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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.