Stand By For Action! – The story of the Character Options range of Doctor Who figures

Image Credit: Adapted from mrvoorzanger (CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons) and Sam Sheppard

Image Description: Daleks and an explosion

Sam Sheppard looks at the Character Options range of Doctor Who action figures, from the highs to the Laszlos 

Action figures (dolls, toys, collectible figurines – call them whatever you like) are a widely produced commodity enjoyed by both children and adults alike. Some might appreciate them for their play value, while others prefer to put them on display. Alternatively, it could be argued that buying action figures simply represents a sentimental attachment to a fictional world, with a subsequent desire to own some representation of that world and its characters. Whatever the case, there are numerous pop culture properties that have spawned ranges of action figures, and Doctor Who is no exception.  

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind will be the range of 5” action figures produced by Character Options, which obtained the master toy licence in 2005. One of their earliest releases was a set of Ninth Doctor and Slitheen figures, boasting a walkie-talkie function. Perhaps better remembered, however, were the Dalek Battle Packs. Each pack included two radio-controlled Dalek models, packaged with either the Ninth Doctor or Rose Tyler. Looking back now, this offering does seem rather crude. Both characters could barely be considered “action figures”, possessing limited articulation and  modelled in a strange combat-ready pose, leading fans to dub these the ‘disco dancing’ figures. Furthermore, there were cosmetic issues, with Rose’s hair a strange shade of neon yellow, while the Daleks themselves had a slightly cartoonish look, owing to their chunky limbs and some minor inaccuracies in the shape of their bodies. Still, it’s unlikely that young children would have picked up on such small details, and the Dalek Battle Packs can only have been a resounding success. After all, they were quickly followed by a full range of action figures, many of which were produced to an impressive standard,  considering their price point and target audience. With considerably improved articulation and appearance from the original statuettes, these figures were ready to conquer the shelves.

The majority of figures were released as single carded products in several waves. Colour-coded backgrounds were used for the packaging, withred for Series 1; blue for Series 2; green for Series 3; and purple for Series 4. Alongside the single figures were a variety of box sets, containing multiple figures and often themed after certain episodes. One could also obtain ‘deluxe’, larger figures such as the Empress of the Racnoss or the Face of Boe. More importantly, no replica of the Doctor would have been complete without a TARDIS – marketed as the ‘Flight Control’ model, it came with a variety of electronic light and sound features. This was complemented by an impressive playset depicting the ‘coral’ version of the TARDIS interior, although its appeal was diminished by the flimsy card pieces which made up the walls and flooring. On the plus side, at least it included a hat stand! Meanwhile, the all-important Daleks and Cybermen were being produced in vast numbers, enough for any scale recreation of Doomsday. In 2008, moreover, the company released a new version of the standard bronze Dalek. This was a much more accurate sculpt, which superseded the clunky version that debuted in the Battle Packs.

Looking at the earliest waves, there seem to have been a reasonably good mixture of characters. As well as the obvious, crowd-pleasing favourites, there were plenty of more obscure and interesting choices. That said, there were some that seemed downright bizarre. Slitheen,Autons, and Sontarans were all well and good, but was any child really crying out for an action figure of Grandma Connolly from The Idiot’s Lantern? Was this done solely to justify the little television set accessory, which boasted lenticular screens and the face of Maureen Lipman as the Wire? Looking elsewhere, there was a Moxx of Balhoon figure which boasted ‘pull back and go’ action;a little odd given that the character largely remained stationary while either complaining or being roasted to death. Then there was the infamous Laszlo, dubbed a ‘shelf warmer’ by fans. If you’ve not heard the term before, it’s a derogatory phrase used to suggest that a particular figure is chronically unpopular and will remain forever unbought. When you consider that the ordinary Pig Slave action figure could only be obtained as part of a Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks themed set, while Laszlo was sold separately, this decision seems particularly strange.  Surely it would have made more sense to release the Pig Slave as a single carded figure, while restricting the unique Laszlo to the box set?

If you were to ask me what I considered the worst figure of them all, however, I can only award that ignoble title to one product. Cassandra, who debuted in The End of the World, was never a particularly edifying prospect for an action figure. Whatever you may have thought of the character, it can hardly be denied that a Cassandra toy does not count as an “action figure” because it has absolutely no moving parts and so is really just a glorified accessory. The Destroyed Cassandra figure, therefore, was even worse, as it consisted of nothing but an empty frame. There was, to be fair, some attempt to address this by releasing it in a double pack with Chip, but the Destroyed Cassandra was also released as a single carded figure. Yes, that’s right. It was sold on its own, indicating a clear expectation that you would pay about £8 for an empty plastic frame. Some would call this a bold move; others would prefer to use terms such as ‘outrageous’ or ‘goddamned stupid’.

These ‘bold’ creative decisions weren’t just limited to which characters featured either, with one design decision that particularly annoyed me. While Character Options did release a Donna Noble action figure, they chose to model it after her appearance in Planet of the Ood, including the thick coat she wore . Given the variety of costumes Catherine Tate wore throughout Series 4, it seems irrational that the makers should have chosen the least versatile of them. Children could envision all sorts of exciting adventures starring Donna… just as long as they took place during a very bad winter.

 In 2008, however, Character Options more than made up for any of these underwhelming figures by announcing that they would release a new range of figures based on the classic series. Given that such toys would likely be seen as having a more niche appeal than those based on the post-2005 series, it still seems impressive that they chose to venture into this field at all. Moreover, my eleven-year-old self was thrilled by the first set of classic figures: a ‘Collect and Build’ wave of eight characters including the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Doctors. Gathering all eight would give you enough parts to assemble an impressive model of the K-1 Robot from Tom Baker’s first adventure, recalling the Denys Fisher toy from the 1970s. 

I can also remember the excitement of buying the “Dalek Collectors’ Set” which swiftly followed. This was a box set featuring three variants: the original version from The Daleks, an ordinary grey model from Genesis of the Daleks, and the unique Supreme Dalek from Planet of the Daleks. All three were well rendered, with close attention to detail, and the Supreme remains a highlight of my collection. Over the following years, the range of classic figures was greatly expanded to include several different monsters and the first eight incarnations of the Doctor. Disappointingly, however, there did seem to be a bias towards the 1970s, and fans hoping for a miniature Voord or Kandyman would be disappointed. More importantly, Character Options seemed reluctant to tackle classic companions. They did eventually release Ace, Jo, Peri, Leela, and the Brigadier, but none of the First or Second Doctors’ companions were ever tackled. Meanwhile, the lack of a classic Sarah Jane still seems baffling, with collectors  having to make do with the older version seen in School Reunion. However, with the  recent announcement of a new Harry Sullivan figure, there is  promise that the situation might be changing. 

The figures were accompanied by a variety of side ventures, some more successful than others. There was the ‘Micro Universe’ range of 35mm figures which were intended for use as gaming pieces, and a short-lived range of 12” figures, or perhaps more accurately, dolls. This range included the Tenth Doctor andMartha alongside a handful of monsters such as the Dalek Sec Hybrid.  Another venture was the “Time Squad” range of small,highly stylised figures which could well be regarded as a precursor to today’s Funko Pop figures. Whilethere was an attempt to revive the line in 2015, the “Time Squad” never seemed to be especially popular. In contrast, few products can have been more successful than Character Options’ Dalek-related toys. As well as the 5” action figures, the company also released Dalek voice changer helmets and remote-controlled Daleks in a variety of scales. The most impressive of these stood at 18 inches tall and boasted ‘voice interactive’ functions. 

Returning to the main line of action figures, change was in the air. In 2010, the packaging was completely redesigned, echoing the changes the show itself was undergoing. A new blue and yellow colour scheme, replacing the old colour-coded packs, accompanied the new figures depicting characters from Matt Smith’s first series.  There was a fairly appealing selection, and the New Paradigm Daleks, despite their general reception, can only have been gratefully received by the toy makers. It was around the time of Series 6, however, that problems began to arise. In the past, minor variants (such as the multiple Scarecrows or Clockwork Droids) had been a necessary evil, allowing the company to meet retailers’ demands while reducing the cost and pressure of manufacturing completely new figures. Fans may have groaned at, say, the two different versions of the Tenth Doctor in his Sanctuary Base space suit (one clean, and one with a broken face plate), but these versions were usually balanced out by enough new characters to keep them happy. With the Series 6 range, however, it appears that Character Options was forced to rely on a greater proportion of variant figures than usual (likely because it was trying to make up existing orders while dealing with reduced interest from retailers). Thus, fans accused the company of padding out an underwhelming selection with endlessly tweaked Cybermen and Silent figures. Worst of all were surely the Eleventh Doctor figures: the Eleventh Doctor with beard; the Eleventh Doctor with beard and straitjacket; the Eleventh Doctor with a cowboy hat… how thrilling. How absolutely thrilling.

It has to be asked: did something go wrong with the action figure range? And, if so, what was it? The problem can be attributed to a combination of factors. It could be argued, firstly, that this development was inevitable. Doctor Who as a brand was growing older, and the young fans who had first been attracted to the 2005 revival were growing old right along with it. It’s not hard to imagine that many of them were simply losing interest in action figures. Moreover, it may well be the case that retailer interest was simply tailing off as the novelty of the revival faded. There was also the problem of the figures’ target audience. They had succeeded by appealing not only to dedicated collectors but also children and casual fans, so it was therefore an issue that less  Doctor Who merchandise was being stocked by retailers like Argos or Toys R Us. Certainly, the demise of Woolworth’s – which was one of the most important high street retailers where Doctor Who toys were concerned – dealt the range a serious blow. Finally, scheduling was another key problem. When there was a series of 13 episodes airing every spring, it was easy for toy makers to prepare and release their products in time for the all-important run up to Christmas. With the move to split series and autumnal broadcasting, this was obviously no longer the case. 

Talking to people my own age, I often find that they are incredibly nostalgic for the Russell T Davies era. There is a tendency to valorise this as a sort of Golden Age, entirely beyond reproach. This can be grating – but when I think about my own interest in the action figures, and in Doctor Who merchandise as a whole, it’s a little difficult not to see things from their point of view. I remember with fondness the days when I could walk into my nearest Toys R Us and find a huge selection of Doctor Who toys – maybe even a display with a huge David Tennant cut-out, surveying his domain. The last time I went in there, however, there was only a meagre selection of merchandise, confined to a single aisle and hemmed in on all sides by competing franchises. While such toys may be little more than materialistic commodities, it was hard for me not to feel a little sad, as though I was looking upon the ruins of a once-mighty empire: Look upon my brand integrity, ye mighty, and despair!

There were, of course, attempts to resolve the situation. For example, some might remember the (mercifully short-lived) period when the company seemed to be obsessed with the ‘Flesh’, as seen in Series 6’s The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. Not only was there a Ganger variation of the Eleventh Doctor figure, but several other characters were reissued with Flesh-themed accessories. I suspect some marketing executive hoped that such releases held a ‘gross-out’ factor which would appeal to very young children, but their efforts can’t have been too successful. Certainly, the ‘Flesh Goo Pod’ (featuring dismembered chunks of Matt Smith floating in white gunk) seems more like the result of a fever dream than something that would be released by a legitimately successful company.

More importantly, there was a far more serious attempt to revitalise the flagging line by adopting a new, smaller scale. It was announced in 2013 that the figures would now be made to a scale of 3.75” inches, and one can see the logic behind the decision. Rising costs had certainly been an issue, so reducing the size of the figures may have helped to address this by making the toys cheaper and more portable. Unfortunately, the new 3.75” figures did not meet with a positive reaction. It was apparent that several compromises had needed to be made, with the toys criticised for low quality and poor facial likenesses. Indeed, the Daleks and other monsters seem to have been the best part of this new range, which was eventually abandoned. Elsewhere, the company has returned to producing figures in the 5” scale, though certainly not to the same degree as they did previously. 

The past few years have seen 5” action figures of Missy, Bill and the Twelfth Doctor, which is of course better than nothing at all. However, it remained all too obvious that the regular waves, featuring a mixed selection of characters, were a thing of the past. Although two Amy Pond figures were released in 2010, for instance, it took the company another two years to even bother producing a Rory Williams. More importantly, it’s frustrating to see so many obvious choices going unrepresented. While it has to be appreciated that the company’s hands have long been tied by economic considerations, fans have complained that the new version of the Cybermen (first seen in Series 7’s Nightmare in Silver) was only made available in the unpopular 3.75” scale, while the same could be said of the new series’ takes on the Ice Warrior and Zygon. More importantly, Clara Oswald is still without a proper 5” action figure, with the only Clara figure, at the time of writing, an obvious and underwhelming recolour of Oswin from Asylum of the Daleks.

Given that I can still remember the heyday of the action figure range – when the toys were widely and consistently available – it’s difficult not to wonder whether the line has a future at all. It could even be argued that there have been significant and widespread shifts in fandom culture which suggest that the very concept of the action figure is growing less popular, with many now looking to alternative forms of merchandise. For example, there is the growing popularity of the large-scale figures produced by Hot Toys and Big Chief; indeed, the latter offers several Doctor Who figures modelled to 1:6 scale (see Hail to the Chief in Tides #43 – Eds.). Another significant factor is almost certainly the rise of the Funko Pop brand. The American company Funko, which offers a range of bobble-heads and vinyl figurines, has become a powerful force in the toy market, being able to offer characters from a ridiculously vast range of brands and franchises. It might well be the case that, for many people, the heavily stylised design philosophy of Funko Pops is more appealing than action figures like those produced by Character Options. Alternatively, the brand’s popularity could simply be attributed to widespread distribution and a compelling variety of characters. Either way, it seems difficult to dispute that Funko has, in many ways, succeeded Character Options as a regular distributor of Doctor Who figures.

However, I would argue that Character Options still has a chance of success. I have to admit that I am somewhat biased – I dislike the stylised template that Funko applies to all its Pop figures, and find the concept of action figures more appealing. Yet it remains the case that there has recently been a raft of new figures courtesy of the retailer B&M, and this seems like a solid attempt to once again market Doctor Who action figures to the general public as well as the adult collector. It’s true that there are limits to what Character Options has offered in recent years. These days, an all-new tooling is very rare, so much so that even the recent Bill Potts figure recycled the body of Primeval’s Abby Maitland.. Nevertheless, many of the B&M sets have been met with enthusiasm, particularly when they offer fans the chance to get their hands on some of the rarer classic characters. Furthermore, there has been a selection of brand new Thirteenth Doctor merchandise, including her very own action figure. This is a crucial step, and there are even rumours of Graham, Ryan and Yaz figures to be released in 2020, coinciding with the airing of Series 12. Perhaps these toys will help to induce a whole new generation of children into watching the Doctor’s adventures – and creating some of their own…

Tides 44 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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