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 eighth planet in our Solar System -- NEPTUNE -- and its representative among the Planet Heroes team, a character named TUNE.
Let's start with a little planetary history: Neptune is the fourth largest planet by diameter, and the third largest by mass. Neptune is 17 times the mass of Earth and is slightly more massive than its near-twin Uranus, which is 14 Earth masses and less dense. The planet is named after the Roman god of the sea. Neptune's atmosphere is primarily composed of hydrogen and helium along with traces of methane. The methane in the atmosphere, in part, accounts for the planet's blue appearance, but because Neptune's color is much more vivid than that of Uranus, which has a similar amount of methane, another component is presumed to contribute to Neptune's intense color. Neptune also has the strongest winds of any planet in the solar system, measured as high as 2,100 km/h. Not exactly kite-flying weather...
Officially discovered on September 23, 1846, Neptune was the first planet discovered by mathematical prediction rather than regular observation. Galileo's drawings show that he first observed Neptune on December 28, 1612, and again on January 27, 1613; on both occasions, Galileo mistook Neptune for a fixed star when it appeared very close in conjunction to Jupiter in the night sky. Believing it to be a fixed star, he is not credited with its discovery. At the time of his first observation in December 1612, it was stationary in the sky because it had just turned retrograde that very day; because it was only beginning its yearly retrograde cycle, Neptune's motion was far too slight to be detected with Galileo's small telescope.
In 1821, Alexis Bouvard published astronomical tables of the orbit of Uranus. Subsequent observations revealed substantial deviations from the tables, leading Bouvard to hypothesize some perturbing body. In 1843, John Couch Adams calculated the orbit of an eighth planet that would account for Uranus' motion. He sent his calculations to Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, who asked Adams for a clarification. Adams began to draft a reply but never sent it.
In 1846, Urbain Le Verrier, independently of Adams, produced his own calculations but also experienced difficulties in encouraging any enthusiasm in his compatriots. However, in the same year, John Herschel started to champion the mathematical approach and persuaded James Challis to search for the planet.
After much procrastination, Challis began his reluctant search in July 1846. However, in the meantime, Le Verrier had convinced Johann Gottfried Galle to search for the planet. Though still a student at the Berlin Observatory, Heinrich d'Arrest suggested that a recently drawn chart of the sky, in the region of Le Verrier's predicted location, could be compared with the current sky to seek the displacement characteristic of a planet, as opposed to a fixed star. Neptune was discovered that very night, September 23, 1846, within 1° of where Le Verrier had predicted it to be, and about 10° from Adams' prediction. Challis later realized that he had observed the planet twice in August, failing to identify it owing to his casual approach to the work.
With a mass of 1.0243*1026 kg, Neptune is an intermediate body between Earth and the largest gas giants: it is seventeen Earth masses but just 1/18th the mass of Jupiter. It and Uranus are often considered a sub- class of gas giant termed "ice giants", given their smaller size and important differences in composition relative to Jupiter and Saturn.
The atmosphere of Neptune is composed primarily of hydrogen, with a smaller proportion of helium. A trace amount of methane is also present. Prominent absorption bands of methane occur at wavelengths above 600 nm, in the red and infrared portion of the spectrum. This absorption of red light by the atmospheric methane gives Neptune its blue hue.
Orbiting so far from the sun, Neptune receives very little heat with the uppermost regions of the atmosphere at -218 °C. Deeper inside the layers of gas, however, the temperature rises steadily. As with Uranus, the source of this heating is unknown, but the discrepancy is larger: Neptune is the farthest planet from the Sun, yet its internal energy is sufficient to drive the fastest planetary winds seen in the Solar System. Several possible explanations have been suggested, including radiogenic heating from the planet's core, the continued radiation into space of leftover heat generated by infalling matter during the planet's birth, and gravity waves breaking above the tropopause.
The internal structure resembles that of Uranus. The core is composed of rock and ice, and is likely no more than one Earth mass. The mantle is equivalent to 10 to 15 earth masses, rich in water, ammonia, methane, and other elements.
One difference between Neptune and Uranus is the typical level of meteorological activity. When the Voyager spacecraft flew by Uranus in 1986 that planet was visually quite bland, while Neptune exhibited notable weather phenomena during its 1989 Voyager fly-by. Neptune's atmosphere has the highest wind speeds in the solar system, thought to be powered by the flow of internal heat, and its weather is characterized by extremely dynamic storm systems, with winds reaching supersonic speeds of up to around 2,100 km/h. Even more typical winds in the banded equatorial region can possess speeds of around 1,200 km/h.
In 1989, the Great Dark Spot, a cyclonic storm system the size of Eurasia, was discovered by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft. The storm resembled the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. However, on November 2, 1994, the Hubble Space Telescope did not see the Great Dark Spot on the planet. Instead, a new storm similar to the Great Dark Spot was found in the planet's northern hemisphere. The reason for the Great Dark Spot's disappearance is unknown. One possible theory is that heat transfer from the planet's core disrupted the atmospheric equilibrium and disrupted existing circulation patterns. The "Scooter" is another storm, a white cloud group further south than the Great Dark Spot. Its nickname was bestowed when it was first detected in the months leading up to the Voyager encounter in 1989: it moved faster than the Great Dark Spot. Subsequent images showed clouds that moved even faster than Scooter. The Small Dark Spot is a southern cyclonic storm, the second most intensive storm during the 1989 encounter. It initially was completely dark, but as Voyager approached the planet, a bright core developed and is seen in most of the highest resolution images.
Neptune's orbital period (year) lasts approximately 164.79 Earth years. It has yet to complete one full orbit since its discovery in 1846. It will return to its original heliocentric point of discovery on July 12, 2011. Its sidereal rotation period (day) is roughly 16.11 hours long.
Neptune has 13 known moons. The largest by far, and the only one massive enough to be spheroidal, is Triton, discovered by William Lassell just 17 days after the discovery of Neptune itself. Neptune also has a small system of rings. Faint azure-colored rings have been detected around the blue planet, but are much less substantial than those of Saturn. When these rings were discovered, it was thought that they might not be complete. However, this was disproved by Voyager 2. These planetary rings have a peculiar "clumpy" structure, the cause of which is not currently understood but which may be due to the gravitational interaction with small moons in orbit near them.
Those are the facts about the planet. Now let's consider the details of the Planet Heroes character. While "Tune" isn't exactly the most inspired name in the group, the character, like several of the other Planet Heroes characters, clearly takes some of his cues from the ancient mythology for which the planet itself was named.
Neptune, as was said earlier, was named for the ancient Roman god of the sea. One might well expect, as such, that Tune would have certain watery attributes, and indeed he does. In fact, it would appear that the intent behind the design was to portray Tune as a character who was actually made out of water, or at least some sort of liquid substance.
The figure is more or less humanoid in appearance, and somewhat better proportioned as such than some of the others in the group. His head is a sort of oblong dome made from transparent blue plastic. This has been filled with some sort of liquid (precisely what, I'm not sure) that can be seen within the dome. His arms and legs are also made from transparent blue plastic, although they are solid and do not contain any liquid.
Clearly, however, the intent is to make them look as if they are made from liquid. Apart from the transparent blue color, there are sculpted waves and drops on the arms and legs. I almost thought I had a defective figure at first, as the left hand appeared to have a hole in it. However, when I checked a few others in the stores, I realized they were all made like this. It's simply an extra feature to give further credibility to Tune's liquid-like state.
Tune doesn't have much of a face. His head-dome is relatively smooth, with no real sculpted facial features, although small black dots for eyes (with white highlights), black eyebrows, and a black line for a mouth have been painted onto the dome. It's a little more cartoonish than some of the other figures in the line, but it works well enough, I suppose.
Tune is wearing a uniform that could really pass for either a diving suit or a space suit, although given his liquid nature, one almost has to wonder if this is something he has to wear not in order to survive in space or underwater, but simply to help hold him in some sort of humanoid form when he's around the other Planet Heroes. The uniform is mostly turquoise, with (opaque) blue shoulders, and belt, and silver trim around the shoulders, and on the chest and back. As with all of the Planet Heroes figures, Tune has an insignia on his chest representing his planet, with a number "8" on it, representing its place in the Solar System.
Although articulation is not the foremost feature of the Planet Heroes line, most of the figures in the series have done fairly well, and Tune has a little more than some characters. Although his head does not turn, Tune is articulated at the arms, which move outward as well as back and forth, and the legs, but also has the additional articulation of a swivel near the elbows. Apparently Mattel wanted to take advantage of the fact that Tune's lower arms would be molded from the transparent blue plastic, while his upper arms would be molded from opaque plastic, so they decided to throw in a little extra articulation.
Tune is part of the Deluxe grouping of Planet Heroes toys, and that means in this case that he is packed with a vehicle, since the figure itself, at pretty much precisely 6" in height, is about the same size as most of the more or less average humanoids on the team (although that's a difficult evaluation at best with this line). The vehicle, described as an "airzooka" on the package, looks as though it is intended as an underwater craft that would also be capable of flight. It has no wheels. Rather, Tune rides atop it, standing on a small platform, grasping the handlebars. There is a large, circular central body, two wings to either side, and a smaller wing underneath.
The action feature of the vehicle, such as it is, involves pulling the handle on the fabric bellows in the back of the vehicle, which when released, allows a small puff of air to shoot from the front. This is supposed to emulate the vehicle's capability for "blowing smoke" at an enemy. It's not much, but then again, this is technically a preschool toy.
Amusingly, also included with the set is a small cardboard standup of Professor Darkness, which this vehicle is just capable of knocking over.
The set also includes a comic book, which is a condensed retelling of the superb CGI DVD that comes with some of the other toys, although the comic book leaves the ending open, to be played out by the toy owner.
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. And certainly TUNE,
representing the planet NEPTUNE, has my enthusiastic recommendation!