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 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 ninth planet in our Solar System -- PLUTO -- and its representative among the Planet Heroes, a little guy named SHIVER.
Pity poor Pluto. It's had a tough time catching a break lately. Even Shiver's personal quote on his package reads, "I am SO a real planet!"
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory. On February 18, 1930, Tombaugh discovered a possible moving object on photographic plates taken on January 23 and January 29 of that year. A lesser-quality photograph taken on January 20 helped confirm the movement. After the observatory obtained further confirmatory photographs, news of the discovery was telegraphed to the Harvard College Observatory on March 13, 1930. Pluto would later be found on photographs dating back to March 19, 1915.
Pluto, by the way, is named after a mythological god of the underworld -- not a certain dog belonging to Mickey Mouse, who didn't come along for several years after the planet's discovery.
Pluto's size and erratic orbit have always made it the source of controversy. It's roughly 3000 km in diameter, more or less the size of Earth's moon. It's orbit is well off the orbital plane of the other eight planets, and in fact its orbital path takes it inside the orbit of Neptune, usually our eighth planet, most recently doing so in the 1980's.
Pluto's distance fron Earth has obviously made it the least-explored world in the Solar System, at least as far as any close-up probes are concerned. Spectroscopic analysis from Earth and orbital telescopes of Pluto's surface reveals it to be composed of more than 98 percent nitrogen ice, with traces of methane and carbon monoxide. Distance and limits on telescope technology make it currently impossible to directly photograph surface details on Pluto. Images from the Hubble Space Telescope barely show any distinguishable surface definitions or markings.
New details about Pluto are likely to be determined in the year 2015, when a probe called New Horizons will arrive for a mission. New Horizons was launched in 2006. New Horizons will use a remote sensing package that includes imaging instruments and a radio science investigation tool, as well as spectroscopic and other experiments, to characterise the global geology and morphology of Pluto and its moon Charon, map their surface composition and analyse Pluto's neutral atmosphere and its escape rate. New Horizons will also photograph the surfaces of Pluto and Charon.
It has been determined that Pluto actually has three moons. Massive Charon, a tenth the size of Pluto -- huge for a natural satellite -- has been known about for years, but two new, smaller moons, were first detected in 2005. They have been given the names Nix and Hydra.
Pluto's greatest controversy came with the discovery of another body at the edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of asteroids at the outer perimeter of the Solar System. Spherical, and even larger than Pluto, the new possible tenth planet was given the name Eris, and reignited the never entirely extinguished controversy over Pluto's status as an actual planet.
Ultimately, the International Astronomers Union had to determine a set definition for "what is a planet". They determined three points for such a designation: (1) The object must be in orbit around the Sun. (2) The object must be massive enough to be a sphere by its own gravitational force. More specifically, its own gravity should pull it into a shape of hydrostatic equilibrium. (3) It must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.
Unfortunately, Pluto fails on this last point, since its mass was only 0.07 times that of the mass of the other objects in its orbit (Earth's mass, by contrast, is 1.7 million times the remaining mass in its own orbit). The IAU further resolved that Pluto be classified in the simultaneously created dwarf planet category, and that it act as prototype for a yet-to-be-named category of trans-Neptunian objects, in which it would be separately, but concurrently, classified.
There has been considerable resistance to the IAU's ruling. Alan Stern, principal investigator with NASA's "New Horizons" mission to Pluto, has publicly derided the IAU resolution, stating that "the definition stinks, for technical reasons." Stern's current contention is that by the terms of the new definition Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune, all of which share their orbits with asteroids, would be excluded. His other claim is that, since less than 5 percent of astronomers voted for it, the decision was not representative of the entire astronomical community. Marc W. Buie of the Lowell Observatory has voiced his opinion on the new definition on his website and is one of the petitioners against the definition.
Among the general public, reception is mixed amidst widespread media coverage. Some have accepted the reclassification, while some are seeking to overturn the decision, with online petitions urging the IAU to consider reinstatement. The U.S. state of New Mexico's House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring that, in honour of Tombaugh, a longtime resident of that state, Pluto will always be considered a planet while in New Mexican skies, with March 13 being known as "Pluto Planet Day". Others reject the change for sentimental reasons, citing that they have always known Pluto as a planet and will continue to do so regardless of the IAU decision. Some observers view this rejection as an attempt to bend the rules in order to keep the only planet discovered by an American from being classified as such.
As for Pluto's entry in the Planet Heroes line. Perhaps not surprisingly, he's small and seems to have something of an inferiority complex. He's also -- and the irony of THIS hasn't been lost on me -- apparently either short-packed or didn't even make it into the initial assortment. Pluto can't seem to catch a break even in the toy world. I wasn't even sure they'd included a representative from Pluto in the line until I looked up the Web Site, and then it was a couple of months before I finally saw him.
The representative from Pluto is named "Shiver". This makes sense. Pluto is so far from the Sun that from Pluto, the Sun looks like little more than a large star. Pluto is a frigid, frozen world, presumably a rather rocky one, its surface possibly covered with methane ice.
Shiver is a dark grey in color, with a certain purplish tinge. Much like Digger, the representative from rocky Mars, Shiver has a rock-like texture molded to his skin. It's a nice detail touch to the design of the figure. Shiver actually looks quite a bit like Digger, although he is considerably smaller. He has a similar physical structure -- large arms, small legs, and a fairly stocky upper body.
But there are differences. For one thing, Shiver has three eyes! The reason for this could be anybody's guess. Trying to apply too much science to some of these characters can only result in a headache. But if one wanted to try, it could be speculated that Pluto is likely such a dark world, as distant from the sun as it is, that an additional eye is needed to absorb as much light as possible.
It's kind of hard to tell where Shiver's body ends and his uniform begins, since most of the figure has the rough texture to it. The only exceptions to this texturing are his eyes, his upper arms, his insignia patch, a set of earmuffs that look more like headphones, and a device on his left wrist which looks like a wristwatch but which I have to assume serves some other purpose.
Shiver isn't exactly what I would call "colorful". He's almost entirely this dark grey in color. The earpieces of his earmuff/headphones are orange, as is the face of his wrist device. He has silver shoulder pads, and some silver trim on his legs and boots. There is purple on his arms, legs, and lower torso.
Mattel does its best to split the difference on the current controversy surrounding Pluto in real life. Although they define Pluto as a "dwarf planet" in the materials that come with the toy, each of the Planet Heroes characters has an insignia patch on their uniform that features a circular image of their world, accompanied by a large white number indicating their planet's place in the Solar System. Shiver's patch is somewhat undetailed, but then little is known about the surface detail of his homeworld. However, there is a very distinct "9" on the patch. Not "Dwarf Planet", not "134340 Pluto", which became Pluto's official designation after its "demotion" by the IAU, not "Trans-Neptunian" whatever -- just plain "9" -- as well it should be.
Actually, the biggest part of the Pluto/Shiver set isn't the figure -- it's the vehicle. Perhaps as a way of cutting Pluto a break (as well as admittedly making more money), Pluto is actually part of the "Deluxe" assortment of Planet Heroes toys, normally reserved for the big guns like Saturn and Jupiter. But that's not because Shiver is all that big. At 3-1/2" in height, he's the smallest of the Planet Heroes. But he comes with a good sized vehicle.
The vehicle doesn't have a technical name per se, but it does have a description. It's a spacecraft that can double as a snowmobile on the surface of Pluto. It's a fairly fanciful design, especially the rock-like detailing on various parts of it, but it's not entirely implausible. It is very nicely detailed in a cartoon sci-fi way, and it has a very neat feature in that when you press the large button towards the back of the vehicle, the side panels near the front pop open to the side and become the vehicle's skis, thus transforming it from spacecraft into skimobile. It can also fire a spring-loaded ice missile from the front.
If I have one complaint about Shiver, it's with regard to articulation. Now, as a preschool line, I don't expect these Planet Heroes to be as poseable as a Star Wars figure or a Gundam or whatever. For the most part, they're articulated at the head, arms, which can generally move outward as well as forward and back, and legs. Some of the figures can do a little more than that. Shiver has the head and arms articulation, and his legs can move -- HOWEVER -- his legs are a single piece, attached within the torso of the figure. If one leg moves, the other leg moves.
But this is a relatively minor complaint. Honestly, I'm just pleased that a representative from Pluto made it into this line, and for some time, I wasn't entirely sure one had. Overall, 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 SHIVER, representing the planet PLUTO, has my enthusiastic recommendation!
With his inclusion, maybe some of the kids playing with these toys now will grow up to be astronomers, join the IAU, and undo some of the ridiculous decisions that have been made lately...