Tom G. Wolf / July 23, 2018
Few Lego themes have infiltrated the wider public’s consciousness in the same way as Space. A mainstay of the company’s range since the 1970s, Space has captured the imagination of millions of children across multiple generations and made numerous appearances throughout pop culture. Most notable in recent years is the character Benny from The Lego Movie; rendered as a 1980s-era Space minifigure, his faded chest logo and cracked helmet were testament to the harsh realities of childhood play. Yet for all its popularity, there has been little exploration of the way the theme underwent a fundamental shift in the late 1980s, or the potential reasons why. Starting as a utopian, co-operative ideal of space exploration, 1987 would see Space make a gradual shift towards more generic “goodies vs baddies” themes—territory in which it has pretty much remained ever since. But why did this change occur? It’s a complex question, and one that harkens back to the origins of the theme itself.
The very first space-related Lego set was released in 1964, the 801 Space Rocket. It’s crude by the standards of Lego today, but nonetheless recognizable as its intended subject. It would be followed by two other sets several years apart—358 Rocket Base (1973) and 565 Moon Landing (1976). All three are interesting as historical curios, but to modern eyes appear more akin to model kits, rather than the durable playthings that would later characterize Space sets.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems curious that Lego didn’t produce more of these intergalactic kits in the 1960s, particularly given the burgeoning Space Race. With the sheer number of other toy and model companies riding the boom at the time, it’s easy to assume that Lego missed out on a slice of the pie. But part of this apparent oversight can be attributed to the difference in the state of the company. While Lego is a near-omnipotent force in the toy market in 2018, things were quite different in the 1960s. Lacking the global infrastructure they possess today, Lego originally distributed their American releases via Samsonite—a company far better known for suitcases than for toys. Samsonite showed impressive commitment to the line, creating a number of American-exclusive sets and eventually opening its own factory and warehouse for Lego production. Ultimately, though, the range of kits available was truncated in comparison to Lego’s native Europe, and sales never reached the hoped-for heights. It’s understandable that execs might have been reluctant to take the risk on more space-related sets.
Even without concerns surrounding finance and market viability, some reservations may have stemmed from Lego’s much-touted apolitical stance. Since the development of the modern Lego brick in 1958, the company has fashioned itself as a product for everyone and avoided addressing real-world political matters whenever possible. It’s a key part of the decision not to create anything resembling real-life army kits, despite the demand from numerous quarters. When viewed in light of the Nazi occupation Denmark endured just a few years before modern Lego was developed, it’s an understandable position to take. Additionally, appealing to the broadest possible audience is obviously a smart business move, and it’s helped Lego avoid many of the scandals that have periodically dogged competitors like Kenner, Hasbro, and Mattel.
Nonetheless, Lego has never existed in a vacuum. Recent years in particular have seen the company dragged into numerous public controversies, including the stereotypical gender roles of the Friends theme and its long-time partnership with Shell. One of the most notable backlashes happened in 2015, when Lego refused to provide artist (and noted critic of the Chinese Communist Party) Ai Weiwei with a bulk order of its bricks for a planned artwork. While Lego would not be drawn to public comment on that specific situation, spokesperson Roar Rude Trangbaek did note that: “we refrain – on a global level – from actively engaging in or endorsing the use of LEGO bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda.” While Weiwei was eventually able to make the purchase, it was a weak response that made the (already contrived) anti-corporate message of 2014’s The Lego Movie seem incredibly disingenuous.
To be fair, some political red flags are more obvious than others; the real-life Space Race was an overt pissing contest between the USA and the USSR. It was a war fought on the ideological grounds of capitalism vs. communism as much as it was a technological front, each side striving to prove that their own people were the best and brightest. The 565 Moon Landing kit included American flag stickers, but this seemed to be more of a concession to history as opposed to an outright endorsement of either side. As such, the sets now recognized as “Classic” Space wouldn’t actually arrive until 1978. By this time, a greater spirit of co-operation had developed between the two nations, thanks to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1972—so some of the uglier implications of producing space-based sets were no longer a factor. Yet a certain momentum seemed to have been lost. The Apollo 17 mission—to date, the last time humans have visited the moon—had taken place six years earlier, in 1972. Excitement around humanity’s future in space would be curtailed even further in the 1980s, in the wake of the Challenger Disaster.
There were other factors fueling interest in space, however. Interstellar sci-fi had permeated the cultural milieu, first with the emergence of Star Trek as a cult hit in syndication, and, most important, with 1977’s Star Wars. In addition to launching its own merchandising powerhouse, the film had left all manner of space-related toy debris in its wake, eagerly snapped up by freshly minted space opera fans. Around this time, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, grandson of Lego founder Ole Kirk Christiansen and current owner of the Lego Group, saw an opportunity to refresh the brand. No significant new features had been added to the line in some years, sales had tapered off in the American market, and the brand was experiencing a downward turn in other markets too. Something special was needed to revitalize Lego as a force in the toy market.
Speaking to HispaBrick Magazine, Kristiansen noted that: “I came home to Denmark to take part in Senior Management in 1977 and so for me it was really a question of instilling new belief in the company and in our product idea. I saw the possibilities first of all with the minifigure; that we could put a lot of new life into our assortment with different play themes. So the play themes really started at that time.” Town, Castle, and Space were the cornerstone themes of this bold new era, and the importance of the Lego minifigure to their success cannot be understated. Minifigures were an iconic development in the history of Lego, and arguably the wider toy world. Emerging around fifteen years after Hasbro’s G.I. Joe had pioneered the concept of action figures, they instantly broadened Lego beyond simple building, presenting a whole new world of play possibilities in the palm of your hand.
Minifigures were originally designed to function as everymen, devoid of specific nationality, culture, race, or religion. This quasi-humanist approach was aimed at breaking down barriers, while also furthering the appeal of Lego’s wares to people all over the world. One need only glance at the ubiquity of Lego to see how successful such a concept has been. With their introduction, kids could send their own miniature people into the vastness of space, rather than simply playing with empty model spacecraft. It’s not hard to draw a connection between Kenner’s innovative 3 ¾” Star Wars action figures, launched the same year—though it seems strangely fitting, given how many Star Wars sets Lego would produce decades later.
The early Space sets are reflective of this good-natured philosophy, exploration-focused and with a near-future appearance, rather than drawing directly from science fiction. Sets like 493 Space Command Center present an image of space exploration that seems within reach, even today. And though the included Spacemen minifigures were available in a number of different colored suits, there was nothing inherent to the sets to suggest that they were different factions. It could be coded as an example of international co-operation, or simply as a cosmetic choice—not everyone likes blue after all. Aliens were also absent, which largely removed issues of conflict and/or colonialism. In the world of Lego, humanity would remain alone among the stars until the 1990s.
Classic Space would continue along similar lines until 1987, when the first official factions were introduced in the form of Futuron and Blacktron. Though not explicitly painted as good or evil, the sets suggested that Futuron were in space for altruistic purposes like scientific discovery. Blacktron’s designs were more mercenary: their stated motivation for space exploration was profit. Yet Lego still maintained tight control over its relatively utopian vision, with violent conflict and weapons explicitly banned by the set designers. Still, it seems that there were already subversive elements within the design studio; years later, minifigure creator and set designer Jens Nygaard Knudsen noted that: “We were not allowed to make weapons, and the aerials and other elements that pointed forwards on the spaceships looked too aggressive. Instead we added a lot of radar dishes and sensor probes, but to us they were really guns!” To some degree, this was an inevitable change; after the better part of a decade on shelves, the Space theme was always going to need to be refreshed, rested, or retired. Additionally, the toy market itself had changed, in part due to the enormous success of Star Wars toys.
Depending on your point of view, one of Lego’s great strengths or weaknesses is that its playsets and themes had traditionally tended to offer a fairly blank slate on which kids could project their own play pattern. Characters were rarely assigned motivations, and even less frequently, names. This was an unusual approach in the 1980s, when huge sellers like Star Wars, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Transformers, and G.I. Joe tended to rely on pre-existing lore and tie-in media to promote the core products. Additionally, they were properties heavily driven by heroes and villains with defined personalities, characters for kids to latch on to and identify with (or against). It’s not hard to speculate that Lego saw the success its competitors were enjoying with antagonistic action figure lines and decided to steer Space in a similar direction, without completely aping it. The shift has rarely been addressed in an official capacity, but the current incarnation of the Lego website states that:
Today the LEGO Group recognizes that conflict between good and evil often forms an important part of children’s play as it teaches children about their own – and other people’s – aggression. It helps children to recognize and handle disputes in other situations. However, the LEGO Group has no intention of glorifying war or encouraging violence, and it therefore refuses to produce realistic weapons and military equipment with the risk of children recognizing these types of weapons from hostilities around the world. Instead the LEGO Group supports children, stimulating their imagination by launching only historical and fantasy weapons. With the aim of toning down the conflict element, a good dose of humor is incorporated in the models and the storytelling around the play themes.
Greater world events can’t be discounted, either. In the Western world, there was a widespread consensus in the 1980s that the Soviet Union was evil, opposed only by the (capitalist) forces of good—even if the leaders of the forces of good were themselves highly fallible. Though the complexities of the Cold War go well beyond the scope of this article, you can see such an attitude reinforced in pop culture artifacts like the Rambo sequels, Red Dawn, The Day After, and so many more. Even the WWF got in on the act, with the sinister Russian villain Nikolai Volkoff.
Accuracy of these beliefs aside, there’s no doubt that the Cold War was in serious danger of heating up during the 1980s. US President Reagan had instituted the heavily criticized Strategic Defense Initiative in 1984—the so-called “Star Wars” program; the Challenger had exploded in 1986, removing much of the “gee whiz” factor from space exploration in the public’s eye; and in 1987—the year Futuron and Blacktron were introduced—Reagan gave his famous “Tear down this wall!” speech in West Berlin. When nuclear war might have struck at any moment, a utopia in space looked unrealistic at best, and utter foolishness at worst.
As Space continued, weapons became increasingly prominent while vehicle designs took on a more explicitly science fiction-inspired look. It didn’t move into Starship Troopers territory—at least not until 2013, when Galaxy Squad launched—but there was undeniably a shift in tone. In the 1987 Futuron set Stardefender 200, the shift is already apparent. It’s a two-man spacecraft, clearly armed with multiple lasers—a distinct break with the past.
Future years would see more factions introduced; their motivations were no longer ambiguous, falling into more clearly delineated lines of good and evil. This was perhaps most unsubtly illustrated by the introduction of Space Police in 1989, the most prominent moral arbiters of Lego’s Space universe ever since. Undergoing three incarnations since their introduction, they’ve produced some great space vehicles and bases—but many look positively ominous in hindsight, given the increasing commonality of militarized police forces. For an example, just look at the 6984 Galactic Mediator from 1992. While a great-looking spaceship, a more accurate name might be along the lines of “Galactic Intimidator.”
Such ideas would continue well past the 1990s, too. Mars Mission, available during 2007-2008, depicts a battle for the Red Planet between humans and aliens—who are admittedly not Martians themselves, but are explicitly identified as a threat. One of the largest sets available, the 7644 MX-81 Hypersonic Operations Aircraft, is effectively a flying tank. The fact that Lego has never really returned to its early themes of utopian space exploration—with the possible exception of Exploriens in 1996—suggests that a conflict-based approach has been the far more profitable enterprise.
As a business, Lego cannot necessarily be condemned for making wise financial decisions; nor did it embrace crassness at the expense of heart in the product. The company’s best-selling theme remains City, which arguably has the blankest slate of any of Lego’s themes. There is background lore in many modern themes for those who want it, but kids and adults alike are still free to make up their own play patterns, just as they were back in the 1970s. Having said that, Lego has attracted criticism for its perceived focus on licensed products and proscriptive play patterns, in contrast to the creativity offered by its original building block wares. The question must be asked whether Lego would have more bandwidth for innovation if they chose not to tie themselves to so many licenses. It’s a question the brand will need to wrestle with if it’s to remain relevant in the market. 2017 saw an 8% decline in worldwide sales for the company, following the axing of 1,400 jobs earlier in the year.
Yet to dismiss these themes and sets as inferior simply because they have departed from the utopian ideals of the 1970s would be a big mistake. The thirty-plus years since the introduction of Futuron and Blacktron have seen plenty of intriguing themes introduced to the world of Space—generating a huge amount of fun in the process. The magnet-powered M-Tron, the frozen endeavors of Ice Planet 2002, and the modular vehicles of Galaxy Squad are just some of the delights that Space has offered over the years. Perhaps the most unusual was 2011’s Alien Conquest, which was essentially Lego’s riff on 1950s alien invasion films.
At time of writing, Space lies dormant as a theme, with the most recent sets released in 2013 under the banner of Galaxy Squad. The theme’s role in Lego’s line-up has arguably been filled by Star Wars, not to mention a number of more realism-oriented City and Creator 3in1 sets. For example, 2017 saw the release of 31066 Space Shuttle Explorer, which managed to include a mode that was unquestionably inspired by the 2015 film The Martian. But with the strong historical performance of Space, it seems unlikely that it will remain in the hangar forever. 2019 will see the release of The Lego Movie Sequel, which will again feature Benny the Spaceman—bringing the theme back to the public eye, and hopefully encouraging Lego to take to the stars again.
Tom G. Wolf is a Sydney-based writer who is a keen fan of horror films, heavy metal, and cats. You can read more from him at Lupine Book Club.