If it wasn’t for Kenner we may not have gotten toys based on horror, sci-fi, and similar genre fair.
In this day and age of almost every genre franchise getting an action figure, no one would bat an eye at going to a store and seeing a xenomorph toy from the likes of NECA or Super7. At this point, we know figures based on mature properties are aimed at older collectors and they’re usually relegated away from children’s toys. However, once upon a time, the very idea of seeing a toy based on an adult film like Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien was inconceivable.
Though a certain toy company pulled the trigger of not only making a figure of a creature based on artist H.R. Giger’s very own bio-mechanical nightmares, it was marketed towards children. So like the infamous chestburster scene itself, all hell would break loose.
Kids Tested, Mothers Terrified
The 1970s was almost the first era of toys based on licensed properties. From Mego’s massive array of Marvel and DC figures to Mattel’s Shogun Warrior series, kids got to play with a variety of licensed characters for the very first time in history. Though the one common element among these toys as they were based on properties appropriate for children. No parent was gonna bat an eye if they saw their kids playing with Spider-Man or Godzilla. However, 1977 would be one of the biggest years for game-changers for not only toys but pop culture as a whole. With the release of Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, a toy company named Kenner would be the first to release toys based on Star Wars and they would see massive success never seen from toys prior.
Its success was so massive other studios would greenlight other sci-fi projects such as Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica with the hopes of getting that sweet, sweet merchandise money. Not to mention many other toy companies trying to get on the Star Wars and space bandwagon as well, include Kenner themselves wanting to have lightning strike twice. See one thing many kids were going nuts over were the various aliens and creatures from Star Wars a la the Chewbacas or Greedos. So with the desire for more space creature toys, Kenner would set their sights on a little film released from 20th Century Fox, the same studio that brought Star Wars, simply titled Alien.
Released on March 25th, 1979 on an estimated 8-14 million dollar budget, Alien would be a massive success and would truly define the sci-fi/horror genre for the modern era. The film follows a crew of the blue-collar space tug Nostromo as they encounter a horrifying alien organism that gestates within the human body before maturing into adulthood. The film would revolutionize both science fiction and the horror genre for a mature audience with the titular alien Xenomorph becoming a pop culture icon. Such an icon that Kenner decided to make a figure of it…for kids!
So not long after the release of the film, Kenner would unleash merchandise based on Alien including a board game where players had to avoid the Xenomorph, a Movie Viewer that featured a short film called “Alien Terror”, and at the center of their marketing campaign a large 18-inch Xenomorph that had biting jaws, snapping claws, and a glow in the dark skull under a translucent dome. Despite hoping this would match the success of their Star Wars line, the original Alien line would not be that big of a hit as parents outraged at the idea of a toy based on an R-Rated film. Especially with the titular creature having many sexual metaphors, especially with its life cycle representing sexual violence. The figure was also not a huge seller due to quality control issues such as breakable limbs and the head dome getting lost.
Despite the initial negative response, many who had the toy would look fondly on it. For many kids at the time it was their first exposure to both the Alien franchise and sci-fi/horror as a whole. The Xenomorph itself was on its way to becoming monster royalty with the likes of Godzilla and the Universal Monsters pantheon. So to kids playing with the toy ignorant of the context behind the film, the Kenner Alien is no different than a Dracula or Wolf-Man toy. Not to mention Kenner essentially opened Pandora’s Box with making one of first toys marketed towards kids based on an R-Rated film, something that would truly reach a fever pitch within the 1980s.
The Bug Hunt
While the 1970s began the wave of beloved action figures, the 1980s was a tsunami for toys. From He-Man to Transformers, the decade was filled with many lines of action figures both remembered and not so remembered. What elevated this era of toys was the Reagan Administration deregulating TV standards towards children, as such companies created cartoons and other tie-in media as essentially extended commercials. Thus many companies felt every toyline needed a cartoon to be viable.
Also during this time, many R-Rated films were given both the toy and cartoon treatment. One could look at the less-than-stellar success of Kenner’s first Alien line to have emboldened other toy companies in creating toys based on R-Rated properties such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Robocop, Rambo, and even The Toxic Avenger! But the ones that started it all Kenner would jump back in with a certain sequel.
Released in 1986, the long-anticipated sequel to Alien, appropriately titled Aliens, would be released. From filmmaker James Cameron, the film follows Nostromo survivor Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) having to face her nightmares again as she allies herself with the Colonial Marines in the hopes of wiping out the Xenomorph hive once and for all. The film would not only become just as big a hit as its predecessor but essentially became the face of the franchise in the pop culture zeitgeist. The film popularized tropes such as space marines, fighting off alien swarms, and the semi-realistic sci-fi aesthetic of James Cameron. Something Kenner saw a golden opportunity for. Which in hindsight makes sense as you can create so many Xenomorph variants (thanks to the introduction of the Queen), Colonial Marines, and vehicles to make a very sizable toyline.
However, they would truly return to the Alien license until 1992 with the imminent release of Alien 3, Kenner would approach FOX Studios head Margaret Loesch (who helped produce many series such as G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Power Rangers) with a toyline and corresponding animated series based on Aliens called Operation: Aliens. Loesch was interested in the pitch and brought prolific animation studio AKOM Production, Ltd. (Animation Korea Movie) to work on animated commercials while Kenner worked on the toyline.
The basic premise of both the toyline and proposed animated series would follow Ellen Ripley and a band of specialized Colonial Marines hunting down the Xenomorphs and whatever hybrids that were created within the hives. These hybrids included gorillas, snakes, bulls, and scorpions along with each colonial marine having their own roles such as heavy weapons, grenadier, and so on. The toys would even include a mini-comic produced by Dark Horse Comics (who held the comic rights for Aliens). AKOM meanwhile would begin animation for the animated commercial for the toyline. So while Kenner and AKOM went full steam ahead on Operation: Aliens, it would be game over for half the project.
The Alien franchise’s production studio 20th Century Fox declined any support for the animated series. Fearing both heavy network censorship and outrage from parent groups, along with the passing of the Children’s Television Act in 1990, 20th Century Fox would halt all production on the animated Aliens series. See many advocate groups were displeased with the deregulation of the FCC that not only allowed many animated series based on mature films but having them essentially be hour-long commercial blocks. So Congress passed the Children’s Television Act as a response to the outrage. Not to mention that once Alien 3 was released, the film underperformed both commercially and financially, so in Fox’s eyes a massive wave of tie-in media for the Alien franchise was too risky to move ahead. Ironic that the company and film series that began R-Rated kids’ toys would kill the concept. The only bit of evidence of AKOM’s work on Aliens that exists is production stills for an unaired commercial (though there I s along running myth that a tape of the original pilot exists).
Despite the massive setback, Kenner would move forward with their Operation: Aliens toyline (now re-branded simply as Aliens) and would soon receive the license of fellow 20th Century Fox space monster The Predator with its own line of action. Though with the creation of Dark Horse’s Aliens vs. Predator comic, Kenner would merge the toylines together as Aliens vs. Predator to tie-in to the comics’ massive success along with the other tie-in media released such as video games and trading cards. Sadly while Kenner would continue making toys for the Aliens franchise up until Alien: Resurrection before going defunct and merging with Hasbro in 2000.
The Perfect Organism
With the 1990s came the rise of the adult collectors market and toy companies such as NECA, McFarlane Toys, and more. You could go down to your local Target and see dozens of toys based on Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, Terminator, and still to this day Alien. Most parents understand that not every toy is meant for kids and stores would ensure that difference is clear by separating the types of toys. But one shouldn’t scoff at the sheer impact Kenner made to the action figure scene.
If it wasn’t for Kenner we may not have gotten toys based on horror, sci-fi, and similar genre fair or even the very concept of an adult toy market. And for many Kenner’s Alien figures are both looked at fondly and are highly sought after for many fans of the series. Even current toy manufacturers like NECA and Super7 are making figures paying tribute to Kenner’s en-devours either with packaging to even remaking the figures. But that is nothing compared to recently with Lanard making their own Alien toy line marketed towards kids. So while no one can hear you scream in space, that doesn’t exclude the toy aisle.