Wonder Woman and the Star Riders

Solara of the Star RidersYes, it's the strange and bizarre saga of the world's most elaborate, nonsensical, and ultimately unproduced all-female action figure line (and marketing concept). And it goes something like this:

In 1992, for reasons I can't guess, Mattel decided they wanted to do a line of toys based around Wonder Woman -- but not based on her actual history or character! -- accompanied (of course) by a cartoon and other tie-ins. Their original idea seems to have been a resuscitation of the She-Ra concept, with a little Captain Planet-style environmentalism added, and Wonder Woman shoved in for name recognition. (I also wouldn't be surprised to find out there was a little Sailor Moon influence at work as well -- while that's pure speculation on my part, Sailor Moon was already a huge success in Japan at the time, and Mattel worked closely with Bandai and had to have been aware of how well the franchise was doing.)

So, they went to DC and WB Animation to develop the show that would be a vehicle for the toy line. In late 92, the concept went through several revisions as WB tried to pull together a pilot, DC worked on the promotional comics (which were to be inserted into Barbie boxes, as well as who knows where else) and Mattel worked on their toy designs. Long-time DC comic and licensing artist Jose Garcia-Lopez (see his Superpowers work at the Superpowers archives)  was even tapped to do the character designs. Finally, enough was settled for Mattel to put together a presentation for the Feb 93 Toy Fair. The line was supposed to launch in September of that year, accompanied by a half-hour animated special, which would then be put out on video, and tie-in comic series and other merchandise. Unfortunately, the whole thing collapsed not long afterwards -- I can't trace the actual fatal blow, but my guess would be that they couldn't find any takers for their proposed cartoon (animated shows geared towards girls are virtually unsellable -- even today I know of cartoons being shopped around that no-one will produce because "conventional wisdom" dictates that shows geared towards girls will fail). But as the pilot was never even made (supposedly it got as far as storyboards and some test animation, although I'm not sure if that's true), it's also possible that orders were so low on the toy line Mattel decided to pull the plug -- it had been about five years since the last girl's action line left the shelves, so retailers might have been hesitant about trying the line out. It's also possible that the concept was so weird -- marketing-driven without much thought to logic, a mish-mash of other shows and toy lines, an almost unrecognizable Wonder Woman -- that cooler heads prevailed and put the concept out of its misery.

With so many strikes against it, I'm amazed that anyone attempted to market this concept in the first place, and (I think) it's completely bizarre that toys were actually shown and promoted before the property they were based on had even materialized. In fact, a Feb 93 article in the Wall Street Journal calls the line "an unusual venture" because of  Mattel's attempt to do a female action line, which at that point hadn't been seen for several years. To help clarify things for those who might have been made nervous (and to think Xena would appear just a few years later!), a spokeswoman for Mattel stressed that the line would be nonviolent and that Wonder Woman would have "lots of hair to comb."

But lots of hair couldn't save this Wonder Woman. And so this ill-fated chapter in the history of female action figures drew to a close (as Wonder Woman fans around the globe breathed a sigh of relief!)

The Story

Star Lily of the Star RidersThe Star Rider concept went through a lot of incarnations in  its brief existence, and the final storyline doesn't really have a good explanation for the term, "Star Riders". As things stood when the line ended, you have your choice of two universes for Wonder Woman and the Riders -- in the version which would have been seen in the cartoon (and presumably followed on the published comics and toy info) the "Riders" are a group of four teenage girls from around the globe who were all born with nature-controlling superpowers, who suddenly are called to "fulfill their destiny" as Star Riders along with Wonder Woman (who is apparently also one of the chosen ones -- she's a very young Wonder Woman, with none to little of her normal DC background). They're taken to the mysterious Starlight Castle in the sky by winged horses and given costumes, new names, new hair colors and some nice accessories by a disembodied voice, Starlight (all of this directly from the She-Ra mythos, by the way). Wonder Woman doesn't get a new name, but she does get a new costume along with her new friends, and as a natural-born leader takes charge. They're informed that a great evil has attacked the Earth, in the form of their soon-to-be arch-nemesis Purrsia (who is far more Catra than Cheetah), accompanied by her evil kitty pal Panthera, and they must stop her and protect the world. As it turns out, there's these magical Star Jewels protecting the earth, which Starlight created eons ago. And Purrsia is trying to steal them all to impress her boss, the evil and mysterious Darkness (think Queen Metallia crossed with Satan). Starlight has now activated the Star Riders to save the jewels and protect Nature from evil (it's hard to tell if their existence was somehow engineered by Starlight or if they are simply the best candidates for the jobs). They now must learn to use their powers, cope with their new duties, learn to get along, fit in with other teenagers in their regular lives, and of course constantly fight Purrsia and save the Star Jewels from her. You can pretty much figure out what would have happened for the rest of the series from there.

Promo ComicHowever, the early promotional materials  (WB/Mattel's  presentation folder and the actually-released mini-comic) give us a universe quite different, one based on an earlier version of the storyline, in which the Star Riders don't have human secret identities, but are a sort of secret guardian system for the planet, known only to the Queen of the Amazons, who's sent her daughter to join and lead them.  Instead of being humans who become superheroines, they're more like heroines who adopt secret identities to live among humans -- Princess Diana is a doctor; Solara (actually a sun goddess of the aztecs or something like that) is a photographer; Ice (a princess of the quasi-norse-legend Ice Folk) is a part-time writer and illustrator who holds down a day job in an ice-cream parlor; Dolphin (princess of an aquatic race) works at "Ocean World"; and Star Lily (the last survivor of a secret paradise-like land) works as a florist. Their powers are pretty similar as Star Riders, although in this incarnation poor Star Lily can only make people fall asleep! In this version, Purrsia is simply a greedy evil sorceress from another dimension who wants all jewels. It's suggested that she could have been a heroine of her world but didn't live up to the task -- and that she may be redeemable. She seems to be more or less a rogue Star Rider who wants to lead the group and may be redeemable. (Although it's hard to tell -- in the  promo comic there's a big lapse in logic -- Purrsia tells Panthera, who's a bumbling cat instead of an assistant here, that she wants to be a Star Rider, and in Wonder Woman's lasso she says she want to join their sisterhood and renounce evil. Now I've never heard of a version of the magic lasso where you could actually lie when wrapped up in it -- but apparently Purrsia's figured out how, 'cause as soon as she gets into the castle she cuts the power and makes off with a Star Jewel. Oh well, I guess she's just really evil!)  You can see the entire comic for yourself at Themyscira, along with the character descriptions given in the presentation booklet. Personally, I prefer the later "official" version, and the following character descriptions are based on that:

The Cast of Characters

The dolls!

(going clockwise from) Wonder Woman: a young, relatively-new-to-man's-world WW gets a new costume when she becomes one of the Star Riders, and gets the Wonder Wand, which gives her some supernatural powers including flight and the ability to "bring out people's innate goodness" (ahem, couldn't be from Sailor Moon, could it?). She also gets the coolest horse, Nightshine, who's a winged unicorn, rather than the "plain" winged horse everyone else gets. (Again, shades of She-Ra!) She wears bustier, boots and tiara in the classic WW style, with tights, tutu, and cape added.

Solara: even more predictable than Ice's "cold" nature is Solara's fiery temperament, and believe it or not, she's a hot-blooded Latina teenager (from Mexico, to be specific). No stereotypes there, folks. She has the powers of the Sun, including a serious sunblast she can do from her chest, and she can control temperature. A warm pink and orange color scheme (including dark pink hair) mystifyingly works for her.

Star Lily: the protector of nature is also the token non-white character -- an African princess who says things like "hey, girlfriend". She controls nature with very Poison Ivy-like powers, making things grow out of seemingly nowhere. She has a big floral-design thing on her back. At odds with her close bond to organic things, she seems to be the one most interested in the Starlight Castle's technology.

Dolphin: a perky, cute American high school girl who has absolutely nothing to do with the DC character. She's the "ocean" character, who can make bubbles. Strong bubbles. And big ones too. If she does anything else, I haven't seen it evidenced in the final material -- but early concepts include a "sonic scream". Pale blue hair, a fan-tail skirt and a Mera-like tiara complete her particular ensemble.

Purrsia: the evil nemesis of the Star Riders -- she lives in a dark castle in another dimension, able to move back and forth with the aid of Panthera (she can't do it on her own). She's an evil sorceress type, who like all cartoon villains is rather ineffectual. She has a fur trimmed skirt and cape, and a magic mask which allows her to see things that are invisible to the naked eye-- a sort of x-ray vision, if you will.

Ice:  another American high-schooler who is predictably emotionally detached -- she is the, uh, "ice" character (and again has nothing to do with the DC character she's named for). She can create ice blasts, freeze things, make things out of ice -- she's probably the most powerful of the four younger girls -- but she's the one who gets a power wand to increase and focus her abilities. For some reason, she's pink and white -- not colors I think of as "ice-like"...but I suppose they didn't want to repeat Dolphin's color scheme. Ice wand and cape accessorise her Frosta-like outfit.

It was reported at the time that Supergirl was later going to be added to the line, but after reviewing the line's history, I doubt that was ever actually planned, especially as the development never got as far as planning a series. Room was left for additional riders, but more likely they would have been created by Mattel.

The Toys

The figures are as closely descended from the She-Ra line as the actual characters themselves, using similar accessories, powers and deco. But they're based on a much more doll-like figure than the She-Ra line was -- I'm not sure what these 6" molds were originally created for, but this is their first appearance. They have since been used by Mattel in the Disney Princess line, the "Four Corners" doll family line, and in the girl's adventure line "Tenko and the Guardians of the Gemstones" (which is possibly the closest thing to the Star Riders we'll ever see -- incorporating the powerful magic gemstones concept and the magnetic jewel feature planned for the Star Riders). But unlike these later cloth-dressed dolls, the Star Riders were designed like the She-Ra line, with painted-on basic costumes accessorised with add-on skirts, wands and headdresses (as well as above-mentioned magnetic jewel accessory).

As far as "action features" go, Dolphin apparently had a "bubble power", which looks as though it works by pumping bubble solution through her midsection (the 3rd She-Ra had a bubble power action, but it was based on a gun -- Dolphin's action reminds me of Mermista's water spraying feature instead); Ice has an ice wand and "ice" sound effects; Solara's chest lights up with her solar blast; and Star Lily has the spinning attachment that formerly belonged to Castaspella (from She-Ra).

Starlight CastleIn the playmate/pet department, Mattel also showed Wonder Woman's steed, Nightshine, and one of the basic winged horses, Cloudancer; as well as Purrsia's companion/assistant Panthera. You can see from the photo of Nightshine that the horses are definitely made from the basic horse mold used in the She-Ra line. (And I assume that Purrsia's cat would have been cast from the Clawdeen mold as well.) However, the Starlight Palace, while obviously based in concept on the She-Ra line's Crystal Castle is all-new. I'm not sure why -- the castle is described as in the clouds and otherwise sounds like the Crystal Castle. But the Starlight Palace is smaller and cheap looking. I can only guess that either Mattel didn't want to be so obvious by re-using the Crystal Castle mold -- who knows how many people still had one in their homes and wouldn't appreciate seeing it re-used, or the Crystal Castle was simply too elaborate and expensive to be feasible in 1993 (especially as part of an unproven line.

The toys also reverted back to the original designs for the characters -- for some reason, in the promotional materials, big logos based on the character's initials have been imposed onto the designs. But the toys are back to basics:

logo #1

logo #2

logo #3

logo #4

The original Garcia-Lopez Purrsia design. Note the panther-head emblem (and her unbelievable cuteness).

Inked and colored for promotion -- with the panther emblem replaced by a "P".

As seen in the comic -- the "P" is still present, but alterations have been made in the color scheme and costume.

The prototype Purrsia, closer to the comic's color scheme, but back to the original design.

In Memoriam

In case you hadn't guessed, I'm totally fascinated by the Wonder Woman and the Star Riders saga from start to finish. I would have loved to have gotten a set of these dolls to hang out with the Etheria crowd and spar with Golden Girl and her Guardians. But even I have to admit, I would probably have been picking them up on deep discount, because I cannot see how this line or show, could possibly have done well, or actually have even been done well -- the proposed mixture of Etheria-style action and adventure with modern-day teenage existence just does not seem workable. And a failure on this level could have really hurt the marketability of female action characters for quite some time, so I'm sorry to admit that I'm actually kind of glad that WW and her pals never made it to shelves. But it's still a fascinating non-chapter in Wonder Woman's history, and in the history of female action figures in general. RIP, Star Riders!!

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