Saturday, 21 May 2011

Masterpiece MP03 Starscream

After repainting MP01 Convoy into MP02 'Ultra' Magnus, cheapening the 'Masterpiece' branding, and thereby disappointing legions of fans with yet another straight white repaint, Takara Tomy really had to create something stunning for MP03. It wasn't long before the first sketches made their way onto the internet, and Masterpiece Starscream was the centre of much speculation. How big would it be? Would it have the same extent of die-cast metal parts? How would Takara Tomy create a convincing F-15 and a cartoon-accurate robot?

Vehicle Mode:
Well, they certainly succeeded in creating a decent model of the F-15, for starters. Some people I've shown this to don't believe it's a TransFormer because it just looks like a decent-sized model plane. The cockpit opens (allowing the strange, badly painted Dr Arkeville figure packaged along with him to sit inside), it has deployable landing gear (the two wheels at the back aren't that convincing, but the one under the cockpit is actually concealed by a flap), convincingly curved wings (which almost have working flaps), a very slim silhouette that barely hints at the presence of a disguised robot, accurately painted lights, and all the expected markings are there.

In fact, they've really gone to town on the printed labelling - the 'No Step' marking turns up all over the place on the wings and the fuselage, the wing's stripes are G1 appropriate, but subtly done and fit the overall look of the plane, and Starscream's motto is printed just below the cockpit, where the names of the pilot and co-pilot would normally be.

Other than that, the paintwork is almost nonexistant. There's a subtle dark wash over the entire model, to bring out the detail, and touches of silver at the back, in front of the independently directable afterburners.

Where the detail really shines in this model is in the unexpected and completely unnecessary additional features. Not only does it have the opening cockpit and landing gear, but it also has airbrakes - one in the centre of the plane, and two more just in front of the afterburners. Beneath these, there is more molded - and painted - engine detail, though the central airbrake only has a chromed piston underneath. Furthermore, the nose cone opens up to reveal a finely detailed and painted radar-emitter.

Weapons-wise, the recesses for F-15's machine guns are highlighted with a white border, and a pair of missile pods can be attached to the underside of the wings, each with two fully-painted missiles, or the robot mode's Null Ray cannons can be attached. They're painted quite like large missiles anyway, so they don't look particularly out of place.
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Robot Mode:
Shōji Kawamori's update to Starscream's robot mode is controversial indeed. Leaving aside the colour scheme for the moment, what we have is a design which references the G1 Seeker toy in a number of significant ways, and yet is different enough to have raised eyebrows throughout the fandom. One of the main gripes, bizarrely, has been the positioning of the tail fins/flaps. Supposedly, an earlier version of the design kept them in the old G1 location, on the ankles, but Kawamori decided to separate them from the lower leg, and attach them to the hips so as to look like sheaths for swords.

Other than this blatant disregard for aesthetic continuity, I personally think this is one of the most beautiful and elegant TransFormers ever made - the very epitome of the Masterpiece line. The level of molded detail is just right - barely a single featureless surface. While much of the painted/printed detail is appropriate to the plane mode, it is appropriate that it remains considering the traditional look of a Seeker robot. The paintwork that is robot mode specific is simple and sparing, and all the more effective for it. As with plane mode, the bulk of the body is the 'sea blue' colour, but a truer, albeit flat blue is introduced for the forearms, referencing the G1 model's 'gloves', and a few other details. Strangely, this blue also appears on the torso, just below the chest turbines, which would theoretically be the same red/burgundy as the turbine casings... Except we've already established the existence of variations on the traditional paint job.

The head mold, while excellent, and playing host to the model's main gimmick, seems out of proportion - far too small for the rest of the body, though this is because it has to fit inside the nose of the plane. The fact that they have included a face-changing gimmick at all is impressive. The faces are molded on either side of a piece that pulls out of the bottom of the head and twists 180 degrees to switch between them. One is a very neutral face, echoing the multi-purpose G1 Seeker face. The other side shows Starscream's trademark smirk, and is an excellent sculpt.

The other sneaky extra - referencing a secret weapon deployed by the Seekers only once in the 80s cartoon - are two banks of missile pods concealed (bizarrely) behind the chest turbines. Not quite sure how that works. Also, just like the G1 version, the arms can be mounted with either Starscream's traditional Null Ray cannons or the plane mode's missile racks. The latter doesn't suit robot mode quite so well, but they don't look half bad...
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Transformation is, to be perfectly honest, a bit of a pain. Certain parts have to go into just the right position, and moved in just the right order, for everything to appear seamless, but all of these parts can go back into almost the right position, and it's close enough that one can complete transformation, but leave some very noticeable gaps between parts in plane mode. That said, transformation has many similarities and points of contrast to the G1 original. Obviously it's a far more complex model, and isn't intended to come apart, unlike the original Seeker mold, which was essentially a parts-former, with all the wings, fins and flaps detachable.

One of the main points of contention with the rear fins/flaps, quite apart from the fact that "they're not in the right place", is that they place a terrible restriction on the movement of his hips. In theory, they should be able to move out several notches on their ratchet joints... But with those whopping great chunks of plane hanging off them, they only manage the first notch, and that only grudgingly. Forward/backward movement is hampered more by the hip plates on the front, which are mobile, but lack useful range. Making matters worse for the legs, the footprint is pretty diabolical... it's very tricky to get Starscream balanced on his feet, and I feel that the afterburners are perhaps a touch too short. Also, the lower legs are quite floppy around the extension joint, and tend to rattle somewhat. They're not loose, as such, and they don't collapse except for transformation, but they're not very well fitted.

Everywhere else, articulation is great - there's even a tiny bit of waist movement, if you can arrange the nearby parts correctly. The jointing of the hands allows for some very expressive gestures, too.

The other contentious point was that, following the die-cast heavy MP01 and 02, this model is almost entirely made out of plastic. Naturally there are metal pins and screws everywhere, but the only significant metal piece is a structural part in the torso. It all makes for a good, solid model, but it seemed to be a dramatic change for the Masterpiece line, and none of the models since have had much by way of die-cast.

That said, I honestly cannot praise this mold enough - had I the money and the space, I'd buy every iteration of the mold, even the silly, garish, slavishly G1 US repaint and the terribly expensive Japanese Thundercracker repaint (I picked up a cheap UK Skywarp!). The 'Ghost' version that turned up is incredibly beautiful, deserving not only its own display, but proper lighting to do it justice. The fact that the Masterpiece Seekers come with a display base that can accommodate the model in either mode is an excellent bonus, but I can't help but wonder if it was included largely because the robot mode doesn't stand particularly well on its own...

TFClub Coronation Kit:
One odd feature of Masterpiece Starscream is the presence of jointed notches on each shoulder that had no obvious purpose. Leave it for the third parties to find a purpose. TFClub determined that these notches were perfect for mounting reproductions of the massive shoulder pads he wore for his coronation in the '86 animated movie. These can then accommodate the tasteful purple cape, and a nicely molded crown fits snugly upon his diminutive noggin. The plastic parts of this kit are brilliantly molded and well painted (though the red paint on the 'jewels' has a nasty habit of flaking off), but the cape is very sloppy. It's just a piece of purple nylon fabric cut to shape, with the fraying edges left unhemmed. Still, it was pretty cheap, comparatively speaking...

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