Guest Blog: A Collector's Trek #1

By James Sawyer - April 07, 2011

The Unproduced Palisades Toys Captain Kirk and Gene Roddenberry Action Figure Set 

The Star Trek collectible market has changed a lot over the years. During the show’s original run in the late 1960’s and through the release of the classic films in the 1980’s, collectors often didn’t know what merchandise was available until they saw it on store shelves. In the days before hobby magazines and Internet sites delivered toy news on a regular basis, folks had very little knowledge of what product was coming down the pipeline. Today, we see pictures of upcoming product months before it actually makes it to retail. These views into the collectible future can be both good and bad. Good in that we can plan for an item’s release; saving our pennies and formulating our toy runs for maximum success. Bad in that every so often an item gets canceled before it gets released, leaving us with empty spots on our shelves and frowns on our faces. Case in point of the bad: the Captain Kirk and Gene Roddenberry action figure set. 

When Playmates Toys ended their initial run with the Star Trek license in 1999, I found myself wondering how long it would be before the franchise would surface once again in toy stores. While the market seemed to have been inundated with Playmates Trek product at the end, there still existed a viable collector market out there ready to spend their money on high-quality Star Trek product. I felt Trek’s return to shelves depended on finding a company willing to view the collector market as their main audience – and not just as an afterthought to the lucrative “kids” market. Some of the folks at Palisades Toys must have been thinking the same thing I was. Palisades made their bid for the franchise in 2001, with an action figure set featuring Captain Kirk, his command chair, and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry as their proposed initial release. Prototypes were manufactured and featured at trade shows, advertisements were published in magazines and solicitations for the pack were circulated throughout the industry. Unfortunately, that’s as far as things went, with the set never making it into full production.

So what happened?

I mean, it’s Captain Kirk and Gene Roddenberry! How could a product that seemingly had so much going for it not make the cut? Furthermore, why didn’t Palisades try releasing any other product during their association with the license?

To answer these questions, we should probably start at the beginning and find out exactly what Palisades’ intentions were with the license. The best man to fill in the gaps in the story is Ken Lilly, the former director and vice president of product development at Palisades. I asked Ken to shed some light on the company’s proposed direction with the Trek license, and here’s what he said:

"We (Palisades) were like most other companies out there who made the kinds of collectibles we did, always looking for a new licensed item we could make. We would have meetings where the entire company would get together in a conference room and throw out ideas of stuff to do. One of those ideas was Star Trek. The initial driving force, and what I think really sold Paramount on letting us do this, was my own desire to make a figure of Gene Roddenberry. I was a big Star Trek fan and a Star Wars fan, and I always liked the George Lucas X-Wing Pilot that had been released by Hasbro. I thought it was a great homage to the creator of the Star Wars Universe. So, for a 35th Anniversary figure, how cool would it be to do a Kirk with Roddenberry and a fully realized, fully detailed command chair? We all liked the idea, thought it would be fun, and we got the license to do it."

The process of bringing this initial concept to store shelves is fairly complicated, with many factors that can affect an item’s production. The first step is developing the concept into a series of sketches, giving the design team a visual reference for their ideas. Once a final design is rendered and approved, the concept sketches are sent to the sculpting department. In the case of the Kirk/ Roddenberry set, two sculptors were assigned to this task; one handling Kirk and Roddenberry, the other handling the fabrication of the command chair. Each sculptor worked out their original sculpts in 2-up scale, meaning the original sculptures are twice the size of the intended production figure. From those sculptures, resin casts were made and painted for approval from the licensor. In the case of the Kirk/ Roddenberry pack, one of the most tedious aspects came about in trying to gain approval on William Shatner’s likeness for the Captain Kirk figure. Lilly fills us in:

“Well, we sent in a beautiful Shatner head sculpt. It looked like a strapping young Kirk from Star Trek’s inaugural season. Shatner’s people reviewed it and requested changes to the piece, delaying us a TON. The final result was sort of an amalgamation of young Shatner and early-movie Shatner. This contributed to us missing the contractual deadline we had. It wasn’t the only reason the piece did not make the deadline, but it was definitely a contributing factor.”

The next obstacle facing the set wasn’t quite as easy to overcome as the likeness approval issues. Since Playmates product had saturated the market in previous years, many large retailers were reluctant to take another chance on Trek. Every major retailer turned the set down. Some smaller retailers wanted to buy the 2-pack, but without the support of the larger chains, Palisades couldn’t justify the cost of production. And so the set was shelved, along with plans Lilly had for other Trek product. As Lilly said:

“We tried to throw our name into the mix for the main license of all the shows and films that Art Asylum eventually got, which then sort of shifted over to Diamond Select. I had a very extensive line plan of figures and resin products and stuff, but in the end Paramount selected AA for the gig.”

As a collector, I’ve always been happy with what Art Asylum and Diamond Select have done with the license… but part of me has always wondered how things would have gone with Palisades. By just looking at the Kirk and Roddenberry figures, one can imagine how nice a full range of product would have looked. And judging by the Palisades Muppets line, the character selection would have probably been immensely expansive. Sadly, we’ll never know how great the line could have been since Palisades closed their doors not too long after the cancellation of the pack. 

All hope isn’t lost for diehard fans of this set, however. While it’s true that the pack never made it into full production, there are a few pieces from the production process that have managed to make their way into the hands of collectors. Original resin 2-up prototypes, unpainted figures, and packaging tests have all shown up for sale in the secondary market. Palisades even had two cases of 12 finalized boxed sets produced by a sample team. These pieces are as close as one can get to owning the actual product, with painted sculpts, accessories, and final packaging all present. Though incredibly rare and usually a bit on the pricey side, prototypes from this set are a great piece of “lost” Trek toy history. And even after all these years, the Palisades Gene Roddenberry is the only known attempt at producing a figure of the “Great Bird of the Galaxy”… 

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Want to read more from James Sawyer about Star Trek products? Check out his blog  - A Piece of the Action.

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