28 July 2015

Star Wars LEGO Review | 75053 The Ghost

Before Han Solo dragged his Millennium Falcon into the fight against the Galactic Empire, another weathered old freighter had already made a name for itself, and this is it: The Ghost, in brick form.

For a ship so packed with pods and bays and secret compartments, this 33cm beast is as solid as they come; it’s an almost indestructible oblong that you can really believe incited rebellion in the Outer Rim. Inevitably the interior has been scaled down - right down - to meet LEGO’s size / piece requirements for a light-heavyweight set, so there are no crew quarters for one thing, but it’s hard to grumble when every millimetre of available space has been used so creatively. There’s a space on board for every rebel minifigure included, with Hera Syndulla and Kanan Jarrus each having a cockpit apiece and Zeb Orrelios slotting inside the rotatable gun turret so that he can blast the hell out of any passing TIE fighters. Even Ezra and Chopper, who aren’t included in this set, aren’t left out in the cold as their sold-separately Phantom docks neatly in the aft section (a great gimmick in of itself).

The set also boasts features to please those of all tastes. For youngsters, there are two spring-loaded missile canons which lend themselves beautifully to interstellar LEGO dogfights, as well as two detachable escape pods that each have room for at least one minifigure. For adult fans, meanwhile, there are deft little touches to be appreciated such as the hidden Holocron and working cargo hatch, not to mention two long (but shallow) cargo holds in which the set’s many weapons can be safely stowed while the minifigures are at their stations.

As to the minifigures, the three rebels are dazzling. Zeb is one of my favourite Star Wars minifigures to date. Whilst necessarily lacking the towering height of his on-screen alter ego, his headpiece especially is incredibly detailed, goatee and all, and the modellers have even captured his near-constant look of thinly-veiled irritation wonderfully. The sole human figure is less striking, obviously, but nonetheless a great likeness of the former Jedi, while the Twi’lek minifigure has caught Hera’s exotic and worldly qualities in equal measure: green skin, prehensile tentacles… flying goggles. Instead of Sabine Wren, though, the set is rounded out with a redundant standard-issue Disney stormtrooper, which LEGO have added blue rendering to in order to set it apart from its movie-era counterparts. It’s disappointing not to be able to net the full Ghost crew for the cost of two sets - LEGO obviously want us to buy the stand-alone Sabine sets too.

Overall though, The Ghost and its sister set come highly recommended. You can pick up both for the price of a decent heavyweight set, and you’ll probably get a lot more fun for your money.
The Ghost is available to buy from LEGO directly for £69.99 with free delivery. However, today’s cheapest retailer is Amazon, who are selling the set for just £62.65 with free delivery.

Star Wars LEGO Review | 75048 The Phantom

As a kid, I was regularly treated to “Battle Pack”-sized LEGO sets, but gifts from the next tier up were fewer and farther between, and all the more special for it. I have very fond memories of building police trucks and ambulances with all sorts of playable features; the relatively modest increase in price didn’t seem equal to the profound improvement in playability. Now, as an adult, it’s pleasing to see that LEGO are continuing to make sets in their £20-ish range just as crammed with value, and Star Wars Rebels set The Phantom is a case in point.

Larger than its box would suggest, Ezra Bridger’s separable spaceship has much more to it than meets the eye. Its spring-loaded missiles can fire to both aft and stern, its cockpit section is more spacious than you’d expect, and its aft section has double-hinged wings that unfurl for flight or fold up neatly for docking in The Ghost. I didn’t expect there to be any sort of interior in the aft compartment, but the roof lifts off to reveal a perfectly Chopper-sized space, and the rear door hides a space just large enough to stow Ezra’s Imperial helmet and blaster. It’s an attractive and solid piece of rebel kit - shining white, all that it lacks is a bit of wear and tear.

The two minifigures are both excellent too. LEGO have, by now, perfected the astromech droid, and so Chopper is vested with both the look and feel of his cartoon counterpart. Pleasingly his build differs from other astromechs that I’ve built, which I think is quite fitting for the contrary little fellow. Ezra, whilst lacking his lightsaber cum blaster (which I don’t think he’d built at the time of this set’s release, in fairness), is a dead ringer for TV’s wayward orphan. I did initially question the use of “adult” legs for him, but on reflection I think they’ve made the right call - he’s closer to the surly teenage Anakin of Attack of the Clones than he is the exasperating infant of The Phantom Menace.

The Phantom is available to buy from LEGO directly for £19.99 with free delivery on orders over £50.00. However, today’s cheapest retailer is Amazon, who are selling the set for just £14.59 with free delivery on orders over £20.00.

26 July 2015

Blu-ray Review | Robin of Sherwood: Michael Praed Limited Edition Box Set

To this day, Richard ‘Kip’ Carpenter’s radical reworking of the Robin Hood legend is still widely regarded as being the definitive interpretation. Carpenter’s irresistible fusion of swords and sorcery with raw grit and brutality sets it apart not only from any other iteration of the popular myth, but anything else on television then or since.

’s limited edition Michael Praed Blu-ray box set is a pleasantly lush and splendorous thing, housing all thirteen almost hour-long episodes featuring Praed as the eponymous wolfshead, now rendered in 1080p from the original film elements (TNG-style!), as well as all of the special features that were originally released on the first two series’ DVD releases in 2002 and a remastered 1983 documentary to boot. Amongst them are the series’ notorious blooper reels; the enlightening two-part Nothing’s Forgotten documentary; and a series of HD shorts featuring second-season director Robert Young discussing the most noteworthy episodes that he shot. The set is beautifully presented, with the blue-tipped slipcase sliding off to reveal a verdantly-clad amaray case. Inside you’ll find a hefty and insightful companion booklet duly entitled Legend, together with full synopses and airdates for each episode on the underside of the cover along with details of their accompanying special features. My only minor niggle is that, even with the discs taken out, this information is still difficult to read; otherwise, the presentation is perfect. With disc-based media becoming more outmoded by the day, this set serves as a pleasant reminder of its appeal, as well as a shining example to other media distributors who’ve long-since abandoned collectors’ booklets and the like in their physical releases.

“You were sleeping; you slept too long. We all have.
It’s time we woke. Time we stopped running.”

The episodes themselves are a monumental improvement on their DVD counterparts. Grainy and filmic, yet abounding with deep colour and rich sound, these thirteen mini-movies (fifty-four minutes apiece) hold up exceedingly well today – you can see every penny of the £300,000.00 that went into each on screen. They have a timeless quality to them that’s buoyed by the aberrantly high production standards for the era; there’s scarcely a scene here that feels studio-bound, and with HD locations as stunning and diverse as the coastal Anwick and Bamborough castles (the latter being particularly breathtaking) and the incidental music of the BAFTA-award winning Clannad underscoring many a memorable moment, the series’ look and sound is as now as stunning and sharp as it always has been unique.

Some might lament the order of the episodes’ presentation across the discs, which is not how they were transmitted, but in continuity order. To me, it makes perfect sense that “The Swords of Wayland” should precede “The Prophecy”, for instance, as Marion still believes her father to be dead in the former; however, some are still sticklers for broadcast presentation. What does annoy me though is that each season’s feature-length offering has been cleaved in two, again differing from transmission, but this time for the worse.

With the possible exception of Robert Addie’s still-brilliant Gisburne, whom Richard Armitage would give a run for his money in the BBC’s 2006 version, the classic Robin Hood characters have never been bettered in any version of the myth. Michael Praed has incredible gravitas as Robin - his rugged good looks and quicksilver voice define the role, but he tempers the part with a calm and often surprisingly gentle edge that both Judi Trott’s Marion and Peter Llewellyn Williams’ Much bring to the fore. 

What I like most about the Praed portrayal though is it’s pragmatism. I realise that this sounds absurd when I’m taking about an incarnation of the outlaw who’s hand-picked by a shaman to be his spiritual son and cloaked in as much mysticism as he is woodland greenery, but it’s true nonetheless. Does he wear a shitty little hat with a feather in it? Of course not. He wears a hood that obscures his outlaw features and earns him the makes-total-sense nommes de guerre, “Robin in the Hood” and “The Hooded Man”. Does he balk at killing Norman soldiers? Nope. He’s a terrorist who shoots them down from a distance or slices them up by sword at close quarters. Do his magical powers see him win every week, and without cost? No. Two of his men die in the first story alone, and more would follow. And, in the end, he loses – look at a history book, he has to. But Robin of Sherwood, and indeed the larger Robin Hood myth, isn’t about toppling a regime; it’s about the nobility in resistance, the necessity of a social conscience - precious things indeed in a Britain under Maggie Thatcher. As Robin himself says, the war between good and evil, or “the powers of light and darkness”, if you will, never ends.

The standouts amongst his Not-So-Merry Men are easily Clive Mantle’s John of Hathersage and Ray Winstone’s “psychopathic football hooligan”, Will Scathlock (later Scarlet, for really quite bloody reasons). The former is fairly faithful to the traditional gentle-giant paradigm, but his youth exacerbates his vulnerability to the extent that he blubbers almost as often as he cracks Norman heads. This makes him all the more real, and all the more endearing.

“I killed three of the bastards. I’m gonna swing.”

The latter goes the other way - Winstone’s character is a bitter, vengeful hardman who went on a Norman killing spree following the rape and murder of his wife at the hands of mercenaries. He’s just about as far from the gay (in the old-fashioned sense of the word), red-clad ponce of other interpretations as you could possibly get. When Robin springs him from jail, he joins his band of rebels, but throughout the series there’s a nagging doubt that his motivation isn’t quite as unselfish as his peers. The look on his face as he kills is as frightening as anything you’ll see on the other side of the divide, and it’s exactly this sort of credible greyscale that makes this series so damned compelling.

“Ah but which devil? There are so many, aren’t there?
And only one God. Hardly seems fair.”

And on the other side of the fence, the quality is every bit as high. Lord High Sheriff of Nottingham Robert de Rainault is as wicked and immoral as ever a sheriff were, yet Nickolas Grace imbues him with a dry sense of humour that almost makes him likeable. Every episode he graces is teeming with witty asides and one-liners - many at Gisburne’s expense (“The halfwit, my lord! The halfwit!” / “Which one?”), many not (“Why are you men of God so damned acquisitive?”) - together with vitriolic tantrums that are almost pitiable. Nobody’s ever pitched the part better and I doubt that anyone ever will.

“By Christ, Robert, I will not lose my fish pond!”

And to Carpenter’s credit, he gives de Rainault more than one foil. The Abbot Hugo de Rainault (played by Philip Jackson of Poirot fame), brother to the sheriff, often lends the proceedings a little much-needed levity, but more importantly, he embodies the corrupt establishment that Robin and his band are rebelling against. This is never demonstrated more beautifully than in the first series’ opener, “Robin Hood and the Sorcerer”, in which he plots to make a nun of his young ward, the Lady Marion of Leaford, just so that he can usurp her late father’s lands.

“He’s coming. The Hooded Man is coming...”

“Robin Hood and the Sorcerer” is in fact the set’s unequivocal highlight. Its storybook title is the only thing about it that I could criticise; everything else about it is ingeniously conceived and mercurially executed. The pre-title sequence is one of the best that I’ve seen in any show, and is particularly effective as it sets the stall for what’s to come in its even-handed juxtaposition of mysticism and slaughter. The sight of those Norman soldiers silently drifting across the waters towards Loxley, their menace growing ever louder through Clannad’s tentative rumblings, is more haunting in many ways than the immolation that they unleash upon young Robin’s native village.

The ensuing tale does a sterling job of weaving aspects of the myth with Carpenter’s mystical elements. The disguised Robin still famously splits an arrow to win the sheriff’s archery tournament, for instance, but here he does so only to reclaim his inheritance: the Silver Arrow, a pagan symbol vested with great power and belonging to Herne the Hunter, the shamanic lord of the trees who serves as Robin’s mentor. The recently-outlawed Robin still fights John when they first meet, and indeed gives him his “Little” soubriquet, but here they fight because John is possessed by the Baron de Belleme, who, to the surprise of many, is this first story’s principal antagonist rather than the sheriff. Belleme (played by the awesome Anthony Valentine) has his sights set on Abbot Hugo’s young ward, and with his “Hooded Man” prophecies being borne out, much to the sheriff’s dismay, he now has the necessary leverage to get her. At heart, for all its enthralling setups and set pieces, “Robin Hood and the Sorcerer” is the classic tale of Robin setting out to rescue his lover from the clutches of an evil-doer. What sets it apart are its demons, which exist literally in the case of the baron, and metaphorically for just about everyone else.

  “They are all waiting: the blinded, the maimed,
the men locked in the stinking dark.
They all wait for you...”

Even the cave-dwelling Herne the Hunter, the personification of the powers of light in the series, is shrouded in literal darkness. I remember having nightmares as a child about his half-lit, horned silhouette and John Abineri’s gravelly proclamations: “When the Horned One possesses me, I am Herne the Hunter.” Yet there’s a naturalistic innocence about the character; a straightforwardness that still confounds me to this day. Robin calls him a man, and Herne doesn’t deny it – rather, he removes his costume and greets him as a man. Yet he’s clearly imbued with the spirit of the lord of the trees; demonstrably vested with the sort of knowledge and foresight that one would normally only associate with somebody in league with a devil.

“Robin Hood and the Sorcerer” is also notable for its introduction of Mark Ryan’s Nasir, the baron’s hand-picked archer and ambidextrous swordsman. As he possessed such a commanding presence on screen, rather than kill him off in the story’s dénouement as planned, the producers restructured the story’s climactic fight scene to hint at a budding respect between the wolfshead and the Saracen, with Nasir then showing up in Sherwood right at the death with a wry smile on his face. His joining the band is never discussed or even acknowledged; he’s simply there from that point forward, mysterious and brooding, silent but deadly, quietly and effortlessly embodying the tone of the series. It’s a testament to both the character and Ryan’s performance that many subsequent interpretations have included a Saracen within the ensemble. Centuries on, the legend evolves.

“The Witch of Elsdon” is the first episode to see the outlaws start to earn their philanthropic reputation, robbing the rich to help the people of Nottingham. It also explores what it’s like for a young woman living in a forest with a group of young men - an issue deftly swerved by most interpretations. Marion
’s strength is matched only by her gentility, which doesn’t sit well with a group of young men sleeping rough and living between ambushes.

The next episode, “Seven Poor Knights from Acre”, is a real belter, and probably the first season’s best stand-alone episode as it pits the outlaws against a more competent foe in the shape of the Knights Templar. Besides its awesome action sequences, the episode boasts some tremendously entertaining scenes between de Rainault and Gisburne, who can’t believe their luck when the knights decide to hunt down the outlaws who they believe stole their sacred emblem. “Alan a Dale”, by contrast, is a comedy wearing a swashbuckling cloak. Almost every scene is either satirical or slapstick, and Grace is at the height of his powers as his misogynistic sheriff reluctantly prepares to wed the titular forlorn minstrel’s young lover in order to get her lands.

The season finale, “The King’s Fool”, is a clever and quite touching piece that cements the outlaws’ brotherhood. I particularly like John Rhys-Davies’ (The Lord of the Rings) portrayal of Lionheart, who’s depicted as a reckless, impulsive tyrant no better than his historically-reviled little brother. All that sets them apart are King Richard’s weight and charm, which in this story bewitch Robin far more effectively than any enchantment, hence the title.

“Those who seek to shatter the bolts that hold back the
Evil One must first take Albion from you.”

Up next in the set is the two-part “Swords of Wayland”, a devilish and genuinely chilling tale based upon a myth that Carpenter gleefully admits having invented. The story takes the outlaws far from Sherwood - all the way to Robin Hood’s Bay, in fact (“Ahh...”) - where Robin’s mystical sword, Albion, becomes a pawn in a plot to raise Satan. The directorial debut of Robert Young, who would take over from Ian Sharp at the helm, it’s the most beautifully shot story in the series by far, abounding with haunting, blood-red skies and sprawling, coastal vistas - and probably its scariest too. Rula Lenska’s Morgwyn of Ravenscar is every bit as terrifying as the fallen angel that she wants to raise.

With the second season’s opening episode, “The Prophecy”, the series starts to ring in some changes, not least of which is John’s coronation as king following Richard’s death in battle. This introduces Phil Davis (Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ashes to Ashes, Being Human) as a semi-regular villain - and what a villain. With de Rainault absent, King John fills the empty “lunatic tyrant” role with seething and irrational aplomb, and perhaps even makes a better job of making Gisburne’s existence hell. With an even less tolerant paymaster than usual, the pressure sees the “stupid and reactionary Tory minister” pushed well beyond his breaking point. The plot itself contains the return to England of Marion’s father, Richard of Leaford, and is chock full of misdirection and intrigue. It also boasts my favourite Will Scarlet scene ever; one that’s played so very brutally by Ray Winstone that it’s hard to tell the heroes from the villains.

“Lord of the Trees” is an unusual tale in which the outlaws must try to prevent Gisburne and a band a French mercenaries pillaging their way through the villages of Nottinghamshire - but without shedding their blood, lest Herne withdraw his blessing and the villages’ crops fail. It’s an interesting conceit, especially given the series’ customary bloodiness and Scarlet’s iller-than-usual feeling towards the mercenaries, but by this point the sheriff’s acerbic presence is sorely missed (which might explain ITV’s decision to jumble up the episodes for broadcast, eking him out over the season).

Fortunately, Grace’s sheriff returns with all due megalomania in “The Children of Israel”, in which he finds himself pitted against not just the outlaws, but the powerful nation of Jewish money-lenders that props up England’s economy too. It’s a delight to see de Rainault spar with an intelligent, articulate and passive foe for a change, and Gisburne’s attempted dalliance with the money-lender’s daughter is every bit as entertaining - albeit for very different reasons. The episode also allows the long-running tension between Robin and Will
to boil over, resulting in Will turning his back on his friends - for a while, at least. It’s subplots like these that make the show such an engrossing and believable drama. It beggars belief that two such strong, opposing personalities could get along - so they don’t.

The box set’s penultimate offering, “The Enchantment”, finds Robin in the thrall of a seductive sorceress – one with a connection to a very old and very powerful enemy. For all its big gimmicks and surprises though, it’s a bit of an empty affair, carried almost entirely by the sheriff and Gisburne, whose greed here somehow manages to eclipse that of the preceding episode.

My favourite second-season episode, though, has to be the peerless finale, “The Greatest Enemy”, which some say is the series’ finest hour. On the face of it, there’s not all that much to it: faced with being ousted from office if he fails to put down Robin once and for all, the sheriff finally puts the full might of his forces into flushing out and killing the wolfshead. The beauty of the piece is that he succeeds with relative ease, only to realise too late that you can kill a man, but there’s no killing a legend.

Robin’s demise is handled flawlessly. Throughout the episode Carpenter’s script forces him into an ever-tighter corner, until he finally realises that there’s no way out. Then, the script slows, the circle tightens, and Praed and Trott give the performances of their lives as his Robin must prepare not just to die in a hail of crossbow fire, but also convince his soon-to-be widow to face the much more daunting task of living on without him. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more heartrending scene anywhere; it’s Robin’s almost unnatural calmness, his resignation, that really sells it. For a “nervous young wolf” he’s remarkably Zen.

“Tell the sheriff of Nottingham that Robin Hood
holds Sherwood. Tell him that Herne’s son
has claimed his kingdom.”

But as one outlaw is facing his end, Herne is already blowing another “leaf on the wind” into position to take on his mantle. Taking full advantage of the legend’s ambiguity, Carpenter would go on to explore the Pyle-sanitised version of the nation’s most famous tale though a new, gentrified lead in the third season: Robert of Huntingdon, son of an earl, portrayed by a very blonde and clean-cut young man by the name of Jason Connery (Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos), whose lineage is as impressive as his character’s.

“You ungrateful bastard!”

For me, however, Robin of Sherwood’s extended final series would lack the defining rough edges of the Michael Praed years. So rarely is Robin portrayed as a young, poor peasant turned altruistic freedom fighter; rarer still will you find him in the company of plausibly dangerous outlaws who could credibly throw a county into chaos. By turns haunting and bloody, Robin of Sherwood can hold its viewers rapt, whether they were watching it during its original 1985-1987 run on ITV or are enjoying it in high-definition on Blu-ray today. It can also teach young boys how to swear, much to the chagrin of their parents and teachers, but that’s another story...

The Robin of Sherwood: Michael Praed Limited Edition Box Set is currently cheapest at Amazon, where you can pick it up for £33.92 with free delivery.

22 July 2015

Rants | Cineworld's Money-Spinning Refunds Policy

Booking refs: WL7ZTSM & WK6P4DQ

I’m generally reluctant to book things in advance for fear of things like this, but as Cineworld offer slightly discounted prices for online bookings, I decided to make an exception. And so on 4th July 2015 I booked three tickets to see Minions the following afternoon as a treat for my three-year-old daughter. She’d been watching the trailers religiously on YouTube and couldn’t have been more excited about it.

On 5th July 2015, she woke up covered in chickenpox. I logged into my Cineworld account online to find, to my surprise, that I couldn’t simply amend my booking, let alone cancel it. I found this shocking given the otherwise in-depth nature of the booking system, which even allows whoever is booking to select their seats in advance. Annoyed, I telephoned 0333 00 33 444 – the telephone number at the bottom of my e-mail confirmation (see left-hand e-mail below) – and instantly incurred a 10p charge, only to be immediately told to redial on 0871 200 2000, charged at 12p per minute. It then took nearly fifteen minutes to get through to someone, by which time I’d incurred call charges of around £1.90 overall.

The spectacularly unhelpful call centre operative that I’d waited so long to speak to told me that the booking couldn’t be amended, and that I’d have to hang up; log back into the website; and make a fresh booking before calling back with both booking reference numbers so that the original booking could be refunded. Why this initial call-avoiding information couldn’t be set out in the booking confirmation e-mail, I have no idea; I can only speculate that there’s money to be made in getting punters to make a needless call.

Struggling to suppress my anger, I politely hung up and logged into the website, where I discovered that bookings could only be made up to the middle of the week, at which time my little girl would still be quarantined. I called back, waited nearly twenty minutes – so we’re up to at least £4.00 in call charges by now – and, despite being almost apoplectic with rage, managed to politely explain the situation to another call centre operative, Lucas. As kindly as I could, I then expressed my grievance with his colleague who plainly didn’t listen to a word that I’d said when I’d explained that we wouldn’t be able to come to the cinema for at least 7-10 days, lest my daughter infect others. Lucas reassured me that as long as the tickets were not collected, they could still be refunded for up to 45 days following the original scheduled performance - I didn’t need to rebook immediately. All of this information could have been set out in the booking confirmation e-mail, thus avoiding my first two calls.

Rather than cut my losses, and desperately wanting to reward a brave and, by that time, scabby pock-marked little girl with a cinema trip, I eventually rebooked for 14th July 2015. Having watched the film (and the preceding forty-five minutes of adverts and trailers, which my daughter only sat through because she was still lacking her usual lustre... but that’s another rant for another day), I telephoned the 0871 number again. It took twenty-four minutes to speak to someone this time, with my call charges now easily exceeding a quarter of the refund that I was hoping to get. The operative that I spoke to told me that he couldn’t process the refund as they were in the process of moving the call centre “to another country” (he wouldn’t say which) and the system kept crashing. He took my mobile number and undertook to call me back the following day to confirm that the refund had been issued. He never did.

On 17th July I telephoned again and spent another fifteen minutes queuing before speaking with Sophie, who said that “it looked like” the refund had been made on 14th July 2015 following my conversation with her colleague. I pointed out that this wasn’t sufficient and that I wanted her to check and confirm that the refund had been sent. She put me on hold for an unconvincing twenty to thirty seconds before confirming absolutely categorically positively that the refund had been sent and would be in my account within five days of 14th July 2015.

Guess what? 

It wasn’t.

This evening I’ve just spoken with another unhelpful (but this time, at least honest) call centre operative who told me that the whole system was falling apart in the migration from the UK to overseas and that the best he could advise me was to write a strongly-worded e-mail to customer.services@cineworld.co.uk (an e-mail address that’s closely guarded, for obvious reasons). You’re reading it.

Never again will I book in advance to see a movie at Cineworld; never again will I even frequent Cineworld - not unless they issue me with a refund together with some form of recompense, anyway. I’ve incurred around £12.00 in call charges chasing a £20.31 refund which could have been avoided altogether had Cineworld incorporated a simple “cancel / amend booking” feature in their online booking system rather than shamelessly and transparently try to deter their customers from pursuing refunds with their needlessly complex and disproportionately expensive excuse for a system.

Love film? Hate Cineworld.

14 July 2015

Fantastic Facts #2 | Red Dwarf

The search for the Solar System’s ninth planet began in 1906, when a wealthy Bostonian funded the “Planet X” project that, during the first year of the Great War, yielded the first dim images of what an eleven-year-old schoolgirl would eventually name Pluto. It wouldn’t be until almost fifteen years later that Planet X’s Clyde Tombaugh would obtain photographs confirming the celestial body’s movement, and the discovery of a ninth planet in our Solar System would be announced to the world.

And now, a century on from Pluto’s first faint appearance on the Lowell Observatory’s surveys, its discoverer’s ashes are flying within 8,000 miles of it aboard an unmanned NASA probe that promises to lift the veil on the Solar System’s most divergent and controversial known object.

“We’re going to turn points of light
into a planet and a system
of moons before your eyes.”
– Alan Stern, NASA New Horizons

Since its discovery, Pluto has grown ever smaller in the eyes of humanity. Estimates of its mass and size have dwindled enormously over the decades, from around the same mass as Earth in 1930 to what we now know to be just 0.002 Earths (just under a fifth the mass of the Moon, if thats easier to imagine). This makes Pluto a golf ball when compared to a football Earth, and, as it orbits the Sun forty times farther out than Earth, one that’s always between fifty and eighty miles away. Until now, studying it has been like trying to read a 12-point font on a piece of paper miles away. Squinting isn’t the half of it.

Moreover, following the discovery of what was initially reported as “The Tenth Planet”, Eris, in 2005, the International Astronomical Union (“IAU”) opted to withdraw Pluto’s planetary status rather than grant the same to Eris, in so doing stealing away not only our new tenth planet, but our long-established ninth too. They accomplished this by introducing a three-fold test for planethood: firstly, a planet must orbit its sun; secondly, it must have sufficient mass for gravity to have forced it into a spheroid or ellipsoid shape; and thirdly, it must have “cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit”. In practical terms, this means that it has to have become sufficiently gravitationally dominant to have either cleared away all bodies of comparable size from its orbit zone, or drawn them into its own orbit. Eris, Pluto and the other trans-Neptunian objects in the crowded Kuiper belt cannot satisfy this final criterion, and so find themselves labelled dwarf planets or plutoids.

Pluto’s reclassification has divided both the astronomical community and lay folk alike. With potentially hundreds of other dwarf planets awaiting discovery in the Kuiper belt, it’s easy to see why the IAU drew a line in the sand when and where they did. Conversely, tearing apart the “Classical Solar System” and thus ruining Robert Holmes’ seminal Doctor Who serial The Sun Makers was unquestionably going to piss people off - particularly when the contrived third criterion focuses on orbital characteristics as opposed to intrinsic ones, and potentially even casts doubt on other planets’ classifications (theres quite an asteroid belt in Mars’ neighbourhood...) The ensuing contention hasn’t been helped by a lack of clarity when it comes to classifying dwarf planets either; only five are recognised presently, despite claims by astronomers such as Mike Brown, discoverer of Eris, that many other celestial bodies meet the IAU’s criteria.

None of this pigeon-holing, though, should undermine the significance of Pluto in our Solar System or the magnitude of the New Horizons probe’s exploration of it. After all, with a confirmed diameter of 1,473 miles, Pluto is still the largest and second most massive known dwarf planet in the Solar System. The distinction between “largest” and “most massive” might be lost on some readers, but it’s quite literally as it sounds: Pluto is physically larger than Eris (more voluminous, if you will), but Eris is more dense (it has around 27% greater mass). Its axis is tilted too, so like Uranus it seems to spin on its side. It also also boasts an impressive array of moons – Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra – as well as Charon, which is either another satellite or a binary dwarf planet depending on who you ask. Many contend that Pluto and Charon are so close that their gravitational interaction causes them to orbit about a common centre of mass, rather than Charon orbiting Pluto as the Moon does Earth. They are even thought to be tidally locked, so if you could stand on Pluto, Charon would seem to hang perpetually in the sky. Accordingly, I’m particularly interested to see what light New Horizons can shed on Charon and its unusual relationship with the Classical ninth planet.

Probably my favourite thing about Pluto though is its chaotic orbit around the Sun, which differs from all of the other planets in the Classical Solar System. The eight planets’ orbits are broadly circular, while Pluto’s is elliptical, allowing it to come closer to the Sun than Neptune, effectively overtaking it for twenty years at a time. That’s not bad going for a planet that takes a leisurely quarter-millennium to orbit its star. Such a sweeping orbit must have repercussions for its atmosphere too – as the world moves further away from the Sun, its atmosphere probably freezes, with the ice turning back to gas as it draws nearer again. This being the case, what New Horizons shows us will probably only be a snapshot of Pluto as it is at this particular phase of its orbit, but it promises to be one from which many inferences can reasonably be drawn.

Torturously, we’ll have to wait sixteen months for NASA to receive all of the New Horizons probe’s priceless data as not only does it take the data the better part of five hours to traverse the three billion or so miles separating it from Earth, but even NASA’s two-hundred-foot-wide radio dishes can only receive it at a rate of about a kilobyte per second – a rate of transfer that my mid-1990s modem would have been embarrassed about. It certainly pulls into sharp focus just how near your closest broadband exchange really is. 

However, even though we’re still hours away from receiving the first data from the (fittingly) plutonium-powered probe’s fleeting flyby, we already know far more about the last unexplored world orbiting the Sun than we did a week ago. The icy plutoid isn’t the greyscale sphere that many had assumed; it’s a gorgeous tapestry of red, orange and even black – quite fitting, really, for a world named after the god of the underworld. Its terrain is correspondingly varied, encompassing mountains and valleys that are redolent of Mars together with craters which evoke familiar images of our own planet’s moon. Other areas appear smooth, perhaps betraying the sphere’s relative youth or geological activity; maybe even both. What I found most interesting, though, is the notion that the dwarf planet’s thin nitrogen atmosphere allows for the possibility of snow, some three billion miles away from the nearest snowman…

Enjoy the coming days and months, space fans, because once New Horizons passes through the Kuiper belt, it’s going to be many lifetimes before it reaches another world, let alone one with all the quirks and caprices of Pluto.