Ever toyed with the idea of being an astronaut or piloting a spaceship? What if your toys had aventures of their own? Kim Stevens and Shaqui Le Vesconte try and get to the point of Project SWORD...
Project SWORD: Solo - 1967
"Orbiting the Moon is the most fantastic fleet of rocketry the World has ever produced. The frontier of space has been broken and now the Earth's major powers have united their efforts in The Space World Organisation for Research and Development, code name SWORD, to explore our own Solar System. On Moon Base, Space Controller Astro Rapier awaits the order to begin Phase 1 and launch a robot piloted Deep Space Probe at the speed of light, on a fifteen thousand million mile journey beyond planet Pluto. Purpose: to map and bank information for future manned flights."
Issue 19 of the City Magazines comic Solo saw a complete revamp of its format, which had been hinted at for the three previous weeks with strange and frightening happenings around the world. This was a build-up to the new strip The Mark Of The Mysterons, but another Century 21 tie-in also made its debut here.
Project SWORD could be seen as an attempt to cash in on the success of Century 21s own merchandising, but without the expense of a television series behind it. Nowadays it's not uncommon for a range of toys to actually give birth to a series as an extended marketing ploy but this was fairly new ground for the time. Some advertising strips, like The Ladybird Club (for a range of children's clothes) and The Milky Bar Kid were already common in TV Comic, and Dinky Driver (advertising the die-cast toys) was on the back page of Solo itself. This form of tie-in promotion would seem to have started back in the 1950s (in the UK, at least) with Eagle able to sell the popularity of Dan Dare artist Frank Hampson to draw adverts for other companies, such as confectioners Walls.
An idea which originated at Century 21 Merchandising, Keith Shackleton recalls that it was Jack Rosenthal, the Managing Director of J.Rosenthal Toys (latterly renamed Century 21 Toys, and producers of quality Thunderbirds toys) who put forward a new range under the name Project SWORD. This, Keith Shackleton had once said, was a scheme to reissue and link together existing toys that had been acquired when Century 21 Toys bought out a Hong Kong based manufacturer. Certainly some related toy designs had appeared throughout TV21 strips and features from 1966 onwards, such as a Moon Bus in a Lady Penelope, and designs from related toy range Spacex make various cameo entries, some even bearing the same name as the toys (i.e. the 'Needleprobe' in the 1966 TV21 Summer Extra).
Whatever the case, Project SWORD became a tale of space exploration set in some unspecified future, a format discussed and fleshed out by the heads of Century 21 themselves - Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, Reg Hill, John Read and Keith Shackleton, together with Jack Rosenthal. It is difficult to speculate which came first, chicken and egg style, the need to promote the toys to sell them, or having the SWORD strip to help boost sales of Solo. Certainly the revamp of the entire comic had to make the latter a possible consideration.
Sources also vary on exactly how many Project SWORD toys there were. Contemporary adverts state 16 yet the 'Official Manual', issued with each and every SWORD toy along with a badge, has 17 (18, if you count the Zero X).
The 17 that appear in the Manual were:
01/ Cape Kennedy Set: A conventional Apollo Saturn V and launch tractor with tower.
02/ Probe Force Flight 1: (see right)
03/ Probe Force Flight 2
04/ Probe Force Flight 3
05/ Apollo - Saturn Rocket: Reputedly a larger version of the rocket in the Cape Kennedy Set but bearing little resemblance to it.
06/ Nuclear Ferry: While the toy had a delta-wing passenger section, only the main body was seen in Phase 1.
07/ Scramble Bug
08/ Moon Prospector
09/ Moon Ranger: Seemingly ignored by the Phase 1 strip.
10/ Moon Bus
11/ Space Glider
12/ Dyna-Soar Glider
13/ Moon Base Set: A variation of which appeared in establishing scenes.
14/ Booster Rocket
15/ Re-Entry Task Force No.1
16/ Re-Entry Task Force No.2
17/ Re-Entry Task Force No.3
18/ Zero X
Operating out of a base in Woomera - an artwork rendition of a semi- futuristic architectural model which cropped up in various issues of TV Century 21 and the later Letts TV21 Diary - and a newly established base in the Ocean of Storms on the Moon, Project SWORD was an especially uninvolving tale. Whereas The Mark Of The Mysterons had a dry documentary feel, Don Harley's slick artwork and a fair degree of publicity, SWORD Phase 1 had only mediocre scripts and average artwork by an unidentified artist. The craft came first - after all they were the main selling point - with technical cutaways featuring in almost every installment, but the characterisation was unfortunately as flat as the printed page.
The main characters are Astro Gregory Peters, code name 'Rapier', and his second in command Cosmo Blade, whose real name is never given. They are over seen by Supremo Alexis Kamonovitch, codename 'Sabre'. Giving the characters and manouvres names after types of knife or sword is a nice-ish touch (though one wonders if everyone had to have a related name, and if there were enough to go round!) and SWORD has its own acknowledgement call, to match Thunderbirds' FAB, in 'M.A.C.' - though what this actually means is never clarified. The best guess is 'Moving As Commanded', though with the blatant (what would now be called) product placement, it could be suggested what you were reading was 'Mainly A Commercial'...
Project SWORD story guide - Phase One
Artist: Unknown. 3 pages, b/w.
Part 1 - Issue 19, 24 June 1967
On the order of the President, Supremo Sabre directs Project SWORD to begin. Astro Rapier and Cosmo Blade leave Moon Base to join robot SIBOR in the Atomic Booster Rocket in its pre-launch scabbard in orbit. With the scabbard withdrawn into one of the ferries, the ABR is escorted by two PFF ships as it accelerates to maximum boost of 25 solargons along its sheathway but a fire suddenly occurs in one of the fuel pods...
Cutaway Info: No cutaway but photos of seven of the main toys in the range (above). Buy now and avoid disappointment later...
MAC: The strip crams in as many of the craft as possible and succeeds in five - more if you count the DSP 'Nose Craft' and Moon Base. You can just make out a Scramble Bug too. RTF3 is referred to as Rapier's own personal craft.
Part 2 - Issue 20, 01 July 1967
Rapier orders SIBOR to launch the Deep Space Probe while he and Blade remain in the Booster control to deal with the fire. One of the escorting TTF craft launches a self-sealing missile which puts the fire out. Repairs made, the ABR is escorted back to Moon Base as SIBOR reports the DSP is proceding as normal on its mission. Flying ahead in his own RTF, Rapier is told the ABR and Nuclear Ferry are heading straight for a large meteorite shower. So it is up to the SWORD Task Force to attempt to destroy or divert it...
Cutaway Info: A.B.R. - Atomic Booster Rocket
MAC: An entire flight of PFFs - all three types - are used to attack the meteorite shower.
Part 3 - Issue 21, 08 July 1967
Atomic missiles blast the shower and the Task Force Leader Servo Dirk is put out of action by debris. But the mission is successful and the ABR and Nuclear Ferry are out of danger. Supremo Sabre arrives at Moon Base to observe the return of the DSP, and he and Rapier lift off to greet it. But while the probe is on correct course, something strange has happened - the whole surface of it has crystalised!
Cutaway Info: Probe Vehicle.
MAC: Supremo Sabre's personal RTF1 arrives on the Moon and, oh look.. there's a Moon Bus too!
Part 4 - Issue 22, 15 July 1967
Returning to Moon Base, Rapier realises somone must, at some point, go aboard the probe and as he programmed SIBOR he is the best candidate. Suiting up in anti-radiation armour, Rapier enters the orbitting probe and finds the same crystalisation inside. But the astro starts to feel giddy and passes out Analysis of the structure of the probe seems to suggest imminebt disintegration and all other craft are ordered out of the area, just as it explodes with Rapier aboard...
Cutaway Info: RTF Re-entry Task Force 1 - though it only superficially resembles the toy.
MAC: An entire flight of PFFs again, investigating the Probe.
Part 5 - Issue 23, 22 July 1967
With Rapier apparently killed and Project SWORD a failure, Supremo Sabre orders two Dyna Gliders to capture the cloud of dust and debris for analysis. But in the midst of the cloud, Glider Delta Two makes contact with unidentified signals - the bodies of Rapier and SIBOR! A space ambulance is despatched to recover them, with an astonishing discovery - Rapier is not dead! But something strange has happened...
Cutaway Info: No cutaway but...
MAC: ...the third page is a 'fleet identification chart' with photos of ten of the toys in the range (see bottom of page). Dyna Gliders make their strip debut, as does an RTF2 as a 'space ambulance'.
Part 6 - Issue 24, 29 July 1967
Somehow, Rapier and SIBOR are saying the same thing! Both are ferried to SWORD Headquarters on Earth where both are examined. A professor finds they have been bombarded by harmless Ultra Zela radiation, with the side effect of linking their minds - SIBOR can be ordered by Rapier's thoughts, and the Astro has all the information of SIBOR's computer mind. With this exciting development in mind, Sabre announces he is sending them to Mars...
Cutaway Info: Nuclear Ferry.
MAC: An entire flight of PFFs escort the ferry back to Earth.
A none too inspiring start to the strip. Some of the frames featuring the craft in action are quite nice but the art lacks polish. One senses the writer struggling to include as many craft as possible - to the exclusion of a really good story.
The 'SWORD' motif carries through to naming trajectories 'sheath-ways'.
Strangely, the 'end' of part 5 does not match the beginning of part 6, as if the third page - featuring the Fleet Identification Chart (see bottom of page) - had actually replaced a page of the strip.
Writer: Unknown. Artist: Unknown. 3 pages, b/w.
Part 1 - Issue 25, 05 August 1967
The briefing for second phase of Project SWORD, the colonisation of Mars, is completed. Rapier, Blade and SIBOR in the ABR lead an armada of SWORD ships on the mission. But two day in, Blade notices they are off course owing to a gravitational force from somewhere in the asteroid belt. When course corrections fail, Rapier takes SIBOR in the Probe to investigate. But a week later, as they approach their objective, they find the force too powerful and their retros are not slowing them down...
Cutaway Info: RTF Re-entry Task Force 3.
MAC: The SWORD armada comprises an ABR, two Ferries and an assortment of PFFs.
Part 2 - Issue 26, 12 August 1967
Rapier takes a gamble and orders SIBOR to increase speed to 20 solargons and shoot past the asteroid designated as 617. When the 'gravity' ceases it becomes obvious it is artificial and Rapier lands to investigate. Taking SIBOR in a Moon Bus, Rapier finds a strange tracks at a cave entrance which leads to a underground complex. Unknown to him, their arrival has been noticed and a large robotic insectoid 'sentry' is activated. Too late, Rapier notices the robot but it immobilises him in a beam. His only hope is to order SIBOR telepathically into action - but is the robot affected too?
Cutaway Info: Moon Bus.
MAC: The DSP carries a Moon Bus to Mars for exploration.
Part 3 - Issue 27, 19 August 1967
The answer is no and SIBOR destroys the sentry with missiles. Their alien observers order Rapier's escape to be blocked and the station to be destroyed. A door closes the cavern, impervious to missiles. With the heat rising, Rapier tells SIBOR to warn SWORD before passing out. The robot carries his master outside, where he is able to find a weakness in the rock and break through. Returning to the Probe, SIBOR gets Rapier back to the SWORD armada where he reports they now know they have alien enemies - who plan to drive them back to Earth.
Cutaway Info: RTF Re-entry Task Force 2.
MAC: The RTF2 - it doesn't appear in this installment but you get the impression it should have, as a 'space ambulance' again.
Part 4 - Issue 28, 26 August 1967
The SWORD armada is now nearing Mars, and Supremo Sabre warns Rapier to take no chances. But the armada is being observed from the surface by alien humanoids, who believe them to the Vargans - a barbaric race who drove them from their own planet. Landing on Mars in the Probe, a remote Prospector surveys the surface until it is intercepted and captured by an alien vehicle. Rapier takes a Scramble Bug to investigate and is attacked by the aliens. When SIBOR reports the loss of contact, Cosmo Blade is despatched to head a Task Force Flight to Mars but as they approach they encounter a force-screen... with shattering impact!
Cutaway Info: Prospector
MAC: The Prospector makes its debut, and the Scramble Bug makes its first official appearance. The Task Force Flight are RTF3s.
Part 5 - Issue 29, 2 September 1967
The three TFF craft are destroyed and only Blade's ship survives to warn of the force-screen. With Rapier still out of contact, Blade orders SIBOR to proceed on foot to the Bug's location. Rapier is still alive, recovering consciousness to find his suit losing air. As SIBOR approaches, the aliens lift the screen so their own robots can capture them. Face to face with his alien captors, Rapier is puzzled when they ask SIBOR - a superior robot to their own - to join forces with them. Rapier telepathically tells SIBOR to agree to play for time - but the aliens first order is for SIBOR to kill Rapier...
Cutaway Info: Scramble Bug
MAC: Is Blade flying an RTF1 or an RTF3? What the hell... buy both anyway.
Part 6 - Issue 30, 9 September 1967
They are interrupted by the arrival of the SWORD armada and Blade's reinforcements. Sabre sacrifices an unmanned Glider to check if the force-screen is still operating and finding it isn't, lands a surface force of Scramble Bugs and Moon Buses. A force of the alien's own robots, led by SIBOR, has also been mobilised to meet them and a battle breaks out. Rapier manages to overpower his guard and tries to persuade the alien leader they are not Vargans. The leader does not believe him so Rapier shuts down the robots. Suddenly, another attack more alien ships comes out of nowhere. These are the Vargans...
Cutaway Info: Dyna-Soar Glider
MAC: The seemingly expendable Glider (couldn't they use missiles?), and the ground force of Buses 'n' Bugs.
Part 7 - Issue 31, 15 September 1967. One Page Text.
The aliens are now convinced Rapier was telling the truth but fear the Vargans will wipe them out. Rapier has a plan - to use the aliens' own robots, led by Sibor, to fight them. The aliens agree, and Rapier contacts Supremo Sabre in the orbiting SWORD fleet to add to the force. The Vargans start their attack, and the battle is joined - not only the future of Mars is at stake, but that of Project SWORD itself...
But the Vargans, not expecting a massive and concentated attack, are easily defeated, with their entire fleet wiped out. The aliens are now free to colonise Mars, as they wished, and SWORD has learned enough about them. There are plenty of other worlds, and their inhabitants, to discover and explore...
The only good thing that can be said is that this is an improvement on the first story. You still get the feeling of 'toys first, story second' and the 'Martians' are quite awful SF cliches.
It is never clear who built the asteroid base (the implication is the Vargans) nor why the 'Martians' don't know them from humans - though this may have been cleared up had the story continued.
The text conclusion is awful but one can imagine the need was to tie up all the ends as quickly as possible.
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Key to SWORD Fleet Identification Chart (right):
1. Booster Rocket, designed to take exploratory vehicles to such distant destinations as Mars;
2. Close-up of Booster Rocket's nose, showing detachable fuel-pods and exploratory vehicle;
3. Re-entry craft designed to act as propulsion units for larger craft;
4, 5, 7. These make up the advance party, which make the initial landing on any given planet and set up the basic essentials for a base sight;
6. Dyna-Soar Glider. A research vehicle designed to operate in space, e.g. as a weather station, reconnaisance craft etc.;
8. The Moon Bus used for transporting men or materials over unknown terrain;
9. The Scramble Bug, capable of travelling over the roughest surfaces.
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About the most interesting feature of Project SWORD was the relationship that develops, the result of a deep space accident, between Astro Rapier and his robotic co-pilot SIBOR (Space Investigating Banking and Observation Robot). Absent for the majority of the first story SIBOR, resembling a slimmer prototype of Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, becomes linked telepathically to Rapier, each able to speak to the other beyond normal means. However, this does seem to become something of a deux ex machina to get Rapier out of a couple of situations in the subsequent story.
If the lack of any real direction to the stories was one low point, the finale was another. For whatever reason (one would suspect rapidly dwindling sales of Solo), Project SWORD was not even allowed the satisfaction of a decent conclusion, with the current story wrapped up by a single page of text owing to the imminent merger into TV Tornado. Some might say this was a mercy killing, and easier on the eyes than the artwork. As it was, none of the Solo strips actually continued, as The Mysterons was really a wholly new strip. Only The Man From UNCLE, already a series of text stories in TV Tornado, gave any sense of continuity and it was probably this that steered the direction of the merger at this time rather than, say, TV21.
As it was, with all the effort put into the packaging and distribution of the Century 21 Project SWORD toys, it was too much to just discard the idea completely. After a rest of six months, Project SWORD would reappear in the pages of TV21 in a wholly new form...
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The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History would like to thank:
and David Nightingale
- for their help with this feature.
Version 1.1 - 01.05.05
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