Wednesday, February 08, 2006
The Complete, Stupid History of Jabba's Dungeon Playset
Today we're going to take a look at a vintage Star Wars playset that even some of the bigger enthusiasts may have overlooked. While chances are good that by the time this site's done I'll have covered every Star Wars item out there from toothbrushes to figurine hand soaps, this particular example is interesting because it shows just how odd and deep all this Star Wars lore crap can actually run. By the way, for those asking about trades and whatnot: no, I no longer collect the figures. It was a good way to pass the time when I had office jobs and generally hated my friends, but at this stage of the game, my extra 20 dollar bills are better served going towards things like socks and the occasional Pokemon DVD. But, in the same way some 35-year-olds maintain that KISS is still a viable musical treat, I'm probably more loyal to Lucas' achievements than my own family. Most of the toys I talk about here on the site were sold off a few years ago, but my Star Wars junk still remains. I can't bring myself to part with it, no matter how many times I open my closet door and a giant AT-AT falls on my head.
That said, its nice to know that we're helping inspire a new generation of collectors to go out and waste their money on toys. You've got to understand how this collecting thing actually works. Its not like all us 20- and 30-somethings still like to pit battles between 3" action figures under our blankets before we go to sleep. Its just a way to keep it close. I'm sure a lot of you out there wear shirts bearing the logo of your favorite sports teams. Well, we can't do that. If we wore Star Wars shirts outside, we'd generally be met with disgusted glances and punches to the stomach. Since we can't have that, we pledge our allegiance through the toys instead.
Of course, if you're buying that for one second and don't believe that we just really like toys, then I really should've followed my original instincts back in college and made headway into the field of law. But I digress: tonight's point of interest: Jabba's Dungeon Playset.
I'm thoroughly convinced that the whole concept of Jabba the Hutt was a way for George Lucas to vent out all his innermost perversions. Think about it - Jabba wasn't just your everyday alien gangster slug. He enslaves women, puts them in bikinis and forces them to dance for him. I'd presume, off-camera, he does more than that. When the girl gets on his nerves, he feeds her to a giant monster in his basement, laughing the whole way through. He eats live frogs, drinks heavily, doesn't wear any clothes, and has absolutely no subtlety when he gets gas. The whole thing's pretty sick when you think about it, but at least the guy got Carrie Fisher half naked before the drugs really took their toll. On that merit alone, it wouldn't matter if they guy spent the first trimester of Return of the Jedi throwing shit at the walls, he'd still be sort of a cult hero.
But Jabba's intricate web of evil ran a little deeper than scantily clad chicks with tentacles and frog food - he also liked to torture droids. Let's take a trip to his dungeon and see what goes on behind closed doors.
When C-3P0 and R2-D2 find themselves as pawns in the Rebellion's master plan to rescue Han from Jabba's clutches, they're forced to serve the crime lord for a brief period. Smartly, Luke never mentioned what a reeking filthhole the place was, otherwise the robots would've probably bailed. Jabba appoints 3P0 as his new interpreter. You know, the guy who makes sense of such lines as 'Bo Shuda.' Its a tough job, but if 3P0's skills give him the ability to use French phrases and tell stories to Ewoks, I'm sure he can handle this. Meanwhile, R2 is fitted with a tray and serves as a portable bar for the vast array of camel-headed aliens who might need a drink on Jabba's sail barge. In both cases, the job takes skill. But I'm not so sure the droids are used to failure penalties like the one pictured above.
In short, when a droid pisses Jabba off, he doesn't just turn it off. Instead, he sends it downstairs and has it disintegrated. Its negative reinforcement, you see. Still, I'm not sure what Jabba has to gain from destroying valuable robots that could easily be sold off, but let's face it, he's just a mean guy. The most amazing part about all this? Kenner actually marketed and sold a playset based on this 5-second scene!
I should mention that the aforementioned movie scene isn't necessarily what this playset is based on. The playset, as a whole, sucks. I could easily spout out five scenarios from the ROTJ that would've been better suited for the Kenner cash-in, which leaves the question: why was this one made? If you think it was a way for Kenner to get rid of some of the more unpopular figures, you may be partly right. The real reason is something different altogether, but we'll get to that in a minute. First, a look at what this playset actually was.
Essentially, it was a hard plastic base with a few hooks and plastic parts to aid animism experts with their droid torture. The playset retailed for less than 15 bucks, which was pretty cheap even for back then, especially considering that it came with three action figures. Of course, these figures weren't the ones topping many children's' wish lists.
You have to remember, there were nearly 100 different Star Wars figures by the time the original series ceased profitibility in 1984/85. Very few kids had parents willing to buy 100 action figures, so we just picked the ones we liked the most. Suffice to say, few kids threw their support to the many ugly aliens seen for 3.5 seconds in Jabba's Palace. The Dungeon included 8D8, the 'torture droid.' His job was to apply hot irons to the feet of the bad robots of Jabba's court. Total onscreen appearance didn't surpass seven seconds, but since he's a robot, we'll let it slide. Also, we've got Nikto, one of the many creatures with terrible aim aboard Jabba's sail barge. An overview of his overall importance: Nikto ain't even his name. That's his species' name. Don't ask me why I know that, one too many coupons for Barnes & Nobles Online, I guess. Rounding out the unholy trio is Klaatu, shattering fashion in his skiff guard outfit.
As a kid, I had all three. But I was also pretty spoiled and unnaturally obsessed with Star Wars, to the degree of which is someone got me a birthday or Christmas present that didn't have some connection to the trilogy, they'd make my bad list for life. However, I'm not so sure many others followed my lead with that one. The toy line was so popular that virtually every product was mass-produced from the getgo, so in the rare cases where things didn't sell, action had to be taken. In this case, three of the lesser-valued characters found themselves stuck inside airtight Kenner baggies and shoved into a box for a playset that doesn't seem to be anything more than a rectangular piece of plastic and a few odd hooks. Then again, you gotta look at it like this. Klaatu has an action figure, and Chris Elliot doesn't. Its a mass injustice, so I'm pretty sure these guys were just happy for any representation they could get.
Despite that, its incorrect to say that this playset only saw the light of day as a way for Kenner to unload unwanted action figures. Its not uncommon in the toy industry for companies to recycle older toys to save on production costs, and that's exactly what we're seeing here. About four years before this playset went on the market, Star Wars fans had already seen something remarkably similar in the Droid Factory playset. They're both made from the same mold, and ironically enough, neither were very highly sought. Even though the Droid Factory sucked pretty much to the same degree as this playset, it wouldn't have stood a chance anyway. Look at how they marketed the sucker...
How do you take the focus of a toy that sucks? Feature the two ugliest children of all time in the commercial. The only lasting images that stay with you after viewing it certainly aren't of the playset. The ad featured the above kids, absolutely insane with delight, putting together all the various plastic pieces the Droid Factory offered while the most sense-shattering score played in the background. I think the spot was only around 25 seconds long, but this was a half-minute of absolute torture. Actually, most of the old Star Wars toy commercials are a clear indication of how far advertising has come in general - for the most part, they prominently displayed fairy children running in circles on lawns shouting various character names. Absolutely surreal. Its like they got in some unmarked van and held a camera out the window at various trailer parks nationwide. When they compiled enough candid footage of kids making complete asses of themselves, they'd add in this horrible music track with a guy announcing Star Wars figures in such a way that you'd think the commercials were for the second coming of Christ.
But those humble beginning led to Jabba's Dungeon Playset. For those curious, the commercials for the toys by the time the third movie came out did get a little better. The kids weren't quite as freakish, but they'd still do some pretty inane things in the thirty seconds they were given. I remember one ROTJ commercial in particular with two kids flipping over a makeshift bridge for 20 seconds. Mind you, the bridge wasn't a Star Wars toy, it was just a piece of wood. There is no way this stuff was scripted. But hey, the toys sold, so I guess the key to effective advertising is confusing the customer. Sometimes its easier to just buy the damn thing than comprehend it. Why do you think so many people watch MTV's Undressed?
The playset's role in Star Wars collecting history isn't done yet, believe it or not.
I can't believe a toy so flaccid has this much history, but it does. Sears was a big part of the toyline back then, often having exclusive figures and playsets available through its stores and holiday catalogs. By the way, I think I speak for most people in my age group when I recognize the Sears Wishbook as our first literary experience. They had a great relationship with Kenner apparently, as some items were only sold through them. Today, those items fetch a pretty high cost. The Dungeon isn't quite as rare, as Sears sold off their backstock Star Wars items to other toy chains when the line's popularity diminished, so the playset was available at clearance prices at several stores throughout the nation. The second edition, on the other hand, came out so late and in limited enough numbers that its real hard to come by today.
The only difference between the two are the figures that come with it. While the first edition came with relatively unpopular figures, the second set's trio are some of the most wanted collectibles on the market today. Right before Kenner put the nail in the line's coffin, they marketed a 'Power of the Force' line. These were the action figures that came sealed with an aluminum coin. They also make up the last of the released figures, and some of the rarest, like Luke in the Stormtrooper outfit, and Han Solo in the Carbonite Chamber. There may be a few of you out there who remember seeing around 20 figures listed on the back of your figure's package that you could never find. Those were the POTF figures. The subline only had a few contributions in the vehicle/playset department, and this second version of Jabba's Dungeon is one of them.
Aside from being the rarest Star Wars figures, the POTF toys were generally the most well-made. They were more articulate, detailed, and some came in poses or with accessories people weren't used to seeing. The second dungeon playset featured three of these new figures: Amanaman, EV-9D9, and Barada. Sold separately, the packaged figures can cost as much a hundred bucks each or even more than that in today's market. But even stuck in Kenner baggies, they boost the second dungeon's value way up. Let's take a look at the new trio...
Barada, like Klaatu and Nikto, is just another one of Jabba's sail barge guard people, only he looks a lot more like a pirate. If you'll notice, the three alien names put together are a Lucas tribute to the classic sci-fi flick, The Day The Earth Stood Still. Gort rules. EV-9D9's appearance in the playset makes the most sense of all six figures - the female droid was the only one actually in the scene the playset's based on. All you need to know about her is that she's the only robot I've ever seen who's managed to use the word 'feisty.' Rounding out the troops is Amanaman, who is so unbelievably bizarre that he gained himself a spot in my tribute to the forgotten heroes of Star Wars back in January.
To show you how much value is placed on the three later figures, the cost of the second version of the playset in mint shape can be more than double the original. The POTF figures were exceedingly rare, even the high prices don't tell the tale. I couldn't find a single one of these figures as a kid, and we must've hit a toy store at least twice a week in search of them. As for the actual playset, its not very hard to come by at all - without the figures, its one of the cheapest playsets you can buy today. As we head into the second prequel, it'll be interesting to see how these values appreciate. By the time we're dead, our kids will be spending a grand to get a Barada figure. Scary, right?