Added 27 October 2005.

The TV series that never was, the toys that were

Project S.W.O.R.D

Most people know Gerry Anderson's famous series - Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet - by name if not from memory. Of those, many of a certain age will also remember TV21 comic, a publication that carried strips based on those series and others which did not actually make it to the small screen. One, Project S.W.O.R.D, was interesting inasmuch as it was a strip that never became a TV series, yet drove the marketing for a range of space-age toys that appeared in the shops for a few years in the late 1960s.

What was Project S.W.O.R.D?

The timeline for Project S.W.O.R.D was set over a thousand years in the future, in the 31st century - an epoch that set it apart from most if not all of the other strips in TV21, which were based in the 21st century and shared a common mythology and set of storylines (thus Mysteron agents from the Captain Scarlet series could be seen lurking around Marineville, the home of Stingray, etc). In the 21st century Anderson universe, the enemies were various: Mysterons (Captain Scarlet), Titan and his aquaphibians (Stingray), or simply various disasters common to humanity (Thunderbirds). In the universe of SWORD, there were two principal enemies (more below).

The SWORD story begins with an intensive all-out effort by the World Government in the 31st century to find fresh resources on other planets to succour the earth's population now that the planet's own minerals and so forth had been exhausted. S.W.O.R.D stood for Space World Organisation for Research and Development and was viewed as mankind's last throw of the dice, at least to sustain it at current levels of civilisation. Exotic spacecraft (on which the plastic toys were modelled) were used to explore and liaise with distant planets beyond the solar system and to bring home the precious resources on which Earth depended.

The biggest development in the SWORD mythology, however, was the apocalyptic meteor strike of 3031. The celestial body struck the Pacific Ocean, causing a giant tsunami that engulfed Japan, China, Southeast Asia, New Zealand (and presumably Australia?) and the western coasts of North America. Tragic as this was, the agony was then exacerbated by the impact of the meteor into the earth's crust, which caused the planet's interior to start behaving erratically. Volcanic activity and earthquakes increased dramatically. A breakdown of civilisation began, with cities plunging into chaos and lawlessness.

Only one body was seen to be able to deal with the enormous problems facing the planet: SWORD, whose base was on the Moon (or Mars in some stories). Far from sweeping up the damage and returning the planet to a state of pristine civilisation as of the previous week, however, SWORD's task was the desperate threefold one of Evacuation, Rehabilitation and Investigation. Evacuation involved the removal of key personnel - scientists, engineers and other technicians, but also writers, artists and others held important to the survival of human civilisation - to other bases in space, where they would not be in danger of being caught up in Earth's final demise. Despite the numbers of spaceships available, it was understood that only a fraction of the population could thus be removed, the rest - the Rejects - being protected under the second heading, Rehabilitation. This meant that those not eligible - as yet, if ever - for evacuation were placed in settlement camps for their own protection and safety, including food, shelter and clothing. Perhaps understandably, not everyone wanted to live under such an arrangement, and there arose a number of bodies or individuals who refused to dwell under SWORD's oversight and subsequently fended for themselves. These people became known as Casuals and viewed SWORD with varying degrees of hostility up to outright hatred. Many of the stories in the strip involved Casuals and their battles, or occasionally more pacific encounters, with SWORD.

The third task, Investigation, was the hardest and in some ways perhaps most open to doubt. This was the work of finding out why the earth's core was running wild and whether there was any way of reversing or neutralising the problem. Some of the stories in the Project SWORD annual of 1968, such as the descent into a ferocious volcano or the dive to retrieve a reactor from Sydney, featured this goal, although for obvious reasons (continuity of the story!) they were almost uniformly unsuccessful and often ended in tragedy.

Heading the organisation was Bill Jansson, its overall commander, aided by a few other main characters (see the Links section for details). Most of the characters in the stories in the annual at least seemed to appear only once before being killed off or at least sent elsewhere for other duties. The cast was almost overwhelmingly male, although this may have been more to do with TV21 perhaps being aimed primarily at boys - the only female character I can remember, interestingly enough, was a young woman leading a Casual attack on a SWORD expedition.

The SWORD universe

Life on Earth in 3031 was portrayed as grim, even in the Reject camps. The bulk of the population under SWORD's auspices are jumpy and ready to riot at the drop of a hat. Casuals frequently assail SWORD bases, where they are usually shot down in large numbers if SWORD personnel can bring their superior weapons to bear. Outside the camps the picture is one of ruined cities and parched, barren countryside, with the sea itself often having retreated for miles. SWORD personnel themselves are often fatalistic: in the story "The Queen of Spades", young fliers are shown as eager to volunteer for a suicide mission to fly a bomb into an oil spillage. As one says, it's better than waiting around for the earth's final hiccup. Technology itself does not appear to have advanced much beyond the 21st century timeline of the better-known TV21/Anderson series, with jet fighters, rifles and grenades all commonly used. Computers are referred to, but spaceships still appear for the most part to be propellant-driven, a somewhat anomalous situation if planets beyond our own solar system are to be visited. In fact some elements of the Apollo space programme and the then-contemporary film 2001: A Space Odyssey were co-opted into the story: many of the photos in the annual were from the film, and the Saturn V Apollo rocket was drawn as an evacuation vehicle capable of carrying tens if not hundreds of people instead of the three men that were at that time in real history orbiting the moon at Christmas 1968. Even the old Zero X spaceship from the other TV21 strips was given this treatment.

It would be wrong to describe the series as unremittingly bleak. Certainly the hostile and savage background served as a backdrop to heroic or at least praiseworthy actions, and there was none of the cynicism and snarling that seemed to characterise one or two comics in the seventies. In one story a character already under judicial investigation breaks down in terror when his diving bell is attacked by a giant jellyfish, only to redeem himself later by knocking out his officer and sending him up to the surface, and then collecting the sunken reactor and dragging it on a one-way trip to Antarctica. In another strip, a brutal Casual leader attacks a SWORD base and gains the upper hand when he succeeds in capturing an armoured vehicle, which is however destroyed by one of his own men whom he had shot and left for dead. The Casuals themselves are not simply baddies but are shown as having varying motives for their opposition to SWORD, and in one of the later strips, "The End of the Beginning", the two sides finally reach a ceasefire agreement. Even an environmental awareness is evident, with an attempt to capture many of Earth's native species and place them in a zoo/sanctuary on another planet.

The broad view

In some ways, despite its comic-strip origins and marketing intentions, Project SWORD was an idea that sat in the mainstream of postwar British science fiction, alongside such apocalyptic works such as "Day of the Triffids" and "The Kraken Wakes". TV drama series such as Doomwatch would likewise consider the effects of changing mankind's ecology. The main difference between them is that in the others the agents of change were alien lifeforms or humanity itself, whereas the meteorite that changes the world forever in SWORD is a tragic accident for which no-one is to blame. The idea of the apocalyptic meteorite had already been around to explain the disappearance of the dinosaurs, and was to be eagerly taken up in later years (for example the Sean Connery 1977 film Meteorite, as well as the better known and higher budget Deep Impact and Armageddon:1999). Ironically in the final story of the annual, the melting of the Antarctic ice-cap is seen as a necessary part of the solution to the earth's overheating, whereas of course now it is seen as one of the signs of the earth's distress. Another very different view today is that of World Government, which in the science fiction of the sixties (at least in TV21) seems to have been considered quite logical and desirable but which nowadays is viewed with suspicion if not outright hatred.

Could it have been a series?

There were several strips in TV21 that had a reasonable longevity but which were never made into full series of their own, such as Zero X which only featured in the film Thunderbirds Are Go! SWORD does seem to have been more ambitious, however, in the sense of wishing to market toys, so it might have made some commercial sense to carry the promotion further. However, the question of format and budgets then arises. Anderson was already moving towards the idea of using real actors, the contemporary Captain Scarlet being his last animation series before the human UFO and Space: 1999. Furthermore, given the scale of the SWORD project, one suspects that a certain minimum amount of money would have been required if the whole thing were not to have been a risible scotch-tape-and-sticky-back-plastic effort. Nowadays, given the exponential leap in the power and affordability of special effects, such a series might well be a viable possibility. Whether it would appeal to others outside a range of forty-something men is of course the important question.


I am grateful to The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History who list the contents of many of the SWORD stories on their pages. Definitely worth a visit!

See also the Project SWORD annual of 1968.

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