Girls Toys

About a week ago, this happened.  Paul Dini, the man responsible for some of the best cartoons and animated series in the past two decades, talked with Kevin Smith about why Cartoon Network canceled some of their shows.  In the interview (which is well worth listening to in its entirety), Dini states “[TV execs] do not want girls watching this show” because “girls won’t buy toys”.  The crux of his belief for why his – and many other popular shows – were canceled is because the female viewing audience had grown too high for the TV execs to tolerate.  The reason why female viewers was bad was attribute to girls’ disinterest in toys.

This is troubling for almost more reasons than I can count, but I want to tackle at least a few of these reasons today.  Since this is such a staggeringly awful world view, I want to throw out a few topics to discuss at another time.  For starters, let’s just dismiss sexism.  Is this a sexist view of things?  Abso-goddamn-lutely.  It is blatant, rank sexism to assume that girls in a large enough demographic to be an economic force won’t be interested in the merchandise for a show they enjoy.  It is blatant sexism to just assume by virtue of their gender that girls simply will not have any interest in the toys of a show they clearly love a great deal.
I won’t be addressing that aspect of things – the sexism – because A) oh my god, there it is, it’s RIGHT THERE and B) there are plenty of other people online and in the media who already doing an excellent job addressing that.  Since I feel like that corner of this topic is being adequately (and deservedly) addressed, I want to take a few other lesser but still important points to task.

The justification for the cancellation of these shows is just the absolute laziest excuse for creative corruptness ever.  The preconceived insistence that an existing audience will not buy pre-made merchandise and therefore the audience must be disbanded is as patently selfish as it is short-sighted.  It is putting your work ahead of the fans; it is insisting the fans buy what you make, not for you to make what the fans want to buy.  It is professional laziness of the most deplorable sort.

First off, there is not one great success story in marketing and business that doesn’t involve reaching an unexpected demographic.  From Nike’s realization that ‘women like sports too, maybe we should make women’s sneakers as well’ to the success of the Wii (and its ‘non-gamer’-friendly games), every marketing professional wants to be the one that bridges some kind of a gap and reaches out to a previously untapped demographic.
There’s a legend in marketing and advertising about how GI Joes came into being.  The story goes that Merrill Hassenfeld (of Hassenfeld Brothers, aka Hasbro) entered into a bet with his wife that he could not sell ‘dolls to boys’.  At the time (the 1960s), it was conventional wisdom that boys did not play with dolls, so Hasbro simply rechristened them ‘action figures’.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that ‘action figures’ have been one of the single biggest driving forces in children’s entertainment ever since.
Finding yourself with a demographic you didn’t expect (much like Cartoon Network did with a whole cadre of their shows) isn’t a problem: it’s an outstanding success!  That isn’t a failure; it’s a dream come true!  Refusal to see that is refusal to understand even the most basic elements of marketing and merchandising success.

Secondly, if the show’s success hinges on the selling of toys, then the goal is to sell toys.  You cannot refuse to sell toys.  If you have an interested demographic (and they did, based on the viewership numbers), they WILL buy merchandise connected to their favorite shows…if they think said merchandise is worthwhile.  So if they aren’t buying merchandise that’s being made, the problem isn’t with the audience; it’s with the merchandise.  They are obviously fans of the franchise and a century of capitalism has proven that they will spend money on what they like.  Maybe the reason the action figures weren’t moving isn’t because girls don’t like action figures; it’s because the action figures were shoddy or overpriced.

And lastly, there is a larger issue at play here: the purpose of TV shows is not to ‘sell merchandise’.  That may seem like a strange thing to say, coming from a die-hard Transformers fan, but the truth is that TV shows that are just commercials for the toys rarely – if ever – last more than one season.
TV shows that are closely connected to merchandise exist to generate interest in the franchise and there is a distinct difference between generating interesting a franchise and shilling toys.  The show cannot exist solely as a commercial for the toys.  It must be able to stand on its own rights and virtues as an independent (though connected) artistic venture.  To make the shows fundamentally subservient to a different art form (toys, in this case) is to thoroughly undercut if not completely undermine the medium.
What this means is that cancelling the show because the toys weren’t selling – or worse, because there was fear the toys might not sell – is the work of artistic cowardice.  The idea that the show has no reason to exist except to move merchandise is artistically bankrupt, and it destroys whatever possible credibility the show and the network might want to retain.

In this day and age, memories are long.  Firefly’s been off the air for well over a decade, and yet it continues to be a topic of discussion at conventions and on forums, keeping pace with long-enduring franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek.  Forgotten kids shows are no different. The Mysterious Cities of Gold has been off the air for three decades and yet there was a new video game released for it on Steam.
Shows connected to enduring franchises, like those Cartoon Network just canceled which are connected to DC Comics, will be long remembered indeed.  And those who remember the heartbreak of their favorite shows being canceled will remember this when Cartoon Network tries to woo them back with future shows.  This short-sightedness – rooted in blatant and deplorable sexism – that girls simply won’t buy the toys already made for these shows is as troubling as it is fundamentally wrong.

Tools of the Imagination — Starscream (War Within)

Transformers War Within Titanium Heroes toyline, by Hasbro, released 2007

The Original Backstabber In His Original Form

In the beginning, Hasbro made their Transformers toys using die-cast steel.  And it was good.  Then, they moved to the cheaper and more manageable plastic.  And it was…meh.  And then, on a glorious day, they released a Transformers line based around using the beloved die-cast construction.  And it was good.  Very, very good.
For the four of you who aren’t familiar with the background of the Transformers (and I am referring to the animated series, not the live-action movies; the live-action movies are generally regarded as, at best, really ambitious fan fiction, with all the preferences and prejudices that go along with that designation), the Autobots and Decepticons were damaged in their crash landing onto Earth and were given the forms of earth vehicles (jets, cars, trucks, etc).  But in the first episode of the animated series, ‘More Than Meets The Eye’, we got a glimpse of a few of the Cybertronian forms that they original held, forms there were quite appropriately alien.

Probably none of these forms has been more popular than the ‘flying pyramids’ (formally called ‘Tetrajets’) that would become the Decepticon jets (formally called ‘Seekers’).  And there is probably no Decepticon, jet or otherwise, more notorious than Starscream.  The eternal opportunist, Starscream’s propensity to run his mouth is rivaled only by either his cowardice or his ability to back up his smack-talking (his abilities varied WIDELY from episode to episode in the animated series).  However, given that he openly and frequently told his superior (Megatron) about he was going to usurp power from him – and still lived to tell about it – it’s considered canon that he could backup his smack more often than not.

Starscream has been a perennial favorite, arguably as popular as any other character with the exception of Optimus Prime, and has been a prominent figure in just about every incarnation of the series.  So when the fans had a chance to get a die-cast toy of him in his original Cybertronian form, well, that was just too good to pass up.
Appearance – 2 out of 5
This a visually compelling piece, no doubt about it, but it’s not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be.  Both the robot form and the vehicle form look very little like figure from the show or even like other incarnations of the character.  Really, all we have to go on in knowing this is Starscream is the color scheme.  Likewise, the vehicle mode is especially problematic because, not only does it not look like the flying pyramids from the show, aside from a vague triangular shape in general, it doesn’t even look all that much like a pyramid of any kind.

On top of that, I have one personal complaint and that is the toy’s face.  While the head is nicely detailed and well-sculpted…it just doesn’t look like Starscream.  It looks…I don’t know, like Starscream’s inbred twin brother or something.

Construction – 5 out of 5
The toy is very well put together and, since it’s die-cast, it’s pretty much the very definition of tough.  Seriously, you could sharpen this toy into a knife if you wanted, and if you continued to call it Starscream, it would be the awesomest knife ever.  In all honesty, this toy is practically the yardstick of durability and ruggedness.  It does have a critical flaw, however, which is discussed below.

Movement – 3 out of 5
Scoring the movement category is a little tricky because while the toy is overall quite mobile (elbow and shoulder joints, rotating wrists, hip, knee, leg, and toe joints; hell, even the head turns), the joints don’t really feel too sturdy.  This is because while the toy is constructed of mostly die-cast, some parts (namely the joints) are necessarily made of plastic.  The problem with this is that the plastic is not nearly as strong as the metal and its there that we learn an ugly little truth about mecha in real life.  In order for the joints to support the weight of the limbs, they have to be remarkably strong (read: rigid).  This means that in order to move the joint, a great deal of strength has to be used (read: force).  And that amount of force means that you constantly feel like you could snap a limb off at any time.

Extras – 1 out of 5
The toy comes with a small stand that is identical to every other toy in the series, save for the nameplate that’s unique to each figure. Other than that, there’s nothing.  No clip-on weapons, no handheld weapons (since the hands are closed fists, that probably goes without saying), nothing.

Packaging – 4 out of 5
The packaging for this entire toy line was very well done.  It emphasized the die-cast element and gave us a quick bio for the character.  Franchise and narrative history was lacking, meaning that this toy was clearly meant for collectors and long-time fans, but that does little to detract from the packaging.  Each package as distinctive and it was quite obvious even without seeing the figure inside to tell whom it was that resided within.


Overall – 3 out of 5
This is a really nice toy that is very sturdy, tactilely very satisfying, and is overall just a beautiful product.  Sadly, it only passingly looks like Starscream or a Tetrajet.  The joint strength is also a real problem.  Still, this is a nice toy for fans but they’re about the only ones who will have an interest in it.

Fifty Years of Who

It seems there are two types of people in this world: people who know nothing about Dr Who, and fans of Dr Who.  There seem to be very few people who know anything about the show and don’t care for it.  Most people seem, once they get a taste, to be incapable of getting enough.  That’s been the case for me, to be sure.  Once I’d gotten a full-on dose of the Doctor’s magic – to see a pacifist action hero traveling the universe and all of time, just to see the beauty of life and experience the wonders of all there is to see – I couldn’t get enough.

Now, to be fair, I wouldn’t say I’ve been ignorant of Dr Who, but it’s never really been a show that registered on my radar until very recently.  As the fandom for the show has grown to staggering levels, I’ve noticed and acknowledged it, but I’ve never gotten around to watching it seriously. However, with the hoopla over The Day of the Doctor, I tuned in and found myself quite enthralled.  Having seen maybe a total of six episodes prior to this (not including the ill-fated 1996 American TV movie which stared Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor; a film I watched with great delight), I was galvanized to see more.

Strangely, though, it isn’t more of the current Doctors that I want to see.

I’ve enjoyed Christopher Eccleston’s career for years, so impressed was I with his performance in 28 Days Later.  It’s no surprise then that the few episodes I’ve seen of his 9th Doctor really appeal to me.  David Tennant and Matt Smith’s respective characterizations are also really intriguing.  But I’ve found it’s the 2nd and 4th Doctors are who I’m most keen to see more of.

Doctor Who dates back to 1963, a full three years before Star Trek would appear.  In black & white, it starred two humans in the company of an alien in the guise of an older gentleman.  The 1st Doctor is often a shock to fans of the modern versions, being so radically different.  It really is the 2nd Doctor and on where modern fans can see the beginnings of the heritage they so enjoy.

The 2nd Doctor (played by Patrick Troughton) and the 4th Doctor (played by Tom Baker), are much more of the comedic figures in the early years of the series.  They tended to rely on personality and cleverness, as opposed to rote intellect or even action bravado (like their intervening 3rd Doctor played by Jon Pertwee).  This gave the two remarkable flavor and distinctive characters.

But more than just the Doctors, the shows during this time have a very unique feel to them.  Being low-budget sci-fi (in the case of the 2nd Doctor, VERY low budget), there are often a lot of concessions regarding special effects, costuming, and sets.  At first glance, this sounds like it would make for poor sci-fi, but one might argue that it can make for the best sci-fi.

Kevin Flanagan once said “It’s when you face limitations that you see innovation”.  Though he was speaking about video games, I think it holds true with many other forms of art (and perhaps all realms of life, to be honest).  Sci-fi is certainly no exception.  When you cannot rely on special effects, sets, and so on, to dazzle the audience, you are left with story and characters to do it.  And so it is in the presence of ‘cheap sci-fi’ that we can see some truly impressive and fun stories.

Additionally, watching the 2nd and 4th Doctors is like a time-capsule for television.  It’s incredibly intriguing to see where British TV was at this time, to see what it looked like, what some of the social mores were, what was acceptable and what was not.  Even simple things like the use of different cameras for indoor and outdoor shooting says so much.  Seeing these older episodes is like visiting grandparents and hearing compelling stories of days past, something only children would balk at because there aren’t enough dazzling lights.

The more and more I watch of these older episodes, the more and more they frame the modern episodes for me.  They inform the current show – from the production to the performances by the actors.  And they give key insight into where this culture was at this time in its TV life.  And, devoid of the trappings of CGI and modern imaging, they are full of cleverness and wit needed to convey outlandish and yet compelling tales.

If you get the chance, I encourage you to check them out.  Eccelston, Tennant, and Smith are great, but if you take a step back in time, you’ll be astounded and delighted beyond what you might imagine.

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.

Tabula Rosa Playset

It’s the holidays.  While that means many things to many people, one thing it means for me – as a person easily mistaken for an adult who has three nephews and a niece – it means toy-shopping for Christmas morning.  So off to the toy store I went.

I strolled through the aisles, looking for toys I thought fit the bill for the children whom I know and love so well (translation: I was trying to find the exact figures that are on their lists).  And all three of my nephews are into the Lego action figure lines: Chima, Hero Factory, etc.  And in the Lego aisle I noticed a lack of, well, Legos.

Don’t get me wrong, there were Marvel Superhero Legos and DC Superhero Legos and Lord of the Ring Legos, plus the aforementioned action hero lines.  But there weren’t any classic Lego playsets, not like the ones I recall from my childhood.  And this bothered me, though I couldn’t put my finger on it.  It’s not because I’m anti-licensing or anything.  Nor did I think the old playsets of yore were in anyway superior to these sets; at least, not exactly.

It wasn’t until I watched a recent Duplo ad (Legos for infants) that it clicked for me.  The ad contained no original playsets.  It was all Disney/Pixar/Nickelodeon characters made out of Duplo or playing on vehicles/locations made from Duplo.  No original characters.

Before I get onto my old-man tirade, shaking my cane at these newfangled modern toys, let me be clear: I love franchise toys.  I love Transformers, GI Joe, Power Rangers, etc.  I think they’re great toys and I think they’re very useful and wonderful tools to help fire a child’s imagination.

The problem with franchise toys is that they’re known quantities.  Everybody knows who Optimus Prime is, what he sounds like, what he does, what he’s like.  So when you get an Optimus Prime action figure, you are getting a defined character, in a defined story.  No matter how wonderful the mythos of said character is, it is still ultimately a limiting element.  You’re getting a picture with which you will be coloring inside the lines.  Not a bad thing in and of itself, but children need more than just that.

What made Lego standout from many of the other toys of my childhood was there were no defined characters, no defined stories, and really not even any defined elements to it.  When you opened the bag and put the vehicle or set together, you had no idea who this person was or what was happening, where the story was set or what was going on.  YOU had to come up with all of that.  YOU had to create the settings, YOU had to create the characters and motivations, all of it.  YOU were able to project your own stories onto the Legos.  You weren’t creating stories in someone else’s universe; you were creating your own stories in your own universes.  You were drawing your own picture.

I lament that there are not more toys where you can do that.

Well, I should amend that.  Barbie is still that way.  While Barbie (the toyline) is largely concerned with clothes and accessories (and ‘boys’ toys, don’t pretend you aren’t too: battle-damage figures that are identical except for different paintjobs? Figures that come with 19 swords and 32 guns so you can mix and match?  Come on, you are’t fooling anyone), there isn’t that much of a definitive character to Barbie.  While the occasional DVD movies and whatnot always paint Barbie as generically kind and universally admirable, the character herself is always distinctive to each setting and story: a princess is a far cry from a ballerina or a doctor or an adventurer.  And moreover, it’s left to the one playing with Barbie to define who she is and what she’s doing.  The ability to project onto Barbie is one of the line’s greatest strengths by far.

When knockoff toys were more prevalent – He-Man and GI Joes were the most common when I was a kid – kids were faced with toys that were sometimes to cool too get rid of or just relegate to backup goon, but who didn’t fit into the established canon created by the cartoons.  Faced with this challenge, they would have to create names, personalities, etc.  They would have to decide if this was a good guy or bad guy, competent or incapable; it was all up to them.  In many ways, this would be the ideal ‘next step’ for kids who are used to playing with franchise/licensed toys – to be given figures that aren’t part of the established canon but whom they have to be fit into the story.  This is how their imaginations are taken to the next level.

But ideally, toys without characters and stories, but still compelling and dynamic would be best.  Legos always fit that role perfectly.  The beautiful but tragically short-lived Stikfas toyline was probably the best the toy world’s seen in recent years.  And not as a dismissal, but there’s always Barbie.

Toys are not meant to capture children’s imaginations; they’re meant to set them free.  Children should not be constrained to the characters, stories, and worlds of what is on TV or found in video games.  A common and accessible mythos is invaluable, no doubt.  And franchise toys do a lot of good for kids and offer them a lot.  But children need access to toys with a blank slate, toys that they can project onto so as to cultivate their own imaginations and to broaden their creative vocabulary.