Thursday, January 19, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 26: Phasers on Stun!

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I guess I lived in a much simpler world than today's. You see, I played with toy guns all the time growing up, and I didn't up twisted, murderous or ultra-violent. At least I don't *think* I did.

Maybe it's because the toy guns I mostly played with as a kid all had a very unique feature you don't find on contemporary toy firearms: the stun setting.

Yep, you guessed it, one of my favorite toys as a kid was a plastic Star Trek phaser - the "defensive" weapon of choice of Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Bones and the rest of the Enterprise crew. And lucky me, this particular toy came in all shapes and sizes, (and with all kinds of functions.)

The first Starfleet-issue (not really...) phaser I remember from my childhood was actually a model kit. It came in the AMT "Exploration Kit" set (alongside a tricorder and communicator). This version of the popular phaser pistol didn't have any special features, but to my young mind, it was accurate enough, molded in plastic and silver, and seemed like the ultimate toy.

I remember my Dad built me this model way back when I was a little kid in the early 1970s. It must have been 1974 and I was either four or five. He assembled and decal-ed the kit for me on a Friday evening, and left it outside my room for me for a fresh adventure on Saturday morning. I know it was the early 1970s because Star Trek: The Animated Series was on the television that Saturday, and I remember watching the episode while clutching my new phaser. If I only I could have been "beamed up."

Later, other "toy" phasers came out. One of the best was the Star Trek "Super Phaser II Target Game" manufactured "exclusively" by Mego. This weapon "was light sensitive," according to the box "and operates best when used indoors in subdued light." You would just " the trigger...A powerful beam of light shoots out!"

And you were encouraged to "hit the target reflector badge on your friend," and thereby "activate the sonic buzzer device." So this model phaser was the forerunner of Photon and Laser Tag, I guess. The set came with a "Super Phaser II Gun with sonic buzzer device" and a target reflector badge that featured the image of a Klingon D7 battle cruiser. My parents bought me two of these guns so I could blast away, willy-nilly, at friends on the playground and they could return fire.

Around the same time, Remco produced the "Official Star Trek transistorized Electronic Phaser Gun." That's a fancy way of saying that the toy was a flashlight that was molded to look like a Phaser. This toy featured a realistic phaser sound, a phaser light beam, and could "project a target" (like the Enterprise) on a far wall. Why, there was even a secret compartment in which to stow things (on top of the phaser)! I still own this toy, but it's much the worse for wear, as you can tell from the picture. Played it out, I guess.

Over the years, the Star Trek phaser toys grew more and more advanced. In 1979, in tandem with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a company called South Bend released the latest thing, a set of "Duel Phaser II" guns. These were battery-driven electronic devices, and again, were kind of like laser tag, except the users would target each other instead of a reflector. Again, I still own my original pair, but they too appear played out. The model of the phaser was different, more streamlined, to echo the design seen (briefly) in the film. The same phaser got more of a work out in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and that version became a favorite.

By the late 1980s, Star Trek: The Next Generation was upon us, and I never particularly cared for the "dustbuster" variety of new hand phaser featured on the program. Yes, I'm an old school Trekker. Give me Kirk and Spock and communicators with copper grills anyday. Still, some of the early episodes of this new series revealed how phaser technology had been upgraded for the 24th century. In the first season episode "Arsenal of Freedom," Tasha, Riker and Data utilized the handy weapon a lot, and I realized that it was like the first no-brainer phaser. You didn't even have to aim. Just pull the trigger and rake the continuous beam across space until you struck your target (which, in this case, was an aliens' automatic weapon system gone awry).

But the good thing was that after Playmates got through producing Star Trek: Next Gen toys - like the dustbuster phaser - they began delving into classic Trek props too. And this meant that the most accurate original series Phaser II (up to that point), was released in toy stores across America in 1994, thanks to the company's auspices. The Playmates' "Classic Phaser" had a "light up beam emitter," A "forward lock plate," a power display, a phaser setting dial, a beam intensity control, and anything else you could want in a Federation sidearm. Very, very cool.

Even better, Playmates later released a version of the Phaser pre-cursor, Captain Pike's "ray gun" as seen in the original pilot, "The Cage," and later in such early first season episodes as "The Man Trap" (Dr. Crater used one...) and "What Are Little Girls Made Of" (in which a really hot female android used one to dispatch the villainous Ruk. "Protect!")

But just a couple years ago, these great and cherished achievements by Playmates were blown out of the water by the release of an even more accurate toy phaser; and one with better sound effects to boot. Straight from Art Asylum, this sleek, ultra-realistic version of the phaser (pictured) could separate into its two component parts (Phaser I and Phaser II), and more than that, featured a variety of effects ripped from the show's soundtrack. This means you could set your phaser on overload (just like in the first season episode, "The Conscience of the King"). I couldn't manage to keep this one in the box. Sorry. I had to play with it. And - I confess - when nobody's paying attention, I sometimes carry the little pocket-sized Phaser One around in my jacket. Just in case of Mugato attack...

Although the subject of this retro toy flashback is Star Trek's phaser, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Space:1999 also boasted a really cool "stun gun" in the 1970s (see, there's that stun setting again...) Sure it looked like a staple gun a little bit, but it was way cool (and the "laser" effects on the show were very dramatic!) So yes, I collected these weapons as well, and pretended I was living on Moonbase Alpha and battling Tony Cellini's "dragon." One of the best such Space:1999 replications was like, Star Trek's phaser, a Remco "flashlight" type thing. This model had a "three function actuator" -- whatever that means.

AHI also released a Space:1999 water gun based on the Alphan laser weapon. I found a damaged one on E-bay a couple years ago to replace the one I trashed in youth. I don't think it still sprays, but what the makes a great display.

I'm sure that as we head deeper into the future, the next version of the Star Trek phaser (which I will surely own...) might just be one that actually works. This "defensive" weapon would be great to carry along on visits to Florida, especially after that recent law was passed that basically allows gun fights in the street. With the phaser set on stun - at least - nobody will get hurt. At least not permanently.


  1. Anonymous9:27 AM

    Hey John!

    That AMT Star Trek Exploration Set is the source of one of my fondest childhood memories. I was never a kid with a great deal of imagination. I figured out that Santa Claus was fake really quick. But, I remember seeing this AMT kit advertised in the Johnson and Smith ads in my comic books. I begged my grandfather to order me one. In my young mind, I really and truly believed that if I could just get ahold of that communicator I could talk to the Enterprise! I would fantasize about being at school, opening it up, and being beamed up right before the eyes of my classmates. Well, Johnson and Smith sent my grandfather's money back because they were permanently out of stock of those kits. I guess that was my little Star Trek geek version of tying a sheet around my neck and believing I could fly. I did end up getting a phaser that shot these flying rings. I have never been able to find either mine or one like it in all my years of going to Trek conventions. But, Star Trek was truly magical to me when I was a kid. To be quite honest, it still is to me as an adult.

    -Chris Johnson

  2. Hey Chris!

    Thanks for writing. I agree with you 100%. Star Trek is magic to me, pure and simple. When I'm feeling down, Star Trek always perks me up. And the more complicated life becomes, the more the "simplicity of play" (Star Trek play...) relieves tension. I really miss Star Trek these days...the kind of Star Trek we had as kids. One where adventure was just around the corner, and the sky was the limit. I like DS9, TNG (though not much Voyager or Enterpise) but I still feel there's some sort of innocent passion missing from those shows. Political discourse and philosophical talk replaced good old fashioned space adventuring, and to an extent, the morality of the original show. I love the original Star Trek, and it really shepherded me through childhood. Phasers and all. I'll always be grateful for the place it holds in my life. And I have concern for a generation growing up without it...