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By Thomas Wheeler

One might imagine that Mattel would have some trouble developing new characters for its superb PLANET HEROES line of figures. After all, there are only nine planets in the Solar System, and they all already have characters within the concept representing them, along with the Sun and the Moon. And while there's no shortage of moons around other world in our Solar System, many of these have names that I have trouble pronouncing, never mind a four-year-old.

However, Planet Heroes has not been afraid to step outside the Solar System every so often. The main villain of the piece represents a Black Hole. There's another character who represents shooting stars. And there's another extremely impressive bad guy, named Slash, who represents the stellar phenomenon known as a Red Giant.

Since this is technically a preschool line of toys, and although the packages do provide some basic information about the real-life phenomenon these characters represent, I've made it a point to delve a little deeper and offer a bit of an astro-science lesson with these Planet Heroes reviews. I would like to thank those that have read my other Planet Heroes reviews and sent me e-mails thanking me for this more extensive information.

So what, specifically, is a Red Giant?

A red giant is a luminous giant star of low or intermediate mass (roughly 0.5–10 solar masses) that is in a late phase of stellar evolution. The outer atmosphere is inflated and tenuous, making the radius immense and the surface temperature low, somewhere from 5,000 K and lower. The appearance of the red giant is from yellow orange to red, including the spectral types K and M, but also class S stars and most carbon stars.

The most common red giants are the so-called red giant branch stars (RGB stars) whose shells are still fusing hydrogen into helium, while the core is inactive helium. Another case of red giants are the asymptotic giant branch stars (AGB) that produces carbon from helium by the triple-alpha process. To the AGB stars belong the carbon stars of type C-N and late C-R.

Prominent bright red giants in the night sky include Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri), Arcturus (Alpha Bootis), and Gamma Crucis (Gacrux), while the even larger Antares (Alpha Scorpii) and Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) are red supergiants.

Red giants are stars with radii tens to hundreds of times larger than that of the Sun which have exhausted the supply of hydrogen in their cores and switched to fusing hydrogen in a shell outside the core. Main sequence stars of spectral types A through K are believed to become red giants.

In fact, such stars are not big red spheres with sharp limbs (when one is close to it) as displayed on many images. Due to the very low density such stars may not have a sharp photosphere but a star body which gradually transfers into a 'corona'.

Red giants are evolved from main sequence stars with masses in the range from about 0.5 solar masses to somewhere between 4 and 6 solar masses. When a star initially forms from a collapsing molecular cloud in the interstellar medium, it contains primarily hydrogen and helium, with trace amounts of "metals" (elements with atomic number > 2, i. e. every element except hydrogen and helium). These elements are all equally mixed throughout the star. The star reaches the main sequence when the core reaches a temperature high enough to begin fusing hydrogen (a few million Kelvin) and establish hydrostatic equilibrium. Over its main sequence life, the star slowly converts the hydrogen in the core into helium; its main sequence life ends when nearly all the hydrogen in the core has been exhausted. For the Sun, the main sequence lifetime is approximately 10 billion years; the lifetime is shorter for more massive stars and longer for less massive stars.

When the star exhausts the hydrogen fuel in its core, nuclear reactions in the core stop, so the core begins to contract due to its gravity. This heats a shell just outside the core, where hydrogen remains, initiating fusion of hydrogen to helium in the shell. The higher temperatures lead to increasing reaction rates, producing enough energy to increase the star's luminosity by a factor of 1,000–10,000. The outer layers of the star then expand greatly, beginning the red giant phase of the star's life. Due to the expansion of the outer layers of the star, the energy produced in the core of the star is spread over a much larger surface area, resulting in a lower surface temperature and a shift in the star's visible light output towards the red — hence red giant, even though the color usually is orange. At this time, the star is said to be ascending the red giant branch of the Hertzsprung-Russell (H-R) diagram.

The mechanism that ends the collapse of the core and the ascent up the red giant branch depends on the mass of the star. For the Sun and red giants less than 2.57 solar masses, the core will become dense enough that electron degeneracy pressure will prevent it from collapsing further. Once the core is degenerate, it will continue to heat until it reaches a temperature of roughly 108 K, hot enough to begin fusing helium to carbon via the triple-alpha process. Once the degenerate core reaches this temperature, the entire core will begin helium fusion nearly simultaneously in a so-called helium flash. In more massive stars, the collapsing core will reach 108 K before it is dense enough to be degenerate, so helium fusion will begin much more smoothly, with no helium flash. Once the star is fusing helium in its core, it contracts and is no longer considered a red giant. The core helium fusing phase of a star's life is called the horizontal branch in metal-poor stars, so named because these stars lie on a nearly horizontal line in the H-R diagram of many star clusters. Metal-rich helium-fusing stars instead lie on the so-called red clump in the H-R diagram.

In stars massive enough to ignite helium fusion, an analogous process occurs when central helium is exhausted and the star switches to fusing helium in a shell, although with the additional complication that in many cases hydrogen fusion will continue in a shell at lesser depth. This puts stars onto the asymptotic giant branch, a second red giant phase. More massive stars continue to repeat this cycle, fusing heavier elements in successive phases, each lasting more briefly than the previous.

A solar mass star will never fuse carbon. Instead, at the end of the asymptotic giant branch phase, the star will eject its outer layers, forming a planetary nebula with the core of the star exposed, ultimately becoming a white dwarf. The ejection of the planetary nebula finally ends the red giant phase of the star's evolution.

The Sun is expected to become a red giant approximately 5 billion years from now. It is calculated that the Sun will become sufficiently large to engulf the current orbits of the solar system's inner planets, up to Earth, and its radius will expand to a minimum of 200 times its current value.

The Sun will lose a significant fraction of its mass in the process of becoming a red giant, and there is a chance that Mars and all the outer planets will escape as their resulting orbits will widen. Mercury and most likely Venus will have been swallowed by sun's outer layer at this time. Earth's fate is less clear. Earth could technically achieve a widening of its orbit and could potentially maintain a sufficiently high angular velocity to keep it from becoming engulfed. In order to do so, its orbit needs to increase to between 1.3 AU (190,000,000 km) and 1.7 AU (250,000,000 km).

However, the results of studies announced in 2008 show that due to tidal interaction between sun and Earth, Earth would actually fall back into a lower orbit, and get engulfed and incorporated inside the sun before the sun reaches its largest size, despite the sun losing about 38% of its mass.

Before this happens, Earth's biosphere will have long been destroyed by the Sun's steady increase in brightness as its hydrogen supply dwindles and its core contracts, even before the transition to a Red Giant. After just over 1 billion years, the extra solar energy input will cause Earth's oceans to evaporate and the hydrogen from the water to be lost permanently to space, with total loss of water by 3 billion years. Earth's atmosphere and lithosphere will become like that of Venus. Over another billion years, most of the atmosphere will get lost in space as well, ultimately leaving Earth as a desiccated, dead planet with a surface of molten rock.

And people wonder why I'm such a staunch advocate of expanding our manned space exploration programs!

So, that's a red giant in the real-life astronomical sense. How's the toy? Pretty impressive, I must say.

Slash is easily the largest Planet Heroes figure yet, which makes sense if you think about it. He's certainly larger than Gustus, the representative from Jupiter. And although he's not as wide as Commander Sun, he is taller, not even counting the light-up pole or whatever it is on his back. Commander Sun stands 7-1/2" in height. Slash is closer to 8-1/2", and would probably be a bit taller if he would get a chiropractic treatment and not hunch over.

Slash follows the basic body design of a lot of the Planet Heroes figures -- which really don't have all that much in common with each other. But there are a few common points, which tend to be large upper bodies and big arms, and proportionately smaller legs. Slash definitely follows this pattern. He has absolutely huge arms, and comparatively smaller legs. But there's not that much on him that anyone would describe as "small".

Slash is definitely a villain, and for someone coming out of a preschool line, he's surprisingly nasty-looking. The other villains in the series -- Professor Darkness, Tiny the Asteroid -- don't look nearly as mean as this. I can see this toy actually scaring a couple of really little kids.

Slash takes a few design cues, intentional or not, from Marvel Comics' character Benjamin J. Grimm, the Thing. His skin is a dark orange -- which is rather interesting given that science report indicating that red giants are actually more orange than red in color. And Slash has rather rocky skin, including the same sort of heavy brow as Grimm. There's a rough texture to Slash's face and arms, the exposed parts of the character, that I've seen used on other Planet Heroes figures. Slash has rather deepset yellowish eyes, a cartoonishly protruding jaw, and a nasty look on his face. He has three spikes in a vertical row on the top of his head, and dark grey spiked armbands, three each, on his arms.

The figure is outfitted in a mostly bright green uniform, making him surprisingly colorful on the whole, and certainly a standout in the line, as if his size wasn't enough. He has a bright green shirt with armored padding. The armor has black and silver trim on it, which is very neatly sculpted. The two silver circles on his chest armor are as perfect circles as you could ask for on a toy. Slash is wearing trousers that are a dark burgundy brown in color, and lightly textured, not quite as much as his face and arms, and armored boots that are the same bright green as the rest of his outfit, with black and silver trim.

His overall physical build is that of an exaggerated powerhouse. Slash is clearly designed to be a muscular, brawny sort, with powerful arms and chest, and big feet. At least there's not much risk of him falling over.

Protruding from his back is a red pole, possibly an antenna or weapon. It's not explained on the packaging from a character standpoint, but it does light up and flash when he talks.

That's right, he talks. Slash is part of the "Voice Comm" series of Planet Heroes, a group of talking figures. Although all of the figures in this series were new molds, necessitated, no doubt, by the need to incorporate the talking parts, Slash was the only new character. It seems that with each new "special team", Mattel is trying to add one new character. The "Metallic Squad" was mostly repaints, except for the addition of new character Hollywood, representing a Star (see separate review).

Slash's only accessory, doubtless given his massive size and relative cost, is a rifle. This also surprised me from a preschool toy standpoint. It's molded in the same burgundy brown color as Slash's trousers, and although fairly fanciful in appearance, it is not entirely implausible, and it's pretty good sized, about 5-1/2" long. And there's no way it can be mistake for anything other than a big gun.

One thing I want to discuss about this toy's voice. As I said, Slash is part of the "Voice Comm" series, so he speaks a number of phrases when you press his belt buckle, which has the Voice Comm logo on it.

Now, I realize that Planet Heroes is a line for small children, and as such, isn't really going to hold up under particularly tight conceptual scrutiny. However, I really wonder what was going through someone's mind when they gave some of these characters the accents they've got.

I can almost get me head around Yuri, the character from Uranus, speaking in a Russian accent on the DVD. At least he's got the name for it. But that doesn't explain why Digger, the character from Mars, has a Scottish accent.

Now we come to Slash. And this time, it's built right into the toy (although in fairness, Digger is part of the VoiceComm series, too). If Slash had any more pronounced of an Australian accent, I'd expect one of his programmed phrases to be "Throw another shrimp on the barbie!" or at the very least, "Crikey!" And this from a character representing a stellar phenomenon that's not even found within the solar system!?

Maybe all those theories about our radio and television broadcasts traveling into space endlessly at the speed of light have some merit... I sure don't have any other theories. But honestly, to draw a comparison to another popular toy line, the guy sounds like some sort of -- dare I say it -- Cosmic Dreadnok.

His phrases include "I'm Red Giant!", "You fell for the oldest trick in the galaxy!" (whatever that might be), "I'm takin' over the Solar System!", and "One puny Planet Hero can't stop me!" A couple of these phrases are so heavily accented I actually had to listen to them more than once, and I'm still not entirely sure I got them right.

The overall detailing on Slash is excellent, as is the paint work. Given that this is a preschool line, articulation was not paramount, but Slash is still decently articulated, poseable at the head, arms (outward as well as forward and back movement), wrists, and legs. He was packaged in a sort of "open" format, so he could technically be handled in the store, and I had a little trouble finding one that didn't have a pretty loose, almost spinning head. On this occasion, I am less inclined to fault Mattel's quality control problems, and more inclined to think these things got worked around a bit in the stores.

One thing I do fault Mattel for, and this is my only real complaint about the figure, is what I tend to call "mold creases". These tend to turn up in toys from any number of manufacturers, especially on parts where slightly softer plastic is used, which is the case with Slash's feet. They're line indentations in the plastic that, as best as I can determine, are a result of either the plastic being insufficiently liquefied before it's pushed into the mold, or not being pushed hard enough. This is caused either by haste or sloppiness, neither of which I excuse. At least it's not on Slash's FACE. I've encountered that before on some other toy lines and it really looks like heck. But his big green boots have a rather noticeable case of it.

Slash also comes with Volume 2 of the Planet Heroes comic book adventures that are included in some of the Planet Heroes toys.

I realize that this is a line with potential cast limitations. Unlike Planet Heroes' "sister" line, Rescue Heroes, which has pretty much limitless potential as long as somewhat punnish names can be developed for various heroic job specialties, we're not inventing new planets. If anything, we demoted one a while back. And most of the specific names of a lot of our stellar phenomenon out there are rather complex. Do you want to try to explain to a little kid how to pronounce "Betelgeuse" or "Procyon"?

While the mini-figure idea might have some merit, I would hate to see the mainline figures disappear. Sadly, that looks like it may be what's happening, although I hope I'm wrong. Although the science it presents in and of itself is pretty basic, the concept behind Planet Heroes, in introducing young children to the real-life Solar System -- something they're not terribly likely to get much of anywhere else, including school, unfortunately -- has far too much merit and importance for this line to only endure for a couple of years and then vanish. Certainly the response I've gotten to my other Planet Heroes reviews, both through e-mail and discussion on certain message boards (a few of which wouldn't normally even bring up a preschool line) tells me that Planet Heroes has its fans among parents, kids, and collectors. In the toy world, that's pretty impressive. Let's hope what I'm seeing right now in the stores isn't the final appearance of the standard-scale figures.

So, what's my final word on Red Giant Slash? This is an extremely impressive toy. He's the biggest Planet Heroes figure of them all, he's certainly the meanest looking, he's got a fantastic design, and is a well-made toy. I'd be just a little worried about him scaring the youngest of children -- he could be pretty scary-looking to a three-year-old -- and if you give him to your child and your child suddenly starts talking in an extreme Australian accent -- and you're not reading this from Australia -- then I might be a little concerned.

But otherwise, I have nothing but good things to say about this toy. Hopefully, you can still find him when you read this. The PLANET HEROES RED GIANT "SLASH" figure definitely has my highest enthusiastic recommendation!