Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bionics in Miniature (Part 2: Steve and His Track Suit)

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4    Part 5    Part 6

Okay, let's see. What's the best way to do this? Almost twenty dolls between the two toy lines and, as long as it takes me to get a single post out, I could spend the rest of my life getting through this series. Not how I've always envisioned the rest of my life.

Hmm... two separate sets of figures, some characters represented in both sets, some not...


Okay. I'll do it like this: Nine separate posts, each covering two dolls, one from each toy line, with the two dolls being the same or similar character when that's possible. (Yessss! My gargantuan pulsing deadmansbrain sees all, and will one day RULE THE WORLD!!!) Wow. "Gargantuan pulsing" could've so easily gone sexual. But it didn't. Lucky us.

So it'll look like 9 more posts:
  • Kenner Steve Austin & BBP Steve Austin with key chain
  • Kenner Steve Austin with Bionic Grip & BBP Steve Austin(s) with Khakis
  • Kenner Steve Austin with Biosonic Arm & BBP Astronaut Steve Austin
  • Kenner Maskatron & BBP Mr. X
  • Kenner Bionic Bigfoot & BBP Bionic Bigfoot
  • Kenner Oscar Goldman & BBP Oscar Goldman
  • Kenner Jaime Sommers & BBP Rudy Wells
  • Kenner Jaime Sommers with Mission Purse & BBP Barney Hiller
  • Kenner Fembot & BBP Fembot
 And, without further ado, we'll get started.

Steve Austin (Kenner 1975)

So, Kenner's first Steve Austin doll hit the shelves in 1975, during the show's second (or possibly third) season. (I say possibly third, as I don't have specific months for doll releases, but 1975 encompassed the last half of the show's second season and the first half of its third season. So there.)

Steve originally came in a box like this:

My doll doesn't have its box, so here's what I see when I peer up at him on his top shelf (to keep him safe from the nieces and nephews):

Steve, version one, and his convenient-for-lifting engine block.

FYI: Photos of the dolls will be from my collection, whenever possible, 'cause it's just more fun that way.

So, Doll-Steve is 13 inches tall, the tallest action figure manufactured to that point. (Hasbro's G.I. Joe came in close, at 12 inches, but close is no cigar in the world of action figure one-upmanship.) He's dressed in a wee version of the red track suit Lee Majors wore in the first SMDM TV movie called, appropriately enough, The Six Million Dollar Man.

Faster than a speeding automobile in second gear. Maybe even third.

As an aside, that TV movie first aired in March of 1973. As mentioned previously, it was adapted from the novel Cyborg , and was Steve's "origin story." From what I understand, this first movie was a stand alone ABC Movie of the Week, rather than an actual series pilot. It did well enough for the studio to okay another two movies as part of the short-lived ABC Suspense Movie lineup, and it was while these two movies were airing that talk of a one hour series materialized. I know this because I read this book.

Back to the doll and his groovy track suit: All cloth; he's got a tiny sweatshirt, tiny sweatpants, tiny white athletic socks, and tiny red sneakers. His little red undies are plastic and molded onto his body, so you could undress him and still keep him decent if your little sister walked in the room unannounced.

Let's see... points of articulation: That's always a big deal in these circles, at least for kids, who actually play with the dolls and want to get them into cool action-y poses. Doll-Steve has joints at the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, hips, knees and ankles. Pretty standard for action figures back in the day. These days, a lot of action figures are marketed toward collectors rather than kids, and looking cool in the default display pose is favored over actually being able to move into various play positions. (Although the new Bif Bang Pow! dolls actually buck this trend, having more articulation than these older dolls.)

There are three things of note about his articulation, that changed from version to version.

First, in this version all three of his "bionic" limbs were removable and his "natural" left arm was not. Now, this is extremely cool. You could re-enact Steve's plane crash and subsequent injuries--do the whole "we can rebuild him" thing. Okay, maybe that's a little gruesome for an eight year old kid to be doing. But if I was doing it, so were other kids. I hope.

Post-crash Doll-Steve vs. Post-crash TV-Steve.

Notice Doll-Steve's bionic underpants (click on the above images to see larger ones). His waistband is all full of little electronic circuits and things. Not sure what was up with that.

Anyway,  the second thing of note with this doll's articulation is that his non-removable arm sports a ball joint at the shoulder, giving it a nice natural range of motion. Pity his other limbs didn't do the same. I chalk it up to 1970s bionics being pretty amazing, but not quite capable of duplicating the full human range of motion.

I am strong and have a cool ball joint, but the slightest uneven surface foils me.

The third articulation-thing, is that this doll's ankles moved only front to back, not side to side. This meant ol' Steve couldn't get out of that standing-at-attention-in-the-military posture, and thus could be a little unsteady on his feet. (Hence the doll stand in these photos.)

Thus ends the articulation discussion, and on we go to other cool play features like the bionic eye, roll-up bionic skin and Bionic Power Arm! First let's sadly note that, other than the ability to remove them, his bionic legs had no features whatsoever. Too bad. The Jaime Sommers doll that came out a year later had bionic features in its legs, why not Steve?

But let's not focus on the man's deficiencies. How 'bout that sweet arm, huh?

Completely indistinguishable from actual skin; no bionic modules here, folks.

Kenner marketed it as Steve's Bionic Power Arm. It had rubber skin you could roll up from the wrist so as to uncover and remove its "bionic modules." Could anything be cooler than this to a little 70s kid? Probably not. Check out this rubber-roll-up action:

Pretty nifty, huh? Now, you may be saying to yourself, "that rubber skin looks nothing like the 'skin' on his other arm." And you'd be right in saying it.

Originally, these dolls all shipped with a fairly hardy rubber skin sleeve that more or less matched the rest of the dolls' coloring. They were also thick enough to hide the outlines of the bionic modules underneath. Sure, they might tear or break under hard-kid-play after awhile, but what toy doesn't have that problem? One thing they were NOT designed to do though, is not disintegrate after 40 years. So any dolls you come across today look like this:

40 years after the bionics maintenance lab shut its doors for good.

That's not cool. There are a few folks out there who provide custom and not-so-custom made replacement arm skins. The not-so-custom guys send you a skinny flesh-tone balloon with both ends cut off and say "go for it"! The custom guys actually make little arm skins through various methods.
I've gone the balloon route and it was less than satisfactory.

Post-balloon,  I found a guy in the UK who makes 'em from scratch and had him send me a bunch. Apart from not being as tough as I'd like (two or three broke trying to get them over the doll's arm) and not quite matching in coloring, they're okay. Better than balloons, anyway. It did take three months of chasing the guy down via email to finally get the skins delivered to me. Not sure it that's his normal M.O. or not.

Other than having cool roll-up skin and removable bionic modules, what did this Bionic Power Arm do? Why, it powerfully lifted toy engine blocks with convenient handles on them and other small objects, of course! And how did it do that? By using the extremely unsubtle lever sticking out of Doll-Steve's back. (Awkward!)

At least that lever matches his underwear.

But don't worry, all his outfits had a little cutout in the back for this thing to stick through. All you had to do to use this feature was stick something in Doll-Steve's bionic hand, turn his head toward his bionic arm as far as it would go, and push that little lever. Again, and again and again. It took a lot of repetitive pushing to see much movement, as the arm only lifted a fraction of an inch with each press. But when said heavy lifting was finished, just turn the head the other way and the arm lowers right down.

Now, the lever does look clunky, but you gotta admit the engineering of the thing is actually pretty cool. If Steve is looking to the left or straight ahead, his bionic arm has free range of motion for play time. Turn it to the right, and it's ready for heavy lifting. Best of both worlds.

 Okay. Almost ready to wrap up our look at Kenner's Steve. Just one more thing to talk about--his amazing bionic eye!

Looks like something you'd see in a Hammer Frankenstein movie.

Sure, it looks like something out of a horror film to me, now. But I don't remember being bothered by it in the least, as a kid. Could that be because being able to actually look through a bionic eye was so freaking cool?! (That is exactly why, my friend.) Looking through said bionic eye was accomplished by squinting into Doll-Steve's other horror film feature, that gunshot-wound-looking hole in the back of his head.
Not even a bionic man could withstand that injury!

Now, anyone who's ever actually done this knows that instead of seeing Steve's telescopic zoom vision in action, you actually get a blurry far-away view of whatever is in front of the doll's head. Really just the opposite of what a real bionic hero would see. But this discrepancy is completely swallowed up by the wonder any 70s kid experienced at being able to see anything at all via doll-vision. This was incredibly cool when you were seven. Trust me.

Try it for yourself: Here's Doll-Steve looking across the table at a Mego Superman, who happened to be passing by.

Could be Mego Superman, could be a kid in a Halloween costume. Who can tell?

You're welcome to click on the image and see it, bigger. For all the good it'll do you. This is as good as Doll-Steve's bionic vision gets. Still. You're seeing through a doll's eye! That gets major points in my book, and Quint just loves it. And may I just tell you: I took about 8,000 pictures, with my little phone camera, to get one lousy result even this good. Kept focusing on the back of his head, or on the little plastic shavings inside of his head. Never doing that again. This pic is the lone-wolf-holy-grail.

Whew! That's it for Kenner's Steve Austin. I'm really hoping future posts will go quicker, with all the introductory information out of the way.

Let's take a look at the Bif Bang Pow! Steve Austin.

Steve Austin with Red Track Suit (Bif Bang Pow! 2012)

So, first off, I have to say that while this doll line was released much more recently, I'm less sure on the actual date of each doll's release. I know, that sounds counter-intuitive. After all, the line's not 40 years old, right? But, while the Kenner dolls suffer from all sorts of web-misinformation as far as release dates and which doll appeared when, I was able to find a few fairly reliable sources that all matched up as far as release year.

For the BBP dolls, I couldn't find any definitive release schedules, so I more or less went by reading other blog posts, getting a consensus of when people started talking about each doll and guessing its general release date from there. As far as I know, the line began in 2012 and finished in 2014, but I don't know for sure which order dolls were released in and all that.

Heck, I only found out about this doll line on Christmas morning of 2014 (an Oscar Goldman as a present from my oldest boy). Of course,  I was forced by my nostalgia to go out and hunt the rest of the dolls down in early 2015. Okay, dates disclaimer is finished.

Now, unlike the Kenner line, these dolls weren't put out for kids at all. They were created for and marketed to adult collectors, who had loved the TV show and probably owned the Kenner dolls when they were kids themselves. The dolls are all 8 inch, Mego-style, as opposed to the larger format Kenner went with. Other differences between the two lines quickly become obvious, in that these dolls are more cheaply made and definitely wouldn't stand up to heavy kid play. Which is okay, I guess, since they're not really intended for heavy play.

But still, these dolls feel fragile, often coming out of the package with too-tight, too-loose, or ill-fitting joints, and I had to repair more than one piece of clothing that tore during initial post-purchase inspections. (Which always involves carefully removing clothes to check out articulation and body-style, right?)

So my guess is you won't see a lot of these dolls lying around (in one piece) 40 years from now. And if it sounds like I'm complaining about the penny-pinching likely involved in the production of these dolls, I guess I am.

I also get that Bif Bang Pow! is a much smaller company than Kenner was, had less money to work with, and knew they weren't going to sell a huge number of these dolls anyway. And I think they worked pretty hard to pack as many cool features into them as possible within the cost limitations they had. And I do think they did a nice job, overall. These dolls may not be Kenner-quality or Kenner-cool, but they are a heartfelt homage to the Kenner line and to the TV show itself.

As for my BBP collection, I have all the packaging they came with, but I display them outside it. (That's just cooler and more fun, to me.) But here's a look at the packaging anyway. It didn't vary for the most part, from figure to figure, other than figure name.

And finally... we get to Bif-Doll-Steve, as he self-importantly stands about on his shelf:

"I am small and cheaply made, yet still glowing with cool-factor."

The first thing I notice about this Steve, after his 8 inch height and slightly too-large head, is that he has two regular-looking, painted on doll eyes. No bionic vision here, folks. But, while bionic doll vision is cool, it is kind of nice to have a more human looking Steve, this time around. And as far as clothing goes, this is a nice little track suit: little tiny top, little tiny bottoms, little tiny shoes, all removable.

While this Steve may not have a frightening eye-lens, rubber skin or a big red lever sticking out of his back, he's not completely bereft of bionic features. One of which is slightly hinted at if you take a close look at his right wrist, above.

Let's strip him down for a closer look:

The other guy doesn't have a monopoly on little red undies....

Ah ha! The fellow has some high tech after all, in the form of clear plastic bionic limbs with wee electronic circuits painted on them.

Tough to see from any sort of distance; let's take an even closer look:

And... that's it. That's as far as the bionic features go.

With no rubber roll-up skin to hide his mechanics, this Steve could never go to a beach without everyone knowing he was bionic. But then, Kenner's Steve couldn't go anywhere at all without people freaking out over that giant bionic eye-lens and the hole in the back of his head. So I guess they both had their difficulties.

Couple of other similarities/differences I notice: This Steve has the red undies, but with no electronic waistband, and the undies are painted on. 70s Steve's entire pelvis was molded red plastic. Also, this Steve's little white athletic socks are painted onto his feet, rather than being actual cloth.

As mentioned earlier, the articulation on this fellow is actually a step or two up from the 70s doll. He's got joints at the neck, shoulders, biceps, elbows, wrists, waist, hips, knees and ankles. The shoulders, waist, and hips are all ball jointed, which (in theory) makes little Steve even more flexible than his older, bigger brother.

I say "in theory," because the BBP dolls are all held together via bands inside their torsos, and most suffer from bands that are way too tight. Tight bands give you a doll that often won't hold it's position once you let go of it. Even worse, it can be scary to try and force a doll into position in the first place, for fear those bands will snap under pressure.

That's really about it for the doll itself. Now, in effort to make up for his bionic featurelessness, Bif-Doll-Steve did come with an accessory. Not one you could actually use during play, like a doll-sized engine block. But again, I give BBP points for trying, here.

I guess you could pretend it's a big tombstone and have Steve lift it up?

No, it's not Steve Austin's tombstone. It's a key chain that makes bionic sounds. And while I would personally prefer an accessory that's directly play-with-able, this is pretty cool in its own right. Each time you push that little button, you hear one of the following, in this order, from its tiny speaker:
  • Oscar Goldman saying "We can rebuild him. We have the technology."
  • Oscar saying "Better... Stronger... Faster."
  • The bionic strength sound
  • The bionic eye sound
 Now that I think about it, you could actually use this during play, as a soundtrack. At least the bionic sounds. So that's cool.

And that's it. SMDM post number 2 completed. Next time I'll take a look at Kenner's Steve Austin with Bionic Grip, and BBP's Steve Austin(s) with Khakis.

Until then.


  1. This is well written, both an informative and fun read.

    Well done.

  2. Brand new socks and skin: