Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Starscream (Generation One)

Transformers toyline, by Hasbro, released 1984

Backstabber Extraordinaire

Up there with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, Starscream is one of the most iconic characters in the Transformers franchise.  The perennial ‘dangerous coward’, Starscream is overly ambitious, dangerously self-serving, and just flatout a two-faced liar.  However, he’s also resourceful, deceptively intelligent, and extremely capable at all matters of warfare and carnage.  It’s not surprise that there’s been almost no version of Transformers in the franchise’s 30 year run that hasn’t included Starscream front and center.
He began as a fairly generic F-15 fighter jet that transformed into ‘Jet Robo’ in the Diaclone toyline in Japan.  When he was brought to the US by Hasbro, he went by multiple names initially – including Ulchtar and the Silver Snake – before he was christened Starscream by Bud Budiansky.  The character would come to life when voiced by the nigh-legendary Chris Latta, a performance that has informed and rooted the character’s depiction to this day.

From the start, Starscream was going to be trouble.  In ‘More Than Meets The Eye’ (the first episode of Transformers), Starscream tells Megatron to his face on three distinct occasions that he’ll usurp power from him.  It becomes so common that one begins to question if this is just Starscream’s form of polite greeting.  But unbridled ambition aside, Starscream is undoubedly one of the most feared of all the Decepticons, rivaled perhaps only by Megatron himself.  The show would demonstrate Starscream to be a scientist as well as a warrior: he’s shown to be an early explorer of Earth before the arrival of the Ark, inventing a machine that brainwashes humans, and even creating the combiner team the Combaticons.  Non-animated depictions of the character would build on his dangerousness and intelligence.  The US comics especially would portray Megatron as pitting Starscream against Soundwave and Shockwave, essentially trying to use them to counterbalance the danger each one represented to his rule.

The toy of Starscream remains iconic as one of the original Transformer toys.  The Starscream/Jet Robo mold was used as the basis for seven different characters in Gen 1 (beyond Starscream, it was used for Skywarp, Thundercracker, and Sunstorm as well as the basis for Ramjet, Thrust, and Dirge) and it’s also been reproduced/rereleased largely unchanged more than a dozen times in the past thirty years, making it one of the most enduring toy designs in modern history.
Appearance – 3 out of 5
The toy looks more appropriate as a jet than it does in robot mode.  The robot mode looks well enough like the character from the show and the comics, but feels very stiff.  The jet mode, however, is an excellent reproduction of an F-15.  This would be a common trend with the original Transformer toys, in that the vehicles were spot-on while the robot forms would look a little off (the result of the characters’ designs changing (sometimes radically) for the animated series).

Construction – 4 out of 5
Two words: Diecast.  Steel.
That’s right, this badboy was made out of metal.  And while it is true that parts of it were plastic, specifically the wings and the tailfins, it’s hard not to be impressed with the heft and weight of this toy.  This wasn’t a toy you had to worry about hurting; this was a toy you had to worry about hurting you.  It was solid, strong, and incredibly tough.  They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Movement – 1 out of 5
And we hit the big letdown.  For as much as I/we/everybody loves Transformers, and for as much as I/we/everybody idolizes Gen-1, it’s very easy to forget these were not very good toys.  The vehicle mode was fantastic, make no mistake.  The problem was the robot mode could barely move.  There were two joints: two shoulder joints that rotated and turned (and the turning was meant more as a function of the transformation process).  That’s it.  No rotating head, no hips, no knees, nothing.

Extras – 2 out of 5
The figure comes with two fists (needed for robot mode), two spring-powered rockets (usable in either mode), wings (usable in either mode), and tailfins (usable in either mode; in robot mode as stabilizers because, without them, the figure would fall over).  It’s unfortunate that there’s no storage space or the like for the fists in jet mode, since this makes losing them very easy.  It’s also unfortunate that the fists cannot hold anything, such as allowing them to hold weapons from other Transformers figures.

Packaging – 5 out of 5
Hasbro has set the standard for excellent packaging pretty much from Day One.  Dynamic and vivid, the packaging showed us the figure and the character art, gave us a breakdown of the story this world is set in, a character card (which gives stats, personal quote, background, and personality of the character), and even points needed to redeem for a mail-away figure.

Overall – 3 out of 5
It’s easy to remember the early Transformers toys with rose-colored glasses, but the truth is that they weren’t all that.  They weren’t amazing toys that vividly recreated our favorite characters from the TV show and the comics.  The truth is that they were just above-average toys that were connected (sometimes loosely) with a really great advertising department.
But in time, these toys would lead to amazing innovations.  Some of the recent incarnations of Starscream, for example, remain some of the most breathtaking toys every made.  And they could only exist because thirty years ago, a little red-and-gray jet had just a bit too much ambition.

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