Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Totemic Artefacts: Galoob Star Trek: The Next Generation
There's an important discussion to be had here, and one I'm entirely uninterested in having myself. My sole contribution to the debate would be twofold: One, stressing the power of generative homebrew maker and enthusiast culture to undermine this industry just as it has the potential to do to all industries, and two, simply offering a humble reminder that toys are important to kids, and thus, are important to everyone. Play is how we all conceptualize and make sense of situations throughout life: It's another form of metaphor and storytelling, and a very old one.
Every culture throughout human history has had some form of sacred totem or figure upon which people project symbols and meaning, and these, just like any object with personal significance, are important to them. Maybe toys are our version of this phenomenon. I know for me the appeal of dolls and action figures is this: It's deeply meaningful for me to have a physical representation of a character I admire, and it's almost as if the toy's presence reminds me of what the work they hail from means to me. When I was a child, action figures helped spark my creativity and inspired me to come up with stories featuring the characters they represented. In fact, even today, whenever I find myself writing about a story from pop culture, I tend to surround my workspace with whatever bits of merchandise pertaining to the series I have, and I find it both inspires me and helps me write better.
Shinto tradition even holds a belief in spirits called Tsukumogami; inanimate objects that obtain sentience after reaching a hundred years of age or depending on how they're treated. There's even a ceremony called Ningyo Kuto, where children essentially hold a wake for dolls they no longer wish to keep, paying respects to the toy so that it's soul is laid to rest. And who can honestly say they don't have a beloved personal possession that holds such sentimental meaning to them because they've had it forever or because it reminds them of a special moment, or person, in their lives? That capitalism has co-opted toys and play is the fault of capitalism and its relentless engines of dehumanizing assimilation, not that of toys or the toymakers themselves, who really only exist to bring joy and meaning to people.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is a strange show to base a toy line around if you stop and think about it. Well, at least in 1988 it would have been: This was back before the industry started to cater largely towards (wealthy) adult collectors, so the target demographic here would still have been kids. And the fact of the matter is this isn't an especially kid-friendly show when you get right down to it: There's nothing in it that would specifically turn kids away, to be sure, but likewise there wasn't a whole lot to specifically attract them either (we'll conveniently ignore Wesley Crusher for the moment). Even by this point Star Trek: The Next Generation had established itself as a rather heady, slow-pace philosophical sort of show that dealt with a lot of adult emotions and experiences. After all, more than one story in the first season dealt explicitly with the re-examination of old relationships, and a common theme so far has been memories and our past lives, both literal and metaphorical.
This is not exactly the sort of material your average 7-10 year old, who's probably the person these sorts of toys were going to be aimed at, is necessarily going to be interested in. It's not like this was the Original Series, which had a comically stupid fight scene with a dude in a silly costume on the backlot once an episode and where Starfleet went to war with the Klingons *every day*. In spite of its truly groundbreaking and inspiring design for the starships and environments, there's nary a space battle nor phaser blast to be seen anywhere in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which, even though those are the parts of the show that tend to be the most remembered, is a pattern that holds for its entire seven year run. And yet, no sooner did Star Trek: The Next Generation get announced then representatives from toymaker Galoob were at the Paramount sets taking notes and trying to figure out how to turn a series that didn't even physically exist yet into a successful line of toys.
Actually though while I mention the original Star Trek, a better point of comparison here is probably Star Wars. Kenner's toy line based on the film series had been wildly successful in the early part of the decade, and Galoob themselves had their own Star Wars line. Savvily, their Star Trek: The Next Generation figures were designed to be in scale with their Star Wars ones-I always appreciate it when toy companies have that sort of foresight. But the point remains that Star Wars was a massive success in the toy business for a reason, and that's because Star Wars is *incredibly* kid friendly. It's got distinct and iconic Good Guys and Bad Guys, incredibly flashy and iconic setpieces, most of which involved myriad variations on Stuff Blowing Up, and a ton of memorable and beloved characters, creature designs and settings that are easily translatable to plastic form. Indeed, Star Wars and toys are so synonymous that many peoples memories of the franchise are actually based more around the toys and other bits of the Star Wars merchandising empire than the movies themselves.
Star Trek doesn't really have any of that, certainly not Star Trek: The Next Generation, and certainly not Star Trek: The Next Generation at this point in time. Remember, this was a show so cash-strapped thanks to a major clerical error in pre-production it resorted to stock footage, bottle episodes and recycled soundstage sets to creep in on budget. And yet even so, the vision of Star Trek: The Next Generation Galoob offers us is a fascinating one nonetheless, and has a certain sort of wonder and enthusiasm that manages to define the way I remember this part of the show's history. This was not my Star Trek: The Next Generation toy line, I should add: No doubt due to its extremely short (a year and a half) shelf life, it wasn't something I was largely aware of at the time, although in hindsight I may have had some vague awareness of its existence. But looking through the archives at the few toys Galoob did put out, I was struck by the fanciful charm that seems to pervade so many of them: It feels like this line was the work of people who loved what they were doing and had a deep-seated love of the source material (which, indeed, was the case).
Although the line itself only had ten characters (Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Geordi, Tasha Yar, Worf, Data, Q, an Antican, a Selay, and a Ferengi who fittingly resembles Letek), a couple replica play vehicles you could put them in and a die-cast Enterprise, there were plans to expand into role-play with stuff like themed walkie-talkies and a toy version of Geordi's VISOR (the only surviving sign of this is a toy electronic phaser). Even without them though, the action figures themselves definitely seem to be ephasizing the version of Star Trek that's about exciting and imaginative space adventures on mysterious, faroff planets. All the toys have phasers or tricorders (irritatingly sculpted to their hands), and there were going to be paper dioramas called “action environments” where you could supposedly act out your own adventures with your own away team. From the pictures, the “Alien Planet” diorama looks like it would have been more creative and visually interesting than any of the actual alien planets in the first season were.
If you're raising an eyebrow at the choice of characters, bear in mind this line went into production before the actual show did, so the designers had to guess which characters would be the most popular and the prominent in action scenes. Furthermore, this was only the first wave and we can assume all the characters would have gotten figures eventually had the line not been canceled. Although that said, the noticeable omission of Doctor Crusher and Deanna Troi is a bit concerning: According to former Galoob employees Jim Fong and Bob DiGiacomo, they felt that Tasha, being security chief, would be involved in a lot of action scenes (how ironic) and would make a good fit, because boys as a general rule don't buy action figures of women and girls traditionally didn't buy Galoob action figures at all. The question then becomes, of course, why this was the case and why Galoob felt Star Trek: The Next Generation was something they had to sell exclusively to boys. For the record, Playmates' first line of (wildly successful) action figures in 1991 featured *everyone* who was a regular on the show at that point in time.
Speaking of design, I lastly wanted to spotlight the retail packaging of the Galoob line. I can't really explain why I like them so much, but I do. There's a very heartwarming, endearingly 1980s look to both the toys themselves and the packaging they came in that I find endlessly appealing. It looks pretty much exactly how I'd expect a line of Star Trek: The Next Generation toys to look in mid-1988, if that makes any sort of sense whatsoever to you. What this also means is, like the show they sprang from, these toys look uniquely of their time. They're evocative of a very specific era in Star Trek history and, while the Playmates line will eventually go on to achieve astronomical successes in a few years, the Galoob line represents an intriguing dead end, a tantalizing road not taken.
Again, much like the show itself.
If you're interested in learning more about the Galoob line, TrekCore has a lovely and extensive three part interview with Jim Fong and Bob DiGiacomo I highly recommend checking out.