Toys as Narrative

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Joanne Kelly, Eddie McClintock and Saul Rubinek in Warehouse 13 for The Sci Fi Channel
The job this season means writing teleplays for three main characters tasked with managing a giant warehouse filled with artifacts (collected from around the world) that can ruin your day. All three are Secret Service agents; two guys and a girl cracking wise, running, jumping and saving the world by heading out into one adventure after another for WAREHOUSE 13. Look for it this June on the Sci Fi Channel. I’m one of two executive producers working with a staff of talented writers who spend their days dreaming up jack-in-the-box surprises for the characters and you.

But right now it’s Christmas week. With presents under the tree for my kids, I’ve been thinking about the potential for fun and surprises hidden in wrapped boxes piled up in one location. And this got me on an imagination nostalgia trip. I’m thinking about the toys that got me into storytelling.

Major Matt Mason
I grew up in the 1960s and was still, as my dad said, “playing with dolls” into the early 1970s. The space race was a full-time fascination. And the toy makers that embraced that fascination were rewarded with a legion of boys (and a few girls, I’m sure) who hammered their parents for anything rocket related. My toy of choice (while my older brother was scorching his fingers with Estes rockets) was Major Matt Mason. A doll, yes. But so much more . Bendable, posable (if you had one you know that sinking feeling when one of Matt’s internal wires snapped resulting in an arm or leg akimbo) and willing to undertake any mission you threw him. “He lives on the moon. We may all be there soon.”

In the “Create Your Own Horror” department (resulting in either a rubbery monster or a burned down house) Mattel gave kids a hot-as-hell hot plate that cooked up bugs, skeletons or, if you had the proper molds, Superman or Tarzan. This was a close to a chemistry set I ever received. There was endless fascination for me when a negative mold (a carved out representation of a creature in a small block of steel) was filled with liquid plastic (how cool is that?) and produced, under extreme heat, a positive result: a Creepy Crawler. The making of my own toys, the transformation of raw materials into something tangible, something that didn’t exist a few moments before, was my first unwitting step into a career made of cobbling disparate thoughts together to make something (hopefully) greater than the sum of its parts.

A variation on this molten theme is the Strange Change Machine. Again, science worked out the secret of “memory plastics” and, what else, turned it into a toy. You’d take a cube of plastic, heat it up until a dinosaur (or something just as cool) sprung forth. Then, as a precursor to the concept of re-writing (I know, a stretch), you could crush it back into a square and start over.

But the toy that meant more to me than anything was a little guy that engaged in outright fakery to accomplish his goal. While I was pretending with him, he was pretending right along with me. We were in a symbiotic relationship of play. Of course I’m speaking of Captain Action. Made by Ideal, this action figure (not “doll,” Dad; yeah, I got issues) took the superhero/secret identity concept and shoved it through the Looking Glass. The Captain was able to wear the uniforms of Superman, Batman, the Green Hornet, Spiderman, you name it. But under the mask was a thin-faced, fretful-eyebrowed, insecure looking fellow. Sort of like me at 10 years old. He was, in a sense, my first writing partner. Together we created situations and scenarios based on prior material. In a way that’s almost impossible to describe I feel like everyday I go to work I’m pulling out my toybox and rummaging through the gear inside. Invariably, Captain Action steps forward. What mask shall he wear today? How about... a Secret Service agent... continually getting into scrapes?