Although I am not one for browsing the preschool aisle in the toy store all that often, one particular line of -- let's call them "early years action figures" -- has caught my attention. It's what might be called a non-aligned spin-off of the popular Rescue Heroes line produced by Mattel under their Fisher-Price banner. It's called PLANET HEROES.
The basic premise is fairly simple -- imagine if every planet in oir Solar System had intelligent life on it. Now also imagine that there's a bad guy out there called "Black Hole", or "Professor Darkness", that looks like a cross between Toy Story's Emperor Zurg and Spider-Man's arch-enemy Mysterio. Each of the nine worlds (yes, they counted Pluto) has a hero representing his or her planet, to defend against this villain's schemes.
Granted, we know that most of the worlds in our Solar System aren't inhabited. But keep in mind, this is a toy line for young kids. And frankly, if it can be used, even in its fantasy way, to encourage young kids to study more about the REAL Solar System, then hey, I'm all in favor of it.
So, categorized as a preschool toy or not, I'm getting a real kick out of this PLANET HEROES line. It is my intention to present individual reviews of the toys, and also to present some real-world (!) backstory on the planets represented by these characters. For this review, I'll be taking a look at the seventh planet in our Solar System -- URANUS -- and its representative among the Planet Heroes team, a character named YURI.
Uranus was the first planet discovered in modern times. Though it is visible to the naked eye like the five classical planets, it was never recognised as a planet by ancient observers due to its dimness. Sir William Herschel announced its discovery on March 13, 1781, expanding the known boundaries of the solar system for the first time in modern history. This was also the first discovery of a planet made using a telescope.
Uranus and Neptune have different internal and atmospheric compositions from those of the larger gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. As such, astronomers sometimes place them in a separate category, the "ice giants". Uranus' atmosphere, while still composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, contains a higher proportion of "ices" such as water, ammonia and methane, along with the usual traces of hydrocarbons. It is the coldest planetary atmosphere in the Solar System, with a minimum temperature of 49 K, and has a complex layered cloud structure, in which water is thought to make up the lowest clouds, while methane makes up the uppermost layer of clouds.
It seems that the more that is learned about Uranus, the more bizarre a planet it becomes. Uranus axis of rotation lies on its side with respect to the plane of the solar system, with an axial tilt of 98 degrees. This gives it a completely different exchange of seasons to the other major planets. Other planets can be visualized to rotate like tilted spinning tops relative to the plane of the solar system, while Uranus rotates more like a tilted rolling ball. Near the time of Uranian solstices, one pole faces the Sun continually while the other pole faces away. Only a narrow strip around the equator experiences a rapid day-night cycle, but with the Sun very low over the horizon like in the Earth's polar regions. At the other side of Uranus' orbit the orientation of the poles towards the Sun is reversed. Each pole gets around 42 years of continuous sunlight, followed by 42 years of darkness.
Uranus has a faint planetary ring system, composed of dark particulate matter up to ten meters in diameter. It was the next ring system to be discovered in the Solar System after Saturn's. Like the planet itself, the rings are tilted on their sides and follow the strange planetary axis of the planet. In December 2005, the Hubble Space Telescope detected a pair of previously unknown rings. The largest is located at twice the distance from the planet of the previously known rings. These new rings are so far from the planet that they are being called the "outer" ring system.
Despite its obvious peculiarities, Uranus' atmosphere is remarkably bland in comparison to the other gas giants, even to Neptune, which it otherwise closely resembles. However, for a short period in Autumn 2004, a number of large clouds appeared in the Uranian atmosphere, giving it a Neptune-like appearance. Observations included record-breaking wind speeds of 229 m/s (824 km/h) and a persistent thunderstorm referred to as "Fourth of July fireworks". On August 23, 2006, researchers at the Space Science Institute (Boulder, CO) and the University of Wisconsin observed a dark spot on Uranus' surface, giving astronomers more insight into the planet's atmospheric activity. Why this sudden upsurge in activity should be occurring is not fully known, but it appears that Uranus' extreme axial tilt results in extreme seasonal variations in its weather. Determining the nature of this seasonal variation is difficult because good data on Uranus' atmosphere has existed for less than 84 years, or one full Uranian year.
Uranus has 27 known natural satellites. The five main moons are Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon.
Direct exploration of Uranus has been fairly limited to date. In 1986, NASA's Voyager 2 visited Uranus. This visit is the only attempt to investigate the planet from a short distance and no other visits are currently planned. Launched in 1977, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Uranus on January 24, 1986, coming within 81,500 kilometers of the planet's cloud tops, before continuing its journey to Neptune. Voyager 2 studied structure and chemical composition of the atmosphere, discovered 10 new moons and studied the planet's unique weather, caused by its axial tilt of 97.77°; and examined its ring system. It also studied the magnetic field, its irregular structure, its tilt and its unique corkscrew magnetotail brought on by Uranus' sideways orientation. It made the first detailed investigations of its five largest moons, and studied all nine of the system's known rings, discovering two new ones.
Not too surprisingly, given how unusual the planet is, the character assigned to the Planet Heroes team from Uranus is a pretty strange piece of work himself. His name is "Yuri", which on the one hand is not a bad name for someone from a planet with a name that could, unfortunately, have lent itself to some character names that would've been entirely inappropriate for any reasonable toy line, let alone a preschool one, and it's not a bad little honor to Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who was the first man in space and the first to orbit the Earth. And if there's any doubt as to whether this character's name is intentional in that regard, in the Planet Heroes DVD that comes with some of these toys, Yuri speaks with a Russian accent.
That's about as far as the comparison goes, however. The character is otherwise distinctly not human. But his design certainly takes full effect of the peculiarities of his homeworld, and the end result is a figure that's just a little better articulated than some of the Planet Heroes.
Yuri is mostly several shades of turquoise in volors, with some dark grey trim on his uniform. This is certainly well in keeping with Uranus' image of being a blue-hued planet. Yuri's head, his most inhuman feature, is avertical disc with two eyes emerging from either side, with a center sphere. This is mounted to a neck joint. Essentially, in the figure's construction, there's a sort of double-swivel in here that allows Yuri's head to spin around, back and forth, up and down, and along its own axis enough so that Yuri would probably give a chiropractor absolute fits. There's a little topknot of some sort in the back.
Yuri is otherwise fairly humanoid in appearance. Two arms, two legs, fairly reasonably proportioned in a cartoonish sort of way. He is articulated at the arms, which move back and forth and also outwards, and his wrists swivel. His legs also move back and forth, as well as outwards.
Taking further advantage of his homeworld's vertical axis, Yuri has three suction cups on each foot. I tested this, and they are easily strong enough to allow the figure to attach to any smooth surface and stay put. I can faiurly easily see Yuri turning up on the bathroom mirror or the front of the refrigerator and giving some parent a rather bad moment. Yuri's trading card that comes with the toy mentions the fact that he actually prefers standing and walking sideways because of the unusual nature of his homeworld.
Yuri stands a little over six inches in height, which puts him on the same level as Dazzle, the young humanoid woman representing Venus, who is pretty much the "default" in this line from a standpoint of "adult human". Yuri's overall proportions, though, especially the head, are of course different.
Yuri also has a tail, of all things, which has a magnet in it that enables him to hold some of his tools. This struck me as a somewhat bizarre addition to the figure's overall structure, although again, according to the figure's file card, this is a bit of a nod to the fact that Uranus itself has something of a "tail" in its magnetic field.
Yuri's main device is a tethered suction cup launcher. This spring-loaded contraption gently fires a large suction cup dart that readily attaches to any smooth surface as easily as Yuri's feet.
Yuri also comes with a comic book, which some of the other Planet Heroes characters do, as well. Listed as "Volume 1", It's basically a condensed retelling of the story that appears on the DVD that some of the figures come with. However, it's left open-ended, unlike the DVD, and recommends that kids visit the Web Site "theplanetheroes.com" to find out who wins the battle between the Planet Heroes and Professor Darkness and his minions. Granted, kids themselves can probably come up with their own endings.
The artwork in the comic book is more than capable, although no one is credited for it. A shame, too, since it really is very nicely done. The font chosen for the word balloon lettering is another matter. It's legible, but it looks like it was designed to specifically appeal to the probably limited writing capabilities of small children.
All of the Planet Heroes characters have emblems on their uniforms, which are intended to represent their planet as well as its placement in the Solar System. Since Uranus generally appears to be rather featureless, and to try to reproduce the ring system at this size would not have been all that practical, Yuri's emblem is a shaded blue circle with the number "7" in it.
I'm impressed with the entire PLANET HEROES line, and I look forward to bringing more of them into my collection and reviewing them along the way. For all of their fanciful aspects, they're not at all a bad way to introduce youngsters to the real world of space science and space exploration, and that can't be a bad thing to do. I'm not saying that every kid who buys these is going to grow up to enter a wonderful career in astronomy, but hey, that part of the scientific community could certainly use some fresh faces. And certainly YURI, representing the planet URANUS (and certainly having a fresh face of his own, and a pretty weird one), has my enthusiastic recommendation, as does the entire PLANET HEROES collection!