Dramatic television programs, especially those of the science fiction variety are often produced at a blazing rate, leaving scarce time for intrepid production designers, prop master or art directors to create everything they need to tell a particular story.
Accordingly, popular — and sometimes highly recognizable — toys have often been recruited to stand in as in-universe props from time-to-time.
Below are six memorable examples of this trend.
Robot Commando on Man from UNCLE: “The Double Affair” (1964)
In 1961, the toy every little kid in America wanted was Ideal’s Robot Commando, a nineteen inch tall robot that could fire missiles and respond to voice commands.
This “amazing mechanical man” made an appearance in an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964 – 1968) in November of 1964, in “The Double Affair.”
In particular, two Robot Commando toys set their sights on Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) as he exited from a tailor shop, launching their missiles at him. Illya defended himself with a garbage can lid.
AMT’s U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek: “The Doomsday Machine” (1966)
When the special effects team behind the original Star Trek required a second starship to combat the Planet Killer for Norman Spinrad’s teleplay, “The Doomsday Machine,” an AMT U.S.S Enterprise model-kit was touched up – or battered as the case may be — and renamed the U.S.S. Constellation for action.
In several scenes (at least before the CGI re-do of the mid 2000s) the commercially-available model kit can be seen wobbling its way into the fiery Planet Killer interior.
In another episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” an AMT kit of the Enteprrise was also used, suspended outside the window of a space station office.
Computer Perfection on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: “The Mark of the Saurian” (1981)
Lakeside’s home electronics puzzle game Computer Perfection became an on-screen prop during the second season of Buck Rogers. In “Mark of the Saurian” (a knock-off of Space: 1999’s “The Bringers of Wonder,”) a sick Buck (Gil Gerard) is the only Searcher crew-men who could see a team of human ambassadors for who they really were: nefarious aliens.
In the Searcher sick-bay, Computer Perfection’s unmistakable blue transparent hood is evident in the foreground of many shots.
Notably, a year earlier, Buck Rogers had included, on camera, real arcade games of the year 1979 to decorate a space bar in the episode “Space Vampire.”
Pair Match on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1991 – 1994)
In 1984, Bandai Toys devised Pair Match, a small pyramid-shaped game console on which one could play games like Concentration.
The tiny black pyramidal device appeared as a Ten Forward prop on the Enterprise-D several times in Star Trek: The Next Generation, including in the third season episode “The Vengeance Factor,” in the fifth season episodes “Ensign Ro” and “Ethics” and again in the seventh season story “Genesis.”
Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Phaser on Black Scorpion (1999), “Blinded by the Light.”
Alas, I couldn’t find a photograph of the prop in use on screen, but the Sci-Fi Channel superhero series Black Scorpion starring Michelle Lintel used a Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Phaser 1 as a remote control for the Scorpion Mobile in the third episode “Blinded by the Light.” Where does Black Scorpion get her marvelous toys? Kay-Bee.
Master Merlin on Firefly: “The Train Job.” (2002)
Parker Bros. had a huge hit with Merlin, the electronic wizard, in 1978. Not long after, the company devised a more complex, updated hand-held electronic game, called Master Merlin.
This toy unexpectedly showed up as the Serenity’s hatch-controls (replete with cord…) in the first episode aired of Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002), “The Train Job.”
In particular, Kaylee (Jewel Staite) used the device to open the hatch in mid-operation, and lower Jayne (Adam Baldwin) down to a train in motion.