Part One: A Collector from the 1977 Generation Discusses the Pros and (Mostly) Cons of the Kenner Star Wars Action Figures
When I first became a collector of the 3.75-inch scale Star Wars action figures and their related vehicles and “playsets” in the spring of 1978, I was 15 years old and in what was then called “junior high school.” I was in that no-man’s-land between true childhood and early adulthood then, and Star Wars collecting fell into an equally nebulous middle ground between wanting to keep the figures and such other toys as the X-Wing Fighter, TIE Fighter, landspeeder, and the Death Star Action Playset in good condition, yet still have as much fun as possible with them without actively picking up, say, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and engage in pretend lightsaber duels.
The “nebulous middle ground” that I chose for my Kenner Toys Star Wars collection was the “for display” option in which I would take my figures out of their carded bubble-packs and carefully pose them on whatever shelf or desk space I had in my bedroom. At first, with only 12 figures and three vehicles, this was fairly easy; the only inconvenient detail was that some of the figures’ center of gravity was hard to find – C-3PO, particularly, had a tendency to topple over and knock the other characters’ plastic likenesses over like bowling pins.
Kenner, which was at the time a subsidiary of the General Mills Corporation and Hasbro Toys’ biggest rival, made displaying the figures a bit easier once the collection expanded to its second wave in 1979. When 12 more figures were introduced that summer, Kenner began selling beautifully designed and illustrated Mini-Action Figure Collectors’ Cases, which had two plastic bins with compartments for each of the 24 original figures.
The bins could also be removed and placed upside down to serve as display stands; the action figures have always had holes on the soles of the figures’ feet that mate with pegs specifically designed to fit in them to allow even the most unsteady action figure to stand upright.
This was fine and dandy if all one wanted to do was show off the figures in a static display, with Rebels and related characters on one stand and Imperials and assorted villains on the other…or maybe by posing Wave 1 of figures on one and Wave 2 in the other. And that’s what I settled for doing…at least until Kenner introduced the Death Star Action Playset in – I’m guessing here – the summer of 1979.
See, part of the appeal of the figures back in those last “before the VCR Revolution” days was that they offered one of the few ways in which fans, particularly younger fans, could “bring home” the excitement and adventure of George Lucas’ Star Wars.
There were, of course, no DVDs back in 1978-1979, and videotape players were playthings for only the very wealthy, so millions of Jedi wannabes had to make do with buying the Alan Dean Foster ghostwritten novelization, listening to the two-record original soundtrack album of John Williams’ score, and/or buying the toys to recreate their favorite scenes.
Which brings me back to the Death Star Action Playset, which was an attempt by Kenner to encapsulate the settings and situations of the second half of Star Wars (now known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) into a single slice of the moon-like Imperial battle station.
It was a multi-tiered pie-wedge section, with an anti-fighter laser cannon on the top level, while the second level featured the infamous retracting bridge that could be used to recreate, if somewhat clumsily, the Luke-and-Leia swing to freedom across the Death Star’s central core chasm – it even had a plastic “rope” with a looped hand hold for a figure to grasp.
Level three was supposed to be one of the main control rooms, and because it was in the wider section of the wedge, it was the one that had the most room for figures, with two “control panel consoles” (with figure-supporting pegs) that faced a “viewing screen” depicting part of the Battle of Yavin,
On the “floor” of this third level was a hatch that led to a removable and really scaled-down replica of the now-famous garbage masher in which Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca not only had to deal with a tentacled, monocular monster called a Dianoga, but also faced being crushed by moving metal walls in a sequence that’s a tip of the hat to the cheesy and quickly-filmed Flash Gordon action serials from the 1930s that a young Lucas saw as television fare in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a kid.
That trash compactor toy, which for many years was the only way to recreate the “converging walls trap” sequence, was clever yet somewhat goofy.
On the plus side, it was perhaps the sturdiest piece of the Death Star Action Playset, which was otherwise insanely fragile for a toy intended to be played with by kids ages 4 and up. The three main levels and the trash compactor were connected to a cylindrical piece that simulated both the elevator shaft (which had a moveable cab in which two figures fit snugly) and the tractor beam control panel on the top level.
The supporting beams were of a somewhat sturdy but not unbreakable plastic, and the “walls” for levels two and three consisted of cardboard inserts with the Death Star’s exterior and interior detailing printed on either side. If the beams broke or the inserts were torn or became dog-eared by much wear and tear, forget the notion of having a Death Star Action Playset in mint condition – unless you bought one and never, ever opened the box….
The trash compactor, which was designed to be detached from the Death Star’s other sections for separate play action, was sturdier, partly, I think, because it had to help bear the weight of the bigger playset (it fit snugly between the base of the third level and the elevator shaft) so it would stand upright.
It had a screw-like mechanism on the outer end that allowed one to move the masher’s wall in and out to “squeeze” the figures and simulated “trash.” A hatch was on the inner end and opened down to form a bridge-like exit. And, along with the foam bits that simulated the trash inside, the compactor also came with a garish, almost Day-Glo green version of the Dianoga, which was really, really scaled down to fit in the playset.
The color scheme Kenner chose for this toy was unbelievably bizarre. The box-like masher’s body was orange, the screw mechanism that moved the inner wall was blue (as was the exit hatch), and the inner wall was a dull off-white. (The trash bits, if I recall correctly, were yellow and gray-black.) This was fine and dandy for the 4-and-up set, but not so nice for the increasingly choosier older collectors. (Of course, Kenner Toys at the time had no idea that older teens and young adults who loved Star Wars were going to be their core customers, so maybe I’m being a mite harsh in my criticism.)
In any case, such Kenner playsets as the Death Star and the Tatooine Sandcrawler and Escape Pod replaced the more static “figures on the stands” displays as my Star Wars collection expanded and, along with it, my desire to create mini-dioramas with the figures.
Unfortunately, the older I got, the fussier I became about the details of the figures and the playsets, particularly since Kenner’s figures of the Heroes of the Rebellion didn’t really become “scene specific” until it released its Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back collection in 1980. Kenner’s Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, and Han Solo figures were pretty one-dimensional as far as outfits went; if one wanted to display them on the basic stands, they were nice enough to look at by 1970s standards but one couldn’t really create dioramas with them. (Hell, one couldn’t really have Luke Skywalker’s first figure sitting in the X-Wing Fighter’s cockpit without thinking: This looks silly as all get-out because Luke wore a pilot’s flight suit and helmet while flying this thing. Kenner, probably realizing that the company would make more money by creating variations of at least the main characters’ figures, later released Luke Skywalker in X-Wing Pilot Outfit.)
The trash compactor scene is perhaps one of the best examples of the limits of the old Kenner Star Wars action figures from the perspective of more mature teen and young adult collectors. Kids younger than 12 usually didn’t give a rancor’s rear end if Luke Skywalker was permanently wearing his Tatooine duds while neck-deep in fake trash along with Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and Han Solo (in his Corellian space pilot outfit). Children’s imagination is a more powerful force than the more reality-based adult need for accuracy, so Kenner didn’t bother creating Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in Stormtrooper Disguise figures until near the end of the original figures’ production run in 1985.
Why bother if the company’s main consumer base overlooked such details and simply used their mind’s eye to fill in the blanks, right? Thus, if one examines archival marketing photos of the Death Star Action Playset somewhere in the Internet, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Luke and his pals wearing the “wrong” outfits while trying to escape from that garish little Day-Glo green Dianoga.
Part Two: Hasbro Revisits the Trash Compactor Sequence in Its Two Cinema Scene Diorama Sets
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….
It is a period of civil war. After decades of Emperor Palpatine’s iron-fisted rule, a handful of star systems has united to form an Alliance to challenge the evil GALACTIC EMPIRE and restore the democratic Republic.
Determined to crush the growing Rebellion, the Empire has built a planet-killing space station, the DEATH STAR, a space-going fortress the size of a Class IV moon and with the firepower equivalent to half the Imperial Starfleet. Under the command of Grand Moff Tarkin, it has already destroyed Princess Leia Organa’s home world of Alderaan; soon it will do the same to the Rebels’ hidden base — once the captive Princess’ resistance to mind probes and torture breaks and she gives Tarkin and Darth Vader its location.
But a small band of Rebels led by the legendary Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi has infiltrated the Death Star; Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca have freed the Princess from Cell 2187 and, after a cellblock firefight with Imperial stormtroopers, escaped from the detention area into the relative safety of a garbage pit. Yet, there is danger here as well, not only from the creature known as the Dianoga, but from the walls of what they now realize is a trash compactor….
Like George Lucas’ later film project Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is nothing more than a spiffed-up 1930s cliffhanger serial with modern special effects. As such, it’s literally full of what my Creative Writing prof labeled “the man in the hole” scenario, i.e., the good guys are faced with a perilous pitfall, and in order to achieve their goals, they must escape it.
The “garbage masher” gag is essentially a variation on this theme, and it certainly was a tension-building scene when I first saw it in theaters in 1977: four heroes, a yucky, waterlogged environment, a hungry monster, walls that are closing in, and John Williams’ deliberately remorseless and atonal underscore have made this sequence unforgettable. (It also gives Harrison Ford, as Han Solo, some of his more sardonic lines; who can forget dialog like “One thing’s for sure, we’re all gonna be a lot thinner!”)
Knowing that multi-figure Scene Packs are popular with Star Wars collectors, Hasbro released two Death Star Trash Compactor two-figure sets that can be connected to create a diorama that recreates this famous sequence from A New Hope.
Although this is not the first time the trash compactor has been featured in a Kenner/Hasbro Star Wars toy, it is definitely an improvement upon the garbage masher that was the lower level of the 1979 Death Star Action Playset.
The original toy was appealing to me when I was younger and less detail-obsessed, but its scale was too small — I could barely fit three figures in there for display purposes, and for that I had to remove much of the simulated garbage. Worse, Kenner (before its acquisition by rival Hasbro) didn’t release “stormtrooper disguised” figures of either Han Solo or Luke Skywalker until 1984 or so, and by then I was more worried about college and other interests, so attempting to create crude dioramas with the figures I did have seemed to me rather pointless.
The success of the various Star Wars scene packs and two-figure Silver Anniversary commemorative “collectible displayables” spurred Hasbro to release — exclusively through Wal-Mart — the two Death Star Trash Compactor multi-figure sets in late 2002 and early 2003.
Death Star Trash Compactor 1 includes Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and the very detailed tentacle half of the Dianoga. Our heroes are clad in Imperial Stormtrooper armor (as in Death Star Escape), sans face-obscuring helmets and both are struggling mightily to free young Skywalker from the Dianoga’s grip. They are surrounded by piles of realistically-rendered garbage, and their white and black Imperial-issue armor is “weathered” with muck stains from the not-so-clean water in the trash compactor.
Even the facial expressions capture the essence of the scene; Luke is grimacing as though he’s coughing and choking, while Han has a well-sculpted look of concern and urgency as he holds on to his blaster with his right hand and pulls Luke up and out of the water with his left. (Luke, too, holds a blaster in his left hand; his right is struggling with the thick, muscular-looking tentacle of the Dianoga.
Death Star Trash Compactor 2 features Princess Leia and Chewbacca, with the periscope-like eyestalk of the Dianoga thrown in for good measure. Leia, the take-charge Rebel leader who came up with the idea of escaping from the cell bay via the garbage chute in the first place, holds a long metal rod in both hands in a futile attempt to jam the masher’s advancing walls. Her face (which is nicely rendered by Hasbro’s sculptors) reflects both determination and fear, and her simple white gown is “stained” and “wet” (there is a bit of noticeable “cling”) from the dirty, trash-littered water in the trash compactor.
The Chewbacca figure is the nicest 3.75 inch-scale rendition of the Wookiee that I have ever owned. His expression of anxiety is flawless…his white fangs and pink tongue can clearly be seen, and his body posture reflects the big “walking carpet’s” dislike of confined spaces and slimy creatures. Even the smallest detail of the leather ammo pack attached to his bandoliers is nicely done; the pouch looks scuffed and aged, very much like the 20-year-old wallet I still use even though it looks like it will fall apart.
The Dianoga’s brown eyestalk completes the diorama’s more authentic look; it’s been upsized from the 1979 Day-Glo green version to reflect the creature’s proportions as seen in the film. It’s also very detailed — like the tentacle in Death Star Trash Compactor 1 — with its periscope-shaped eye staring out at the observer.
As in all the multi-figure scene packs of Hasbro’s various Star Wars product lines, the dioramas are part plastic bases with the figures already posed, part painted cardboard backdrops that simulate the walls of the trash compactor. Although they can be opened and joined together to create a single diorama, the two sets can also be kept in their original packages, which feature large see -through plastic front panels that allow collectors to enjoy their figures without having to fuss about losing blasters or dusting the figures.
The one “con” I have about Death Star Trash Compactor 1 and 2 is not related to the toy itself. Rather, it’s Hasbro’s rather maddening “exclusive” marketing strategy which parcels out the more desirable collectibles in a haphazard fashion. In this case, Death Star Trash Compactor 1 and 2 are Wal-Mart exclusives, which means (a) there aren’t too many easily available, and (b) scalpers can usually get to Wal-Marts and Wal-Mart Supercenters within microseconds of a shipment arriving and buy up most of the good sets before the regular public even hears of them. I bought one set (the Princess Leia & Chewbacca one) with almost no trouble, but the Luke and Han one was harder to get…in Miami I only saw one, and that one had a damaged package; I own mine only because my then-girlfriend June was living in Tampa in 2003 and she bought me one for my birthday.
As always, while Hasbro recommends this toy for children ages four and up, I’m not sure a child under the age of nine would appreciate the sets’ intricate detailing. Because my sets are, and will remain, sealed, I can’t say for sure, but the figures seem to be sculpted in such a way that they have to keep their pose. The small parts do pose choking hazards for toddlers, and even older kids might find the characters’ fixed expressions limiting in active play.