Hot on the heels of Captain Scarlet the next television series produced by Century 21 arrived in 1968. Joe 90 saw the focus of the stories shift away from the traditional sci-fi adventures of the past to smaller-scale character-based tales, but still incorporating plenty of action and excitement. From a merchandising standpoint the show’s main character, nine year-old superspy Joe McClaine, provided many possibilities for roleplaying toys and games.
Gone however were the traditional wide assortment of vehicles and hardware, with the series offering just two star craft which could be turned into toys. Professor McClaine’s Jet Air Car (or the Joe 90 Car as most packaging of the time called it) and Sam Loover’s silver saloon car were both released by Century 21 as large scale friction drive toys, with the former also being produced in a much rarer battery-operated form. Dinky Toys were on hand as always to provide models of the same two vehicles, but as with Thunderbird 2 Sam’s car appeared in a variety of colours over the years.
Century 21 also provided toys of Joe’s pistol, transmitter, briefcase and of course his iconic glasses, while one of the rarest items produced was a costume of Joe’s bright red jumpsuit (not the ideal choice of outfit for a secret agent, surely?) allowing young fans to roleplay as their hero. For those not so keen to dress up Pedigree produced a somewhat genderly-ambiguous six-inch doll of the character.
If Joe 90 had provided less material for merchandising then the next Anderson series, 1969’s The Secret Service, saw the Century 21 juggernaut grind to a halt almost completely. With the series only being aired in a few regions and the stories centered around the adventures of a parish priest and his gardener there was little to exploit in the way of toys, and aside from the usual comic strips and a pair of novels the only merchandise of note came in the form of Dinky Toys replica of Father Stanley Unwin’s Model T Ford, Gabriel – a beautiful reproduction of the car, but hardly a must-have for the nation’s children in the same way that Thunderbird 2 had been!
In 1969 Gerry Anderson finally hung up the puppet strings for good and began work on his first live-action television series UFO. This was to be the final series produced (and marketed) by Century 21, and was aimed at a much older audience than any of the previous Anderson shows – so much so that broadcasters found scheduling the series difficult. Despite this confusion Dinky Toys produced models of three vehicles from the series; the SHADO Mobile, SHADO Interceptor, and Ed Straker’s car. At this point Dinky must have had lots of leftover paint from all the Thunderbird 2s they’d sold over the years as the white interceptors and gunmetal grey mobiles both arrived in the nation’s toy shops in a brilliant shade of green. Straker’s car also went through several colours too.
Perhaps sensing a return to the glory days Dinky Toys also produced a pair of toys based on vehicles based on The Investigator, a pilot film produced in 1973 by Gerry Anderson featuring a pair of puppet schoolchildren aiding a mysterious alien visitor in his quest to make the world a better place. The pilot was a failure, and the toys were eventually released as a generic coastguard launch and an armored car with no mention of their screen origins.
By this time it seemed likely that a second series of UFO was on the cards, but when the project was cancelled due to falling ratings in America Anderson chose to salvage the pre-production work that had already been done and transform it into an entirely new show. The result was Space:1999, the story of a human colony on the Moon struggling to survive after being blown out of Earth orbit and into deep space by a massive nuclear explosion.
Once again Dinky provided the must-have toy with two versions of the Eagle transporter (one with a detachable passenger module and the other a detachable freighter module carrying canisters of nuclear waste) but as with their UFO range this toy was more often found in metallic green (or blue) than the original white of the TV series. Dinky weren’t the only UK company to produce an Eagle; AHI released a die-cast friction drive Eagle while a 5cm die-cast was included in a range of three miniature Space:1999 craft from Road Stars.
Space:1999 also provided two memorable props in the stun gun and commlock, which were released as toys by various manufacturers while the series was on the air. Toys of the yellow moon buggy were also produced in several scales while Palitoy produced a range of five twenty-centimetre posable dolls, with each one managing to look almost slightly like a character from the series if you squinted.
Airfix offered the Eagle Transporter in model kit form from 1976 onwards and followed this up a year later with the Hawk, a space fighter that only appeared in the fan favourite episode War Games. 1978 saw the release of their final Gerry Anderson model kit, and this time not one based on a television series or film but a comic strip. Starcruiser 1 only appeared in the pages of Look-In from 1977-79, but the Airfix model did nevertheless make a very brief on-screen appearance in 1979. An unpainted Starcruiser can be seen on a desk in specially-shot new scenes added to the first episode of Space:1999 when it was released on home video and cable as a feature film entitled Alien Attack.
After Space:1999 finished shooting at the end of 1976 Anderson’s career hit a hiatus and it would be six years until his next television series, the much more family-friendly Terrahawks, arrived on British television. By this time Star Wars had exploded onto the silver screen and had become a merchandising behemoth that far outstripped anything in Century 21’s wildest dreams, with even characters who had only made a two-second appearance in the background of one scene getting immortalized as plastic action figures. This meant that the kind of merchandising empire that Century 21 had pioneered was now commonplace in the British toy industry, and Anderson now found himself racing to keep up in a field where he had once led the way.
While the Terrahawks action figures were less than impressive even for the time (with few accessories, minimal articulation and several characters only being identifiable by the name on their blister card rather than any genuine resemblance to their screen counterparts) the toys based on the various vehicles and craft were at the upper end of the quality spectrum. These were produced in two scales, with the larger deluxe die-cast metal and plastic ‘Action Models’ of the Battlehawk, Hawkwing, Terrahawk and Treehawk proving the most successful. These toys also featured a variety of projectiles, moving parts, and so many other intricate action features that you could be forgiven for wondering just who such complicated toys were really aimed at. When presented with a Battlehawk toy during the filming of a 2003 DVD documentary Terrahawks voice artist Jeremy Hitchen commented “These toys were specifically aimed at sixty-four year-old rocket scientists. Or kids.”
Sadly, even though the series proved a success on television the Terrahawks toy line was to be short-lived, perhaps due in part to an ill-advised decision by Anderson himself. Aware that the toys had at times been difficult to get hold of during the runs of his previous shows he decided that this time round the Terrahawks merchandise would already be on the shelves by the time the first episode aired, but in his biography he recalled “It was a fatal mistake because no new show builds up an audience in one showing. It takes at least six to ten weeks before people begin to love the show and its characters and it’s then that they start to look in the shops for merchandise. This happened with Terrahawks. But because the toys already in the shops failed to sell immediately, many shops chose not to re-order.”
Despite this (or perhaps even because of it) the Terrahawks toys still maintain a healthy second-hand market to this day, with the vehicles in particular regularly selling for between £100-£150 when in good condition. It would be over ten years before Gerry Anderson brought a new television series to the screen, but little did anyone realise that one of the biggest success stories in the history of Anderson merchandising was just around the corner.
NEXT TIME: the 1990s revivals, Space Precinct, and New Captain Scarlet!