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.
This 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.
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.
Image 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:
Image 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:
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:
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.