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By Thomas Wheeler

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 second planet in our Solar System -- VENUS -- and this world's representative on the Planet Heroes team, who goes by the name of DAZZLE.

Each of the Planet Heroes figures comes with a file card that presents some basic facts about the planet, and the character. As one would expect, these are extremely basic, and in the case of Venus, mentions the fact that the planet is the brightest one in the Solar System -- when it's visible, which is generally around sunrise and sunset -- and discusses its extreme temperature. Let's dig a little deeper.

I've always found it fascinating that although space scientists regard Mars as the most logical target for a manned landing on another planet -- and rightly so -- Mars is only about half the size of Earth, whereas Venus is almost the same size as our own world. According to an excellent book, likely long out of print, entitled "The Grand Tour: A Traveler's Guide to ther Solar System" (probably rife with minor inaccuracies since its original publication but still loaded with good facts and stunning artwork), our planet Earth has a diameter of 12,756 kilometers. Venus has a diameter of 12,100 kilometers. It is, as such, closest to us in overall size.

But whereas Mars might be regarded as a potentially hospitable or at least tolerable environment, Venus has been described by some as a planet where the "greenhouse effect" ran amok. To call this world inhospitable is astounding understatement. Its atmosphere is a roiling mass of toxic gasses, and its surface temperature is actually hotter than that of Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun.

There have been a wide variety of robotic probes sent to Venus since the 1960's. Few of these have been designed as landers, and fewer of those that were have been successful. Somewhat curiously, the former Soviet Union has paid a lot more attention to Venus over the years than the United States has. The Soviet Union's Venera series is responsible for many of the discoveries about this cloud-enshrouded world. The United States has sent some probes to Venus, including early Mariner missions, but the Soviets have had the most luck with landers.

I've seen photos of the surface of Venus. They show an eerie planet, cloud-enshrouded, and marked by a strange, and very unearthly rocky landscape where many of the rocks appear half-melted. Hardly surprising given the incredible pressure and temperature.

The atmosphere isn't any friendlier. A further investigation by a subsequent pair of Soviet probes, Venera 11 and 12, revealed a large proportion of chlorine in the clouds, in addition to sulfur. Strong lightning activity was also detected.

So far, the lander to last the longest was sent from Venera 13 in 1981. It took the first color photographs of the surface and analyzed the X- ray fluorescence of an excavated soil sample. The probe operated for a record 127 minutes on the planet's hostile surface. Also in 1981, the Venera 14 lander detected possible seismic activity in the planet's crust.

That's right, this thing lasted all of two hours and a couple of minutes. Compare that with the many months that Spirit and Opportunity have been trekking across Mars. It's not that the Soviets build lousy space probes. It's just that hard to get anything to last any length of time on a planet like Venus.

Even if it were possible to build some sort of containment suit that would allow a person to survive long enough on the surface of Venus, spend enough time to conduct a few experiments, and get out without being baked to a crispy well-done in the process, the place isn't exactly what one would call a vacation spot.

I'll leave it to you to decide the irony of a planet named by the ancients after their mythical goddess of love turning out to be such a hellish deathtrap...

Obviously, the probability of any indigenous life on a planet like this is slim to none. So now we have to enter the world of fantasy, and a universe where, somehow, the worlds of the Solar System have managed to develop native life that, at least to some degree, is compatible with one another. What the heck, it's a toy line.

DAZZLE is easily the most human-looking of the Planet Heroes characters, other than Earth's representative, a boy named Ace. She's also the lone female in the line, unless one of the freakier aliens is a female and it's just impossible to tell. However, the DVD that comes with some of these figures would seem to indicate that Dazzle is indeed the only female character, which would be in keeping with a traditional action figure line, as well as with the mythical origins of her homeworld.

In keeping with the more scientific aspects of her homeworld, she is dressed in bright, flaming colors, and indeed her skin and hair reflect a similar color scheme. Dazzle's skin is a yellowish-gold (not metallic), she has yellow and orange hair in a flame-like hairstyle, and her uniform, looking like an advanced astronaut suit, is predominantly yellow with red trim.

What's interesting is the amount of airbrushed detail on this figure, something I don't believe it's common to see on a preschool toy. Heck, it's not all that common on action figures intended for older audiences. Dazzle's hair is blonde close to her head, but is airbrushed into an orange coloration the further out it gets. Similarly, her mostly yellow uniform has "solid" printed red highlights, that honestly remind me a bit of both the G.I. Joe Team's original flamethrower trooper, a character named Blowtorch, and the "Age of Apocalypse" version of Sunfire from the X-Men storyline some years ago. But Dazzle's uniform also has some orange airbrushed on it, on the sides of her body, arms, and legs. The net effect is very impressive. I don't want to make the bad joke of saying that Dazzle looks hot, but that might be the only way to put it.

What's interesting is the color detail that's missing. Early designs for this character, which can be seen on both the DVD and some (but not all) of the illustrations, show some elements of a light teal blue. This would have been found on certain uniform elements that were ultimately left yellow, as well as excessive eye shadow and lipstick.

Not only did this teal blue not blend with the rest of the character design one darn bit, but the eye shadow and lipstick wasn't a good look. And while I suspect that it was simple economics that cause the blue trim to be dropped, something I would normally oppose on an action figure, in this case, it was the right thing to do. The character looks a lot better, both in the uniform and on her face, without the blue.

The character is described on her file card as a fearless, loyal warrior. One sort of gets the impression that her people are the Venusian versions of the Amazons from Wonder Woman or some such.

Being from a preschool line, obviously articulation wasn't of primary importance with any of the Planet Heroes. Still, Dazzle manages rather well. She is poseable at the head, arms, and legs. The arms not only move forward and backward, but also outward. This is comparable to the other relatively human-looking member of the team, Ace, the boy from Earth. And here we need to draw another comparison. According to the character profiles, Ace is supposed to be about ten years of age. It's reasonable to assume that Dazzle is supposed to be an adult, and the comparative height between the two would tend to bear this out. Ace stands just a hair over five inches tall. Dazzle is just a fraction over six inches tall.

Dazzle's accessories include a yellow, flame-like shield, and a weapon called a "Lava Launcher". This is a fairly clever device. Proportionately to Dazzle, it's a whoppingly big gun, but the little kids have to be able to use it. It fires a flame-looking missile through a spring-action system that manages to get rather surprising distance for a preschool toy. The rear of the gun has a container of red sparkles in it, suspended in an orange liquid, that is tethered to the gun and plugs into the back. One must assume this is an additional supply of "lava".

One additional note: Each of the Planet Heroes has a number on their uniform, that denotes their planet's place in the Solar System from the Sun, and that number has an image of the planet in the circular background. As such, Dazzle is wearing a number "2" within a circle that has a rather bleak-looking, orange and tan world. Not a bad way to teach the kids where the planets fall in order. Given that I personally doubt that most public schools teach a lot of space science these days, a toy line like this that manages to combine some action figure fun with a bit of education that could lead to greater actual exploration of our Solar System is a great idea.

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. And certainly DAZZLE, representing the planet VENUS, has my enthusiastic recommendation!