Taking cues from their extremely successful Star Wars range of action figures where over 40 million units were sold during a period of no more than 10 months in 1978, Kenner Products acquired the licencing rights to produce similar toys and games based on Twentieth Century Fox upcoming 1979 science fiction/horror feature, ALIEN. Kenner went into full production in early 1979 and were ready to service a public demand for toys based on the movie to be released on time for Christmas of that year.
Unfortunately, Kenner’s plans to emulate their success from the previous year did not see fruition and their entire range of ALIEN themed merchandise was cancelled. Those events are a story worth telling of itself but today, we’ll take a peek into what could have a very different landscape for the toy developer in control of this new licence.
Throughout early 1979, Kenner Products was engaged in designing, manufacturing and packaging their now infamous 18 inch figure. It’s release was intended to be followed up with a mass market release of action figures in much smaller scale in 1980, a set of figures that would have scaled well with their already extremely popular Star Wars items. Sadly, production on these 3.75 inch tall figures was abruptly halted and they failed to see the light of day during the time intended for their release.
These items, including several figures based on the crew of the ill-fated Nostromo along with the Alien itself, never advanced beyond the prototype phase. Once Kenner closed down their efforts on this range of merchandise due to public outcry, these prototypes went into storage and were largely forgotten. They went into hiding to become myths of the toy industry and fans and enthusiasts were only vaguely aware of them.
Some collectors and Kenner employees were knowledgeable of their existence. Photographs of the unrealised toys were known and gradually once again they became more than just myths to the public eye when the proof of such photographic documentation was published in the pages of toy journals like Tomarts and other periodicals of later decades. The early renditions of the unproduced toys were known to have survived Kenner’s purge of their unsuccessful licence – a licence they would eventually return to but under completely different ownership during the 1990s.
During the early 1990s, Kenner attempted to bring back the Alien line. There is evidence in the form of recast prototype figures that look identical to the known original prototypes from 1979. Good reason for why such items exist as Kenner favoured this later endeavor to revisit the 3.75 inch tall action figures. The recast items based on the Alien were recast from a known sample still surviving and it appears below, protected inside a box frame.
The 2nd generation recast items from the early 1990’s were very much like their older 1979 prototype originals in appearance but are distinguished by more modern Urethane resins known to be used by Kenner during the 1990s for their construction. These recasts are also often known to be painted in bold vibrant color schemes along with metallic finishes as well.
Kenner was owned by Tonka at the time this brief consideration for the revival of the older figures was being considered by the company. Unfortunately once again they did not see production. For a 2nd time, more than an decade later in the 1990s, figures based on the original 1979 movie and the 3.75 inch prototypes generated by Kenner were shelved and disappeared into obscurity in the favour of toned down and more child appropriate ALIENS items.
The new designs were inspired by an animated cartoon show being developed in Korea at the time called Operation: ALIENS which unfortunately never saw completion and was cancelled. Nonetheless, designs inspired by the defunct cartoon ultimately became the basis for the more outlandish action figures and toys we became familiar with in 1992 onward. That’s another story for another day.
Today we know for certain that these prototypes have not only survived but are in the collections of people who value and preserved them for their unique standing and reputation in the world of collectible toys and industry history. Collectors of such rare and unique prototype items were reluctant to provide resource materials for use in the design and development of the new figures due to their sensitive and fragile nature. Reference material for the ReAction figures were sourced from leaked online content along with interviews with from former Kenner Products employees.
Starting with a promotional campaign in San Diego Comic Con 2013, FUNKOxSuper7 released their first ALIEN ReAction figures at the convention. These figures were inspired intimately by the old and largely forgotten prototypes. Their first release was a boxed pair of emulated test shot figures featuring the compression suited Kane and our charming little friend, the Alien. This package was the public’s first taste of what would become the now well known ReAction figure range. 34 years had to pass for this release to happen; and it was only the beginning.
Also at SDCC 2013, where these small blue limited edition facsimile figures were announced and initially made available, an ‘Early Bird’ marketing strategy similar to the one Kenner employed in late 1977 to make up for the high demand of Star Wars figures was launched by Super7 to service pre-order customers and provide them with a complete set of Series 1 ALIEN ReAction figures. It was extremely successful and launched an entire industry revival of retro ’70’s themed toys based on movies and television shows in the popular pocket size format.
Since SDCC 2013, Super 7 have since had great success with this range of figures, releasing many iterations and variants across 2 series; and a third series is about to be released. These toys have come a long way – more than 3 decades – to become a success. The diminutive Alien figure itself has since enjoyed no less than 10 different iterations in various formats ranging from the blue pseudo test shot to the 3 recent 2017 blind box items, all using the same design but varying in presentation and color. Some of these variants are easy to come by – others have become a moderate challenge for more dedicated Collectors.
In which case, it’s unfortunate that Kenner failed to produce this line of action figures based on ALIEN in 1979. The series of toys would have been compatible with items of the same scale in their extant Star Wars range – a range of figures that continued to be released for another 5 years. Had the ALIEN toys seen successful mass market distribution, then scenarios such as this one depicted below would have taken place in playgrounds and the bedrooms of 8 year old children throughout the world.
One of Kenner Products big mistakes was they were simply ahead of their time. As no market for toys based on R-rated movies existed back then, the release of a large scale action figure based on an implacably hostile character like the ALIEN did more than set a precedent. It upset sensitive members of the community at large who campaigned to have the offensive large scale toy removed from shelves.
Arguably, another big mistake on their part was releasing the tall item first; especially considering the market was clearly mercilessly gobbling up the small scale toys based on movies in 3.75 inch scale. Is it possible that releasing these pocket sized ALIEN figures in 1979 instead of the larger item may have changed Kenner Products fortunes?
By the time Kenner Products finished producing Star Wars figures in 1985, they had sold more than 300 million units. Surely, there must have been some room for ALIEN figures of the same scale on store shelves of the day. Sadly, we’ll never know.
1979 ALIEN prototype images courtesy of Steve Dwyer. Thank you for your contribution to this article.