Playing Around with Chuck Miller
Winky Dink and Captain Power:
The Success (and Failure)
of Television’s First Interactive Toys


There were several other merchandising products available for Winky Dink; he appeared in a line of Little Golden Books, including this visit to the local zoo.
There were several other merchandising products available for Winky Dink; he appeared in a line of Little Golden Books, including this visit to the local zoo.

You think parents today are upset with what’s on television for their children? Heck, you should have seen what it was like 50 years go, when parents were up in arms over a popular kiddie television program. No, it wasn’t a violent Western with guns and killers; it wasn't the knockabout Three Stooges episodes.

No, it was a simple children’s show, “Winky Dink and You,” hosted by a legendary game show host, Jack Barry. The show aired on Saturdays from 1953 to 1957 on most CBS television stations, and near the end of its run also appeared on Sundays.

Essentially, the character of “Winky Dink” (voiced by Mae Questal, who also provided the voices of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl) spent the entire episode in an adventure of some sort, but at some point he would find himself in dire peril, and needed assistance from somebody – anybody – to escape the clutches of bad guys. If Winky Dink ended up at the edge of a precipice, he would turn to the audience – breaking down the proverbial “fourth wall” to speak to the television audience, mind you – asking the kids at home to help draw a bridge or a scaffold so that Winky Dink could cross over the chasm to safety.

This 1954 “Winky Dink” television kit, featured the “magic window” plastic overlay, eight crayons, an erasing mitten, and several other treats, recently sold in near-mint condition for $96 on eBay.
This 1954 “Winky Dink” television kit, featured the “magic window” plastic overlay, eight crayons, an erasing mitten, and several other treats, recently sold in near-mint condition for $96 on eBay.

Here’s where the interactive portion of the show begins. Winky Dink fans would have by now applied a special green plastic sheet to the television screen (the sheet stayed in place from the electrostatic charge built up on the front of the picture tube), and, using crayons to draw on the plastic sheet, kids could draw whatever Winky Dink needed – a bridge, a cage, a ladder, anything. There were several Winky Dink products available for purchase at your local store, or through mail order, that included the plastic overlay, a wiping mitt, special crayons and other essentials; what originally sold for $2.49 in the 1950’s can now trade hands for $100-$150 in near-mint condition.

Of course, if you DIDN’T have the official Winky Dink plastic overlay, what did you do? You didn’t want Winky Dink to get captured by the bad guy – he’s crying out for your help! How would you feel in school then next day if everybody blamed you for Winky Dink not escaping?

Essentially, that meant foregoing the plastic sheet and drawing RIGHT ON THE TELEVISION PICTURE TUBE with your crayons!

Yep, ol’ Winky Dink would escape the bad guys – but would you escape the wrath of mom and dad for drawing on the family television set? Especially when dad wanted to watch the baseball game and now there's a crayon bridge blocking daddy’s view of Ted Williams?

The Captain Power Powerjet XT-7 was one of several interactive toys sold by Mattel. By shooting at the digital “snow” on a portion of the TV screen, you could sore accuracy points with your toy.
The Captain Power Powerjet XT-7 was one of several interactive toys sold by Mattel. By shooting at the digital “snow” on a portion of the TV screen, you could sore accuracy points with your toy.

Essentially, long before PlayStations and Nintendos, that plastic overlay made Winky Dink the first interactive television series, as well as the first televised video game. Fans could also use Winky Dink’s plastic overlay to receive special coded messages from the TV series – at the beginning of one episode, there would be vertical lines on the screen, which could be traced on the plastic sheet. Horizontal lines would appear later in the episode, which when traced on that same plastic sheet would spell out a word pertinent to the episode.

Winky Dink was cancelled in 1957 – CBS made only 13 episodes of the series, and after four years the show had gotten stale. Jack Barry started work on several game shows, including “Twenty-One” and “The Joker’s Wild,” while a redesigned Winky Dink would return to the airwaves in 1969 as a series of five-minute short films, but was cancelled less than a year after his reappearance; at the time, there was a misguided concern that sitting so close to a television screen could cause radiation poisoning in children.

Thirty years after the adventures of Winky Dink, another attempt was made to integrate toys and television shows – this time involving a dystopian science fiction children’s series, “Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.”

The plotline went something like this. Captain Jonathan Power and his band of future freedom fighters are attempting to stop the insurgence of Lord Dread and his digitized bio-electric soldiers. The show featured several deep concepts and themes for a children’s show, including ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance and – at the end of the show's first season – the death of one of the major characters. The show featured input form several top-notch science fiction writers of the time, including J. Michael Straczynski, whose credits include Babylon 5 and the 1980s Twilight Zone series.

In addition to the 22 produced episodes of Captain Power, three animated VHS episodes were also marketed as “training videos” for home viewers, including this Level 3 “Raid on Volcania” episode.
In addition to the 22 produced episodes of Captain Power, three animated VHS episodes were also marketed as “training videos” for home viewers, including this Level 3 “Raid on Volcania” episode.

But the show itself was married to the Mattel Toy Company, who wanted to use Captain Power as a launchpad for a new line of interactive toys. During certain moments in the TV show, kids could get their Captain Power Powerjet XT-7, place the Captain Power figurine in the cockpit, and start shooting invisible beams of light at the television show - while the TV show, in turn, could fire beams back at the viewer!

Essentially if you were more accurate than the TV set, you would win the game; if you, however, were less accurate, your Powerjet XT-7 would emit a sour beep and your Captain Power figurine would be automatically ejected from the cockpit. Basically, all you had to do was shoot at the digital “snow” on a character’s chest or in the exhaust fire of a spaceship's engine to score points - it was the same digital "snow" that appears on a non-broadcasting television station (this was back in ancient times, you know, B.C. – Before Cable). Heck, you could even register points on your Powerjet XT-7 by shooting at a household lamp.

Captain Power lasted for 22 episodes, but the show could not survive past its first season. Parents griped that the shows were too violent for children; science-fiction buffs complained that any time the series got to an important part of the storyline, the show had to stop for three minutes of interactive home viewer-versus-TV screen action. And children's television watchdog groups cried foul that the show itself could only be watched if someone bought expensive toys to use with the program – essentially arguing that the entire Captain Power series was simply a 30-minute Mattel toy commercial.

Some of Captain Power’s early episodes survive on VHS tapes, as well as three animated VHS “training” episodes designed specifically for use with the Captain Power toy figurines. The figurines can run from $5 to $10 if still mounted on their display cards; the various interactive toys, such as the Powerjet XT-7, can be found mint in box for $20-$30. There’s even a tribute website (www.captainpower.com) devoted to the history of the show and the hopes of actually bringing the series back to television at some point.

Although Captain Power and Winky Dink were essentially the first two “interactive” television shows, there was one major difference between them. No Captain Power fans ever used lipstick or magic markers to draw a bridge on the TV screen to help Captain Power escape from Lord Dread.

At least none that I know of.

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