In 1999, the LEGO Company released its Slizer/Throwbots line, testing the waters to see how consumers would react to constructible figures built out of LEGO Technic pieces. Simultaneously, they were trying to develop a storyline that could be combined with the novel product to create a juggernaut intellectual property that would save them from their financial woes. Unlike Slizer/Throwbots and its successor, RoboRiders, this new theme would have lore, characters, and a fully fleshed-out setting. The aim was for LEGO to have its own “Star Wars” that they would have complete creative control over.
Christian Faber, fresh off of developing Slizer/Throwbots and RoboRiders, seemed fixated on having the story of LEGO’s third line of buildable figures set on an island. Faber submitted the idea to the director of LEGO’s Technic theme, Erik Kramer, and Kramer presented multiple outside writers with various story briefs, including Faber’s “The Boneheads of Voodoo Island”. One of these writers, Alastair Swinnerton, took a particular interest in the pitch. He would later go on to recall his initial reaction to Boneheads of Voodoo Island in his blog: “It had a kind of Easter Island vibe to it, I felt, and I’d always been fascinated with that subject. The basic story was there – a bunch of characters on an island, not knowing why. But that was about it.”1
Swinnerton took the idea to LEGO employees Bob Thompson and Martin Riber Anderson, and with Faber they further refined the concept. The setting was a tropical island with distinct elemental realms, and it was inhabited by strange beings that lived in tribes. Sometimes these characters were described as being skeletal and covered in bones, but as they were developed, they became organic beings completely covered in robotic pieces. LEGO had something unique on their hands that was defined by playful contradictions. They’d created a world that was ancient but futuristic, magical but scientific, and primitive but advanced. It was comparable to George Lucas’s fairytale in a galaxy far, far away, but with the ratio of fantasy to science fiction being reversed.
Swinnerton suggested that there should be four main heroes based around the classical elements (earth, air, wind, and fire), though it’s unknown whether or not he was influenced by Slizer/Throwbots and RoboRiders assigning each of their characters to different elements and environments. Throughout the creative process, the project went through many names. “The Boneheads of Voodoo Island” was also known as “Voodoo Heads”, “Slam Heads”, “Who Heads”, “Seekers”, “Zeekers”, “Seek Heads” and, most infamously, “Doo Heads”, which predictably didn’t do well with test groups.
The early prototypes of the toys themselves were also not “dooing” well in testing. The main play gimmick of the figures was that their heads were loosely connected to their bodies, so that when one of the figures struck another in the torso, their foe’s head would shoot off. The Boneheads’ dramatic decapitations were inspired by Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, and the designers thought that turning the violence up a notch would make them irresistible to American boys.2
However, when LEGO had a group of children play with the prototypes, their feedback wasn’t as positive as they’d hoped for. It turned out that the youngsters didn’t have the bloodlust that the designers and marketers were counting on, and they were more concerned that the heads were designed to come off too easily, making them easy to lose. The highly-stylized heads were scrapped in favor of something that would be easier to secure to the figures and also had a higher collectable factor: masks.
The actual look of the prototype figures remained unknown to fans until 2015, when Faber uploaded a video showcasing them in action. The video gave brief glimpses of not only the standard figures, but larger ones as well, including a pair of characters with tank treads instead of legs and a cat-like beast that launched its head forward while snapping its jaws. This creature’s build and play functions were very similar to the Muaka and Kane-Ra figures released in Bionicle’s first year, suggesting that it was one of the few designs to survive Boneheads of Voodoo Island’s transformation into Bionicle.
There was also an attempt to combine one of the prototype figure’s Technic pieces with a motorized component. The result was a remote-controlled brute that violently flailed a chain around as it clumsily walked like some kind of vicious toddler. The crablike Manas, also from Bionicle’s first year, incorporated a remote-control feature, albeit in a much less ambitious way than this waddling warrior.
Meanwhile, the storyline behind LEGO’s new theme began to take shape when Faber reflected back on the benign tumor in his brain and the treatments he’d been taking. “[I] had the thought that when I took these injections, I was sending a little group of soldiers into my body, fighting on my behalf to rebuild my system. Then it all just came together.”1
Piece by piece, Faber assembled the mythology of the toy line. The island was actually the disguised face of a colossal slumbering robot, which had been a “giant planetary evacuation ship” that contained a world within itself. The mechanical giant was threatened by a virus-like corruption, and a group of tiny biomechanical warriors (the main figures) were sent to fight the infection. However, the warriors- and the audience following the story- wouldn’t immediately know about the secret of the island, and they would instead uncover the mystery as the story progressed.
The mysterious warriors were originally planned to arrive on the island in “Amphi seeds” that would carry them across the ocean before eventually dumping their pieces onto the shore, where the warriors would build themselves. Not coincidentally, the Amphi seeds resembled pills, like the ones Faber took alongside his injections.
At one point, the story had two main factions living on the island. The Southern Tribe lived in the jungle and used the empty Amphi seeds as dwellings. They were superstitious, and feared that a supernatural beast in the nearby volcano was the source of their problems. The Northern Tribe lived far off from the volcano in a rocky environment. In his blog, Faber described them as “More practical and at a higher technical state. They were not afraid of the volcano.”3 While many early plot elements evolved into things that were present in Bionicle’s actual storyline, the idea of there being a primitive tribe and a technologically advanced tribe didn’t go anywhere.
With a bit of a more developed concept for the story, the creative team still needed a name for their epic saga. “Boneheads” and all of its variants had been thrown out in favor of something fresh. The final name needed to be mysterious and unlike anything else on the market. It had to be a word that would latch onto kids’ minds and refuse to let go. Names like “BioKnights”, the post-apocalyptic sounding “Afterman”, and “Evoids” (a portmanteau of “Evolving Droids” Swinnerton thought up) were considered.
One proposed title was “B4” (a play on the word “before”), which was accompanied by the subtitle “Bionic Recur Unit”. Faber explained the logo design and the meaning of the title on his blog: “I wanted the design to be both organic and high-tech so that it fit both the primitive island and the robot underneath. ‘Bionic Recur Unit’ refers to the canisters carrying [the main characters], the recur system that would fight the virus and resurrect the giant robot.”4 The shape of the “B” would later be modified into Bionicle’s iconic “Three Virtues symbol”, which was used heavily in both the theme’s story and marketing.
“B4: Bionic Recur Unit” logo by Christian Faber
Regardless, “B4” joined the growing pile of discarded names. Perhaps it sounded too much like a Bono-fronted band, or maybe it was simply too vague to convey anything without its clumsy subtitle for support.
LEGO caught lightning in a bottle when Faber eventually suggested combining the words “biological” and “chronicle” to make “Bionicle”. The title worked on multiple levels, as it hinted at the medically-inspired storyline of microscopic warriors curing a massive machine of disease, and it included the word “bionic”, which played into the characters being not entirely robots but not quite conventional living things either. Most importantly, it was a pretty solid nonsense word that kids could grab on to, and no matter how invested they were or weren’t to the story behind the toys, the colloquial term “Bionicles” became a convenient way to refer to the characters. “The acceptance and approval of that name went incredibly fast”, Faber recalls in his blog.5
By this point, the team decided that the world of Bionicle wasn’t set in a prehistoric or distant future version of our world (as the names B4 and Afterman suggested), but somewhere else entirely. In an early press interview, Anderson explained: “The scene for Bionicle is set totally out of time and place. It is not 1000 years ago or 1000 years into the future. It is not on Earth, Mars or any other planet – it is on Mata Nui, a tropical island lying in an endless ocean.”6
The plan for the Boneheads of Voodoo Island figures was to sell them in cylindrical canisters, like the RoboRiders, and this carried over to Bionicle. This time, the canisters were worked into the story, taking the place of the Amphi seeds that carried the heroes to the island. The cylinders were designed with rounded lids, further giving them a pill-like appearance. The toy’s packaging was innovative in that its presence in Bionicle’s lore and iconography made it part of the play experience itself.
The main heroes gradually began to take shape. Named after the weapons they wielded, Flame, Hook, Claw, and Axe represented the classical elements of fire, water, earth, and air. LEGO wanted six figures in the first wave (like RoboRiders), so Kick and Blade were added to represent the elements of stone and ice, which are apparently distinct from earth and water… somehow.
Understandably, LEGO wasn’t satisfied with these names. Looking for something that sounded “exotic”, they turned to words from the Māori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) language, which is exactly as problematic as it sounds. Swinnerton explains how they came to this decision: “In those days there were no online dictionaries – there was barely any ‘online’ at all to be honest – and we couldn’t find a Rapa Nui dictionary (the Easter Island language), so we went for the next best thing, which was Māori.”1
The main heroes were dubbed the “Toa”, which means “Warrior” in Māori. The names of most of the Toa were the Māori words for the elements they represented. For example, Tahu, the Toa of Fire, was named after the word for “burn”, and Kopaka, the Toa of Ice, was derived from “Awa Kōpaka”, which translates to “Glacier”. The masks that gave the Toa their special abilities were “Kanohi”, which means “face” or “representation”, and can be synonymous with “mask”. The island was called “Mata Nui”, a combination of “Mata”, meaning “surface” or “face” and “Nui” meaning “great”. The inhabitants of Mata Nui’s six villages were called “Tohunga”, which is Māori for “spiritual advisor”. Curiously, the actual village elders in the story were called “Turaga”, which is Fijian for “chief”.
The LEGO Company would later face consequences for this bit of cultural appropriation, as the Māori threatened to take legal action shortly after Bionicle’s launch. All things considered, the Māori were more than reasonable, as their two main concerns were that they weren’t consulted on the use of their language, and that it was inappropriate to use the word “Tohunga” for a group of characters/toys, as the word had too much cultural importance to be used in a trivial way. To avoid a lawsuit, LEGO financially compensated the Māori, created a code of conduct preventing the use of words from other cultures in future projects, and altered several names and terms that they’d used for Bionicle, the most notable of which was the Tohunga becoming the “Matoran”. An in-universe event called “Naming Day” was introduced to explain why certain villagers suddenly had different names.
However, none of the members of Bionicle’s creative team considered that there would be any issues with the characters’ names as both the toy line and the story began to reach their final forms in 2000. Around this time, writer Greg Farshtey entered Bionicle’s story group. While Faber and Swinnerton had come up with the broad ideas for the world of Bionicle, Farshtey was in charge of the details. He began writing the DC-published Bionicle comics included in LEGO Mania Magazine, and he would go on to replace Cathy Hapka as the writer for the Bionicle tie-in novels. As time went on, Farshtey became increasingly involved in Bionicle’s various tie-in media projects, becoming the go-to person for questions about canon and even continuing Bionicle’s story in online serials after the toy line’s cancellation in 2010.
Farshtey gave the Toa the essential element of any fictional character: personality. In a Q&A session for the TTV Channel message boards, he recalled: “The one major time I was able to influence something was at the very beginning, because the original notion was that all the Toa would essentially talk like Thor and be very godlike. And I suggested it should be more like the JLA [Justice League of America] or the FF [Fantastic Four], where everyone had distinct personalities and they didn’t always get along. And I did win that one.”7
Variant cover for Bionicle #1 by Ashley Wood
Tahu, the Toa of Fire, was the courageous-yet-stubborn leader of the Toa. Kopaka, the Toa of Ice, was the cold, antisocial loner. Lewa, Toa of Air, was a carefree adventure lover. Pohatu, Toa of Stone, was forgiving and friendly. Onua, Toa of Earth, was the wise problem-solver. Gali, Toa of Water, was compassionate yet fierce, and the sole female member of the team.
With the characters finally being fully fleshed out, the story fell into place. In a time before time, there was a Great Spirit named Mata Nui. Mata Nui was worshiped by the Matoran, biomechanical inhabitants of an island who named their home after the Great Spirit. Mata Nui’s brother, Makuta, grew jealous and cast a spell that put Mata Nui to sleep. With no one to stop him, Makuta corrupted the island and its beasts, the Rahi. One day, mysterious strangers arrive on the island via canisters, and the Matoran and their elders, the Turaga, identified these strangers as the Toa, heroes who were prophesized to find the Masks of Power, defeat Makuta, and awaken Mata Nui.
Throughout Bionicle’s plot, there were hints that the Matoran’s creation myth was a bit more complex than they initially thought, though the Toa’s roles as literal “medicine men” in a giant body was downplayed significantly from earlier concepts. The revelation that Mata Nui was a giant robot rather than a metaphysical being didn’t come until the conclusion of the “Ignition” storyline in 2008, when the Toa used the Mask of Life to reawaken the massive machine. Fans were shocked that the island where everything began existed to hide the true face of Mata Nui underneath, which essentially made it an enormous mask.
While the secret of Mata Nui being a colossal robot would serve as a sort of reward for longtime Bionicle fans later down the line, it ultimately had little relevance early on. Bionicle was presented as a straightforward story of good and evil, with easily identifiable heroes and villains. The Toa lived by the virtues of “Unity, Duty, and Destiny”, and protected the Matoran and Turaga from Makuta and his forces of darkness. Bionicle was simple and very easy for a child to get into.
By late 2000, Bionicle was ready for test markets. In December, the six Toa sets launched in Europe and Australasia to promising sales. Around this time, Bionicle’s website launched, introducing children to LEGO’s upcoming toy line and the universe that came with it.
In the summer of 2001, Bionicle officially launched worldwide. June saw the release of the smaller Turaga sets, and the Toa were released the following month. Around autumn of that year, the five larger Rahi sets were released, each of which contained two beasts with near identical builds that kids could duel against each other. The Rahi served as the only foes for the Toa until the Bohrak were introduced in 2002.
The final batch of 2001 Bionicle sets was unique in that it couldn’t be found on store shelves. The six Matoran were instead included in McDonald’s Happy Meals and Mighty Kids Meals (a new version of the Happy Meal that increased portions and swapped the red box for a very rad and mature brown paper bag). The main play feature of each Matoran was its ability to throw a disk when you pulled its arm back and let go, just like the Slizer/Throwbots from 1999. In fact, both the Matoran discs and the Slizer/Throwbots discs were made using the same molds, which would later be used again for Bionicle in 2004.
A massive part of Bionicle was the collectable masks. Following in the tradition of Slizer/Throwbots’ discs and RoboRiders talisman wheels, the collectable Kanohi masks were not just included with the sets themselves, but also sold separately in blind boxes and given away at special events.
Bionicle wasn’t just a toy line though. It was engineered to be a “transmedia hit”, not unlike the then-new Pokémon craze that dominated multiple forms of entertainment at once. The world of Bionicle was fleshed out, not only through the aforementioned novels and comic books, but also short animations, trading cards, and a Gameboy Color game. The crown jewel of it all was the Mata Nui Online Game, a flash game that allowed players to explore the diverse locations of Mata Nui. A PC game, Bionicle: The Legend of Mata Nui, was heavily advertised but ultimately scrapped.
Certain versions of the Toa were even packaged with mini CD-ROMs, which included videos, explanations of the lore and the Toa’s gear, Internet links, and advertisements for other LEGO products. Interestingly, Faber had proposed a very similar concept all the way back in his original pitch for buildable LEGO Technic figures, Cybots, in 1995.
A project as big as Bionicle needed the advertising to match, and LEGO spared no expense. “We had a kind of triangle, where the marketing, the story, and the product had to move ahead together,” Farshtey explained. “None of those could be the spearhead. Each needed to support and inspire the other.”2 Commercials depicted scenes such as Kopaka stopping an avalanche with a gesture and Tahu surfing on lava, cementing the idea that Bionicle was the most awesome thing in existence. LEGO doubled down on selling Bionicle’s cool factor by giving it a presence at E3 2001 and a partnership with X-Games multi-gold medalist skateboarder Andy MacDonald.
MacDonald even made appearances on multiple stops of the “Bionicle: Find the Power” tour in 2001, which featured six Toa-themed vans that traveled across North America (LEGO continued to do similar van tours to promote Bionicle in 2002 and 2003).
From the very start, Bionicle was a cultural phenomenon and a massive financial success for the LEGO Company, helping them gradually climb out of the monetary pit they’d fallen into in the late Nineties. It’s difficult to point to a primary reason why Bionicle resonated with so many children. Perhaps it was because of the aggressive approach to marketing or the sheer amount of trial and error from the team going through Cybots, Slizer/Throwbots, RoboRiders, and Boneheads of Voodoo Island. The most likely possibility is simply that Bionicle had a mysterious vibe to it that immediately drew in anyone who was between the ages of 4 and 12 in 2001. It was completely alien with its wild and conflicting blend of influences. Bionicle absolutely defied the conventional wisdom that shaped other toy lines. There wasn’t an attempt to include talking animals or relatable human characters, and as a result it made younger kids feel sophisticated while still being appealing to jaded preteens who had outgrown other playthings.
Bionicle had a cutting-edge feel, mostly because of how it incorporated technology into its storytelling. The zeitgeist at the dawn of the new millennium was defined by a reassurance you were living in the future, from iPods with their sexy lack of sharp corners to Neopets living on your computer screen. However, Bionicle wasn’t entirely reliant on its multimedia presence. The early 2000s were a transitional time, and some kids were more plugged-in than others. On the playground, those of us who were less online heard about the more intricate details of Bionicle’s lore from other children, who shared the legend like the Turaga elders in the story itself. There were gaps in the story begging to be filled by speculation in the years before Bionicle got around to addressing them. What were these advanced cyborgs doing in tribes on an island? Were there more than six Toa? Since Makuta didn’t have a set early on, what was his true form like?
Perhaps all that mystery served as a catalyst for a secret ingredient in Bionicle’s success. LEGO had gone above and beyond in developing sets, story, and marketing that made Bionicle so memorable, but they left just enough room for its most important element: the builder’s imagination.
3 replies on “Before Bionicle Part Two: Electric Booga-Doo”
Have read with great pleasure.
An excellent and intriguing read. Having grown up outside of the Bionicle era, it was very nice to find out about these lost years. Before the sequel took an entirely new path. Thank you.
Thank you so much! When I started this, I had the goal of preserving part of what the very early 2000s felt like. A lot of people dismiss it as being “too recent” to be worthy of nostalgia (even though we’re talking about 20 years ago), so it feels like a lot of it isn’t as thoroughly recorded as it should be. I wanted to take this thing that was a product of a very specific era and share it with other people, and you give me hope that I succeeded there.