Friday, October 26, 2007

Don't Forget Destinies! Tonight

Hey everybody, don't forget to tune in to Destinies at 11:30 pm, EST tonight, to hear host Dr. Howard Margolin and me talk about Horror Films of the 1980s and The House Between. Howard never does a bad show, so it should be great fun.

Here's the

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 68: Star Bird (Milton Bradley; 1978-1980)

I've posted about my favorite toys from childhood here, including my Mattel Eagle One over sized spaceship (from the series Space:1999), and today I want to spotlight yet another favorite from the bygone days of the post-Star Wars craze (1978-1980). The spaceship you are gazing at is the Milton Bradley Star Bird, or in this case, the second incarnation of the cruiser, the Star Bird Avenger. Featuring "new exciting electronics" this nicely-designed "space transport" features "exciting engine sounds, firing photon beams, battle sounds, and special target!"

The Star Bird (sans the specification "Avenger") was first released by Milton Bradley in 1978, shortly after Star Wars took the world by storm, and my next door neighbor and best friend from West Milford, David, was the first kid in Glen Ridge (and particularly on Clinton Road...) to have one. The ship was truly state of the art for the time, because if you had two Star Birds they could electronically duel with each other. Or as the box put it: "Fire your photon beams and hit the alien spaceship. Hear distress signals and sputtering engine sounds!" In other words, the Star Birds were relatively interactive (for the disco decade). In the event you didn't have two ships, the Star Bird also came was sold with an "alien target." The box noted: "Attack the special target with the flashing photon beams and Avenger signals your victory!"

The other interesting aspect of the Star Bird was that it was actually several starships housed in one. For instance, mounted on the dorsal rear of the ship was an "escape pod" and cannon, in case of battle damage. Per the box: "Rotating gun turret - rear gun turret doubles as an escape pod. Just release the retainer and go whirling through space."

Also, perched on each magnificent wing of the large star bird was a small one-man "interceptor" fighter" that could be removed for snub-nosed combat. On the Star Bird, the interceptors were molded in gray. On the re-vamped, Avenger, they were jet black. The box described the interceptors like this: "Detachable Interceptors - Interceptors fit onto the wing tips. Deploy them for battle action."

Finally, the Star Bird itself could be disassembled to create a smaller fighter by detaching the engine and the cockpit section, and then re-assembling them together without the main hull. ("Removable fighter: detach the front section and add the power thruster engine. You still command photon fire and engine power.") As a kid, this idea seemed extremely cool (kind of like saucer separation on the starship Enterprise). An added bonus: the cockpit housing could be removed in this mode too and you'd get a third fighter, the so-called "power orbiter." "For the fastest craft in the galaxy," read the description, "release the orbiter from the front hull. Even this stream-lined orbiter controls full power over photon beams and engines."

Released at the same time as the first incarnation of Star Bird was the "Command Base," where your craft could dock for repairs and re-supply. This two story heavy-cardboard construct stood over a foot tall when assembled, and featured defensive cannons on the roof as well as a functioning orange winch. The command base even came with several repair crew plastic figures. It was described thusly: "It's a great action packed accessory that you assemble from sturdy fiber board and plastic parts. The base serves as a center of operations for Star Bird, Avenger, or Intruder. Your crew staffs the Control Tower with its fully rotating gun turrets, workable crane, maintenance tunnel, and special interceptor landing deck."

Finally, in 1980 came along the "enemy," the Star Bird Intruder, a compact alien craft molded entirely in black. "A menacing spaceship invades the galaxy - a sleek black craft with amazing electronics. Hear powerful engines roar as it races through space. Control photon lights and sounds as you fire at the special target included with the intruder. You can duel other intruders or Avengers and hear the blazing photon beams scoring a hit and the realistic response of faltering engines."

The primary difference between the Star Bird and the upgraded "Avenger" is the decals that came with the ship. Avenger could be emblazoned with a giant bird of prey on its cockpit, which was very cool. It was also labeled "Avenger" on both sides of the forward section. Apparently, there was a third version of the ship as well, one called Star Bird Space Avenger. I never actually saw that variant.

For Christmas 1980, my parents bought me the Intruder (which - alas - I no longer have...), but I still didn't have the Star Bird, which vexed my young self to no end. Then, I spent a day visiting with my grandfather (who passed in 2003), and we scoured most of New Jersey trying to find an Avenger one for me. We went to KB Toys, Toys R Us, and other stores across Jersey, only - at the last minute - to find a Star Bird Avenger at a small kiosk in Willowbrook Mall. It was perched high on a shelf, surrounded by other expensive electronic toys, and I remember my heart skipping a beat when I saw the ship. Success!! My grandfather dropped thirty bucks for the toy, and so I was finally ready for space combat! I played that Avenger out, and what remains of that ship is mostly spare parts these days. So I had to pick one up on E-Bay...

I don't know if it is simply nostalgia, but I've always loved the design of the Star Bird. It isn't overly imitative of Star Wars, but rather a very sleek, very unique craft. The Intruder - though much-harder to find these days, is not quite in the same league, since it is really a variant of the Star Bird design. Even my ten year old mind wondered how the "menacing alien" from another "galaxy" had managed to design a ship nearly identical to the heroic Avenger. But that only added to the imagination and make-believe. I remember "pretending" to be commander of the Star Bird, and going on a secret mission behind enemy lines to find out how the aliens behind the Intruder had stolen the superior design of my spacecraft. Of course, as I learned, we had a mole aboard. And I had to deploy Rom the Space Knight to kill him. Isn't make-believe great?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Meeting My Destinies...

Hey everybody, I'm returning to the radio talk show Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction this Friday night, October 26th at 11:30 pm for a Halloween-themed show. I'll be calling in to discuss with host Dr. Howard Margolin some recent work, including my hit book Horror Films of the 1980s, the second season of my independent online drama, The House Between (premiering January 25, 2008), and my new officially-licensed Space:1999 novel, Odysseus Wept.

I always enjoy sharing time with Howard. He's a great host (who asks good and occasionally very tough questions) and we could probably talk forever if we had the time! Join us, won't you? You can catch the show here. Don't miss it! You can also catch (partial) transcripts of some of my previous Destinies appearances here and here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

TRADING CARD CLOSE-UP # 10: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (The Empire Strikes Back)

I have to admit, the scene from The Empire Strikes Back (1980) depicted in these three trading cards has always fascinated me. You remember the set-up, right? On Cloud City, Lando leads fugitives Han Solo, Princess Leia, C3PO and Chewbacca to dinner. However, as they walk to the dining room, he reveals that he's made a deal with the Empire that will protect his interests on Bespin forever. A door opens, and Darth Vader is revealed at the end of a very long (and fully set) dining room table. A shocked but fast Han draws his blaster and fires, Lord Vader deflects the shots, and then invites everyone to join him for a meal. Then the door closes. End of scene.

But...didn't you ever wonder what the meal was like? I mean, what did the rebels talk about while breaking bread with Darth Vader? I can't imagine Chewbacca is much for dinner conversation (or table manners, for that matter). Also, isn't it awkward eating a meal when your "host" (Lord Vader) can't uh...well, can't eat? I mean, that mask pretty much precludes eating, unless he opens a panel on his helmet and sips his food through a straw. And where do you go in terms of courteous dinner talk after the guest has attempted to shoot the host? Appetizers?

And also, in terms of continuity, Vader is back with Leia a second time (the first time was on the Death Star in Star Wars) and he still doesn't sense that she is a daughter of Skywalker, or, at the very least, "strong" with the force.

I'm only half-joking. I really would have loved to see what this scene could have been; with Leia and Vader (and Solo) at the same table together forced to face one another. Seriously: what would they have talked about? Would or could this have been an opportunity in the saga to discuss respective philosophies (the way Anakin and Amidala did in Attack of the Clones?) Democracy/Tyranny? Or would it have just been too silly?

I mean, can you imagine Lord Vader, in that deep voice, asking Han Solo to pass the salad dressing?

You tell me: what do you think the dinner conversation was about that night?