Thursday 12 December 2019

Go Figure: A Star Wars Toy Story 2

With only a week to go until Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is released in the UK. Our resident US correspondent, Nick Smith, shares his toy stories from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Guest post by Nick Smith

For one brief moment in February, 2019 was the new 1977 at the New York Toy Fair! Hasbro revealed a line of retro Star Wars toys featuring an Escape from the Death Star board game. Replications of six of Kenner’s original action figures were displayed: Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper [always rarer than Hen's teeth around these parts - Ed], Han Solo and Chewbacca – enough toys to recreate classic scenes from the original movie. Forget going to the gym – this was the must-have six-pack for nostalgic fans.

The black cardboard packaging harkened back to the originals too, with photographs of the characters and loud ‘retro collection’ branding, both a selling point and a warning that the articulation of these toys is charmingly primitive. Intergalactic heroes don’t need elbows and Stormtroopers don’t really need necks.

These little guys have vinyl sheets for cloaks and lightsabres stuck in their arms. The faux-battered packaging is reminiscent of the popular, beaten-up boxes and covers of Stranger Things merchandise. To me, retro means overpriced cleaned-up junk in a thrift boutique, like lava lamps and peacock chairs all smelling of the ‘60s. These toys smell better (new plastic!), but they’re still quaint.

This rerelease is a bold move in a year focusing on a new film – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. But aside from keeping merchandising on store shelves until December, it’s fitting for Hasbro to look back to where the Star Wars toy story started.

It’s hard to believe in this world full of merchandise, with billions of dollars made from the toys, but in 1978 British kids were content with a Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Darth and some random cantina aliens. Over in the US, where Star Wars (later rechristened A New Hope) was a blockbuster in the summer of ‘77, demand was so strong for toys that an ‘early bird’ deal was offered. American kids could get an empty box for Christmas – the perfect present for a cat, not so much for a human. But the venture worked since the box would be filled with four figures once they were produced. In the UK, a winter release eased the supply-and-demand problem.

Unlike larger toys like Action Man and Stretch Armstrong, the Star Wars figures fit perfectly in my young hand and were priced just right for my pint-sized piggy bank. This was a time when the coolest boy at school was the one with the die-cast Millennium Falcon (the coolest girl was the one who wanted to be Han Solo). I soon amassed a colourful collection of figures including Snaggletooth, Greedo and a ‘Sand People’ person. While we had the best ads (including a fine Brian Bolland illustration), the US Marvel comics hawked the best toys, such as the Kenner droid factory. I really wanted a Jawa Sandcrawler, never seen in my local Argos, grinding through my giddy imagination instead. I made my version of the Mos Eisley cantina out of a grocery box, complete with cardboard tables and chairs. I turned shoeboxes into freighters and the backyard became an array of alien planets. Scaling plants and dangling from fences, the little figures dealt with a vast landscape just as I navigated my way around the giant real world, so overwhelming to a kid.

My parents indulged my obsession, buying me a Falcon, an Imperial Troop Transport [hours of fun scaring the cat with electronic sound effects from the movie - Ed], an AT-AT, Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer [try flying that around a bedroom without the figures falling out - Ed], Yoda’s boggy hovel… I was spoiled and I will always be grateful. Still, I wanted more [didn't we all in the Thatcherite eighties - Ed]. The Star Wars range taught me to covet for the first time. Pity a kid bombarded by commercials for the latest, coolest playset.

While the toys gave me a sense of control over my irrepressible environment, they also helped me become familiar with the movie’s cast long before there was an easy way to rewatch the film. They also gave the opportunity to create new adventures for these characters, filling the three-year gap between episodes.

Some of those escapades were out of my hands, such as The Adventures of Luke Skywalker lost in a pub garden. Or The Empire Strives to Rescue Stormtrooper melting on the Radiator. I did manage to salvage the trooper; with one of his legs melted, I airbrushed him a random red and called him Redlighter. A poor imperial officer’s head fell off; I nailed it back on. Toy Story’s Sid would have been proud.

I went one further, breaking my stories into seasons and jotting down episode guides. Understanding that the best Star Wars stories feature an outgunned band of heroes facing a huge, evil space weapon, I called one epic ‘The Death Star 2,’ jotted down in my C-3PO exercise book. That story could never happen on the big screen, of course. A second Death Star was an impossibility (this was years before Return of the Jedi).

As an adult, I despair at the death of my childhood heroes in the sequel trilogy. But in my toy stories, I was also guilty of killing off several main characters, only to bring them back thanks to the power of the Force to start their war all over again in a tale I called ‘Full Circle.’ My personal adventures circled around as well, in a way, as my son Sam played with my vintage toys and his own prequel ones. He went one better than me, filming his scenarios, culminating in the epic ‘The Last Jedi’ (Lucasfilm owes us big time).

Now Sam is grown and our toys gather dust in his basement. Nevertheless, our interest in Star Wars has been maintained by the TV shows, most recently The Mandalorian – and that Disney+ show’s merchandise has sparked a toy story of its own because it is not ready in time for this Christmas. The fans, too impatient are they.

In the meantime, we have the retro range to play with, a fun concept and a crimson-tinted moneymaker, with six humble characters from a simpler, more graceful time, available again so that a whole new generation of kids can create their own epics in a galaxy far, far away, in their own backyards...

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