Thursday, August 20, 2009

LEGO evolution

Because I'm still temporarily jazzed about LEGOs and because the internet encourages this kind of junk, I've spent some time looking over LEGO sets over the years.

Now, I've never been a huge fan of the Town theme; y'know, the various sets that approximate stuff you'd see if you looked out of your window while driving around where you live. Real stuff that you see every day. I always liked the exotic and the futuristic. Made me a natural for the Space theme. But, because of its longevity and because of the consistency of source material which it emulates, it's a great example of what I hope to show.

Below are images scanned from catalogs, including the newer online catalog images, so the more recent are better quality pictures. But ignore the picture quality and pay attention to the detail of the sets themselves. I've included the year in which the set was first published. All of these are police stations; a standby of the LEGO Town theme; there's been a steady stream of police stations in print since at least 1972; long before the minifigure even came out.

Check out the evolution of these police sets! It's apparent to me that the LEGO designers have really improved over the years. Also, the addition of more specialized parts gives them the ability to better model real life. Also a focus on less stylized and more realistic size and form has been apparent over time as well.

However, before I spend too much time talking about the post-minifig sets, here's some interesting historical perspective; the earlier sets that preceded the advent of the minifigure. This first set, from 1972, is (as near as I can tell) the first LEGO police station ever released. I've included the 1973 catalog scan rather than the 1972, because it's slightly more zippy, and it's titled Police Heliport.

As merely an item of personal interest, the very first LEGO set that I believe we ever owned in my family was this little bugger from 1975: again; a police van. It has some early LEGO guys that were almost but not quite minifigures. Actually, they still had a long way to go.

The second actual police station previews the minifigure stations: it has a bunch of pre-minifig LEGO guys, and is the direct ancestor of the first "true" minifigure police station in 1979. The vintage for this set was 1976.
The first minifigure police station was from 1979. It was a decent set for its time. It utilizes a number of regular LEGO basic bricks (as was custom for the time) and few specialized parts, but was still an order of magnitude less crude than the 1976 effort. Heck; few specialized parts had yet been invented; the inventory of specialized pieces would skyrocket over the next few decades. If anything, the late 90s and 2000s seems to have been the era of proliferation of specialized parts.
In 1983, the Police Headquarters was replaced with the Police Station. This isn't really a change in crudity (or lack thereof) compared to 1983, except that the color scheme was slightly more coherent, the car at least had a top (although it still looks little like a real car) and some things changed just to mix things up and add variety. In 1986, the Police Station was replaced with the Police Command Base, which seems to be an improvement. A few Space theme pieces were incorporated into the design (notably the radar dish) and it included for the first time an "open" design with big windows with "glass" pieces. This is a preview of future designs to come. This set, unless I'm missing something in my survey (which is entirely possible) was in production for a long time; it wasn't replaced until 1993. I think this really encapsulates the theme better than prior efforts, in which police stations were little more than houses in black and white that had a car, a motorcycle and a helicopter parked on the roof. This one really felt like a police station.

1993's Central Precinct HQ took a lot of design cues from the older Police Command Base. Featuring again modern architecture, open windows, an actual helipad, and some other notable improvements over the first sets, this was an attractive police station. It also had a major improvement in the vehicle design; the helicopter doesn't look like a tiny little cobbled together design that doesn't even have any room for, say, an engine; it looks like a real helicopter. Kinda. The regular police car (still tiny and roofless) is also joined by not only a motorcycle, but also a 4x4 off road vehicle, so the police can get to those difficult to reach rock-climbing criminals or something. By 1996 the catalog scans lack the titles of the sets, so I can't tell you what this next one is called, but it's an interesting innovation (from now on, I'll just call them all Police Stations.) Similar to 1993's station, this one also has a little pier and a boat attached. The two vehicles are replaced with a single van-like vehicle... so you can now get your SWAT team out there or something, but you're better off not trying to pull over anyone driving very fast. That's what the two motorcycles are for. Interestingly enough, the catalog scan indicates that prisoners can attempt to escape through a hatch at the police boathouse. But they may not want to, since the set also comes with a shark, no doubt hanging around waiting to gobble up any prisoners who make the attempt. By 2003---the next year a police station came out, if I'm correct, catalog images had been vastly improved, no doubt due to the ability of the catalog layout artists to use Photoshop to add backgrounds and other cool things to the set. This police station comes from the World City subtheme; a shortlived attempt to combine European and North American design cues with a slightly futuristic bent. Check out the curved glass on this set, the new and improved prisoner outfit (nobody wears black and white stripes anymore; we're all about orange jumpsuits for prisoners), new colors and shapes and all kinds of specialty pieces, and that futuristic police car. I also like the obvious camera mounted on the station wall. I'm not sure if the City theme replaced the old LEGO Town theme, or if City is in fact a long-lived subtheme within Town (most LEGO websites treat it as such) but when City came out with a police station in 2005, it was happenin'. It's got a dog, a complex lock-up cell, vastly improved vehicle and architectural design, spotlights, and a raised platform to make the station itself much more interesting. This is a busy set, and there's a lot going on. Compare this in particular to the original 1970s sets and look how much the concept has evolved! But this isn't the final word on LEGO police stations; one more recent set came out in 2008 that I'll cover next...
The final police set is, in a way, a harking back to some original design ideas, just modernized. It's not quite as busy, it's not trying to do too much... it feels a little cozier and less ACTION-PACKED! ALL THE TIME! It's even got flowers and shrubs. But... it's a lot improved, too. The cars are pretty slick and realistic (considering), the gate entrances are a nice realistic touch, and the building has a lot going on: the side balcony, the little office, the holding cells, the lookout tower and radar; in fact, this seems almost half a prison instead of just a police station. Anyway, that concludes my tour of the police station history in LEGO, and hopefully makes my broader point more apparent; that the same concept, when it's held forth over time, has been greatly improved upon and is much better done these days then when they started. That's not necessarily surprising, but... it's nice to know that it's true nonetheless.


Allen Marsh said...

Very informative. My brother and I had the 1976 and 1979 police stations, and possibly the 1983 one too. The '76 one was frustrating because the 'people' couldn't fit through the doors, and if memory serves, the building had walls on all four sides, so you couldn't actually see inside from the back. So when the 1979 set came along with the actual minifigures with faces and moveable arms and legs, it was a huge sea change. That is the set that I remember most fondly.

Josh Convy said...

Too cool. Just took my 7 year old to Legoland yesterday. Was telling her about my police station I bought at 10 years old with the silver dollars I'd saved from when my dad would being one home with each return from a trip to Vegas or Atlantic City. I remember the set costing me 21 silver dollars but that number is probably way off. Was probably closer to $10. Loved that set. So cool seeing a pic of it after all these years. Lego's come a long way...