S*T*A*R Team: A Beloved ‘Star Wars’ Knockoff’s Origin & Rebirth

Do you remember S*T*A*R Team from the late ‘70s from Ideal? There was the ominous Knight of Darkness, the chrome-colored Zem 21 with an odd green head, and the rolling domed Zeroid, who soared through space in a “Star Hawk” flying saucer. There was even a free Marvel comic tie-in for the characters’ adventures so kids could align their imaginations with the S*T*A*R Team’s galactic battles.

5e22ea02cc4ce5366544722e06cc21b9_xl.jpgI never had any S*T*A*R Team toys, but my best buddy Billy had ‘em all. I was nine years old and a bit dismissive about how they were obviously STAR WARS knock-off toys. But I was also secretly envious, as I had STAR WARS on the brain 24/7 and no legit toys that resembled anything from the film for my backyard intergalactic adventures in the months that followed the George Lucas blockbuster’s release. No one did. For what seemed like an eternity after my first STAR WARS viewing, I had to improvise with a glow-in-the-dark “Space Sword” lightsaber substitute and my Mego STAR TREK figures, which sadly became immediately obsolete in my mind as of May 1977.

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It is well-documented that when STAR WARS exploded at the box office that summer there was virtually no toy merchandise available from the film, prompting a mad dash by companies to fill the immediate void of themed products. The Kenner toy company, who had the official Lucasfilm license to make STAR WARS toys, was scrambling to get new items on store shelves as they prepared to launch a full-scale invasion of toy store shelves that would have to wait until spring 1978. At first, they swapped stickers and packaging on some of their established toy lines, “labelslapping” almost anything that they could rebrand with the STAR WARS logo, like the Luke Skywalker AM Headset Radio (a former SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN item) and the X-Wing Aces Target Game (formerly the generic Aerial Aces Target Game, complete with machine gun!). But they just couldn’t get any action figures manufactured in a timely fashion to meet the extraordinary and unexpected hysteria (for more on this dilemma read about the STAR WARS Early Bird Kit and watch the wonderful documentary PLASTIC GALAXY and Netflix series THE TOYS THAT MADE US to fully understand these intriguing struggles). IMG_4773

Nobody could blame the small Cincinnati toy company for underestimating massive demand for a sleeper cinematic hit. Hell, no one could have seen it coming. But that crucial sales window that Kenner missed in the second half of ’77 provided the chance for other toy companies to pounce and sell anything STAR WARS-like to hungry kiddie consumers. Ideal was one of those companies.

Primarily a board game company — and the champion of young boys everywhere thanks to their epic Evel Knievel toy line — Ideal circled the wagons to see which toys they had in the fold that could be reworked to tap the STAR WARS market. They had to look no further than their established late-‘60s S*T*A*R (Space Travel and Reconnaissance) Team role-playing concept that originally outfitted kids with planetary exploration outfits and gear: The S*T*A*R Team Space Exploration Play Set. Then they plundered their Zeroids — a vaguely R2-D2-ish robot line, also from the late ’60s — keeping the lower half of the Zogg character’s body and adding a domed blinking light.

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Zeroid and original packaging

The Zeroid ship, the Zem XXI, was renamed Star Hawk and given new colors. Captain Action’s body (Ideal’s 1966 answer to Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, with multiple costumes to play pop-culture heroes like Batman and Superman) was used for Knight of Darkness. And Zem 21’s body was sourced from Ideal’s J.J. Armes’ molds (a mid-‘70s action figure based on a real-life double-amputee hero with interchangeable hands that could become suction cups, magnets or hooks!). Voila! Three action figures and a spaceship were at the ready to be reborn and placed in the hands of demanding kids for their new outer-space adventures.

 

A backstory was concocted, a comic book was commissioned from Marvel, and the S*T*A*R Team was officially born. According to Ideal’s catalog description of the figures, the tall, 11 1/2” Knight of Darkness was a “somber, powerful” character with a “menacing appearance.” Handling a “futuristic weapon,” he sported an “imperial black cape, black and silver uniform, with a grim masked head that strikes terror into the bravest heart!” Standing 9” tall, Zem 21 was a C-3PO stand-in with a humanoid body “designed with all the mechanical chrome styling of a real super-science robot of tomorrow.”

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It was clearly stated that Zem 21 was “not a leader, though — he needs a Zeroid companion to do his thinking for him.” I’ll bet R2-D2 would agree. “With more than one Zeroid to share the brainwork, the Star Team has an even better chance against the Knight of Darkness!” (More than one Zeroid? Hint hint — buy a number of ’em for your collection!). Another S*T*A*R Team member/vehicle/product rehash was added in 1978 — Kent and His Cosmic Cruiser (formerly Evel Knievel’s Sky Cycle) — to cash in before the whole line was scrapped thanks to Kenner’s better-late-than-never STAR WARS toy invasion.

 

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Great vintage catalog ad for the S*T*A*R Team, thanks to PlaidStallions.com

 

It should be noted that George Lucas’ Lucasfilm legal team sued Ideal over the S*T*A*R Team toys for copyright infringement, but ultimately lost as Ideal was able to prove that their line technically pre-dated the release of STAR WARS with their mish-mash of used parts from pre-existing toy lines.

What remains most memorable to me about S*T*A*R Team was that it capitalized on a very limited window to appeal to STAR WARS kids and, more importantly, duped countless parents and grandparents into thinking that they’d bought a Darth Vader doll for their kid, or an R2-D2-equivalent robot with the Zeroid. If only I could be a fly on the wall to watch all of the disappointed expressions on children’s faces when they excitedly opened up gifts on that 1977 Christmas morning expecting a STAR WARS something — and all they got were these imposters.

My fondest memory of the S*T*A*R Team was actually having a hand in their destruction. Remember my buddy Billy? We put our minds together to make our own Super 8 STAR WARS-style movie, and for the grand finale we destroyed the Star Hawk — burnt it to a smoking plastic crisp — for the audience’s entertainment (an audience of about 10 when all was said and done). But he didn’t care. His S*T*A*R Team figures were already collecting dust. He finally had his Kenner STAR WARS toys.

 

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My Knight of Darkness, fresh from the clutches of eBay

 

Despite my apparent disdain for the S*T*A*R Team at the brief time of their prime, their simple existence held a special place in my heart. They now remind me of happy childhood afternoons and my pursuit of STAR WARS-like action figures in the days when there were simply none available. The existence of S*T*A*R Team remained dormant in my memory banks for decades until one day Knight of Darkness randomly popped into my consciousness like the strands of a weird dream. For years after that, I felt compelled to track down a Knight of Darkness figure of my own for old times’ sake.

Enter John Kent, owner of Toyfinity, a toy company that creates limited-edition collectibles. Once I finally claimed my Knight of Darkness prize on eBay, I displayed him proudly on social media. Then, Kent posted on Twitter, “I liked him so much I bought the franchise!” It’s not every day you get a response like that for a toy that served in a pivotal chapter of your childhood. Curious about the possibility of the return of these misfit toys in some form, I picked Kent’s brain to find out what exactly he had up his sleeve.

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“The things I’ve gravitated to the most have a good story component to it,” Kent told me about his affinity for collecting as well as for the toys he likes to create with Toyfinity. A former movie producer and ‘80s kid who originally hails from the Philadelphia area, Kent had an idea to create a toy line akin to “ALIENS meets PAW PATROL” — space marines with robotic canine companions. In the process of investigating toymakers and licenses, he landed an opportunity to purchase licenses that once belonged to Ideal (which was bought by CBS for a reported $58 million in 1982, then split between American Plastic Toys and View-Master five years later, with the majority of the View-Master acquisitions then sold to Tyco, which merged with Mattel in 1997). “I chose five of them: Zeroids, S*T*A*R Team, Robo Force, Rocks & Bugs & Things — which we mostly call Mordles these days — and Manglors, which you might remember from great Ken Kelly box art and horrible rubber figures.”

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Ideal’s Manglor toy line

Born in 1976, Kent really raked in the toys as a kid thanks to his younger sibling. “I have a brother so we would get two times the amount of toys,” he remembers, singling out the day his parents gave him Boba Fett’s Slave 1 to keep him content while they tended his newborn baby bro. “I had access to more toys than just my own interest, so I think of the licenses I own now and the one that I was most familiar with was actually Rocks & Bugs & Things.” Kent recalls having Robo Force toys as well, like “The Leader” Maxx Steele, and points out that the line was short-lived because it came out the same year as Hasbro’s Transformers and got trounced.

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Toyfinity’s mischievous Mordles

Kent’s Toyfinity launched its first two products in 2013: a Robo Force kit using the Glyos System and a Mordles pack that reproduced 10 vintage Mordle sculpts, available in more than 20 colors (a jumbo-sized Big Mordle followed). The 41-piece Robo Force kit provided the flexibility for consumers to build a number of vintage Robo Force characters including the Maxx Steele character (renamed “Maxx Zero”), the dreaded Hun-Dred the Conqueror, Sentinel the Protector, and Enemy the Dictator (as well as the all-new Dred Trooper).

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Maxx Zero

Armed with the S*T*A*R Team license, Kent acknowledges that the thought of recreating the larger sized original figures in this day and age of indie toy production would prove cost prohibitive. “We can’t always execute it the way that I would want to do it,” admits Kent, who describes the direct-to-consumer Toyfinity as “super independent.” So he endeavored to create smaller figures out of his disparate licenses using the Glyos System of interchangeable joints (developed by Onell Design), expand the characters in the line, and create a unifying storyline for them.

 

 

“I looked at all the different stories [used to sell these Ideal toys to consumers] and I realized [that three of these] licenses aren’t separate licenses — they’re KODactually describing this one planet full of robots,” explains Kent. “I don’t think they had the current mindset of cinematic universes to structure them together, but it’s not a big stretch of the imagination to say that the Zeroids from the ‘70s are related to the Zeroids from the ‘60s in some manner. And if this planet of robots had gone another 10 years, i.e. the time that passed between S*T*A*R Team and Robo Force in real life, certainly Maxx Steele could be an evolution of those Zeroids. So it’s looking at all the different original storylines that they had and coming up with a new narrative out of it.”

In the new storyline, the robot planet Zeton (once Planet Zero, home to the Zeroids, the original Worker Robots of the Future!) faces a new villain, Nazgar the Tyrant (a Robo Force baddie with an exposed brain that never made it past the concept phase), who allies with Knight of Darkness and his legion of Darkness Soldiers to face off against Maxx Zero and the Robo Force in a cosmic battle between good and evil.

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And in keeping with the S*T*A*R Team tradition, Toyfinity has produced a new Robo Force comic series providing the backbone for the new mythos of Zeton. The comic comes from a story by Kent and was drawn by Jerzy Drozd with supplemental artwork by Robby Musso, Tim Baron, and Jason Ho.

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Using the classic “robots vs. creatures” play pattern as its foundation, Toyfinity now boasts close to 100 unique characters in its library, most using the Glyos System, encouraging collectors to either follow the official Robo Force storyline or to create their own designs, limited only by their imaginations.

 

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Mixed and matched Toyfinity collectibles

 

To many, S*T*A*R Team may ultimately be infamous for being a blip on the STAR WARS toy knockoff timeline. But it’s a charming story nonetheless, and I find it to be very cool that someone with passion, like John Kent, can acquire a license for a vintage toy line and find a creative way to turn it into something new while maintaining the spirit of the original. You can follow John Kent’s creations at

You can follow John Kent’s creations at Toyfinity.com. And stay tuned — a new Zem 21 is in the works — alongside a classic version of the sold-out Knight of Darkness figure – amid the new creations and variants coming from Toyfinity. I can’t wait.

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I love STAR WARS and write about it a lot. Get my interviews with Mark Hamill and more STAR WARS fun HERE.

Then read more of my Famous Monsters-related pieces, ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT-related tales and interviews,  see cool vintage movie lobby cards, and much more!

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