Sunday, July 06, 2008

My spaced-out childhood

Major Matt Mason, Sgt Storm and Callisto escape from a rampaging Clanger. Possibly rabid.

All this talk of Doctor Who and Davros and Sontarans and hot summer days (there are thunderstorms outside as I write this - true) has got me feeling all moist and sticky with syrupy nostalgia. Doctor Who was an important part of my childhood. I was just ever-so-slightly too young to remember the Hartnell years - I was only two when they began and only five when he hung up his TARDIS key. But I do remember odd snippets from the Troughton years very clearly; one of my first memories is of the foamy stuff and the weed creatures from Fury from the Deep (1968). Living as I did in Cornwall, near the seaside, I was terrified for months that I'd be attacked by belligerent kelp or a petulant winkle. John Pertwee and Tom Baker were my Doctors. And I still think, to this day, that these two had the best stories and the worst monsters. Let's face it, the scripts had to be good when the alien baddie was a five feet tall rubber gnat or a bloke dressed as a slice of melon with Hula Hoops stuck all down his sides.
But Doctor Who wasn't my only preoccupation within the realms of science fiction. Oh no. There was Thunderbirds and sundry other puppet-fare from the Gerry Anderson stable. There was Star Trek. There was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I saw nine times at the cinema and utterly failed to understand every time. I just loved the vision of the future it promised. I even had the Airfix model of the Pan Am space shuttle hanging from my bedroom ceiling.

And there was real space travel to be enjoyed too. I watched the first Moon landing live as it happened (my parents let me stay up late). I buzzed about it for days and weeks, knowing that by the time I grew up I'd have my own hovercar, would dress in a Bacofoil suit, eat pills as food and holiday on Mars. Hoorah! It was a time of huge optimism and, keeping in with the spirit of a new frontier - the final frontier in fact - having its cherry popped, Mattel brought out a range of toys under the banner of Major Matt Mason - Mattel's Man in Space! (cue fanfare).

I bloody loved MMM. I loved him because I was the only kid I knew who collected the figures. Even then I liked being different. All the other boys collected Action Man (all except a lad called John who collected Barbie - but we won't go there). Action Man was a kind of testosterone-fuelled male Barbie; a doll you dressed up. But this doll had gripping hands and a realistic scar and dressed as commandos, frogmen and parachutists. Action Man had accessories galore - the kind of things we'd freak out about now like knives and guns and spring-loaded mortars that could forcibly deliver a small bomb into a child's eye from five feet. He had inflatable power boats, green plastic jeeps and even his own tank. But I didn't collect Action Man.

Nope, I collected his smaller and bendier American rival, Major Matt Mason in his Titanium White space suit and yellow-visored space helmet (what a trend setter ... years before Bono). Major Matt was strangely elongate in his upper body, was made of rubber and had a wire skeleton that allowed you to pose him like a Bendy Toy (remember them?). So did his posse, the red-suited Sergeant Storm, yellow-suited civilian astronaut Doug Davis, blue-suited African-American Lieut. Jeff Long and the bizarre green-skinned alien Callisto. Callisto was my favourite. He had a fantastic purple gun that fired a laser beam - or piece of yellow string - when you squeezed a bellows. After posing them on their various futuristic transports for a month or so, the internal wires all snapped of course, making each figure ultimately unposable. So they all had to stand up or lie down as if paralysed by a native blow-dart.

I never managed to find a Jeff Long. Nor did I ever find any of the alien baddies like the giant Captain Lazer figure (on the box at the right of the space cannon above), or the insectoid Or (for that was its name), or the equally bug-like Scorpio. The sad fact is that these were imports from America and hard to find in Cornwall. Which is why I was the only kid I knew that had them. But I did have the space station which looked like a disco oil rig on red legs. I also had the Firebolt Space Cannon that lit up red all along the barrel and trundled along, stiff figures mounted clumsily on the back, randomly selecting targets to stop and fire at. I also had a kind of odd all-terrain bubble affair that the driver sat inside, which was towed either by a kind of caterpillar-tracked JCB or a contraption with four-spoked crosses for wheels. It was all fantastic and futuristic and I loved it. It was so much better than boring old Action Man and his Velcro hair. They even did a special edition with a fuzzy beard. Pipe and slippers can't have been far away.

Most of my collection has long gone; lost, broken, buried or eaten. I still have Major Matt and Sgt Storm and a one-handed Callisto, but I remember the day we lost Doug Davis - not to space fever or alien incursion, but to a pair of poodles called Deedles and Snooky who lived next door. Nearly all of these brave astronauts' props have gone too. The vehicles were scrapped, helmet visors and rayguns were lost, the space station demolished. All I have left is a rather crappy truck and a hovercraft that doesn't. But just fondling these totems brings back many happy memories, as does visiting the various MMM fan sites. Best of the lot are Keith Meyer's Space Station, John Eaton's Wildtoys and George's MMM Site. They all seem to take great joy and delight in showing me the various gadgets, gizmos and vehicles that I could never get hold of as a kid and which now surface occasionally on e-bay and such places at silly prices. The Major has become quite a collector's item now. My knackered figures are worthless of course. But they are as much a part of my childhood as Doctor Who was and I wouldn't sell them for a million pounds.

Okay. That is a lie.

All images (c) copyright Mattel and shamelessly lifted from John Eaton's site. Except the first one. That's mine.


The Factory said...

I didn't know you liked 2001, and that you watched it nine times at the cinema ! You would probably rather like my blu-ray edition of said film, which has picture quality that would bring a grown man to tears. Well, me anyway.

Not only that but seeing Leonard Rossiter in 1080p is a thrill that I can't begin to describe. So I won't.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Oh yes ... as soon as I saw him I desperately wanted him to tip Campari all over Joan Collins in zero gravity just to see what happens.

moonglum said...

Hi - I too had Major M, Sarge Storm, Callisto and Doug D - and a mate had the v cool Capt Lazer. I doubt Jeff made it to the UK in the "Love Thy Neighbour" climate of the 70s. Sold Callisto for 10 pence - duh!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Moonglum - I'm so pleased to meet the other person who had Major Matt Mason. I thought I was all alone. I never seem to meet anyone else anyway. There were all Action Man groupies. Captain Lazer eh? I never even got to see him in real life. And you're probably right about Jeff. We weren't very PC back then were we?

moonglum said...

Hi again - just to say I sent a link to your site to two other guys - yes two - who I know had Major Matt Mason stuff. There were tears of joy. We were all from the Wirral oop north then so Mattel certainly had wide distribution. But how much are these buggers worth now?
And we all spurned Little Big Man.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Moonglum - Some of them, especially if they're in pristine condition, are worth a mint. It's the aliens particularly that fetch the big bucks - especially Scorpio. The Wirral eh? It's somehow comforting to think of Major Matt Mason on his space buggy exploring brave new worlds on the Mersey ferry ...