- Press -
 The Australian - 31 Januray 2004

All spaced out in Legoland
January 31, 2004

WHAT'S the easiest way to tell that something's really made its mark in the public mind? When you can buy it in Lego form.

There's nothing quite like being recreated as a vision of Lego glory. Those plastic Danish bricks and the little yellow, smiley-faced chaps with the pincer hands that go with them have manifested themselves in forms as diverse as aircraft carriers, NBA basketball teams and that great boozarium from Star Wars. I'm holding out for the Lego Kama Sutra, but in the meantime I'll have to make do with the latest addition to the range – the Lego version of NASA's latest Mars rover, Spirit.

It's a nice little boost for the space agency, battered by a string of mishaps, catastrophes and that magnificent cock-up a few years ago when some hapless NASA employees suffered ultimately expensive confusion about the difference between metric and imperial measurements.

It's a risky business, and it appears Lego was wise to wait until NASA's latest effort had become comfortable on Mars and made a call home to its masters.

As Associated Press noted, a similar gamble didn't go so well back in 1999 for toymaker Mattel. Mattel put out an action pack featuring miniature versions of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, Polar Lander and the twin Deep Space 2 microprobe spacecraft. Remember them? If the details are a little hazy, there's a good reason. A few weeks after the action pack went on sale, all four of the spacecraft were lost. Apparently, one of the sets later turned up on the eBay auction website, drolly advertised as a NASA Crash Pack.

Mattel was contacted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to see whether they fancied making a toy version of this season's mechanical Mars explorer but, funnily enough, it never replied.

As for Lego, it has managed to go interplanetary – both of the bona fide Rovers carry DVDs, fixed into place with Lego bricks, carrying the names of 4 million people (possibly al-Qa'ida suspects the White House hopes will get blitzed by Martian death rays). Each of the discs bears the image of one of those little yellow Lego men, a course of action that may give any Martians something of a misleading first impression.

Still, at least they've got everything up and running, unlike the poor old British whose bicycle wheel-sized Mars lander, Beagle 2, remains obstinately missing in action. Yes, we all know what the Brits are thinking: "If only we hadn't built it out of Lego."

I wanted that wretched thing to work for them, I really did. I didn't want Ronnie Corbett's old gag about British cars being ideal for people who like walking to end up applying to their spaceships as well. They seemed to have the space thing more or less figured out in Doctor Who and Blake's Seven; surely they were ready to tackle the real thing.

I wanted to hear Beagle 2's nine-note call signal sound across the void. (It was composed by the band Blur, though a neat "Get f---ed, all right?" from Oasis would have proclaimed its UK origins less ambiguously.) But at this rate, it appears the call signal will live on only as a ring tone in mobile phones, where it will at least have the chance to encounter some vacuums, albeit of a lesser magnitude.

The press conference given by the Beagle boffins after NASA succeeded was one of those visions that would have shaken the hardest of hearts, so deeply etched was the misery on their faces. Especially the bloke who said in a near suicidal voice that yes, obviously they extended their congratulations and – sigh – best wishes to their colleagues across the Atlantic. He had muttonchops so ferociously huge they'd probably keep him safe during atmospheric re-entry, should he ever, in a fit of English stoicism, attempt such a feat.

Should he opt for religion as a way of soothing the pain in his soul, he could always turn to www.thebricktestament.com, a website that presents the stories and some of the harsher lessons of the Bible in Lego format.

No, I didn't see that one coming, either.

The Brick Testament is the handiwork of Californian Brendan Powell Smith, a man with an apparently endless supply of time on his hands. In the word according to Smith, it all began one day in Taco Bell when the voice of God boomed out from a flaming burrito, instructing Smith to illustrate the Bible entirely out of Lego. Smith's objections, based largely on the grounds that he's an atheist, didn't wash with the Big G. "Then you are especially unqualified to question me," God allegedly thundered, adding: "Now get to work."

This scenario is not unfeasible – I'm pretty sure I saw the Archangel Gabriel dancing with Francis Bacon late one night in a fast food joint after I'd indulged in a particularly ill-advised apres piss-up burgerfest (with onion ring chaser, to make my shame complete).

But Smith got God instead, and he got cracking. A couple of years later, he's still pouring out Lego-illustrated versions of Biblical tales, ranging from the Garden of Eden and the exodus from Egypt to instructions on proper behaviour for newlyweds and slave owners.

Smith may be an atheist, but he's certainly blessed. Have you ever wondered just how bloody tricky it would be to convincingly depict a good old-fashioned stoning or locust plague using nothing but small plastic blocks? Look upon Smith's works and marvel.

It even made my heathen heart beat faster. Apart from everything else, it serves as a solid reminder about what a tetchy deity God was in the Old Testament, forever smiting and cursing and sneakily creating temptations for his creations, then pouncing on them with an "Aha!" when they took his bait. It's also fun to learn just how comfortably the Bible sits with slavery, the subjugation of women and the slandering of innocent shellfish, swine and camels. Then there's the stunningly large number of scenarios in which it condones putting people to death with rather large pebbles.

Some people have been upset by the frequently violent/bloodthirsty/sexual (delete where applicable) nature of Smith's ouevre, but hey, that's the Bible for you.

All in all, though, it should get those Martians antsy about God-fearin' Dubya's promise that those little Lego-bearing probes will eventually be followed by real live humans. But unless the astronauts have bright yellow skin, etched-on smiley faces and pincer-shaped hands, they'll probably be perfectly safe.

 All Spaced Out in Legoland
This is the text of an article that appeared in the Saturday, 31 January 2004 edition of The Australian, an Australian national newspaper with a weekend readership of 917,000.

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