Nostalgia’s a hell of a drug in the 21st century as beloved franchises are rebooted, re-imagined, or continued seemingly endless, and over at the YouTube channel Toy Galaxy, they deep dive into the origins of that nostalgia.
Transformers, A-Team, GI Joe, Knight Rider, Robotech, Wizard magazine, Max Headroom, and more feature as subjects of Toy Galaxy videos . For roughly 20 minutes, Dan and his partner Greg take viewers on a content-dense ride through the behind-the-scenes elements that gave rise to many of the things we know and love today. While Netflix is hurtling two new He-Man shows at us in one year, Toy Galaxy is riding through memory lane to tell us just how He-Man and the Masters of Universe came to be in the first place. In addition, the channel will discuss details that even larger documentaries on the same subject might overlook.
PopAxiom spoke with Dan Larson, the man in front of the camera for Toy Galaxy, whose clear, calm, and light-hearted delivery (with a dash of delicious Gen X snark) makes watching the channel a delight every time.
Before Dan was informing and entertaining on YouTube, he “went to Rhode Island College. That school is mostly about teaching teachers. I was looking to break into comic books and publish my books.”
“I graduated with a degree in printmaking,” Dan says, “so like limestone blocks and woodcut prints and lithography. But my real education came from working at the campus newspaper. Then, from 1994 to 1998, I learned how to do digital desktop publishing. It was the first time I touched a digital camera.”
The transition from the old-school ways to new was something Dan will never forget. “My freshman and sophomore year, we were using photocopy machines to reduce and enlarge images and glue them down, then suddenly we’re doing all that on a computer in Adobe Page Maker.”
Creating Toy Galaxy
Dan’s a lifelong fan of action figures, and his partner Greg is a cinephile. So when conceiving of Toy Galaxy, the pair as themselves, “Do we want to do a ‘zine’ where it’s sort of photocopies and stapled or do we want to something that looks and sounds professional.”
“When we started,” he says about the initial days of creating the channel,” we saw a lot of low-tech stuff out there with bad sound and picture; long run-times. We didn’t want to be that. We wanted it to look like there’s a whole team behind it.”
Over the years, he says, “We’ve established what’s long enough for us. There are definitely videos where I start to get too deep into the weeds, and I lose the narrative. I have to pull back.”
“Fifteen or twenty minutes is our sweet spot,” he definitively says. “Anything longer than that, and I lose the narrative. Anything shorter than that feels like we didn’t cover it.”
Toy Galaxy began in April of 2015. After six years, what’s changed in how they create videos? “It’s a whole different process. The focus of the channel’s shifted. The original intent was to do action figure reviews. At the time, YouTube wasn’t putting a focus on long videos. Now, they like long videos because it keeps eyeballs on YouTube.”
“We were watching people doing toy reviews,” he continues, “and thinking ‘ten minutes to do an action figure review?’ So we focused on short, concise, and, most importantly, entertaining. We knew we were never going to be the first to review something. Channels were doing it for years already. We could not compete with that; we weren’t getting free merchandise or anything like that.”
Dan explains, “The approach was, we want to make our videos so entertaining to watch that even if you watched the other 100 reviews, you still want to watch ours. So how is Toy Galaxy going to do it, and what jokes will there be this week?”
Early on, Toy Galaxy “put in a timing mechanism by calling the videos four minutes or less. This review of Spider-Man in four minutes or less. That was the hook and gave us our angle.”
“Over the years,” he adds, “we envisioned our channel as sort of a network. We wanted to approach action figures and the industry in the same sort of way. So we were offering up a variety of things with the reviews, versus videos, ten things you need to know about whatever.”
Dan and Greg focused on creating a successful business and watched the numbers. “We knew what people were responding to and weren’t responding to. So, we pushed the channels in the right directions. Ten things you need to know evolved into longer format videos, becoming the ‘History of.’ The other shows we were doing weren’t doing as well, and one-by-one we cut them off.”
“We know exactly our demographic — to the birthday.” Dan laughs, and so do I because that demographic is primarily people like me. Though, Toy Galaxy undoubtedly appeals to a broader audience as there are fans of franchises of all ages. “We appreciate when people message us saying, ‘Hey, I love what you’re doing. It’s a show I can watch with my kid since we’re both into Masters of the Universe or Voltron.”
Though the six years, Dan asserts, “The one thing that’s never changed is our approach, we’re always trying to answer our questions first. I always think, what will make me or Greg laugh? I never considered myself a journalist; I never studied journalism, but at the end of the day, I have questions, and those are the questions we ask.”
“Why were Masters of the Universe this shape versus GI Joe, who was this shape,” he continues, “Where did it come from? Why were 12-inch action figures popular in the 60s, but by the 80s, it’s smaller figures? How do these things evolve and change?”
“Greg programs the channel,” Dan begins the discussion of Toy Galaxy behind-the-scenes. “I’m the in the blood fan of all these things. Greg was more the type who watched them, didn’t get too involved with them, then immediately turned to other things. His obsessions are more cinema and film.”
Greg’s lack of sentimentality for most of Toy Galaxy’s subjects is “a good thing … none of this is precious to him. If we need to put something out there, that is a fact; even if we know, it’ll upset the discourse or the fandom. We’re stating facts.”
“It used to be we’d program out a few weeks in advance,” he’ says, but things have slowly changed. “Since we’ve taken on sponsors, it’s more like 10 to 12 weeks now. Though it’s not set in stone, and it’s fluid. We can respond to feedback from one video to the next.”
“Tuesdays, we’re doing research. Then, Wednesday, I take that research and immerse myself in whatever it is. So, for The Transformers: The Movie, I went back and watched the movie.”
Dan makes sure to have “a good understanding of the generalities and where we want to go with it. I will go deeper in the research because I watch the thing, and I compare the experience to my understood experience from my life. Having watched the thing as a kid, I can draw from that and understand the community’s opinion on the topic.”
“On Thursday, I spend the whole day writing it all up,” Dan adds, “Friday we shoot. Greg will edit over the weekend or Monday, and we start all over again on Tuesday.”
The Transformers: The Movie
At the time of this interview, Toy Galaxy put out a video for the animated Transformers movies from the 80s in time for the film’s 35th anniversary. Throughout, Dan clearly says the full name of the movie, The Transformers: The Movie. “Greg was adamant about that. So in the script, I shortened it to just Transformers or Transformers: The Movie, but Greg said, ‘no, stop, it’s The Transformers: The Movie. That’s the name of the movie. Transformers is the Michael Bay movie.’ So I did a ‘control plus F’ and changed them all to The Transformers: The Movie.”
“We put out that The Transformers: The Movie video and people have responded saying ‘It was so refreshing,'” Dan shares, “They say, ‘so many videos are about it being the best or worst movie ever made’ and neither of those things is true. So we’re not coming at it from a perspective of how it ranks in terms of good or bad cinema; we’re telling you here’s how it was made, here are some of the circumstances behind it, here’s why it is a box office failure, but it was still a success.”
As superficial as franchises and merchandising might seem, it speaks to profound truths about society. Of course, fandom doesn’t usually dive too deep into those kinds of thoughts, but Dan does. “At a higher level, we ask why is this generation still so obsessed with this stuff to the point that it’s still driving movies and cartoons and all that stuff?”
“I go back and forth thinking about how we were guinea pigs,” Dan says as we discuss the political changes in the 80s that gave rise to franchise dominance. “We were this experiment. Thirty-five, forty years later, what did the experiment produce? What kind of society did unregulated children’s advertising produce?”
In a sense, human society is one giant laboratory in constant motion. “YouTube is sort of another social experiment. What happens when you have whole generations of kids raised on this mostly unregulated thing?”
Toy Galaxy covers more than just toys; it’s more like a pop culture universe. “One of our best performing videos was Max Headroom. We just had a video about Wizard and Toyfare magazines.”
Six years into their experiment, and with subscriber numbers still on the rise, Dan says, “We’re hoping we’ve built up a fan-base that doesn’t care what we talk about and just want to hear how we talk about a particular thing.”
“Growing up and through my 20s and 30s,” he reflects, “before we started the channel, I always had this vision of a museum or writing a book about the history of toys. Part of the drive of building my collection was that I needed every version of Captain America because I may need to go back to these and talk about them at some point in the future. I never thought something like Toy Galaxy was in my future.”
Are you subscribed to Toy Galaxy?
Thanks to Dan Larson for making this interview possible.
Find more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz here!