It's hard to say when I crossed over from merely buying toys to play with and became a "collector." As a child of the 80s, toy advertising impressed the concept that we should try and own every figure in the line, every vehicle and playset. Of course this was impossible (particularly to kids like me whose family didn't have the money or the will to satisfy that urge to complete a series of toys) and so I never considered myself someone who would own every toy.
In the 1990s Hasbro re-launched the Star Wars line with modern figure sculpts (the molds of those early "Power of the Force" figures were ridiculously muscular) and re-tools of many of the ships I had lusted after as a child. I focused a percentage of my income from my first job, slinging videos at Blockbuster, into collecting as many of those figures and ships as possible. While I was aware that many collectors were buying these toys and keeping them in the package to maintain their value, I opened mine and carefully lined them on the shelves in my bedroom on display. What started as a smattering of random figures eventually became organized by faction (the Empire on one shelf, the Rebels on another) and then further broken out by scene (all the bounty hunters posed together, all the Mos Eisley aliens in their own group, Jabba and his retinue stacked together.) By the time my collection outgrew the four level shelving unit by my bedroom door, I had to admit I was a "collector."
For people like me, Netflix's new documentary series "The Toys That Made Us" is a fascinating look at the stories behind our favorite plastic nostalgia. The first half-season (which began streaming on Friday) focuses on Star Wars, Barbie, He-Man, and G.I. Joe in the first four hour-long episodes. The format follows the logical progression from concept to execution to roaring success and then inevitable failure in a predictable "Behind the Music" format that includes interviews with the toy creators, vintage commercials, and the occasional staged reenactment of a few of the more epic moments in toy history.
What is even more fascinating than the lore of these toy lines that defined our 1980s childhoods, is the psychology of the men who invented them. The most emotional moments for me were not the ones describing the toys and their success but rather when one of the designers would describe how he intended children to feel when playing with that toy, and realizing that his passion and craftmanship had influenced my childhood in such positive ways because these men intended those moments of joy to be a part of my play experience.
Of course, no retrospective would be complete without a bit of bickering about who was really responsible for certain things or the occasional sad story of a man who sold his idea and never received full credit for the creations he engineered. I'm certain there's a kind of Saturday morning morality tale to watching both the positive and negative results of the determination and ego that brought those plastic pieces of adventure into our toyboxes.
Despite those sad moments, the series keeps a cheery tone that matches the brightly colored packaging and primary hues of the subject matter. Almost every entry ends on an upbeat note, even when discussing toys that have gone extinct from shelves and never reclaimed their former glory.
If you love and collect toys, or if you have a strong nostalgia for things of the 1980s, you should stream "The Toys That Made Us" over the holiday. There maybe nothing more fitting than recalling the plastic adventures that used to await us under the tree by watching a documentary about how they came into existance.