Most of us people of the geeky persuasion have a collection of some sort. With the seemingly infinite diversity of fan bases and the actual limitless lengths companies will go to make money, you can, for the right price, collect just about anything, geeky or mundane. For purveyors of Topless Robot, one might collect toys or comics, films or anime wall scrolls. As someone who loves film, science fiction and technology, my drug of choice for the better part of the eighteen years of my adult life has been movie props.
The problem with collecting props, as a married man with four kids, is that the prices involved with collecting props generally range from “I’m never getting laid again” to “Divorce Court.” Therefore, my authentic prop collection is limited to a pair of screen-worn Caprica Buccaneers jerseys (a gift from my wife), and Eddie Griffin’s briefcase from Undercover Brother. While I’d love the addition of some top tier props to my collection, the fact is that most cost more than my first car. [Hey, it’s tax day – spend your refund! – LYT]
Roddenberry Entertainment has been producing replicas in both kit and finished-product formats for several years. While they’ve made your typical fan favorites like com-badges and uniforms, more exotic entries like Captain Picard’s Rissikan flute from “The Inner Light” have also been recently released. Their newest line, the Gene Roddenberry Legacy Collection, premiered recently with their first two entries in the series: the Klingon Bat’leth, and the Mark IX Science Tricorder as seen in later Star Trek series and films.
One (Tricorder – a Bat’leth in my hands would likely send me to Sto-vo-kor prematurely) recently arrived on my doorstep for review, prompting me to ponder: what should you look for when buying a prop replica? I also talked to Brent Beaudette, Chief Product Officer of Roddenberry Entertainment about prop replicas and the market, and we’ll take a closer look at the Tricorder and prop replicas in general because, if you’re going to end up in the dog house, it had better be worth it.
1. Welcome to the Desert of the Real
The painful truth is that authentic props, particularly of the sci-fi variety, do not look in reality like anything you saw on screen. The Roddenberry Mark IX is made of metal, weighs as much as a small cat, and flips open to display a brilliant sound and light show captured right from the show, all for $499.95.
The real thing is available as well if you’re willing to hunt. The same model Tricorder, screen-used from an episode of Voyager, was listed on eBay at the time of my research. At a glance they look identical, even down to the images on the display, but with a construction out of resin, no function whatsoever, inkjet printed graphics and a starting bid of $3000, it’s easy to see why people would be more inclined to reach for the replica.
The screen-used prop, while impressive yet static, pales in comparison to what would be called a Hero Prop. Used when prominently featured on screen, a hero prop would light up similarly to the way the Roddenberry Mark IX replica would (albeit without sound), be constructed out of plastic or resin, with a price significantly higher than the replica or the static. A call to LA and London based prop auction house Prop Store indicated that a Mark IX Tricorder Hero prop would likely sell at auction from between $5,000 and $10,000.
The fact is, while the static version real thing makes for a better collectible, it may very well make for a far less interesting display piece whereas a good, high quality replica can look incredible on your coffee table, and it won’t have you selling organs on the black market like the hero prop will.
2. Props Are Not Toys
I’ll admit it, I’m still a kid at heart. Until switching jobs recently, my desk was littered with nerdy knickknacks. Die-cast starships and starfighters, the Indiana Jones Potato Head, and Kevin Flynn’s Disc were littered across my cubicle. I used the excuse that I needed to entertain my kids when I worked weekends, but that was a bold-faced lie. They entertained me! I love toys, and having kids is the perfect justification for me to browse the toy aisle.
Once I opened the Roddenberry Mark IX, fiddled with the batteries enough to get it to start working (a 15 minute process), and flipped open the lid, I stared for the full two minutes of the Tricorders pre-programmed light show. It was beautiful and exact, so much that I found myself popping in my Star Trek Blu-Rays to compare and find some flaw in the design. Once the shock and awe of the initial experience left, I immediately wanted to start fiddling.
Opening and closing the lid was the limit to the interactivity of the Mark IX. None of the labeled “buttons” on the device worked and the light/sound show had no variation. Even the magnetic seal of the lid was too secure, preventing me from successfully animating Mr. Tricorder. While the adult in me was still thrilled at how this would look on my desk, the kid in me was disappointed.
After doing some research, however, any disappointment with the Mark IX’s lack of interactivity was stripped away. To my untrained eye, the Roddenberry Mark IX is identical to the EFX brand release of the Tricorder, which in turn was slightly upgraded from the now defunct Master Replicas version of the device. According to Beaudette, the difference is in durability and quality. While the three different productions of the Tricorder were based on the same exact prop studio model, subtle improvements have been made to the electronics for better durability. The other difference: Price. While the Roddenberry Tricorder initially gave me sticker shock, the Master Replicas and EFX models, while hard to find, are selling for between double and quadruple the price of the new edition. Want a “working” one? A tricked out resin Mark VII with interactive buttons and LCD screen was recently seen on eBay for almost $3000, or about 50,000 Quatloos.
3. The Price of Authenticity
Not everyone can have the official license to create prop replicas. In the last seven years, the license for the Mark IX Tricorder has bounced between Master Replicas and EFX before returning home to Roddenberry. Visit any Star Trek convention and you’re likely to find resin kits or other unofficial recreations. A trip to eBay, while showing you many authentic or seemingly authentic items, will also bring tons of homebrewed items which may be found rather lacking.
A perfect example is the large market for Star Wars replica lightsabers. When I first started collecting, the options were Master Replicas and Parks Sabers, with the latter producing actual “functional” lightsabers. I spent almost $300 for a Anakin/Luke Skywalker working lightsaber replica. By working, I mean it has a removable, electro-luminescent blue blade. There’s no sound, it wouldn’t likely take an impact, and while it’s still cool, it’s very basic when compared to the options today.
Now, for half of the $300 I spent, you can purchase an officially licensed replica, complete with sounds, enhanced lighting and more. Companies like Parks Saber are still in existence, and sell high quality replica and uniquely designed lightsabers, but their creations, as impressive as they are, aren’t licensed.
Of course, not all unlicensed prop makers work with the same quality of Parks Sabers. In fact, Brent has fielded many a complaint from consumers who purchased a prop replica from an unsavory source and regretted it. While the Roddenberry company doesn’t have the personnel or resources to pursue every single unscrupulous prop dealer, CBS has its own consumer products department for dealing with the Harry Mudds of the collectible world.
Beaudette stresses the need to certificates of authenticity, but also reminds buyers to beware. Bills of sale, receipts and other documents are helpful, but buyers need to pay attention to the source and the story behind their acquisition of the item they are selling you.
4. Red Alert – Shields Up
It’s a known fact that children void warranties – mine particularly so. In the three years since the number of children in-house went up to four, my kids have managed to damage or destroy over $2000 in electronics. Recently my six year-old son found my box of collectibles (aka toys) that had graced my office desk and has begun to purloin them. A visit to his bedroom led me to discover my die cast Star Trek starships strewn all over the floor after an apparent combat mission against my die cast Battlestar Galactica vessels. A few weeks prior, I caught him thumbing through my copy of Strange Tales #115, the most valuable comic book I own.
I was smart enough to unbox my Mark IX after the kids went to bed, but not smart enough to hide it before the next morning. That morning I was awoken to the sounds to someone scanning for lifeforms and ran down to find my two of my children staring at the Tricorder, mounted on its display stand, like it was a fishnet-clad leg lamp. I thankfully reached the living room in time to stop strawberry yogurt-slicked hands from defiling the electronic thing of beauty.
Had my kids gotten their hands on my sample, it would have likely survived the encounter, unlike the real and much more expensive version. Beaudette recounted stories of conventiongoers dropping their still expensive plastic and resin replicas to a splintery doom, and while a drop could most certainly damage the zinc alloy of the Roddenberry Mark IX, it’s likely it would live to scan another day.
5. Limited Edition Means Your Credit Limit Will Be Eclipsed
One of the things Brent Beaudette pointed out about the Roddenberry version of the Mark IX is that while it is being produced in somewhat small batches, there is no real limit to the number of devices being produced. The original Master Replicas run was limited to 2,000, and the EFX Brent Spiner signature edition only released 684 to the public. The fact that these editions were limited has certainly affected the price over the years. At the time of writing, Amazon still has a single Master Replicas Mark IX available for purchase, though at a price that would make one wonder if the buyer’s brain had been abducted on Sigma Draconis IV. The EFX edition seems nowhere to be found online, though if history is any indicator, it would sell for much more than it’s 2009 price of $349.
The good thing about this is, essentially, anyone who want to purchase the Roddenberry Mark IX will have the opportunity to without having to sell plasma in order to get it before it’s gone. The bad thing is that thanks to the laws of supply and demand, it’s likely the Roddenberry will hold more sentimental value than cash value, and possibly drive down the cost of the older models as well. The fact is, any time a limit on the production of a collectible object like a prop replica is enforced, particularly from a franchise like Star Trek or Star Wars, it tends to drive the secondary market price upwards. Then again, by the 23rd century we should have transcended all need for personal wealth.
6. Infinite Diversity at Infinite Prices
We’ve all experienced it: that regret one feels the minute after purchasing something rather expensive and finding out moments later that a better version is available. I made the mistake of purchasing a Galaxy Gear smartwatch just days before the Gear 2 was announced, actually spent money on a Nokia N-Gage, and imported one of Nokia’s first smartphones right as Android and Apple phones became commonplace.
It’s the same story for prop replicas. While little has changed in the three iterations of the Mark IX Tricorder, others have gone through massive refits. Just a few short months after purchasing my soundless, electroluminescent lightsaber, I saw a new version featuring authentic sounds, much more powerful lighting, and a nearly indestructible blade at a price no more expensive than what I initially paid.
When asked why we haven’t seen more function prop replicas like communicator cell phones or Bluetooth commbadge speakerphones, Beaudette said that while items like that are beyond the scope of Roddenberry, they’ve been approached by companies looking to produce Star Trek branded technologies. With the Tricorder X-Prize in full effect, it won’t be long before some of these new devices start to take the shape of the Star Trek devices we know and love. Needless to say, when someone partners with Roddenberry to reproduce a functional version of the Global Link (Earth: Final Conflict’s version of a cell phone), I will be first in line on pre-order day.
Star Trek fans will be happy to know that the Gene Roddenberry Legacy Collection won’t be ending. Beaudette said we could expect some exciting entries in the collection later this year, particularly coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. While these new collectables haven’t been announced officially yet, it’s doubtful any of them will allow me to stun my misbehaving kids. Perhaps the next model will.
A fan of video games and science fiction from the moment he discovered his father's Atari 2600 and Star Wars, Jason Helton has been contributing to The Robot's Voice since 2011. Prior, he wrote for the UK's Den of Geek and was the producer and host of Iron Otaku Radio on XM's UPOP 29 channel. A die-hard fan of Battlestar Galactica (both old and new), Doctor Who, and pinball, you can follow him on Twitter @Razgriz1138.