Thursday, October 20, 2005

Retro-Toy Thursday Flashback #14: Action Figures Part II (1989 - 2005)

Last week I blogged about the era one might term the "golden age" of TV and movie action figures, from the Mego and Mattel span of the early 1970s, to Kenner's Star Wars line from 78-83, up to Galoob's Next Gen figs in the late 1980s.

One thing that all these action figure lines have in common - and I dearly love them all - is that they were made primarily for children to enjoy and play with. That's why sometimes the details (like costuming) are way off, but in general, the toys are durable. Kids want to play with action figures, not necessarily bitch that Helena Russell doesn't wear orange and tangerine on Space:1999. That's entirely my purview!!

The new age of action figures, from the 1990s to present, is surely the age of the "collector," the grown-up fan who is looking to own the most up-to-date, accurate and detailed version of his favorite franchise characters.

Often, these figures are packaged beautifully, and collectors do not even crack the bubble. (I must admit, I try both approaches: sometimes I MUST actually play with an action Khan; other times, I can resist and just stick the bloomin' thing up on my office wall). I think my comments here are especially true of what you might call "niche markets." In other words, kids today probably still play with Star Wars figures because Star Wars is still a popular franchise for children, but how many children do you know are racing to rip open their "Mysterious Alien" or "Alan Carter" action figure from Classic Toys' new release of Space:1999 figures?

See my point? Hence the age of the collector...

I think that new age of action figures began in earnest in 1992-1993 when a company called Playmates acquired the license to produce action figures from Star Trek: The Next Generation and SeaQuest DSV. The SeaQuest figures tanked, probably because the show wasn't so hot (though I've still got my Darwin action figure on its card...). Also, one of the action figures - Lt. Hitchcock - happens to look almost exactly like my wife Kathryn, so I keep it nearby. It gives me the illusion I can control her; having that tiny action figure of her...

But the Star Trek figures were a dream come true. I'll never forget waiting outside Toys R Us for the store to open back in 1992, running like a madman back to the action figures aisle, and haranguing a stock-room person to bring out the Trek toys. She opened up a whole box of the figures for me, and I got one of each. Then my very kind and tolerant parents bought me one of each figure too (yes, I was 22 or 23 at the time...) so I could open a set and play with them at the same time that I had one "mint." Then, I conveniently got "sick" the next day and didn't go to work. I stayed home and played with these figures and had the time of my adult life. Is that crazy? Anyway, from what I remember, the first line of figures included Captain Picard (in the jacket he wore in "Darmok" and the fifth season), Riker in a ripped shirt, Dr. Crusher, Counselor Troi, Data, LaForge, Worf, a Romulan, a Borg and a Ferengi. I think some "classic" figures also came out, like Elderly McCoy from "Encounter at Farpoint," and Scotty from "Relics," and Ambassador Spock from "Unification."

The Playmates figures were larger than than the Kenner Star Wars line, closer in size to - of all things - the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And under one Starfleet-issued military boot on each figure was a collectors number. The figures also came with accessories galore: phasers, laptop computers, tricorders, dilithium crystals, etc. You could even remove Geordi's visor if you wanted. Playsets also were released by Playmates. That year, I bought the Enterprise D bridge - a gigantic playset - and a Transporter Room. There was also a collectors' carrying case for the figures. All very nice stuff.

By the next year, Playmates released more Next Gen figures (including Q in Robes, Tasha Yar, Sarek and Troi's Mother.) There was also a full line of DS9 figures to contend with, and a full-scale Runabout for the characters to fly around in. All the usual suspects were here: Commander Sisko, Odo, Dax, Miles O'Brien, Kira Nerys, Gul Dukat, Jake Sisko, Rom, Dr. Bashir, Quark and even Tosk!

But even better, Playmates released a line of original series characters in a big box that resembled the classic NCC-1701 Bridge. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, Uhura were in the box and they came with 23rd century gear and costuming we all know and love: electric shaver-style phasers and communicators, velour shirts, braids on the arm and for Uhura, a mini-skirt! This was around the time that I moved to North Carolina, and when I left my job at the Supreme Court of Virginia, the kind employees there banded together and purchased this for me as a going-away present. I still have it.

1994 brought the release of action-figures related to the first Next Gen movie, Generations. The characters - oddly - wore uniforms different from the ones they adorned in the film. But that's okay, because the company also released a Captain Kirk in movie era uniform and in a spacesuit. Since Kirk was (and remains...) my favorite character, this was great. I also enjoyed having a Malcolm McDowell figure (Dr. Soran) to torture. I held his eyelids open and made him watch "Haven" and "Imaginary Friend" over and over again for killing my hero...

By 1995, the Playmates onslaught of action figures seemed to be neverending. A new series called Voyager premiered in January, and by Christmas I was greedily grabbing up Voyager action figures. These included Captain Janeway, B'Elanna Torres, Kazon, Holographic Doctor, Paris, Harry Kim, Vidian, Tuvok, Kes and Neelix, among others (including Tom Paris as the horny reptile from "Threshold!").

I kept all of these figures mint in their boxes, but oddly enough, by young kitten Ezri (named after a character on DS9) decided to take action against Voyager by urinating on all the figures. Yep. Not too much damage was done, and now they're okay. I just wouldn't smell 'em too closely. Anyway, by this time (the mid-90s), my family was destitute and bankrupt.,...just kidding. I suspect Playmateshad the same impact on other Trekker families. I mean, I just couldn't get off the Playmates crack pipe. There were talking action figures, larger-sized figures of characters like Seven of Nine (mmmm...Seven of Nine...), phasers, spaceships, tricorders, you name it. There was even a "TRANSPORTER" series, where the figures appeared to be beaming up. It was just unbelievable. And then, one day, the company began releasing figures from the classic seeries. From episodes including "The Cage" (Captain Pike!), "My Private Little War" (The Mugato!" and even "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Oh, the old days...Star Trek fans never had it better.

In 1996, a whole new line of figures (including Zefram Cochrane!) and ships (including The Phoenix!) was released by Playmates to coincide with the premiere of Star Trek: First Contact. The Enterprise-E had officially arrived. Finally, by the late 1990s, I was buying large-sized Star Trek: Insurrection figures...but somehow losing the excitement of all these action figures at the same time. It wasn't F. Murray Abraham's fault, though, I'm sure. When you live in a world of paradise and plenty, somehow it just isn't as much fun as when you're stalking flea markets for the elusive Mego Cheron figure or Gorn from 1976.

But other companies followed Playmates' lead in the 1990s. Space Precinct, a series from Gerry Anderson that I (mercifully) only saw once or twice and then hid from with ferocity, had a line of figures produced and released. I do own them. Don't judge me for it.

Hasbro unveiled a new line of small figures based on the 1968 movie, Planet of the Apes. Among them were Taylor, Dr. Zaius, Cornelius and Gorilla Soldier. While I can always "go ape" with abandon, these figures somehow lack the allure of the old Mego ones. Or maybe I'm just old. In 2001, Tim Burton's "re-imagination" of Planet of the Apes came around and I despised it with a passion But I still picked up a few figures from Hasbro. My wife has checked more than once to see if Dirk Diggler is anatomically correct...

A company called Trendmasters then released a new line of Battlestar Galactica toys in 1997, with figures that included Cylons, Lt. Starbuck (who looked like he was pumped up on steroids), and the Imperious Leader. I understand a Cylon Raider and Colonial Viper were mass-produced for this line, but I've never seen them.

Finally, by the time of The X-Files ("Fight the Future") movie in summer of 1998, McFarlane Toys was producing small replicas of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Did I buy these figures? Yes, and yes. The agents came in standard FBI gear (meaning spiffy suits...) and also in the Antarctica gear they wore at the film's conclusion. The Texas caveman who died in the film's opener also got his own figure. I always thought of him as Prehistoric Mulder. I also bought McFarlane's figures based on Scream, John Carpenter's The Thing, Terminator 2, and on and on. This is the reason why I won't be able to afford to send my future child to college, and why I peddle my books on this blog every Wednesday...

In 1999, Star Wars returned to the big screen with The Phantom Menace. I made a pre-emptive strike before the movie was released and bought a whole bunch of figures before I even saw the movie. I didn't know who or what a Jar-Jar Binks was (ah, those were the days...), but I wanted one. Later, I regretted my zeal. Especially when - a year after the film - the Kenner figures were selling in discount bins at greatly reduced prices. The interesting thing about these figures was that they came with microchips that would allow them to speak lines from the movie, after a fashion. Too bad there were few things said in that film that actually merited repeating by action figures. "You will become a Jedi one day, I promise."

I bought a few Attack of the Clones figures in 2002, but my wife was in a car accident the day the movie opened and we ended buying a new car instead of Star Wars figures. I missed out on Revenge of the Sith figures all together. Ultimately (and don't tell anyone, since I will be blogging Star Wars here from Episode 1 to Ep 6 soo, I think I'm a Star Trek man first; a Star Wars fan second.) I'd much rather have a phaser replica than a light saber...

By the (poorly timed....) release of the last Star Trek: The Next Generation movie, Nemesis, Art Asylum had acquired the rights to produce the action figures, and the company unleashed a series of four very interesting figures that, though nicely sculpted, seemed a little too cool-looking for Star Trek. I miss Playmates now. I liked their approach: saturation, saturation, saturation. I still marvel at the fact that I own a Vorgon from the episode "Captain's Holiday." Or LaForge "transformed" from the episode "Identity."

I'm still collecting action figures today, 30 years after my first experience with the small, Mattel Eagle pilots I wrote about last week. Right now, I'm particularly excited with the Space:1999 line from Classic Toys. I've waited 29 years to own a Maya action figure, and I'm sure as hell not going to miss out now!!!

What's your favorite action figure and why? Do you remember the glory days of Playmates? Why were those figures so damn appealing? And do the newer action figures stack up to the old ones? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Does anyone out there collect all these things too?


  1. i remember picking up a darth maul light saber at a spencers gifts about a year after the phantom menace for about five bucks.
    never jumped into buying action figures, but i have admired some of the new lines aimed at adults (or rather, stoner college students) that seem to pop up at my favorite record stores. particularly, some nice ash figures from the evil dead series, a bunch of hellraiser cenobites, and just released and ridiculously expensive, a batch of figures from walter hill's comic book masterpiece the warriors.

  2. I realize that by the time I'm writing this, this thread is really old. I only started collecting Playmates action figures a month ago. Ordered from ebay Picard, Kirk in space suit and Kirk from the Generations movie line.
    Growing up, I was always a Trekkie, but unfortunately these figures never sold in toy stores here.
    I remembered Playmates fondly from the TMNT toy line which I owned as a kid. Once I bought some of them, I became infatuated with Playmates and was delighted to learn that Star Trek toys made by them were available for decent price.

    Anyway, I really love your posts concerning the Playmates toys and especially those with full high res pics (I'm a very superficial guy)
    Please post some more!