Welcome dear friends to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Now this creaking old edifice contains a good many items that were produced in thrall to the great God Spin-off, and a good many of these are items produced with the aim of extracting money from small children. Or at least, their parents. These days any sort of property with a demographic that includes legions of ankle-biters will have a range of tie-in action figures leading the charge at the the merch frontlines. But it wasn't always this way. The great trendsetter for this brave new world of spin-off toys was of course the original Star Wars, and after the massive success of the Kenner/Palitoy action figure range in the late 1970s, any movie or TV that was enjoyed by a sizeable number of children would transform their characters into a line of plastic homunculi. And before you could say "by the Power of Ponyskull!", this approach was developed further in the 1980s with the emergence of franchises and properties that were created to just flog toys in the first place.
However while Lucas and Star Wars are often hailed as the creators of this toytown trend, spin-off toys had already been around for a while already. However in the years before we had heard the phrase "may the Force be with you", action figures based around cinema or TV properties were something of a different proposition. In the post-Deathstar years, the Star Wars approach of pocket sized figures at pocket money prices became the industry standard, along with the canny approach to turn every possible character into a doll, even if they had only lurked about in the background - Death Star Droid I'm looking at you. But in the pre-Stars Wars toy stores, any figures you found based on your favourite TV shows or movies were likely to come in a wide variety of different scales and sizes, and often be limited to only a handful of characters. And a perfect example of this simpler age of tie-toys comes in the form of the Doctor Who figures released by Denys Fisher in the late '70s.
In 1976, the Time Lord had been travelling for over a decade on the telly, and his current incarnation, the Fourth Doctor played by Tom Baker, was proving to be the most popular yet. And so, the venerable British toy makers Denys Fisher released what would be the first proper action figure version of the Doctor. Now since the show's beginning, it had been popular with kids, and there had been a lot of tie-in toys and much merchandise, including books, comics, jigsaws and board games. However up until 1976, the only figures or dolls that you could buy were various toy versions of the Doctor's arch enemies, the Daleks. However thanks to Denys Fisher (and Mego in the US), now you could buy a nine and half inch high Fourth Doctor, complete with hat, scarf and even a sonic screwdriver! But wait, there was more! You could also buy a Leela, complete with hunting knife, plus an in-scale version of the Doctor's beloved robot hound K9. And as the show was famous fro its wide array of alins and monsyters, there was a range of enemies to pit your plastic heroes against - Daleks, Cybermen and the K1 Robot (AKA the Giant Robot). Round off the range was a replica TARDIS.
Now don't get me wrong, these were a great range of figures and are now highly prized by collectors. Certainly I was delighted to get a Doctor, TARDIS and a Dalek one Christmas. But there were several features to this range that make them worthy of inclusion in the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat. The first is an odd little detail about the Doctor himself, or rather his miniature toyshop version. Now at first glance, it's rather nice to note that the costume was very faithful to the Doctor's onscreen ensemble, and they did really try to have a figure that looked like Tom Baker. But I always found that my Fourth Doctor figure reminded me of another small screen hero - namely Gambit from Brian Clemens' The New Avengers, as played by Gareth "three types of the finest coffee beans" Hunt.
And the funny thing is, many years later I discovered that there might be a very good reason for this. For around the same time as the Denys Fisher Doctor Who figures was being created, they were developing plans to do a range of New Avengers dolls too, featuring plastic versions of Steed, Gambit and Purdie. The figures were to feature a karate chop action, and while some ads and promotional material did surface, this line of toys really never got off the ground, probably due to the New Avengers disappearing from our screens in 1977. And as far as toy historians know, only Joanna Lumley's character from the show, Purdy, turned up in action figure form in the shops.
However, not wanting to waste a lot of development time and money, it's has been claimed that the sculpt of Gareth Hunt's bonce was cunningly recycled to give the Fourth Doctor doll a noggin. And it was, if you'll pardon an absolutely shameless pun, a gambit (boom! boom!) which worked rather well, as it certainly looked enough like Tom Baker to fool most kiddiewinks. Perhaps that also explains why the Doctor's plastic hat never quite fitted on his head well enough for my liking...