Monday 23 September 2013

Gerry Anderson Returns....?

I was a huge fan of LEGO as a child, but it was a passion that existed in symbiosis with other obsessions rather than in isolation. While I'd joyfully build the LEGO sets that I was bought, they were quickly broken up and reformed into other models, and those models were more often than not inspired by my favourite TV shows and films. I'd go so far as to say that without a few key sources of inspiration, my love of LEGO would not have grown as it did, and my life might have turned out very differently. And when it comes to sources of childhood inspiration, the TV shows and films of Gerry Anderson stand head and shoulders above everything else.

Gerry Anderson.
Gerry was a producer, writer and director of TV and film, and he had a passion for science fiction. While some people may not be familiar with his name, there surely can't be many who aren't familiar with at least one of his creations. Principal in my affections was (and indeed still is) Thunderbirds, although other gems such as Captain Scarlet, Stingray and Joe 90 are also near and dear to my heart. Hot on the heels of these Supermarionation masterpieces came Space 1999, another massive favourite of mine which triggered a whole new wave of obsession and LEGO inspiration in my youth, and UFO. More recently, my son and I have been throughly enjoying the CGI remake of Captain Scarlet, gratefully watched on DVD rather than in frustrating bite-size chunks thanks to its crass butchery at the hands of UK broadcaster ITV on its initial release. We'll quickly gloss over the 2004 Thunderbirds live action film at this point - Gerry apparently hated it, and from my perspective Sophia Myles' Lady Penelope character was just about the only good thing about it, although at least my youngster enjoyed it... ("Much to learn you have, my young Padawan")

Further evidence of my Anderson-inspired youth, and still (just about) intact....
I am of course far from the only person whose obsession with Gerry Anderson's TV shows has endured into adulthood, nor am I alone in having frequently taken inspiration from his amazing creations when building LEGO models. There are some seriously talented Anderson-inspired LEGO builders out there, a number of whom are fellow members of UK LEGO User Group the Brickish Association; I've featured some of their work on these pages before, and I make no apology for doing so again in the context of this post. Commander-in-Chief of those builders has to be Gary Davis, better known online as Bricks for Brains. His creations have graced many a LEGO show, with my favourite probably being his model of Thunderbird 2 (below - click to enlarge), complete with its complement of Elevator Cars. I've even made some tentative steps to try and reverse engineer the model and build one myself, such is my affection for it; despite the sheer majesty of the thing, it's my understanding that Gary feels that it can be significantly improved upon and he may yet do so one day. Now that I'd like to see....

Gary's huge model of Thunderbird 3 (above) also caused quite a stir when it first appeared last year, and his Angel Interceptor (below - click to enlarge) from the original Captain Scarlet TV series is another of my personal favourites. You can see a few more LEGO models inspired by the likes of UFO and Stingray in my review of last year's Great Western LEGO Show here, and if you want further proof of Gerry Anderson's power to inspire the LEGO community then do a Flickr search for, for example, "LEGO Thunderbirds", sit back and enjoy....

Gerry Anderson sadly lost his fight with Alzheimers Disease last year, and we lost a genuine visionary. My sadness at his passing was I suspect intensified by my affection for so much of his work and the realisation that we might never see its like again. A couple of weeks back, however, I was made aware of an initiative to try and bring a new Gerry Anderson project to life, first as a series of books, and then potentially as a TV series. During the final few years of his life, Gerry was working on a new project called Gemini Force 1, which follows the story of "a secret organisation involved in rescues and averting disasters and terrorist events" - a veritable Thunderbirds for the 21st Century, by the sounds of it....

Gerry died before he could finish the story, but his son Jamie is spearheading a Kickstarter campaign to try and finish the work that his father started. Jamie has engaged renowned Sci-Fi writer M. G. Harris to complete the first Gemini Force 1 book if the campaign reaches its financial target, and depending on how much additional money is raised, it's hoped that it'll also be possible to commission designers Andrew Probert (designer of iconic craft for the likes of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica) and Dominic Lavery (New Captain Scarlet, James Bond, Event Horizon) to design the GF1 vehicles. Beyond that, Jamie's hoping to kickstart (ho ho) development of a GF1 TV series and/or film.

I've backed the Kickstarter campaign, and if you'd also like to help make Gemini Force 1 a reality then you can read more about the project and pledge your support here. With the 50th anniversary of Thunderbirds next year, it would be a perfectly-timed and most fitting tribute to the man who made it all possible. And if Gemini Force 1 does see the light of day, maybe today's youngsters, including my own little boy, will have a whole new Anderson-inspired world of adventure of their own to reminisce about when they get to my age.... Let's hope so !

*UPDATE* I'm delighted to report that the Gemini Force 1 Kickstarter campaign has reached its initial financial goal with time to spare ! Pledges are still being taken with a view to reaching some of the stretch goals described above, however, so if you haven't pledged yet then you still have a couple of days to get on board. 

Monday 16 September 2013

Shanghai Surprise

Second only to the original Star Wars trilogy in my cinematic affections, the Indiana Jones films and characters have remained close to my heart for more than 3 decades now. Although it was Set 10188 Death Star that dragged me back into the LEGO fold after a lengthy hiatus, the availability of LEGO Indiana Jones sets at that time undoubtedly fuelled the fire, and I made getting hold of all of the sets an early priority.

Truth be told, LEGO had previously made Indiana Jones sets in all but name anyway - many sets within the LEGO Adventurers theme, which ran from 1998 until 2003, seem to have been blatantly inspired by the Indiana Jones stories, settings and characters, and hero Johnny Thunder (below) was Indy right down to the battered fedora, apart maybe from his dodgy 'tache....

Having recently watched 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that it had been a good while since I'd last built any of my LEGO Indiana Jones sets; it felt like a good time to revisit them, and even perhaps to crack open one that I hadn't previously got around to building. I plumped for Set 7682 Shanghai Chase, which recreates the scene at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Indy, Willie and Short Round escape from a showdown with crime boss Lao Che and his goons at Club Obi Wan.

You can see the front of the box above (click to enlarge); it's still sealed, but sadly far from mint thanks to unsympathetic handling at some point along the supply chain. My copy was bought from UK retailer Argos back in 2009; my records indicate that I paid £16.32 for the set which is 38% off the RRP of £26.45, so damaged box or not at least I got a discount I suppose.... In common with other sets in the theme, Indy gazes out from the top right corner of the box; other elements of the branding include Indy's trademark whip and a section of an antique map. There's a boxout in the bottom right corner highlighting the five minifigures contained within the set, and the rest of the space is filled with a large image of the models contained within the set, complete with some Photoshopped motion blur and a cobbled road surface. The back of the box (below - click to enlarge) features a close-up of the models, some action shots of the minifigures, and an illustration of the set's play features, all which seemingly involve minifigures jumping into the vehicles. 

The box was sealed with thumb tabs which as usual I ignored in favour of a sharp craft knife under the left end flap. The box contained an instruction booklet and two large bags (numbered 1 and 2), each of which contained a smaller unmarked bag. Bag 2 also contained a white cardboard envelope which I correctly assumed would contain the fabric roof for one of the vehicles. There's no DSS. You can see the front cover of the instruction booklet below (click to enlarge) which recreates the imagery from the front of the box.

The instruction booklet is 48 pages from cover to cover and close to A4-sized. In addition to 38 pages of actual building instructions, the booklet also contains some surprisingly tasteful advertising for other sets in the theme (examples below), plus a one-page inventory of parts, a reminder of the set's play features, and the obligatory pages shouting about the LEGO Club and LEGO survey.

A selection of some of the more unusual and/or uncommon elements to be found in the set can be seen below (click to enlarge). Although there's not exactly an enormous amount here to excite fans of the rare and the exotic, there are a couple of elements which are unique to this set, namely the tan arch 1 x 3 x 2 with curved top and the dark tan fabric vehicle roof. The tan trapezoid flag has only ever appeared in 3 sets including this one, the black 1 x 2 x 2 window can only be found in 4 sets, and none of the elements shown in the picture below including the black and tan vehicle bases have graced more than 8 sets in these particular colours.

The set contains a total of 5 minifigures. First we have Indiana Jones himself, resplendent in a white tuxedo and bow tie. Although every set in the theme contains an Indy minifigure, Shanghai Chase is the only set to contain this particular variant, and the torso is unique to this minifig. The front of the torso is nicely detailed, right down to the red carnation on Indy's lapel, but there's no back-print. The legs are also lacking in any printing, and he doesn't have an alternate expression.

On the upside, in addition to Indy's unfeasibly neat hair we're also we're provided with his trademark fedora (below - click to enlarge). It's a welcome addition - Indy without his fedora just doesn't bear thinking about. OK, so it doesn't really go with his tux, but who cares ?

Any disappointment over the faintly lacklustre Indy minifig is quickly dispelled when you see how much effort has been lavished on night club singer Wilhelmina "Willie" Scott (below). LEGO have produced two versions of Willie, and each is unique to its respective set. In this version, she has a red torso which is printed front and back with an intricate pattern of gold, dark red and black, and the pattern extends down the front of her legs. Both the torso and legs are unique to this set, as somewhat surprisingly is her blonde hair which is nicely topped off with a trans-red tiara.

My abiding memory of Willie in the Temple of Doom movie is of all the screaming she does.... I'm clearly not alone in making that association as LEGO Indiana Jones software developer Traveller's Tales actually utilised Willie's scream as a weapon in the LEGO Indiana Jones games ! Appropriately enough, therefore, Willie has a suitably histrionic alternate expression (below - click to enlarge). You can also see her detailed torso backprint in the picture below.

Next up for scrutiny is Indy's wise-cracking sidekick Short Round (below - click to enlarge). This minifigure, which is the only version of Short Round that LEGO have ever produced, appears in the Shanghai Chase set and one other. The tan torso is unique to the figure, as is the head. Unfortunately, there's no back print on the torso, no alternate expression and no printing on the legs.

The final two minifigures are Lao Che's henchmen. These guys are both unique to the Shanghai Chase set and differ only on the basis of their wonderfully expressive head prints. As well as the minfigs as a whole being exclusive to this set, their heads and smart but simple torsos don't appear anywhere else either. On the downside, neither the heads nor the torso feature any back printing, and the legs are generic and unprinted. Even so, these guys make perfect villains, although thinking back to the movie I think the guy with the maniacal grin should probably have come complete with a machine gun rather than the revolver he's actually provided with in this set.

And so on to the cars. Some rudimentary internet research suggests that the gangsters are chasing after Indy and his companions in a 1931 Reo Flying Cloud, and you can see the LEGO rendition below (pics click to enlarge). Most of the pictures that I've found online of the actual vehicle show it with a side-mounted spare wheel, but otherwise the model seems acceptably faithful to the subject matter. The build is quick and straightforward, making juducious use of hinge plates and a latticed window for the front mudguards and engine grille respectively. The vehicle base is wide enough to allow the two gangsters to sit side by side, and the roof comes off easily to allow access to the rear compartment.

Our heroes are making their escape in an Auburn 851 "Boat-tail Speedster". A reasonable attempt has been made to capture the essence of this curvaceous beauty in LEGO bricks (below - click pictures to enlarge) although it inevitably falls short at this scale. The fabric roof works pretty well, right down to the fact that it's higher at the back than the front like the real thing, and there's even a sunroof for when Indy decides to poke his head out and take a few pot-shots at his pursuers.

You can see both cars together below (click to enlarge); neither are perfect renditions of the real thing by any means, but they're pretty respectable nevertheless; when I compare models like these with the kind of vehicles that LEGO was producing when I was a child in the 1970's it's quite unbelievable how things have moved on.

It all comes together as you can see below (click to enlarge) - everything you need to stage your own Shanghai Chase.... The cars look pretty good, and the minifigures are plentiful for a set of this size. Most of the minifigs are also exclusive to the set, with the Willie Scott minifig being the undoubted highlight from my perspective.

Set 7682 Shanghai Chase was released in 2009 and is now retired. A quick search demonstrates that it's readily available on the secondary market, however, although given the enduring popularity of the Indiana Jones franchise you're likely to have to pay more than the original £26.45 / US$29.99 retail price for it, even used. Thankfully, prices aren't exactly stratospheric as yet, so the set is still within reach - Bricklink prices start at around £40 + shipping for an unboxed example, although you'll pay at least a tenner more if you want it new and sealed; as ever you may find it cheaper on eBay.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed my reintroduction to the LEGO Indiana Jones theme and may dip back in again before too long, so don't be surprised to see another Indiana Jones review at some point.

They're a girl's best friend, darling....

Monday 2 September 2013

Galaxy Squad - Like a Prayer

Well, it appears that my attendance at LEGO's recent Galaxy Squad launch event had the desired effect - not only did I write about the event itself (report here) and give the theme the thumbs up, but on returning home I was even more motivated to dive into the sets and get building than I had been beforehand. The only question was which Galaxy Squad set I should crack open first, and the decision was taken out of my hands when I was presented with Set 70703 Star Slicer by my long-suffering wife as a holiday gift. She said, however, that I could only have it on condition that I open and build it there and then, rather than hoard it away in my LEGO mancave and look lovingly at the sealed box like a pitiful AFOL version of Gollum; I've learned not to argue with she who must be obeyed, so open and build it I did. If you'd have preferred me to build and review a different Galaxy Squad set then you can therefore take it up with her....

The front of the box (above - click to enlarge) features an excellent action shot of the sinister Star Slicer battling against our Galaxy Squad Blue Team heroes on the surface of an unknown moon. The Star Slicer is piloted by an Alien Buggoid; you can also see him trying to escape from the upper right hand corner of the box - a nice humorous touch - while Blue Team pose resolutely in the lower right hand corner. If you enlarge the picture above and look closely at the Galaxy Squad logo you'll see a white and grey ship in the middle which appears to split in two; this has a significance beyond mere decoration as we'll see below.

As is customary, the back of the box (above - click to enlarge) highlights play features of the set, not least Galaxy Squad's much-vaunted split function, whereby vehicles split into separate, self-contained models to enhance the play experience. In this case it's the Blue Team vehicle which splits, into an Attack Flyer and an Armoured Car. Highlighted features of the Star Slicer include the detachable trans-purple cocoon which is designed to trap and imprison members of Blue Team, a Zamor sphere-firing mechanism, and moveable front limbs.

LEGO presumably considers the box too small to justify being closed up with a tape seal so it's thumb tabs instead I'm afraid. As usual, I used a sharp craft knife to carefully slice open the flaps on the left side of the box in order to release the contents. The box contained three large bags of parts numbered 1 to 3, each of which contained at least one smaller unmarked bag of parts, an instruction booklet, and a DSS.

The instruction booklet (front cover above - click to enlarge) is 80 pages from cover to cover; in addition to the 73 pages of building instructions you also get a 2-page inventory of parts and a bunch of advertising including the page below featuring the other first wave Galaxy Squad sets (click to enlarge).

The sticker sheet (below - click to enlarge) is compact but disappointingly extensive, featuring a total of 18 separate stickers. There's obviously always the option just not to apply them, and I know a few builders who don't bother, but for me a model isn't complete without them. They are at least printed on a transparent backing so should last reasonably well.

The set contains a total of 311 parts, and a selection of the more unusual and/or interesting parts can be seen below (click to enlarge). There aren't any completely unique elements but there are a number which have to date only appeared in this set and one other; these include the dark azure blue vehicle mudguard, the dark red 4 x 2 slope, the 10 x 3 lime left and right wedges (only right-hand wedge shown below), the sand green 1 x 2 - 1 x 4 bracket and the trans-purple Zamor sphere. The printed dark bley 2 x 2 tile in the top right of the picture is exclusive to the Galaxy Squad theme (so far at least) as is the trans-purple alien pod/container. A few of the parts, such as the trans-bright green blade with curved tip and the pearl dark grey zamor sphere launcher, haven't previously appeared outside of the Hero Factory theme.

The set contains 3 minifigures. First up is the dark red Alien Buggoid (below - click pics to enlarge) which is unique to this set. The excellent headpiece, with its compound eyes and rear protruberance which overhangs the back of the torso, slips directly on to the top of the torso rather than fitting over a minifigure head. The printing on the torso both front and back does an excellent job of imitating an insect's carapace, and the pattern extends downwards onto the front of the legs.

Blue Team are the Alien Buggoid's adversaries and consist of Solomon Blaze and his Robot Sidekick. Solomon Blaze (pictures below - click to enlarge) appears in a total of three sets including this one; his head features what Bricklink describes as a "Cyborg Eyepiece", and there's alternate printing on the back of the head featuring some kind of breathing apparatus. His dark azure helmet and trans clear visor are pretty standard LEGO Space fare, having previously adorned the ADU soldiers in 2011's Alien Conquest theme. The printing on the torso gives it a suitably armoured appearance front and back, and the legs are also printed, including what look like armoured knee-pads.

Solomon Blaze's Robot Sidekick is unique to this set, although an alternate version which is identical save for a jet pack appears in two other Galaxy Squad sets. The head is a new mould and packs in a lot of interesting detail, both from the perspective of the actual moulding itself and also the printing. There's also interesting detail on the torso and legs, including what looks like some kind of radioactive backpack on the rear of the torso.

Bag 1 contains parts for Solomon Blaze and his Robot Sidekick plus their vehicle (pictures below - click to enlarge), which as previously stated splits into an Attack Flyer and Armoured Car. The build is short, sweet and straightforward, occupying only 16 pages of the instruction booklet.

The Attack Flyer (below - click to enlarge) is essentially a heavily-armoured, weaponised jet pack for the Robot Sidekick. The armour consists of a pair of stickered vehicle mudguards, and in addition to the sizeable twin forward-facing cannons there are exposed studs on the back to attach the Robot Sidekick's weapon. The Attack Flyer attaches to the Armoured car by way of the light bley modified 1 x 2 brick with vertical clip which you can see in the pictures below.

The Armoured Car (below - click to enlarge) is pretty rudimentary; it's armoured in name only, in reality offering Solomon Blaze little protection. It also lacks the firepower of the Attack Flyer, with only a couple of extended pistols to call upon. It features a couple of control sticks in the cockpit but no control console, and Solomon needs to lean backwards in order for the canopy to close.

Bags 2 and 3 contain the parts for the Alien Buggoid and the Star Slicer. The 'torso' and 'abdomen' of the Star Slicer are first to be built (below - click to enlarge); the build is fairly simple, but does require some moderately challenging sticker placement. That being said, the stickers look pretty cool IMHO.

Next up are the limbs and head of the beast. There are 6 limbs, consisting of 4 hind legs and 2 arm-like fore-legs. The hind legs are fixed in position; made up of Hero Factory angled blades, they're joined to the junction of abdomen and torso via technic axles and connectors and look pretty good, although they'd look even better if the connectors were the same colour as the legs. The abdomen actually rests on the ground, meaning that the legs don't have to support any weight and are therefore just for show. The fore-legs are hinged in two places and can be posed to a degree; each one features a trans-bright green blade with a curved tip.

The finished model (above - click to enlarge) clearly takes inspiration from the praying mantis; the designers have borrowed heavily from the basic body morphology and lime green colour scheme of the real thing, not to mention imitating the characteristic fore-legs and large eyes. The LEGO interpretation does however add a few features most definitely not found in nature, not least the the trans-purple alien pod which attaches via a Technic axle pin immediately above the abdomen, and the pair of pearl dark grey Zamor sphere launchers protruding from the front of the head which when squeezed fire the sphere with quite some considerable force; there's even a spare sphere provided should you lose one of them.

You can see the Star Slicer, Blue Team vehicle and all the minifigures below (click picture to enlarge). I've got to say I that really don't fancy Blue team's chances much - probably time for them to call in some reinforcements I reckon....

Overall, it's a decent set. Better than that, it's a good set. OK, so Blue Team's vehicle is a bit underwhelming, although the split function works well and the Attack Flyer is quite neat, but the Star Slicer itself is excellent - a genuinely interesting design IMHO which is fun to build, and suitably creepy and insect-like. As usual I'm compelled to complain about the stickers - 18 of them in this set - but there's no doubt that they enhance the appearance of the models and the Slicer in particular, and despite my all complaining they were in the end still worth the effort it took to neatly apply them.

Set 70703 Star Slicer has an RRP of £34.99 / US$39.99, hardly a bargain for 311 parts, although I suppose that there are a number of larger-than-average elements in the mix. It's surprisingly hard to find the set at retail, in the UK at least - Argos don't carry it, and seemingly neither do John Lewis, TRU, The Entertainer or Boots - and even LEGO's own Galaxy Squad microsite fails to mention the set. The dearth of retail stockists suggests that it's presumably a Retailer Exclusive, although I'm struggling to figure out which retailer it's exclusive to.... My copy was apparently sourced from a LEGO brand store, and the set is also available online from LEGO S@H which is probably your best bet if you want to buy a copy; failing that it's available via Amazon, albeit from a third party seller rather than Amazon itself - click here to buy in the UK.