23 December 2012

A Supersize Christmas Present

From Christmas Eve morning until Boxing Day night, the first of my comic morality tales for children, Supersize vs Superskinny Santa, will be available to download free of charge from Amazon’s Kindle Store (usual price £1.99). UK readers can download the book by following this link.

The picture book can be read in full colour on a Kindle Fire, iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone 7 or any PC, Mac or laptop with the appropriate software installed (visit the Kindle Store to download the appropriate free app for your device). Those with older black and white Kindles are still able to enjoy the book, albeit in monochrome.

I would be very grateful if you could let people that you think might be interested in it know about the book and, if you can, post links to it. If you’ve enjoyed it yourself, please also consider writing a review or clicking the ‘like’ button. Reviews especially would be appreciated.

20 December 2012

At War with Bananaman: An Idiot’s Guide to Digitising One’s Existence and Reclaiming That Spare Bedroom

For the better part of thirty years now, I’ve been riding a media rollercoaster, with some flashy new format superseding its predecessor with expensive regularity. Analogue video and audio cassettes now seem antique when measured against today’s media, and, whilst still championed by those with a little romance in their soul, vinyl is there only to be collected and admired. Even film is slowly falling from favour as more and more progressive moviemakers trade grainy resolution for deep-colour definition. CDs and DVDs, though still fit for purpose when it comes to music and standard-definition (“SD”) video, now seem unnecessarily cumbersome - my sprawling collection of digital media that once required its own room is now capable of being stored on just a handful of hard drives. Even the hefty tomes of text that once lined my walls can now be pulped and replaced with their (typically) cheaper and (always) greener digital counterparts that my Kindle, iPhone or iPad can effortlessly pluck from the aether. We’re a combadge away from living in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the high-street technology of 2012 already pissing all over that of Captain Kirk and his 2260s Enterprise crew.

Like many readers and authors, I love everything about books, and was appalled at the prospect of trading elegant dust jackets and yellowing pages for hyperlinks and standard-issue Caecilia. My views began to change, however, as I watched my wife effortlessly breezing through books on her Kindle at a pace she’d never kept previously, while I clung to my ageing tomes, agonising over turning each page for fear of creasing their brittle spines. She could pick and buy a book, instantly download it, and finish it by the time that the one I’d ordered at the same time had arrived in the post. When we went on holiday her baggage allowance was used on clothes; half of mine went on pulp fiction paperbacks.

Even once I’d surrendered to the ease of e-books, I was still put off by the apparently limited availability of content. As a Doctor Who fan, for instance, I owned literally hundreds of titles dating back to the early 1990s, none of which I could replace digitally (unless you count with a few freebie PDFs downloaded from the BBCi website, none of which can be easily read on an e-reader). Fortunately times have changed enough to quash my fears in this regard - I now find that most new books that I want to read have a electronic edition, and both Amazon and iTunes have even begun to sell electronic editions of long-since deleted Doctor Who titles (I even found The Infinity Doctors on iTunes). And so, with much reluctance, earlier this year I sold off my sprawling collection of literary hardware and set about purchasing replacement electronic editions. Thanks to the cloud, I can access any of my books anywhere that has an Internet connection. I can turn pages by pressing a button, saving the wear on my increasingly-arthritic thumbs. I can enjoy reading a book again, instead of constantly fretting about how I could shoehorn yet another bookshelf into my rapidly-filling square footage.

Conversely, thanks in no small part to my older brother’s preoccupation with cutting-edge media technology, I’d been enjoying the benefits of a home theatre personal computer (“HTPC”) long before the advent of Apple TV and its coaster-sized rivals. It’s taken a number of years, though, for me to reach the stage where I’m truly happy with my audio / video setup, and along the way I’ve explored all manner of different media centre platforms. Needless to say, for most punters, Sky and its many off-the-peg accoutrements will be more than equal to their family’s entertainment needs (and probably their disposable income too…), but for those like me whose loathing of money-spinning subscriptions is outstripped only by their desire to retain and obsessively organise their music and videos, there are countless platforms out there waiting to be explored, each with their own pros and cons.

My first media centre setup was a custom-built, high-spec HTPC on which I ran MediaPortal. MediaPortal is free, open-source software that can turn the right PC into an all-singing, all-dancing high-definition (“HD”) media jukebox through which you can play your music; view your photo albums; watch and record live TV; and watch your videos. If your machine is equipped with a TV card, this software allows you to watch and record television, just as you would with a Sky+ or Freeview+ box, only with the added advantage of being able to retain that recording, should you be minded to, by cutting and pasting a recorded programme’s video file into one of your “My TV Series” or “My Movies” folders. You can add media to your library in other ways too, such as by using a program like MakeMKV to losslessly rip your existing DVD / Blu-ray collection (though the lawyer in me feels compelled to point out that if the material is copyrighted, this is illegal, not that this bothers iTunes when it encourages you to rip any CD that you might insert whilst it’s running) or importing any files that you have (again, I must presume, legally) downloaded that aren’t riddled with digital rights management (“DRM”). MediaPortal’s free downloadable “My TV Series” and “My Moving Pictures” (easily renamed to “My Movies”) plugins will automatically scan your folders for new videos at an interval that you decide, and, upon finding new files – providing they’ve been named in one of the recognised “ugly” styles (such as “The.Big.Bang.Theory.S06E10.
The.Fish.Guts.Displacement” for TV series, or “The Dark Knight Rises (2012)” for movies) - retrieve the appropriate artwork and synopses for each of them from the Internet, allowing you to instantly browse a stunning video library without having to reach for an unwieldy box set or its booklet.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of MediaPortal, though, is the extent to which it can be customised. Not only does it boast a wide variety of “skins” (free, downloadable user interfaces), many of which look nothing short of spectacular, but some of its plugins allow the user to amend movie synopses and posters with relative ease. Unfortunately this is not true of its “My TV Series” plugin (or at least it wasn’t the last time that I used the software), which draws its data and artwork from the open-source website TheTVDB.com. This was a constant source of frustration to me, particularly as some synopses found on there contain mistakes ranging from typographical to factually erroneous that have been “locked” by site administrators and therefore can’t be amended. If you’re technically minded enough, there are ways to get around this issue by amending the metadata on your local machine, but I found them disproportionately time-consuming. Similarly frustrating was the software’s inability to distinguish between music mp3 files, and audio book / audio drama mp3 files (of which I own many). I doubt that such things would bother most users, to be honest, but to someone as sophistic as me, these were very nearly deal-breakers.

What would deter more users though is MediaPortal’s needlessly complex codec settings. As digital video is encoded in many different ways, different codecs are required to decode different types of video files. The trouble is, with MediaPortal, stumbling upon the optimum codec settings for your particular machine can be a long and painful process, and even once found, those settings can be adversely affected by other software’s automatic updates or a new software installation. To describe the system as “fragile” would be something of an understatement. Even with a couple of years’ worth of heavy usage under my system’s belt, there were still a few files that the software struggled with, dropping frames and losing lip-sync, and some that it wouldn’t play at all. To some users, being able to control which codecs are used to decode certain files will be what sets this software apart from the pack, but if you want something that will just work for you every time without having to toggle settings, then MediaPortal probably isn’t for you.

With this in mind, for a short while I tried running XBMC, MediaPortal’s better-known and longer-standing free open-source rival. To its credit, XBMC offered the same slick finish as MediaPortal, and played most file types that I threw at it – but not all. Unlike MediaPortal, which in a very circuitous way is capable of playing store-bought iTunes video (essentially you have to program it to launch iTunes as an external player whenever you want to play one of iTunes’ native DRM-protected m4v videos, and then close it and restore MediaPortal when it’s finished), I couldn’t get XMBC to do it, and worse still I had to turn off hardware acceleration to get it to render certain SD files properly, meaning that I’d have to remember to turn it back on to get it to play HD files. I’d simply traded one playback-related problem for another, and in doing so I’d lost the ability to watch and record TV, which at the time, XBMC didn’t support (with the release of v12 [“Frodo”], it does now). As with MediaPortal, I’m sure that any playback issues could be fixed with a little research time, but time is a precious commodity that many of us are short on.

While experimenting with XBMC, I purchased my first media server – Western Digital’s My Book Live Duo. A jaw-droppingly compact device containing two 3TB hard drives, the My Book Live Duo plugs into your wireless router and streams the media on it to any DLNA-certified device in your home (without using up your download allowance from your Internet service provider, I should add - streaming bypasses the web entirely). Whilst expensive, it’s a beautiful and reliable piece of kit that does exactly what it says on the tin, as well as offering you the peace of mind that comes with RAID mirroring (whatever it stores on one of its hard drives, it mirrors on the other, so if either goes kaput, your media is safe). It even allows you to connect additional storage devices to it via USB (though be warned, if you intend to connect more than one, as I have, you’ll need to purchase a hub as there’s only one USB port) so that their contents can be wirelessly streamed around your home too. As I was so happy with this product, I decided to try retiring my HTPC altogether and instead simply stream the media directly from the My Book Live Duo to a media player. My weapon of choice was, initially, Western Digital’s five-inch square WDTV Live.

WDTV Live is a great option if you don’t fancy having a poorly-disguised PC sat underneath your TV. Within moments of connecting it up, mine had found the My Book Live Duo on my home network and begun compiling its “Media Library” by indexing all the media files (the videos all bearing “ugly” file names) that it found upon it, and downloading the appropriate artwork and synopses in exactly the same way that XBMC and MediaPortal do. Unfortunately in my case this process took days, given the size of my library, and when it had finally finished, I found the interface poor when measured against XBMC and MediaPortal. There are no screengrabs for individual episodes of a TV series, for instance – every episode of each series is represented by the same - and often inappropriate - generic thumbnail, while its series or season folder (and it does present them as computer-style folders) has no image at all. Worse still, the WDTV Live’s native interface doesn’t differentiate between movies and TV series, let alone music and audio books, which for me is amongst the vilest of sins. Admittedly, if you’re prepared to flash your box’s firmware and/or install different skins, you can get around these issues, but for those of a “plug and play” mindset, the WDTV Live box is far from ideal in this respect.

Where WDTV Live truly trounces all of its rivals though is in its playback. Given media centre software’s focus on alluring artwork and enticing write-ups, it’s easy to forget what a media player is all about – enjoying the media. There are no codecs to wrestle with here; no hardware acceleration to toggle. Provided that your router is up to it, this box will play just about anything without dropping a single frame, even 1080p/1080i 30GB movies, and do so faultlessly. Even with its interface issues, this would have been enough for this little device to cement itself as my household’s main media player, but unfortunately it didn’t take long for me to realise that its “will play anything” reputation wasn’t entirely deserved.

Firstly, it couldn’t cope with iTunes media, or indeed anything that utilises DRM. We truly live in a backward world when media that you legally buy is incompatible with just about every device on the market, whereas people who download it illegally can play it just about anywhere. I may be in the minority here, but I have no issue with paying for videos that I want to watch – but I do want to watch them, and sadly for Western Digital, their little box couldn’t hope to accommodate that. Worse still was WDTV Live’s apparent inability to effectively liaise with the same manufacturer’s My Book Live Duo. Whilst it instantly discovered the device’s built-in hard drives, I could not get it to detect the media on any of the external drives connected to it via USB despite trying several different hubs. It saw them all, but, according to it, they housed no media. As my HTPC could effortlessly stream content from them all using Media Portal; XBMC; and even Windows Media Player, this was plainly not the case. My post in Western Digital’s forum went unanswered for weeks. My frustration grew. The WDTV Live was eBayed. I had nowhere to turn but to the DRM-domineering Apple. Little did I know, I’d unwittingly saved the best until last.
In the last couple of years, I’ve become addicted to Apple hardware. As my old friend Mark #II preaches to all who’ll listen, “Once you go Mac, you never go back”, and it’s true. My iPad’s never crashed; my iPhone is a technological marvel on which I can read books, listen to music, watch videos, do my banking and effectively run my whole life. Thanks to the genius of the My Book Live Duo, I can even access the content on my server from anywhere in the world that has an Internet connection (though to date the farthest afield I’ve tested it is Rotherham). Despite this mounting ardour, though, I’ve always been wary of Apple TV – largely because I couldn’t face converting my old videos into Apple-proof mp4 or m4v. Having test-run the device with my iTunes-bought content though, I decided that it was clearly the worth the effort.

The strain of encoding might well kill off my long-suffering HTPC, but already I’m reaping the rewards. I can watch the videos that I buy straight away, be it on my phone, tablet or massive telly – on demand Peep Show, quick as flash, in glorious 1080p as opposed to soft old SD on DVD, long after transmission. My iTunes-bought content is even backed up for free in the cloud. I can amend movie and episode synopses – yes, the poorly-proofed iTunes Store is not much better than open-source websites - I can utilise custom artwork, find bonus material neatly married up with the main feature that it accompanies, make frighteningly sad playlists that allow me to enjoy a medley of Doctor Who audio books and TV episodes in what I reckon should be the correct order. I can dial up a programme on the BBC iPlayer, or ITV Player, and with a flick of the wrist have it playing through the TV via AirPlay. Ditto YouTube, or a photo or video that I’ve taken just seconds ago on my iPhone. Best of all though, it never, ever crashes and even the wife can work it – something that I can’t say about any of the platforms I’d tried previously. And for all this magic, all that I have to have sat in my toddler-terrorised living room is a tiny little box a few square inches in size.

The trade-off? I’ve become a firm Apple man, which as my good friend (and passionate VHS backer) Daniel Tessier implied in a Facebook quip, paints me as something of a cartoon villain, squarely at odds with Bananaman. A quick-off-the-mark witticism, or a colourful metaphor for the old PC vs Mac / everything else vs Apple TV war? I wonder. Nevertheless, hero or villain, I’m finally winning…

For UK readers not appalled by my shameless defection to the Apple camp, you might want to know that for some baffling reason, the high street chain Wilkinson is selling £25.00 iTunes vouchers for £20.00. Stock up!

29 November 2012

Film Review | American Reunion (aka American Pie: Reunion) (Unrated Edition) directed by Jon Hurwitz

American Pie’s scintillating synthesis of scatological humour and brazen nudity made it an instant hit with my late-teen self back in the summer of ’99, its comic teenage lust offering me an hour and a half’s reprieve from my own libido-fuelled woes. Two years later, its slightly-more-syrupy sequel’s parting of ways mirrored my own leaving for university (though admittedly my departing misadventures were marked by fewer scantily-clad lesbians and… uh… creative musicians, more’s the pity). Fast-forward to the fag end of my uni days, and Jim and Michelle’s American Wedding (or American Pie: The Wedding to us slow-on-the-uptake Brits) was followed in short order by my own engagement, drawing a heavy line under both Jim and company’s licentious capers, and my own. Or so I’d thought.

As I enter my second year of parenthood, American Reunion arrives on home video to look for hilarity and absurdity in every aspect of life’s latest chapter, while at the same time gently emphasising what and whom life is all about. The thumping of Jim and Michelle’s bed as the movie opens sets the stall for the cruel commentary that’s to come, as the camera pans up to reveal the apparently ageless Jason Biggs’ Jim “working” on his laptop, while his once-inventive musical missus (How I Met Your Mother and erstwhile Buffy star Alyson Hannigan) rigorously bounces their baby boy to sleep. With similar succinctness the film swiftly summarises the sexless plight of the pubescent pactees that we met over a decade ago, each (to coin a favourite phrase of my mother’s) having become more like themselves as they’ve grown older. Chris Klein’s Ostreicher has sold his soul for celebrity - former sweetheart Heather (Mena Suvari of American Beauty fame) no longer hangs from his arm; instead, he’s involved with a vacuous model who’s more besotted with his money and status than she is him. Seann William Scott’s Stifler has, quite predictably, failed to mature even by the slightest degree, but now his alpha male delusions of dominance are frequently shattered by his pocket-sized boss, who is keen to remind him that he’s the “bitch”. Just as true to form, Eddie Kaye Thomas’s Paul Finch has carefully constructed the veneer of a motorbike-riding, African tribe-leading, enigmatic world-wanderer, but beneath his studied façade hides a fraud who wouldn’t be out of place working at Dunder Mifflin’s Office on NBC. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), meanwhile, has got married and grown an ill-advised beard, but remains as overemotional and hastily condemnatory as the exasperating youth whose sexual fears gave rise to first movie’s “let’s all get laid together” maguffin. As I caught up with these lives, I found myself reflecting on my own and those of my ever-dwindling clique, and how uncannily they’ve mirrored those of our larger-than-life American peers - the blandness; the failures; the ridiculous facial hair; even the occasional, whiff-of-a-pint yearning for times past.

Indeed, many aspects of American Reunion put me in mind of the countless jolly boys’ outings that I’ve enjoyed in recent years with my Hull University alumni. Whilst duly riotous, each “lads’ weekend” is tainted by a crippling sense of morbid nostalgia, perhaps even loss, that this movie captures beautifully. Its Carry On-style comedy is expectedly low-brow and slapstick, but it’s frequently underlined by excruciating melancholy. The uproarious drunken revelry of Eugene Levy’s Noah Levenstein (now a veteran of eight American Pies, if we include the rubbish straight-to-DVD spin-off ones) is ultimately borne of a widower’s lonesomeness; Finch’s crimes were precipitated by the mortification that he feels at not having lived up to his intellectual potential. Even the luscious merriment of the film’s fitting “Finch’s mom” dénouement is counterpointed by the surprisingly-stirring reconciliation of the long-since estranged ‘“MILF” guys’ - never before has a chant of “MILF” carried such a profound sense of amity.

As I watched this franchise’s first movie play out before me on the silver screen, I never dreamed that its characters would be joining me on a lifelong journey involving love, loss and shitting in beer crates, but that’s exactly what’s transpired. If you’re in the mood for some high-end trash that boasts a few proudly-gratuitous pairs of tits (the exquisite Ali Cobrin’s amongst them, above); a knob shrouded in see-through kitchenware; some cheap laughs; and some saccharine sentiments, then do yourself a favour and get yourself to the Reunion. Having endured it and enjoyed it, I’m looking forward to catching up with this lot again in a couple of decades’ time for American Menopause (or American Pie: The Menopause for us obdurate Pie-munchers in the UK).

01 November 2012

Supersize vs Superskinny Santa

Friday 9th November 2012 will see the publication of Supersize vs Superskinny Santa, the first of my modern morality tales for children with a humorous twist. Illustrated by Jemma Brown, the e-book will be available through Amazon’s Kindle store for just £1.99 in the UK as well as overseas. You can visit its UK page by clicking here.

However, on Saturday 3rd November 2012, eager readers will be able to download a special preview copy free of charge by following this link.

The picture book can be read in full colour on a Kindle Fire, iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone 7 or any PC, Mac or laptop with the appropriate software installed (visit the Kindle Store to download the appropriate free app for your device). Those with older black and white Kindles are still able to enjoy the book, albeit in monochrome.

I would be very grateful if you could let people that you think might be interested in it know about the book and, if you can, post links to it. If you’ve enjoyed it yourself, please also consider writing a review or clicking the ‘like’ button. Reviews especially would be appreciated.

Thank you in advance for your support.

Rudolph’s not had an easy life. Mercilessly mocked by his surprisingly mean-spirited peers for having a cosmetic nasal defect, he went on to carve out a place for himself in history by using his iridescent nose to guide Santa Claus through weather conditions that other reindeers couldn’t. But that wouldn’t be the end of his troubles.

As the years have worn on, Santa has become a slave to food and drink. He’s obese, indolent and selfish, and now his alcoholic corpulence threatens Christmas itself.

Can Rudolph help Santa to drop enough weight to fit down chimneys before it’s too late? Or will children the world over wake up on Christmas Day to find that Santa hasn’t been?

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.