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Monday, May 15, 2017

Extended Toy Box - Aliens (1992-1998)

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It’s become something of a cliché now to point out how, when it premiered, Star Wars changed everything, but it really did.  The ramifications of Star Wars as a film and, more importantly here, a multimedia phenomenon are still being felt today.  One of the biggest changes brought about Star Wars was a complete revamp to the way toys are created and sold.  Before this moment toys tended to exist as unique entities.  There were a handful of tie-in toys but for the most part toy “franchises” stayed confined to the medium of toys.  With the advent of Star Wars, suddenly franchised toys were big business, and Reagan’s deregulation of the FCC’s rules about advertising led to even more through TV shows built as ads for the toys. 

This was the first time something called ‘structured play’ entered the realm of American toy production, where the idea was that toys weren’t just for the imagination, but they were coming with a prebaked story and universe that informed them.  As such, when toy companies in the ‘80s and ‘90s wanted to keep selling new action figures from Terminator or Predator after the original film ended they needed to come up with new stories to base the new toys around.  

This series of events led to a ton of various toy lines at the time acting as the first expanded universe for the various franchise, the first place officially licensed new stories emerged even if it was just in the form of commercials or on the back of the packaging.  In this series, Extended Toy Box, I’m going to take a closer look at these franchises as well as occasionally touching on toys in general.  With all that said, let’s look at one of the best examples of this with Aliens.

One of the curious trends of ‘80s action franchises with an R-rating is that they all tended to get action figure lines a decade later in the ‘90s.  As far as I can tell, this was done as an attempt to piggyback off the publicity of various new films in the franchises hitting in the ‘90s.  Toy producers may not have expected kids to go see Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Alien 3, or Predator 2 but they knew the trailers were going to be everywhere and the toys could easily ride that wave. 

That’s why the first wave of Aliens toys didn’t come out till 1992- 6 years after the movie but also the same year that Alien 3 came out in theaters.  Kenner, the company with the license to produce the toys, had produced a figure for Alien back in 1979, a towering 18’’ monstrosity that made up the entirety of the toy line, but that doesn’t really count for what we’re talking about here. 

There was no official title for the Aliens toy line in 1992, but there was a story for it, in fact it had more of a story than you’d suspect.  The various figures came individually packaged with issues of a micro-comic Aliens: Space Marines.  The comics served as background material for the toys, though they’re more about explaining the cool new kinds of aliens featured here than anything else.  The setting is sort of an altered world from the end of Aliens, not taking Alien 3 into account in the slightest.  In this world, Ripley has become a lieutenant and leads a smattering of remnants from the Aliens space marine crew. 

Along with Hicks and a rebuilt Bishop, who now functions as if Data from Star Trek was also a Terminator, the initial also features the return of Apone and Drake.  If you don’t remember, Apone is the black sergeant from Aliens and Drake is the heavy gunner who has a kind of relationship with Vasquez.  Both of these characters died in the film so I’m not sure how they’re back now, though Apone has been outfitted with a cyborg arm.  The UK exclusive toys featured even more returning characters like Vasquez and Hudson, who is also a cyborg now. 

Honestly as weird a retcon as it is to have these characters back I’m also kind of onboard with it.  They never reappeared in the Alien comics that Dark Horse put out so actually getting the chance to have more adventures with Hicks or see Bishop as a combat android is a pretty neat idea.  This is what I meant by both structured play and expanding the universe.  Whatever adventure you’re having with the Xenomorphs now you’re having it with Hudson and Apone and Ripley, that’s a parameter set for your imagination. 

However, at the same time, this adds a new wrinkle to the world of the Aliens through Cyborgs and maybe clones to explain how the Space Marines survived their encounter.  We probably would’ve found it in the animated series these two designs came from Operation: Aliens.  Incidentally, if it’s shocking that a hard-R horror/action franchise like Aliens would get an animated series just bare in mind that Conan, Rambo, and Robocop all got animated shows at the time as well. 

Aside from the returning characters, the real stand out of this line is a ton of new Xenomorph designs.  This is probably going to become a pretty standard thing in Extended Toy Box, but toy franchises but the idea of making a lot of variations of a simple enemy the films have only shown in one form is toy line bread and butter.  Toy franchises need bad guys to function, but it can be hard to sell kids on just buying the same single enemy over and over again. 

As such, it’s a really common trick to use the different formats of special toy design and just general hints and ideas from the lore to create a whole ton of variations on a theme.  In the case of Aliens, that theme actually comes from Alien 3 and is the only part of that film to get even the slightest reference here.  In Alien 3 we see a unique moment when the chest burster attaches to a dog, so the Xenomorph that emerges is altered- it’s smaller, it runs on all fours, it’s a dog Xenomorph (something that was also confirmed by the Alien 3 toy line.) 

Drawing on that idea, the Kenner Aliens toys feature a ton of Xenomorph/Animal hybrids.  The first series featured most prominently a Gorilla Alien that was built heftier, with massive arms and the ability to spit acid, along with the Bull Alien.  The Bull Alien is a real favorite of mine as it actually has horns and moves on all fours like a bull, the result of some chest bursters getting into a ranching colony.  Going forward they only got more creative with altering the Xenomorph’s anatomy to fit the various mash-up forms. 

Some were pretty basic like the Panther and Night Cougar aliens, who were a bit more of a palette swap.  However, stuff like the Snake Alien, the Mantis Alien, the Alien Arachnid, and the Killer Crab Alien really went all out.  There was also a Rhino and Wild Board Aliens, making a full trilogy of charging horned alien monsters.  Really, the line is so creative and creepy I’m shocked none of its managed to make its way into the films- an Alien movie set in a future zoo would practically write itself. 

They also played around a lot with how the structure of the Alien life cycle, introducing stuff like a Queen Facehugger, a King Alien, and a Flying Queen.  Honestly, this kind of variety and world building has felt legitimately absent from the franchise since Aliens, and I’m just flabbergasted none of this has filtered through. 

All of these ideas fit perfectly within the established tone and style of the franchise but take in lateral directions rather than just rehashing old points.  They provide new threats and new challenges with a familiar twist and make the world feel bigger with more potential than the cramped and depressing Alien 3 or the uneven and outdated approach of Prometheus or even Aliens vs. Predator. 

Speaking of Alien vs. Predator- before that film happened, the Kenner line actually featured one of the first official crossovers.  In 1992 as part of the second series of the toy line, there was a double pack of a Warrior Alien vs. Renegade Predator.  This was a couple years after the official Dark Horse comic crossover in 1992 but it was still a pretty big deal.  In fact, the figure sold well enough that in 1998 they produced a whole AvP line under the title Aliens: Hive Wars.  It basically served as an Aliens/Predator/Space Marines crossover vehicle, with the main plot revolving around a strike against the Alien Hive Planet. 

The idea was that the Predators had come there to use it as a hunting ground for the deadliest game, they just happened to arrive at the same time as a team of Cyborg Marines intent on wiping out the Alien menace and the Predators along with them.  Only 6 figures were ever produced as weak sales forced to Kenner to cancel the line prematurely and not long after they lost the contract to both franchises.  Probably the biggest standout of this was the return of Hick, now as a super cyborg with a robot dog. 

So that’s the story of the Aliens tie-in toys and the universe they expanded.  The franchise has returned to the realm of toys a number of times after the close of the Kenner run, but by that point, it was the 2000s, and the toy collectors had really set in.  Nowadays it’s a lot rare to find figures that split heavily from the material thanks to demand from adult collectors and nostalgia properties like Aliens have even less cause to do so. 

Still, with Fox reportedly planning to continue making Alien films into the 2020s there’s always hope for a new heir to what this series started.  I mean, I think we’ve pretty decisively proved that nobody really cares that much about the origin of the Xenomorphs or the mythmaking that’s come to define this franchise at this point, so there’s no real need to dig deeper into why or how the Aliens exist.  

That being the case, why not have fun with what the Aliens existing can lead to, get away from trying to tell some world reshaping origin of species prequel and just play around with it.  The franchise has basically become a box of toys on its own at this point, might as well play around and see where it leads. 

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