Friday, January 30, 2009

Playmates' Star Trek Legacy

With only a few months to go until what promises to be the biggest Star Trek merchandise rollout in more than a decade collectors everywhere have begun making their lists of what new collectibles they will be keeping an eye on and adding to their collections. For me the most awaited pieces are the full line of Star Trek action figures and accessories from the trek veterans at Playmates toys. In honor of their upcoming Trek toy revival which will finally bring back the Trek brand to toy aisles everywhere I felt it appropriate to take an in depth look back at their impressive line of toys released during the height of Star Trek's golden age of popularity between 1992 and 1999.

During the early 90s Star Trek The Next Generation was becoming bigger and bigger with each subsequent season. With Michael Piller's arrival during the third season the show finally began to fulfill its promise and in many fans' opinions the show soon surpassed its predecessor. By 1992 Paramount was beginning to accumulate an impressive portfolio of licensees for the TNG brand. Playmates Toys, a California based toy company which had made its mark in the toy world back in 1987 thanks to the success of their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line also jumped on the bandwagon by offering a full line of action figures, role play accessories, and space ships in the fall of 1992. One of the novel things about this line was the fact that each figure and accessory was individually numbered. The number was printed on a sticker on the packaging as well as painted on the bottom of each figure's foot. Some fans went as far as paying high amounts of money to obtain the lower numbered versions of some figures. Shop at home network QVC even offered a full sets of figures with every figure in each set sporting the same collector's edition number.

One of the first print ads for Playmates' TNG action figures line.

Their first wave of toys soon became a big success with many of the figures selling out at toy stores and department stores soon after hitting the shelves. This forced many collectors to begin looking for the figures in the secondary market at sci-fi and comic book conventions or through their local comic book and hobby shops which offered the figures at much higher prices and sometimes would have them available before they hit the major retailers.

Print ad for Playmates' Next Generation ships and accessories line.

By 1993 TNG had hit its stride and Paramount was gearing up for a second Trek spin off: Deep Space Nine. By the summer of that year a new wave of figures hit the market focusing on some of the same characters from TNG but this time offered in their first season uniforms. Shortly after more secondary characters from the show joined the line up and the first wave of figures based on the new show -- Deep Space Nine, was released.

Advertisement for Deep Space Nine toy line.

By the end of the year fans also get the first playsets to add to their collections with a working transporter room playset and an Enterprise-D bridge playset. The first figures based on the Original Series were also released as a limited edition set. Other highlights included a limited edition gold painted version of the U.S.S Enterprise-D.

Print ad promoting the limited edition classic Star Trek set.

Print ad for Playmates' 9 inch figure line.

By 1994 Star Trek had become one of the most profitable pop culture phenomenons of our times. With the final season of TNG on the air and the long awaited reunion of members from the original cast and the Next Generation on the big screen Playmates offered an impressive array of figures and collectibles to satisfy fans of any of the multiple Trek incarnations.
Almost two dozen more figures were added to the TNG line as well as more ships and role play accessories. Also a full line of toys based on the feature film Star Trek Generations hit shelves in the fall. For the new feature film costume designer Bob Blackman had decided to change the now familiar Starfleet uniforms. Shortly before principal photography began the producers decided to stick to the uniforms seen on The Next Generation and the jumpsuits worn by officers on Deep Space Nine. Due to the nature of toy production and the schedules required in order to have toys on shelves by the time the film is in theaters the figures were already in production when the change was made. The figures all feature uniforms different from what was seen on screen.

Star Trek Generations action figure line up.

Battle Damaged Enterprise-D from Star Trek Generations.

One of the coolest pieces to come out of the Generations line was the Engineering playset.
The set featured an amazing ammount of detail including a warp core with pulsating lights and sound effects just like the one on the show. Of the entire Playmates line this is still one of my favorite pieces. It was not available for long at retail.
Also in 1994 we were treated to one of the oddest bits of cross promotion in toy history with the debut of the Star Trek line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles featuring all four turtles in Starfleet uniforms from the Original Series.

Star Trek Ninja Turtles ad (1994).

Print ad for Playmates' classic Star Trek role play accessories.

In order to help promote their next wave of Deep Space Nine figures Playmates toys in conjunction with Paramount Pictures put together the Design an Alien contest. The Grand prize winner would receive a walk on role on Deep Space Nine appearing in make up as the Alien he had designed.

Design an Alien contest advertisement.

After receiving thousands of submissions from fans everywhere Trek Producer Rick Berman, costume designer Bob Blackman, make up artist Michael Westmore, and Trek fan club president Dan Madsen went on to pick John Paul Lona's design as the winner.
Lana, originally from Scranton PA was awarded with the walk on role for his character of a Rasiinnian Ambassador named Runepp. The Alien had an exo-skeleton, and glowing eyes that would give away his mood. The winner was announced in the pages of Star Trek Communicator, the magazine of the official Star Trek Fan Club.

Design an Alien contest winning entry.

For 1995 Playmates introduced a total of 90 new action figures, 18 accessories, 5 role playing items, and a series of new Innerspace mini playsets. By then toy buyers were able to choose their favorite character in 9 inch, 7 inch talking, 4.5 inches, or mini figures measuring less than 1 inch.

Some of the offerings from Playmates for 1995.

1995 action figure assortment print ad.

Innerspace collection ad.

Also in 1995 the line expanded to include the first wave of toys from the third TREK spin-off: VOYAGER. The line was not as successful and was limited to two waves and a toy replica of ths USS Voyager ship.

Star Trek Voyager action figures wave 1.

Playmates' USS Voyager.

We also got one of the best assortments from Playmates with the Classic Star Trek Movies assortment. This line included such characters as Khan, General Chang, Lt. Saavik, and Commander Kruge. Ships and role play accessories from the first 6 films also joined the line.

Following waves of figures were all consolidated under a Star Trek unified line to include figures from all the shows and movies together instead of individual waves for each show or movie.

By the fall of 1996 Playmates was realizing it was time to spice things up with their Trek offerings if they were to continue having successful sales. The first of these changes came with the introduction of the Starfleet Academy line. Featuring TNG characters as they would've looked during their Academy years in their training suits (flight training suit, geo-hazard suit, radiation protection suit, night reconnaissance suit). Each figure included a CD=ROM disk and multiple accessories.

Playmates' Star Trek First contact ad (1996)

For their Star Trek First Contact offerings, Playmates went on to make further changes. This time around the figures were sculpted at 6 inches in order to include more detail. Before the line made its public release a special Borg figure in tri-fold packaging and limited to only 500 pieces was sent out to licensees. The figure soon became a very popular commodity in the secondary market.

Star Trek licensees promotional figure.

One of the most crippling blows to the Playmates Trek line came in the form of 3 limited edition figures based on the characters of Picard, Barclay, and Tasha Yar. Each of these figures were limited to a production run of 1701 editions. Fans could barely find them and many were sold off at conventions for ridiculous amounts of money. Those fans who never found the figures began to get tired of Playmates strategy of ultra limited releases. Those who ponnied up tons of cash to obtain the figures got even more upset when playmates released the 3 figures as a 3 pack the following year. The set was available at most retailers carrying the line, making the original release of these figures not as special anymore.

After years of planing, The Official Fan Club was finally able to offer its very own exclusive Trek figure with the release of Captain Calhoun from the New Frontier series of Novels in the Fall of 1998. The club had been taking pre-orders for months and finally began shipping the figure in September. Unfortunately the character was not popular enough to move enough units in sales and in a about a year the figure was bargain priced to members. Soon after it was given away to anyone who ordered a copy of the book collecting "The Captains Table" novels.

With the decline in sales of the action figure line Playmates released a few more waves before focusing its attention on other items such as the larger scale 9 and 12 inch lines which still sold pretty well to collectors.

Playmates 12 inch assortment (1999).

Playmates kept trying their hand at the popular small scale lines with the Strike Force collection, featuring ships and accessories which open up to reveal mini figures and play environments. By this time kids were not buying the action figures enough to justify future waves at mass retail chains. Playmates opted to offer their next waves of figures as Target exclusives.

Target exclusives print ad.

For the release of Star Trek Insurrection on November of 1998 Playmates opted not to produce any action figures, focusing instead on the 9 and 12 inch collectors figures market. They also reissued the Enterprise-E and the previously available Phaser weapon -- this time around in new Insurrection packaging. The figures did not sell well and could be found bargain priced months later at most Toys R Us and Kay Bee Toy stores as well as through the official fan club catalog.

The last 4.5 inch action figures offerings came in 5 waves known as the Warp Factor Collection and featured such long awaited characters as the Borg Queen, Edith Keeler, and a partially assimilated Seven of Nine.

During these last efforts from Playmates came one of the most clever wave of figures with the release of the Transporter Series featuring light up transporter room platform bases packaged with action figures painted to represent the beaming effect.

Star Trek The Next Generation Transporter Series.

Near the end Playmates began to pay more attention to the high end collectors market and developed a line of Ultra & Latinum figures and dioramas. These pieces were produced using cold cast resin and featured an incredible amount of detail. Sculpted by Steve Varner this line kicked off with 12 inch statues of Captain Picard and the Borg Queen as seen in First Contact. They where limited to 5,000 pieces each. Along with the two statues a 6 inch diorama of the Borg Queen and Commander Data was also released.

The line continued with 12 inch statues of Seven of Nine, Captain Kirk, and a very rare Vulcan statue from First Contact which was only released internationally.

Two 6 inch Ultra Trek figures closed out the line -- Locutus and the Borg Queen.

For seven years Playmates was able to produce a staggering amount of highly detailed and fun filled items to satisfy the most demanding collectors as well as the kids who just wanted to recreate their favorite adventures in the final frontier. No other toy line in the decade was as impressive in terms of scope and variety. The figures were perfectly executed and resembled the performers portraying the characters a great deal. The ships and accessories were packed with lights, sounds, and action features. Plus they looked gorgeous when displayed. The role play line provided us with some of the most affordable and detailed props we had ever gotten. Remember there was no Master Replicas back then. Plus the price point on all these pieces made them too good to pass up.

Playmates' impressive Alien Combat figures, sculpted by Art Asylum.

By the end of the line Playmates toys had released well over 500 Star Trek items. Most of them for mass release as well as some store exclusives for such venues as Spencer Gifts, Target, New Force Comics, Toyfare Magazine, Kay Bee Toys, Paramount Home Video, Star Trek Communicator, and The Official Star Trek 30th Anniversary Convention. If Playmates brings the same great level of attention to detail to their new line then we are all in for quite a treat. Their new offerings should be in store shelves everywhere beginning in April. Make sure to join me next week when I'll be sharing my list of favorite pieces from the Playmates collection with many images from my personal collection.

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