Interview: ‘The Toys That Made Us’ Producer On The Ups And Downs In The Story Of Star Trek Toys

On May 25th the second season of the Netflix documentary series The Toys That That Made Us debuts, with one episode dedicated to Star Trek toys. TrekMovie chatted with creator and executive producer Brian Volk-Weiss about the making of the episode and to find out what we can expect.

Brian Volks-Weiss on set with Bjo and John Trimble for the Star Trek episode of The Toys That Made Us

The long story of Star Trek toys

The world of toys is so big with so many different brands to potentially cover, so, why did you choose Star Trek to be one of the first 8 episodes for your series?

Here is the deal, and I am going to be honest, I was very blessed when Netflix agreed to do the show and as blessed when they let me pick the episodes. I didn’t know if I would be allowed to make more than 8. I am a huge Star Trek fan and a huge Star Trek toy fan, and I felt since it is my show and they are letting me make the decision, I decided “Fuck it, I’m going to do Star Trek.”

One caveat is, that it is a great story. So, for the people who are wondering why didn’t we do [Teenage Mutant Ninja] Turtles, or why we didn’t do My Little Pony, the answer is that those are bigger toys, but I didn’t know if I would ever be able to make more than eight and I wanted to do Star Trek.

With your Star Wars episode there was a sort of meta-story and sort of David and Goliath theme with Kenner, is there that kind of embedded theme or arc for Star Trek?

There is one, and there isn’t. When I say there is, [George] Lucas actually talked to [Gene] Roddenberry, and I didn’t know that. Lucas had a long conversation with Roddenberry and a lot of why everything went so well for Lucas with Star Wars is because of what Roddenberry told Lucas he had done wrong with Star Trek toys.

The second thing as to why there isn’t a single theme, and why Star Trek makes a great episode, every other toy we covered in the first eight episodes is essentially owned by one company. Even Star Wars with Kenner and Hasbro, but Hasbro bought Kenner, so it is really one company with most of the same people. On the other hand, with Star Trek, conservatively, they have had over 40 licensors. So, it is a great compare and contrast with Star Wars, for what happens when the politics and the power that Lucas took control are not present for a major franchise.

So, the episode will cover the full range of the franchise going back to 1966 to today, including Discovery and the new movies?

Yes. But, if you have seen the show, then you know what we have done which is about 85% of the focus is on the late 70s through mid-90s, and that is definitely true for Star Trek as well, but maybe only 75%. We really do a deep dive into MEGO. In the way the Star Wars episode is really Star Wars and Kenner and the Barbie episode is really about Barbie and Mattel, Star Trek is really an episode about MEGO, in many ways.

MEGO president Marty Abrams features prominently in the Star Trek episode of The Toys That Made Us

A focus on the toys

Besides MEGO, did you get a chance to talk to people from some of the big and more obscure former Trek licensees like Playmates or Remco, etc.?

We talked to Playmates quite a bit. We talked to some of the obscure brands, and we flew to Phoenix to interview Todd McFarlane. So, we definitely have a little bit of Discovery and a little bit of the new Kirk and Picard that he is doing.

But, my big regret is Eaglemoss. I am obsessed with Eaglemoss. I don’t know how they make money. They just put out the USS Bozeman, which is on screen for nine seconds. I cannot believe in my collection that I not only have a model of the Bozeman, but a beautiful model of the Bozeman. So, it is a regret we didn’t get to do a bigger deep dive into what Eaglemoss is doing. You could argue what they are doing isn’t a toy, but I would disagree with that.

In the Star Wars episode, you noted that George Lucas declined to be interviewed, was there any one you couldn’t get for Star Trek?

No, the only person that we haven’t been able to get that we wanted was Lucas. There were some people who weren’t available for health reasons.

Did you talk to Rick Berman?

No. One of the fine lines we had to walk with Star Wars and Star Trek in particular, was to recognize we are making a show about toys and not the movies. So, we tried hard not to get into the source material, because there have been a thousand documentaries made about Star Trek. It was important to me that we made one about Star Trek toys, which I believe is the first.

But, we did do this great montage, which I think is really beautiful, of flipping back and forth between the Enterprises. So, show the original Enterprise, then the toy original Enterprise, then the refit Enterprise and the toy refit Enterprise, and so on. It is one of my favorite things we have done.

New licensee Todd McFarlane in the Star Trek episode of The Toys That Made Us

Getting Trek toys right

Star Trek toys have more and more moved away from big box stores and mainstream to more of a collector market. Do you feel that is all the market will bear, or is that a result of decisions that have been made regarding the license?

Here is the thing, and first I cannot stress to you enough how much of a fan I am of Star Trek. I have the Galoob prototype Wesley Crusher figure that never went into production, sitting in my office beautifully framed.  I call my car the Enterprise, I love Star Trek. That all said, it is very important for toys to connect with children, they have to be aspirational. Either looking up to an Optimus Prime as a father figure or a Han Solo as somebody you want to be.

There is no better example of this and something I learned as making this show, is with the He Man episode, when they did all the research and they kept finding out that kids have no power and they literally took something from a focus group with kids and made that He Man’s catch phrase, “I have the power!”

This Wesley Crusher prototype is just part of Brian’s vast collection of Star Trek toys

The problem with Star Trek is that it is not really aspirational for little kids. Yes, I wanted to be Captain Kirk when I was 10. But, Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Sisko, Captain Janeway, Captain Archer? These are not Captain Kirk. Especially Picard who as a 42-year-old, I worship Captain Picard. I try to be like him in business. But, as a kid, you don’t want to be him. You don’t want to be Janeway or Sisko. You want to be Captain Kirk, but there hasn’t been one since The Original Series. The theory being, for a toy to be a widespread hit, the toy has to be aspirational.

J.J. Abrams got that right in the new movies, especially the first one. But then they fucked up the toys. And the reason the toys messed up is because of the politics involved between Paramount and CBS. Again, going back to how George Lucas had control that Roddenberry and his successors didn’t. So that is what is screwing it up. When the characters work, the toys get screwed up and when the characters evolve into 50-year-old Englishman with a French name, the toys get right.

Isn’t that one of the recurring issues with Trek over the years. When something didn’t work they had too many toys and when something did work, they didn’t have enough? Like too many toys with The Motion Picture and almost nothing for The Wrath of Khan?

Oh yeah! We covered that. It is hysterical. And, also sad.

Sculptor Steve Varner shows off some of his Star Trek work for Playmates in The Toys That Made Us

Exploring strange new toys

Is there a particular toy in the Trek episode that you feel has the most compelling story?

Easy. That stupid fan Enterprise, which you can see in our trailer for season two. I thought that is the stupidest thing I have ever seen, and I went out and bought one. I am obsessed with it. It is my favorite thing in the world. I have very limited space and it is filling up three quarters of a shelf and it doesn’t even work.

Also, I did not appreciate or even understand how insane Playmates got with their line. Like, one of things I only just got a few months ago, was the insane bridge set that they made. It is like 2 ½ feet wide with a gigantic viewscreen with early 90s technology. It is the craziest thing you have ever seen, and I love it. And it was just 80 bucks on eBay. That is a great thing about Playmates is they made so many, you can get just about anything at a pretty good price.

I assume you devote at least half an hour to the most important toy, the Star Trek Space Fun Helmet (AKA “Spock Helmet”)?

I know you are joking and we didn’t dedicate half an hour to it, but we did dedicate a significant percentage to that thing. Woo! That thing is fantastic. Spoiler alert, nobody knows why that thing exists. It is just label-slapping. There was a stupid company that made a stupid helmet and they paid 500 bucks to put Star Trek stickers on it. We got Doug Drexler doing an impression of the siren going off, one of the funniest things you have ever seen.

Is there anything else you would like to mention with regards to the show?

I would like to thank everybody. I have never worked on a show that was so well-received. Everybody has been so nice, and kind and I am so appreciative of everybody’s help and support. The Star Trek community was absolutely wonderful.

The Toys That Made Us will explores some of the more obscure Star Trek products

Star Trek episode premieres May 25th

The second half of the 8-part docuementary series The Toys That Made Us debuts on Netflix worldwide on May 25th with four episodes. In addition to Star Trek, there will be episodes for Transformers, Hello Kitty and LEGO. You can check out the trailer below.

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Hat Rick

Toying with us, are they? ;-)

I purchased an official 2009-movie toy phaser, only to sell it because I didn’t think it worked. It was sold “as-is.” Of course, it worked — I later remembered that I should have switched it to “on” from “off.”

I haven’t purchased a Star Trek toy in a while, but I will always remember the lesson of that sale, which is to make sure you turn things “on” before you try to vaporize things. ;-)

Russell Meyers

That’s me flying the classic REMCO CSF Enterprise! A pleasure to work with the production team on this!

Neat!

Russell Meyers

Thanks! I brought in the Air Hogs Enterprise Quad copter as well to contrast the old vs new technology :) Did the same with the Mego Communicators and the Wand company Comms!

The whole production staff were amazing to work with, talked to them for hours, on camera and off about Trek. Was so glad they handled the topic with enthusiasm and respect for us collectors.

Curious Cadet

@Russel Meyers — thanks for reminding me that I actually had one of those as a kid. I have no idea what happened to it.

Danpaine

Man, when I was a kid I wore the TOS bridge and action figures out, I played with them so much. Nice memories.

Merchant of Vulcan

Playmates must have taken an absolute bath on the Trek line. The ships are great but the figures were way overproduced. Too bad. No market at all.

Victorinox

If this episode is anything like the first 4, then this is going to be great.

I absolutely loved the Masters of the Universe episode… BONG!

Alec Grimes

Damn good series. And funny as all hell.

Douglass Abramson

Why wouldn’t kids want to be The Sisko? (Or his 20th Century ancestor who lived in Boston)

Yes I take exception to that too. I grew up watching Kirk and Picard, and later Sisko and Janeway, all have been roll models in some form. I very much idolized both Kirk and Picard as a kiddo, and wanted to be like both of them for different reasons.

albatrosity

I’m pretty sure 90% of the Trek toys I own I got off ebay and were made years or decades before I was even born, which I think is pretty telling about the state of the Trek toy market even growing up in the 90s and early 2000s. But I think the more obscure ones I have are the laser pistol from The Cage, a battle damaged NX-01, and the latest addition, the Phase II concept Enterprise from Eaglemoss.

Wes

Very excited! Brian is a friend and truly a huge trek fan. I provided the TMP Mego, Ertl, Galoob and Playmates items to the series. We filmed across 2 days. I took around 600 photos for reference purposes as we were filming. All of the obscure and not so obscure items were photographed. I’m excited to see this, that team worked very hard to put together a great show! They treated me well and i had so much fun! Will be watching on Friday and hope all the fans out there will too!

Very cool, thanks for sharing your toys with the world :-D