Thursday, January 26, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 27: Communicators: "Beam Me up, Mr. Scott!"

Last week for the blog's 26th retro toy Thursday flashback, I featured a variety of Star Trek phasers that I have owned over the years, and described my love of these (toy) weapons that can be set to stun.

One of the comments on that post came from my dear friend, Chris, in Chesapeake, VA. He noted that as a child, he really wanted a communicator toy or model, and always believed that if he could just get one, he could join up with Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew.

I'm right there with you, Chris. To this day, I find something absolutely magical and thrilling about holding one of those compact devices in my hand, flipping open that copper grill, and uttering the words, "Kirk to Enterprise, come in Enterprise."

On my happier days, I'll say, " have Genesis, but you don't have me. You were going to kill me, Khan. Now you're going to have to come down here. You're going to HAVE to come DOWN Here."

Or another favorite: "Klingon Commander: This is Admiral James T. Kirk. I know this will come as a pleasant surprise to you, but my ship was the victim of an unfortunate accident. Sorry about your crew, but as we say on Earth, c'est la vie! I have what you want. I have the secret of Genesis. But you're going to have to bring us up there to get it..."

Man, I could just keep writing this stuff all day!!

The point is, it's a great feeling to grasp a communicator, and imagine a direct line to Starfleet, Lt. Uhura, the Enterprise, Gorns, Romulans, Orion Slave name it.

And I guess that's why so many toy companies over the years have produced toy replicas based on this classic communicator design. Last week, I wrote about the AMT Exploration Set model kit. It included a communicator along with a phaser and tricorder, and by my memory, that's the first communicator replica I ever owned. I played that thing out as a kid. I can't believe I still have it today; but I can tell you that the silver grill has been repaired many a time, and doesn't actually really flip up anymore. Where's Scotty when you need him?

But then, not long after, came something even better. That wonderful and much mourned company, Mego produced a set of two "Star Trek Communicators" (U.S. Patent No. 3,939,418). These solid state transistorized walkie talkies could send and receive voice communications or produce two "phase warp" sounds. Produced in 1974 (can you believe it was that long ago?) these communicators were molded in blue, and came replete with clips so you could attach them to your belt (just in case you needed both hands to wrestle with a Klingon or something).

The flip-up grill on this version of the communicator was blue, and was adorned with the Star Trek, U.S.S. Enterprise logo. I loved this toy when I was a kid. Several years ago, I got my hands on a mint pair, still in the plastic bubble. Today, these things go for like $250.00

Then came Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the design of the Starfleet communicator changed. Suddenly, communicators were worn on the a watch or something. These devices looked pretty cool in the movie - what you could see of them - but the toy produced later by Playmates (pictured here) was oversized and a little dorky-looking.

By 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation came along, and suddenly the classic communicator was nothing more than a piece of damn golden jewelry. Tap it once, and you could talk to the "Away Team" (personally, I always preferred the term landing party...). Anyway, tapping a communicator on your shirt could never match the feeling of pulling out a little black device from under your velour uniform shirt, and flipping open the grill. Sorry. I know, I'm an old school Trekker, what can I say?

And really, let's face it, it's that fantastic 1960s design that is surely the model for so many cell phones in use today, with their flip-up function and compact appeal, right? I mean, Star Trek surely influenced American society with that revolutionary concept! When we all start talking into jewelry worn over our chest, I'll give the Next Gen its props. Promise.

Some of the best communicator replica designs have come along in the last decade. The wonderful Playmates company produced a "talk back" communicator in 1996. You could program up to three seconds of messages in your own voice into the machine, and then play it back. You could store the communicator on your waistband for "emergency transmissions"(!) and the communicator featured a working status light indicating that you were sending "a strong subspace signal." This was the most accurate version of the communicator yet, I would wager.

But then - IPI created a version of the device in 1998 that takes the cake. This communicator features "authentic sounds and lights", a digital recorder, a clock and a calculator. And man does it look cool!!! I don't know how it plays, because I've never taken it out of the box. I want to, but my wife won't let me.

So today's flashback is to that influential communicator design, and in particular, the toy replicas over the years. "Beam me up, Scotty."

And don't we wish that could really happen? When's the first full-size, working transporter replica coming out?


  1. Anonymous10:07 AM

    Hey John!
    It's awesome to know that you share my childhood dream of beaming up and having adventures on the Enterprise. Last summer I went to Creation's Trek convention in Las Vegas. The Star Trek Experience there sells a replica toy communicator that looks nice, has a good weight to it, and makes all the sounds. Unfortunately, I played with it so much while I was there that I ended up breaking it. I was flipping it open so much that the copper grill came off! I have fixed it as best I can but it ended up damaging the electronics in it. Oh well, it still looks awesome!

    Persoanlly, I still want an actual phone that looks exactly like a communicator. I am surprised that after all these years no one has ever thought of that in the Paramount licensing department.


  2. I totally agree with you Chris: let's have Star Trek phones that imitate the look of the classic communicator, and blackberries that look like Tricorders. That would just be so incredibly cool.

    I've never been to the Star Trek experience, but I'm thinking of taking a pilgrimage there at some point. Was it worth it?

  3. Anonymous2:30 PM

    Hey John,

    Going to the Las Vegas convention and the Star Trek Experience was one of the best times I have ever had as a fan. The convention is at the Hilton which is where the Experience is too. The entrance looks like Stellar Cartography from Generations and the eating and shopping areas all look like DS9. Quark's and the Promanade are so real you feel like you are really on the station. Hanging above Stellar Crtography are shooting models of the Enterprise A, Voyager, Enterprise D, and a Bird of Prey. Along the walkway to the two attractions is a museum of props. They have Nomad, the "stone knives and bearskins" Spock used to activate his Tricorder, the Picard Family album, and more stuff than I can even remember. On the other side is a complete cronology from the Big Bang to the far future.
    The two attractions are amazing. You get to go on a scale replica of the bridge of the Enterprise D. The best of the two is the Borg Invasion. It features Bob Picardo, Kate Mulgrew, and Alice Krige in their respective roles as you see Borg and Starfleet crew battle it out live in front of you. The 3D movie is cool because it gives you a sense of the enormity of a starship.
    I am going back this August for the 40th anniversary convention. I can't wait. It is more than worth the trip.


  4. That sounds cool beyond reckoning. I must start a campaign to convince Kathryn this would make a perfect wedding anniversary trip...