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Count Dooku's Solar Sailer

by Artemis

Solar sailing is real science - it hasn't yet been done with a full-scale vessel using a sail as a primary means of propulsion, but several space probes heading sunwards have used the technique to help them steer - but it's also one of those areas where sci-fi writers tend to hear about it, think "Awesome!", and then go off and create something that'd never ever work; it happens especially in film and TV sci-fi, where they're more worried about what it looks like than whether it'd fly. The sad fact is that a real solar sailer just wouldn't look very cool - you'd have a gigantic mirror-faced sail tugging a tiny little ship along at the speed of crawl, which is a far cry away from the zippy little photon yachts we all want to see on screen.

Plotting to destroy the Republic, Count Dooku flies his sleek Solar Sailer starship from one Clone Wars battlefield to the next. With his MagnaGuard bodyguards, pilot droid and personal speeder, the evil Sith Lord will make it nearly impossible for the Jedi Knights to catch him and foil his schemes!

In fact, mainstream sci-fi has gotten solar sailers so wrong so often that nowadays you're more likely to see counter-examples: craft created by writers who know they wouldn't really work, and so take the time to stick in some pseudo-science garbage to dodge the problem. Dooku's so-called "solar sailer" is one such - if you look into the background, it turns out that the sail is some mysterious artefact he scavenged up on a remote world, Lara Croft style, and no one has a blessed clue how it does what it does. Fair enough - they've never pretended Star Wars had to make any more scientific sense than "It looks cool, that's why." (Though as I write this, the Powerhouse Museum here in Sydney is wrapping up its hosting of the Star Wars: The Science of Imagination exhibition, which allegedly explains the real-world science behind the movies' spectacular goings-on. I kind of wish I'd made time to see it - Star Trek doing that I can imagine, but surely the Star Wars version would just be a bunch of props and models displayed next to info cards reading: "This makes no goddamn sense.")

Anyway, regardless of how much help the magitech work-around was to Star Wars, it's not much good to Lego, who still faced the problem of how the hell to make a model of this thing without having to make a sail a metre wide. Their solution, unfortunately, was just not to bother - the "Solar Sailer" set includes just the vessel's body (a Geonosian Punworcca 166-class interstellar sloop), and no sails at all. Still, it's a good vessel body, measuring 11" long with its "wings" closed, and inventively constructed using a technique known among Lego enthusiasts, regrettably, as Studs Not On Top, or SNOT. Yeah. Whereas even vehicles like the Twilight and the big AT-AT, with their angled hull plates, are basically built on a standard studs-up internal frame, the Solar... whatever you want to call it, is constructed from four primary hull sections - top, bottom, and sides - all of which face their "bottom" sides inwards, and plug into a central core the studs of which face the rear.

Apparently in Lego Star Wars there's no such thing as an unarmed vehicle, so the Solar Floater (like the similarly weaponless Radiant VII diplomatic cruiser) gets a Lego upgrade of a set of flick missiles - four in this case, mounted two by two in the side panels, and fired by push levers that operate both missiles on a given side at once. Since I want these sets to display I like the tension on the missiles being firm, so they don't fall out (as early ones were very prone to doing), but these might go a bit far - firing them is quite hit-and-miss, pardon the pun, and even once you get the push on the lever just right their range is pretty pathetic; often they're lucky to make it past the ship's own forward hull. Based purely on weapon quality, if there's ever a crossover between Lego Star Wars and Bionicle, I know who I'm betting on.

Besides the anomalous guns, the Solar Motionlesser can open up its top and bottom sail bays, each two halves (though they don't hinge diagonally as well as up/down like the ones in the movie), although it's a bit pointless since, y'know, there's nothing in there to deploy. The cockpit bubble opens to reveal the pilot droid, who stands in a removable cradle (which isn't actually connected to anything, but it's held in place quite firmly by the bubble itself when closed), and the rear opens up to deploy Dooku's speeder bike. Landed (and with its ventral studs facing the wrong way, finding a flight stand would be tricky) it balances on two pegs built into the sail bay doors, and rests on the back of the hull itself - the two landing legs are just for show, though they can be swivelled out and down like the real things.

The speeder bay doors don't close fully, which is a bit annoying - even fully "closed" there's a two-width gap between them. When opened the speeder slides out - there's a gentle catch holding it inside - and though it's off-scale quite a bit, more like an open car than the little bike it should be, it's got roughly the right shape, and Dooku fits in it well. One caution is his cape, though - seated it sits over the rear hull, which is fine, but if you stow him on the bike inside the Solar Drifter, the edges of the bay doors push against the cape. For one thing, they make the cape ride up, which can pop off the hood if he's wearing it, and for another, they can bend the cape itself in a way which won't fully smooth out once released, so if you're worried about the display quality of the Dooku figure, don't make a habit of keeping him inside the vehicle.

A selling point of this set is that it includes the CGI-style Dooku figure, but it's not one of Lego's best. As well as the printed details on his chest and face, he's got a new hair piece, one with a very narrow brow, to try to reproduce how his hair sits sleekly back rather than coming forward as a fringe. But CGI-Dooku's hair is very thin compared to the size of the rest of his head, so the hair piece just looks a bit off no matter how good the sculpt it. Worse, though, is that his beard is just printed onto the head, and since along with his sharp nose his triangular beard is such a big part of his CGI appearance, that's a mistake - they should have made a separate beard piece, like the ones used for the dwarfs in the Castle sets. Anyway, he also comes with a brown hood (which goes on in place of the hair), and a lightsaber with a red blade and a silver Lego version of Dooku's curved hilt.

Also in the set are two MagnaGuard droids - not new, but since I haven't yet gotten around to reviewing the MagnaGuard Fighter set, I should say they're quite good figures, using a combined head/headdress piece that fits over the top of a single-loop cape, pushing it into shape as the bottom of the cloak. The use of the tall Super Battle Droid legs make them tower appropriately, and their chunky claws (which swivel at the wrists) allow them to wield their electro zappy staff things quite well. Unique to this set is the FA-4 pilot droid - effectively just a white standard Battle Droid, but with a backwards Castle skeleton foot for a head, which so far as reuse goes is quite nifty. The legs, though, aren't accurate - the FA-4 has a wheeled pedestal from the waist down, and while there's a version of the same droid with legs (the FA-5), it's a valet, not a pilot.

The big deal with this set is the lack of sails - and let's forgive them that, huh? Sure it would've been epic had the Solar Flotsam had a big Technic frame sticking out the front to support big cloth or thin card sails, but it also would've been gigantic and probably unprofitable (not to mention wildly breakable, since the design of the cables holding the Solar Sailer's sails on its awful from a stability point of view). The fact is, not enough people would've bought a huge deluxe sailed version of this set to make it worthwhile. But it's still not a great set, even forgiving them that. The vessel looks good as a display piece from the front or side, but there's no point to the opening sail doors, the rear doors don't close properly, Count Dooku's head is just wrong, and unless you find it on sale, the price is notably excessive compared to similar Lego Star Wars products. It's interesting, but it needed to be done better.

-- 06/27/09

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