trackers of "lost media" stuck with four unanswered questions:

1.) Was Operation: Aliens floated around as in idea before the Kenner toy line, or was the show proposed as a tie-in to the toy line?

2.) What exactly happened to that outsourced Korean animation footage? How much animation was developed and was a full pilot even produced? And if so, whatever happened to the "full" footage produced?

3.) What was the big stumbling block in the production process? Were executives just too apprehensive about building a cartoon around space creatures that orally impregnate victims and puke acid everywhere? 

4.) And lastly, just how close were we to seeing Operation: Aliens take flight?

Using my professional background as an investigative journalist (no, for real) I started making the Internet rounds. The first stop, naturally, was with the guy who operates the aforementioned AliensCollection.com website. 

"I think it all evolved conceptually at the same time from the desire to go a 'space G.I. Joe' series," said Willie Goldman, who knows more about the Aliens mythos than just about anybody on this planet. "Been researching this one a bit myself over the years."

He couldn't elucidate too much on the mysterious Operation: Aliens project but he did give me the name of someone directly involved with its production - former Fox Kids executive Margaret Loesch, who is now executive chairman of the Kids Genius Cartoon Channel.

Loesch has been in the TV biz for almost 50 years. She was the executive vice president for Hanna-Barbera Productions, then the president and CEO of Marvel Productions before becoming the founding president of what would eventually be known as Fox Kids in 1990. 

And since she was the head honcho for the network's children's programming all the way up until 1997, she would definitely have the skinny on what went down with Operation: Aliens

Of course, The Internet Is In America being a pop culture comedy/political satire site, I didn't really expect Loesch to return any of my emails. But much to my surprise, she was on the horn in a matter of hours and ready to chit-chat about the cartoon that never was.

Her initial correspondence was a bit of a let-down: 

"Hi Jimbo. Well, I have racked my brains and I simply do not have a recollection of any project we developed called 'Operation: Aliens.' I even checked with two of my former colleagues who worked for me - Sidney Iwanter, who proctored 'X-Men' for me, and Maureen Smith, who was our head of research and later became head of [the]Fox Family Channel cable channel. Neither of them remembers the project either. Sorry I can't help you - it sounds like something I would have loved to have developed, but I didn't!" 

Well, sounds like a dead-end, don't it? Fortunately, that email must have drudged up some long dormant memories for the former Fox Kids exec, as Loesch sent the following email a few hours later:

"Jimbo, just to follow up - I do have  a recollection that Kenner Toys may have had the merchandising rights to 'Aliens' and we had a good relationship with Kenner's president, Bruce Stein, in the early '90s. It may have been that we discussed doing an 'Aliens' cartoon but ultimately probably decided not to do it because we would have had to modify it to make it acceptable to our broadcast standards and practices. I just don't remember - what I do know is that we did not develop it and we, Fox Kids, never made a pilot for it.

And there you have it, folks - straight from the big cheese of Fox Kids herself, the company never ordered a pilot for Operation: Aliens, so whatever footage might be floating around out there isn't from a complete 22-minute cartoon. 

But hey, what about those other unanswered questions listed earlier? Well, Loesch didn't provide open-and-shut answers to all of them, but she certainly cleared up many things about the would-be Aliens cartoon (especially why it never got off the ground) in another email:

"My recollection is that Kenner Toys designed some prototypes and showed them to us at Fox. Kenner was a remarkably creative company and they had great designers. They did the same with 'Planet of the Apes' - [the] toy prototypes they designed were remarkable but ultimately we decided not to go forward with an animation series for either property because of the broadcast standards issues we would face with both concepts. The Korean studio that worked on a presentation for 'Aliens' may have been Nelson Shin's company, I just don't remember."

So in a nutshell, Kenner created the toy line and then went to Fox to lobby for a corresponding cartoon (interestingly enough, they also appeared to have been pushing hard for a Planet of the Apes cartoon tie-in, as well, which probably explains the existence of this formerly enigmatic prototype action figure.) In both scenarios, Loesch said the censors would've put the kibosh on animated versions of either property, so very early on Fox Kids made the decision to not pursue Operation: Aliens as regular programming. So while we may have gotten some long-lost animated presentation as test footage, rest assured Fox never put the money upfront for anything as substantial as a full pilot - let alone an entire season's worth of material. 

Now, I know what you're thinking. Sure, the Aliens property is a bit menacing for the Power Rangers crowd, but that sure as sugar didn't stop Fox from giving the A-OK to spin-offs of more adult-oriented stuff like Toxic Crusaders, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and even Little Shop of Horrors. Surely, if kids could've handled animated programs about toxic-waste scarred mutants and anthropomorphic, people-eating plants, they could've stomached a couple of  cartoon face-chewin' xenomorphs, couldn't they?

Well, as Loesch explains in her concluding email, the biggest barrier to Operation: Aliens may have been 20th Century Fox itself: 

"Beacuse Kenner's prototypes were so creative and because we were all fans of the 'Aliens' movie, our interest was genuine, but the hurtles were just too high because it was an R-rated property. The other factor was that the Fox theatrical division did not want it turned into a 'children's property' at that point in its life."

...and that's why we never got Operation: Aliens, kiddos. Apparently, the suits at Fox weren't too keen on turning their sci-fi/horror cash cow into a Saturday morning cartoon NOT because the idea of acid-puking space monsters might traumatize children for life, but because they thought it might detract from the box office success of the primary Aliens film franchise. Keep in mind, the show was being pitched around the same time as Alien 3, a film that barely managed to recoup its budget at the domestic box office. Now this is all conjecture on my part, but I'd surmise to guess the film studio higher-ups were miffed at the movie's box office take and wanted to "protect" the brand for financial posterity. With Aliens making $86 million back in 1986, they knew they had a proven money maker on their hands, and methinks they weren't going to do anything with the brand to jeopardize ticket sales for the next Aliens cinematic endeavor. 

So all of that to say - and remember, this is just my opinion and not anybody else's - I'd bet the farm that Operation: Aliens got nixed because Alien 3 didn't do as well at the box office as the studio had hoped and the suits at the film studio - in mild paranoia mode - thought people would be less likely to watch future Aliens movies if there was an Aliens cartoon on the airwaves targeting grade schoolers and not that coveted 18-34 male demographic.

Well, that, or maybe Standards and Practices took one look at the test footage and said "nah, we don't think first graders are old enough to understand the intricacies of robotic super soldiers fighting killer mantises with penis-shaped heads" and that was it. Probably a combination of the two, if we're being honest with ourselves. 

Alright, so what have we learned today, folks? Well, quite a few things have been cleared up concerning the great Operation: Aliens mystery, thanks to Loesch's extremely appreciated commentary. Let's run down the highlights real quick:

  • Kenner approached Fox about doing an Aliens cartoon to tie-in with their toyline, not the other way around
  • Fox never ordered a pilot for Operation: Aliens, so whatever test animation is out there is going to be minimal. 
  • Standards and practices probably wouldn't have given the show clearance for takeoff, but more importantly, Fox's own film studio didn't want to give the cartoon a go-ahead.
  • And lastly, the idea never even came close to becoming a full fledged cartoon, even though the powers-that-were at Fox Kids really, really wanted to go through with it. 

So now, we're all a little bit wiser on the subject of Operation: Aliens. Still, quite a few questions linger about the proposed program. For example, if the show never even came close to being produced, how come there was so much tie-in merchandising drawn up? Board games, school supplies, video games - for something that never got past the test footage phase, somebody out there clearly thought the show was headed somewhere. Additionally, were any script treatments ever queued up? The animated tidbits we've seen thus far seem to suggest a lot of thought was put into the character design - seemingly, far more than you'd expect for something that was just going to be a glorified demo reel. And of course, that leads us to the biggest question of all: just how much Operation: Aliens animation test footage got produced, is there any we haven't seen yet and whatever happened to the original animation reels? Is the footage truly lost to time forever, or somewhere in a basement in Seoul is there a treasure trove of never-before-seen animated Aliens awesomeness just waiting to be unearthed?

Alas, such appear to be questions were going to have to wait a little bit longer to answer ...

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