Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ancient Toys of Yesteryear: Star Trek by Playmates

***NOTE: This is part retrospective, part review, and part opinion piece. This is by no means a comprehensive look at Playmates Toys’ Star Trek line. It is, however, a lot longer than I originally intended.***

I’m on a huge Star Trek kick right now. These things happen to me occasionally – when one of my secondary loves will take front and center for reasons that may or may not be clear.
Before any Trekkies that might be reading this stand up and go sputtering out of the room (or just click away from the page), let me explain that whole “secondary” thing:

I fucking love Star Trek. The original series is sacred to me in a way that not many things in the media are. I think the sixties Batman TV show is the only other thing that occupies the same sort of place in my heart. Those two shows were in syndication when I was a small child and were the first television programs that I would say I was devoted to. The Monkees is probably up there as well, but for obvious reasons does not have the same staying power as Star Trek and Batman.

By the same token, Star Trek (as a franchise) does not have the same cache for me as Star Wars or GI Joe. While we have had Star Trek of one form or another pretty much since I was born, there hasn’t always been merchandising support (a key facet of how much devotion a franchise gets from me) and the various projects have been of wildly varying quality. That affects my fandom. I know everybody isn’t that way, but I am. Heck, even the mighty Doctor Who franchise was relegated to a secondary – maybe even tertiary – position for years due to a lack of any kind of presence that I was aware of. If I were writing this ten years ago there’s a good chance I wouldn’t even mention Doctor Who.

My point here is that Star Trek has traditionally had a tough time in the toy aisles. With two notable exceptions – one of which is what I am going to be talking about today – toy companies have had a mystifyingly difficult time supporting lines that by all rights should be chock full of aliens, starships, and imagination-inspiring items of all kinds. I’m not going to try to nail down exactly why certain lines haven’t caught fire over the years – that would be a whole other post. Today I’m going to take a look at Playmates Toys’ massively successful and years-spanning run with the Star Trek license.

Side Note: The other manufacturer that I consider to have been successful with Trek was Mego. I know that Diamond Select Toys has produced some fantastic figures and what are easily the best starships of any line, but if you aren’t penetrating mass market retail then you’re not producing a truly successful toy line. Sorry, I think DST is awesome, but that’s how I feel.

So my current Star Trek kick is due to a combination of factors – the stars aligned, if you will. SyFy was showing The Undiscovered Country a few weekends ago. I saw it while I was getting ready for work. Pretty much any time I catch a bit of one of the original crew movies – my preferred form of Trek – I end up having to watch all of them. After doing that I proceeded to Netflix to check out some Next Generation. I watched “Hide and Q” and then went straight to “The Schizoid Man”, continuing on from there. As of this writing I am on “The Ensigns of Command” and have recruited Lil’ Troublemaker into my watching due to the next aspect of my Trek kick – somebody sold all of their Playmates Trek toys to my local comic book shop and I have bought a lot of them.

Back when Playmates first got the Star Trek license I was still not convinced about The Next Generation. I was solidly an original series guy. I wasn’t sold on this old egghead, Picard and I thought Data and Wesley were annoying. I also had trouble buying my pal LeVar from Reading Rainbow as an outer space adventurer. It was a classic case of resistance to franchise change, I was just too inexperienced to recognize it. I was eleven when the show premiered. I don’t think I truly loved the TNG crew until First Contact came out. I might have been watching the show by then – probably was – but I specifically remember that movie blowing me away.

In 1992 I saw the Playmates TNG toys in the toy aisles and was not interested. I don’t think it even occurred to me to hope that they would produce figures of Kirk and his crew because back then that wasn’t necessarily something that was done. The toy companies hadn’t quite grasped the power of nostalgia yet. They were still more concerned about brand recognition (a less powerful form of nostalgia).

Playmates took an interesting approach to their Star Trek line. Every single item that was released was numbered and labeled with a “Limited Edition” branding. This was a stroke of brilliance, as it added a collectability factor that would appeal to older fans of the franchise, who would be needed to propel the line to success. You can take one look on eBay and see that the numbers were utterly meaningless as anything other than a way to track production quantities, but at the time it was a compelling facet of collecting the toys.

What drew me into the line a year later was the Classic Trek box set:
That bridge set is made of cardboard and was the interior of a huge window box. It included the figures pictured; the essential classic Trek crew. I saw it in the store and knew I would have to have it. It came out in 1993 – I was seventeen years old and sort of keeping my toy collecting on the down-low at that point. I believe this set was so important that I talked my mom into buying it for me for my birthday or Christmas.

These were not my first toys from Playmates. As everybody reading this probably knows, these are the folks that produced the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – one of the greatest toy lines of all time. The TMNT line was the one that kept me going in the awkward wilderness years between GI Joe and X-Men. I knew how Playmates handled wacky mutant animals and such, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from a more humanoid line.

So sassy!
One of the things that I did not like about the Star Trek line – but that I admire now – was the lack of realism. The figures’ proportions were off and the likenesses verged on cartoony. My guess is that this was done to give the line a more toy-like and appealing quality for kids while still producing the characters that older collectors wanted. These Classic Trek figures were significantly less cartoonish than the TNG figures that had been offered up to that point. I give you Worf as an example:
Granted, poor ol’ Worf is the most extreme case of weirdness that Playmates produced, but he is pretty bad. Most figures in the line weren’t stuck in action the way he is, but most did have limb positioning that suggested very specific poses. The one instance where this is absolutely acceptable is in Spock and Sarek’s right hands:
Playmates maintained standard articulation throughout the line – swivels at the head, shoulders, biceps, waist, and hips with pivoting elbows and knees. This was a pretty good collection of joints for figures in 1992; particularly the bicep swivels.

To me the worst thing about this line was the way the hip joints were done. Playmates used angled cut joints, which made the figures look extremely odd and uncomfortable when sitting down. Everything else I can either overlook or have just grown to enjoy, but those hip joints were just bad design. Especially in a line where the characters spent a good seventy percent of their screen time sitting down.
Even now – with my newfound appreciation for what a fantastic toy line this is – I still hate those hip joints.

Another thing that confounded me was the holsters on these guys:
What the heck goes in there? The phasers can’t fit because they have the firing effect permanently attached. 
These days that firing effect would be removable or just not included (if it were Mattel they wouldn’t even have phasers). Those holsters messed up the figures’ profiles and seemed to serve no purpose.

So the line had a few strikes against it – the likenesses and proportions were questionable, the hips were awful, and those holsters were useless protrusions.

Now let me tell you why it is such an amazing, fantastic toy line.

The figures are clearly meant to be played with. They are constructed from a sturdy, slightly flexible plastic that is going to survive any age group. Those joints can be moved over and over and over again. They’re tough. Some figures had action features like Data’s opening ports:
And those little pieces are sturdy.
Each figure came with a ton of accessories. Everything from phasers to tricorders to computer terminals to character specific things like Worf’s Bat’leth or even episode specific items like Sarek's Vulcan harp. Heck, Picard even comes with a mug for his Earl Grey!:
I’m still not sure how I feel about LaForge’s visor being removable:
It’s an awesome touch and something you wouldn’t expect, but the darn thing would be extremely easy to lose.

While the figures fall squarely into the “made for kids” category, they feature as much detail as you could want. The lines on the uniforms are sculpted, not just painted. The rank pips on the figures’ collars are painted correctly. Even the piping on the bottoms of their trousers is colored correctly. The paint decos are solid and clean. The facial detail can be a little basic, but again – the figures look like they should look within the style of the line. Some feature better likenesses than others, but there’s no problem telling who should be who. And to reiterate the playability – the paint is tough. You can toss these guys in a bag and not worry about paint scraping off.

Oh, and each figure is numbered according to the “Limited Edition” gimmick I mentioned above:
Thankfully Playmates didn’t put it anywhere noticeable.

The figures themselves were a bit on the simplistic toy side, but were fun. And Playmates did not mess around with the assortment. Within the main toy line they hit almost every primary cast member of the original series, TNG, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. It’s an amazing accomplishment. Not only that, the line saw a number of releases from the motion pictures, and of course that irascible rapscallion, Khan Noonien Singh!:
Side Note: I have to admit to being utterly dismayed that Playmates never completed the original series crew in their movie uniforms. We got Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov due to tie-ins to other films, but the rest of the original Enterprise crew were never produced. And here’s the real kicker – they have never been produced in any other line, either! That uniform is my favorite movie costume of all time. If I had however much it would take to commission or buy or whatever one of those uniforms right now I would fork it over.

Playmates did not stop with fun action figures. While fun action figures are great, to achieve true legendary status a toy line must include vehicles and… dare I say it?... playsets. And we got some great ones with this line.

I’m not going to get into their wonderful range of electronic starships because I haven’t bought any of those yet. I used to have the Enterprise 1701-D and I have no idea what happened to it. It had a lot of cool sound effects and lit up in the right places. I do seem to remember that the engine nacelles had trouble staying on. I also just remembered that my mom bought me that, as well and that I was disappointed that it wasn’t the original Enterprise (though I kept that to myself). Man – I must’ve really not liked TNG at first.

What I will talk about are the actual playsets. Playmates released a bridge, a transporter room, and an engine room. They are all electronic and feature lights and sounds.
The Enterprise bridge playset is now one of the jewels of my collection. The one I bought was well taken care of and all of the electronics still work. The stickers are a little off-center and in some cases just in the wrong spots, but overall it’s solid.
This is a large playset that approximates the scale of what it represents more closely than most playsets I have seen. It doesn’t feel cramped in any way and every crew member has their correct station. The chairs are sculpted to accommodate the figures’ weird sitting positions:
I’m not saying they look normal sitting down, but they stay put in the chairs for the most part and can interact with the consoles. There is also a seat that slides out from under the rear station:
Everything is made of a sturdy plastic and the paint is great. While it is in good shape, this set has obviously been through some moves and transport. But there are no major scuffs and even the tiny pieces are intact – no broken parts. The only things missing were two of the small brackets to hold the walls in place:
These are the ones that hold the portions that flip down, so it’s no great loss. The pieces stay in place just fine without the brackets.
I mentioned above that the stickers were placed a bit poorly, but here’s the amazing thing – the stickers are all still intact. This playset is over two decades old and those stickers aren’t even curling.
There are light bulbs behind the viewscreeen that are activated by the buttons at the Tactical Rim:
Each of the seven buttons activates a different combination of lights and sounds from the show:



 

There is a switch under the console that turns the electronics on and off. The screen remains lit when the button is in the “On” position, which I like. I know it burns batteries (three “C” batteries, to be exact), but it brings the set to life. I do wish they had included interchangeable screens. Even the old Mego set (and the reproduction) had those. It would be nice to have a neutral starfield to put in there.
Two of the wall panels swing down to open up the set:
There are also two sets of spring-loaded doors. I’d prefer it if they weren’t spring-loaded. 
The closing action is just a bit too intense.



 

Overall this playset is great and does what it needs to do. I think the thing I like the most is that the designers didn’t see fit to add in any “enhancements” to “improve” the bridge’s playability. There are no breakaway walls (the walls that do flip down serve a purpose and are not action features) or ejector chairs or laser cages or any other kind of unnecessary gimmicks. The playset bridge looks like the TV bridge and there’s nothing to break the play vibe, if you know what I mean. Q can drop into this thing and start wrecking everybody’s life and there’s no neon yellow “Phaser Explosion Chamber!” hanging around making everybody feel stupid.
I would have been just fine and dandy if Playmates had stopped with the bridge. It’s big and awesome and can support all of the starship-oriented adventures you might need. But that wasn’t enough for the toy company. They also created an Engineering Room playset:
This was released in conjunction with Generations. There was another playset before this one, but I’m saving it for last because that’s how this thing is flowing.
Unfortunately the electronics on mine aren’t working. It’s supposed to light up and make sounds. I paid a lot less for this than what I’m seeing it selling for online, so I might tinker around with it and see if I can get it working again.
As far as the construction, Playmates managed to pack a good bit of play value into a fairly small and simple environment. It’s obviously smaller in scale than the set from the show, but there’s as much here as needs to be. The reactor core looks awesome with its translucent tubing and central chamber. 
There is a hatch at the base where the included dilithium crystals (smaller than the ones included with the figures) can be inserted. 
 
The main control panel has buttons to activate the lights and sounds – whatever they may be – and has a pretty good sticker to represent the various controls. Like the bridge, this playset has some great, durable stickers. There’s a weird stool that looks like some kind of ergonomically sound thing you’d buy from Sharper Image. This actually works a lot better than the chairs on the bridge. There’s also this thing that plugs into a hole in the console to prevent the ship from blowing up or something. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Generations, on account of not liking it very much at all.
This set includes a bracket that allows you to mount it outside of one of the sets of doors on the bridge playset. 
It doesn’t look beautiful – the sets are not really sculpted to go together – and the engine room is not located even remotely this close to the bridge, but it’s neat that the designers built the bridge with the idea of future expansions. It makes me wish that we could’ve gotten a Ten Forward, a Sick Bay, or even a landing bay for the Goddard shuttlecraft that Playmates released (which I haven’t bought yet and probably need to jump on). Heck, they could have even released generic cabins to attach to this thing.

Sadly, the only other playset we got was the Transporter Room:
I’m torn on this one. As far as the functionality goes it is fantastic. You open the little door, stick a figure or two in, slide the switches, and they are “transported”. It works perfectly and is a nifty illusion accomplished with lights and mirrors. The window on mine is pretty jacked up and I don’t know why. I haven’t tried to clean it yet, but it almost looks like that smudging is on the inside, which I don’t even understand. Like the bridge and the engine room, I got a better deal on this thing than I’m likely to find anywhere else, so I guess I’m going to hang onto it.
My issue with it is that it isn’t really designed as part of the Enterprise like the bridge and engineering are – it’s designed as a standalone thing that is clearly a toy for kids. Rather than working the controls into something that the figures can interact with, there’s just this big honkin’ control panel. It isn’t functional as an actual playset – it’s more like an Easy Bake oven. And it doesn’t have the physical connector for the bridge; not that this would really work in that capacity.




While the gimmick is great and works amazingly well (the gimmick worked amazingly well when I wrote this - when I shot the video the sound had died), I would have preferred more of a straight-up playset that the figures could really interact with. A simple rotating device like the Mego playset utilized – though on a larger scale – combined with lights and sounds could have been great. The rotating portion could have even been removable in the event that you preferred to have just a regular transporter platform with no gimmick.

All in all Playmates Toys did something truly impressive during their time with the Star Trek license. They combined collectibility with playability in a way that not all licensed toy lines can manage. Just the small portion of the collection that I now own has made me and my son very happy. 
 
On another note, if you are looking at collecting an older toy line, this one is ideal. The prices are low for the most part and a lot of collectors invested in it, so clean and boxed samples can be had with little trouble. You’re going to spend a little bit for a bridge playset in good shape, but you can crew it for comparatively little. If you want to stop there, you can. If you get caught up in the same Trek madness that I have, there’s a ton more to this line to hunt down.

I would call this one of the more successful lines of the 90s. It ran out of steam towards the end and got confused with different scales and seemingly different directions, but the core line is a lot of fun and fairly manageable.





5 comments:

  1. The Classic Bridge set drew me in to the line. It was something I had hoped to see come about for many years. I saw it at K+B Hobbies for retail $80 when it came out. It was too much and I passed. Later I found a stand alone toy store, Playworld- a lone remanent of of a once proud toy chain, in a quiet town in Long Island, NY who was selling it for $25. I snatched that baby up-and a bunch'a other Playmates figures pronto!

    I too hate the hip joints and wish more Wrath of Khan uniformed figures had been made. People had been trying to forget The Motion Picture for years-why merchandise it now???

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If I recall the MP figures were made to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the first film. As many people would like to forget that film, it was instrumental in giving fans something new from their beloved franchise.

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

      Delete
  2. Hey, just wanted to say great article, really takes me back. By the way, the holsters on the figures legs are for the tricorders everybody came with. They serve a purpose, but they're still quite annoying.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I'm still slowly building the collection.

      Delete