Monday, October 21, 2013

The Star Trek Action Figure Deficiency

The merits of Star Trek and Star Wars have been debated by their respective fanbases since the beginning of time. Not many people know this, but the famous prehistoric cave paintings in France are actually an ancient debate about which was “better”, Star Trek or Star Wars. Of course, thanks to the Internet we can now engage in these kinds of trivial debates without having to leave our house to commit cave graffiti. But one thing that I think everyone can agree on is that Star Wars has the better toys.

Like most kids in the 1980s, my toy chest contained lots of things from Kenner’s original Star Wars action figure line. It was really a toy industry game-changer. There was an action figure for nearly every character and background alien in the movies. Each figure came with one or two accessories, and their hands were sculpted in such a way that most figures could hold most of the accessories that came with other figures. Even better, the toy line also included almost every vehicle that appeared in the films (and a few that didn’t) and the fairly uniform size of the action figures meant that any figure could fit in any vehicle. The characters and vehicles were as faithful to the film versions as was possible with late ‘70s-to-early-1980s manufacturing methods, and the toys were a blast to play with.

KennerMFThis kid seems strangely okay with being trapped in a featureless orange void without his lower body.

Naturally, other toy companies scrambled to copy Kenner’s winning formula, often by making toys for the various sci-fi movies and TV shows that studios began releasing in the late ‘70s to capitalize on the success of Star Wars. For example: Star Trek licensee Mego.

The now-defunct toymaker Mego must have have thanked their lucky stars in 1978 when Paramount Pictures announced a big-budget Star Trek film. After all, they had passed on the Star Wars license before that movie was released (their executives reportedly said that Mego couldn’t be bothered to make toys for every sci-fi B-movie that came along) and Star Trek had a highly enthusiastic fanbase that would buy just about anything with with the Star Trek name on it.

spockhelmetCase in point

Yes, Mego’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture action figure line was as close to a guaranteed success as you could get. The only way it could fail is if the toys were lame or the movie was boring. Of course, what happened was that it failed because the toys were lame and the movie was boring. First, let’s look at the toys themselves. The entire action figure line consisted of a respectable 12 figures: 6 members of the Enterprise crew and 6 aliens, including a Klingon.

TMP_figurelineupImage from cooltoyreview.com

Unfortunately, the alien characters were only widely available in Canada and Europe. This meant that if kids in the US were sufficiently excited by Star Trek: The Motion Picture to want to play with its toys, only the six “good guy” figures were available to them. Even worse, none of the characters came with any accessories (by which I mean plastic weapons). Also, there weren’t any vehicles available, partially because Mego didn’t know what it was doing and partially because the Star Trek movie didn’t have Star Wars’ assortment of landspeeders and fighter craft. There was an Enterprise bridge playset, but it was nothing but a piece of cheap vacuform plastic with stickers on it. Basically all you could do was have the characters do was stand around and talk to each other. Just like in the movie!

You see, although Paramount probably wanted Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be a rollicking Star Wars-like adventure, under Gene Roddenberry’s influence it turned out to be a glacially-paced exploration of the human condition. Also, unlike the younger cast of Star Wars, Star Trek’s group of middle-aged TV actors probably weren’t up for a lot of running and jumping anyway. This made for an intelligent film, but to a kid it was about as exciting as C-SPAN. Even if the Star Trek: The Motion Picture toy line had been handled by a company that knew what it was doing it still probably wouldn’t have sold well.

Fast forward to 1987. With the end of the Star Wars trilogy three years before, the Kenner toy line had dwindled away. Star Trek, however, was just getting started with the premiere of a brand-new TV series. As a kid, I was incredibly excited for Star Trek: The Next Generation. As part of the marketing blitz that accompanied the new show, Cheerios ran a promotion where you could enter a contest for the chance to appear as an extra in an episode. (Check out this amazing article on Trekcore for more info about the Cheerios promotion) 75,000 runners-up received a small plastic Enterprise as a consolation prize, and it came with this promotional flyer for a new toy line from Galoob:

galoob_flyer2Image from Trekcore.com

According to the flyer, Galoob had all kinds of great things in store for us. Action figures! A bridge playset with animated viewscreen images and a transporter room playset with some kind of cool effect to make your figures seem to disappear! And there was more to come!

Sure enough, just a few months later Galoob’s Star Trek action figures started to appear in stores. Wave 1 included all the characters mentioned on the promotional flyer:

picard1riker1data1

geordi1yar1worf1

Photos from Dork Dimension

And they were the only ones we ever saw. There was an extremely limited second wave that included two background aliens from a forgettable first-season episode, a Ferengi, and Q in his Queen Amidala makeup, but they were impossible to find. There was also a die-cast Enterprise with detachable saucer section that was very nice and widely available, but the only two vehicles released for the action figures were a Starfleet shuttle and an apocryphal Ferengi Fighter. (This great article on Trekcore has pictures and background info on them) I don’t know how widely-available they were, but I never saw them in any of the stores in my area and to this day I’ve never seen one in person. By the time that Star Trek: The Next Generation started to get good in its third season, the Galoob toy line was dead.

So what happened? Sure, you can point to problems with the toys themselves (making the figures unable to hold accessories by having a phaser molded into one hand and the other molded into a closed fist was a problem) the utter lack of marketing the line received (there were, as far as I know, absolutely no TV commercials or magazine advertisements for it) or the fact that some of its’ best items were either very rare or never went into production at all:

galoob_bridge_playset

This Enterprise bridge playset appeared in a dealer’s catalog, but was never produced. (Image from the forums on megocollector.com)

But there was another, more basic reason for the failure of the Star Trek toys of the 1980s. If you look at the successful toy lines from that period, like Star Wars, Transformers, G.I. JOE, or He-Man, they have one thing in common: they’re centered on a narrative of “hero” and “villain” characters locked in a never-ending battle. Star Trek was always more complex than that, even in the Original Series days where Captain Kirk got into at least one hilariously choreographed fight per episode. Even the really great Star Trek productions of the ‘80s like The Wrath of Khan or The Voyage Home just don’t easily fit into the “good guys shooting at bad guys” format that made for good toys aimed 5-to-10-year-old boys.

Also, Star Trek: The Next Generation was simply not a very good show for its first two seasons. Gene Roddenberry was adamant that it reflect his utopian 24th century ideals, so there would be little or none of the crowd-pleasing action (fistfights, etc.) that shows like Knight Rider or The A-Team featured. Just to be clear, I think Roddenberry’s aversion to violence-as-entertainment was laudable. But it didn’t help that the show was often a talky, preachy bore with cringe-inducing dialogue and flimsy plots. One can imagine how thrilled the people at Galoob were to get the Star Trek license, as well as their growing horror as the show’s disastrous first season unfolded. I think the only thing that saved the show from cancellation those first two years was that the cancellation of the Original Series had come to be seen as perhaps the greatest blunder in television history and no executive wanted to be seen making it a second time.

Having missed out on the 1980s action figure boom, Star Trek would have to wait until the 1990s to have a successful line of toys. But why did the Playmates line of the ‘90s succeed where the Mego and Galoob lines of the ‘80s failed? Timing had something to do with it, since the Playmates line came at a time when Star Trek was experiencing unprecedented mainstream popularity. But I think the collecting craze of the 1990s was the main reason. Before the ‘90s, toys were simply children's’ playthings. But when the public noticed that old baseball cards, comic books, and other items aimed at children were worth thousands of dollars, there was a run on modern-day collectibles with the expectation that they, too, would be valuable in the future. Of course this didn’t pan out, since the reason a Babe Ruth baseball card or a copy of Action Comics #1 is so valuable is because it’s exceedingly rare and the comic books, sports cards, and action figures produced in the 90s are not.

In the end, I guess Star Trek and Star Wars are something of a trade-off. Star Wars inspires better toys that people in my age group have fond childhood memories of. But Star Trek has inspired people to become scientists, engineers, and doctors. This didn’t necessarily make for good action figures, but I think it’s a tradeoff that most people associated with Star Trek’s various incarnations are glad to have made.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Star Trek Into Darkness Complaint Absurdity

Star Trek Into Darkness co-writer Bob Orci made headlines when he blew up at some fans in the comments section of an article at Trekcore.com a while back. Now, his temper tantrum was mighty immature, and he later apologized so I think he realized that. But I can kind of understand where he was coming from. Even though Star Trek Into Darkness got generally good reviews and made some good money at the box office, it’s been unrelentingly criticized by the fans. The criticism about the film’s story, its plot points, and the motivations of the characters is entirely valid.
But a lot of the criticism I’ve seen has nothing to do with those things, and comes across as overly nitpicky and mean-spirited. And in a lot of cases, these are things that have happened in previous Star Trek productions and the fans have been totally okay with them. We saw this three years ago when the first film came out, and I wrote an article in which I applied a similar standard of nitpicking to a classic Star Trek episode that a lot of old-school Trekkers enjoy. But this time, the complaints seem even louder and less rational. Let’s take a look at some of the silliest ones:
1. The Uniforms
uniforms
A common criticism is that the gray “Class A” uniforms we see the characters wearing in scenes at Starfleet Headquarters look like Nazi uniforms. Why, exactly? Because they’re gray? That doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it’s the hat. “It makes Starfleet look too militaristic!” people complain. “We’ve never seen anything like that on Star Trek before!” Ahem:
pikeshat
Yeah, what’s that thing on top of the TV in Captain Pike’s quarters from Star Trek’s first pilot episode? Why, it’s a military hat a lot like the ones we see members of Starfleet wearing in the J.J. Abrams films! I’ll admit, the first time I saw members of Starfleet wearing contemporary-looking military headgear it was a little jarring. But I respect the choice he and his team made.
I really like how Star Trek Into Darkness shows the characters wearing different types of uniforms in different settings, just like people in the real military. With the exception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture-the only Trek production to receive a proper theatrical budget before the Abrams films-we haven’t seen that from Star Trek because the money was never there for it. Heck, for the first Next Generation film the costume department was forced to clothe some of the principal actors in uniforms borrowed from Deep Space Nine! (Fact: Only Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner got new uniforms made for them. The other five members of the TNG cast wore leftover uniforms from the TV show or DS9 hand-me-downs)
As for the “they’re too militaristic” argument-that’s exactly the same thing that fans who didn’t like The Wrath of Khan said about the red “Mountie uniforms” that debuted in that film. The reason not many people remember that is because there was no Internet in 1982 to amplify the complaints of disaffected fans. But as silly as that complaint is, it pales in comparison with the second one I’ve been hearing:
2. The Warp Speed Is Too Fast
warp_2
Another criticism I’ve heard is that it takes the Enterprise way too short a time to warp from Earth to the edge of the Klingon Neutral Zone and back. On the surface, this may seem to be a valid point. Space is, after all, vast-with astronomical distances between solar systems. Even if you had a magic technology that allows you to break the laws of physics and exceed the speed of light, there’s still no way you could travel several hundred light years so quickly, right? Sure, except for the fact that Star Trek has done this dozens, if not hundreds of times. Even though the franchise’s various writers have wrapped warp drive in a thick layer of technobabble to make it seem more real, it’s not. It’s pretend. Regardless of whatever warp speed charts the authors of various Star Trek technical manuals have made, the fact is that warp speed is as fast or as slow as the writers need it to be to service the plot. Always has been. Arguments about the “actual” capabilities of pretend technology are stupid. The way I see it, you’re only allowed to complain about the unrealistic warp speeds in this movie if you also complain about all the other times Star Trek has done this. The next common complaint is somewhat similar:
3. Magical Long-Range Transporters Supposedly Make Spaceships Unnecessary
transporter
In J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek film, Old Spock gives Scotty a magic formula that gives the transporter practically unlimited range, and in the new film Khan uses it to beam from Earth all the way to the Klingon homeworld. This is a serious departure from the way the technology has been depicted in previous incarnations of the franchise. And I’ve heard the argument that it completely ruins Star Trek by making spaceships totally unnecessary. But that argument’s really a spurious one. After all, a starship isn’t just a mode of transportation. It’s also a mobile sensor platform that allows you to investigate a new planet before sending a landing party to it. And nothing we see in either movie indicates that it’s feasible to beam more than two or three people via this long-range method. In the end, the transporter is just like warp drive: an imaginary technology that can do whatever Star Trek’s writers want it to. And in the same vein:
4. Khan’s Magical Super Blood Is A Cure For Death
tribble
This is the one I understand the most. You see, Khan is supposed to be genetically engineered superman from the 1990s. In the Original Series, that just meant that he was stronger and smarter than the average guy. But in Star Trek Into Darkness, he’s apparently from the planet Krypton. And his blood can magically cure the sick and bring dead tribbles (or Captain Kirks) back to life. It’s a ridiculous plot device. But it’s not the first time that Star Trek has introduced some insanely powerful new technology and then promptly forgotten about it or ignored its implications.
For example, in the fifth Star Trek episode ever, “The Naked Time”, Spock and Scotty accidently discover some kind of magical new matter/antimatter mixture that allows the Enterprise to travel back in time. This is never mentioned again. Later on, they discover (again by accident) that they can also travel both backward and forward through time by doing a slingshot maneuver around a star. And in the movie Star Trek: First Contact, they discover a third way to easily travel in time by doing some technobabble with something called “chronometric particles”. Really, this should have taken all the drama out of Star Trek forever, because when anything bad happens they can just go back and time and stop it. But of course they never do that. Instead, they seem to forget about this capability unless the writers want to do a time travel story. And yes, I know that Voyager introduced something called the “Temporal Prime Directive” that was like a rule saying they weren’t allowed to go back in time and mess stuff up without a good reason, but Star Trek had been around for 30 years by then so it was really too late to plug that particular plot hole.
And what about this: in the second season Next Generation episode entitled “Elementary, Dear Data”, it was established that they could easily use the computer to create a sentient life form on the holodeck. That’s right-they gave the 24th century equivalent of the iMac the ability to create life. And on the Voyager episode “Author, Author”, they even showed that the enlightened, democratic Federation was using a bunch of these sentient holograms as slave laborers. And yet the implications of that were never explored or even really acknowledged. We were supposed to continue to think of the Federation as the good guys, even though they used their magical life-creating technology to make slaves.
Now, I’m sure that the implications of some of these things I’ve mentioned were touched upon in the novels, but I don’t really care, since the novels have never been considered part of the “official” Star Trek universe and they contradict each other all the time.
Anyway, that completes my list of some of the unwarranted criticisms that I’ve seen people make about Star Trek Into Darkness just so they could make themselves look smarter by complaining about something on the Internet. Again, I totally agree with all the criticisms about the film’s plot and the actions and motivations of the characters. But criticizing the film for indulging in the kind of illogic that Star Trek has always engaged in to some degree is a little disingenuous.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Point From Which You Work Backward

Five years ago today, I started this blog with two posts on the state of EPCOT. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, since I’ve never represented my work here as good, merely as a thing I do because it’s fun. But writing it has turned me on to the bigger Disney fan community and its feuding factions, and it’s led to my joining Twitter and getting to know some fantastic people there. I even got to ruin an episode of WEDway NOW!

Also, I’d be seriously remiss if I failed to acknowledge my main inspirations for starting this blog in the first place: EPCOT Central, Passport to Dreams Old and New, and Progress City U.S.A. All three of these blogs are vastly superior to this one, and your time would be much better spent reading them. But now: today’s topic.

I am by no means an Apple “fanboy” or a worshipper of Steve Jobs. But he said something once that I think really nails why the “old” Walt Disney Company that produced things like EPCOT Center and the Walt Disney World resort is nothing like today’s Walt Disney Company that has spent the last decade-and-a-half ruining those things. “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology” Jobs said shortly after his return to Apple in 1997. Obviously, he was not talking about the theme park industry when he said this, he was talking about the tech industry. But the principle is sound.

Think back to the birth of the online music store in the early 2000s. Starting in the late 90s, people would use file sharing networks like Napster or Kazaa to download music files and then burn them to CDs. (Kids, ask your parents) Now, the legality of this was rather questionable, and the truth was that most people welcomed a safe, easy, and legal option to buy music on the Internet. But when the recording industry first entered the online music business, that’s not how they approached it. First, they looked at the money that ISPs were making from monthly subscriptions and decided they wanted a piece of that, so their new services would be subscription based. Cancel your subscription, and the music you’ve paid for goes away. Next, they decided that they’d like to be able to make money on the various things people liked to do with their music, like burning it to CDs. So a fee was attached to that, too. The resulting services like Pressplay and MusicNet were utterly terrible. It was ridiculously obvious that the record companies started with how much money they wanted to make and worked backwards from that. A good customer experience was not important. Then in 2003, Apple came along with the iTunes store that made it easy to find the music you wanted and download it a reasonable price without a monthly subscription or extra fees. Five years later it was the biggest music retailer in the United States, and two years after that it became the biggest music retailer in the world. Clearly, working backward from the customer experience was the best way to go here.

Now let’s talk about Disney’s MyMagic+ program. I’ve talked in the past about why it’s bad for Disney’s customers. But why does it even exist? Is it because Disney’s theme park people identified some new experience they wanted to bring to customers and then worked backward to come up with a system to do that? In interviews, Disney’s executives always talk about how it’s going to enhance their revenues. They never mention any benefits that their customers will see from the system, except for the times when they confuse more personalized marketing with something that customers want. MyMagic+ is just another Pressplay/MusicNet fiasco waiting to happen. The only reason it may be more successful is that, whereas music lovers in the early 2000s could always just buy CDs, use online file-sharing services, or eventually the iTunes store, there are no other distribution channels for Disney theme park attractions. Anyone who wants to visit Disney World will have to submit themselves to MyMagic+. And since Disney has such a massive reservoir of cultural goodwill it’s built up over the decades, many customers may not even realize how much they’re being fleeced. I just wish Disney would remember where that massive amount of goodwill they enjoy came from.

For years, Disney used technology to delight and benefit their customers. Audio-Animatronics combined with ingenious projection, lighting, and other physical effects gave people experiences they couldn’t get anywhere else-experiences they were happy to pay for. When the company embarked on the construction of EPCOT Center, they used the two-and-a-half decades of experience they’d accumulated in the theme park business to make it the most crowd-friendly park ever. Spacious walkways and quick-loading, “people-eating” attractions kept crowding and long lines to a minimum. By the mid-90s Disney’s parks and resorts business was extremely popular and profitable, too.

But in the last decade or so Disney’s theme park innovations have had nothing to do with improving the customer experience. FastPass, the Dining Plan, and now MyMagic+ all serve to make it more difficult to experience attractions or eat in restaurants while providing nice “revenue enhancements” for Disney. Meanwhile, down the road Universal Studios is adding innovative new attractions left and right, and people are flocking to their parks like never before. Generally speaking, when Company A competes by offering a good experience while Company B merely tries to make more money through complicated revenue-generating schemes, Company A wins.

What will the final outcome of MyMagic+ be? There’s no way to know now, and any answer is likely years in the future. But I continue to wish that Disney will one day rediscover the philosophy of starting with the customer experience and working backward.