Monday, November 09, 2009

It figures: Trek-it-yourself customising recipes by Ian McLean

Missing your favourite characters?

Despite the exciting range of Playmates' Star Trek action figures out there in the 1990s, I often found that my favourite character were missing.

Why not Trek-it-yourself? Decapitate a few bargain table figures, plonk on a new coat of paint and you, too, can supplement the ranks of Starfleet's finest.

The early days...

My first Star Trek figurine make-over dates back to 1980, just after I had discovered Star Trek fandom. I was actually retaliating against AMT's inclusion of a mere three figures (Kirk, Spock, Sulu) with its otherwise excellent Enterprise Bridge scale model kit. I hated the fact that the finished model had all those empty chairs: no navigator, communications officer, doctor, engineer, nurse or yeoman. There wasn't even a token, disposable, red-shirt security guard. The perfectionist in me wanted, at the very least, the three division colours to be represented.

After a long search through hobby shops, I couldn't find humanoid figures in the desired scale or clothing (although I later saw an ad for extra crew in an early issue of Starlog magazine). Shelling out $$$$$ for a second bridge set was tempting, but would still only provide three more figures... and only one of those in a seated position. Eventually, I completed Kirk and Spock according to the instructions, but settled for narcissism with the third figure. I painted Sulu to resemble my newly-created Andorian persona, which I'd already paraded live at Star Trek gatherings. Red shirt, white hair, blue skin and two antennae (made from thin pieces of wire, heated at one end to melt them into position), and a tiny version of Security Officer Therin was ready to guard the turbolift doors.

Will Decker, Andorian custom, w/ AMT figures
Will Decker from TMP, an Andorian custom,
with AMT TOS figures and "tweaked Sulu".

A few months later, a lucky find of bargain basement Mego 3.75 inch action figures from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Dukes of Hazzard inspired my next project: I simply repainted a Luke Duke head, bent some dressmakers pins and stuck it all onto a spare Will Decker torso to create a promotion for my Andorian character. Therin, by this time, had taken on a life of his own, appearing at gala film premieres and in numerous costume parades, fanzine short stories and audiovisual productions. For many years, he was even captain of his own ship, the USS Hood, and wore a unique insignia on his uniforms. Now he was an action figure, too!

Therin of Andor
Therin of Andor

In 1996, I was finally able to represent Therin in his latter day Starfleet outfit (above), by bringing together a Playmates' Star Trek Generations Kirk torso and the head of Iolaus (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys). I had to trim down Iolaus' muscular neck, somewhat and then the hairline was altered by trimming off several tufts of hair and transplanting them with superglue. Plastic-headed, dressmaker's "berry pin" antennae were truncated carefully with a sharp Stanley knife. Captain Therin's tiny insignia and belt buckle were created by cutting up pieces of very thin plastic, taken from the edges of a household cockroach bait! (Things get desperate at 1.00 am when you're in a creative mood.)

Back in business...

Although it had been quite a few years, I'd well and truly caught the customising bug again...

I created a "bootleg" Thomas Riker using the simple head-swap method. No authentic examples had been imported into Australian retail outlets, so buying a spare O'Brien in Starfleet Duty Uniform, plus a spare Will Riker, was much cheaper than the alternative: a mail ordered "shortpack" Thomas from the US. And my compromise figure doesn't have the oft-maligned, painted-over rips in the uniform!

A Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, A Matter of Honor, presented an obvious challenge. It was established that Mendon the Benzite was an exact double of Wesley's friend Mordock (and played by the same actor, John Putch). I purchased a discounted Mordock and grafted his head, forearms and breathing device onto a Cadet Wesley body. During late-night research with my View-master reels of the Mendon episode, it was sheer serendipity when I realised that Mendon's (second season) uniform really did feature a rare collar. Matching the blue/green paint of a science uniform took some time, though.

Bolian Starfleet officer, Dr Selar of Vulcan, Mendon the Benzite
Bolian Starfleet officer, Dr Selar of Vulcan, Mendon the Benzite

Next up (as you can see above) was a Bolian Starfleet officer. I originally planned to make Captain Rixx (TNG's Conspiracy) to utilise the leftover Riker body. I even found a perfect sneering bald head on the evil Hood character (from Thunderbirds), but by the time I'd added his facial ridge, long earlobes and blue skin, my Bolian was a dead ringer for the Enterprise-D's barber, Mr Mot! So, I guess this figure is Mr Mot in his holodeck fantasy costume!

A Next Generation K'Ehleyr head was shaved free of all hair, made-over with (five-minute hardening) Knead It putty, given a pair of Spock's sliced-off ears, and simply snapped into place on a spare Beverly Crusher body. The result? A stunning Dr Selar figure, from The Schizoid Man. Selar even looked like actor Suzie Plakson, but no wonder: she had also played K'Ehleyr. Of course, a Kate Pulaski second season uniform would have been more accurate, but they were unavailable Down Under; Bev was plentiful - and often on the bargain tables!

Dr Selar

Getting braver and bolder...

My next ideas were more ambitious and would nudge me further into the putty-and-sandpaper league. I managed to track down an excellent (cheap!) price on a second Classic Enterprise Bridge boxed character assortment: a mini-army of spare parts! I think it was the last set for sale at retail in Australia. Along came Lieutenants Arex and M'Ress of Filmation's Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS), two of my favourite ST aliens.

M'Ress and Arex landing party
Filmation characters, Arex and M'Ress

These two great characters were so rarely given the spotlight. Arex, an Edoan, had three arms and three legs and M'Ress, a Caitian, resembled a lioness. Their participation in the cartoon series was minimal enough, but when DC Comics brought them out of early retirement for their movie-era comic in the 80s, Paramount actually demanded that they be written out again. The animated series was no longer "canon", you see, and Arex and M'ress were out-of-work Toons again. (Shades of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?...) I was determined to pay homage to these characters and I guess it worked. I'm very pleased with the results.

The Classic Sulu figure had the correct rank on his sleeves for Arex and also had the slimmest torso. Imagine my surprise when I found strange factory markings, black scrawls in both English and Japanese (?), on Sulu's back! (These markings probably denote a unique rarity, I know, but since I'd already broken the packaging seals and desperately needed the figure to make my Arex, I forged ahead.) Ensign Chekov donated an arm, complete with its newly-puttied lieutenant stripe. The arm was simply superglued to the centre of the chest. One finger was sliced off each hand with a Stanley knife so that Arex could join the ranks of his four-fingered colleagues: Mickey Mouse, Roger Rabbit and so on.

Arex the Edoan/TriexianFactory markings on my Arex custom
Right: Factory markings on my Arex custom (a former Sulu)

Sulu's legs were completely removed. Three canine-like legs were fashioned with black Crayola Model Magic, a lightweight modelling dough which air-dries to a flexible, yet dense, foam rubber consistency. (The result was superior to what could have been achieved with Das, Fimo or Polyclay, so wasn't it just as well I couldn't find those products in stock anywhere?) Being so flexible, the tops of the thighs were easily trimmed with the Stanley knife and superglued seamlessly to the curved surfaces of Arex's nether regions. His toes were then adjusted on the Starfleet command base to give the best stance and they too were superglued into position. Later, I decided to give the legs a coat of black gloss enamel to better match the sheen of the other characters' uniform trousers. I was very surprised that the modelling compound could be painted so easily, but it worked. (I actually broke one leg when I dropped Arex while showing him off to friends. The leg superglued back together and I can't even find the join. Miracle stuff, eh?)

Arex's head was moulded out of white Model Magic dough, then air-dried overnight. Two yellow "berry pins" became the Edoan's bulbous eyeballs and were sealed into place with eyelids made from putty. Four frustrating attempts with Knead It putty were needed to achieve the desired neck angle. (The phone rang twice! What are the odds on that?) Finally, Mr Arex was ready for a coat of orange paint. Success!

M'Ress the Caitian
M'Ress the Caitian

M'Ress was a little less complicated. Essentially, she is a puttied-over Classic Uhura, the only female in the boxed set. Remember, this was before the availability of single-packed Janice Rand figures, so I couldn't afford to make a mistake! I breathed deeply and gave Uhura a quick nose job, with the fast-hardening Knead It putty used to build up cat-like eyes, nostrils and cheekbones. The mane of hair was created from a large piece of the same putty, squeezed flat, draped over the head and textured with a blunt tool. I fluked it first go, with only seconds to spare.

As with Arex, one finger was removed from each hand. The digits were also shortened to resemble paws. A search of local toy shops for suitable feline legs proved fruitless, so I superglued the existing legs into the necessary angles: thighs wedged up against the front of the skirt hem and the knees slightly bent. Uhura's boots were pared down, the heels removed and the toes cut short. A pair of paws, cut from a quasi Lion King figurine, were superglued into place. The same lion's tail was easily docked and transplanted. The lion's ears were inadequate, but the donor ears of the accompanying rhinoceros figure, which shared the blister pack, were ideal. M'Ress was also superglued to her Starfleet base, because her putty hair made her a little top-heavy.

Customs on the bridge
Customs on the bridge

There was no stopping me now...

Nothing goes to waste! Over the next few months, the spare Beverly face (from making the Dr Selar) was placed onto a Saavik head and a Torres body to create Captain Beverly Picard from All Good Things... This was long before Playmates got around to releasing that figure. The leftover Saavik uniform, when combined with a Lwaxana Troi head (sans earrings) made a great Commander Chapel, as seen in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. And a Nurse Chapel face (also Majel Barrett, but younger) was eventually glued onto what was left of the first Bev Crusher head.

With the addition of assorted body parts (Rand's torso and boots, Seska's hips and thighs, Sulu's legs) a convincing Number One (below), as seen in the classic episodes The Cage and The Menagerie, was created. (See, she doesn't look like The Bride of Frankenstein, even though that's how she was put together!) However, I'm getting ahead of myself...

Number One of "The Cage"
Number One of "The Cage"

More, more, more...

Sorting through the pile of discarded body parts, I noticed that the spare Mordock torso and an "on special" elderly Admiral McCoy could be the beginnings of a Classic Andorian figure (below right). At first, I intended to putty-up the hole left by the breathing apparatus, but then I realised how great the figure looked when it was wearing the purple Iolaus vest. So the hole is still there; I simply reversed the chest section! Teamed with a silver paint job, the outfit is not too unlike traditional Andorian fashions (Journey to Babel). A John Smith head (from Disney's Pocahontas) on a Bashir body, was an effective basis for another, younger Andorian (below left).

Two Andorians
Two Andorians

The creative juices continued to flow. My spare Classic Chekov head, now with yellow eyes, prominent Adam's apple and enlarged forehead, was placed on a spare grey Spock uniform to become the Rhaandarite bridge alien portrayed in Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Billy Van Zandt.

Rhaandarite bridge ensign
Rhaandarite bridge ensign

Tuvix, just as in the Star Trek: Voyager episode of the same name, was created by combining elements of the Tuvok and Neelix characters. When Tuvix first appears in the episode, even his clothes are a combination of Talaxian fashion and Starfleet uniform. For the customised figure, Neelix's hair was trimmed, the ears made pointier and the face and hands repainted with Tuvok's colouring. The communicator insignia was sliced off carefully and superglued a little lower. Tuvok's (detachable) legs and feet were clicked onto Neelix's thigh joints to make the figure taller. I even made a "Tuvix" name sticker for the action base by cutting the two original stickers in half!


Other projects have included:
Pieces of Classic Spock and McCoy, which became Commander Thelin of the animated episode, Yesteryear.

* Puttying over the forehead of Worf-in-ceremonial-garb created his grandfather, Colonel Worf (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). Incidentally, the cloak looks much better on the Commander Kruge figure and helps to cover up the totally wrong uniform Playmates gave him. Kruge did wear a cloak when he was on Genesis (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock).

* Commander Sela with Seska's face, which produced a great T'Rul, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's The Search. (Again, the resemblance to the actress was made simpler because Martha Hackett played both T'Rul and Seska.)

* A blonded Bashir head on Classic Scotty's torso: a fairly convincing Transporter Chief Kyle.

* Scotty's head, teamed with a Lore-in-Pakled uniform figure to create... a Pakled (albeit, a rather skinny one, as seen below).

Pakled (TNG) and Tellarite (TOS)

* Lore's head on SeaQuest DSV's Nathan Bridger, plus a little putty, thus producing Professor Data from All Good Things...

* My Tellarite Starfleet officer (above), featuring Bridger's head on a Kirk body. Note the hands!

* Extending the range of Mego 3.75 inch alien ambassadors, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is a recent project of which I'm rather proud.

Betelgeusian custom, ST:TMP
Mego 3.75 inch Betelgeusian custom

* Handicraft store mini pompons make great to-scale tribbles (see below!) for Playmates action figures.

* And I've just picked up a cute action figure of Gi, an Asian girl from Captain Planet and the Planeteers, who should make a wonderful Molly O'Brien to go with the Keiko I've been working on (again, long before Playmates released their own keiko)..

Excuse me, the phone is ringing again and this piece of putty is setting very quickly...

Tribbles and Kirk

Tribbles on DS9
Customised Trader Worf and redshirt O'Brien

Special thanks to Steve Simpson for much of the photography and to Bumworld for awarding my Arex and M'Ress custom figures a trophy! (They really love it and asked me to say that it was very tasty. Damn those pesky Toons.)

BumWorld virtual trophy

First uploaded to Geocities in 1999, and revised 2000 and - on Blogger - in 2009.


Kevin said...

Those customs look great! What did you use for the head and chest of Number one? Could you give me some advice for doing head and limb swaps?

thanks mate


Therin of Andor said...

G'day Kev,

As mentioned above, Number One uses a sliced-off Nurse Chapel face glued onto a faceless Bev Crusher head. Janice Rand's torso and boots, Seska's hips and thighs and Sulu's legs complete a rather convincing Number One.

The "boil and pop" method - rest the figures in hot water and twist off the pieces (protecting your hand with a towel) - works well. I don't worry too much about making some limbs articulated, tough.

Kevin said...

Cheers, I'll try Spock in movie uniform with the boil and pop.

Reginald said...

Hey nice customs. How much would you charge for Arex, M'Ress, a Tellerite and an Andorian officer. I would love to get them as characters. Also have a couple of my own I wish I could get customized.

Therin of Andor said...

Sorry Reginald, my customs aren't for sale. It's as painful as selling your firstborn child! Also, the raw materials (spare Starfleet torsos) aren't as easy to come by these days.

NEWTMAN 93 said...

These custom figures are great! If you ever decided, which ones would you put up for sale?

Anonymous said...

I came here looking for a Tuvix figure. Too bad it's not for sale. Some of these are top-notch!