22 October 2015

Hasbro Transformers Review | Team: Prime - The Transformers: Prime Deluxe and Voyager Class Autobots

Whilst I clung on to a few of their original boxes and instructions, my surviving Transformers from the mid-’80s were in quite a sorry state when I retrieved them from the loft in the hope of sparking a “Transformers phase” in my young daughter. Even my beloved Powermaster Optimus Prime, who had always been handled with such great care in my youth, lost a leg (and thus about a third of his trailer too) as I tried to demonstrate how he could adopt a supplementary battle station alt-form to my enraptured three-year-old. I really should ease up on the weights.

As I began to watch the extraordinary Transformers: Prime for the second time in as many months, I decided to update my collection with toys inspired by the Hub’s Emmy-award-winning series. Originally released between 2011 and 2013, when the show was being broadcast, the Prime Transformers are markedly different from the rebranded Takara models that I’ve horded for nearly thirty years. Their basic premise is the same, of course, but almost everything else about them is different.

Comprised of two rebranded Japanese toy lines, inevitably Hasbro’s first generation of Transformers came in all sorts of shapes and sizes – and prices. Hasbro’s Prime toy line, in contrast, is built around two principal price points, each of which directly relates to a toy’s size: “Deluxe Class” toys, which, inexplicably, are the cheaper of the two; and “Voyager Class” toys, which generally comprise the larger characters. As well as making the lives of toy designers and retailers much easier, this regimented division gives the overall toy line a much better sense of scale than the Generation One (“G1”) toys had. To look at the Autobots, for instance, only Optimus Prime; Ultra Magnus; and Bulkhead are afforded a Voyager classification, meaning that, just like on television, they tower over their smaller Autobot comrades in something approaching realistic scale.

Pleasingly, the pricing of Deluxe Class toys ($13.00 or thereabouts) also makes them a lot more affordable than many Transformers were in the 1980s, allowing children’s parents – and nostalgic thirty-something men – to amass quite an armada without incurring too much expense. But for those on a very limited budget, there are also tiny, almost Seaspray-sized “Legion Class” and “Commander Class” toys available for as little as $5.00 each, though obviously these don’t sit well next to the larger Deluxe and Voyager ’bots.

In another departure from G1, the Prime toys that I’ve acquired all seem to be made entirely of plastic, which on the face of it is a step down in quality from the early G1 toys. My surviving ’80s Ultra Magnus truck cab tells a different story, though – decades of decay have left it in as sorry a state as the Optimus Prime cab seen on screen in Age of Extinction. And so, whilst plastic might offer a less appealing finish in some respects, it’s an eminently more practical one – especially when you look at the toys’ articulation.

Beast Wars: Transformers rewrote the book on the franchise in just about every sense, but perhaps most notably in its extensive implementation of ball joints in its toy line. Ever since, Transformers have been expected to be as poseable as their Beast Era forerunners. I’m not talking about Optimus Prime being able to bend his arms a bit; I’m talking about full, action-figure articulation. As I found a few years ago when I picked up a mean-looking Revenge of the Fallen tie-in Optimus Prime toy, the results can be absolutely breathtaking to look at – if a bugger to achieve.

Indeed, my main gripe with the Prime toys is that transforming them invariably involves sitting at the table with the instructions and carefully following – and, more often than not, failing – each of the many requisite steps. While there’s got to be a price to pay for finesse, for me these involved transformations take away the magic of being able to transform a toy in as long as it takes to make the appropriate noise. My G1 Hot Rod can go from nought to robot in about five seconds. If these are Level 2 or “Intermediate” difficulty Transformers, I shudder to think what Level 3s must be like! There are simpler toys available, though; “One-Step Changers” and the like, but the decline in overall quality is grossly disproportionate to the simplification. We’ve got better bath toys.

Another minor criticism of the Prime toys is their packaging. It’s undoubtedly much greener, and the numbering on the boxes naturally appeals to the collector in me, but it still lacks the unique and arresting appearance of the G1 packaging (see picture, above). While tech specs (of a decidedly lower tech nature) and (now very) short character summaries are still present and correct, you won’t find a “Robots Points” token in sight anywhere in sight, and you certainly won’t find your imagination being ignited by a sprawling, outer-space battle vista on a package’s rear.

The Prime Autobots are commanded, as they should be, by the eponymous Optimus Prime. Of all the Autobot toys, he’s the only one that feels a little on the small side – it would have been nice for Hasbro to have put out a slightly larger and more detailed “Leader Class” toy to really do him justice as, in my eyes, the Prime Prime really is the prime Prime. He combines the most successful elements of the Optimus Prime depicted in The Transformers and the live-action movies, fusing the mighty long-nosed Peterbilt 379 truck cab of the silver screen with the predominantly red G1 colour scheme. The level of detail is very impressive for the “Robots in Disguise” sub-range’s $22.00 price point, with the cab boasting frosted blue windows and a very detailed, Autobot badge-emblazoned grill, and the robot offering up a similarly-detailed torso and headpiece. Best of all, there isn’t a cost-cutting sticker in sight – all of the detail is achieved through paintwork. I would have liked to have seen a removable mouth plate, as Optimus only tends to wear it on screen as he goes into battle, but for the price it’s an excellent offering, and even backwards-compatible with the Powermaster trailer (though sadly not the original – and much more Prime-accurate - trailer, which only can only rest on the back on the truck instead of pegging in, as pictured below).

The “Beast Hunters” Ultra Magnus figure is more impressive, in many ways. I prefer the look of the G1 Ultra Magnus in both his modes, but there is no question that this is the better all-round toy. As he’s largely a redeco of Optimus’s mould – in Transformers: Prime the two characters are similar in both their forms (until Optimus undergoes his “regeneration”, at least) - I get the impression that Hasbro could afford to include more features, such as the character’s defining shoulder missiles and his depleted, but nonetheless fearsome, Forge of Solus Prime. Also included – albeit a little incongruously - is a winged backpack that can be mounted on the truck’s rear when in alt-form. The only thing missing – or, rather, unnecessarily present – is Magnus’s hand that was lost in battle. I would have loved to have seen the figure with Ratchet’s botched “claw” replacement hand in situ instead of the figure’s standard-issue mechanical hand.

My favourite Prime toy is also, happily, my favourite Prime Autobot: Bulkhead. The Autobots’ final “Robots in Disguise” Voyager is not only the absolute spit of his CG self in both his forms, but his transformation is one of the range’s most straightforward. His fellow Wrecker, the Deluxe Class Wheeljack, is another favourite of mine too, and for exactly the same reasons.

Ratchet is probably the most disappointing Autobot toy in the Prime range; partly because he has too many superfluous vehicle parts on show in his proto-form (see picture, right), and partly because he should probably have been classified as a Voyager – which would have probably cured the vehicle-parts problem. This is a shame as I love the character, but unless you’re looking at him directly from the front, there’s just too much ambulance knocking about his back and sides to make for a convincing likeness of his on-screen self. His fellow Prime stalwarts, Bumblebee and Smokescreen, are each better done, thankfully. The “Robots in Disguise” Bee is perhaps a little lacking in detail when compared to the “Beast Hunters” Smokescreen, but that’s more of a reflection on the quality of the Smokescreen toy than it is the shortcomings of the Bumbleebee one.

Finally, we have the ill-fated partnership of Arcee and Cliffjumper. The latter is a near-miss; as a robot, Cliff looks great from the front, but as a Dodge Challenger his transparent windows betray his tucked-away limbs, and I can’t for the life of me get the two halves of his bumper to click into place. Though she’s less substantial, Arcee is a much more exciting prospect all round – in her alt-form she’s a convincing Kawasaki Ninja, and as a robot she’s a wonderful approximation of her on-screen self. In fact, save for maybe Bulkhead’s, her face is the most convincing of all the Autobots’.

Overall, there’s no question that my 21-century contingent of Autobots put their G1 predecessors to shame - they are far more detailed and infinitely more expressive. Yet somewhere on the way they’ve lost an important element of magic - their boxes don’t conjure quite the same sense of interstellar adventure, and their transformations can’t be shown off quickly and eagerly to the wonder of grown-ups, or even easily folded into play. In the next instalment, we’ll see how their Decepticon cousins fare, but, particularly as they’re mainly heavyweight Voyagers, I suspect that my findings will be similar.

01 October 2015

Book Reviews | The Grant/Naylor Showdown: Red Dwarf: Last Human by Doug Naylor vs Red Dwarf: Backwards by Rob Grant

Every few years, when the contemporary TV shows that consume me offer a brief respite, I dust off my collection of DVDs that follow the crew of the small rouge one on their desolate voyage through a hostile universe now almost entirely devoid of human life. The last time that I did so, I got so into Red Dwarf again that I had to take things a step beyond the small screen, also re-reading my old Penguin paperbacks that tell of the Dwarfers’ alternate adventures following Grant Naylor’s slight tweaking of Lister and Kochanski’s mutual history just prior to the writing of Red Dwarf V.

The result of the writers’ on-the-job refinements, the Red Dwarf novels were initially much more consistent than the TV series had been where continuity and character development are concerned. The first book, Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, even started about six months before “The End” did on television, allowing the authors to set up both Dave Lister’s back story and the 22nd-century world in which he inhabits much more carefully, comprehensively and consistently than they could on the telly. But following the end of the second Dwarf novel, Better Than Life, something odd happened. Odder than usual, in fact; even for this lot. The alternate universe that the novels occupy forked off into two irreconcilable sequels to Better Than Life: Backwards by Grant and Last Human by Naylor. With Craig Charles (wrongly) banged up and the future of the television series uncertain, the former long-time writing partners put their respective names to their own personal interpretation of Red Dwarf. The end result is quite telling, if not particularly pleasing.

Doug Naylor’s Last Human would see print first in 1995, and would totally shake up the crew dynamic by instantly introducing Lister’s now-paramour, Kristine Kochanski, as a Starbug mainstay (exactly like on TV, they’d lost the Dwarf in the hazy gap between stories). This makes what I can only assume is a deliberate mockery of the book’s title, as before long the narrative is teeming with an assortment of humans: besides Kochanski, another Lister, and Rimmer’s long-lost son each have hefty parts to play. The novel thus reflects the tone of the engorged Red Dwarf that would follow on TV under Naylor’s sole stewardship: it’s a little more grown-up, a little more dramatic - and a lot less spiky. 
For instance, Last Human sees Rimmer almost become respectable, if not likeable, a little like he would in “Stoke Me a Clipper”, “Only the Good…” and “The Beginning” on TV, only much more explicitly and with a much more plausible motive here. Lister, likewise, borders on mature in places, the decades spent living his life backwards as a husband and father having taken their toll on the erstwhile toenail-clippings muncher. Some readers might find such progressive characterisation off-putting, as it goes against exactly what made the early seasons of the TV show such a riot, but in print it works well as it’s a natural – perhaps even inevitable – progression of the series’ central relationship. Indeed, Last Human feels like an organic culmination of the Red Dwarf adventure; the emotionally satisfying end that we’ll never get on the telly as, even after Red Dwarf XII has aired in 2017, we’re just gonna keep on asking Dave for more until somebody drops.

Yet Last Human’s plot hangs together only very loosely. Like its two preceding novels, it feels very segmented, which is to be expected when huge swathes of dialogue and even storyline are lifted from at least eight different episodes from Red Dwarfs V and VI. Even some of the book’s original elements retrospectively feel old as they would later be repackaged on TV in the better-known episode “Ouroboros”. The new material doesn’t sit all that well with the recycled either as its abnormally dark and edgy, and ultimately not all that funny – the one-liners and laughs plundered from existing scripts feel at odds with the action-movie death and destruction that glues them together.

Rather aptly, 1996’s Backwards is the opposite. A meaningful end to the Red Dwarf saga it could not be further from, and the dawning of a new direction it most certainly is not. It is Red Dwarf as it was in heyday, and with all the laughs thereto, only written down rather than acted out. The downside to it is that, again, much of it is familiar as Grant would draw inspiration from “Dimension Jump” and – obviously - “Backwards”, before tacking on a near-complete rendering of the popular episode “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” almost as an afterthought.

However, about two-thirds of Backwards – most of what goes on on htraE and much of the search for Red Dwarf – is new, original and absolutely hilarious. One of the Dwarfers becomes an unwitting murderer and another one of them does time for it - before the crime happens, naturally. Lister and the Cat go through puberty again, backwards, driving the Lister / Rimmer relationship to depths plumbed never before as the hologrammatic smeghead now has to share close quarters with a Lister that’s even less mature and even more volatile than the one that we’re used to. The others aren’t neglected either, with Cat even gaining his virginity in one especially amusing and literally barbed side-step.

Even more gratifyingly, precious little of the episode “Backwards” is transcribed here - the novel feels like an expansion of the conceit; what might have been on TV had Grant and Naylor had ninety minutes to play with instead of just thirty. The same applies to the novel’s “Dimension Jump”-inspired elements - with no limit on time or budget, Grant delights in drilling down into the finer points of Ace Rimmer’s native universe and its colourful characters that we were only ever briefly teased with on screen.

Where Backwards flops though is in its maddening “finale”, which is little more than a needless novelisation of “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” tacked on there just to round out the word count. Indeed, it speaks volumes that these elements were excised almost completely from the audiobook reading of the story. And whilst the story’s post-Apocalyptic final segment does at least offer us something innovative, regrettably, much like Grant’s tenure on the television series, it leaves us on a cliffhanger – one that’s never likely to be resolved.

And so, while offering us promising and nostalgic glimpses of Red Dwarf’s future and past, respectively, one thing seems tremendously clear from Last Human and Better Than Life: two heads are better than one. Whilst I’ve nothing but admiration for what Doug Naylor has done with the television series since his less-than-amicable split from Rob Grant (except for, perhaps, the middle of the glammed-up, Rimmer-lite Red Dwarf VII), “Grant Naylor” was a force more powerful than the sum of its parts, and I get the distinct impression that Back Human or Lastwards, had it happened, would also have been something far greater than either of these wanting novels.