Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 Retrospective

If I can make anniversary posts a proper thing, then hopefully I can continue the tradition of an annual roundup as well. This time, like the anniversary post, I added to each section during the course of the year rather than leaving it all to the last minute, and then scheduled its launch so I could sleep through New Year like the middle-aged grump I am!

So, here we have my roundup of the highs and lows of what turned out to be quite a tumultuous year...

Highlights of 2016
  1. WeiJiang - OK, they're knockoff merchants... but when they are capable of producing an oversized knockoff toy that's more of a masterpiece than even Takara Tomy's Masterpiece line, it's not merely forgivable, it's proof that the official makers of TransFormers toys are becoming lazier and more frugal with their wares. The Evasion Mode Optimus Prime mold was already excellent, but the standard version was hopelessly underachieving and the 'rusty' versions (one an exclusive to Toys'R'Us in Japan, the other part of the Platinum Edition 'Breakout Battle' set) became quite difficult to come by, and very expensive on the secondary market. Enter WeiJiang with their £70-ish, almost 30cm (12") high remake with its myriad improvements designed by Black Apple, pin-sharp, detailed, glossy paintwork and bonus weapons.
  2. Finally getting my hands on... - There have been so many things I've been hankering after that I got my hands on this year, from BotCon 2005 Flamewar, to the Tokyo Toy Show Dreadwing & Smokescreen set, to the complete iGear Raptor Squadron, to the 'cancelled' live action movie figures Dino and Que. I have been incredibly fortunate both that these figures turned up (normally on eBay) and that I found them at reasonable prices. Also in this category is the light tent my girlfriend got me for Christmas which, although technically from 2015, gets included here because it has made such a difference to my toy photography since then that I may end up re-doing loads of my old photos when I have time.
  3. Unite Warriors - With 'Combiner Haunt Leader' Grand Galvatron arriving in my collection back in May and Bruticus following in July, Takara Tomy's version of Combiner Wars showed itself to be more imaginative and more G1 cartoon-oriented than Hasbro's comparatively meagre efforts. Don't get me wrong, Combiner Wars Superion and Defensor are excellent... but they really needed more extensive paintwork. It's no surprise that the few Titans Return figures that caught my eye are actually more likely to enter my collection from Takara Tomy's continuing Legends line.
  4. Revisiting and upgrading RotF Megatron - by the time TF Dream Factory's PJ-01 Evil-Blood Blade upgrade started appearing on YouTube videos and on fan sites, I'd already seen and dismissed UFO Toys' UP-02 Mega Arm because there didn't seem to be much point in upgrading his crummy, malformed left arm without also replacing the misbegotten right arm. As a pair, they suddenly became a 'must have' upgrade for what was, ultimately, not a terrible toy, just one that had been poorly thought out and so barely resembled his on-screen counterpart. PJ-01 addressed the main problem by giving him a proper 'murder arm', while UP-02 bulked up the other and gave him is proper, clawed hand.
  5. Iron Factory - to begin with, I wasn't quite sure what to make of Iron Factory's line of miniature Autobot and Decepticon analogues, but my ambivalence went out the window as soon as I saw their Windsaber, and I love the look of their 'Pink Assassin'
  6. Getting to another TransFormers convention (or two) - Roll Out Roll Call was great, though it felt very quiet despite a fairly opulent venue. With Boss Fight Studio taking several different panels, it didn't feel especially TransFormers- or G.I. Joe-focussed, but was neverthless quite good fun, not least seeing all those YouTubers lurking around. TFNation, by contrast, felt like a huge TransFormers fan forum meetup with a bit of retail, some celebrity guests, and miscellaneous other things - it didn't feel especially well planned. Nevertheless, both were fun. I'll certainly attend any other shows in the Heathrow area, but I'll have to think a bit more on anything Birmingham-based.
  7. Turning 42 - which, as any Douglas Adams fan will know, is that answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. Lots of cool presents, including a book about the Hitchhikers series and Adams himself as well as two evenings of live comedy from my girlfriend, and a bottle of lovely tequila from my workmates.
  8. Renewing the lease on my flat - it took a little over a year, drained my savings and caused me untold stress during the last couple of months of the process, but it's nice to know it's done, and it'll be one less thing I'll have to worry about when it comes time to sell my flat and go elsewhere. 
  9. Rogue One - AKA "the movie that put the 'Wars' into 'Star Wars'", Rogue One: A Star Wars Story proved not only that the Star Wars saga is in safer hands with Disney than it had been with its creator, George Lucas, but that it was perfectly possible to make an excellent Star Wars movie without any recognisable characters as headliners, in a wholly unexplored setting, and with minimal Force-related shenanigans. It was better than I'd expected (and I'd expected it to be great!) and, in fact, I actually enjoyed it more than The Force Awakens. Also, in a year with so many celebrity deaths, I couldn't help but get a little teary-eyed to see Peter Cushing 'alive' again on screen. Also K-2SO is now probably my favourite droid of all time, channelling just enough of Douglas Adams' Marvin, while remaining appropriately different from the likes of C-3PO.

Disappointments of 2016
  1. The End of BotCon/Collectors' Club as we know it - Announced by degrees (initially hinted when FunPub posted a message saying all 2016 memberships, regardless of when they were purchased, would terminate at the end of the year, confirmed and then followed up by vague announcements from Hasbro at BotCon), this was bitterly disappointing for me because I've wanted to go to BotCon ever since I learned of its existence, and so very nearly made it last year. I've only ever managed to attend two or three AutoAssemblies in the UK, so there are very few TransFormers-specific events that are easy for me to get to.
  2. Subscription Service 4.0/5.0 - the penultimate year was (no surprise) a combiner, just like the final BotCon set. Thunder Mayhem, built out of Fun Publications excessively painted take on the Mayhem Attack Squad. The gestalt was somewhat better than the sum of its parts, but the odd design of the head and the mis-assembly of the Bludgeon's legs was a bit of a let-down. Impactor and the 'mystery extra figure' seemed rather half-hearted, too. Sad to say that the final year of the Subscription Service had only one figure that I was interested in (Lifeline), and which I'll likely attempt to obtain via the secondary market. If only they'd included Botanica based on the Beast Hunters Soundwave mold, I might have been persuaded to sign up.
  3. Still not getting my hands on... - One of my last remaining true 'Holy Grail' figures is BotCon 2006's 'Darksyde Megatron', the pre-Beast Wars form as interpreted by Fun Publications using the Galaxy Force First Gunner mold with a new head. Perhaps not the most appropriate mold choice, but I love it... just not enough to pay over $1,000/€1,000 to own it.
  4. Victorion - The more I saw of this set, the more it looked like a terrible miscalculation. The lurid colourscheme (intended, supposedly, to suggest rust or corrosion) and the poorly realised 'feminisation' of all molds involved made what could have been an awesome femme-bot gestalt into a forgettable novelty. Curiously, Takara Tomy took a completely different angle on the set, turning her into a Decepticon gestalt, named Megatronia, comprised of Megaempress (a sort-of Femme-Megatron made of a silver-painted Hot Spot with the Pyra Magna head sculpt) and four Deluxe femme-bots named after the suits in a deck of cards... somewhat randomly. The gestalt may look as if it's made of Licorice Allsorts, but it's still better than the pastel-shaded Christmas decoration look of Victorion.
  5. KuBianBao Deformation Detective - Riding high on the excitement of owning WeiJiang's oversized and improved Evasion Mode Optimus Prime, I ordered this other oversized and improved knockoff and it turned out to be... just OK, really. The major improvement to the mold - getting the vehicle shell pieces off the robot's fists - was very well done, but several other elements of the upscaling didn't work so well and the knocked-off Dr. Wu extras were pretty poor. Still, it's closer to scaling well with RotF Optimus Prime.
  6. Running out of space - Honestly, the state of my flat is getting ridiculous... I have boxes (some empty, some not) piled up on top of my display cabinets, stuck down the sides of my display cabinets, concealed inside the sofabed in my lounge and stuck inside my wardrobe, as well as several loose toys for which there is no display space. I needed to slow down on my purchases and, thankfully, Titans Return looks to be the perfect opportunity to do just that.
  7. Brexit - I rarely go into politics (on this or any other blog) but, seriously, well done 'Great' Britain, for voting with your prejudice, ignorance, and inability to see the bigger picture. I'm beginning to think that some people just shouldn't be allowed to vote. The EU wasn't perfect - not even close - but the UK's exit paves the way for its collapse, and that certainly won't benefit any of us. I doubt many nations were truly happy with the EU, but at least none were unhappy enough to start causing problems for their neighbours. It'll happen. Just sayin'.
  8. The US Presidential Election - Truly an exercise in insanity, which has shown the world that the US media's propaganda machines can report on rumour and conjecture only for it to crystallise into cold, hard fact... only for genuine facts and widely-know truths to become 'locker room talk'. When did the word 'expert' and the concept of 'progress' become so offensive to the people of America? And, I'm sorry, but for people to start rioting over an undesirable result simply shows those involved to be immature and petty. I wonder how many of them actually bothered to vote for a genuine candidate rather than spoiling their ballot paper as an adolescent 'protest'. While I'd normally applaud those who vote with their conscience, voting with some consideration for the consequences would have been a better move on this occasion. Of course, the really funny thing is that the country has gleefully misinterpreted the second amendment to its Constitution for ages... and now they have the opportunity to exercise their interpretation of the rights granted therein, they will swiftly discover what little it actually grants them. A mass of protesters can hardly be described as "a well-regulated militia", can it?
  9. Panic attacks - not quite sure why it happened, but there have been a couple of instances of waking up in the midst of a panic attack due to particularly vivid dreams. This is the sort of thing my girlfriend had suffered for quite some time, but it's been almost 20 years since I last had a panic attack. I'm hoping they don't become a recurring feature of my life... 
  10. Property-related hitches and hold-ups - I had to renew the lease on my flat this year, and an ongoing issue with my roof looks set to continue a while longer.

2015 Predictions vs. 2016 Reality
  1. Titans Return - The more I've seen of it, the less interested I've become... Hasbro's Powermaster Prime looks to be typically anaemic and, while reusing the basic scheme of CW Ultra Magnus seemed like a great idea in theory, the end result looks like it could have used a few more months in development. Just to muddy the waters further, Hasbro have decided to bring out another Titans Return Optimus Prime (seemingly an update on G2 Battle Convoy) and what looks like another tank-based Megatron, both as Voyager class Triple-Changers clearly designed to be a mulligan on Classics/Generations Blitzwing and Octane, but lumbered with the Titan Master gimmick... Baffling choice, truly baffling, but there's no denying that some of the Titan Master reworkings of old G1 HeadMasters and TargetMasters are looking fairly cool. On a rather more promising note, Takara Tomy substantially altered TR Optimus Prime for a more Ginrai-flavoured alternative to the Hasbro figure, to be followed shortly by a GodBomber, and their Blurr was not half bad, despite retaining the HeadMaster gimmick. I must also confess to finding the TR Trypticon leg reveal just a little bit exciting.
  2. Third Parties - How weird is it that, even after Hasbro/Takara Tomy gave us Combiner Wars Devastator, yet another Third Party Devastator turned up? I mean, I get that they're continuing to remake the Stunticons/Menasor because the CW/UW versions weren't great, but haven't we had enough of the big green gestalt? Right now, there are about half a dozen differed 3P Springers in production, which is way more than anyone actually needs and comes far too long after FansProjects chunky effort and Hasbro/Takara Tomy's awesome version. Strangely, one of the more interesting things to appear from a Third Party company was a set of Masterpiece-style remakes of old Gobots characters like Leader-1 and Cy-Kill, which stayed truer to the originals than some of the others. Perhaps the most exciting thing (for a femme-bot fanatic like me, at least) was the video of a custom TF Prime Airachnid, which really needs to be mass produced
  3. More rumours about the upcoming TransFormers movies - the first few months of the year were strangely uneventful, bar snippets about the 'Writers Room' and possibly shooting locations. The biggest news, in April, was the revelation that a Chinese company who'd payed $750,000 for product placement in Age of Extinction were suing Paramount because their product/logo was cut from the final theatrical release. Can't someone just sue Paramount for releasing such an unmitigated shitestorm of a movie? The revealed title for TF5 - The Last Knight - suggests a Fantasy twist on what should be pure Sci-Fi, and one of the new characters ('Squeeks') looks to be the bastard offspring of Wall-E and one of the dinky flying robots from Batteries Not Included. The teaser trailer just looked like a terrible mish-mash of Fantasy (a robotic flying dragon around the cliffs at Dover?), WWII 'epic' (Nazis getting in on the action?) and substantial retconning of all the preceding movies, not to mention seemingly positioning Optimus as an antagonist
  4. More Femme-Bots - Well, there's Victorion (see above), the last ever FunPub-organised BotCon brought us a new and cool version of Airazor, and their last ever Subscription Service brought us Lifeline, the Paradron Medic repaint of Generations Arcee but, other than several new Windblade figures, they've been pretty thin on the ground, even from the Third Parties. Plenty of reveals for 2017 figues, including a Masterpiece scale Arcee-analogue
  5. More awesome comic book movies - I am in the minority who liked Batman vs Superman (not least because of the Neil deGrasse Tyson cameo), despite it being a follow-up to the execrable Man of Steel and despite Jesse Eisenberg's twitchy, camp interpretation of Lex Luthor Jr. It presented a minimally convincing scenario in which Batman decides to punch Superman a lot (Frank Miller did it better), and it got me intrigued about a bad-ass Wonder Woman... but I feel I was right in thinking it wouldn't really be the game-changer they were looking for, and that it would have been better to make a movie of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns rather than simply shoehorn in all the fanwanking. The third Captain America movie continued the 'subtle reflection on real-world political themes' introduced by The Winter Soldier, but also suffered from the same 'cramming the events of what should have been a series in its own right into a single movie' issues that made Age of Ultron somewhat unsatisfying as a sequel to Avengers. By contrast, I found Suicide Squad to be a jumbled mess of a movie that didn't even make sense. I'm not sure it needed more of Jared Leto's Joker - he seemed a bit limp and pointless - but it certainly needed a more coherent story.
  6. Toys, HEXcetera... - Wow... Really must do better. September and October have previously been my 'new blog commencement' months, but I let both go by with barely an update here, let alone any new blogs.
  7. Continuing QC issues - I've not had anything break yet, but I have bought at least one second hand figure that arrived with some damage. Combiners Wars figures seem pretty sturdy for the most part, with only a few figures suffering from floppy hips becoming floppy gestalt elbows, but my first Unite Warriors boxed set had some very odd problems. I also still haven't decided whether or not to post my write-up of Perfect Effect's Leonidas...
  8. Getting to a TransFormers-specific convention - Having missed the last ever BotCon (at least, those operated by Fun Publications) it was great to finally get to another TransFormers convention this year. Roll Out Roll Call was great fun, but felt a little short of attendees. TFNation, meanwhile, was basically AutoAssembly in just about every way other than its name (they even joked about it on stage), but might be worth another look in future, if they continue to bring in interesting guests or wangle some more exclusive third party figures.

Hopes/Predictions for 2017
  1. Hasbro operate their own TF Collectors' Club, or assign territory-specific licenses to companies capable of operating them. Highly unlikely, but it's a hope. They announced a TF 'Fan Club', but put out a poll asking what fans want from a fan club, so that's not the most inspiring start... They should have been listening closely to what people had been saying about FunPub, so they could improve on both their shortcomings and their successes.
  2. That custom TF Prime Airachnid really needs to get manufactured... let's hope one of the Third Parties picks it up. And preferably not Perfect Effect... but, even if it is them, I'd probably risk it, because it looks amazing.
  3. A bit more originality from the Third Parties - OK, I get that Springer is a popular character, and all, but he's become the new Devastator, in that every single Third Party company seems to want to take a crack at him, with varying degrees of G1 cartoon accuracy. Sure, FansProjects' 2010 offering, Warbot Defender, was a bit disappointing, but Hasbro's 2013 riposte was excellent... Do we really need any more interpretations of this particular character? We've also had a couple of MP-style Jazz figures and several Astrotrains, rather than each company tackling different characters - seems to me they're too small and too niche to set themselves up in direct competition with each other. With stuff like Unrustable Bastards on the horizon, I'd be keen to see these companies shrug off their reliance of Hasbro/Takara Tomy's intellectual properties, and really show us what they've learned about transforming robot toys, and what the TransFormers fandom in particular really wants.
  4. Attending another TF Convention, depending on finances and location.
  5. Price Hikes: Brexit will be blamed for a lot over the coming years, but I’m expecting luxuries like imported plastic toys (because, to one extent or another, all of 'em are - we manufacture next to nothing in the UK these days) to become far more expensive. Prices are already getting a bit silly (£20-ish for a Titans Return Deluxe?) but I fully expect them to become ridiculous. There will, do doubt, be some fluctuation in the US Dollar as well, thanks to the results of their election, which could either bring it closer to parity with the Pound, or lead to a comparative strengthening of the Pound, depending on the particular brand of uncertainty we experience.
  6. Some more interesting Titans Return/Legends stuff - I'm particularly intrigued by Trypticon, despite now having the glorious original in my collection... Not to mention the fact that I still don't think I'll actually be buying much of it. There's also the small matter of introducing the final part of this trilogy.
  7. The Last Knight will be just another piece of incoherent trash - Honestly, at this point, I have zero interest in the film, and I'm only mildly interested in the toys. The new Optimus Prime toy looks decent - potentially way better than those from Age of Extinction, and I'm reasonably curious about any others... but I'm expecting an almost infinite supply of Bumblebees to dampen my enthusiasm.
  8. WeiJiang release another upsized and improved TransFormers figure - hopefully Black Apple's upsized and improved Dark of the Moon Megatron, having already followed up 'Commander' with their own take on 'Detective' (not to be confused with KuBianBao's Detective).
As with 2015, we lost some huge figures in the many spheres of entertainment. In the first third of the year alone, we lost David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee and Prince!... and all of that while I was still reeling from the death of Han Solo in The Force Awakens. In June we lost civil rights activist and former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, followed a couple of weeks later by the untimely death of the actor Anton Yelchin (most recently in this year's Star Trek Beyond), at a mere 27 years old, in an automobile accident on the grounds of his own home. While it has little impact on me personally, compared to some of the others, it was a sad (and, unfortunately, stupidly avoidable) death for someone so young, and with so much potential. The death of Gene Wilder in August was a more substantial blow as I'd grown up with so many of his films (not least his excellent collaborations with Mel Brooks), and he was soon followed by 80s popster Pete Burns in October, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, actors Robert Vaughan (The Man from UNCLE), Andrew Sachs (most famous for playing Manuel in Fawlty Towers), then Ron Glass (Firefly/Serenity) in November. December didn't have much of a chance to get merry, with John Glenn (the first American to orbit the Earth), the utterly amazing Zsa Zsa Gabor (one of Hollywood's original 'blonde bombshells'), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia in four of the Star Wars movies) followed just a day later by her mother, Debbie Reynolds (a TV and movie legend in her own right), author Richard Adams (most famous for Watership Down), Britpop icon George Michael and British comedy star Liz Smith all dying in quick succession. I can't help but think that the kind of folks future generations will be mourning are going to be pale imitations of the giants who entered into the collective consciousness of my generation... But that's just me being snobby.

The strangest event of the year for me personally was when I had an obviously artificial jump in pageviews according to the Blogger stats page. I know it's hopelessly unreliable because of the way it tracks and the kinds of things it tracks - a fact, I learned, which is exploited by unscrupulous hit-farmers - but it was annoying to have an entire month's sketchy stats completely screwed over by persons unknown faking views to a particular post for no bloody reason whatsoever. It came to a stop almost as suddenly as it had started, and with no obvious explanation...

It's actually really difficult to pick up on a positive angle on what has been described as our Annus Stupidus. My faith in humanity - and good sense - has been severely shaken by decisions made in political circles the world over. Closer to home, I spent the early part of January still recovering from a bad chest infection I'd picked up in November 2015 and, this month, Courtney and I lost out on a visit to her family between Christmas and New Year due to illness (just a cough/cold this time, thankfully!). A few months ago, my mother took a fall and later suffered pneumonia. My father had a wheezy cough over Christmas, my sister's family all caught some sort of vomiting bug just before Christmas, and my girlfriend's father is seriously ill. Things at work are far from simple, but the initial rough patch seems to be over. Even so, over the last three or four months of the year, I've struggled to find the motivation for any blogging, sketching, or even any photography - I've yet to snap quite a few bits and bobs, not least the present a friend brought back for me from his trip to Japan.

All that said, this year saw my fourth anniversary with Courtney (as well as the second of living together), which is both significant and positive. Things are generally good and, while she's now volunteering at a certain prestigious London museum and tutoring local kids in Science and Maths, I haven't yet been able to convince her that we should start a podcast based on the idea behind one of the essays she wrote while still at Imperial College. Courtney's best friend, Emily, moved to London this year, to take up a job at a city-based company which creates CGI effects for lots of big movies. It's a tough job, by all accounts, but the two of them are now far more easily able to talk and hang out, which has been good for both of them.

I also completed a renewal of the lease on my flat (which should make it easier to sell when the time comes) and helped form a residents' association in an attempt to better manage the block and ensure that the required improvements - not least a new roof - actually happen at some point.

2016 certainly hasn't been my most prolific year in any of my creative endeavours, but neither has it been my worst... and I'm just glad that it's actually still going after eight years. While I don't expect to be buying masses of new stuff in 2017 - due to a combination of not being especially interested in what I've seen of Titans Return, and simply having neither the money nor the space for much more Third Party stuff - there are a few key pieces I'd quite keen to acquire... And my backlog of posts is still pretty huge, without even getting to most of the original Generation 1 stuff that's still at my parents' house.

Hopefully I'll be able to get back on track in the New Year.

I hope those who visit this blog continue to enjoy it (while occasionally complaining about my excessive italicisation), and I wish you all an excellent 2017...

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