Friday, March 26, 2010

Transformers Feature: Generation Two Mini Vehicles

While Transformers fans are anxiously awaiting the chance to pre-register for BotCon 2010 (or, alternatively, to order one of the non-attendee sets of toys), "Generation Two" is all over the place (well, all over Transformers-related places, anyway).  In that spirit, it's time to do a bit of G2-focus over here, too.

When Hasbro first brought Transformers back from near-extinction at the end of 1992, the only toys on the shelves were repaints or redecos of toys from the original line (a few toys originally produced for the European market were already on the way, but weren't part of the first wave).  Among these were the G2 Mini Vehicles.  I've done a feature on Bumblebee already, but here is the entire set of G2 Mini Vehicles.  From left to right, this is Seaspray, Hubcap, Bumblebee, and Beachcomber done up in the vacuum-metalized paint that makes them distinct from the G1 versions.

In a broad stroke, the G2 versions kinda-sorta retain the basic colors of the G1 originals, only shinier.  Hubcap is the most blatant exception, with the original version having been yellow.  Red was actually Cliffjumper's color, and since Hubcap is a Cliffjumper remold with only a couple of subtle changes from Cliffjumper, a lot of fans think that this is G2 Cliffjumper.  But the mold is unmistakably the Hubcap version if you know what the differences are (the head is the most obvious giveaway).  Cliffjumper just can't catch a break....  Beachcomber's only really the same color if you squint, since green really is different than Beachcomber's original blue, if arguably the colors are right next to each other on the color wheel (and the original never had anything like those orange highlights!).  Further muddying the waters is the claim that some fans make about a rare "purple" variant of G2 Seaspray, but the prevailing wisdom is that this is just a result of natural differences between batches of the blue chrome, and not a true variation.

Subscribers to my Twitter account will be greeted with a new link to some G2 goodness every day for the next week or two.  Some links will be old features from this blog, while others will be new images of G2 toys not yet featured here.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Transformer Teaser: Doublespy Punch, the Dwarf

Since the people at Fun Publications have officially announced that the theme of this year's BotCon will be "Generation Two: Redux," members of the official Transformers club (often concerned that FP forgets about them in favor of convention matters) are getting anxious to know when pre-orders of the non-convention exclusives will finally begin.  I've already decided that I'm going to hold off on a full feature on the original version of the "Doublespy" toy (often referred to as Punch/Counterpunch after the names of its two robot modes) until after the new club version comes out in a few months, at which time I can compare the two.  In the meantime, a design oddity of the original toy will make for a bit of a teaser.

Punch, as you see him in the picture to the left, is not transformed according to the toy's instructions.  Basically, what you're seeing is the robot mode as the toy was designed to be transformed.  Although the toy's proportions are a bit... "off" when done this way (and a view of the robot from the side makes it look like he's standing on his knees!), this form's height is certainly in keeping with most of the Autobot cars of the first couple of years of the Transformers line.  By being shorter than Counterpunch's robot mode, the visual differences between the two modes are increased.

How can we tell that the toy was designed to be transformed this way?  Perhaps the most obvious cues are the two round nubs that are on the bottom of the black feet that are used in this robot mode.  The nubs aren't used in any of the official transformations, and would be normally expected to remain flat for purely aesthetic reasons in Counterpunch's robot mode, where they sit on top of the feet.  In this "dwarf" transformation, however, they are exactly the right height to lend support to the bottom of Punch's robot mode.

However, it seems just as clear that, by the time the stickers were designed for the figure, the decision had already been made to transform Punch in the now-traditional way, in which the legs are essentially just Counterpunch's legs seen from the other side.  I'll demonstrate this when I feature the figure more fully when the new one comes out in July or so.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Weekly Twittercast: "You Bet Your Life"

Game shows have been a part of American culture for a rather long time.  Thanks to the fact that so many older programs, especially those made for radio before the 1970's, have fallen into the Public Domain, it is relatively easy to enjoy some of these pieces of game show history even today.

You Bet Your Life was a game show that was more about the "show" than the "game" part.  Premiering on radio in 1947, and eventually being broadcast on both radio and television in 1950 (indeed, the very same episodes aired in both media, thanks to the simple format), the show starred movie legend Groucho Marx.  Groucho had a skill for improvisation that was unmatched, and many of the Marx brothers most famous comedies were largely ad-libbed.  This skill was put to good use on You Bet Your Life, which featured Groucho and three pairs of contestants in each show.  The contestants were often (but not always) selected from the studio audience, and often were not people who knew each other, but who fit "categories" requested by the producers.  One pair, for example, featured a "hobo" alongside a "job analyst."  Groucho and the couple would chat for a few minutes, before eventually playing the perfunctory game, whereby the contestants would answer a series of questions, betting a portion of their existing winnings (starting with $20, at least in the earliest episodes) to try to accumulate the highest total at the end of four questions.  The couple with the highest total then attempted to answer a single question at the end of the show for an escalating jackpot (starting at $1000).

A highlight of the show was the "secret word."  Always a very common word, the idea was that if the couple should say the word during the course of their conversation with Groucho at any point during the episode, they would win an additional cash prize of $100 (I can't tell that this ever changed).

Although cash prizes were given away, there was no mistaking that this show was really about the humor that would come from Groucho's conversations with the contestants.  For example, while interviewing a couple that had been married for 50 years, Groucho and the husband (obviously retired at 77 years old) had this exchange:
Groucho: "What sort of work do you do now?"
Mr. Thacker: "I don't work."
Groucho: "You're a bum?"
Other game shows have been known as much for the humor they generated as they have been for big cash prizes.  The 1970's classic Match Game, for example, would never have been a hit if not for the antics of the celebrities and the double-entendre jokes (mild by modern standards.  In fact, this is why some suggest that the show couldn't work today.  I disagree, but do feel that the more recent attempts to revive Match Game didn't understand that there is a boundary between what's funny what's going too far into the risque) often tossed in.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've started something of an experiment with my Twitter account.  Every Monday night, at 8:00 pm (Eastern Daylight Time, 5:00 pm Pacific), I am posting an MP3 link to the episode of You Bet Your Life that originally aired exactly 60 years previously.  A "Twittercast," if you will.  I am already prepared with "anniversary" episodes for the next month or so, but of course I may not have existing episodes to do this indefinitely (at least, not while retaining the "60th anniversary" element).  Still, I think that this is could be an interesting experiment in reliving a moment of broadcast history.  If you'd like to keep up-to-date when a new 60th anniversary episode of You Bet Your Life is made available, feel free to subscribe to my Twitter account @NicodemusLegend.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Offbeat Transformers Collectibles: Project Brain Drain

In the mid-1980's, "Choose Your Own Adventure"-type books were particularly popular.  I have to say "-type," because "Choose Your Own Adventure" was actually the name of a particular series published during that era by Bantam Books, but there were quite a few competing publishers out there trying to get in on the popularity of the genre.  Some of those competing publishers sought to couple their efforts with some popular children's franchise or another, and thus Ballantine published a number of Transformers-themed books in their "Find Your Fate Junior" line.  Project Brain Drain is one of these.

Whereas a "true" Choose Your Own Adventure book was generally told from a second-person perspective, suggesting that the reader was actively participating in the story (consistent with the idea that the reader would make choices about how the story would progress, the main gimmick of the genre, and how it takes its name), Project Brain Drain starts out as a typical third-person narrative. While Sparkplug Witwicky is working on "a new high-tech radio system," he accidentally intercepts a Decepticon transmission revealing a plot to steal human mental energy.  The reader is then asked to choose what course of action Sparkplug should take:
If you think Sparkplug should immediately set out for Metroplex, turn to page 7. 

If you think Sparkplug should try to contact the Autobots with his radio set, turn to page 10.
The reader does not always follow Sparkplug.  Depending on the course of the story, the reader may start to follow another character, like Bumblebee or Ultra Magnus.  The story can end any of a number of different ways, contingent upon the choices the reader makes.  The Autobots might either save the day, or the Decepticons could successfully steal the mental energy of unsuspecting humans, simultaneously granting the Decepticons a new power supply while turning the unfortunate humans into morons.

The artwork inside largely copies the packaging art of the toys themselves, rather than the better-known animation models.  This means that the characters usually look a lot more like their toys than they do on the cartoon.  Although this does make for some rather stiff and unnatural poses, I'm actually kind of impressed that the artists managed to use these images in ways that actually more or less fit the story they're trying to tell.

The Transformers featured in Project Brain Drain are predominately toys released in 1986, the same year the book was published.  These are characters that first appeared in the cartoon continuity in Transformers: The Movie, which also came out that year.  While the movie set the general tone for these characters to reside in the then-reasonably-distant future of the year 2005, this story seems to take place in the then-present day, highlighting the fact that it doesn't really fit into any of the better-known continuities.  This, of course, should surprise no one.  Indeed, most such works (and I also include coloring books and other similar items) can't easily be made to fit into an existing continuity, and I really don't suggest trying (although some fans consider this to be a fun challenge, I expect that there are better ways to use one's time).  It's really better to just look at this story as its own, mildly offbeat, entity.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Star Trek: The Next Generation Action Figures by Galoob

Back in 1988, the Star Trek franchise was being reborn.  Star Trek: The Next Generation had just premiered on the airwaves the previous Fall, and opinions on whether or not it was still a worthy addition to the Star Trek franchise were still widely divided.  The fact is that whether or not this new modernized version of Trek would succeed was very much an open question in these early years.  As such, the introduction of a toy line by Galoob dedicated to the new series was a significant risk.  Seen in this light, the fact that the line failed may come as less of a surprise than it might if one only considers the success that future Trek endeavors have had (of course, this apparently does not include the toy line dedicated to the movie that came out last summer.  That line is warming shelves so badly that Playmates isn't even going to bother to release the second wave so that the courageous few who actually have been trying to complete the "bridge" and "transporter room" sets will now never be able to do so, but I digress...).

The initial line of figures consisted of six members of the crew of the new U.S.S. Enterprise: (from left to right) Yar, Worf, Riker, Picard, LaForge, and Data (don't ask me why Counselor Troi and Doctor Crusher were never included.  A Wesley Crusher figure was advertised for a later wave, but never actually released).  It's pretty obvious that these figures all represent the characters as seen in the first year of the show.  Of the six characters depicted, only two of them looked more or less the same when the second season started (and one of the others was already dead by then!  Worst mistake of Denise Crosby's career, no doubt...).  All come with phasers molded into their hands.  They also came with tricorders that one basically had to strap around the entire forearm to get them to "hold" (atop the clenched fist of the other hand).  I've long since lost those.

For some reason, the Tasha Yar figure was pretty hard to find back when the line first came out (it might have been due to the character's death, but I honestly don't know this to be the case), and I ended up paying a ridiculously high price to get it about a year after I got the others.  Prices have since evened out quite a bit.  A series of alien figures was also released, but I never did actually see any of those in stores, and the prices they have always commanded on the secondary market have been too high for me to even consider bothering.  The Data figure, I'm told, has been released in a number of different variations (the face is apparently colored differently on each), and opinions differ as to whether one variation is worth more than another.  Here's mine, but I'm not looking to sell it, so it doesn't really matter.

I did manage to pick up the shuttlecraft accessory at one point. A "Ferengi Marauder" was also released, but never having bought a Ferengi figure, I didn't see much point in getting that.  Like the figures, this shuttlecraft uses a design that was more or less abandoned by the television show after the first season.  If memory serves, the blue of the warp engines was added with a blue paint marker.  The toy originally came with badly-applied stickers.  I'm not a big fan of the paint applications I made to my toys when I was a kid, but I still think it worked pretty well, here.

The shuttlecraft was advertised as being able to fit six figures, but I find that only works if you toss four of the figures in back without regard to having any place to go.  Yeah, they fit, but they wouldn't be at all comfortable if they were really people in there, and not just plastic toys!  Then there's the issue of the fact that the shuttlecraft controls are too high up in front for the characters to use them... to say nothing of the molded phaser that prohibits plausible navigation....

Yeah, I've seen better toys.  I keep these mostly as an interesting slice of history.  By the time Galoob lost the license to do Star Trek figures and Playmates picked them up, the television show had moved on significantly enough that the designs of most of those figures clearly depicted the characters at a different point in their careers (they did go back and do a few "first season" types, including a Yar figure, though).  And even besides that fact, only one set can ever be the "first," and when it comes to Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is that set.
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