From 1978 to 1985, Kenner sold over 300 million Star Wars-related toys. This series of toys is known among fans as the vintage line. In The Vintage Vault, we take a closer look at some of the most iconic original Star Wars toys that have delighted fans across the globe.
Kenner’s Death Star Space Station was the first Star Wars playset ever to be released, and it must have been a kid’s dream come true. Personally, I didn’t know about this playset for a long time since it was never offered in Belgium. It wasn’t even until the ’90s that I even learned about its existence! It measures nearly 22.5 inches tall, which remains one of the biggest toys ever created for any Star Wars 3.75” line. This is nearly impossible to believe nowadays, but the playset originally sold for about $ 18.00 — a price that comes closer to a single action figure today.
The towering playset is vertically designed and looks like a cross-section of the Death Star. Of course, it would have been quite impractical for Kenner to have created a Death Star that was on scale with its figures. That would have cost a fortune, even in 1978. Still, the Death Star Space Station has an impressive three floors and a bottom level. Let’s start from the top.
The playset has a large elevator shaft that goes from the bottom floor all the way to the top. Pulling a lever will bring your action figures to AA-23 or another desired level. A transparent door opens and you can even lock the elevator at any floor. All floors feature many pegs to firmly position action figures.
The roof of the playset is formed by a plastic grid-like piece that keeps the columns and the large elevator shaft locked in place. If you want, you can even position a ship or figures on top of the playset. The top floor features two scenes from the movies. A large blue laser cannon, named many years later as an SB-920 laser cannon, fills up most of the top floor. The cannon can move sideways, a bit upwards, and can even explode when you pull a lever. There’s also a seat for the weapon’s gunner. Until 1985, you had to use other Imperials to man the laser since the Imperial Gunner only appeared at the end of the Kenner series. A Stormtrooper or a Death Squad Commander would have been good choices back in 1978. An additional feature is the terminal where Ben Kenobi can disable the power of the tractor beam, similar to what is seen in the film. The terminal is featured on top of the large shaft with a small ledge to reach it, creating a realistic portrayal of the scene. Once again, Ben’s heroic actions can allow the Millennium Falcon to escape.
The second floor of the station simulates the bridges near the Death Star’s central chasm. The wall of this floor is made of a flimsy cardboard piece with control panels, one of which shows the Death Star orbiting the planet Yavin. The bridge leading to the elevator is retractable so you can allow your figures to jump across the chasm. There is even a short plastic rope that figures can grab onto to make the jump.
The first floor has the most room for placing figures. Just like on the second floor, a thin cardboard functions as a wall. This time one panel looks a lot like the forward station that our heroes took over near Docking Bay 327. Another panel shows an X-wing and a TIE fighter. This level also has two consoles that don’t really look like the ones seen in the movie, but it’s obvious what they represent. The coolest feature on the first floor is a trapdoor that leads to the trash compactor. No, the floor doesn’t look like AA-23 and the hole in the floor doesn’t look like the one Leia blasted in the cell block, but it works perfectly and your figures can make a hasty escape.
Finally, we have the the bottom level of the playset. Beside the elevator, the only thing found on the bottom level may be the coolest thing of the entire playset: the trash compactor. The trash compactor is a separate piece that can be used anywhere else if you want to. It’s an orange box with plastic transparent “windows” and a blue door that looks like the one in the movie. The door opens up and forms some kind of “bridge” to the elevator. Inside the trash compactor are many pieces of foam (yellow, black, and blue) that represent the garbage seen in the film. It may sound silly, but it’s actually not a bad solution. You also have the first full representation of the dianoga, the monster that lurks in the filthy water. The dianoga is small (it couldn’t even have eaten Luke) and has four fin-like appendages to go with its mouth and characteristic periscope eye. Though this creature looks pretty weird, it was never sold separately or included in another set.
The trash compactor actually works! There is a lever on the back of the compactor that can be turned. The backside of the compactor will then move toward the door to simulate the scene from the movie, but at the very end the door will open and your figures can escape just in time!
The three floors and the elevator shaft are basically the elements that make up the Death Star Space Station. As mentioned, the playset has a lot of simple, cool action features and doesn’t use any batteries at all. The features are coming straight out of A New Hope: the swing across the chasm, the trash compactor, and the elevator. We’re certain this playset guaranteed hours of fun adventures, because it could be turned into any other generic Imperial base. It didn’t have to be the Death Star if you preferred otherwise.
Needless to say, the Death Star Space Station comes with loads (nearly 30) of individual pieces. It’s very difficult to find a complete loose playset in good condition. The piece that will be missing nearly all the time is the small plastic rope of the second floor. The foam may also be in bad condition due to age and there are a lot of other things that can be wrong with a loose set (check the different cardboard pieces and all the support columns, for example). An unopened Death Star Space Station is not an easy toy to find, and even a loose dianoga can fetch a nice sum these days.
The playset is packed in a tall rectangular box and comes with an instruction sheet (but no sticker instructions). The instructions explain how to construct the playset and also show most of the action features. At the front of the box is a photo of two boys playing with the Death Star. Figures from the first wave are seen in action positions: Vader and Ben are dueling, Han and Chewie escape from the trash compactor, Luke waits to be kissed “for luck” by Leia before swinging across the chasm. The sides of the box show the action features: laser cannon, chasm jump, tractor beam, working elevator, trapdoor, and trash compactor. The backside of the box has black and white art of the photo on the front. This was done regularly for US releases to save money on the production cost.
The playset was released in 1978 and once again in 1979. The ’79 box doesn’t feature the LP (Long Play) symbol anymore. Because the Death Star Space Station was so large, overseas countries chose not to produce it. Instead, they opted to fabricate their own cardboard Death Star playset, an item we may discuss in another article in this series. Canada, however, did produce the Death Star Space Station, making it the only country in the world to officially release both the Death Star Space Station and the “cardboard” Death Star playset (through Sears). The first Canadian box opens totally different from its US counterpart and the toy is called “Station Spatiale De L’Etoile De La Mort.”
Kenner promoted this playset with a television commercial that can be watched over here. The Kenner Death Star Space Station is not as prolific as the Millennium Falcon, but for the first playset ever made for the Star Wars line, Kenner surely hit the mark pretty well.
Selected Reading: theswca.com, The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures (Bellomo, 2014), Dixième Planète Hors-Série n° 5 (2006), and Irwin Toys: The Canadian Star Wars Connection (McCallum, 2000).
Tim Veekhoven (Sompeetalay) from Belgium is president and co founder of TeeKay-421, the Belgian Star Wars fanclub. He has contributed to Star Wars Insider, to the ‘Build the Millennium Falcon’ magazine and has created character names and back stories for ‘What’s the Story?’ and Rogues Gallery.