When I was a kid, my friend James Coleman assured us that he had a figure of Unicron, the baddie robot planet from The Transformers: The Movie – but it was up in his attic, and he couldn’t bring it down to show us because it was too big. We all thought he might have been a bit of a lying bastard, but his dad was minted, his house was massive, and maybe, just maybe, there really was a great big Unicron toy in 1986…
Unicron’s toy would have first started to have been thought about during production of The Transformers: The Movie in 1985. Character designer Floro Dery had drawn up character sheets for several new characters, and those sheets were passed across to Hasbro and Takara as the basis for newly designed toys. A frequent drawback to this process was that revised and updated model sheets would frequently be produced too late in the production process for the changes to be applied to the toys themselves.
Unicron’s earliest designs from the earliest drafts name him as The Entity.
Later in the process, the evil planet gains a robot mode, and eventually the planet is renamed Unicron, and the robot form named Ingestor. Unicron is soon adopted as the only name for the villain. With the early designs passed across to the toy designers at Takara, development of the Unicron toy began. Takara Designer Koujin Oono reflected on the initial designs he received.
Unicron’s character illustration was sent to us along with Rodimus and the others. I was surprised with his sphere shape at first, then worried about how I should treat the ring of the planet mode… I made a mechanism prototype of about 10cm (3.9 inch) in diameter at first, and made another one after being told it should be much bigger at a presentation. I wish I was made aware of the size and price range (of each The Transformers: The Movie toy), but at that time I went ahead and made them all in the same size just to see how they would look. So the Wheelie I initially made was deluxe size.Koujin Oona (excerpt from Transformers Generations 2011 Volume 2)
The early design iterations led to the first prototype that Takara produced, pictured below. With the yellow plastic placement matching the early model sheets, the planet mode ring (formed from the robot mode arms) was placed directly in front of the planet’s maw, just as in the early model sheet. This early prototype also featured a small accompanying moon and stand – the moon acting as a microphone for a voice changer gimmick that would have fed through a speaker in the main figure. This initial version stood at approximately 33cm tall, slightly taller than the largest Transformer figure at that time, Metroplex. But after a presentation to Hasbro, the word came down to Takara and Oona – make the figure bigger.
A second version of the figure was duly prototyped, scaling up some of the original design, and incorporating numerous new molding differences. The planetary rings now echoed the updated model sheets, following the planet’s vertical axis rather than horizontal. The colours were closer to the final model sheets as well, featuring the now-classic blue and yellow aesthetic. Hewing closer to 40 cm’s tall, had Unicron been released it would have been the biggest Transformer of the time (but ultimately would still have lost out to the towering Fortress Maximus the following year). Gone was the microphone moon, replaced instead with a new display stand for the planet mode, and a small blue shield for the robot mode. The shield covered up the yellow chest speaker area in planet mode, while the display stand could transform into a large arm mounted gun in robot mode.
The original intent for the gun was for it to be an infra-red trigger that could fire off the light and sound electronics within the Unicron figure itself. Electronics that would light up the eyes and parts of the planet shell, but also contained some pretty special audio…
The laser gun was [eventually] omitted, but the light and sound gimmicks were still included, and Hasbro sent us sound samples. I was astounded – it was the voice of Orson Welles! The lines were “I am Unicron”, “Attack planet Earth” and such. If we could actually release the toy, it would have been quite monumental. It is such a pity.Koujin Oona (excerpt from Transformers Generations 2011 Volume 2)
So as it turns out, cinema legend (and Unicron voice actor) Orson Welles had recorded ten phrases to be used in the toy (as revealed in the 1989 book,”The Transformers: The Movie Special Data Book)”:
- You are in my power.
- You must obey me!
- I am Unicron!
- Attack planet Earth!
- Nothing can stop Unicron!
- Don’t underestimate me.
- You belong to me, now.
- Destroy the Matrix!
- Terminate the Autobots!
- Unicron knows all!
It was likely that these phrases were recorded during the same studio session in August of 1985 where Welles performed the rest of his movie dialogue. With Welles frail and wheelchair-bound, movie director Nelson Shin was at first concerned over the quality of the voice performance, and employed several post-production audio adjustments to give the Unicron voice the booming presence he wanted. Seventy years old at that time, it was to be Welle’s final film role. He passed away on October 10th 1985, several months before the release of the animated film. Speaking to his biographer Barbara Leaming shortly before his death, Welles did comment on the role…
You know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy. Some terrible robot toys from Japan that changed from one thing to another. The Japanese have funded a full-length animated cartoon about the doings of these toys, which is all bad outer-space stuff. I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.Orson Welles (“Orson Welles: A Biography” page 522)
Of the ten phrases recorded, six are stored in the hand-made bespoke circuitry contained within the figure’s torso (it is unknown which six). The audio features and lighting effects ended up being prohibitively expensive, and were seemingly a large factor in the eventual cancellation of the toy. The figure was never mass produced or released, but over the years, Transformers fans did get some opportunities to see the figure firsthand.
The general consensus is that there were seven of these Unicron prototypes made – each hand-made using resin parts, and hand-painted to boot. One prototype was first displayed alongside other rare prototypes at the BotCon convention in 1996. Shown alongside a Fortress Maximus figure to show the scale of the toy, Unicron was mistransformed, with the waist and legs not extended, and the right arm not even connected to the shoulder, and the left arm deployed incorrectly. An ignominious debut for the fabled figure.
That prototype seems to have been supplied from the collection of former Hasbro Vice-President Vinnie D’Alleva. The proto eventually ended up in the hands of Mike Herz of Whizbang Toys, who often sold on prototypes from former Hasbro employees. Herz sold the figure to a private collector for the princely sum of $13,500 at the BotCon ‘01 convention. As of 2021, the prototype is in the possession of collector RareBots on Facebook (https://m.facebook.com/RareBots). The arms now lack clips or friction to hold their own weight, so for display purposes clear elastic bands are used to hold the arms in position, as they did in the BotCon 2009 display. The fragility of the toy also makes it tricky to safely extend the waist nowadays.
The six other prototype Unicron figures were found in a box at Hasbro in 2008, over two decades after the toys cancellation. Four of the figures were apparently badly damaged, and so were dismantled and refurbished to make two ‘display condition’ prototypes. The remaining other two protos are presumably archived at Hasbro. Meanwhile, the two harvested figures made from the damaged prototypes were displayed at the 2009 BotCon convention, one in planet mode, one in robot mode, and transformed correctly.
Following this, one of those prototypes is now displayed at Hasbro itself, while in 2020 the other was loaned to Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts. It was displayed (with the arms and legs incorrectly transformed again) as part of the museum’s “Let’s Play! New England Toy Stories” exhibition. This prototype also shows evidence of hot glue having been used to hold pieces together.
So, how exactly would this planet-chomping toy have transformed? It appears that somewhere around 2003, a private collector who owned the BotCon’96 prototype documented some of the process. Of note are rudimentary early electronics visible in the torso, and what appears to be a battery compartment in the waist.
So there we have it. A fascinating glimpse at what could have been. Transformers fans would eventually get a full, large Unicron figure as part of the Armada line in 2002, and an absolutely enormous definitive version of the original character in 2021 as part of the War For Cybertron trilogy. But, as impressive as those versions are, as a kid in 1986, I’d have lost my mind over this – if only James had let me see the one he undoubtedly had in his attic.
Transformers Generations 2011 Volume 2 interview translation by SydneyY of tfw2005.com