Thursday, October 13, 2005

Thursday Retro Toy Flashback # 13: Action Figures, 1973-1988

Since I was a wee one, I've been a crazed collector of movie/TV tie-in action figures. My love for action figures began with the release of a gigantic Eagle spaceship from Space:1999 (and Mattel...) in 1976. The three-foot long spaceship came with three orange space suited figures of Commander John Koenig, Dr. Helena Russell, and Professor Victor Bergman (pictured left). They were accessorized with tiny gray stun guns, white back-packs/chest-packs, laser rifles and removable apricot space helmets.

These small figures (three inches or so tall) could be lowered and raised into alien terrains by a winch on the eagle craft, and I took them everywhere I went. When we traveled to Stokes Forest, NJ as a family (near where Friday the 13th was filmed, incidentally...) I landed my Eagle team near a creek. When in 1977 we had a giant snow storm in my home town of Glen Ridge, I put down the Alphans on giant snow drifts and recreated "Death's Other Dominion." Inside my basement, I landed the space travelers in alien cities constructed from blocks.

Not to sound like a broken record, but my childhood days came long (loooooong...) before DVD (hell, even before VHS), and the only way to capture the adventure of my favorite shows was to create new stories with ancillary merchandise, including novelizations, puzzles, colorforms, comic-books and - naturally - action figures.

I still own that giant Eagle - as well as those well-worn figures. When I look at these three figures today with an objective eye, I realize they aren't particularly nice or well-done. Heck, they don't even have hair color! And Helena Russell posses the same manly, hulking body as the two male figures. Wonder how the glamorous Barbara Bain feels about that? But boy did I love these toys anyway, though I also wished for Alan Carter, Paul Morrow and other Alphans to include in my action-figure games.

But Space:1999 was only the tip of the action-figure iceberg. I remember for my early birthdays (I can't recall which one), I received the whole set of Star Trek Mego figures, the ones from the original, classic and still-best TV series. These figures included Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. "Bones" McCoy, Scotty (or, as on the card "Scottie), a Klingon and Lt. Uhura. These figures came with blue communicators (in the closed, flipped-down position), and phaser pistols. Spock, Uhura and Bones also had tricorders, replete with shoulder strap. The Klingon had the same accessories but they were painted red.

The holy grail of this Star Trek figure collection was the later "Aliens" release. Today in my office, I have a Gorn, a Neptunian, a Cheron (pictured) and a Keeper. But there were others...ones that I've never been able to afford. Andorians, Talosians, Romulans and the Mugato, to name a few. These things sell for absolutely ridiculous prices on E-bay. As soon as I get my first million dollar advance, I'll add 'em to my collection.

Mego also released Planet of the Apes figures (which I collected). I still have Dr. Zaius, Cornelius, and two variations on the Soldier Ape, but many more were released. Dr. Zira and an "Astronaut" were part of the original line, and as the TV series became popular, representations of Peter Burke (James Naughton) and Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) were released. If I'm not mistaken, Mego also released both General Urko (from the TV series; Mark Lenard) and General Ursus (from Beneath the Planet of the Apes).

What I remember best about these larger-sized action figures is the great playsets that were also available. The Star Trek figures had a starship Enterprise bridge playset, replete with a spinning transporter beam! There was also a planetary playset called "Mission to Gamma," which sorta/kinda/maybe resembled the alien God/statue "Vaal" from the second season episode, "The Apple." The Apes playsets and accessories were even better. Mego sold a Forbidden Zone playset, an Ape tree house, a catapult set, and much, much more. The only thing Mego didn't make, which I would have really liked, was a spaceship resembling the design seen in the original films and 1974 TV series.

In the mid-1970s, Mattel also manufactured a collection of larger-scaled Space:1999 figures, again of the series stars: Koenig, Bergman and Russell. These figures came with stun guns and accurate-looking commlocks (the series' version of communicators). Sadly, their hands were not able to grasp the toys, and that took away some of the fun. Also, the uniforms were not particularly accurate. Helena Russell - as a toy - wore orange, which wasn't what the character adorned in the minimalist TV show. More than anything, these figures resemble another set of the time: The Sunshine Family. A new, more accurate line of Space:1999 figures is being released currently by Classic Toys, but - alas - this company doesn't have the license to reproduce the likeness of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, so these Mattel figures from the 1970s are likely the only large scale Koenig and Russell figures the world will ever see.

In 1976, Woolworths produced a line of four action figures based on the popular Saturday morning TV series, Space Academy. The series involved the adventures of cadets based out of an asteroid university commanded by Isaac Gampu, played by Lost in Space's Jonathan Harris. Among the figures: Tee Gar Soom, Chris Gentry and the young orphan, Loki. As you can tell from the photographs, these figures start to decay over age. Hands and arms break off very easily.

The action figure floodgates truly opened with the release of Star Wars in 1977. Soon after (but not soon enough for little kids like me!!!), Kenner began producing small, 3+ inch action figures that were not only durable, but also seemed pretty accurate to the designs of the film series. Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and Princess Leia were the first figures released in an "early bird" kit, but more came after that. Much more.

Luke, Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader all had retractable light sabers. Luke's was yellow, Darth's red and Ben's blue. Some figures, like Ben, Darth, the Sand People, the Jawa, and later Lando, also had plastic capes. Virtually all the figures came with one kind of accessory or another, usually blasters. My cat liked to eat these tiny blasters, and if she didn't get them, they'd be vacuumed up by my mother! I lost a bunch of accessories this way.

At one point, I guess I owned over a hundred action figures, including the rare Blue Snaggletooth (available only from Sears). I remember that before The Empire Strikes Back came out, Boba Fett was also made available through a special promotion, and everybody was desperate to get their hands on this bounty hunter, the "new villain." Also, after the Empire Strikes Back, Kenner released another mail-order toy, a "survival kit" for the Kenner figures. This kit came with atmosphere masks (Mynocks!) and backpacks, as I recall.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Star Wars action figure line from Kenner was the pure scope. Everybody had a figure (Death Squad Commanders, Death Star Droids, Power Droids, Greedo, IG-88, Bosskk, Hammerhead, Walrus Man, R5-D4), and there were playsets galore. I loved Yoda's house on Dagobah (complete with quick sand trap!), and all the Hoth "ice planet" toys. And the ships! My god, the ships! There were X-wings (battle damaged and not), TIE fighters, the Millennium Falcon, AT-ATs, Bespin Cloud Cars, snow-speeders, Rebel transports and more. If you were at all imaginative, you could recreate the whole trilogy with this vast line of action figures and toys. But you'd need a lot of room...

The year 1979 was perhaps the greatest of my childhood, because it was the year that everybody tried to rip-off Star Wars, and that meant lots of space movies and TV shows. This was the year of Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Moonraker, Alien and
Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Because I've criticized Battlestar Galactica in print - and said it didn't reach the potential the series showed from time-to-time, some people have claimed I'm not even a "fan." This is patently untrue, as my Battlestar Galactica collection reveals. I'll tell you, as a kid, I positively loved this show. Mattel released a line of action figures from the series that were approximately Star Wars-sized. Representing the heroes were Commander Adama, Lt. Starbuck (both with cloth capes), and Muffit the robotic daggit. The bad guy figures were even better. There were silver and gold Cylons Centurions, four-armed Ovions, the pig-like Boray (from the episode "The Magnificent Warriors"), Baltar and even Lucifer! Mattel also released a large-sized Cylon Centurian (with a red eye you could pivot in his head...) and a cloth-vested Colonial Warrior.

Mego also released large and small figures for Buck Rogers and the Black Hole. Alas, the small figures from both productions were held together with small metal pins at their joints. These figures did not hold together well at all, and often they would break at the critical joints (like the elbow). My Buck Rogers figure broke within twenty-four hours of my purchase, leaving me only with Twiki.

The hands on these figures were also cast in a hard plastic, and when you tried to make them hold weaponry or stuff, their thumbs would snap right off. The Black Hole team did not get many accessories, but the Buck Rogers figures (including Buck, Wilma Deering, Twiki, Dr. Huer, "Killer" Kane, Draco, Draconian Guard and Tigerman...) had some really cool ships. Directorate Star Fighters and Draconian Marauders, and a plastic landing bay were among the toys manufactured. A ship not featured on the series was a "laserscope" fighter. I always wished for an action figure of the character called Hawk (from the series' second season), but by then, no new merchandise was being produced.

Mego also had the license to Star Trek: the Motion Picture, and produced a large and small line of action figures. The small ones - unlike Buck Rogers - were not held together by pins, and have stood the test of time. Of course, I remember that as a kid I was one of the few people who loved the film, and my friends constantly ribbed me about having action figures for such a boring movie. What were they going to do, sit on the bridge and stare at the viewscreen? And who were they going to fight? V'ger? Ah well. The figures from the (small) line include Admiral Kirk, Mr. Spock, Lt. Ilia (the bald Deltan), Captain Decker, Mr. Scott (with moustache), and Dr. McCoy. A line of aliens (including the new bumpy headed Klingons) was also released, on a much smaller scale, and I've never even seen one of 'em in the flesh.

By the advent of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the license to produce action figures had moved over to the company called Galoob. The company released a line of six figures from the new series: Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Lt. Data, Lt. Tasha Yar (er, deceased...), Lt. Geordi LaForge and Lt. Worf. They came with tricorders, and hands molded to the early phaser design (resembling a dust-buster).

Again, a line of aliens came later, including Q, Selay and Antican (from "Lonely Among Us," an early show) and a Ferengi. These figures also had some spaceships to tool around the universe in, including the shuttlecraft Galileo and a Ferengi Fighter (not actually seen in the show...). There was also apparently a plan to release a Wesley Crusher figure, and a representative of the Romulan Empire (from the episode "The Neutral Zone"). I don't believe these were ever mass produced.

In the 1990s, Playmates went absolutely balls-to-the-walls apeshit with the Star Trek license and created hundreds of action figures, ships and even landing party (or "away team" gear). They created authentic figures large and small, but I'm focusing here mostly on the older figures...just because.

Over the years, I have collected action figures from virtually every franchise imaginable. My office displays action figures from Clash of the Titans, Mork and Mindy, ID4, Dune, The X-Files, Farscape, Smallville (sorry), The X-Men movie, Scream, Terminator, Aliens, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, V, Dr. Who, Predator, Space Precinct (sorry again) and Flash Gordon. I suppose that of all the collectibles in the world, my favorite type is - indeed - the action figure.

I wish, however, that I had collected two lines: Tron (1982) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). These are very rare, very interesting and very expensive to acquire. I don't know what I was thinking at the time. I guess maybe I didn't like Tron that much as a kid (though I love it now...) and Raiders of the Lost Ark - though awesome - wasn't a "space adventure," my favorite.

Anyone have any action figure stories?

1 comment:

  1. Mego made a beautiful Koenig in the UK which is far superior to the one Mattel made. It's pricely though!


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