Thursday, September 17, 2015
Totemic Artefacts: Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Part 3 - Wave 1 Vehicles and Role Play
The Enterprise is the centrepiece of Star Trek: The Next Generation's iconography for me. It's the one piece that sums up everything that I found so powerful and captivating about this series' look and feel. When I would get merchandise for the show, I would often cut apart the various boxes and hold onto them: To me, the artwork and iconography was so beautiful and it so consumed my imagination I wanted to somehow be able to physically *hold* it, as if that would bring me closer to the emotions and atmosphere they conveyed, or that I might perhaps be able to channel that through me and bring some of it into my own being. My room would be littered with various carboard effigies of the Star Trek: The Next Generation logo or Playmates' own space art that adorned their packaging: Dissociated, scattered signifiers of some ethereal confluence. And there always was that azure tinged Enterprise.
When I finally got the Playmates Enterprise toy it was an absolutely monumental moment in my life. Here finally was my very own spirit totem of this ship of the imagination, in three dimensional plastic instead of cardboard. My constant exposure to various representations of the Enterprise and my obsession with its design meant that I had become an expert on its every detail, but not in the classic Star Trek Nerd sense of memorizing deck blueprints or anything like that: My resources were disjointed publicity stills, toyetic caricatures, half-remembered effects shots and ViewMasters. What I knew best was the Enterprise's *soul*, not its body. And even then my intimate familiarity with every detail of the Enterprise's vibe allowed me to make some specific observations about this new toy.
First of all, even I could recognise Playmates' Enterprise was based on the four-foot shooting model, not the six-foot one. This may sound like pedantic nerdery, but it's actually hugely important to me because there are significant and noticeable visual differences between the six-foot and four-foot models and I think the six-foot model best captures the Enterprise's divine essence. The struts that connect the nacelles to the stardrive section are thinner and have much more of an elegant and organic curve on the six-foot model, whereas the ones on the four-foot one are squarer and more angular. The six-foot model is thinner and wider overall, most noticeable at the back end and in the more pronounced deflector dish, to the point it almost seems top-heavy with its overwhelmingly dominant saucer section. But this just adds to the almost impossibly mystical and futuristic nature of the technology that we can imagine went into building the Enterprise, as does the fact it's so eerily smooth all over. And it's only the six-foot model that has that striking azure blue colour scheme.
I probably like the six-foot model the best because it was the first and is thus closest to Andy Probert's original vision. The four-foot model was introduced midway through the third season to make filming easier, and, by contrast, is visibly chunkier and squatter than its predecessor. It also has a lot of engraved detail all over its body, the idea being the studio lights would generate a lot of eye-catching shadowplay on the model that would show up nicely on television. But this has the side-effect of making the four-foot Enterprise look grungier, more utilitarian, less graceful and less futuristic, and that's to its detriment. This is especially noticeable on the high definition restoration, where it becomes clear there was no loss of visual interest in shots using the old six-foot model. Even back then I could tell watching the show that there had to be more than one Enterprise model used for filming: I could tell some shots looked different (and better) than others, even if I couldn't place my finger on precisely why at the time.
So as overjoyed as I was to finally have an Enterprise of my own, I couldn't help but feel disappointed by this. Stuff like the nacelle struts and the general stoutness bothered me, as did the colour scheme. In lieu of the Enterprise's signature azure, or even its iconic battleship grey, the Playmates model is a flat dull white. The windows are nothing more than little indentations in the plastic, which is sad, but it probably would have been time consuming and expensive to do them any other way. But what upsets me the most about the Playmates Enterprise is the deflector dish: It's cast from a solid piece of translucent red plastic, and there's no light bulb behind it so that it could light up with the rest of the ship. But what annoys me even more is that the deflector dish isn't supposed to be bright red: It's actually supposed to glow concentric circles of neon blue and dull maroon. In fact, some publicity art even has the deflector dish glowing a *rainbow*, which I absolutely loved. This was actually so important to me I even remember once having a dream where that was fixed on the toy, that's how much I thought about this stuff.
Happily, even though the struts are a letdown, the nacelles themselves are pretty cool. They're the only part of the ship that lights up, and while it's not the bright and captivating neon of the TV show, they're still quite striking. The Enterprise has four buttons running down its dorsal spine, and pressing each one activates the internal sound chip for a unique sound effect. From the bottom up, it's photon torpedo, phaser blast (and explosion), warp drive and impulse cruising, respectively. Each button also activates the lights in the nacelles, and one of my favourite things to do was go into my closet, shut the door, turn the overhead light off and just stand there making the ship light up over and over again. Another thing I always thought was fun is that the nacelles are removable, probably to pack and ship the model easier, but for some reason I thought that was really cool: If nothing else, it all but demanded “Cause and Effect” style alternate timeline ship explosions as it made doing them effortless.
Speaking of those lights and sounds, my Enterprise has a little bit of battle damage, as you might be able to see from the photos. One day they stopped working, even though I was reasonably certain the batteries were fresh. So my dad took a knife to the stardrive section to try and open it up to get at the electronics inside, but to no avail (in hindsight, it probably would have been a better idea to unscrew the screws at the bottom of the model). Thankfully they started working again of their own accord sometime later, though they're still intermittent sometimes (there's got to be a loose wire in there somewhere). This does not, I should add, have anything to do with the fact the registration decal is on upside-down. That's all on my stupidity: The original ones fell off ages ago and I tried to replace them with decals from other Enterprise models (you better believe I have a bunch of them), but in my haste and ignorance I grabbed the wrong ones and put them on incorrectly.
Even though I'm a bit harsh on the Playmates Enterprise, it's only because it's representing one of the most profoundly powerful and personally meaningful things in existence for me and I care so much about it. That's not to say that, like the four-foot model itself, that I don't have fond memories associated with it, or that I didn't share a great many special experiences and adventures with it or that's it's still not one of my absolute most treasured possessions. I would be hard on *any* effigy of the starship Enterprise, and in fact I've not yet either seen or acquired one that I'm fully comfortable with. I'm still looking for a model that embodies everything I love about this remarkable design, but that may well be an impossible goal.
Now the shuttlecraft was an absolute blast, because it was actually *to scale* with the figures, and even had a fully decked out interior you could put them inside! Playmates' shuttlecraft is modeled after the Goddard, which is going to become famous next year for its appearance in “Relics” but at this point would have been best known for its role in “The Next Phase”. Like its parent vessel, the shuttlecraft has light-up nacelles and two sound effect buttons that trigger them: Phasers and impulse engines (though the battery terminal on mine is corroded so they no longer work). It also comes with a pallet of cargo sensors that you can slide onto the back via a set of tracks. Inside, there's a cockpit with a whole array of control panels that was frankly mesmerizing at the time, as well as two little benches that you could either use to seat passengers or fold up to accommodate the cargo pallet. Theoretically speaking you could fit five guys in total in the shuttlecraft, four in the back and one up front, but that makes an already cramped living space all the more of a tight squeeze, so I usually do no more than two at a time.
It was probably the Playmates shuttlecraft that really inspired my love of small starships. Cramped as it may have been, I loved how confined the space was and it always felt cozy to me. To me it was a good place to put two characters in for a little outer space camping trip of sorts, and I always wished I had a little starship like that of my own. Well I mean I did, but one that was *my* size and that I could actually go in and fly around in myself. Sadly, Playmates never made life-size starships for role-playing purposes, but they did make prop replicas from the show.
The first was a type 2 phaser, modelled after the one used from the third season onwards (as opposed to the earlier model that had the derisive nickname of “the dustbuster”). Like on the show, it has two settings, stun and kill (it would be best not to confuse them), and you can even switch between them using buttons that correspond to the exact ones used on the actual props, and then fire using the exact same fire button! The neat thing about the Playmates phaser is how it has a unique sound effect for each setting: During that seven year period where I didn't watch any Star Trek (or any statistically significant Star Trek at any rate) I had assumed that worked the same way on the show. It turns out it didn't though, and that was purely an innovation by Playmates, which I think is a neat thing. Obviously I have it, but sadly, like a lot of my electronic Playmates toys, it doesn't work anymore. This time I attempted my own repair job on it, taking it apart to see if I could get at the loose wire that was preventing the circuit from completing. Sadly however I was not skilled enough electrically to actually fix it once I took it apart, and I have since lost a great many vitally important pieces, like the bulb, the bulb casing, the battery cover and all the screws. It will likely never be fixed.
There was also a personal communicator accessory. Now this is an unusual one, because while I still have the original box it came in...I can't for the life of me remember what happened to the toy itself. I think that's the only time something like that's ever happened to me. It's a pretty box, mind, with a lot of bright colours and exciting rays. Captain Picard is on it. Based on what the box says, I can presume you would clip the communicator to your shirt pocket and press a hidden button to make the communicator sound play. It also advertises “authentic lights” as well as “authentic sounds” from the TV show, which is interesting as I don't think the communicators ever lit up on the show. I do seem to recall my communicator breaking not long after I got it (for reasons that may or may not have something to do with the clip failing and dropping it on a cement sidewalk somewhere). I don't know why we never tried to fix it, or why I would have committed such a blasphemy by permanently losing it: I'd always wanted a communicator badge of my own, and had I kept that toy I might not have peeled the nametag stickers off my figures' bases. Maybe it's with my copy of The Star Lost.
Revisiting my Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation toys (of which what you've seen over the past few nights is but a small fraction) has reminded me, possibly more than anything else, of what these characters, images and memories mean to me. I can't put it into words and I'm not even entirely certain I know what it is, but...Somewhere in all of this is the Star Trek: The Next Generation that I love and that has inspired me all my life. And while this may not by readily apparent day-to-day on the TV show, the fact that the TV show was able to spawn all of this is significant in and of itself. Star Trek: The Next Generation is far grander and far more important than its egoistic sense of self-identity as a materiel artefact of television production: It's something timeless, transcendent and profound, and each individual manifestation of it is simply a small part of a much greater whole. The most important truth is in the understanding of how it manifests in you.