Friday, January 29, 2016

Bionics in Miniature (Part 5: In Which We Meet Mr. X)

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

Annnd... back to bionics! And this is an especially exciting post, since we'll be talking about the SMDM episode "Day of the Robot," which both Kenner and Bif Bang Pow! used as inspiration for the dolls we'll be looking at as well.

Hmm. You might even say this episode of the SMDM series was their... Dollsperation. (Hey! Wocka Wocka!) Okay, that just makes it sound like I'm talking about sweaty dolls--not what I was going for.

Anyway. It just so happens DotR is one of my all time favorite SMDM episodes, and the 2 dolls it inspired are darn cool as well. So let's dive right in.

Day of the Robot (Universal Television 1974)

Okay, so you'll get no argument from me when you say the SMDM TV show can come off a tiny bit unsophisticated and silly by today's standards. But watching it as a kid made my heart stop on a regular basis, and there weren't too many episodes that got me more excited than this one. It was only the fourth episode of the first season, so everyone was still fresh, creatively speaking, and excited about what they were doing. (As opposed to the last season or two, when everyone... wasn't.)

Anyway, let's walk through the episode:

Oscar Goldman has given Steve the assignment of helping (Steve's) old buddy Fred deliver one piece of an anti-missile gadget he's invented to a military base. The other piece is already at the base, but the gadget is useless until both pieces are combined.

There's a Bad Guy afoot, who wants this whole anti-missile thing for himself, so he's done the logical thing and gone out and hired himself a... Robot Maker. Can't be many of those in the Yellow Pages. The plan is to kidnap Fred as he and Steve drive to the base, and replace him with a robot duplicate. ( ! ) Then, once they're at the base, the robot will steal both parts of the anti-missile gadget and deliver them back to Bad Guy on a silver platter. This plan is nothing if not ambitious.

We get our first look at the robot as Robot Maker shows him off to Bad Guy, and they're playing the scene all mysterious-like, making us wait for the big reveal. First we get a shot of Robot Maker telling his weightlifter-henchman to go lift this barbell over his head. Well, he just can't do it--it's TOO heavy. Then an assistant brings in "Mr. X." We only see Mr. X from the back as he's led over to the barbell and then--BOOM--lifts it over his head one-handed.

"Wow, Mr. X really is strong," we think to ourselves. So then Bad Guy walks over, asks him a few test questions, and then we get the big reveal as he turns around and we see...

Mr. X has got no Face. (eek!)

We're still friends, aren't we?

Back to the story: Fred and Steve have set out for the base, which is several hours away by car, and pretty soon Fred is feeling sick due to the spiked coffee one of Bad Guy's henchman slipped him earlier on. They pull into a roadside service station, and when Fred walks around back to use the facilities, he takes a sap to the back of the neck and it's the robot who comes back out and gets into the car with Steve.

Now this robot (whom the bad guys always refer to as Mr. X or just "the robot," but I will refer to as Not-Really-Fred) looks just like Fred, so no problem there. But I am here to tell you, whenever someone bothers to speak to Not-Really-Fred, he stands/sits in silence for literally one to two seconds before answering. I'm guessing this is because all his programming is stored on those big 1970s reel-to-reel tape computers we see back at Robot Maker's lab, and it takes a little time to get the right tape to the right place for a proper response.

No one actually says that's what's going on, but we keep getting these cut scenes: person asks Not-Really-Fred a question/Not-Really-Fred sits silently/cut to computer tape whirring madly/cut back to Not-Really-Fred still sitting silently/Not-Really-Fred answers. So I figure that must be what's up. Then again, maybe the cut scenes are just for dramatic purposes and it's not really taking him that long to answer, in-scene.

At any rate, poor conversation skills are the least of Not-Really-Fred's problems, as we soon see. A few minutes back into the drive, Steve notices a car has been behind them since they left the station and suggests Fred let it pass. Not-Really-Fred responds with "You weren't so nervous in the old days Steve," but lets his foot off the gas so the car can go around them, which it does.

Unfortunately, Not-Really-Fred's foot malfunctions and won't press on the gas again, and pretty soon the car is only doing 35. Steve says maybe they should speed it up a little, and Not-Really-Fred just kind of ignores him while Robot Maker's technicians are freaking out trying to get the foot working again. When they finally do, Not-Really-Fred's foot slams pedal-to-metal and he ends up crashing them into a ditch at 80 MPH.

Steve is getting suspicious.

So the car is stuck now and Steve, instead of having Not-Really-Fred stay behind the wheel to gun the engine while he stealthily lifts the front of the car out of the ditch, decides to just lift it right in front of Not-Really-Fred, totally letting him (and all the bad guys watching on the robot-cam) in on his bionic strength. And then the next thing you know, Not-Really-Fred inexplicably imitates Steve by lifting the back of the car out of the ditch. Steve is just looking at him, dumbfounded, when he asks "Did I do it right, Steve?"

Steve lifts one-handed...(robot-cam)...Not-Really-Fred uses two.

Steve is getting really suspicious.

Well, it turns out Not-Really-Fred was originally trained to imitate Robot Maker, and there must have been a trace of that programming left in his memory bank (oops). That's what Robot Maker tells Bad Guy back at the lab, anyway.

You know, this car thing has me thinking. I've seen or read more than one guy-becomes-cyborg story where the surgeons were able to save an arm but the shadowy powers that be said "lose the arm, it'll be more effective with two cyborg arms." And while those people are always portrayed as unfeeling jerks, you gotta admit, Steve here, would be a lot more effective at lifting and doing cyborgy things in general with two robotic arms.

I'm just saying what we're all thinking.

So back in the car, Steve and Not-Really-Fred are driving along in strained silence, while Steve works really hard not to ask Fred what the HELL just happened back there in the ditch. Back at the lab, this whole car-lifting thing has freaked Bad Guy out and he wants to stall for time while he thinks things through. So he tells Robot Maker to have Not-Really-Fred feign sickness and get Steve to stop at a motel for the night. Which is what happens. During the night, Steve sneaks outside for a quick call to Oscar. He tells him about he and Fred's mutual car lifting, and Oscar is like "WTF?" but says he'll check into it.

Now Oscar is getting suspicious.

The next day, Steve and Not-Really-Fred are back on the road and Bad Guy has decided it's probably safest to kill Steve before he and Not-Really-Fred reach the base. So he's got not only a car full of henchmen but also a helicopter full of henchmen following them, and he's rigged their tire to blow when he gives the word. Bad Guy figures that Steve will pull over to change it and his henchmen will put him six feet under.

Well, as the henchmen are trying to get close enough in their car to blow Steve's tire with their remote, he notices and says "There's a car following us," to which Not-Really-Fred responds, "You weren't so nervous in the old days Steve." Huh? Steve is thinking that response sounds awfully familiar, so right quick he says it again, as a test: "There's a car following us." And, sure enough, Not-Really-Fred comes right back a second time with "You weren't so nervous in the old days Steve."

Aha! Now Steve is really onto him; something seriously weird is going on here.

But before he can do anything about it, those henchmen blow the tire and he and Not-Really-Fred skid off the road. As they get out to assess the damage, Not-Really-Fred clubs Steve on the back of the head, takes the anti-missile doohickey (remember that thing?) and heads for the missile base.

Bad Guy sends a henchman back to make sure Steve is dead, but Steve kills the henchman by flipping the flat-tired-car over onto him. Which not only serves him right, it's also one of the very few times we see Steve actually kill anyone in the SMDM series. What killing he did was early on, before the network said to tone things down for the kids. So enjoy it while you got it.

Up...(aieee!)...and over.

Anyway, Steve heads for the base on foot. At the base, Oscar is trying to convince the military something's hinky with Fred, but they won't listen. He looks like Fred, he's got Fred's fingerprints, so they tell Oscar to go fly a kite. Too bad they didn't listen--a few minutes later Not-Really-Fred steals the anti-missile gadget, and runs like a banshee to meet his getaway helicopter. (He has this cool way of running, with his arms mostly down at his sides, all robot-like and stuff.) Anyway, Steve gets to the chopper just as Not-Really-Fred does, and they start going to town on each other.

Now, this is one of the coolest fight scenes in the history of SMDM and it just needs to be watched if you've never seen it. It goes for nearly six and a half minutes, and Steve spends most of it on the defensive, running away and trying to keep Not-Really-Fred from beating him to a pulp. At one point Not-Really-Fred takes a shot to the head that forcibly removes his face plate and Steve gets the big he's-a-robot reveal.

Android vs. Cyborg
How cool is that?
Not-Really-Fred's tan parka
suddenly has green sleeves.
Not in the face! Not in the face!

Pretty soon, Steve's non-bionic arm takes a hit and he looks to be going down for the count. But just when things are looking their worst, Steve is able to grab a nearby steel beam and impale Not-Really-Fred with it, putting him out of commission for good. Then Steve walks (limps) over, picks up Not-Really-Fred's life mask, and shows it to the camera. Well, he's supposed to just be looking at it in disbelief himself, but it looks too cool to pass up the chance to show it to the audience as well, so....

Argh! Ya got me! Arrrr....It does looks cool, right?

With Not-Really-Fred vanquished, we head back to Oscar's office in Washington, where we learn Bad Guy and all his henchmen have been caught... but Robot Maker is still out there, alluding there may be more robotic shenanigans to come.

So Steve has assumed Fred was killed by the bad guys, and when he goes out for a mourning-my-dead-friend walk, ends up at the place he'd last seen Fred before all this robot stuff went down. But then, who does he spy with his bionic eye? It's Fred, sitting at a picnic table, all hungover and confused. Apparently the bad guys had kept him drugged the whole time and he eventually woke up in the deserted lab and wandered out. So it's a happy ending for Steve and his old pal Fred.

Ah, that was fun. Great show. And in spite of it's obvious weaknesses, it gets high marks for enjoyment factor alone. Now then, what do you suppose Kenner did after the head of their bionic doll department saw this episode?

Let's find out.

Maskatron (Kenner 1976)

This little beauty came out in 1976, a good two years after DotR first aired, so my guess is it wasn't really a case of Kenner's SMDM toy department head seeing the show and making the doll because he was so darn impressed. Actually, truth be told, I've never run across anything that definitively says the doll was based on the episode. But come on, how could it not be? Anyway, there's a ton of anecdotal evidence to that effect wandering around the internet, so it must be true after all.

Okay, let's take our first look at Maskatron as he proudly stands on my shelf.

Chills and Danger lurk within evil darkness, in this Tale of the Weird!

I think this guy wins the prize for Kenner doll with most accessories in the box. Nah, on second thought, that honor probably goes to Oscar Goldman or Jaime Sommers with Mission Purse. We'll get to them. But still, Maskatron is no slouch in the accessory department, if such a department exists. I used to have a box for this guy, but kind of in name only. It was so dilapidated when I got the doll I had to do a lot of taping to keep it mostly in one piece, and even then it looked like crap. So I eventually (with a tear in my eye) tossed it out.

But in case you were wondering, here's what ol' Maskatron looked like on the store shelf back in the day. Nowhere on or in the packaging will you see anything that actually ties this doll to the SMDM DotR episode. (Including their choice of name--who the heck came up with Maskatron, for cryin' out loud?)

First in line for discussion are those nifty masks. (I guess Maskatron isn't that ridiculous of a name, after all.) Now this was a cool, cool feature for 70s kids. Three dolls in one! Well, not quite, but certainly one doll disguised as three different people. You got a Steve Austin mask, an Oscar Goldman mask and a--uh--Maskatron mask. That last one has been noted to look suspiciously like John Saxon, the actor that played the robot in DotR. I'm not seeing it, to be honest, but then none of these dolls ever had an exact likeness, anyway.

Okay. Now we're gonna have to pause while I compare these masks to the actual dolls to the actors themselves. Only take a minute. You won't be sorry.

Kenner SteveLee SteveMaskatron Steve

Woof. A little hard to tell what's going on with that Maskatron face; I cropped way in on an image I already had and it's pretty grainy. But looking past that, (and ignoring that garish eyehole Kenner Steve is sporting) I'm going to go out on a limb and say Maskatron Steve looks more like Lee Majors than Kenner's actual Steve doll. Kenner Steve also looks like Lee Majors, but in a more cartoony kind of way. I think, at least.

Kenner OscarRichard OscarMaskatron Oscar

Whew. Gotta give this one to the original doll, right? That Maskatron face looks nothing like Richard Anderson. (I ripped these two Oscar doll faces off from an online forum, rather than take more pictures myself. Lazy sod.) Anyway, neither doll is really that great a likeness, but Kenner Oscar definitely wins out over Maskatron.

Hah. Couldn't resist.John Saxon MaskatronMaskatron Maskatron

Well.... I'm still not seeing John Saxon anywhere in that Maskatron mask. I don't know, they both kind of have long, extra-prominent eyebrows. So maybe someone was trying to get close but not lawsuit close. Probably we'll never know the truth of it.

Okay. Back to the doll itself. Let's strip him down and see him in all his robot glory.

This guy is robot metal all the way......not an ounce of plastic flesh on him.

Nice. I can't help but think how cool the Steve dolls would have been if they'd had rubber roll back skin and metallic silver engraved circuits on all three bionic limbs. That would've been cool, indeed. Cost prohibitive, I'm sure, plus all my Steves would then have had three limbs with rotted rubber stuck all over them when I first came across them. Sure would have cleaned up nice, though. Meh, then I would have had to spring for three times the replacement skin sleeves, too. Still, a guy can dream.

Anyway, this doll was full of features. Not only did he have a cool robot face with three interchangeable masks; not only did he have three cool robotic circuits that could be popped out of his chest plate; not only did he have cool metallic skin under his clothes; he had all these pressure points that Steve could hit when fighting him and bust him to pieces! No lie! (Kind of ironic, really, since Steve pretty much got his ass handed to him by the robot in DotR. No battering into pieces going on there.)

So here's what all came off: both lower legs, both lower arms, and the head. Notice the two little black buttons on each of the doll's shoulders, biceps and thighs? The upper buttons are the pressure points--hit those and off comes the appendage. The lower buttons are locking mechanisms, so you can lock him down and not have his limbs and head popping off every time you try to pick him up.

More than that, the doll's upper arms and legs could also be taken off (same way the Steve dolls' could). So, between pressure points, upper limbs and chest plate modules, this doll could be downright deconstructed. Thirteen pieces! Check this out:

I fall to pieces
Each time I see you again
I fall to pieces
How can I be just your friend?

Oh, and you know that rectangular seam on Maskatron's back? That would be the secret compartment he uses for carrying around an extra mask or two. Well, only one mask at a time fits in there, and you have to pretend his torso wouldn't actually be jammed full of robotic wires and gizmos in real life. But it's still a darn cool feature.

If that's not a creepy sight, I don't know what is.

Well. As if all this wasn't enough, Maskatron still isn't done showing off his accessories. He's got two more to go, and those would be his two robotic appendage arms. One was a grasping claw (cool), and the other was a suction cup arm (lame) that he could (theoretically) use to hang from a smooth wall or window pane.

The grasper is not only cool, but useful in a doll fight. Picture that thing tearing off a bionic arm and holding it up in triumph. The suction cup? Afraid it doesn't have a lot to offer in the doll machismo department. But hey, it's his only questionable feature/accessory out of all the stuff we've covered, so I'm willing to give it a pass.

And by the way, everywhere I look online, I see pictures (and even a few conversations) in disagreement about which way Maskatron's shirt is supposed to go: buttons in front or in back. You even see pictures of him inside his original packaging with the shirt on one way or the other, and there's always some commenter saying "you've got his shirt on backwards," no matter which way it's actually on. The official advertising is no help; it always shows him with no shirt on at all.

But here's my take on it. Far as I can tell, Maskatron actually shipped without the shirt on, all the better to show off his manly robot-ness, like so:

But I figure that's a turtleneck he's wearing (which would look weird buttoning up the front), and I bet Kenner's intent was that the buttons go in the back so it was easier for 70s kids to get at that secret mask compartment when needed. Am I right or am I right?

Okay, I guess that's about it for ol' Maskatron. Quite a doll, isn't he?

Nothing left to do now but post an image of his instruction sheet,  just because I came across it online and I think it's cool. Here it is.

Like most all the images around here, you can click on these and see them gimantic-size. And what's with that note saying you can stick his arms in his legs but can't stick his legs in his arms? Pretty sure even as a 70s kid my sense of order wouldn't have allowed me to do that.

Anyway, we're done with Maskatron, but not quite done with the post. Why not? Well, what about Bif Bang Pow's robot doll?

Read on.

Mr. X Robot (Bif Bang Pow! 2013, but not really)

Sadly this part will be short because this particular doll was never actually produced. And that's really too bad, 'cause the pictures of the prototype I found online (from Toy Fair 2013 in New York City) look pretty awesome. Check 'em out:

The first cool thing to notice here is it's not a bad likeness of John Saxon, right? I mean, it's not perfect but it's a hell of a lot closer than any of the other dolls BBP produced. And the second cool thing is, hello, two heads for the price of one! Way to go, BBP!

But on the down side, those robot innards you can see through the torn jacket are just printed onto the red shirt fabric underneath, versus being molded into the body itself. And my guess is, since they're not making a point of showing it off, there's nothing in the way of actual robotic features on the doll body at all. Which would have been way cooler, but hey, we all know BBP was working on a budget. What they're doing here is pretty darn cool in it's own right.

It also looks like ol' Mr. X was suffering from that same Big Head Syndrome most of the other BBP SMDM dolls did, poor saps. That outfit is pretty close to dead on, though. I think it was a red checkered shirt that Saxon wore at the end of the episode, but other than that detail this doll's outfit is spot on.


My guess is they made just a few of these proof of concept dolls and there are a few really lucky BBP employees with one on the mantle at home. Maybe someday I'll run across one on eBay, going for 500 bucks. And I'll pass on it because, it's going for 500 bucks. Sigh.

Anyway, that's it for this guy. We're all done until I come back for Part 6 of the series, when I'll take a look at... BIONIC BIGFOOT(S)!

Until then.


  1. Hi,

    my review about Maskatron:


  2. Nice. Looks interestingly-long and well-photoed. Unfortunately, I don't speak French and Google Translate is getting hung up on the Adults Only page your blog brings up before the post loads, so I haven't been able to actually read the thing. I'll keep poking around to see if I can get it to translate for me and give it a proper read-through....

  3. Ah! A Firefox add on got me around the translation issues. Great post, Shogun, and looks like you've got a lot of other fantastic stuff to browse through, there. I'll definitely take a look around. Loved the whole Oscar Face Duplication bit. Hah!