June 4, 2015 – What if George Lucas had never been born? Or if born, what would our world have been like if Lucas’s space-fantasy had collapsed and never advanced beyond the initial paper draft? In this parallel universe free of Star Wars, how would we have spent our entertainment-dollars and occupied our days?
One possible answer is to look back in time – to the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the world closely followed the American-Soviet space race, and when kids played with many different brands of space toys.
In 1966, for example, Mattel released its “Man in Space: Space Station Playset”. A “D” battery was required to energize the “flashing space-radar beacon”. The playset featured a convertible dome, swing-down “solar panels” and three levels onto which to insert your bendy-type astronauts, including Major Matt Mason.
Kenner’s Death Star Playset, pictured here, was released a dozen years after Mattel’s space station. Was Kenner’s version of the multi-level open-access playset a near-copy of Mattel’s version? Or was this merely a design coincidence? Whatever the answer and for purposes of today’s article, it’s interesting to note that Kenner’s version would not have been missed in a Star Wars-free world. Mattel had already beat Kenner to the punch.
But what about the over 2,300 unique Star Wars action figures distributed (as of an October, 2012, tally)? Surely something deep in our psyches would have missed all these figures and characters – a world without Boba Fett, Darth Vader, R2-D2 and more.
So why don’t more people know about The Outer Space Men, and where did they go? As inventor Mel Birnkrant explains on his website, poor timing killed off the line. “The fickle public … had lost all interest in matters extraterrestrial the day after the first moon landing.”
Again, we need only look to the past for a clue as to how modern-day consumers would have spent their time and money: In 1968, during the height of the U.S.-Soviet space-race, the Colorforms Company released The Outer Space Men (also known as the Colorform Aliens). Designed by Mel Birnkrant, there were seven 3.5-inch to 7-inch bendable action figures which represented space aliens from our solar system and parts of the galaxy. The bendy-type figures had a pliable metal wire armature encased in painted soft vinyl bodies with “accordion” joints. (Sidenote: This would mean no endless debates about how to properly count “points of articulation”. But that’s a story for another day.)
The Outer Space Men toy aliens were just as ingenious and just as weird-looking as anything put forward by Star Wars a decade later. They had cool names (Orbitron! Gamma X!) and came with accessories (removable helmets and weapons). The Outer Space Men certainly would have felt quite at home in any alien Cantina.
We would also add that the lack of a popular T.V. show or blockbuster movie, which would have fueled additional interest in the Outer Space Men, may also have doomed the line.
In any event, the movie-and-entertainment industry abhors a vacuum. If there had been no Star Wars, consumers and their dollars would have gone elsewhere. Perhaps more of us would be ardent, diehard Star Trek adherents. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial would have been followed by E.T. Strikes Back and Return of the E.T.’s. And any number of serial fantasies (The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The X-Men) would have filled the vacuum in fanboys’ and fangirls’ lives til the end of their collection-happy days in some alternate universe.
Finally, a word about nostalgia. One of the secrets of Star Wars‘ amazing longevity and success is the emotional tie to our earliest memories. Nostalgia is a real and driving force which, like a moth attracted to the candle flame, brings us back over and over again. So, too, has nostalgia reignited interest in The Outer Space Men.
In 2008, creator Birnkrant and business partner Gary Schaeffer formed a company called The Outer Space Men, LLC. They revived the brand with the release of a graphic novel and other products, including a new series of OSM action figures. Many of them sold quickly and sold out.
Four Horsemen Studios was granted an exclusive license and released a smaller 3.75-inch version of the popular Outer Space Men figures. Instead of using wire armatures as before, the company used a proprietary Glyos joint system. From 2010 to 2014, the company distributed at least 17 unique action figures.
So, yes, we would have been perfectly fine and content in a world without Star Wars. What you don’t know about, you cannot miss. And our need to be entertained, to collect, to be part of a like-minded community, and to fill the empty hours in our lives, would have been fulfilled by some other juggernaut. If not The Outer Space Men, then something else out there …. far, far away.