The Wreck Of The Eagle 1
1976 Mattel Toy Is An Elegant Toy From A More Civilized Age
Going to the 2011 NY Comic Con was an exercise in professional nerdity – being together with 105,000 of your fellow geeks, surrounded by the hottest new toys, shows, video games, and comic artists, not to mention a fandom that has become comfortable with letting their freak flag fly, was one of the most intense experiences of my life.
But the thing that made the most impact on me was, ironically enough, an old plastic toy.
It was in an exquisitely designed display case at the GeekBox booth, in a custom-made diorama of a cratered lunarscape: the Eagle 1, from Space: 1999.(above, right)
I had that toy. If you’re over a certain age, odds are you did too. Indeed, over a thousand men my age came up and gawked at it over the course of four days, standing there geeking out while their kids ran around to see the intricate Avengers’ battle scene or the impressive Star Wars dioramas. For the Fortysomethings, however, their eyes were glued to that Geekbox, and the gleaming toy within. Reasonably priced at $600 for both wall-mounted, custom-crafted, LED lit archival display case and toy (the ship is well worth over $200 alone, and it ain’t gonna get less rare), a thousand of my peers stared and let the wave of nostalgia wash over them.
After the second or third time I saw it happen, I approached the gawkers and asked about their particular toy: where did they get it? How did they play with it? What happened to it? The answers were as varied as the men who gave them, but the look of nostalgia, of fond memory, of pure toy love was the same in every face.
As I talked to one guy after another, a pattern began to form: this just wasn’t a toy. For “men of a certain age” it was a shared experience. And it was one I understood implicitly.
The Eagle 1 is made of white plastic, and is 32 inches long x 13.5 inches wide x 6 inches tall. It’s a big toy. When it was released in 1976, long after the show it was featured on was a bad memory, the Eagle 1 captured the imagination of a whole generation of American boys. It represented – to us – the “future”. It said as much on the box. “This is what spaceships will look like when you grow up”, it seemed to say. And for the time, they were correct.
The evolution of space ship toys of course parallels the popular culture references we’re familiar with. Each one evokes a particular era in the American subconscious, from the art deco designs of the 1950s rocket ships, ala Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, to the radical design of the USS Enterprise in the 1960s.
Flying saucers were inherently boring and, alas, not nearly phallic enough for us little boys who wanted desperately to go into space where the laser guns and beautiful green women were. By 1976, the Space Shuttle had been put forth as a design concept, and while the mock-ups were beautiful and inspirational, the actual ship wouldn’t be available for service until the 1980s – which might as well have been centuries away.
But then there was the Eagle 1. Inspired by NASA concept designs for a future lunar shuttle, the boxy ship was elegant in its inelegance. Its hard, square body, supported with purposeful-looking landing struts and utterly plausible rocket exhaust ports that really made sense (an important distinction for those of us proto-nerds who actually worried about things like reaction mass and air friction co-efficient, instead of just where the laser guns would go) and was topped with a rounded modular cockpit that, when combined with the rest of the vessel, was as beautifully phallic as a young boy could ask for.
And it got even better: the cockpit and the red plastic engine section could detach, and re-assemble as a smaller rocket pod. Long before the Transformers, the Eagle 1 was a toy that was more than meets the eye. Mine spent hours servicing the rest of the ship-cum-space station, back after the Christmas of 1977 when it was literally the largest gift under the tree.
The figures were non-descript, and the show had been on so long ago (and had been so bad) that I knew nothing about the characters the orange-space suits represented. It didn’t matter. The ship was cool. That was what mattered.
The name evoked both the Apollo missions still fresh in our memories, and the high-concept 2001: A Space Odyssey – which no one had produced a decent toy for because everyone was too impressed with Kubrik’s artistry to cheapen the film with merchandising. It was, for 1976, the most intimate glimpse of “The Future” that we could ask for, and we could hold it in our hand. Well, two hands.
It was hard being a proto-nerd in 1976. There weren’t any video games to speak of. Hell, Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t even around yet. I’d never seen a computer at that point in my life, and the few electronic calculators I’d seen were worth thousands of dollars and weighed several pounds apiece. If you dared voice an opinion in favor of “that Star Trek stuff” in school you were ripe for ridicule and mocking. Becoming a nerd in 1977 meant a celibate life in the chemistry lab and the chess club, hiding from girls behind coke-bottle glasses. We didn’t even know that there were female nerds in 1977.
The Eagle 1 was an answer to that. What possessed Mattel to produce it, I don’t know – perhaps they saw the need, or perhaps they just needed a big plastic toy to complete their line that year. But the result was this big, beautiful toy, one where the action figures were movable enough to go both into the interior of the ship (“the lab”) and into the cockpit. The ship had closing doors and “secret” compartments and was just the coolest thing in my room for eighteen months.
If I had to sketch the future as an 8 year-old boy in 1977, it would have looked like the Eagle-1: well designed, utilitarian, unsullied by pointless curves. The Eagle 1 was a lunar shuttle. It didn’t need to be streamlined. It operated in vacuum and wore it’s boxiness like a badge of pride. It was ungainly, but uniquely suited to its designed purpose. There was almost nothing about it that suggested speed or nimbleness. It was, in other words, the nerd of the space toy world. And we loved it.
For a solid summer I played with it reverently, and kept my brothers away from my treasured ship as much as I could. By the end of the summer it had taken on the kind of worn and pitted look only a long space voyage to many distant worlds, or one too many trips to the trailer park’s communal sandbox could account for.
And then Star Wars came out. And the universe changed forever.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars, and everything associated with it. It took the sci-fi universe that I longed for and paired it with the action adventure of Baa Baa Black Sheep and old Samurai movies, added in some impressive gunfights, and gave the whole thing an epic feel that elevated sci-fi from the mundane to the sublime. Most importantly, it gave us a common cultural reference to prepare our brains for the digital and technological onslaught to come in the 1980s. We now had a context for things like computers and robots and space ships, and that context was decidedly “used universe”.
After 1977, the clean, symmetrical lines of the Eagle 1 and the Enterprise were suddenly replaced by lustier designs: asymmetrical, damaged, repaired, and in an astonishing palette of rust and grime. A white spaceship after 1977 was an aberration. Space was dirty, and ships didn’t have to look like a stylized four legged animal anymore. The breathtaking designs of the Millennium Falcon, the TIE fighter, the Star Destroyer, and the X-Wing threw everything we knew about propulsion out the door as the fantastical nature of the universe and it’s theoretical hyperdrive systems made such things as symmetry and NASA-like sterility as out-dated as a Sid & Marty Croft Saturday morning TV show.
After Star Wars, and the tsunami of revolutionary toys that erupted from the movie, the Eagle 1 was relegated to the back of the closet. As I discussed the ultimate fates of their ships with one guy after another, the list of maladies grew longer and more brutal: Left at the pool. Buried in the sandbox. Used for target practice. Sailed out of a treehouse repeatedly until it shattered. Blown up with fireworks. Doused with gasoline and given a Viking funeral. Sold for a dollar at a yard sale. Donated to Good Will. Mine? I pushed it under my bed and used it as an emergency storage cache for Cheerios. Then we moved and it didn’t make it. I promptly forgot about it, when I got my shiny new TIE fighter and X-Wing a few years later.
No matter who I asked, the story was the same everywhere. An entire fleet of plastic spaceships had fulfilled their ultimate obligation and been destroyed in the line of duty. After the phenomenal wave of Star Wars toys, the Eagle 1 was retired in the imaginations of American boys. Our vision of “the Future” didn’t belong to NASA any more, it belonged to Lucas. Star Wars made space cool, and in doing so lent some of its coolness to us proto-nerds. By the time we were in High School, hell, we were almost cool on our own.
But almost forty years afterwards, coming face to face with the Eagle 1 evokes not just our boyhood memories and sense of nostalgia, it brings us back to the original untainted mysteries of space that compelled us to seek out new worlds in the sandbox of our imagination.
Terry Mancour is the New York Times Best Selling Author of Star Trek: Next Generation #20, Spartacus, the Spellmonger fantasy series, and the Tanith series of Space Viking sequels. Oh, and a world-class nerd.