Monday, 27 December 2021

The Toys That Made Us

Toy Society

The Toys That Made Us
December 2017 to November 2019
Three Seasons of Four Episodes per Season

Just a quick diversion of a review to give a heads up to a TV series I found by accident, when I needed to kill an hour one day. The Toys That Made Us is, in the words of its brilliantly 1980s cartoonesque theme song over a clever animated title sequence, “An eight part documentary series of the toys that we all know.” And, yeah, if you’re wondering, even if you’re not that good at maths, how an 8 part documentary series could run for three seasons of four episodes... they were obviously not expecting to be so successful with viewers (I’m assuming) and renewed for another season past their initial expectations. For the third series, the lyric changes to an incredibly stretched out “The continuing series... etc”.

That song and title sequence is great, though. With a cartoon boy and girl rushing into a toy shop and grabbing a toy each off the shelves before we see two adults in their own scenarios, still having their toys with them. So a doll in a female manager’s power office and an astronaut retrieving his Luke Skywalker action figure in zero gravity round out the credits... and it’s a perfect visual metaphor for the psychology of modern toy purchasers and collectors.

And the series is just as well put together as those titles. It’s a very humorous but extremely informative look at the background stories behind various successful toy lines and where they had all ended up by the time the series was made a few years ago. Wonderfully witty voice over commentary is pitted against various talking heads of company executives, toy designers and even some celebrity fans (as you’ll see as you read down the page), making for a show which is really entertaining. They also feature, in many cases, little re-enactments of real life events... many shown in a hilarious light.

The first episode covers the Star Wars figures made by Kenner (and Palitoy but they don’t really get a mention here) including the unbelievably lucrative deal they made with Lucasfilm (who weren’t smart on their end of the contract) and it also includes some wonderful knock off toys such as one country’s Dalmation with a Stormtrooper’s head and another showing a character in front of a control panel on the box... except the Death Star technology seems to have metamorphosised into a pocket calculator photograph in a very strange montage.

The second episode is one of my favourites, which surprised me as it’s dedicated to Barbie. Starting off with a re-enactment of the unboxing by the creators of the first Barbie prototypes, the designer hastily files off the painted nipples to make it look more market appropriate for the time. What I didn’t know was that the Barbie doll was a swiped knock off itself, of a German doll based on a newspaper strip about Lilli, a high end call girl and that the doll was given by men to state their intentions to sex workers there. And don’t get me started on the original prototypes for Ken’s sex organs.

The third episode delves into the world of He-Man and the Masters Of The Universe (something after my time in terms of toys, like a fair few of the items explored in the show). But I even found this one incredibly entertaining and it highlighted an issue that seems common among the people who first put a toy design out... a lot of the people who came up with these things at different stages of the process all say they were the inventor of the toy.

The last episode of Series One is dedicated to GI Joe... although mainly from an American perspective. This goes through the years from the first prototypes made behind the bosses back when he was away on a two week vacation, where incredibly authentic weapons were made and built next to artist’s poseable mannequins refitted with clay... which are the versions which are best known to me over here in the UK as the beloved Action Man from my childhood... to the modern, rebooted, smaller GI Joe figures. It demonstrates the huge risks some of the companies involved took and also shows the incredible popularity of the newer figures too.

Season 2 opens with an episode devoted to the toys of Star Trek. This includes those wonderful Mego figures I used to love as a kid (wish I still had mine, they go for a bomb nowadays) and also includes lots of mis-steps along the way such as the infamous Star Trek helmet with flashing light (honestly, Rodenberry would sign off on anything) and shows how, even though it’s a very successful franchise, the various companies trying to launch their action figure lines often failed because of incredibly bad timing.

Next up are the Transformers... another toy I know nothing about other than the live action movies. What I did find fascinating about this one is their origins being from several different Japanese toy lines mixed together and their roots in two of my favourite sets of action figures I used to adore as a kid, the Henshin Cyborg (Cyborg, Muton and Android over here in the UK) and my beloved Micronauts (I think I still have my Pharoid Micronaut in an inaccessible drawer somewhere).

Following this is the amazing tale of Lego, how a successful Danish house builder was hit by the great depression, became a carpenter and started making wooden toys which sold well... and the various stages to get to the full on Lego bricks inspired by the colours of Mondrian’s paintings we know now, including the ‘clutch power’ introduced in 1958, which was a real game changer. It also looks at their decline and almost liquidation before, of all things, their Bionicles sets saved them when, again due to bad timing, their Star Wars and Harry Potter licences wouldn’t sell toys.

The last episode of Season Two is devoted to something called Hello Kitty which seems to be a phenomenon in itself and includes collections and talking heads of such celebrities as Paris Hilton, as well as introducing us to the Hello Kitty vibrator. The writers use a nice Godzilla analogy in here too.

Series Three kicks off with the creation and development of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property, taking it right back to the comics and, in a nice on screen moment, reuniting the estranged comic book creators, Eastman and Laird, for the first time in a long time. Writer/director/actor Kevin Smith also turns up in this one.

Next up is the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and the tenacious, eight year attempt to bring the show to the US, which utilises action footage from Japanese TV shows blended with new American footage... and the rise of their toys, which are retooled versions of the Japanese toys. It even owes some of its origins and shows a clip from that wonderfully bizarre Japanese live action Spider-Man TV show that I’ve been wishing some smart Blu Ray label will make available over here some day. Some nice footage of a younger Stan Lee in here too.

A bizarrely entertaining episode on the origins of My Little Pony comes next with a wonderfully poetic continuation of their success story in terms of their current designer (and let’s hear it for those ‘rump designs’... or butt paintings as the current design gal puts it). And then the series rounds off with a look at the various US themed Wrestling action figures over the years. I can’t believe so many of these non-articulated figures sold to kids at all, to be honest but the rivalry between the various Wrestling companies is certainly as fascinating, if not more so, than the successes and misfires of the toys.

And thats that. The Toys That Made Us is a truly great show and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that, at some point, it will be picked up for a fourth season. It’s shot full of humour and the only thing I will say to people who haven’t seen this is... watch them in order because some of the jokes depend on referencing back to earlier episodes. This one’s thoroughly recommended for both the young at heart and, of course, any grown men (who are, by definition, still just kids anyway). As one such specimen, I got a lot out of this show, for sure.

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