In 1986, Star Trek turned 20, and the franchise was on an upswing. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was a box office hit, and, in even bigger news, Paramount announced Star Trek: The Next Generation would launch the next year in first-run syndication.
With new, weekly Star Trek on the horizon, the chance for the history of Star Trek toys – which had gotten off to a promising start during Star Trek: The Original Series’ run but had largely slowed to sporadic releases of new Star Trek movie toys – to develop in bold new directions was so close, you could taste it.
And it tasted like processed oats.
The Galoob License: Trek Toys That Could Have Been
Paramount and General Mills capitalized on the excitement surrounding Star Trek: The Next Generation’s September 1987 debut with a sweepstakes. The grand prize? A walk-on role in a Star Trek episode!
Like a tribble gorging itself on quadrotriticale, I ate box after box of Honey Nut Cheerios that fall, hoping that inside one of them I’d find my Trekkie golden ticket. I didn’t, but did manage to win one of 75,000 little plastic Enterprises.
I still own it. The decals flaked off long ago, and I had to glue the saucer section to the stardrive because the posts meant to keep the two parts together don’t. But it’s remarkably detailed for a four-inch replica cereal box toy, and after the hours I spent staring at it as I daydreamed my own 24th-century adventures, I’d never dream of “decommissioning” it now.
This Star Trek Enterprise collectible was the work of Lewis Galoob Toys. Galoob was then best known for making Micro Machines, though its first big success, back when original Trek was on the air, was one of those creepy, cymbal-clashing monkey dolls like you see in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They also hit it big in the early ’80s with Mr. T dolls (insert your own “pity the fool” joke here).
Galoob planned TNG action figures, vehicles, playsets and more. Unfortunately, the U.S. was slouching toward recession, and toy sales were slumping across the board.
Only 14 Galoob Trek toys ever reached the market: ten 3-1/2-inch action figures (six Enterprise officers and four aliens), a shuttlecraft Galileo and a Ferengi spaceship scaled for the figures, a six-inch die-cast Enterprise, and a phaser replica that doubled as a flashlight.
A few years ago, the staff at TrekCore wrote an amazingly thorough three-part series about Galoob’s Trek toys. If you want to learn all about the toys that never made it past prototype stage—including a molded-plastic Enterprise playset I suspect would have had play value rivaling that of Kenner’s classic Millennium Falcon—I recommend those articles to you.
Galoob came out of the recession strong, and was acquired by Hasbro. But its Trek toys never sold that well, and the company lost the license. (In the ’90s, however, they would release several Star Trek Micro Machines.)
Would Star Trek toys ever live long and prosper?
Playmates’ Epic Toy Trek
In 1992, Playmates Toys started making it so.
Over the next eight years, Playmates produced nearly 500 unique styles of Star Trek action figures in various sizes (350 at 4-1/2-inches) as well as a number of vessel replicas, costuming accessories and playsets.
During most of the ’90s, Trek fans could count on finding their favorite show not only on the airwaves—the best seasons of TNG (which signed off in 1994), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99) and Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)—but also on store shelves long occupied by competition from a galaxy far, far away. The mission of market saturation set forth in 1979 had finally been accomplished.
Playmates’ Trek toys generally balanced quantity and quality. The action figures, for example, bore mostly faithful resemblance to performers’ likenesses, and wear clothes that match those seen onscreen.
With so much Trek to choose from, Playmates had unprecedented freedom to develop products based even on single episodes of a given series. As Trek experts Maria Jose and John Tenuto have pointed out, the most (in)famous example of this hyper-specificity may be the mutated Tom Paris from “Threshold,” one of Voyager’s most scientifically and artistically dubious episodes.
Playmates left no major character from ’90s Trek unrepresented and even made its own versions of classic 1960s characters. It even issued three limited edition figures (Picard in “Tapestry,” Tasha Yar in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and Reg Barclay in “Projections”), although fan protest led to an increase in Barclay’s limitation. (As it turned out, an eventual re-release rendered these rarities somewhat less so.)
For all the figures, when I asked some Facebook friends to tell me about their favorite Playmates products, most pointed to the spaceships. Playmates’ original Enterprise got a lot of love, logically enough, but so did the “Transwarping” Enterprise. This ship transforms, in Swiss Army Knife-like fashion, from the original 1701-D to Admiral Riker’s “souped-up,” super-weaponized, three-nacelled version, from the possible future timeline seen in TNG’s series finale, “All Good Things.”
The box claims this toy is suitable for ages four and up. Having watched a demonstration online, I’m not sure a four-year-old could handle all the changes unassisted. (Heck, I’m not even convinced I could!)
But speaking of all good things…
Coming in Part 4: Trek Toys enter the 21st century
What’s your favorite Trek toy from the ’90s? Leave a comment below and let us know!