15 July 2015

FWS Military Sci-Fi Toys: The LJN DUNE Toyline (1984)

DUNE by Frank Herbert is the best science fiction novel ever written. Even today. the 1965 epic novel continues to influence and altered generations of fans, and has become a beloved property. The massive success of the book series was not lost on Hollywood, and no less than three serious attempts were made to bring the world of 10,191 BG to the big screen. In 1984, Dino De Laurentiis and director David Lynch gave the world their vision of that iconic novel...and it bombed hard. So hard in fact, that 1984's DUNE became one of the biggest box-office disaster of all time. Along with the film and its planned sequels, the tie-in toyline was also a collateral damage of the film's failures. In the continuing blog article series Military Sci-Fi Toys, we will be exploring and attempting to explain the failed 1984 LJN DUNE toyline. May the Lords of Kobol forgive me for this one and the Spice Must Flow!

The Historical Context of the LJN DUNE Toyline
Star Wars altered the conversation about licensing and the relationship between the toy industry and film studios. The idea of toys between a vehicle to help promote films and vice versa was even more cemented. By 1984, the best cash-cow was done, the last Star Wars film was released, and there looked to be vacuum that could be filled by another big science fiction film. It seems that the producers of DUNE and Universal Pictures believed that they had the next big thing. This was common thinking at the time, and seeing the amount of money that the Star Wars toyline generated by a huge incentive to try their hand at the same tactic. However, one key element was missing, DUNE is not Star Wars. DUNE itself is a complex book with deep concepts of messiahs, government, ecology, and power. DUNE is not really accessible to the same audience as Star Wars, but somehow, the studio tried to sell DUNE to kids. Boy, were they wrong, but money is the best motivators, and in 1984, the movie and LJN toyline was released.

Who Was LJN?
LJN was a fixture in my childhood for making toys and video games, and today, has become infamous for making some of the most dogshit tie-in games to films. Videos from The Gaming Historian and the Angry Video Game Nerd have propelled the name and history of this company far beyond its death in 1995. While it is known for its entry into the video game world in the 1980's, but it started off as an toy company founded by a man possessed by toys. Founded in 1970 by Jack Friedman, the name "LJN" came from the name of his former boss initials in reverse. LJN was would first produce toy cars and other items, but it took Kenner's Star Wars toyline to push LJN in being a producer of licensed toylines.
During the 1980's, LJN would develop toyline for E.T., Indiana Jones, Advanced D&D, Wrestling Superstars, and even fucking Gremlins. This would peak with Thundercats. LJN would take their experience license development, and ventured in video games after the sale of LJN to MCA in 1985. LJN would also produce the battery-powered Entertech military waterguns, which resulted in lawsuits and the toys being banned. They also made the early paintball system marketed to kids called Gotcha!....and they were crap costing their parent company hundreds of millions. MCA had enough of LJN, and sold the company to Acclaim in 1990. Acclaim used LJN to spit out games under the Nintendo limitation rules. But, the party was over soon enough when Nintendo ended their gaming limitations. In 1995, LJN was folded fully into Acclaim and the name disappeared.

Why did LJN Get the DUNE Licences?
I have wondered since putting this blog article on the draft roll what possessed the studio to chose LJN to product the DUNE toyline? After all, LJN was not a powerhouse toy producer, it was more of a background player, and its most successful tie-in toyline, The Thundercats, wasn't even on the drawing board until 1985/1986. Not to mention that their E.T. toyline was misguided and sold poorly and their Dungeons & Dragons animated series tie-in toyline was also odd, but sold better than E.T. My guess is that LJN was the only serious contender in the running. I am pretty sure that the bigger names were not interested in producing the toys for this oddball movie, and LJN was searching for anything to slap their name on and get some cash rolling in. It helped that LJN had gotten the E.T. and Dungeons & Dragons toylines, allowing the studio to see a pattern of adapting film characters to plastic. All of this added up to LJN reciving the license agreement, and the history is plastic history.

The Sad Story of the DUNE Toyline
We all know that 1984's DUNE was a weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird film and it was one of the worst box-office failures. Even today, the movie is still discussing and marveled over for its weirdness. One element that is sometimes forgotten is that LJN produced an massively unsuccessful toyline for the film, and interestingly enough, there is little information on the history of the toyline itself. There were high hopes for the DUNE film, and the hype machine was in full effect in 1984. I can remember the push to sell DUNE has the next big sci-fi franchise to the general public after the end of Star Wars. Party kits, bed sheets, coloring books, kiddie books that retold the watered-down plot of the world of DUNE, the Marvel Comic adaptation, and of course, the LJN toys. All of these products and the marketing behind it was flawed from the start...DUNE could never be Star Wars as much as Universal Pictures wanted it to be, and all those they tried, failed. That was the fate of the LJN toyline. I have to hand it to LJN for attempting to bring toys based on the batshit film to the toy market, and it was unfair that their efforts were rewarded with their toys being in dusty clearance bins for years and years. Much like the film, the toyline was hyped as much as you could in those dark pre-internet days, but as far as I know, there were no DUNE toy TV ad spots (oh, I wish there had been!). The most press I saw for the toyline was that poster and some print ads in magazines, like Starlog. Despite these attempts, when the film failed, so did the toyline, and while LJN suffered, they bounced back with their successful Thundercats toyline of 1985-1986. Due to the swiftness of the film's failure, there was only an single line of toys and I've read that that even that single line was more limited than original envisioned; making some of these figures more than rare than others. Even today, there are few collectors, and only a few of the toys are worth much money, even boxed.

The LJN DUNE Toyline

The 5 1/2 Inch Figures
LJN would issue just six of the large over five inch figures from the massive cast of the film. All would be nicely equipped with weaponry and other *interesting* items like the the cat-in-the-box. The enemy Harkonnens and the Empire are represented in four out of the six figures, only Paul and Stilgar represent the heroes of the film. Every figure had an lever to allow for an "battle-matic" movement that often was best used to mimic the knife fighting of the film. To LJN's credit, everything seen on the figures was from the film and not a creation of the toy maker.
Since I had a few of the figures back in the day, I can attest that the figures were stiff, but will modeled, even though the some of the pain would come off in your hands, my Paul figure was the worst about this. So why did LJN make the DUNE figures so much larger than the more common G.I. Joe/Star Wars size? After examining the LJN Thundercats toyline and its use of the "Battle-Matic" mechanics, I do believe that this lever mechanic was the primary reason, as it was features in the Thundercats figure of the same size. It could have also been a styling choice as well, The DUNE figures for their time were highly detailed, much like the He-Man line as well, and given 1980's technology, and how undetailed the 3 3/4 inch figures were, it leads me to believe that the larger the figure, the greater level of detail you could add. The original figure line was to be larger by two more figures: Lady Jessica (in Stillsuit) and Gurney Halleck (in House Atreides uniform), but these figures never made it beyond the prototype phase, and no one has seen them since.

The Spice Scout Playset
Given the size of the DUNE action figures, the only vehicle released also had to be an according size as well. The 22 inch long LJN DUNE Spice Scout was a massive three-wheeled vehicle that was one of the more unique playsets on the market in 1984, and is one of the most collectable of the toyline. The toy itself captures the overall design of the film and speaks to the level of worldbuilding that was invested into the film. For the record, the Spice Scout was actually seen in the film for a few fleeting seconds during the sandworm attack on the spice harvestor as it runs back into the harvester prior to the failed Carryall pickup.
The toy vehicle itself was insanely massive, and suffered at the time from a big price tag, but there was another problem. Consider the boy toy vehicles that were released in the major 1980's toylines...most were combat vehicles of some type or an "adventure/explorer" vehicle. The Spice Scout is none of those, and unless a kid understood the relationship between the fictional universe of DUNE to the spice-drug, the true mission of the vehicle is lost on them, it is not a tank or robot after all. Still, it is nicely designed, and I have always wanted to own this toy and place in my writing room.

The Motorized 4x4 Sand Scouts Cars
LJN was always in the business of producing toy cars, and for the DUNE line, they took their existing Rough Riders 4-wheel drive technology and constructed "Dune-like" shells. While odd looking without the DUNE universe context, one of these vehicle designs was actually seen in the film. These battery powered 4x4 little motorized cars were one of the hidden gems in the DUNE toyline because of their design, but like many of the LJN toy cars of the time (I had a few Rough Rider 4x4 cars), they were crap quality and quickly stopped working. Despite this, these little vehicles sell for bigger money relative to their original price than most of any of the LJN DUNE toyline.

The Revell DUNE Models
While not part of the LJN toyline, this Revell model kit line  shows the 1984's film epic scale and outworldly design. This made the film a standout in science fiction cinema even today, and given the wonderful design elements, they were naturals for the model kit world. Released at the same time as the LJN toyline, the Revell DUNE line featured the Sand Crawler, the Sandworm, the Harkonnen Ornithopter. These were probably the best product tie-in for the film, and are somewhat expensive today. Revell was going to release the Spice Scout and even the Spice Harvestor, but were cancelled due to the film's poor performance. I used to see these at my home comic book story in Tulsa: Starbase 21 (RIP).  

That Fucking Sandworm thing
The most iconic element of the universe of DUNE, in either film or book from, is the Sandworms. It would have been remiss of LJN not to have included the Sandworm in their movie tie-in toyline, and damn, was this toy weird and wrong on a lot of levels...just look at the thing. According to some sources, LJN was going to release another Sandworm was much larger, allowing for the action figures to ride it like in the film, but alas, this is all we got. This toy is infamous among DUNE fans and toy collectors, and is the single most expensive toy to collect today in the LJN line today. I never saw one of these during 1984, and never understood what I would done with it if I did.

The Toy Guns
The idea of creating toy guns for the DUNE movie is an odd one. After all, the primary weapons seen in the film are knives and the Weirding Modules. However, that didn't stop LJN from creating two battery-powered guns, one Fremen and one Sardaukar. The Fremen weapon was called the "Tarpel gun", and it was designed for the film, and can be seen in the background of several scenes. According to the original art design of this oddball weapon, it was to fired needles. This weapon was also packaged with the Stilgar fighter. I actually had this toy gun, and it was strange to hold and the trigger-button was only on one-side, making the firing position odd. It did indeed light up, like a Christmas tree, but it produced a lame screeching noise that was far from what you wanting your laser-blaster to sound like. The quality of the Fremen gun was poor, and it quickly broke. Now, the Sardaukar lasgun was more of a conventional 1980's sci-fi laser-blaster design, and it produced a better sound than my Tarpel, but the green and red cone emitters were down right weird. I always felt like I was shooting myself when I played with it. Much like the Tarpel, the Sardaukar lasgun was packaged with the action figure.

The Prototypes and Unreleased
I have always liked seeing what toys were not produced, and the LJN DUNE toyline had some great prototype figures and vehicles. The only vehicle for the giant figures that was released was the Spice Scout. However, there was to be an insect-looking Harkonnen Ornithopter. While it was released in model form, the plastic toy vehicle that would have accepted the TWO figures was in the prototype phase when the movie bombed at the box-office. Thus, cancelling this unique aerial vehicle. Along with the canceled Harkonnen Ornithopter, we see several action figures that were never made it beyond the prototype phase: Paul's mother Jessica in Stillsuit and Gurney Halleck in House Atreides military uniform with that oddball DE over-the-shoulder rifle thing. There was also another Sandworm canceled that was made out of soft foam latex. Along with these action figures and play-sets, there was the Fremen weapon set. This Fremen-looking belt would have been sold with a plastic Crysknife and the Fremen pistol with holster for both. There have been rumors over the years that the prototype Ornithopter and figures exist in some lucky collector's hands.  I doubt any of these toys would have made any difference to the fate of the overall toyline.

What Happened to the DUNE Toyline?
As I've said before here on FWS, the fate of any tie-in toyline is depend on the success of the original property it is designed around (there are rare exceptions) Star Wars was a massive success and lead to the Kenner toyline to be one of the most successful of all time. While STARCOM: The US Space Force was an ingenious  military sci-fi toyline that failed to catch on, and when the series was cancelled so where the toys. A same fate was shared by Captain Power. The same is true of the LJN toyline. DUNE bleed money and its weird vision of the novel caused bad reviews, lost audience, confused fans, and resulted in a complete loss of money. But that is not the whole story. The DUNE LJN toyline dod failed due to the movie, but also to due to a bad concept behind the toys. The toyline itself should have never been created. Who the hell was it aimed at? The age ground that would have bought the toys were my age at the time (I was 8 in 1984), and I wasn't allowed to see the film nor anyone I knew. There was not the adult-geeky-toy-collector market there is today. While I did bought some of the toys due to my interest in the whole concept of DUNE and even bought the Marvel Comics adaptation as well. But I was a rare exception, I didn't know anyone who had these toys. In end, the toyline itself bombed just as a hard as the film it was based on, and the DUNE toys were discounted and slowly disappeared into toy purgatory.  Today, there are some collectors of the LJN toyline, and there are few pieces, like the Spice Scout vehicle and the Sardaukar figure are worth some money, but as a whole, the toyline is still largely ignored. One comment left on another site simply summed up the issue with the LJN DUNE toyline of 1984: "Dune isn't Star Wars". Quite right. And as someone else observed: "A Sadist, self-mutilating, psychopath, sexually frustrated floating fatman in 4inches of plastic...not exactly geared towards little Timmy's Christmas Stocking"

The Legacy of LJN DUNE Toyline
It came and it went. That was the short version of the DUNE film when it was released to bad reviews and poor box-office performance. That could also be said for the LJN toyline as well. It was put into stores for the film's release, and then was quickly discounted and later removed. While some 1980's toylines were later rediscovered by collectors and those seeking a nostalgic high, the same cannot be said about LJN's DUNE. Hell, even the film has a cult following today, but the toys are largely forgotten. Only the toy guns, the Spice Scout, the Sardaukar terror trooper, and the infamous dildo Sandworm are worth anything more than a few bucks. The true legacy of the LJN DUNE toyline is its absolute failure. Much like the Hindenburg, these toys are fondly remembered for being a disaster and a flawed film concept being applied to children's toys with it equally being a disaster in its own right. With the advent of the internet, people write articles about the DUNE toys because the film was batshit crazy and the toys were as well, especially marketing the concept of the film to a toy market. It is the oddity of these toys even existing that forces them to write about this failed and nearly forgotten toyline. If the film had never achieved cult status or been reissued with each new medium in home media, than I could see the toyline itself disappearing from the common consciousnesses. For some of us, the DUNE toys were an odd part of our childhood story, like me. And those that grew up to love the DUNE books, came to have a relationship with the 1984, no matter its flaws, and we came to have a relationship with the toys as well. The Spice Must Flow.

My Own Experiences with the LJN DUNE Toyline
I had only few toys by LJN, since I was not a huge fan of Thundercats and wasn't allowed to own the D&D figures. Most of the LJN toys I had were cars, and they were mostly crap, often breaking, especially the battery powered 4x4 trucks. This experience caused me to mistrust the LJN name, and I avoid their products and games. I did buys some of the DUNE toys while they were out in toy stores around 1984/1985. I had about four and badly wanted the Sardaukar Terror Trooper (I still do!), but couldn't find it. I was never overly impressed with the figures themselves, even at the time.
They were massive, stiff, had lame accessories like the cat-in-a-box (Why did David Lynch do that?! Why?!), the paint would come off in your hand if exposed to sunlight for any length of time, and they were not able to be combined with any other great 1980's boy toy lines. I could combine my Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures, because they were the same size, but the DUNE figures were huge, and that made their play value was very low. When I sold mine during a garage sale, they were in near-prefect conditions, because I never played with them. From what I learned during the research for this blog article, many others had the same experiences. I also had the Fremen light-up "Tarpel" pistol, and this was a strangle fucking toy gun, and made weird noises. This toy gun quickly broke from its poor quality. If and when I get my own home office for working on FWS and my novels, I plan on hunting down a LJN Sardaukar figure and the massive Spice Scout vehicle. That was the only cool items in the entire toyline.

Next Time on FWS...
In his continuing excellent armory series, FWS contributor and friend, Yoel, will be laying some knowledge on us about the belt-fed machine gun. From all manner of types, sizes, and methods, Yoel once again brings his TIER-One knowledge and research to an interesting subject and one that largely ignored by science fiction creators. Much like his previous magazine article, this one will explore and explain all aspects of belt-fed weapons!


  1. Hi,
    Just wanted to say that I have really been enjoying your site.
    My question for you is was there originally a book review that was suppose to be next instead of the one on belt-fed machine guns?

  2. Yes, it was originally going to be the next blogpost, but I had to push up the belt-fed blogpost. The EoE book review is coming up after the belt-fed.

  3. Could someone please tell Me the exact date LJN went out of business?

  4. I have been able to find the exact date. However, from research, the last name released under LJN in 1995 was in February...so, it had to be some time after that. Everyone agrees that LJN was discontinued in 1995. However, the LJN name would reappear oddly on a Sega Dreamcast release, "Spirit of Speed 1937" in 2000. There is no information on why Acclaim used the LJN name for that dogshit game, but it was the last time LJN was used. Hope that helps

  5. I wish I had the Sardaukar Warrior, which is in my opinion, the coolest. Guess I'll have to just dole out the $200 though. I wish they were 3 3/4....

  6. I wish I had the Sardaukar Warrior, which is in my opinion, the coolest. Guess I'll have to just dole out the $200 though. I wish they were 3 3/4....

  7. https://dallas.craigslist.org/dal/clt/6091296882.html

    Selling a bunch of dune figures. Includes:
    - Stilgar The Fremen Figure
    - Paul Atreides Figure
    - Baron Harkonnen Figure
    - Feyd Figure
    - Sardaukar Warrior Figure
    - Rabban Figure
    - Small toy additions (animal in cage, guns x3)
    - Spice Scout + extra side blaster
    - 2 toy blasters (one fremen gun and one sardaukar gun)
    - Carboard backing "DUNE" off a figure from the set

  8. A fascinating blog. I had that Fremen gun and I remember thinking it was the most unusual, awkward and uninspiring toys I ever had. Shame the Harkonnen Ornithopter was never released, that looked cool!