26 October 2012

Star Wars LEGO Review | I Want That Ship and Not Excuses... (Part 2)

6211 Imperial Star Destroyer
If I could own just one Star Wars LEGO set, then I’d probably make it this one. It might not be the most colourful or even the most playable, but it is certainly the most iconic.
 
Though obviously a lot smaller than its ultimate collector’s edition incarnation, this version of the sixty-centimetre star destroyer dwarfs all of my ‘regular’ Star Wars LEGO models - even the bulky Republic attack cruiser. Its distinctive wedge shape means that it’s almost as wide as it is long, and even its aft tower (which houses the ship’s bridge) stands at about a third of the length again. LEGO have really captured the overwhelming presence of the ship in their design.


The ship boasts a lot of finesse features too that are sure to appeal to builders of any age. The ship’s tower can be easily detached, and its interior opened up like a cardboard box to reveal an escape pod; that Tantive IV-swallowing shuttle bay; a holographic representation of Emperor Palpatine; and even my favourite feature, Darth Vader’s hyperbolic chamber. The detail is dazzling. 


The minifigures impress too. This set’s Vader is my favourite released thus far, unburdened by eyebrows that he shouldn’t have or overly-detailed rendering on his torso. Even his plain black eyes, which wouldn’t cut the mustard today, seem thunderously apt on his pasty grey, hate-filled wreck of a face. Grand Moff Tarkin and his naval cohort are both well-realised too, though it’s admittedly a little disappointing that the set’s stormtroopers and red guards hide plain black headpieces underneath their helmets. The black astromech droid is a nice little bonus too, and like Tarkin impossible to find elsewhere, save for in the expensive 10188 Death Star playset. 


Ultimately my only gripe with this release is the model’s flimsiness. It’s ironic that the very quintessence of the Empire’s might is likely be broken after just a few seconds in the hands of an overzealous child, but I suppose that’s the price you pay for such a flood of functional features.


8092 Luke’s Landspeeder
An aspiring Star Wars LEGO builder couldn’t hope for a better introductory set than this one, particularly for the price. Luke’s Landspeeder may not be one of the franchise’s most iconic or even most exciting vehicles, but it is instantly recognisable, even when LEGO have taken a few liberties with its paintwork.

 
Much the same could be said of the set’s five minifigures, which include an ageing, but still lightsaber-wielding, Obi-Wan Kenobi; a surprisingly fair (not to mention effeminate) representation of Luke Skywalker; a convincing, albeit faceless, sandtrooper (pauldrons and all); and, of course, the saga’s central droids: C-3P0 and R2-D2. Particularly to someone who grew up with smiling, yellow-skinned LEGO humans, such detailed bespoke figures come as a real delight.



10188 Death Star
In the world of Doctor Who, it’s readily accepted that insides and outsides can exist in different dimensions, and that different time zones can be visited as easily as if they were different places. If you can swallow such conceits, then you’re likely to share my view that LEGO’s Death Star playset is probably the greatest LEGO set ever released in any range. Whilst its half-hearted exterior couldn’t hope to measure up to that of the majesty of the Death Star II ultimate collector’s edition set, its movie-hopping interior boasts more genuine detail and finesse features than the total sum of previous Star Wars LEGO offerings. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece of a model.


When this near four-thousand piece set arrived, the first thing that I did was to assemble its twenty-four minifigures, as recommended by the first of its heavy, ring-bound instruction manuals. Any Star Wars character of note who ever set foot on board either of the Empire’s ill-fated battle stations is included here, and some of them in more than one incarnation. Luke Skywalker, for instance, appears in three different guises – firstly, in his farm boy outfit from Tatooine; secondly, in a unique stormtrooper outfit; and thirdly, as a fully-fledged, mechanical-appendage-sporting, black-clad Jedi Knight. Han Solo, similarly, appears in an exclusive stormtrooper outfit as well as his usual attire, alongside his constant companion Chewbacca; an Episode IV-styled Princess Leia; a cloaked Obi-Wan Kenobi; and the saga’s seminal droid duo, C-3PO and R2-D2. Death Star stalwarts Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin are present and correct too, as is the hard-to-find Emperor Palpatine, here equipped with his Return of the Jedi lightening. The minifigure count is than rounded out with a couple of stormtroopers; a brace of rare, red-clad royal guards; and no fewer than four imperial droids. Whilst it’s true that many of the minifigures included in this set have been improved upon since (particularly Luke and Leia), there is still not a set that stands up to this one when it comes to the quantity and quality of its minifigures.


Building the Death Star itself was an even more rewarding experience though, particularly as I eked it out over a few weeks, tackling one of the set’s four internal boxes at a time (at £274.99, I had to make it last). Once the foundations were in place, the first floor offered all manner of tantalising treasures, including the infamous ‘trash compactor’ (complete with compacting walls and Dianoga monster); tractor beam control room; and gaping chasm across which Luke and Leia must swing. As the build progressed, I didn’t only get the satisfaction of being able to build superlative second floor rooms such as the ‘Vader vs Obi-Wan’ hanger bay; throne room; and detention block, but also the pleasure of seeing how they interrelated with the rooms already constructed. The detention block, for instance, boasts a rubbish chute that leads, as it should, to the trash compactor; the throne room, meanwhile, is equipped with a fully-functional lift. Even the set’s top tier, which stands only half as tall as the two below it, was not without reward as it allowed me to recreate the moment where Vader choked one of his subordinates around the conference table (“I find your lack of faith disturbing…”), not to mention that in which he loomed behind the overconfident Tarkin as the Rebel base honed into view on the monitor before them (which can easily be flipped round to be replaced by an image of the doomed Alderaan, depending how destructive you’re feeling).


The gigantic space station is colossal once assembled, taking up a nearly half a square metre wherever it’s set down. Naturally, I lament the absence of an exterior – LEGO could have finished the model with a series of hinged grey walls to provide a more authentic finish without taking too much away from the playability of the spectacular interior, but even so, this set’s finished model is as clearly the Death Star as LEGO’s intricately-detailed ultimate collector’s edition display piece. How could it not be with that menacing green death ray extruding from its distinguishing dish?

  

7965 The Millennium Falcon
The 2011 set is by no means LEGO’s definitive take on the Millennium Falcon, but it is much more affordable than its huge, ultimate collector’s edition, and a much better model than any of its other small and mid-scale incarnations.

 
Despite its hull being speckled with incongruous shades of Republic burgundy, the ship is the spit of its silver screen self, both inside and out. Arguably the interior is even more impressive than the familiar exterior as it boasts a whole host of movie-authentic features, such as the holographic ‘chess’ board and under-floor hiding spaces, while offering astonishing 360° playability. Every panel of the ship’s hull opens out, offering full and easy access to the many goodies inside.



Themed around the original Star Wars movie’s ‘Death Star escape’ sequence, the set comes with a fantastic array of minifigures: Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Darth Vader. Many of these have been tweaked for added realism since they were last seen - Leia’s face and hair are more expressive, Han’s trousers are the right colour, and Luke has finally shed his girly locks in favour of a more redolent 70s-style mop. Luke and Obi-Wan are multi-purpose too - a spin of Luke’s head and a swap of hair for helmet gives you the blind, remote-battling Jedi wannabe; a swap of grey hair for hood gives you sneaky old Ben.



6212 X-Wing Fighter
Despite its recent reappearance, this 2009 version of the Luke’s X-Wing set remains my favourite simply because it offers better value for money. There seems to be very little between the 2009 and 2012 sets save for that the older one throws in ‘Hoth’ Han, Chewie, Wedge Antilles and ‘Hoth’ Leia minifigures along with the obligatory ‘Rebel pilot’ Luke and Artoo for much the same RRP.


The ship itself is stunning in both appearance and function. LEGO have captured the influential ship completely in their design - all it’s missing is its grime - and the iconic x-shaped wings can be easily - and, to my surprise, robustly - expanded and retracted. Even the most stoic of adults won’t be able to resist a run on the Death Star’s exhaust port...



8017 Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter
TIE fighters are exquisitely beautiful things; Darth Vader’s even more so. This tenth anniversary celebratory set presents, for the first time in LEGO form, the Sith Lord’s compact and powerful personal dogfighter as seen in the final act of the original Star Wars movie.
 
The build is deceptively straightforward here, particularly given the ship’s fearful symmetry. The fighter’s twin ion engines (yes, TIE’s an acronym; beings as evil as Palpatine aren’t in the habit of naming their warships after a gentleman’s bow-shaped neckwear, no matter how closely they may resemble it) can be assembled in just a few minutes, and Vader’s cockpit doesn’t take that much longer.
 

 

The short build time doesn’t take anything away from the finished model though, which not only closely resembles the ship that famously pursued Luke’s x-wing through the Death Star’s trenches (“The Force is strong in this one…”), but is equipped with a few pleasing finesse features too, such as a underside clip for Vader’s lightsaber. It’s remarkably sturdy too, which is a particular advantage if you’re one of the few adults purchasing this set for a child to play with.



8089 Hoth Wampa Cave
I purchased this set on a whim, impressed by how much it appeared to offer for its price. The set presents the Wampa creature’s cave in all its grisly detail, together with a surprisingly-impressive Rebel snowspeeder. 


The set’s unique Luke minifigure hangs upside-down from the cave’s ceiling, his lightsaber buried in the cave’s snow, while the monstrous Wampa megafigure rends the flesh from a dead body below. The rebel snowspeeder is the spit of its silver screen self, even boasting a working tow cable and pilot minifigure.



8129 AT-AT Walker
My AT-AT probably attracts as many admiring comments as my super star destroyer from awe-struck visitors to my house, and it’s not hard to see why. With this release, LEGO have created a frighteningly faithful model of one of the most distinctive vehicles in the entire Star Wars saga, and married it up with a collection of iconic and extraordinary minifigures. 


The striking eight-hundred piece model boasts multi-jointed, poseable legs and a moveable head; an opening cockpit in which the AT-AT pilot resides; and even an accessible interior that can be removed from the main body of the model so that the accurately-helmeted General Veers can deploy the set’s two snowtroopers against its orange jumpsuit-clad Luke, ‘Hoth’ Han, Rebel trooper and C-3PO. 


The price paid for such a flood of features is that the model is almost preposterously fragile; I can’t see how it would last a minute in the hands of a wide-eyed urchin if I, a careful collector, constantly end up breaking a bit off whenever I try to open its main hatch or reposition its legs. 



10221 – Super Star Destroyer Executor
Star Wars LEGO sets fall into two classes: those designed to be played with, and those designed to be gawped at. Darth Vader’s jaw-dropping super star destroyer, Executor, clearly falls into the latter category. Comprised of over a thousand pieces and weighing in at more than most newborn babies, this ultimate collector’s set is without a doubt one of LEGO’s most striking, and measuring just shy of one and a quarter metres it is officially its longest.


Despite its exorbitant price tag (£349.99 in the UK, if bought from LEGO directly) I’d made up my mind to purchase Executor within seconds of seeing its pre-release publicity stills. Whilst the rational, adult part of my mind rallied against the impulse to fold Vader’s classic dagger-shaped command ship into the ranks of my LEGO Empire, I simply couldn’t contemplate not owning it.
 



When the set arrived, I was pleased to find that, as was the case with the 10188 Death Star playset, its pieces had been split across three plain white boxes, which in turn had their pieces split into numerous numbered bags. Not only does this make for a manageable build, but it allows the builder to easily split it up over several sessions, eking out the pleasure. The hefty, ring-bound instructions are easy to follow too, particularly as the bowels of the ship are comprised of bright reds and blues instead of the ubiquitous greys and blacks visible from the outside.


However, the build proved to be unexpectedly laborious. With only one minifigure-scaled section to assemble, I found that there were few rewards when compared to building other Star Wars LEGO vehicles. The assembly inevitably focuses on what I’d call ‘LEGO Technic’-style elements and fine details – there are no appealing little finesse features to reward builders along the way. For this reason I’d urge parents of younger builders to try and steer them towards something like the Venator-class attack cruiser, or if you can find one without having to remortgage, one of the 2006 star destroyers reviewed above. The box says “16+” and it means it.


That said, the set does boast a minifigure-scaled bridge on which the set’s five motley minifigures can be displayed, but even this is a bit disappointing as to access it you must lift off the top of the ship, leaving the bridge without walls. Whilst it’s great fun to recreate The Empire Strike Back’s bounty hunter briefing, it loses something when you can see bits of your living room or kitchen behind Dengar, Bossk and IG-88 instead of duly-detailed LEGO walls. The lower sections of the command centre don’t suffer in the same way though, and it’s gratifying to be able to place Darth Vader on the central ramp looking down on Admiral Piett below.


Once finished, Executor is nothing short of stunning, particularly when mounted on its display stand and placed alongside the comparatively tiny star destroyer that forms part of the set. I was a little peeved to have to stick the data sheet label to the stand, given the cost of the set, and purists may quibble that LEGO have departed from the movie design in a few key respects - most noticeably in the ship’s lazily-flat bottom and lighter than expected colour scheme – but the overall effect is dramatic. This model has presence.


For serious collectors of Star Wars LEGO, this set is a must. It’s not the most fun model that I’ve ever assembled, but it’s by far the most striking. If you’re put off by the price tag, bear in mind that once the set has been discontinued, if you’ve kept yours in mint condition its value will skyrocket, and if you’re shrewd enough to pick it up more cheaply in the first place (as I did from LEGO directly during their “May the Fourth Be With You” sale on 4th May), then I think you’ll find that your money has been well-spent.



8097 Slave I
Released to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, the six-hundred piece Slave I set ranks amongst my favourite Star Wars LEGO models – and here’s why.


To begin with, it’s just beautiful. I’ve always loved the Fetts’ filthy brown, idiosyncratic starship, and particularly in this iteration LEGO really seem to have captured its murky essence. Just as it does on screen in Attack of the Clones and The Empire Strikes Back, the model can rest vertically against something to do battle in space, or lie flat on its back so that its bounty-hunting crew can load their precious carbonite cargo into its hold. When stood up, the ship’s wings swivel with it, as does the pilot in the cockpit, ensuring that the ship maintains the correct perspective as it should no matter where it rests on its axis. The ship’s chest even opens up to fire its fearsome arsenal of missiles.


The minifigures are every bit as impressive, particularly the grizzled Boba Fett, who boasts a stubbly, weathered visage under his Mandalorian helmet. The Trandoshan Bossk is, arguably, is a little lost away from the bridge of Executor (where he was seen on the silver screen), but his distinctive reptilian presence is nonetheless a welcome windfall here. The real gem though is the white-shirted Solo, who comes with his very own block of carbonite that he can be clipped onto the back of, ready to be stowed in Slave I’s cargo hold in readiness for his journey to Jabba the Hutt… 


9516 Jabba’s Palace
When I fell in love with Star Wars LEGO, it really annoyed me that there wasn’t a decent Jabba’s palace on the market. Fair dues, had I been minded to throw a few hundred pounds at a few hundred-piece palace populated by a yellow-skinned Leia and a toneless Jabba, I could have procured the discontinued 4480 set, but, needless to say, I wasn’t.


The 2012 Jabba’s palace is by no means a flawless release, but it is nonetheless a momentous improvement on its predecessor. Its problems are twofold: it’s expensive, and it omits a number of fundamental components (namely the bikini-clad Princess Leia; C-3P0; and, of course, the Rancor). However, the price isn’t as much of an issue as it was – as per Murphy’s law, it dropped by £22.99 three days after Amazon had charged my card – and, if you don’t own them already, you can pick up the ‘demure’ Leia and Threepio figures for as little as a few pounds each on their own if you look around. I’m afraid though that, for now, we’re going to have to build our own Rancors.


What is present, however, is stunning. The palace is far sturdier than most Star Wars LEGO sets, despite being packed with more special features than is the norm. The throne room’s roof lifts off and its back wall clips open, allowing little hands easy access to its opening trapdoor; throne that slides forwards; and rotatable block of carbonite that can house the frozen Han Solo minifigure. Meanwhile, the palace’s entrance gate (which was released as a separate set last time around) is similarly redolent of Return of the Jedi, and while one would expect it to open, it’s also a welcome surprise that its distinctive ‘eye’ sentry can be easily popped out to intimidate any visiting droids. It’s also very easy to detach from the throne room if you want to broaden the playing canvas a little, as indeed LEGO do on the box’s artwork.



Those that buy the set just for its minifigures won’t be disappointed either. Salacious Crumb, Bib Fortuna, the Gamorrean guard, Oola and B’omarr Monk will all no doubt become highly sought-after, and even the set’s Han Solo is more than just a rehash of the one that came with Boba Fett’s Slave I as its rotatable headpiece wears different expressions on its back and front that are far more appropriate than the Slave I minifigure’s vague indifference. The Princess Leia figure is even more exceptional still as the character dons her Boushh disguise for the first time, thermal detonator and all. The crown jewel though is the eponymous Hutt gangster, who has finally been done justice with a two-piece, colour-rendered, poseable megafigure. Chewie is just the same old Chewie – great if you don’t already own him; eBay-bound if you do.



Jabba’s palace is probably the most fun model that I’ve built since I tackled the Death Star last year. Its mini – and mega – figures are wonderful, and the feature-packed Tatooine structure, which is a welcome change from the ubiquitous grey of most Star Wars movie models, took me right back to happy childhood days spent building LEGO castles and fortresses.



9496 Desert Skiff
Released alongside the abovementioned Jabba’s palace, this set collects together an alluring assemblage of minifigures and places them on board the skiff that famously hovered above the Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi.


The set’s Luke Skywalker minifigure is a more detailed version of the one found in the Death Star’s throne room. Detail and colour have been added to his tunic, his eyes have eyeballs (as is now the LEGO standard) and his green lightsaber is of a slightly darker hue than previously. The hitherto-rare Boba Fett has also been slightly redesigned, now boasting printed detail on his lower half, as has the disguised, and again once uncommon, Lando Calrissian. Kithaba is exclusive to this set, and no less detailed than his more renowned peers.


The vehicle itself is a ten-minute erection, but a worthwhile one all the same. Its plank is retractable, enabling youngsters to enact the opening moments of Sarlacc battle seen in Return of the Jedi (and amusingly protracted in Family Guy), and its transparent base gives a fair impression of flotation. The Sarlacc pit is also included in the set, and is, in many ways, more fun than the skiff itself. The creature’s jaws can snap shut around the ill-fated Fett, while its easily-moveable tendrils flay out menacingly towards those battling on board the skiff.



8038 The Battle of Endor
The final set of my Star Wars LEGO collection is The Battle of Endor, a sprawling nine-hundred piece playset that boasts no fewer than twelve minifigures; five vehicles; and a single large building.


Released to celebrate the tenth anniversary of LEGO’s Star Wars licence, this set combines several previously-released sets and gives them a 2009 polish, before marrying them up with the forest moon’s previously-unreleased shield bunker. Amongst the goodies on offer are an Ewok glider and catapult, a brace of speeder bikes and a twenty-centimetre tall AT-ST walker. My impression of the models is mixed – the towering AT-ST is the clear standout in terms of its detailed and imposing appearance, though like its AT-AT counterpart it is inevitably prone to breakage. The Ewok contraptions are similarly blighted, particularly the glider which is reliant on fabric wings that are a real pain to get in position. The speeder bikes are quite durable though, and perfectly capture the feel of that unforgettable movie chase sequence through Endor’s trees.



The set’s centrepiece shield bunker is one of just a few Star Wars buildings ever put out by LEGO, and I really get the sense that they’ve tried to pull out all the stops with it. Its trademark sliding blast doors are opened by using a clever but intricate cog-based system, and its fiery destruction in Return of the Jedi can be re-enacted by pressing a button that literally blasts out several sections of its walls. Inside the detail is redolent of the movie, LEGO even vesting the humble model with the movie bunker’s sense of depth by including a small-scale shield generator, which gives the impression of perspective.



It is the minifigures, though, that are the set’s real selling point. The duly diminutive Ewoks are each charmingly detailed, as are the various Imperial agents and the oft-released ‘brown pants’ Han and Chewbacca. I was particularly pleased to be able to get hold of Leia in her commando outfit, flanked by her two fellow Rebels in their woodland gear, which I don’t think are available elsewhere. My only complaint about the minifigures here would be the recurring one that the Imperial troopers from this era just have black heads instead of faces. 


Like many empire-builders, I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with the size of mine. The sense of triumph that followed my recent erection of Jabba’s Tatooine palace soon segued into a feeling of deficiency as I realised that my Hoth wouldn’t ever be complete without the limited edition 7879 Echo Base set, and my Clone War would never end without Grievous’s first flagship, the mighty Malevolence, playing its pivotal part. And when will LEGO ever get around to releasing a new edition of Cloud City?


If, having read this two-part guide, you’re contemplating eschewing the trappings of adulthood and embracing your long-lost love of LEGO, remember this: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

Truer words were never spoken. 

11 October 2012

TV Review | Red Dwarf X by Doug Naylor


After meta-fictional forays in the worlds of Blade Runner and Coronation Street; a stretch in prison on board a fully-manned Red Dwarf; and even a short run with the smoking hot Chloë Annett standing in for the otherwise-engaged Chris Barrie, the boys from the Dwarf are finally back for a run of cosmic comic capers that, to my delight, already seem to be evoking the claustrophobic charm of Red Dwarf I to VI.


Back in front of a studio audience, the show’s cast are each on top form, particularly Barrie, whose character is served particularly well by Doug Naylor’s scathing season-opening script. Like the finest Dwarf episodes, Trojan explores Rimmer’s long-held but futile aspirations of becoming an officer, but this time inverts them, allowing the holographic charlatan to laud it over his almost-as-weasely brother, and in doing so prove that he’s so insuppressibly shallow that he’s actually flat. Corrie star Craig Charles fares almost as well, however, as Lister spends almost the entire episode incensed on the end of a telephone, being passed from pillar to post in a call centre manned by droids so infuriating that they cause even Kryten to blow a gasket. I love how, whether it’s produced in 1988 or 2012, Red Dwarf remains almost absurdly contemporary in spite of its supposedly futuristic trappings.


Whether Red Dwarf X will truly mark a return to the series’ halcyon days remains to be seen, but, on the strength of this opening instalment, I have very high hopes indeed. With upcoming episodes focusing on Lister’s (poor) parenting of himself; making time-travelling batteries out of lemons; “groinal exploders”; a snack dispenser ménage a trois; not to mention a finale appropriately entitled The Beginning, the laddish Freeview channel named after this show’s loose-fitting hero might finally have mined some gold.

Red Dwarf X continues tonight at 9pm on Dave.