Four stories of figure-scaled fun, the Death Star from the original Kenner Star Wars line was the Rolls Royce of action toys in 1978. Combining several scenarios from the movie, and yet keeping things generic enough for open-ended play, this was the dream dollhouse of a galaxy far, far away.
Oddly enough, it’s also an unrepeated phenomenon in the Kenner toy line – something which very few Star Wars vehicles or playsets can claim. Many of them have been replicated in the more recent Hasbro toys, or replaced with new molds of the same item. The closest Hasbro has come to the Death Star has been a pair of “mini playset segments” – one depicting the hexagonal detention block corridor (which I’ll admit is cool, and it’s not a feature replicated here, even if it is saddled with a missile launcher that has absolutely zero bearing on anything that ever happened in that scene) and one with slightly cheesy rendition of Luke and Leia’s swing over the chasm. And that’s it. C’mon, Hasbro, where’s the love for the original Death Star playset?
Not that collectors who have one in reasonably good shape are complaining in the slightest, mind you. And maybe, just maybe, the original Kenner Death Star is a snapshot in time. I can’t imagine, in this day and age, anyone releasing any kind of playset which features, as one of its killer apps, a trash masher where you can threaten to squish your action figures. Can you imagine the outcry? (Then again, we get frivolous missile launchers these days…)
The aforementioned “garbage compactor” – not seen here as it’s sadly missing from this specimen of the Death Star – was a self-contained orange “tank” with clear plastic windows, a pop-open door at one end, and a vise-grip-like twist knob on the other end; twisting that knob would move the attached plastic wall of the garbage compactor inward, squishing the chunks of foam rubber “garbage,” the included green rubberized dianoga creature, and any action figures lucky enough to be trapped in there with it. Until – voila! – the pressure of all that stuff pops open the door on the opposite end, allowing our heroes to escape. This whole assembly fit in a gap left on the bottom “floor” of the Death Star.
A black plastic elevator – a nifty, fairly-robust-for-a-toy mechanism which could be sent to any floor and featured a classic smoked-plastic rotating door – can also be found on the ground floor. By lifting it to another level of the playset and then twisting its control lever, the elevator can sit on whatever floor is desired. The second floor features two control consoles (controls provided by colorful decals) and a “trap door” hatch leading to the trash masher. For an outer “wall,” a printed piece of cardboard is provided, depicting (more or less) the red-and-black computer control area that Luke and friends commandeered before launching their attempt to rescue Princess Leia.
The third floor features two narrow catwalks, one of which can be withdrawn to recreate the “swing across the chasm” scene. Absent from this specimen is a plastic rope-like gadget, hung from the bottom of the next level up, which could hold Luke and Leia as they swing across. The other narrow catwalk again features a groove for another cardboard outer wall.
The top floor features two major locations glimpsed in the movie; the majority of this floor is taken up by a rotating Death Star laser cannon; obviously not the superweapon, this one is modeled on one of the “ground emplacements” seen blasting away at Rebel fighters during the movie’s climactic battle. An action lever lets the Rebels get their revenge though – hitting it activates a spring which disconnects the cannon and leaves it “damaged.” (The rotating mechanism that holds the cannon until then features a chair for one action figure.) Behind the elevator, however, lies the tractor beam control mechanism, along with a narrow catwalk where Ben Kenobi can carry out one last act of Jedi sabotage. Topping off the whole structure is an open honeycomb of a “roof.”
Has fan/collector insistence on more accurate models killed this Death Star faster than a proton torpedo? Maybe. But maybe time has obscured the memory of just how accurate parts of this plastic behemoth are. Even pieces such as the support struts that hold up each floor show attention to detail: they feature the “staggered rounded rectangle” motif found all over the movies’ Imperial architecture, and some features of the playset, namely the cannon and tractor beam controls, are better-than-passable replicas of those locales on film. The catwalks and floors have molded “deck plating” patterns (and plenty of foot-hole pegs to keep figures in place), and all these years later, for a toy scaled for action figures, that transparent elevator door is still just damned classy. Attention to detail was paid in full, with interest.
In any case, unless Hasbro continues further down the path of nostalgia (as seen with their recent ranges of figures with vintage-style packaging), the Death Star playset remains a gem known only to diehard collectors and to those of us who were among the first generation of Star Wars consumers. Like the movies in their original form, it’s a relic of Star Wars‘ past. (Dare I say an elegant toy for a more civilized age?)