Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation
You can’t have action figures without some place to put them. Even if you’re too embarrassed to move them around in a playset, you’ve got to admit having a lavish plastic display to pose them all in looks awesome on your shelf. It was Wave 2 that started giving us those playsets for our Star Trek: The Next Generation friends-I’ve already talked about the bridge playset in this book. Although it technically came out as part of this wave, I felt compelled to talk about it back in the first wave because I really just wanted to go all-out gonzo with the first Playmates essay. This leaves me with one extra essay to write about and not a whole lot to fill it with here, however. So, let’s see how long I can talk about what’s left of Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Wave 2.
The other playset released this year was a transporter room. Now this was really cool because it actually worked by way of an old theatrical trick called Pepper’s Ghost. In a Pepper’s Ghost illusion, a one-way reflective surface is placed between the audience and a hidden room on the other side. There’s also an overhead light source that, when raised or lowered, makes any objects in the room appear to appear and disappear out of thin air. This is how the Haunted Mansion in the Walt Disney resorts create the illusion of the dancing ghosts in the ballroom at the beginning of the ride, and it’s also how Tupac Shakur appeared onstage at Coachella in 2012 and Michael Jackson did the same at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards (not, as is often reported, through the use of holography. We don’t have holodecks yet).
A lot of times in a Pepper’s Ghost trick the hidden room is painted black so that the “ghost” seems to materialize right in front of the audience, when really they’re in another closed off area. The Playmates transporter conveys the illusion a little differently, with the mirror dividing the transporter pad in two. You put your prospective away team member in the area behind the mirror, close the door and manually raise the sliders (which wonderfully take the form of the LCARS finger panels from the TV show and make a satisfyingly accurate shimmering sound when activated either way) as the overhead light gradually shifts. Obviously to give the illusion your character is standing on the pad both sections have to look identical, and this also necessitates the transporter becoming more of a chamber than a pad. As a matter of fact, during the seven years I didn’t watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, but did have these toys, I completely forgot the transporter room was even a pad on the show at all-I completely mentally retconned it as being a chamber and always remembered it as such until I saw “Encounter at Farpoint” again for the first time.…
The first wave of Playmates’ Star Trek: The Next Generation toys focused primarily on the Enterprise and its crew: For action figures we got (most of) the bridge crew, and for electronic light-up ships we got the Enterprise itself as well as a Shuttlecraft. Following along with the accompanying Wave 2 action figure releases, which both expanded upon the Starfleet crew and gave us a greater assortment of aliens, the Wave 2 vehicles included a Klingon Attack Cruiser and a Romulan Warbird.
Both of these ships are very nicely detailed. Actually, in hindsight, I have to say they’re a bit more impressive than the Playmates Enterprise itself: The colours and proportions of both are screen accurate, which is really important when dealing with starships this distinctive and memorable. The Attack Cruiser does fare a little better in this regard: All of the little details and elevations Rick Sterbach sculpted onto it to emphasize shadowplay with the studio lights have translated perfectly to consumer-grade plastic, and as such I’ve always considered it one of the most bang-on replicas of the Playmates line. The Romulan Warbird only suffers a bit due to limited lighting: Just like all the vehicles, only the Warbird’s nacelles light up, and while that’s nice, one of the best things about the Warbird studio model is all the beautiful windows on the…prow I suppose, or beak section. That gives the ship an incredible sense of scale and grandeur the toy just isn’t capable of recreating, and this hurts the Warbird more than probably any other ship in the fleet, save perhaps the Enterprise itself.
(One of my biggest disappointments is that Playmates never made a Ferengi Marauder. You’d think given Letek’s headlining role in the first wave this would be one of the light-up starships they’d release first, but it never happened. Maybe it was because the Ferengi didn’t play as prominent a role in the sixth season, although given all the callbacks to first that seems strange. Or maybe they were holding it back for a possible inclusion in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line. Although perhaps its for the best, as a Ferengi Marauder without windows would have left me heartbroken.)
What the Warbird does have are some awesome sound effects. Both the Attack Cruiser and the Warbird have four sounds: Cloak, Disruptor blast, “shield hit” and impulse. Neither one has what I’d call especially accurate samples, but the Warbird’s at least were terribly cool sounding. I think I pounded that disruptor cannon button enough times to wear both it and the sound chip out. At least, that’s the excuse I’ll give for the electronics in mine no longer working. Also, my Attack Cruiser is missing its battery case cover for some reason, as well as one of the “prongs” at the front of the ship, which is really annoying. I seem to recall getting my Attack Cruiser (and maybe my Warbird too) one Christmas at my great-grandparents’ house on my maternal grandfather’s side.…
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.…
The USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D is one of my favourite designs for anything ever. I have been fascinated by this starship and the way it looks for *literally* almost as long as I can remember to a degree that borders on outright obsession. I cannot fully put into words what the Enterprise means to me because even I’m not sure I fully understand the true depths of that meaning myself. Whenever I look at it I’ll sit entranced its curves, the vibrant colouring of the panels and the deflector dish or the slope of the stardrive section as it flows elegantly into that giant saucer. I don’t even think there’s just one thing about it that makes it so incredibly beautiful; it’s a genuine work of art in the sense everything about it sings together in perfect harmony such that you could stare at it forever.
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.…
Any self-respecting toy collector knows you’ve got to have bad guys for your heroes to fight against. And yet this is Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in spite of what certain creative figures might thing, fighting is pretty much the last thing we ought to be considering. And so we see another manifestation of the curious dual role the Playmates line must play: Fun enough for kids to want to play with and bang together, and sophisticated enough to engage adults.
Playmates knew the Enterprise crew had to meet some people while they were out there exploring space, so as part of the first wave of releases they included a handful of aliens you could either speak or spar with: A Borg drone, a Ferengi, a Romulan commander and Gowron. In hindsight these are sort of interesting picks; the first wave came out in the wake of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s fifth season and was clearly meant to capitalize on it-Just take note of how Captain Picard is wearing his “captain’s jacket” and, of course, the Star Trek 25th Anniversary branding. But while these aliens are in many ways the iconic ones for Star Trek: The Next Generation, none of them played especially major roles in the fifth season (with the notable exception of the whoppers that were “Redemption” and “Unification”): If anything, you’d at least expect a Cardassian to be among the initial releases, but nope. Presumably Playmates figured that since this was the first set of Star Trek: The Next Generation releases, it’d be best to start with the recognisable staples.
Even so, the inclusion of a Ferengi pirate, particularly one who looks like this, is an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. Although they were intended to be Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s primary antagonists, they were supplanted at the beginning of the third season by the Romulans, and they haven’t really played any significant role in the TV series’ plot in three years. But Playmates’ Ferengi is explicitly modelled after the ones in “The Last Outpost”: He’s got it all, from the animal skin uniforms to the fur boots to the crackling energy whips, down to the fact he looks eerily like Armin Shimerman’s Letek. Even the clip-and-collect card cites the same Federation intel the crew went over in “Encounter at Farpoint” and “The Last Outpost”. Furthermore, this Ferengi is most assuredly not meant to be a joke, with the card making numerous references to how cunning, dangerous and ruthless his people can be.
Here I am finding myself talking out of two sides of my mouth again. Because I have to write this with the conceit that I’m just now discovering this toy and the Playmates line now, when in truth this guy was one of the very first pieces of Star Trek anything I ever got. To me, this is *always* how the Ferengi have looked and acted, and this figure gave form to the half-remembered dreamlike imagery from half a decade prior I could only hazily recall.…
Alan Moore teaches us that reality begins with fiction. “The idea of a god is a god”. But fiction can not just be written, it also must be read. And when we read things, according to Shoshana Felman, we are not uncovering hidden meaning, but generating truth. And the truth that we generate will be different for each person, for each person is different themselves. My truth will not necessarily be your truth, and yours will not necessarily be mine.
If this project has taught me one thing, its this: Reinforcing my conscious intellectualization of the reading process by forcing me to undergo it at an intimate and primal level so that I may attempt to convey what I’ve seen to all of you. It’s a shamanic process; travel inside and out (because they’re the same thing) and try and share the experience through art for the benefit of others. It’s no great arcane secret-I’ve always helped that by my doing it, it would demonstrate that you could do it too.
When we talk about a work of art having a transformative effect on us and leaving a lasting impact on our lives, what we’re really talking about is the experiential meaning the work evoked in us, not the physical work itself. The material artefact is important, obviously, but that meaning only manifests when creators and audiences both react to it, and any meaning inherent to the text itself by necessity undergoes a process of translation. I can say Star Trek: The Next Generation has been a huge influence on my life for decades, but I’m only ever going to fixate on specific things about it that resonate with me personally: My positionality and perspective define what I take out of it and how I react to it.
And then what happens when ideas, characters and themes migrate? They travel, and are shaped and reformed by their travels just like the rest of us.
|The Wave 1 line.|
The second line of Star Trek: The Next Generation toys and action figures debuted in the fall of 1992. Playmates Toys received the license this time, after the failure of Galoob’s earlier stab at adapting the show to the 3 1/4 inch plastic scale. Marketed, of course, as part of Star Trek’s 25th Anniversary (indeed, the only part of the two-year celebration apart from The Star Lost and The Return of Okona officially and specifically dedicated to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: The Next Generation alone), Playmates’ auspicious first wave featured the toyetic likenesses of Captain Picard, Counselor Troi, Lieutenant Commander Data, Lieutenant Worf, Commander Riker, Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, a Borg, a Ferengi, a Romulan and Gowron.
As fans we sometimes talk a lot about “our” Star Trek (or whatever your pop culture mythology of choice might be), or at least those of us who were exposed to the show sporadically on initial run broadcast TV do.…