Sunday, 27 June 2010

To Boldy Go Where No Man Has Gone Before...

One thing before I get into this week’s topic. If you like this post or indeed any of my previous of future posts, please help me by hitting the share button at the bottom of the post and either posting it to facebook or tweeting it out and recommending it to your friends. Also, please leave some feedback so I know what people are liking or not, or just to let me know you’ve been by. Thanks :)

So this week I thought I would go with a subject that could be classed as a little bit more “adult” than Muppets and Transformers; my following of Star Trek.

Unlike most my other loves, Star Trek was passed down to me by my parents; both my mum and dad have always enjoyed watching the shows, and still do, and I, as a young child, would watch with them. While they have probably seen every episode, they never took the show too seriously from a fan perspective; I however have a habit of getting engrossed in these things.

Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry in 1964 with the first pilot “The Cage” completed in 1965. It was rejected and wouldn’t be seen on TV until 1988. However, and unusually for the time, Rodenberry was given a second chance and a second pilot was made. Keeping only the character of Spock from the original pilot, a new cast was assembled including the characters of James Kirk, Leonard McCoy and the rest of the well known crew (apart from Chekov who didn’t debut until season 2). This pilot was seen more favourably, and a series was green lit by NBC. The original Star Trek show ran from 1966 to 1969 when after the third season it was cancelled due to declining ratings. It wasn’t until the show was put into syndication that it became the major success that we know it as.

I’ve never actually been a big fan of TOS (the original series), especially the TV episodes; I have always felt like it is too concentrated on a select few members of the crew, overly predictable in storyline and the guy in the red shirt was gonna get killed. However, there is no denying how much of what came after owes its origins to these three seasons. Many of the “big” races like the Klingons, Andorians, Vulcans and Romulans all came from TOS, as did characters like Khan and Trelane (a precursor to Q). Most of the TOS episodes I have seen are because I have been in the room when others were watching it; namely, my parents.

Throughout the 70’s, with the success of the show in syndication and 22 animated cartoon episodes, Roddenbury tried to get a Star Trek movie off the ground but never succeeded. In early ’78, plans for a new paramount television station were underway and along with them came plans for a new series of Star Trek titled “Phase II”. This show was to be “the second five year mission” of the original crew with most of the stars scheduled to return along with a few new faces. Screen tests were done, sets were built, thirteen scripts were written; but when the launch of the television network collapsed, so did Phase II despite all the work already done. All was not lost however, while the series was never filmed, the storyline for the two hour pilot “In Thy Image” was revised and would in 1979 become “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that two of the execs involved in the making of this movie were Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg; again, showing how the various things I love always tend to route their way back to Disney in some manor.

The film restarted the franchise and was followed by “The Wrath of Khan” in 1982, “The Search for Spock” in 1984, “The Voyage Home” in 1986, “The Final Frontier” in 1989 and “The Undiscovered Country” in 1991. I kinda remember as a child being taken to see either Star Trek II or III; I think I slept through a lot of it and my parents don’t remember which one they took me along to; my thought is that it was probably III. I did however see IV at the cinema (yes, the one with the whales), it was a 10th birthday party outing for a friend of mine. Generally speaking I like the TOS movies more than the TV series, maybe because they aren’t quite so predictable; they also involved a little more humour. I remember seeing II at my grandparents house once, Star Trek really was something enjoyed by a few generations of my family.

Following the success of the first few TOS movies, Paramount commissioned a new TV series to be developed. Set 100 years after TOS, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) started airing in 1987 and would run until 1994 (USA) and enjoyed both critical and commercial success; even though several members of the cast, including Patrick Stewart himself, have said that they never expected it to last more than the first season.

Out of all the Star Trek shows, TNG has always been my favourite; with Jean-Luc Picard being my favourite of all the Captains. Whereas TOS had a crew, TNG had a family that you connected with and cared about. I don’t remember when I started really watching TNG religiously; it didn’t start airing in the UK until 1990 and I while don’t think I saw many of the earlier episodes on first run, I know I was watching them by the end of series 3. Mostly I remember the 6pm weekday BBC2 timeslot where I, with my parents, would usually watch the show either before or while eating dinner each night. I collected the episodes on VHS; usually ex-rental copies that would contain 4 episodes on each tape that I could get cheap; but those I couldn’t get, I would fill in with the retail 2 episodes per tape versions. Eventually I caught up with everything that was already on sale and would buy them new on the day they were released; if memory serves this was usually the first time I had seen each episode because by now the show had moved to Sky TV which we didn’t have and the video release would come before the terrestrial screening. Eventually we did get Sky TV, one of the big selling points to my parents being Star Trek first runs, and by the time the series neared its end, the TNG video collection in my bedroom spanned the entire width of my bedroom windowsill.

The show ended with season 7, which had always been planned as the end rather than cancellation. And was followed by four feature films. Generations in 1994, mostly hyped as being the meeting of Kirk and Picard; First Contact in 1996, which I believe is the best of all the Star Trek films; Insurrection in 1998, which was a little soft; and finally Nemesis in 2002, which tied up and said goodbye to the crew with a few shocks thrown in.

My ever decreasing window view (as it filled up with Star Trek taped) wasn’t helped by the start of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) in 1993 and Star Trek: Voyager (VOY) in 1995; both of which I collected on video cassette from the beginning. I always like DS9’s quirkiness; unlike the ship crews, the station inhabitants had a much larger variation of species which often led to more comedy, but hugely expanded the ethos of several established races. The show’s expansion into the Gamma quadrant also allowed the creation of many new species; widening the universe as a whole. As for Terry Farrell and her Trill spots…….. ’nuff said. However, for me (and most), DS9 really took off with the start of season 4, where the Dominion story line, which had always been the long term storyline objective for the show, really took off. Coupled with a TNG favourite (Worf) joining the crew, and some truly exceptional episodes such as “The Visitor”, the Dominion War gave the series a story arc that lasted until its final episodes three seasons later.

I also very much enjoyed Voyager which, unlike the other ship crew shows, had a clear story arc objective that would last the shows entire run. It wasn’t just a case of each week’s episode being a self contained story that would allow character progression but rarely have any bearing on the next episode’s direction; with Voyager everything was always leading to them trying to get home. Again, like DS9, the show expanded the Star Trek universe as we explored the Delta quadrant and MANY more races were created and added to the list. Some would last a season or two, like the Kazon, or some would only appear in a single or few episodes; depending on how far that race had spread and how long it took Voyager to pass them by. Having a female captain this time also changed things considerably; Kirk and Picard were two very difference captains, Janeway was completely different again.

1995 saw the start of the UK Star Trek Magazine, and I bought it monthly from Issue #1 and got pretty much every issue from that point until 2008 when the magazine lost quite a bit of quality, as well as things to write about. Also, by 1995, I was at University and had discovered the Star Trek comic books which I could buy from a shop nearby and read during the less interesting lectures. At some point during my second year at Uni, one of the others on my course spotted me reading these comics and told me about how she had read and loved a Star Trek book called “Imzadi” which she lent me to read myself. This is the true moment I went from being a fan to a Trekkie.

To go off topic a bit; I hate books. Ok, I’ll be a little less general. Until the age of 19, I only read books that I was made to read, usually as part of English classes at school; and even then if I could get out of it by watching a movie adaptation the rental cost was worth it (cases in point Hamlet and Empire of the Sun). The only book I fondly remember reading prior to that age was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾. My interest level in books, especially novels, was zero.

Reading Imzadi led to me picking up another TNG novel, and then another and another, and pretty soon I was hooked on them; I still didn’t do a lot of reading, but when I did, usually while travelling, it was a TNG book. Now, aged 34, I read a lot more than I used to; whether it be on the train every day to work or while laying in bed. However, while the variety may have grown a little to include books by Dave Gorman or Danny Wallace, and some biographies; in general, I still only read Star Trek books. I read pretty much all of them that are released, apart from the TOS ones; my biases shining through; and if anything, I am a bigger fan of the Star Trek novels than I ever was of the show itself.

Any fans of the shows who haven’t branched into the books are missing out on so much. Each of the main crews has carried on past the end of their TV or film lives; what happened with Jean-Luc and Beverly; the Voyager crew after they got home, the Gamma quadrant after the war; where did the Borg come from; all these subjects have been covered. But as well as the series that we know from TV, many other genres have come to life in their own series, whether it be the stories of a younger Picard as captain of the Stargazer; or others such as Starfleet Corps Of Engineers, New Frontier, Klingon Empire, Vanguard or more recently the launch of Titan under Riker’s command. Characters that we know and love have been given new leases on life in the novels (unless they have died; trying not to give away spoilers); characters that were cameo appearances like Robin Lefler (TNG - two episodes in season 5), Klag (season 2), or Sonya Gomez (TNG season 2) have been given full careers and blossom; and supporting cast characters like Garak, Dr Selar or Ro Lauren are given much bigger roles and brought to the forefront.

Really, I cannot say enough about the Star Trek books; Keith R A DeCandido and David Mack especially over the past few years have written amazing books that have changed the Star Trek universe. In all I reckon, from quickly running down the book list (with covers for help), that I have read around 250 Star Trek novels and a further 70 plus Star Trek ebooks.

In 2004 I had a letter printed in the Star Trek Magazine, where I complained that they only awarded David Mack’s excellent two part novel “A Time To Kill/Heal” with three stars; this was a book set in between the two TNG movies Insurrection and Nemesis. Their response under my letter was that from that point onwards, they would not award a grading to the books any longer; LOL!

Jumping in time a little bit (as I have a lot in this post because I decided to go with full spans of subjects rather than try and keep everything chronological), 2001 saw the launch of Star Trek: Enterprise (ENT). I don’t really know what to say about Enterprise, certain parts of it I thought were very good but it didn’t grip audiences and I didn’t even watch the second season until years later when I bought it on DVD. I must not have been the only one, as in 2005 the show was cancelled due to low ratings; the first Trek series since the original to be cancelled by the network and not by the producers completing it. But, that said, I really enjoyed season 3. If nothing else, Enterprise added some back story to the Trek universe, it explained why the appearance of Klingons changed, the development of transports and shields, and the formation of the UFP. It’s a shame they never got the chance to carry on with the show, I’m sure they had plans that would have happened over the next three seasons.

In late 2007, a colleague from work decided that I was going to take part in the annual NaNoWriMo; as she was doing it, I should too. For those who don’t know (which I would imagine is most), the objective of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. I decided to mix my loves of Star Trek and Disney and wrote a novel on the premise of Q (with Q and q) going on a vacation in time back to present day Disney World. I failed. Well, I say that, I ended up with a novel of 30,000 words; but it’s enjoyable and everyone who has read it has told me they enjoyed it. Unfortunately both time ran out (I finished it after the deadline) and the story didn’t have another 20,000 words in it. I am, however, very proud of what I produced; so if you want to read it, let me know and I’ll send you a copy.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to either see or meet several of the actors and actresses in person. Many have appeared at the Collectormania events that take place in Milton Keynes in the UK and this has allowed me to meet Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn and most recently Patrick Stewart. And, while I haven’t met them in person, I’ve also seen at these events, Kate Mulgrew, Tim Russ, Robert Duncan McNeill, Robert O’Reilly, JG Hertzler, Jeffrey Coombs, Michelle Forbes, Robert Picardo, Ethan Philips, Marina Sirtis, Walter Koenig, Avery Brooks, Rene Auberjonois, Jolene Blalock, Alexander Siddig, Gates McFadden, Denise Crosby, Armin Shimmerman and more. I’ve also seen Patrick Stewart in the theatre; seeing “A Life in the Theatre” in 2005 and his one man show of “A Christmas Carol” after which he did a Q&A session with the audience.

2009 saw the latest in the line of Star Trek feature films; a prequel to TOS. This was the first, and so far only, movie I saw at the IMAX and I enjoyed it. It was written cleverly enough to be a prequel but not have to lead to the start of TOS the TV series, which allows things to go differently than history has already established (such as Chekov being there from the beginning) and means that people can be in danger without the audience knowing they must be fine because we know they are however many years later. This is a major point because much of the Star Wars prequels criticism (Jar Jar aside) is that history has been either rewritten or is non consistent (like official Lucasarts software in 1995 that stated that Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi were half brothers); a quick story element here makes that a non factor. When this film was rumoured and announced, I was less than impressed; a prequel to characters I didn’t care about that much (probably with the exception of Kirk and Spock), I just didn’t think would be very interesting. I was wrong. This was a very good movie which I hope will lead to two very good sequels.

So that’s it for Star Trek. Who knows if/when we will get another TV series, I’m sure it will happen eventually; I just hope it lives up to the standards of the shows before it. But until that happens, the universe lives on in the books and I look forward to each release.

Speak soon; live long and prosper \\//

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Robots In Disguise!!

Continuing the “getting to know me” theme, I’ve decided to do this weeks post on my history with the Transformers. While my love of Transformers doesn’t go back as far as some of my other interests, after the rather large Muppet blog last week, I figured something a little less in depth was required for this week. Again, I am going to try and throw in a few facts and pieces of, what I think, interesting information to pad around the story of Transformers and me.

The origins of the Transformers are quite different to most other cartoons with accompanying merchandise. Normally speaking, a new cartoon will be made and, if successful, will be followed by lines of toys or action figures. The Transformers were quite the opposite where the toys existed first, although mostly unknown, and the cartoon was used as a specific marketing tool to sell them; hence when new toys were developed they were added to the cartoon and as we will find out later on, when toys are discontinued, they get killed off from the cartoon. For this to make sense and the origins understood, we have to go back in time and to Japan.

In 1974 Takara, a Japanese toy manufacturer released a series of toys that could transform from one thing to another. These were called Micromen and some of the initial toys included a blue cassette player called Recorder Robot and three cassettes which would both fit inside him and transform themselves between a cassette and either a robot, jaguar or bird. Eventually, after several versions, this line was renamed to Microchange and by that time there were also figures that changed from robot form to other things such as a series of small cars, including a little yellow beetle, and a series of guns.

In 1980 Takara released a second line of toys called Diaclone, the storyline behind the toys being that they were the protectors of earth from the evil Warader Empire. These toys were all the same size as the lagest of the Microchange toys and included a large truck called Convoy, some dinosaurs, and a series of cars such as a fire engine, ambulance, a Porsche 935 Turbo, a Lancia Stratos and a Ligier F1. The toys representing the evil Warader Empire in the story looked like insects.

In 1983 a Hasbro product developer discovered these lines of toys at the Tokyo Toy Fair and it was decided to take the toys from all the various lines Takara had created and merge them into a single brand and storyline for worldwide release. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when the US regulators removed the restrictions on the placement of promotional content in children’s television, and the rest is history; Hasbro created the Transformers, a line of toys which would be marketed through both an animated cartoon and a comic book produced by Marvel (yet another instance of where my loves as a child have folded into my current love of Disney). This origin explains why, especially with the Decepticons, there is such a range of alternate modes that don’t always fit together cohesively. The wide range of already made cars, and later dinosaurs, all became the Autobots; while the remainders, which included the guns (although only the Walther P38 was kept), the tape player and cassettes, the insects, and a series of jets and construction vehicles, became the Decepticons. The somewhat unusual mix of different alternate modes was explained in the first episode where, after crashing on earth, the Ark’s computer, Teletraan-1, repaired the Transformers to change into compatible things that it found on earth.

On the toy front, the change to a single brand with defined characters created some very strange anomalies in some of the early releases as, before they produced more, Takara just repackaged the already produced toy stock. This meant that there were a few different versions of some toys as production was changed in order to be either standardised or to match the characters on screen look. As the original Takara toys were not specific characters, they could produce them in various colours; and thus at the start there were some red Sunstreakers, various Bumblebees and even blue Optimus Primes. This also explains why on many of the early models, you had to put the Autobot or Decepticon logo sticker on the character yourself, because they were produced without them.

In 1984 the Transformers hit the airwaves and I was watching and hooked from the beginning. The show was aired at the weekends in full episode form and also serialised throughout the week in a 5 – 10 min slot at something like 7am on TV-AM (morning television news and entertainment show back then). At the age of 8, my day always started with my morning few minutes of Transformer action.

On a side note, Takara were not the only people producing toys that could transform in Japan; Popy, better known as Bandai, also had a line of their own which debuted in 1982. After seeing Hasbro move in on the Takara products, Tonka did the same with this line and thus 1984 not only brought us the Transformers, we also got the Gobots. It was the equivalent of iPhone Vs Driod for a generation of 8 year olds 25 years ago and thankfully I backed the winning team as the Gobots didn’t last very long.

For the next couple of years, Transformers were my main “thing”; whether it was a birthday or Christmas, Transformers were what I wanted. I wasn’t spoilt as a child toy wise, so my collection wasn’t huge, but I had a pretty good selection. I had the video tapes which contained three or four episodes and my mum subscribed me to the weekly comic which had the always great “Grim Gram” page (after he took over from Soundwave as the comic’s Agony Aunt). The first Transformer I got was Sunstreaker; it was bought for me as a present and wouldn’t have been my first choice as he was a minor role in the cartoon, but I didn’t care. Like most of the kids at school I had several of the smaller Autobot cars, the most popular being Bumblebee; mostly because they were so much cheaper and thus easier to get the parents to buy us. I also had Thrust pretty early on; and when the Dinobots came out I had Grimlock; who was by far my favourite to transform back and forth and show off to the older generation who stared on with fascination and then fiddled with themselves for 10 minutes before declaring that they couldn’t work out how to transform the thing. A couple of my major occasion presents over the period were the complete Aerialbots box set which combined to form Superion and the huge Metroplex city figure.

I never had an original Optimus Pime or Megatron :(

After the first, and best, two seasons of the cartoon came The Transformers: The Movie in 1986. This was a pretty big deal back then, with characters voiced by Orson Wells (recorded mere days before his death), Leonard Nimoy, Judd Nelson and Eric Idle. Whereas nowadays its quite common for a successful cartoon franchise to produce multiple feature length movies, if not for cinema, then for direct to TV or DVD, in the mid 80’s Transformers, Care Bears and My Little Pony were amongst the first children’s cartoons to be elevated from a TV series to the big screen. For anyone local reading this, I saw it in the huge Screen 1 of the Waltham Cross Odeon; before it became a bingo hall.

Many of the toys I had were from the movie. I had Hot Rod and Rodimus Prime, Galvatron, Wheelie, Wreck-Gar and Springer. However, while the movie was the pinnacle of my love for Transformers, it was also the beginning of the end of my love affair with them as a child. The movie took place 20 years after the end of season 2, in 2005, which gave the writers a lot of room to introduce many new characters who had never been seen before; roughly translated to introducing all the new toys that Hasbro were just releasing. At the same time, the movie also had the job of killing off all the characters that Hasbro were taking out of production; thus at the end of the movie the ongoing cast would reflect the toy lines for 1986/87. In the first act of the film alone we saw the deaths of Brawn, Prowl, Ratchet and Ironhide; in the aftermath we also saw the dead bodies of Wheeljack, Windcharger, Mirage, Tailbreaker, Smokescream, Red Alert and Huffer. And a little later we had the death of Optimus Prime and several of the Deceptions reformatted into new characters including Skywarp, Thundercracker, the Insecticons and Megatron (who later, as Galvatron, disintegrated Starscream).

I honestly don’t remember if I cried during the death of Optimus Prime, I probably did. Back then I would forward the cassette soundtrack through song 3 which was the music from his death scene and pretty much tells the story of Prime dying; and if I’m being honest, when listening to it on either CD or electronic format now, I still do skip that track. Optimus Prime WAS the Transformers, he was the figurehead, the hero, and as much as we all had our favourites other than Prime, his death was a major event for a generation of 10 year old boys.

And it proved to be too much. By the end of the movie, the only true classic “A list” Autobots still alive were Jazz, Bumblebee and the Dinobots; pretty much all the others were gone to be replaced by the new heroes (including the first female Transformer – die Arcee!! DIE!!); and it was too far. As fans we always enjoyed a new transformer being built or coming to earth from Cyberton (and of course the release of a new toy), but to have everyone we loved wiped out and expected to just take this new cast into our hearts as a replacement in an instant; it wasn’t going to happen. It would be like the entire cast of Friends all dying in a car crash and then the next episode starting with another group of six and expecting everyone to keep watching. If it had been just Prime that had been killed, or everyone but Prime, things may have been different; but the suits in charge of marketing the toys wanted all the old toys out and all the new toys in and that’s what happened; all our favourites apart from a lucky few; gone.

While I loved the film (and still do), when series three of the cartoon started later that year with this new cast, I wasn’t that bothered. As much as the cartoon had been about good Vs evil, Autobot Vs Decepticon, it had really revolved around Optimus Prime Vs Megatron; and while the movie had their greatest and final battle; once they were gone, we had lost a HUGE chunk of what made the series so great. To make matters even worse, half of the series was given to a Korean studio named AKOM to animate (who have since gone on to animate the Simpsons) and the drawing/animation quality was terrible compared to the first two seasons and the very artistic movie.

While the executives soon realised their mistake (the letter campaigns by parents and media reports about upset children probably gave them a hint) and Optimus Prime was brought back to life in the final two episodes of the third season, it was too late and from an English standpoint, the show was cancelled at the end of a three episode series four which introduced one final line of toys called the Headmasters. I had already stopped watching by this point; I didn’t even know Prime had been brought back until I saw these episodes over 15 years later. As my love and interest faded I would see all these new Transformer toys hitting the shops called Headmasters, Targetmasters, Pretenders and more; but I didn’t care about any of them. In fact, in 1987 there were almost 200 Transformer toys available but I thought they looked cheap and plasticy; and without the interest in the cartoon, I had no interest in the toy. Oddly, as it turns out, I was a bigger fan of the marketing material than the product it was advertising.

And so that was the end of my childhood with the Transformers; by 1988 I had given all of my toys away to a family friend who was younger and, as far as I was concerned at the time, I would never think of them again.

Yeah right.

Something about Optimus Prime and the Autobot logo stuck with me and when the G1 Transformers (Generation 1), as they became known, hit that acceptable point where they became “retro”, t-shirts started popping up here and there and I would pick them up. In fact, whenever I saw anything that was related to the era prior to the end of the movie, I was interested. I would love reading reprints of the old comic books or the newer comics using the G1 universe that had such amazing art work. I also got the toy history/pricing books by J E Alvarez which I highly recommend and used a lot while writing this piece for information or memory jogging.

I was vaguely aware of what had been going on with Transformers throughout the years after I stopped being actively interested in them. I saw the ghastly looking G2 toys in stores which were just crazy colour versions of many of the original toys and an Optimus Prime that, to me, was almost blasphemy as it wasn’t a flat front truck. I saw a few episodes of Beast Wars here and there but didn’t know what was going on; and later on I saw a few episodes of Transformers Robots in Disguise.

In 2000 the movie was released on DVD and I really enjoyed seeing it again for the first time in many years. Like the Muppets discussed last week, things that I had dropped as I moved into my teens were suddenly enjoyable again as I moved into my 20’s. Then between 2002 and 2004 all the G1 cartoons were released on DVD and I really enjoyed watching the first two seasons again; remembering quite a lot of them. This was also the first time I saw much of series three and the short series four that I never had as a child. The Japanese series of the cartoon which followed series four, and never translated into English, were also made available on DVD; these were the series which featured the Headmasters, Targetmasters and Pretenders characters. I also, thanks to ebay, got my hands on the Canadian VHS release of the movie which was classed as a “Directors Cut”; it contained 2 extra words that the original release had cut out.

Over the years since its original DVD release, the movie has been re-released several more times by different distributors as the rights have moved back and forth, and I bought all of them culminating in the very nice 20th Anniversary DVD set; it’s one of the things I will often put on if laying in bed not able to sleep. The 20th Anniversary of the movie in 2006 had its other perks too, most notably the UK release of the Takara Masterpiece Optimus Prime figure which sits on my desk at work and is truly a work of art in its intricacy and perfect design; I just recently got the Masterpiece Grimlock too and it is just as beautiful . Also, on the 20th anniversary of the original UK release, a cinema in Leicester Square played the animated movie for one night only and seeing it again on the big screen (surrounded by an entire audience of geeky guys in their 30s; although one guy did bring his girlfriend) gave me goosebumps.

The release of the live action movies has led to an increase in both retro G1 stuff and general Transformers merchandise which has been great for the fan in me. FCUK released a line of tshirts as did HMV and, in general, the availability of logo clothing has risen exponentially; a lot of which has found its way into my wardrobe. I bought four or five new transformer tops, pj pants and a baseball cap on our last holiday to the USA alone. Toy wise, I got the movie version of Optimus Prime and my son got some of the others. For a brief moment I was very worried that I had become an adult as I would be damned if I could transform his Bumblebee; but, to my relief, he couldn’t either. Turns out that a lot of the newer toys are just overly fiddly and don’t fit together very well.

I saw both the movies in the cinema, and each of them has their good and bad points; I don’t think this is the time for me to rant about them because I’ve already broken my “something a little less in depth” line from the start of this piece. There are things I didn’t like, most notably Skidz and Mudflap; but overall I am glad they have been made, and I’m glad that they, generally speaking, are made in the G1 universe. When Optimus Prime rolled onto the screen for the first time and transformed to robot mode, I had a tear in my eye. He wasn’t exactly the same look wise, but with Peter Cullen as the voice and the way in which he was portrayed, he was everything Optimus Prime should be; my hero was back.

I’m going to finish this post with a piece of advice. In the very first episode of the Transformers, Optimus Prime declares to the other Autobots that they need to launch a spaceship, Laserbeak records the whole thing, reports back to Megatron, the Decepticons attack and everything goes pear shaped. At the beginning of the movie Optimus Prime declares to the other Autobots that they need to launch a shuttle, Laserbeak records the whole thing, reports back to Megatron, the Decepticons attack and everything goes pear shaped. So; should you every need to launch a spaceship, make sure Laserbeak isn’t hiding in the shadows recording it all; it’s not that difficult.

Speak soon :)

Sunday, 6 June 2010

It’s Time To Raise The Curtain….

So I figured I should explain not just a little about myself, but also my history in the things I’m into and will probably post about the most. This may not completely explain my insanity, but it may at least justify it (somewhat). Hopefully these pieces will be informative and, rather than be just about me, will also explain a little about the subjects too to make them a little more interesting. But overall, I figure, that if these blogs are going to be about what I think, I should at least start off by telling you how these things have influenced my life and give some indication of what they mean to me.

I’ve decided to start with the Muppets; mostly because they are probably my oldest interest
I don’t actually remember a time without the Muppets. I remember living in my second home (where I lived from the age of 3ish till 6ish) and watching the Muppet Show and when I think about that house and vaguely remember the layout, and what items were where, it’s the Muppet Show that I picture being on the TV. I know I watched Sesame Street too but it was the Muppet Show that I was truly in love with.

Yes, the cute kid in the Muppet Show tshirt is me.
As an infant my parents bought me this 1976 Kermit the Frog stuffed toy, and over 30 years later and while it may have seen better days, it is the only toy from my childhood that I still have.

I’m not going to go into the complete history of the Muppets, because to do that I would also need to delve into the complete history of Jim Henson too and quite frankly we would be here all week. If you would like to know more about the history of the Muppets and Henson, I strongly suggest visiting sites such as:

Anyway, to cut to the more pertinent areas of history. Following the success of Sesame Street (which has run since 1969 and is still going strong), Jim Henson wanted to make a prime time show that could appeal to adults as well as children. Using a mixture of existing characters from Sesame Street and other Henson projects such as Kermit, Rowlf (who was created in 1962 for Purina Dog Chow adverts) and Gonzo (who had appeared on a couple of TV specials) as well as a bunch of new characters; Henson made 2 pilots, “Valentines Special” in 1974 and “Sex and Violence” in 1975.

Despite the popularity of Sesame Street, neither pilot was able to land a TV deal in America; and if you’ve seen either of them, it’s not overly surprising why they failed. However, Henson was offered a deal by ATV to produce the show for ITV (which at the time was Britain’s only commercial TV station), and as a result the Muppet Show was filmed at the Elstree Studios in the UK; about 20 miles from where I live.

The Muppet Show debuted in September 1976, a few months after I was born, and, as fate would have it, in 1979 my family moved to a house where our new next door neighbour (Percy) worked as a set designer on the show. I don’t remember much about Percy, not surprisingly, but I do remember that he let me sip his beer on occasion (odd as I can’t stand the stuff now) and he would bring me Muppet stuff such as balloons and other marketing materials. Most importantly though, thanks to Percy, twice in the summer of 1980 my family and I got to go to Elstree studios and see the filming of the Muppet Show.

Being only 4 at the time, it’s hard to go into too much detail about what I got to experience while seeing the Muppet Show filmed; sometimes I wish I had been just a couple of years older so I would have retained more from the experience. But that said, I do remember a lot and that is probably due to how much this meant to me then and still does. I got to see two episodes from series 5 being filmed; the guest stars were Gene Kelly and Debbie Harry.

Being so young, I can’t always remember which time I got to see or do certain things, I can put some of it together now from knowing which sketches were in each episode; but some of the experiences or images that have always been lodged in my mind could have happened on either or both of the visits. Likewise, I don’t know if we had special backstage passes or if everyone there had the same access that we did; I have to think it was the former because I would be amazed if it were the latter.

Anyway, one of the first things I remember while walking through the building is walking past the HUGE Muppet Show sign that would drop down at the end of each opening credits with Gonzo; it was just propped up against a wall. I’m pretty sure located near this was the permanent set for the audience (the Muppet audience that is, not the audience watching the filming).

The real audience area was very dark and, I’m pretty sure, very quiet. I don’t remember seeing a whole lot of sketches being filmed on the main stage, I don’t know how long it takes to film a particular sketch; but I do remember that they seemed to spend AGES (well, ages to a 4 year old) filming the “Cool Water” jugband routine. I also saw Gene Kelly record the end of "Singin' in the Rain" where he walked through the wet street set; and Blondie record "Call Me".
My cousins on the set for "Call Me"

The Muppet backstage area, where you would often see Kermit orchestrating the show and the dressing room doors, was filmed separately but shown to the audience via hanging television screens.

In another whole area which I think was “backstage” to most people, we were in what I remember to be like a large sound stage where in the distance I could see a Rowlf being puppeteered. This is where things are a little confusing for me now, because Rowlf doesn’t have much exposure in either of the two episodes I was at, especially not at the grand piano; but I distinctly remember seeing it because I was amazed at just how large the puppet was, especially in the body where his loose “skin” just flowed down over what I guess must have been Jim Henson.

The reason I don’t have much memory of what was going on in the distance though is because I was far too engrossed in what was happening to me at the time. I had a conversation with Scooter. I don’t remember any of what was said, but Richard Hunt set himself down in front of me and started to fully puppeteer Scooter; and as soon as he did, the puppeteer disappeared into the background and my eyes were fixated (from what I am told) on Scooter (why oh why didn’t my mum take a picture????).

In January of 2008, episode #41 of Steve Swanson’s MuppetCast did a tribute show to Richard who sadly passed 1992. He was described by his peers and family as being such a hugely warm and giving man who would always go out of his way to make others happy. Obviously I didn’t know him, and as a kid I probably didn’t even thank him properly (I hope my mum did); but I listened to that podcast on the train with a tear running down my cheek while I finally heard and learnt about the man who took the time to give me a few minutes that I would cherish for the rest of my life.

My final real memory of being at the tapings was being in the creature workshop. As you can see from this picture of my aunt and I, hanging on the wall were a lot of Muppets; including three Kermits just behind us. Now imagine an entire large room like that, with not only wall to wall Muppets hung up but also benches of them in the middle of the room as well (many of the Piggys were kept on pedestals rather than hung up; but what else would you expect from the original Diva); this room was amazing. I remember my mum spending a lot of time talking to the women who worked in the creature shop preparing, repairing and cleaning the puppets; I don’t remember which Muppets I got to hold if any but as you can see from the picture, I was as close to them as physically possible.

One thing I have learnt while writing this blog post is that while it was not the final episode to air, the Gene Kelly episode was the final episode filmed for series 5; the final season of the original show. I don’t know which of the three days between August 19th and 21st I attended, but there’s a 33% chance that I was there on the final day the Muppet Show was filmed……wow!

Taking a small step back in time, The Muppet Movie was released in 1979. I remember seeing the movie at a young age, but don’t think I saw it at the cinema. It was released on video tape as early as 1980 so its very possible that I saw it that way for the first time; I know I had a Captain Jack copy I would watch often by the time I was five or six. The other video I would watch over and over was the “Muppets Go to the Movies” 1981 special which we had taped from the TV. I did however have the soundtrack album from the movie with the original cover art, it was given to me on vinyl by a friend of the family; again several years after the original release. Unfortunately, I played it to death as a child and eventually although I transferred it to cassette before the record bit the dust completely and disappeared into the trove of treasures that I would love to have now but were a long time ago disposed of, it already had a few jumps in it; not that it ever stopped me from listening to it. While I love all the songs on the original soundtrack, Rainbow Connection is a song that I would include on a soundtrack of my life.

While I didn’t see the Muppet Movie at the cinema, I did get to see most of Henson’s future feature films on the big screen. The Great Muppet Caper in 1981, the Dark Crystal in 1982, Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984 and Labyrinth in 1986. At some point after Take Manhattan, so I’m guessing either late ’85 or early ’86, I also got to see the Muppets on Ice tour at Wembley Arena (I think). I’ve tried to Google more information on the ice show but unfortunately come up blank; but it was soon after the release of Take Manhattan because the Muppet Babies were the “new” thing and made an appearance in the ice show.

With the Muppets off TV, I of course watched Fraggle Rock from 1983 to 1987; but for me it never reached the level of affection that I held for the Muppets; and with no further Muppet productions, they unfortunately started to move to the back of my head as I neared my teenage years.

Unfortunately Jim Henson died May 16th 1990; just over 20 years ago. I don’t really remember it happening, I must have heard about it, but a week before my 14th birthday, I don’t think it hit me then as much as it does now to know what a great loss the world suffered that day.

At the time of Henson’s passing, the final details were just being put in place for the sale of the Muppets to Disney; Henson was expected to sign to official documents the following week. The Muppets were already starting to appear in the Disney parks with the “Here Comes The Muppets” stage show beginning on May 25th 1990 and the MuppetVision 3D attraction in the final stages of production which opened on the one year anniversary of his passing. Just two weeks before his death, the TV special “The Muppets at Walt Disney World” had aired; designed to promote the Muppets joining the Disney fold and coming attractions. Henson’s untimely passing stalled everything; what would have been an entire Muppet land at Disney/MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood) Studios never grew past the stage show(s) which ran until 1994 (after Here Comes was replaced by “Days of Swine and Roses” at a different location in the park) and MuppetVision 3D, which is still going strong today and just goes to prove the absolute timelessness the Muppets possess. It wouldn’t be until 2004 that the Muppets were finally sold to Disney.

While I saw and enjoyed much of the post Henson era, I was always more nostalgic for the original Muppet stuff than either the new series Dinosaurs (1991) or even the post Henson Muppet Movies like Christmas Carol (1992) or Treasure Island (1996). My personal view is that if you compare the original Muppet Movie to Muppet Treasure Island, you can really see a difference in quality; not so much in the puppeteering itself, but in the richness of the story and overall beauty; the later movies just seem so much more children orientated whereas the original Muppets were much more aimed at adults but in a way that children could also enjoy watching.

1996 saw the launch of Muppets Tonight and I was quite excited as it was a return to the Muppet Show format and I was hopeful that it would be a return to everything I loved about the Muppets. I have mixed feelings of how it went; and that’s without even factoring in the feelings stirred by Sandra Bullock singing her version of Mahna Mahna. I liked Clifford, but let’s face it, he was NEVER going to replace Kermit, and every time the frog made an appearance, you could just tell who the real lead was. I wasn’t so keen on some of the other new characters created for the show; however like many Muppet fans (I have no statistics to back that claim up), I fell in love with Pepe the King Prawn who is the only new character from Muppets Tonight to have since been treated and used as a headline Muppet rather than an extra.

What Muppets Tonight did do is remind me how much I did enjoy the original Muppets and brought my own history with them, especially the taping visits, back to the front of my consciousness. The lull in Muppet activity coincided with my teen years so it was very easy to put them behind me; now having just turned twenty I could properly appreciate what I had experienced.

In 1998 Rainbow Connection became one of “our songs” as my now wife and I recorded it together in a recording booth kiosk at the Trocadero. We saw Muppets from Space on DVD in 1999, the best thing about it being the directors commentary with Gonzo and Rizzo; and in the early 2000’s several “Best of” Muppet video’s were released which we picked up and enjoyed. Again the Muppet activity lulled but they, especially Kermit who had always been my favourite, were now with me for the rest of my life as one of the things I loved in a nostalgic sense.

The Muppets were finally sold to the Walt Disney Company in 2004, and as a fan of both it was the perfect marriage; something Henson himself knew 15 years earlier. While the Muppets didn’t make an immediate come back, they did become more accessible. Disney started to licence them out and finding Muppet merchandise on sale in stores has become increasingly easier over the years since; there have also been a number of book releases, and since 2005 complete seasons of the show have been released on DVD with some excellent special features. In 2006 I started collecting Disney Pin Trading pins, I have several lanyards dedicated to certain things, but my every day lanyard for in the park is monopolised by three characters; one of which is Kermit.

After the success of “From The Balcony”, a webcast series of Statler and Waldolf heckling movie trailers that aired on in 2005 and 2006 and won the 2007 Viewers Choice Webby, in 2009 the Muppet Studios, the name for the Muppet division at Disney, started releasing viral Muppet videos directly to YouTube. These too have proved to be a huge success and again highlight how the Muppets can reach not only the fans like me that grew up on them, but also make new fans of today’s youth. One of the first videos “Ode to Joy” staring Beaker won the 2009 Webby People’s Voice award for Best Music Video, and the entire Muppet crew recreating “Bohemian Rhapsody” won the same award in 2010 as well as the Webby for Best Viral Video.

The Muppets were used as the spokespeople for Disney’s “Give a Day, Get a Day” promotion of 2010, and at the D23 Expo in September 2009, the Muppets made appearances on stage in the announcement that there would finally be another Muppet major motion picture. I was watching live vidcasts of the D23 Expo as one of the “Box People from Lou Mongello’s Basement” thanks to WDW Radio Live; and while many people were most excited that weekend about the unveiling of the new Fantasyland at WDW, or Star Tours 2.0, or Pirates of the Caribbean 4, for me, hearing about and then the next day seeing the video of the Muppets coming out on the Mark Twain and singing Rainbow Connection; gave me goosebumps.

It’s becoming clear now that Disney are finally ready to start using the Muppets again in a main stream capacity; whether it has just taken the time to prove that they can still be hugely popular or it was just a matter or waiting for all the licence deals to expire that were sold prior to Disney buying the Muppets, I don’t know; but the Muppets ARE BACK!!, judging by the Muppet Studio YouTube shorts they are back to their former high standards, and I am very excited about what the future may bring.

And so thats my LONG history with the Muppets; I was wearing a Muppet Show tshirt as a 2 year old, and I was wearing Animal PJ pants a tshirt last night as I finished typing this blog; some things never change.

Speak soon :)

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Origins of the man, the myth, the legend, the name that people aren’t usually sure how to pronounce.

Ok, so the title is a little OTT, but what the hell, it’s my blog, excuse me a little ego boosting here and there. As I said in my initial posting, I figured I should probably explain the FuseMP name as, lets face it, it is a little odd.

Back in my days……(oh god, shoot me now).

When at senior school (that’s ages 12 – 16 for non Brits out there), there comes a time when every boy thinks “What am I going to graffiti on the desk??”. Everyone else was coming up with their “tags” and for some reason, and I honestly can’t remember why, I came up with Fuse. I drew it all over every pad of paper I had always like this…

© Me 1989ish

..but I never had the guts to actually graffiti it onto any desks or walls or anything that I didn’t actually own; I know, I suck.

Anyway, many moons later the internet comes along and, apart from the odd visit to the University library to download the latest wrestling news (at excruciatingly slow speeds) to take home and read, my first real internet usage was E-Wrestling in 1996. For those who don’t know (both of you I imagine) E-Wrestling was/is a roleplay wrestling game where you write your wrestlers interviews, speeches and submit them and the person who did the best would win the match on that weeks show which would be written by whoever ran the Efed. The name of my first and main E-Wrestler…Fuse. Incidentally, in 1997 I was ranked three times in the 1996 RSPW-F Top 200 rankings. Fuse was ranked 43rd while my tag team Heaven & Hell (who were a comedy act consisting of God and Beelzebub) came in 156th and 108th respectively; so I was pretty good.

This led to group chats online using the IRC (internet relay chat) where again, my name was Fuse and my joining the #wrestling channel community on the Undernet where I kept the nickname.
But then disaster struck!!

Well, when I say disaster, what I actually mean is a "chocolate bar with nuts, raisins, crispys and fudge" struck. Due to the IRC’s nature at the time, you didn’t log on with a specific nickname, you just logged on and chose your name and could change it at any given time; they key was to find a name that had a very low chance of being taken by anyone else. I hadn’t had any problems with the name Fuse, but then in 1996 Cadburys released the “Fuse” chocolate bar and more Fuse’s started popping up. Not only could I not get on with my nickname, friends of mine were messaging these imposters thinking they were me; and what is worse, I HATE raisins!! I couldn’t even eat and enjoy the chocolate bar named after me!!

So something had to be done, and being completely unimaginative at the time I simply added my initials to the end of it and thus we get to FuseMP (pronounced Fuse-M-P not fusemp) which I have used as my internet name ever since. It’s the name all my accounts are in so if you ever see it on a forum or live chat, its almost certainly me, it’s the name I’ve had on the back of football jerseys, airbrushed onto tshirts and embroidered onto hats; it’s the name my wife first new me as, as we met in the #wrestling chat room in mid ‘97. It’s me.

Speak soon :)

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

So I’ve decided to start a blog……..

So I’ve decided to start a blog……..

I’m not totally sure where this will go, maybe I will be the next internet sensation, but I doubt it. More likely it will be something I use as an outlet either for general musings, expression of excitement over the release of things I like, something coming up or Disney news; or just to vent over things that piss me off. I’m also going to try and do some researched “articles” here and there so maybe when I have something that’s interesting to blog about, I’ll try and get some history or interesting facts thrown in.

But first a little about myself. My name is Mark and I live just north of London in England, I’ve just turned 34, married for 11 years with an almost 7 year old son. I work in the financial sector and my interests include Disney, Star Trek, Transformers, Gaming, Arsenal Football Club amongst other things; so expect a few topics to come up here. I know a lot of the most popular blogs are pretty focused and the advice from the good people of BetaMouse was to pick your area of passion, but I’m a pretty random guy so this will be a pretty random blog.

You can follow me on various social networks, I usually always go by the name of FuseMP (the origin of which may end up being my first blog post), so friend me on FaceBook, follow me on Twitter etc etc.

Sorry Blackberry and Droid users, I’m an iPhone user. As a principle, I HATE Apple and always have done (which I know is a severe conflict of love and hate nowadays with Steve Jobs position in the Disney company) but I really cannot knock the iPod/iPhone/iTunes systems. I tried to avoid it, I got an mp3 player rather than a iPod and ended up getting an iPod. I got a different smart phone (although not a top of the range one) and ended up getting an iPhone as it couldn’t compare. Much like with Beta Vs VHS and BR Vs HDD; the other systems may be technically superior; but that doesn’t always decide the winner and as I look around on the train twice a day, its pretty obvious that the iPhone is the one to have. I will not, however, EVER get a Mac (he says for now).

I think I’ll probably start over the next week or so by explaining some of the basics about me, how I got into things and what keeps me ticking on them; especially as many of which have lasted with me for so long. We are going to Disneyland Paris at the end of July, so there will probably be some build up posts and some stuff while there. I would love to be able to tweet and ustream vidcast direct from the parks, but unfortunately, while I have the tech, the cost of doing it outside of England would be through the roof. It can only be a matter of time until the parks have free wifi or they work out international free 3G roaming on contract.

Ok, that should do it for my intro; now I’ve written this I guess I better decide which blogging site I’m going to use and set myself up.

Speak soon