Imagining the Future in Bricks: The Designs of Lego Space (Part 2 – the 90s)

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Last time we left it with the transition into the 90s and the beginning of the controversial neon era of Lego space. This is where it gets difficult for me to analyse things at all objectively. Although I had inherited some early Classic Space from my uncle and had picked up the odd small Futuron and Space Police set, it was with the early 90s sets that I was the right age to really get obsessed in a big way. Everything about these sets is, for me, coloured by nostalgia and immense affection. For a lot of the Lego fan community, this is a ‘silver age’, a come-down after the heights of Classic Space, but nothing will ever supplant the holy trinity of M:Tron, Ice Planet and the second Blacktron theme in my affections. Even so, let’s try and look at them as analytically as we can.

M:Tron was the first 90s faction to be introduced, in 1990, and it sets the tone for a lot of the themes we’ll be returning to over and again here. There’s a lot of continuity with what went before – with the smaller sets especially, there’s often a sense in 90s space Lego that designers are iterating on older designs, refreshing them with new colour-schemes rather than heading in wholly new directions. Instead of design innovation, there’s arguably an increased focus on gimmicks or play features. This was something that had been seen to a certain extent in the late 80s sets, with the occasional use of electric lights or sound-generators in some of the Futuron or Space Police sets, or the sporadic modularity of Blacktron, where chunks of sets could be separated and recombined with each other in different ways. But the early 90s themes saw such gimmicks being far more systematically implemented. M:Tron exemplifies this with its ubiquitous magnets.

As a kid, I enjoyed the magnets, and they certainly gave M:Tron a distinct identity – as did that unmistakeable red-and-neon-yellow colour-scheme. But there are some interesting aspects to the design as well. More than any other Lego space theme, M:Tron felt industrial, neither based around NASA-style scientific exploration nor directly involved in a straightforward goodies/baddies dichotomy. Things were always left vague in Lego of this era so that children could fill in the blanks with their imaginations, but M:Tron seems to be the builders, miners or engineers of Lego space. Their vehicles are rugged and utilitarian, with an emphasis on cranes and magnetised cargo or equipment crates. I doubt the inspiration was direct, but it’s striking that if you combine an M:Tron figure with the space manoeuvring pack introduced in the Blacktron faction at the same time, you have something very like this image of space miners from the Usborne Book of the Future.

Certainly the industrial, working-class aspects of space were receiving more attention in the years M:Tron was in development. 1979’s Alien feels significant here, with its working Joe space hauliers and big corporation, and 1986’s sequel Aliens was perhaps even more influential, despite its more militaristic focus. Just look at these M:Tron prototypes from the following year in comparison with the technology of that film:[1]

 

While none of these were released as sets, the inspiration, I think is clear. Other ideas from the film such as a spaceship inspired by present-day helicopters, also seem to have made some impact on the designers.

220px-RedDwarfShipOriginalSimilarly industrial, and definitely inspired by Alien, was the eponymous mining ship in the British sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf. Although big and red, this ship first appeared in 1988 so is certainly too late to have inspired the early stages of M:Tron design.  I’m not sure if the series made it to Denmark at all. But it is at least an example of others developing the industrial space idea in a similar direction around the same time.

6989-1But I think there’s earlier design DNA in the M:Tron range too. The biggest set was a huge ground vehicle, rather than the usual static base or space cruiser. This was the most industrial-looking of the lot, with massive chunky wheels and a crane for handling containers and subsidiary craft. This was a set I owned and loved. To me, it always felt like one of those great industrial vehicles that perpetually came a cropper in Thunderbirds (Derek Meddings again – see last time). And look, they came in red too!

Whether this was deliberate inspiration, or just that Thunderbirds was being repeated and capturing my attention at the same time M:Tron came out, I really couldn’t say.

In 1991 Lego did something it hadn’t done before – relaunched a previous faction with a new interpretation. This second Blacktron range is characterised by an abundance of the same neon yellow-green as M:Tron, but also by the use of standardised, modular spaceship control pods. Design-wise, we’re now finally at the point where we have to talk about Star Wars as a major direct influence.

1991_B-Tron_M-Tron

The second Blacktron fleet is dominated by small fighter craft that manage to combine influences of the two most iconic Star Wars starfighters, the X-Wing and the TIE Fighter, with spherical cockpit pods and X-shaped wings. They also have a large ground assault vehicle and small 2-legged walkers, replicating the make-up of the Imperial ground forces in The Empire Strikes Back, though the vehicles themselves both look rather different.

But alongside this Star Wars influence is something else, that feels a bit more modern. We haven’t quite got to the point where curved pieces are being widely introduced into the Lego repertoire, but even so, the bubble-like cockpits have a smooth, almost organic quality that was becoming increasingly popular in pop-culture spaceship design at the time. This too might be attributed to the legacy of Alien, and H. R. Giger’s iconic designs, but the rise of organic forms had already spread much wider than this and split into two strand. In one, the smooth, organic shapes were merely architectural inspiration and the vessels remained wholly mechanical. See, for example, Return of the Jedi, where improved techniques and budget allowed for the moulding of smoother, almost bubble-like ship models, in contrast to the angular and highly-mechanical looking ones of the first Star Wars, or the graceful rounded forms of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the other strand, designers pursued the biomechanical aspect of Giger’s work, pushing away from the traditional, machinist image of the spaceship and exploring it as a living, biological organism. By the mid-90s even Star Trek’s USS Voyager in had ‘bio-neural circuitry’. As computer graphics improved and gradually superseded physical models in special effects work, this was a trend that would only continue to develop as the 90s wore on.

 

Blacktron II was only Lego’s first, tentative dip of its toe into these waters, its ships only vaguely insect-like in their configurations, but future space themes, such as the later 90s Insectoids and most recently Galaxy Squad, would continue to develop these ideas and much more explicitly explore the possibilities of blending spaceships with insect-like forms.

 

Unlike the 80s, when space subthemes stuck around for a long time, gradually evolving, the 90s saw a much quicker turnaround, with new factions being introduced seemingly every year and old ones being removed. In 1993, the new introduction was Ice Planet 2002, which was probably my favourite of all.

This was something of a departure in that it was planet-bound, on a single frozen ice-world, but in many ways it was the most traditional of the early 90s space themes. Its focus on exploration, rocketry and satellite-launches harked back to the NASA-inspired sets of early Classic Space. Its blue and white colour scheme was also reminiscent of the original releases – even more so if the limited availability of part colours hadn’t forced the original Classic Space sets to have grey wings instead of the designers’ preferred white. The biggest Ice Planet ship, with its modular construction and twin cockpits is in many ways a re-working of 1983’s Galaxy Commander.

This debt was acknowledged in the faction’s logo, which was a clear reworking of the old Classic Space one.

The obvious precedent for a frozen planet setting is Star Wars’ Hoth, but it’s hard to spot much design inspiration from that to Lego’s release. It seems rather to be a fusion of the Classic Space with real-world polar exploration. The most characteristic features of Ice Planet, from its skis and skied vehicles to its use of bright orange in its canopies, all seem more to be drawn from reality.

Ocean Waves Crashing on Seawall

After Ice Planet came another round of Space Police, probably the least remarkable line we’ve seen yet. Apart from a colour change to grey, black and green, they seem very much ‘business as usual’ refreshes of the late-80s Space Police sets. More interesting is the new ‘bad-guy’ faction that replaced Blacktron. Spyrius was based around espionage and infiltration, and might be seen as the first ‘post-modern’ Lego Space theme.

Previously, space themes had been played fairly straight, and their depiction of the future had been straightforwardly ‘futuristic’, even in the more cartoonish lines. Spyrius feels rather more tongue-in-cheek, and adopts what feels like the first ‘retro-futuristic’ aesthetic in the Lego range, characterised by saucer-like ships and huge clunky robots that seem conciously designed to look like toy robots rather than anything real. Coupled with this is the theme’s emphasis on disguise, deception and hiding – see, for instance, the rocket launch base disguised as a mountain.

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In Spyrius, there’s a playfulness, a conscious sense of things not being what they pretend to be.

We could put this down as a blip, but this post-modern sense of artifice, playfulness and things not being what they seem crops up again in 90s space Lego with the Insectoids range. As I’ve already mentioned, this faction explored the possibilities of ships that looked like insects, but these were explicitly not meant to be actual biological ships, giant insects or ships that just happened to look like insects. No, they were ships that had been deliberately designed to look like insects as a form of camouflage. Pretence and artifice, foregrounding the creative play aspects of the toy itself.

6982_Explorien_StarshipThis post-modern strand forms a companion to the much less interesting main thrust of later 90s sets, which were largely content to refresh and reimagine earlier successes, without the same depth or commitment. One faction – Unitron – was barely even released in Europe. Just a few of the figures cropped up in other sets. Another, Exploriens, revisited the white and blue look of Futuron, but without the optimistic, futurism-inspired sense of possibility.

Spyrius was the last main Lego Space range I got as a child. I didn’t lose interest in Lego altogether, but my interest had shifted to other area – notably the 1996 Aquanauts range, which, ironically, seems to have begun life as ‘Sea-Tron’, an ocean-based sub-theme of Space, before transitioning into a wholly independent range in its own right.

This was a time of major change for Lego, and for Space in particular. The company had been in some trouble for a while, and seemed increasingly uncertain of its direction. It tried lots of different approaches to diversifying and finding an identity that worked in an increasingly multimedia age, many of which were poorly-received and short-lived. That’s outside the scope of what I want to talk about, but the thing that eventually saved Lego’s bacon is very relevant.

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In 1999 Lego released its first ever licensed sets to tie in with the launch of the Star Wars prequels. Lego Star Wars proved phenomenally successful and has remained a constant fixture ever since, helping turn the company into the largest and most successful toy manufacturer on Earth, and spawning countless other tie-ins, for everything from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to Spongebob SquarePants and Angry Birds. A lot of the Star Wars stuff is very very good, but it sounded the death knell for Lego’s original space range as we’d known it. Lego Space has never quite died out, but new releases have been sporadic and have struggled to compete against an in-house rival with the brand-recognition of Star Wars.

There are interesting things to say about Lego Space in the 2000s, and especially the company’s weaponising of nostalgia, but I’ll leave those to someone else or another time. This discussion will end here.

[1] Pictures from ‘The Truth About SPACE!’, article by Mark Stafford in BrickJournal: Issue 6, Volume 2 Summer 2009: 38-43.

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2 thoughts on “Imagining the Future in Bricks: The Designs of Lego Space (Part 2 – the 90s)

  1. Pingback: Imagining the Future in Bricks: The Designs of Lego Space (Part 1 – 70s and 80s) | Ancient Worlds

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