Thursday, January 21, 2016
Totemic Artefacts: Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Wave 2
As the Playmates line of Star Trek: The Next Generation action figures expanded, I have to confess I started to get less of them. I know it's hard to believe and that I have to keep stressing this, but I was actually never a hardcore Star Trek fan, and thus didn't possess an encyclopedic knowledge of every single character and every single episode. When it came to toys, I was primarily interested in the Enterprise crew and the most recognisable aliens: My fondest memories of Star Trek: The Next Generation are of images and scenes, not specific episodes or stories. So, as Playmates began to expand beyond the main cast of characters I wasn't as feverish about keeping up with their releases.
It's the second wave where this began to manifest. That's not to dismiss the toys from this wave and beyond in the slightest: They're all of the exact same peerless quality you'd expect from Playmates Star Trek, just to articulate and further highlight where my interest in this franchise really lies. This is the wave where variants, one-shots and reoccurring characters started to become more pronounced (for obvious reasons), and the simple fact is I just wasn't as interested in that stuff. I still had a fair amount from this wave, but I didn't have *all* of it. In fact, I still don't, and I'm not likely to ever finally “complete” my collection as it were. I'm not the kind of collector who has to horde absolutely every release from every line imaginable: I like to have representations of my favourite characters, and I don't really need more than that. So I'll review the figures from this line that I have, and only give a passing mention to the ones I don't.
A few of these ones I've already looked at as part of the bridge crew retrospective last season. Even though they weren't part of the Wave 1 1992 releases, it would frankly have been ridiculous of me *not* to look at Doctor Crusher and Guinan,who in fact didn't actually get plastic likenesses until 1993. It's especially dumb that Doctor Crusher wasn't among the early releases. Normally I would grumble about sexism in the toy industry leading manufacturers to believe that action figures based on girls don't sell and aren't popular (which is sadly based on real, material sales figures in spite of what certain activists would have you believe and how much we might want to think), except Deanna Troi was part of the initial wave, and she seems like far less of an action-oriented character, and thus a weaker candidate for an action figure, than Doctor Crusher. Maybe it's because Deanna's not a mom. The Bev released as part of Wave 2 is the rather boring, unplayable version with the lab coat moulded to her body and hands that can't hold anything, but for quite some time she was the only Bev we got.
Speaking of Bev being a mom, Wesley Crusher is (regrettably) another new release from this wave. And, unlike Bev, I can totally see why he was held back a year for the second wave. This Wesley is dressed in a Starfleet Academy uniform and is therefore intended to be based on his appearance in “The First Duty”, which strikes me as just an incredible idea: “Hey kids! Here's a new toy for you of a boy, just like you, whose criminal negligence led to the death of one of his classmates in a story intended to patronizingly browbeat you into always telling the truth and trust authority figures! Have fun!”. I actually do have him, but he's buried in a box somewhere and I couldn't be bothered to get him out for a picture. I have no idea where his accessories are. All I remember is that he barely ever saw any action, but not out of spite: Wesley Crusher was, believe it or not, actually a character I never really knew at the time. I was vaguely aware Doctor Crusher had a son somewhere, but we never saw him and thus I didn't care about him one way or the other. So my Wesley figure was basically only used if I needed a random, generic-looking crewman extra to hang around in the background somewhere. I *think* he may have also been Julian Bashir prior to me getting the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line as well.
There's also, as I said, a fair amount of variants and a surprising number of reprints. I don't have any of them, personally: I was never a fan of variants, always preferring to have one neutral, “definitive” figure who could represent their character in the vast majority of situations. So a bunch of figures based on alternate uniforms or outfits they only wore in one or two episodes didn't appeal to me. The variants in this wave predominantly feature the original uniform designs by William Ware Theiss, that is, the spandex jumpsuits the crew wore in the first and second seasons before Bob Blackman radically redesigned the uniforms to be two-piece cotton suits with collars in the third season after the actors complained about asphyxiation and back problems they were developing as a result of spending long filming days in the inane original ones. So here we get Captain Picard, Commander Riker and Data with the full spandex treatment. Will's sculpt is specifically a second season one because he has a beard, and Playmates didn't want to spring for the new head mould that would have been necessary for a babyface first season Riker.
(However, much later they did release a line of alternate universe “Starfleet Academy” toys depicting the Enterprise crew as teenagers, and that line's Will is a new clean-shaven sculpt. This figure is a favourite amongst hobbyist customizers who like to take its head and affix it to a Wave 2 Second Season Will body to create a functional Playmates First Season Will.)
Also like Will, Deanna Troi gets a specifically second season variant in a figure depicting her maroon jumpsuit and later hairstyle (although this is less specific as I believe she has that look in a number of third-fifth season episodes too). Once again, Playmates obviously did that because it's very cheap to change one colour injection for an existing mould and call it a new figure. In contrast to Will and Deanna, the Geordi and Worf variants are specifically first season, as they're in command purple and are referred to as Lieutenant J.G. (Junior Grade) Worf and La Forge. Geordi and Worf actually get two variants this wave: In addition to their early days figures, Geordi is also the first character to be depicted wearing the dress uniform, and Worf gets a “Klingon Warrior” variant based on the traditional Klingon warrior caste uniform he wears as part of Kurn's crew following his temporary resignation from Starfleet in “Redemption II”.
I'm fairly certain, by the way, that it was these exact Playmates toys that first jogged my memory that there was in fact an older uniform design from the first two seasons (and, for that matter, that Geordi and Worf had been promoted at some point). I seem to recall reading about these figures on a cardback or catalog, then going back to my ViewMaster reel of “A Matter of Honor” and having a sort of lightbulb-clicking moment. The uniform redesigns had become so ubiquitous and familiar to me that I'd completely forgotten they weren't the original ones. Even to this day, when I go back to the first season, seeing the old uniforms feels ever-so-slightly wrong to me. And it also makes my back ache in sympathy pains for the actors.
There's also no less than *three* Original Series characters in this wave, which frankly seems somewhat stunning. Looking back, it does make a lot of sense: Not only had both Ambassador Spock and Captain Scott had significant roles in comparatively recent episodes, Playmates' line of Original Series action figures had just come out too, so naturally they'd want to do a little cross promotion, perhaps in the spirit of that ever-present 25th Anniversary that's now two years old. I do have the Original Series line but, fair dues, I'm not going to review it here for purely personal reasons. I don't have a lot to say about them anyway: If I wasn't re-enacting Star Trek: 25th Anniversary with them I was using them for whatever spare roles I had lying around that needed to be filled.
What's neat about the Next Generation versions of these characters is that they're not cheap kitbashes which, given what some of this wave looks like and the fact a contemporaneous TOS line did in fact exist, would have been understandable. Playmates could have just taken the Spock and Scotty heads, repainted them, stuck them on a new body and called it a day (though admittedly this would have been harder with Scotty), but no: These are entirely new sculpts with all the appropriate aging moulded in. This is especially evident in Admiral McCoy, the third Original Series character in this line, who's practically unrecognisable from his counterpart in the Original Series set. I'll admit he's one of my favourite releases purely for his uniqueness: Not only does his presence reach *all* the way back to “Encounter at Farpoint” (and hey! maybe that's why we got so many first season variants in this wave!) he's quite possibly the least “action” action figure Playmates ever released.
(I do actually have Scotty and McCoy, but not Spock, though I often forget I do. They never saw a ton of play time either, though McCoy made a fun “Old Man” figure.)
The big draw in this wave for me where the new aliens, in particular the new figures based on reoccurring characters. There was a re-release of the Borg drone from the first wave, I'm guessing because it was a popular character (this is the one I think I have, by the way, because mine comes with a trading card and Playmates didn't start packing trading cards in with their figures until this wave) along with Locutus (just in time for The Worst of Both Worlds too!). I was always deeply uneasy about Locutus: I didn't like seeing Captain Picard's face staring back at me from a Borg drone, and it seemed wrong to commemorate the worst moment of his life in plastic form. If I used Locutus, it was only ever as a second Borg drone (I just had to pretend that wasn't Captain Picard's face) or, rarely as a Borg “clone” of Captain Picard. There was a also a Vorgon, who I don't have because he was utterly random and forgettable (remember the Vorgons? Those guys from “Captain's Holiday”? Yeah, them) and K'Ehleyr, who I also don't have, because she was a non-presence whose episodes I never saw.
Captain Dathon though I definitely knew. Even back then I knew “Darmok” was incredible, and he was far and away one of the most unique characters in this set. He looks dynamic and noble, as befitting the character he's based on, and I think he was one of the only aliens in my collection who never wound up doing double duty as someone else. He comes with the two daggers from the episode, one of which you can actually fit into the holster on his uniform, just as Dathon does on TV. Dathon also comes with the book of poetry he reads from and, most interestingly, the burning branch from the iconic scene where he helps Captain Picard get his fire going. The branch is a truly lovely bit of design: It's very stylized, completely eschewing any sort of representationalist look. It's the last thing you'd expect would be given an artistic design, but it's incredibly appropriate because, if you think about, what better accessory to represent the themes of the episode than that one? No wonder Playmates' toymakers took care to sculpt poetry into its design.
Then there's Q, and you just have got to have Q. As far as characters demanding a figure go, he's practically right up there with Doctor Crusher as being people you just expect to have from the beginning of a Star Trek: The Next Generation toy line. He's depicted in his most usual form here, wearing a Starfleet uniform with captain's rank insignia. He comes with some really cool accessories too, like a big scepter, once again invoking “Encounter at Farpoint” (though he wouldn't be depicted in his iconic judge's robes until next year) as well as a miniature purple Earth and USS Enterprise, really driving home his omnipotence. He also comes with a dilithium crystal for some reason, I guess in case you ever needed a spare dilithium crystal for something (you wouldn't. You never, ever need another dilithium crystal. They're like phasers, tricorders and computer bags: Every other guy comes with one). Q I actually never used much, though I can't for the life of me think of why. I certainly liked the character; I guess I just couldn't think of any good stories to tell with him.
One of the biggest standouts of this line for me was actually Lore. I've loved him as a villain since the very beginning, and have always felt he was almost the definitive antagonist for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Q always has a more complex relationship with the crew I'd be hard pressed to call antagonistic, and at the time the Borg didn't appeal to me as true dark mirrors: To me, they were cannon fodder at best, likely due in part to how underwhelmed I was by the Playmates Borg action figures in terms of playability and how absolutely overblown fan opinion on “The Best of Both Worlds” was and is. Lore though was deliciously, skin-crawlingly evil and played with charismatic aplomb by Brent Spiner, and I'd just been blown away by the “Descent” two-parter. As such I do wish Lore was wearing his black jumpsuit from that episode instead of the slightly doofy Pakled uniform from “Brothers” he is in his figure. If for no other reason then the Pakled look limits his mobility, and thus his playability. Lore's accessories are pretty standard as well, but it was enough for me to have him.
The second most used figure from this set in my house, believe it or not, was the Benzite! For everyone else I'm sure he'd be like the Vorgon-Some utterly random one-off alien from an episode a million years ago everyone's forgotten about. But the Benzites were always very iconic characters for me because of how intimately familiar I was with “A Matter of Honor” thanks to my ViewMaster reels. But to me he was a necessity, and, as Ensign Mendon, he was actually a bridge crew *regular* of mine for quite some time. Of course, this Benzite is meant to be Mordock from “Coming of Age” instead of Mendon from “A Matter of Honor” (perhaps another reason for all those first season variants, though strangely enough Wesley wasn't one of them). But because it was the exact same actor and the exact same prosthetic, he passes for Mendon just as well, barring his lack of a Starfleet uniform. Mordock also comes with the usual stuff you'd expect from a Starfleet officer.
(Both my Benzite and Dathon are probably due a regeneration. As you can see, poor Mordock/Mendon is broken in several places due to how popular he was, and my Dathon is missing a few of his unique and lovely accessories.)
But the big standout for me in this wave, and far and away my most loved figure from it (not counting Doctor Crusher, who I mentally don't even associate with this wave) is none other than Commander Sela. The stories my Sela could tell. First of all, she's an incredibly cool character, both on TV and in figure form: She looks sleek, svelte and fiercely determined, and those pointed shoulder pads and sharp-edged sashes let you know she means the most serious kind of business. At first glance, you might think she suffers from Playmates female dainty hands syndrome, but then you might notice one hand can hold a Romulan disruptor just fine, while the other is posed in such a way that should you move her arm to her chest, you can make her do the Romulan salute!
Interestingly enough, though she comes with the same “Romulan phaser rifle” that the previously released Romulan guy came with, Sela is completely incapable of holding it. But you know who is? Tasha Yar. In fact, Tasha's hands seem to be sculpted *specifically for* this particular accessory. Tasha never used the rifle on the show, so this is another example of Playmates opening up avenues for storytelling its source material would never do. And it totally makes sense: This is exactly the sort of pose you'd expect a space marine to adopt.
From the moment Sela was released and I brought her home, she became *the* go-to Romulan character for every single story involving Romulans that would get told. She even rendered the original Wave 1 Romulan obsolete (she even comes with every single one of his accessories, except hers are cast in an *awesome* electric blue instead of his boring black), although he did wind up finding second life as Commander T'Alar from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Hearts and Minds. Either as Sela or some other female Romulan/Vulcan character, although increasingly just as herself, Sela was absolutely *everywhere* in my plastic Star Trek: The Next Generation. And naturally, once I eventually made the connection, she became Tasha Yar until I finally at long last picked up the real Tasha Yar figure. But Sela's time spent as her mother from an alternate universe (gotta love genre fiction) left her with an interesting legacy in my head: I wound up having to explain away this “Tasha”'s very Romulan mannerisms and dress sense as being the result of some significant amount of time spent with the Romulan Star Empire, perhaps as an undercover Starfleet intelligence officer or, most intriguingly, as a Romulan operative herself involved in a form of officer exchange. Much like, actually, Ensign Mendon.
The only annoying thing about Sela is that she's glued together in such away that it's extremely difficult to have her sit anywhere. Every time you move her legs, it puts stress on the seams that hold the two halves of her torso together, and if you do this enough eventually the glue will dry and separate and she'll collapse into seven neat compartmentalized parts. Of course, since I played with her *all the time* this eventually became an inevitability. The nice thing is this also makes her a very easy fix, which I did with some modelling glue. Problem then is that just bought me time until she fell apart again. So in this way she's actually a great deal like Season 6 Deanna Troi, although in Sela's case I was able to keep all the pieces together so she never became Crewman Just-a-Head or something. However, this did mean that Sela is my most recent figure to be regenerated, partly because she kept falling apart, but also because the paint apps on mine had faded to the point she was starting to develop an uncanny resemblance to Angela Lansbury.
I mean nothing against Angela Lansbury: She's a great actress and I'm a fan of hers and all, but, y'know.