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By Thomas Wheeler

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 fourth planet in our Solar System -- MARS -- and its representative among the Planet Heroes team, a character named DIGGER.

Of all of the planets in the Solar System besides our own, we probably know the most about Mars, even though we've never actually set foot there -- yet -- unfortunately.

Despite being little more than half the size of Earth -- Mars has a diameter of 6,794 kilometers compared to our 12, 756 -- Mars is generally regarded as the planet most likely to have, either in its past or present, some form of native life, as well as the best candidate to support human life, even if that life must be well-protected from the elements. Other worlds in our Solar System are either too hot, too cold, or otherwise just too inhospitable even for our best current efforts in designing protective gear for there to be any reasonable chance of survival. But Mars is more manageable.

It's interesting to note that although Mars is far smaller in overall size than Earth, it has about the same land area, since Mars does not have any oceans.

For decades, it was believed that Mars perhaps had not only indigenous life, but sentient life, perhaps superior to our own. Early explorations through telescopes revealed a gridwork of lines running across the planet. Termed "canali" in the native language of one early explorer, became "canals" in the minds of many, implying intentional design. The well-regarded astronomer Percival Lowell added to this thought in 1895, when as a result of his own telescopic findings, he declared that Mars was populated. He saw the canals as a means of draining water from a diminishing polar ice cap to provide sustenance to an otherwise arid world. He also believed he could see signs of vegetation.

Such speculations led to even further flights of fantasy, most notably the novel by noted science fiction author H.G. Wells, entitled "The War of the Worlds", in which the highly advanced Martians, jealous of Earth's resources, staged a massive invasion of the planet. This story gained further notoreity when it was turned into a then-modern-day radio drama by Orson Welles for the Mercury Radio Theater in the 1930's. The drama was so realistic, and some people had tuned in late and were not aware that the news reports they were hearing were entirely fictional, that it actually spawned a real-life panic the evening it was aired.

In modern times, we know that Mars undergoes seasonal change, and the polar ice cap changes with the seasons. The markings on the planet are natural formations, often subjected to change by massive sandstorms.

Mars does have some fascinating real-life features. It is home to Olympus Mons, the Solar System's tallest mountain, and Valles Marineris, the solar system's largest canyon system. Compated to this, the Grand Canyon is a ditch. Valles Marineris is longer than the entire United States and then some.

Although we have yet to set human foot on Mars, we have sent a large number of successful orbiters and landers to the red planet. The first landing attempts were by the Soviets in the early 1970's, but none of these were successful. The first successful landing was by the United States in July of 1976 -- not a bad way to celebrate the Bicentennial -- with a pair of landers known as Viking 1 and Viking 2. Early pictures showed a reddish landscape and a blue sky, but this was an inadvertant color correction by the computers. Once the glitch was straightened out, the true face of Mars was shown -- a desert-like reddish landscape, with a pinkish sky above the horizon, a truly alien world.

In 1997, The United States landed its first successful rover on Mars, appropriately called Pathfinder. It was followed several years later by two more sophisticated rovers named Spirit and Opportunity, which have far outlasted their expected life-spans and have delighted scientists and longtime space exploration followers with their endurance and their wealth of discoveries and astounding images from the fourth planet.

As of this writing, a new rover, on board the Phoenix spacecraft, is expected to arrive at Mars sometime in mid-2008.

Alas, for all the successes on Mars, there have been an astounding number of failures, not only from the United States and the Soviet Union, but England and Japan as well. This is known in some circles as the "Mars Curse". Of 37 attempted launches to reach the planet, less than 50% have been successful. The United States' track record has been better, with 12 out of 17 launches being successful, with five out of six landers successfully reaching their objectives.

Despite a so-called "Mars Curse", I'm as inclined to chalk this up to the sheer number of missions sent to the planet as anything. No other planet in the Solar System has had this much hardware sent to it. There's bound to be problems. Personally, if there were any sentient life in Mars, I would think they'd be wondering where all this junk is coming from, if they haven't figured it out already.

As far as we have been able to determine, Mars is not inhabited. It has been pointed out, however, that if some offworld species were to drop a probe in the middle of the Sahara Desert, that race might draw the same conclusions about Earth. But what if intelligent life did exist on Mars? What would it look like?

Well, I personally doubt it would look much like DIGGER, who frankly looks like a short gorilla in a rock suit, but that's what Planet Heroes has given us, so we'll work with what we have.

Digger, in his own way, is a good representative of his planet. He's relatively small in size, but very tough-looking. He looks like a short, reddish, cartoonish version of "The Thing" from the Fantastic Four, in some respects. He has rock-like skin, that is a dark brick red in color. There is a rough texture to the exposed areas of Digger that makes for a very nice bit of detail. His head has a broad, rock-like brow, with two large eyes beneath it, and a jutting jaw. There is no visible nose or ears.

His arms are huge, far larger than his legs. They protrude from the sides of a very broad upper body. In compaison, Digger's legs are quite short, but they are also quite broad. This doesn't look like an individual that you'd want to pick a fight with. I don't think it would make a bit of difference how much taller you were than him, he'd still mop up the floor with you.

An interesting observation about Digger's lower arms. A close study reveals that they are precise opposites of each other. The positioning of the figures and the sculpted detail is exact. The last time I say anything like this, at least to this degree, it was on Tomax and Xamot from the G.I. Joe collection, the famed "Crimson Twins" of Cobra.

Digger is wearing a mostly red spacesuit, that is a brighter and more straightforward red than his skin. I call it a spacesuit, but the character's head, lower arms, and lower legs are exposed. Even so, it looks like a spacesuit, so that's what I'm going with here. It's mostly red, but it has a white collar, shoulder trim, and a white belt with some additional white trim around the abdomen.

As with all of the Planet Heroes characters, there is an insignia that is an image of the planet from which the character hails, with a large white number designating the planet's placement in the Solar System. Obviously in Digger's case, that number is "4" up against an image of Mars.

Digger is a little better articulated than most of the Planet Heroes characters I have purchased, who to date have been poseable at the head, arms (outward as well as back and forth), and legs. With Digger, we can add elbows to that, but his arms are so massive it's almost ridiculous NOT to have articulated them. Still, it's a little strange. The elbows are posed in such a way that they move inwards. What's funny is that you can bring his arms up and his elbows in, and he looks like he's trying to beat his own chest.

Digger's main accessory, which might also explain the additional arm articulation, is an amusing little gizmo that I suspect little kids are going to love and which will probably drive their mothers insane. It looks a lot like a rocky version of a jackhammer, but it's really designed to be a drill. It appears to have been made from the same rock as Digger himself. It has a pull-string on it that allows the drill to spin around and give off an annoying whine as it does so. Digger also comes with a battle shield.

The character is described on his file card as the best digger and excavator in the galaxy, and no doubt he probably is. One can well imagine these skills being highly useful on a planet such as Mars.

Digger stands about 4-1/2" in height. This makes him shorter than Earth's representative, a 10-year-old boy named Ace, who's about 5", and certainly shorter than Venus' representative, a woman named Dazzle, who's about 6" in height, and arguably the standard for "human adult" within this concept. But unlike Ace or Dazzle, who are relatively "normal humanoids", Digger is almost as wide as he is tall, and his powerful chest and arms pretty much speak for themselves. Anybody calling this guy "shorty" is likely to regret it.

Just one thing bugs me about this character. In the DVD episode that is included with a number of Planet Heroes toys, a superb and amusing CGI presentation, I might add -- can someone explain to me how a native to Mars managed to pick up such a pronounced Scottish accent!?

Still, the figure is cool, nicely designed ans well made, not at all inappropriate to the planet he represents, and certainly looks to be someone you'd want to have on your side in a fight, if for no other reason than you wouldn't want to have him against you!

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 DIGGER, representing the planet MARS, has my enthusiastic recommendation!