Playmates Toys

Playmates Toys


“Playmates wanted extreme realism in aesthetics and function.  We were asked to design the articulation to pose as naturally as possible, like being able to sit in their vehicles the way humans really do without having unsightly joints…”

 – VARNER STUDIOS

 

With its unprecedented advance 22-episode order by the NBC network, seaQuest DSV was hot property and licencees were keen to cash in.  Among the first to strike a deal to produce the obligatory action figure line with MCA/Universal merchandising were Playmates Toys.

The Hong Kong based manufacturer was the first toy company in history to net more than $100 million due to the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line in the late 80’s and had more recently invested the Star Trek franchise.   Former Playmates Senior VP of Marketing Karl Aaronian understood that they “Had to appeal to those hardcore fans, otherwise you don’t have anything,” elaborating, “With Star Trek, you have a fanatical following who notices every little detail.” So Playmates planned for detailed accurate products with play features in service of that goal, greatly aided by the fact that the company’s chief action figure sculptor, Steve Varner, was a “trekkie” himself. It paid off, at a time when, as per Aaronian, “timing was everything” as “the audience had really reached its maximum size and was hungry for product”, the Playmates releases became the “biggest and most successful Star Trek line ever.”

Keen to capitalise on their experience and innovation with Star Trek, Varner Studios were excited at the prospect of creating a functional and more realistic line that appealed to both collectors and children, and what better opportunity than a Sci-Fi show produced by noneother than Steven Spielberg?

The seaQuest license was first announced in the 1993 Playmates catalogue. with no product yet to show, the double-page spread featured James Lima’s concept art of the futuristic Submarine with a promise of making a ‘huge splash’ in Fall ’93.  The first of the prototoyes would appear at the New York Toy Fair in 1994 –

The seaQuest figures would represent advances in both articulation and realism compared to the more stylised sculpts of the Star Trek: The Next Generation figures (background)
Test heads for the Crocker (Left) and Bridger (Right) displaying unprecedented detail and actor likeness for the 4 1/2″ scale (Image courtesy nerdnewstoday)

seaQuest was the highlight of the 1994 Playmates catalogue, showcased over  eight glossy pages previewing both the individually-numbered action figure line and an impressive range of vehicles.  A multi-million dollar advertising campaign featuring everything from TV ads starring Darwin the Dolphin to an attraction in Universal theme parks were also scheduled to surface that summer –

The eye-watering demonstration of the complete range at the 1994 New York Toyfair (starting at 06:12 in the video) and the subsequent reports from US magazines Action Figure News And Toy Review plus the ‘Hot Pick’ from Tomarts Action Figure Digest had fans in eager anticipation of release…
Issue #13 of SF Collectors Magazine ‘Strange New Worlds’ also covered the ’94 NY Toyfair…

But astonishingly, the campaign would never materialise.  The significant ratings drop after the pilot premiered plus poor critical reception to subsequent episodes lead to the line being cancelled after the release of just nine figures.   Frustratingly, none of the much-anticipated vehicle prototypes made it to production despite the figures being especially designed to fit into them –

The blueprint for the ‘Stinger’ vehicle demonstrates both the standard of engineering involved (the wheels activating the tail movement) and level of accuracy to the show by accommodating the figures…

Made in Macao, a case of 16 figures would consist of only one complete set of nine from the range, with The Regulator being most common and Dr. Z, Bridger & Ford limited to one unit each…

seaQuest figures in Canada were distributed on simplified backing cards (replacing the photo and character details on the left with a pink label on the lower bubble and a bar code sticker on the back) and  by IDEAL in Europe, where the profile was substituted for a yellow multi-lingual box –

The spread from the IDEAL 1995 catalogue (below) lists Ensign Darwin and Dr.Z for the second wave but no examples have materialised to date.  This listing is also the only evidence that the Kristin Westphalen figure was next in line to be produced.

The assortment according to IDEAL would also have included the vehicles and the much sought-after Dr. Westphalen…
The variations in the IDEAL range were not just limited to the cards, subtle changes in the figures included Captain Bridger with screen-accurate white cuffs…
…and Lucas Wolenczek with the IDEAL version (left) featuring a different paintjob and smaller jacket than its more weathered US cousin (right). Some of these figures were also packaged forward-facing as shown…
Originally offered as a subscription incentive, the four figures personally signed by Jonathan Brandis are now arguably amongst the most coveted of all seaQuest merchandise…

Despite its short-lived run,  the Playmates toys have stood the test of time and remain one of the best-looking action figure lines ever produced in the 4 1/2″ scale, winning awards in contemporary toy publications and online reviews.  In retrospect, its easy to see why the range may have somewhat limited appeal, with five out of nine figures wearing the same outfit and somewhat uninspiring adversaries.  The Ensign Darwin figure, however, with its cute squeaking mechanism is a great piece of innovation for the time and may well be the best figure in the selection.

From the Portfolio Archive of Varner Studios comes this detailed profile of the SeaQuest line and the considerable effort and research it took to produce them
Just one of the detailed accessories for the line – this printout was exclusive to the Ensign Darwin figure and came in a sealed baggie
The seaQuest line came a very respectable third in a poll of the best action figures of all time by short-lived UK Toy magazine Area 51…

One can’t help but wonder, however,  what the influence of the show’s change of theme from Science Faction to fiction in subsequent seasons would have had on future releases had the line been as expansive as Playmates Star Trek portfolio (which ran into literally hundreds of characters and multiple versions).

And while it may be a work of fiction (borne of frustration and fuelled by imagination) I compiled a list of all the products Playmates could potentially have produced had the line continued – SQ Action Figure Archive  where not only is there a comprehensive guide to the released figures but a completeist’s dream of everything from vehicles and even 12″ figures for season 2 and beyond.  While sadly none of this will ever become reality, like most things seaQuest, its enjoyable to speculate about what might have been…

Actor Ted Raimi with his seaQuest Lieutenant J.G. O’Neill figure – still a popular item to sign at Cons more than two decades later…

ML