Review: ‘The Toys That Made Us’ Delivers A Fun History Of Star Trek Toys

The Toys That Made Us is a fun and sometimes a bit irreverent look at the pop culture phenomena of a given toy property (Star Wars, Barbie, GI Joe, and so forth), streaming on Netflix. The documentary series creator Brian Volk-Weiss is a Trekkie, so he made sure to devote one of the eight episodes that Netflix commissioned to Star Trek toys. The episode premieres with the second season of the series on Friday.

In the ’70s Paramount would allow slapping “Star Trek” on just about anything

“The story of Star Trek toys has more ups and downs than Spock’s eyebrow”

As many Trekkies know, Star Trek toys have had a lot of ups and downs, and this episode makes that blatantly clear–from the re-labeled junk kid toys of the late-1960s (Kirk and Spock parachute men, anyone?) to the massive success of Mego, and then the hit or miss merchandise of the film franchise that followed in the ’80s, to the boom of toys in the ’90s.

Spock the rocket parachute man

There are a number of little Star Wars references dropped in, since that property was handled so well, and the Star Wars toy history intersects with Star Trek toys in a few points over the years. If you haven’t watched the Star Wars episode (part of the first wave of episodes released back in December), it’s well worth your time.

Merchandise has played an uneven role throughout Star Trek’s 50 plus year history, so I think most Trek fans will find the documentary interesting even if they aren’t into collecting. Like the other entries in the series, there is a good amount of archival footage mixed in to keep it from getting dry with a lot of talking heads. Episodes are an easy watch and not too long, and the Trek one comes in at about 43 minutes. Being focused on toys, Volk-Weiss and his team purposefully have a sense of humor, and generally keep it light. The narration is fun and they occasionally do goofy reenactments of historical events.

The Trek episode also includes a number of insightful interviews with a wide variety of people. This includes toy collecting experts, private collectors, Rod Roddenberry, Trek production alumnus Doug Drexler, Trek superfans John and Bjo Trimble, well known Trek toy collectors and sociologists John and Maria Jose Tenuto, director of the 50 Years of Star Trek documentary Ian Roumain, and artisans from Playmates and Art Asylum/Diamond Select.

Toys That Made Us takes us back to the ’60s, recreating Remco doing some “label slapping”

Highlights of the episode

Thanks to the success of The Original Series in syndication and then the new Animated Series debuting in 1974, Mego saw the total lack of proper Trek toys as a potentially huge market. They were right. By the end of the decade, Mego had made millions off their Trek toy line. Star Trek was so undervalued by Paramount at the time that they sold Mego the rights for a mere $5,000.

The Trek episode takes a deep dive into this era when Mego was riding high on their DC, Marvel, Planet of the Apes, and Star Trek licensed products. It also chronicles how things took a turn in 1977 when Star Wars basically blew them out of the water; Mego had to finally close up shop in 1983. Former Mego president Marty Abrams is interviewed, and he’s quite the character. He is refreshingly honest about his choices in business, and the less than reputable way Mego folded–the company filed for bankruptcy, while Marty did time for white collar financial shenanigans.

Mego’s groovy take on the Mugato

The old joke is that the even numbered Star Trek movies are the good ones, and The Toys That Made Us does a great job of chronicling the irony that Trek could never get its timing right when it came to the movie toys. As is well known, the rush to get Star Trek: The Motion Picture finished and on the silver screen was in part a reaction to Star Wars, so Paramount went full-on with toys and kid-friendly merchandise.(A personal favorite of mine is the TMP Pop-Up Book.) Of course the movie itself wasn’t exactly kid friendly, so the toys didn’t sell as hoped. When it came time to make The Wrath of Khan Paramount felt burned, and didn’t do any toys for the film. Khan became a mainstream success, but since Paramount had no products for it, they missed out on a what could have been a highly profitable line of toys in 1982. In the documentary we can see how this pattern continued with Star Trek III and beyond.

A Scotty action figure made by ERTL for The Search For Spock

The documentary also spends quit a bit of time covering Playmates Toys, who held the Trek license throughout the 1990s, arguably the pinnacle for the Trek franchise and its toys. Fresh off the 25th anniversary and TNG hitting peak popularity, Playmates hit the jackpot when they got the Trek license in 1992. They were the first company to acknowledge that they needed to appeal to hardcore fans and collectors, not just sell average-grade stuff to kids, so they made sure there was a high level of detail for the price. But again, The Toys That Made Us returns to the recurring theme of the ups and downs Trek toy history, with frank discussions of how Playmates pushed their limited edition exclusives too far, becoming victims of their own hubris.

Playmates sculptor Steve Varner next to some of his work

While the show is geared toward nostalgia so it focuses mainly on the 1960s-1990s, it also acknowledges the more recent high-quality collectible licensors like Art Asylum (now Diamond Select), Eaglemoss, and even Todd McFarlane, who speaks about needing to be meticulous when it comes to creating Trek merchandise, as fans have a high bar for accurate detail. During his segment we’re shown members of the McFarlane Toys team working on 3D sculpts of upcoming Star Trek: Discovery figures, including one for L’Rell, which has not officially been announced.

An artist works on a 3D sculpt of L’Rell for McFarlane Toys

Star Trek episode premieres Friday

The episode is light and informative. Trek fans, whether you collect toys or not, should find it interesting, with a good amount of archival footage mixed in and a general sense of fun and not taking everything so seriously, as documentaries often do. It’s well worth your time, and if you like the Star Trek episode, you may just find yourself watching the rest of the series as they’re all just as well-produced and cover other iconic toys that have shaped many a childhood.

The second half of the eight-part documentary 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.

Be sure to read our interview with The Toys That Made Us creator and producer Brian Volk-Weiss if you haven’t already.

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USSEXETER

I was the first generation that caught TOS reruns in 1972. As a 5 year old I immediately connected to Star Trek. I believe I got the bridge play set with every figure besides Uhura & Klingon around 6 or 7 years old. It is still my favorite Christmas toy memory.

Danpaine

You and I jumped on the bandwagon at the same time, Exeter. Good memories.

Tribbledism

me too! i am told that my mom and dad watched first-run Star Trek together, and it was in its re-run when i was an infant. i became enamored of it as a small child in the early 70s, and remember receiving the walkie-talkie communicator set, the cut-out paper book where you could fold up your own ships, tricorder, phaser, beacon. i had blue Trek jammies, and that weird Bridge Display playset with a blue chair for an action figure to sit in, and the main viewer on which a reticle could be moved back and forth using a hand lever, while a star pattern wrapped around a drum would scroll by. I took it apart and broke it, naturally. wish i had kept it, it was gonzo.
Within a few years i had aged out of the toys and into building and painting models.

Yep. Same here.

FLB

And The Big Bang Theory showed us how fragile some of them were (Sheldon broke his transporter room!)…

Curious Cadet

Man I loved that playset. But I do remember how upset I was that it didn’t really look like the actual bridge I saw on TV. Didn’t phase my thorough enjoyment of it through my early childhood though.

Disinvited

Matt Wright

Care to speculate on whether this Trademark lawsuit:

http://www.mondaq.com/unitedstates/x/694508/Trademark/Trademark+Suit+Over+Rights+to+Desilu+Name

has any potential to jam up CBS’ Trek licensing?

Disinvited

Curious Cadet:

Check this out:

https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Desilu.v.CBS_.complaint.pdf

STAR TREK is mentioned in this Trademark complaint and we get a precise date of December 29, 1967 for when Paramount took over the production of Trek.

Disinvited

Curious Cadet,

I’ve got two posts awaiting moderation regarding a current Trademark lawsuit that Desilu Studios has filed against CBS.

From the complaint we now know that Paramount took over the production of STAR TREK on December 29, 1967. The same day that THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES first aired, LOL!

JRT!

This isn’t the second season,just part 2 of season 1. Or did they change it since the first part was shown? They have been renewed for a second season though.

Oooops,guess I should’ve read it all the way to the bottom before commenting on it not being the second season,LOL! I was referring to the first paragraph of course,where it says it’s the second season. Looking forward to watching this,and the rest of the episodes.

Mirror Galt

Golly, it sure is depressing to see Discovery stuff mixed in with classic Star Trek. It’s like, you keep hoping Discovery was all some horrible dream, but something like this toy show reminds you that Discovery actually happened and it’s “official Star Trek.” And that gets you into all kinds of questions of ontology what is reality, anyway? It’s like that churning, nauseous feeling you get when you check Sarek’s entry at Memory Alpha, and you see they’re taking Discovery seriously, like Sarek really did grin like a dope, boast of being a proud poppa, wax poetic on the magic of love et cetera. It’s all so sad.

Wow. That was disappointing. If they had spent less time making fun of the toys… I too would like to have seen more from Playmates and past, including Master Replicas and QMX.

PEB

I remember Christmas after Generations came out. I had the playmates figures of the cast (with the uniform designs that were originally left on the cutting room floor), the tng transporter that really was awesome, and the enterprise d. That was a damn good Christmas.

TKW

Really disappointed with the show. So much time was wasted. Was so really looking forward to hearing more in-depth on Playmates, and all they do is speed through Playmates with the basic facts everyone already knows. All the time spent at beginning discussing the ridiculous early merchandise could have been condensed into a minute. The Mego guy was also mostly a waste of time. Such a missed opportunity to hear more about Playmates’ (and Art Asylum too) techniques and advances in sculpting, creative decisions, why certain characters were never made, decisions for changing scales, prototypes that went unreleased, etc, etc, etc… Needs a Part 2 (Just like the Star Wars episode)

Snugglepuffxlz

Talk about a garbage episode. How many Star Wars references do we need? I get it. Star Wars is way bigger than Trek. Always has been and always will be. Too much time was spent on making fun of Trek toys and on the 60s-70s era. Barely any time on the Playmates from the 90s and virtually zero from Enterprise on forward. Could have at least done a blurb when they laser scanned the Nemesis cast.

I did learn some stuff of Trek toy history, but the negative far out weights the positive here. I wonder since this episode was so bad how the other collectors feel from the other toy lines (Lego, Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, Gi Joe, etc.).

JRT!

I enjoyed the other episodes,especially the SW one even though there was nothing really new there. And SW was only bigger than ST from 1977 onwards,obviously,lol! Would’ve been fun if ST toys took off the way SW did though. What is it they say? ST is classical music and SW is rock’n’roll? lol!

Xplodin_Nacelle

I remember having the plastic half bridge playset, for use with my TMP figures. Lots of fun! it ended up getting destroyed from use. It was made of extremely thin plastic, but it looked cool!