Welcome back to the Manifesto’s regular feature where I provide a builder with some feedback that is hopefully both entertaining and helpful. The format is simple: a reader submits a model for evaluation, I come up with at least one good thing about it, at least one bad thing and one random observation that falls outside the first two categories.
Today’s volunteer victim on the rotisserie spit is constant reader and friend of the blog Toradoch (a.k.a. Gil Shaw). You may remember him from such interesting and popular builds as: Tomahawk MkII, Space Police HQ and the critically acclaimed IP 3000 Hover Response Team. While I typically review a designated builder’s most recent effort, Gil specifically requested that I apply my critical scalpel to an older model, Ice Base Gamma, from the fall of 2008. It should be obvious by now that the diorama is my drug of choice, so I was motivated to dive head-first into this deceptively intricate layout. It may look at first blush like a typical LUGNET.space era offering but there is more here than meets the eye and I hope to convince you that I’m not writing this critique while under that most dangerous of influences…nostalgia. So get small with me, constant reader and let’s talk about the “Ice Base Gamma“, what went right, what went wrong and which celebrities most closely resemble the builder.
I like to think that my ability to appreciate and critique Lego models has developed over the years and one thing I’ve learned to admire is playability. When I first started building and posting I thought playability was for “losers and Canadians” as I once exclaimed on LUGNET to the delight of the crowd. Although I do enjoy a good swoosh from time to time (I have a soul after all) and I like to push cars round dioramas I was never one for interiors. I resented the added layer of difficulty and cursed the unfortunate proportions of the minifigs that fucked with scale by turning a mighty-starships into a modest WW2 era diesel submarines. I also didn’t have kids back then and now that I do have a couple, I find that get a lot more enjoyment out of the inside of a model. All of that is a long way of saying that I love how Gil put just as much (if not more) care and thought into the interior of this mode than the exterior. The buildings have working doors and coffee machines (a classic of the genre) and science stations and fork-lifts and air tanks and all manner of objects for the minifig employees to interact with. The moving elevator is the kind of working detail I always want to include but never do and refueling station is the good kind of boilerplate. This base reminds me of a Lego set in the best possible way. As I kid I would have killed for something like this and it would have provided hours of play. And as we know, playtime really is funtime.
Hand in hand with the idea of playability, some of my favorite dioramas are one that convey a process or chain of events. In this case I love how Gil shows how a cargo container is brought in on a ship, unloaded with a futuristic forklift and placed inside the building in a storage bay. It’s not glamorous or violent or sexy in a conventional sense but it’s a great way of showing off the features of the diorama in a way that makes logical sense. I wish more builders would consider this kind of approach, I find it to be much more engaging when looking through dozens of photos and it forces you to catch details that might otherwise be lost. Since this paragraph is a little terse I’ll also throw in some love for the buildings here. This isn’t the time or place (a frozen hell-hole) to be getting clever with fancy architecture or overbuilt, byzantine art installations, this is a place where utility is king. Gil manages to respect that notion while simultaneously giving the viewer something interesting to look at. I love the gently sloping shape and the dimple roofing. It would have been easy to do too much here and I admire Gil’s restraint.
I also enjoyed two of the three vehicles, the land rover and the little VTOL fighter. While Gil may be a crony of the highest order, I’m not going to sit here in my avocado-colored barcalounger and try to convince you these are state-of-the-art, Nick-Trotta obsessive builds, because obviously they are not. This is mostly studs-up construction with a very conservative approach to the building, but it’s also almost a decade old and I think it’s important to keep that in mind while looking at them. I may be rightfully accuse of having my nostalgic glasses on here but when I hit the scene this style was the big noise and part of me will always think it’s cool. The use of a consistent color scheme on all three vehicles is great and really ties into the building well, they look like they belong to the same company/organization that operates the base. The little fighter is delightful and I would very much enjoy a good low swoosh over the rooftops, and I also really dig the tie-downs Gil uses on the pad to protect it from the harsh arctic winds. The turned-down wingtips and the double tails are a classic look, well executed on a small model. The ground-vehicle is fun too, I like the offset cab, fat tires and ambiguous techno-thingies in the back. I think Gil might have missed an opportunity to have the hauler capable of carrying the previously mentioned blue container, like he did with his classic Kyphon Cargo Outpost, but it doesn’t diminish my appreciation of the model. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time out of the gate and I think these vehicles are a nice accent to the project and provide value without overwhelming the model or fucking with the scale.
I feel compelled to admit that I never have understood the appeal or utility of the beloved, classic Crater Plate from 1979. Although I’ve managed to accumulate a half-dozen of them over the years I find them surprisingly difficult to use and I can’t recall seeing a single model over the years that used them effectively or memorably. Because of their regularity even using them for microscale has limited appeal. In this particular case I find that they manage to clash in terms of scale and style when compared to the brick-built rock formation that forms the foundation of the large landing pad. The shape of the crater plates are just unlike anything else LEGO manufactures and I find their presence here jarring although Gil did a nice job socking them in with angled plates. I’m not really a fan of the scratch-built topography either, the technique is your typical rock-vomit boilerplate…competently built, but there just isn’t enough of it to make it seem natural to the environment. It looks like an odd hollow fence made out of rocks. Perhaps if the entire base was on a hilltop constructed with the same technique I’d like it better, it might allow for some interesting elevation changes and separate levels of action, but as it stands the combination of the molded crater plates and the sloping rock leaves me colder than a pimp’s heart.
I’m not a big fan of the cargo ship on the large landing pad, which is a bummer because it feels like the most important of the group. From the jump it doesn’t jibe with my somewhat arbitrary idea of what I think a cargo ship should look like. This thinkg looks more like a scout ship or a fighter or some kind of pleasure-craft, it’s almost too pretty to be a cargo hauler. If it were pretty…which it’s not. Where the other vehicles come across as clean if perhaps spartan in design, this one appears low-resolution and simplistic. Specifically the relatively large expanse of studs on the red plates of the wings draws my eye in a bad way. I don’t mind an exposed stud or two and Gil manages to capture that magic and elusive ratio of studs to smooth on the other two vehicles just fine. I also don’t like the way the blue cargo module sticks so far off the back unprotected. It looks back-heavy like it might topple the ship in inclement weather or easily come dislodged. The shape recalls the kick ass Raptor from the Battlestar Galactica reboot, but it seems underdeveloped here like it needed another nose-to-engine layer of detail. It also reminds me of an official Lego set in it’s sort of generic, in the box thinking. What the diorama needed was AC/DC to play on it’s biggest landing pad, not Dokken. To wrap it up, the wings are too stubby, the engines are too small and the canopy is too easy. You might say I question this ships very heritage.
This falls pretty obviously in the realm of the nit-picky, but the secondary landing pad, for the vehicle that I do like, is way too close to the building. I understand that in the future the technology in these crazy machines will allow for more precision landings that are possible now, but man there is exactly zero margin for error here. Once wrong move and an inexperienced pilot could take out a quarter of the base. This place is supposed to be situated on the windswept, ice-encrusted frontier right? Why would your risk all the effort it took to establish the base with a such a dangerous landing pad? To make matters worse, the surface isn’t even flat, the pilot has to put that bitch down in what amounts to a cradle. Yes I fully realize nobody cares about that kind of stuff, and it’s the future so anything goes, but a little separation might have been nice, and a larger surface area on the pad for minifigs to get into shenanigans.
I’m not going to knock Old Gil for his presentation techniques for the long-shots of the base, I’m not here to offer constructive criticism on anything except the build itself. Not everyone has the time/bricks/mental instability to have a Lego-pure image, and not everyone has the time/skill/motivation to Photoshop their stuff either. With the irregular shape I imagine it would be a bit of a nightmare to process for anyone that didn’t like the process of photo-editing to begin with. So I don’t hold any of that against the builder, although I think it is incumbent upon me to mention the chains…they brings an unexpected BDSM vibe to the model that you just don’t see every day. I was tempted to chastise Gil to keep his fetishes to himself but I’m always going on about mecha-feet so that seemed hypocritical. What I will recommend to Gil or anyone else who is challenged by presenting a large diorama is to photograph the model against a painted wall. I know not everyone has that luxury or circumstance but the technique served me well over the years, because bed sheets or paper always look distracting. No matter how well you iron the sheets there are folds and wrinkles and it’ difficult to find a single sheet of paper in the right size and even then it can develop little dimples or scratches that are distracting. For some idiotic reason that still escapes me I started off with a color called Stinger Yellow, but I think the Gunsmoke Blue I switched to later looked much better. The current specifics of my Legoratory don’t allow for me to use this technique any longer, and it’s a shame because it’s low-cost, low-tech and usually yields good results.
One more thing…whenever I think of this long-time crony, my thoughts often turn to TV’s Gil Gerard and Robert Shaw, because Gil Shaw is like a hybrid of these two master thespians. He possesses the luxurious chest hair and fashion swagger of Gil Gerard, paired with the understated gravitas and barely restrained violence of Robert Shaw.
So the bottom line is that I dig this retro-space base and I’d love to spend an hour with a beer and some minifigs to really explore it’s nooks and crannies.
I will close with this boilerplate reminder…if you’d like to have one of your models get the (good/bad/whatever) treatment, just sign up in the comments below. I have a builder slated for the next edition of Constructive Criticism, but the subsequent slots are wide open.