Thursday, February 17, 2011

VINTAGE VIEW: Micronauts Time Traveler (1976)



An enigmatic space-adventurer, the Time Traveler formed the core of the Micronauts line and is one of the most widely-recognised characters from the series. Click through now to find out more about this toy's origins and how it revolutionised the toy industry.

M10X
Like most of the Micronaut toys, the Time Traveler was a rebrand of a toy from Takara's popular Microman line, in this case the M10-type Microman. 

Action figures in the early 1970s were either 12'' or 8'' tall. Although this meant manufacturers could produce articulated and detailed toys, their size was an issue: toys at this scale were expensive to produce, cost more at retail (thus taking them out of the impulse buy category) and any vehicles or play-sets produced for these figures were simply too costly to make them attractive to potential buyers.

Japanese manufacturer Takara hit upon a simple, yet brilliant idea: miniaturise their 12'' Henshin Cyborg dolls to 3 3/4'' tall whilst retaining the same level of articulation. That way the figures and play-sets could not only be produced at a lower price but all other retail costs associated with them - such as shipping, storage and packaging production - would also be reduced, with these savings being passed-on to the consumer in a superb example of the ''pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap'' philosophy.

Thus was born the Microman.

Meanwhile in the US, Mego - who'd had great success with their various lines of 8'' dolls - were looking for a property they could call their own (the Mego dolls were licensed from comicbooks, TV shows and movies, with everything from Batman to Planet of the Apes appearing in their line-up.) Seeing the success Microman was enjoying in Japan, they brokered a deal to bring the toys to the West under their new name...

The Micronauts
Mego annouced their new toy-line - The Micronauts - at the 1976 New York Toy Fair and for the next four years released a constant stream of re-branded figures and toys from the Microman line, plus a few later additions of their own.

Pitched as an exciting, space-age toy to kids and as educational, imagination-inspiring construction-kits to parents, the Micronauts were something quite new. Whether hindered or helped by the release of Star Wars that same year, the toys proved to be a huge success for Mego and in all, five waves of figures, vehicles, play-sets and other licensed products were released, with the characters even at one point having their own Marvel comicbook series.


Sadly though, Mego's fortunes were to see the end of the line in 1980 when the company folded. Although their Italian distributor signed some direct licensing deals with Takara and the left-over stock from Mego was repackaged and sold, it was all pretty much over and the Micronauts, although gone, were not forgotten, with a legacy that lives on to this day. 

Next time you see a 3 3/4'' figure on the shelves or a kid stuffing an action figure into his pocket, just remember where it all started...

Micronauts Time Traveler
These three Time Travelers are the only remaining figures I own from my original Time Traveler line-up. Although my memory is hazy, I know I also owned an orange Time Traveler (he had a blue chest unit and his colour-combo reminded me of Irn Bru.). 

The big problem with the Micronauts toys is that they were so detailed and so complicated that it was quite easy to break them. Their wrists and ankle joints were quite fragile and the O-Ring that holds the limbs in-place could rot or snap. And I must admit that as a child I was fascinated with the engineering behind the figures and more than one Micronaut broke during my investigations of their inner workings...


I'm also fortunate enough to recall my first Micronaut buying experience. During a visit to York, my Dad took me into a toy shop and I had enough pocket money to pick-up an Eagle (a range of near-forgotten action figures with odd rubber trousers) and my first Micronaut Time Traveler. From that day on I was obsessed with the Micronauts and it's an obsession that remains to this day.

Extras and Features
Micronaut Time Travelers were sold on blister-pack cards and included an L-shaped connector, which could be popped into the Micronaut's back and used to secure him in seats or attach him to other Micronaut pieces. Oh and in our imaginary world, they were also jet packs...

Their chest panels - a throwback to their Henshin Cyborg ancestry - could be removed and swapped with other units. There were four designs, all released in four different colours. As you can see in this group shot, the clear/white Time Traveler (centre) and the blue Time Traveler (right) have the same chest unit, but in different colours.


What really set the Micronaut apart from other toys was the combination of the transparent plastic, chrome head and super-poseability. As you can see from the images, the chrome-effect on their heads may have worn-off but their joints are - on the whole - still as superb as they were the day I bought them. I have brand-new Marvel Universe toys that can't hold poses like this!



The level of poseability is still amazing, even 35 years after their release and you can imagine the impact these figures had on the imagination of a small child and the direction the toy market should have taken.  Sadly the Star Wars toys that followed closely on their heels, with their limited, 5 points of articulation and chunky casting, outsold the Micronauts and set the articulation standard for toys at this scale for a number of years. It just shows how good marketing and a strong brand can often outdo innovation.

Revisions and Re-Releases
Although the figures underwent a few production changes, it wasn't until 1979 that Mego released a second wave of Time Travelers. Release in opaque plastic, the four figure set featured yellow, red, blue and green variants

Following Mego's demise, Hour Toy/M&D Toys re-issued the Time Traveler - now called Cosmo-Man - as part of the Interchangeables line in four semi-transparent colours - orange, green, red and dark blue. 

Palisades released the Time Traveler as part of their 2002 revival wave. The four-figure set mixed semi-transparent and opaque bodies and introduced both silver and gold chrome-effect heads. The figures also - thanks to a mix-up during production - featured six different chest panels (replicas of the four originals plus two new designs) that could be swapped between figures.

2003's Wave 1.5 saw the introduction of the Time Traveler Medic, a white and red figure that came with his own ''operating table'' capsule and figure-specific chest-panel. The Med-Pod can not only accommodate an ''injured'' Micronaut but also flips open and allows you to store the various ''spare parts'' the set came with (including replacement O-rings and hands.)

And although it's not an official version, Mego's Black Hole 3 3/4'' figures share some similarities with the Time Traveler, even as far as the Robot Sentry appearing to use a number of parts lifted directly from the Time Traveler molds!

Further Reading
As ever, Paul L's Microman Forever and Dave W's Inner Space Online can provide more details on these fascinating toys than I could ever offer.

Image Gallery

11 comments:

  1. Time Traveler was my favorite of all the Micronaughts i had as a kid and someday i will have another one if not several.

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  2. Yeah, they do show-up on Ebay quite regularly - unfortunately people tend to auction them rather than use the Buy Now thing, so it can be a pain getting them...

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  3. Great post! I had forgotten about the L-shaped piece that came with the figures! You make a great point about marketing sometimes overshadowing innovation. These little guess had unheard of articulation for the time.

    I'd like to link to this post off of my Baron Karza review, if you don't mind.

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  4. Thanks for the comments, Brian - and yes, please feel free to link to this piece.

    For anybody wondering, here's Brian's piece on the Micronauts'enemy, Baron Karza:

    http://yesterville.blogspot.com/2011/02/mego-micronauts-baron-karza.html

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  5. I tell ya, the Micronauts was a great toy line and one of the things that made the 80's awesome. so shiny, articulate and interchangeable it's ironic that their popularity was supplanted by the Star Wars toy line which in all fairness was an inferior product backed by one of the greatest movies of all time. I think if it hadn't been for Star Wars the Micronauts would have enjoyed at least a couple more years of commercial success. I run a ROM Spaceknight blog in which made some original art of a cross over of the two anthologies. Ironically despite both being Marvel comic titles written by Bill Mantlo they unfortunately never had any cross over adventures do to Mego & Parker Bros. rights issues. What a bummer: http://romspaceknightart.blogspot.com/2010/12/bill-mantlo-and-his-toy-inspired.html

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  6. Hi David,

    The Micronauts were indeed superb toys. I don't know if you've seen much of the Microman toys (the toy line they were adapted from) but some of the modern ones are excellent, too (even if they lack the nostalgia value of the Micronauts.)

    It'll be interesting to see how the Micronauts movie spins-out.

    And ROM was awesome. I used to put mine on ''breathing'' mode and hide it in my sister's room. :)

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    Replies
    1. SATAN is that you??

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  7. Hey Iok, i dig people who run blogs and actually reply to comments left under postings. got something else cool for you but i'm gonna leave it in the comments section of your recent posting about the ROM doll.

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  8. If somebody takes the time to read my stuff, I'm grateful. If they take the time to actually comment, then I'm doubly-grateful, as it's a good way to add extra interest to the posts and people will often share extra info or stories, which is a definite plus!

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  9. Well the micronauts had the last laugh after all. The Micronauts were the US market issues of the original Japanese market Microman line. Before that, was a 12" clear figure called henshin cyborg. The cyborg was Takara's innovation on Hasbros GI joe. Takara had the license to make and sell the 12" joe bodies in Japan. Then they put electroplated parts in a clear body and came out with the cyborgs. Now the limitation of space in Japan is widely known so vehicles and playsets for the Henshin cyborg line was not very feasible. That is when Takara invented the 3 3/4" action figure, the microman and all kinds of bases and sets were sold as well as vehicles. The Micronaut series peaked right around the release of star wars and I have heard that Mego turned down the chance to make product for a new star wars line (the biggest blunder in the toy biz to date). So they went to kenner instead. Jump ahead to 1982 Reagan is potus and the US hockey team wins gold, time to bring GI JOE out of retirement, so they look to what is popular 3 3/4 and also their former trading partner Takara which is still going strong with Microman in Japan. So the new GI JOE line will use the microman body design. Years later hasbro buy Kenner and the recent star wars figures have articulation based on Microman. Our story goes full circle and then some,

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the condensed micro-history!

      I have a 12'' re-issued Henshin Cyborg and an 8'' Cyborg, Android (A) and Muton (King Walder) but they're incomplete, sadly. Have a look around the site though and you'll find a Vintage View of the Android figure, which you may enjoy, too!

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