Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Thursday, 19 July 2018

Disney and Lucasfilm resurrect THE CLONE WARS for a new mini-series

In a surprise but welcome move, Lucasfilm and Disney are resurrecting The Clone Wars for one last huzzah, a mini-series that will tie in the incomplete series with the start of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

The Clone Wars was an animated series which ran for five seasons from 2008 to 2013. Set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, it took a broad view of the war, switching between planets, groups of characters and timeframes with relentless energy. After a rocky start, the series garnered critical acclaim for its voice acting, the constantly-improving quality of the animation and for its increasingly accomplished storytelling.

The Clone Wars was abruptly cancelled whilst production on Season 6 was underway, leaving that series to air separately as a 13-part series on Netflix. Producer Dave Filoni was allowed to release animatics and materials detailing plans for the rest of the season, including a story arc that would reunite wrongfully-disgraced, ex-Jedi Ahsoka Tano with her former master Anakin Skywalker as they launched a military campaign to liberate Mandalore from ex-Sith apprentice Maul. This would lead directly into the events of Episode III.

Lucasfilm clearly hated leaving unfinished business behind, so this story is now being completed with a new Clone Wars mini-series that will air in 2019, with the original voice actors returning. More interestingly, it looks like this mini-series will be one of the launch shows for Disney's new adult-oriented streaming service in late 2019. Jon Favreau's live-action Star Wars TV series and a new Marvel Cinematic Universe show will join it on the service, along with a formidable amount of Disney content (and, when the deal goes through, 20th Century Fox's utterly vast backlog of shows and movies that aren't licensed elsewhere).

This will fill a hole in the storyline that spanned not just the six seasons of The Clone Wars but the four seasons of recently-concluded sequel series Star Wars: Rebels, and leave the decks clear for the next animated series, Star Wars: Resistance, which will take place in the era of the new films and focus on Poe Dameron and his X-wing squadron.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Timothée Chalamet in talks to play Paul Atredies in DUNE

Director Denis Villeneuve has earmarked young actor Timothée Hal Chalamet to play Paul Atredies in his upcoming two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune.

22-year-old Chalamet is best-known for appearing in Homeland, Men, Women and Children, Interstellar and Call Me By Your Name, the last of which earned Chalamet a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars.

Paul Atreides is the main protagonist of Dune (and appears in a minor role in its two immediate sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune), the 15-year-old son of Duke Leto Atreides of Caladan. The Atreides family moves to the desert planet Arrakis, known as Dune, the source of the spice melange, which transforms consciousness and allows for interstellar travel. There the feud between House Atreides and House Harkonnen spills into open warfare. Paul has to win an alliance with the mysterious natives of Arrakis, the Fremen, to secure victory against the Harkonnens.

Previously filmed by David Lynch in 1984 and as a SyFy mini-series in 2000, Dune is the biggest-selling single science fiction novel of all time, with over 20 million copies sold since it was published in 1965.

Villeneuve recently directed the highly critically-acclaimed science fiction films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, but has cited Dune as a much more challenging project. Legendary Pictures have earmarked the film for an early 2019 shoot.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Duncan Jones to direct a ROGUE TROOPER movie

Duncan Jones has announced that he is directing a movie based on cult British comic Rogue Trooper. He made the announcement in a slightly oblique fashion via Twitter.

Rogue Trooper was created in 1981 by Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons, originally appearing in issues of 2000AD alongside characters like Judge Dredd. The series is set on the planet Nu-Earth, originally a paradise-like colony of Earth that was torn apart in a brutal, generations-lasting civil war between the Norts and Southers. This was has made the planet almost uninhabitable, with a toxic atmosphere forcing the people to live in domed shelters.

The original and most iconic storyline follows Rogue, the sole surviving of a bungled offensive. Rogue is a Genetic Infantryman (G.I.) who has been engineered to survive in the toxic environment, resulting in blue skin and an enhanced immune system. He is assisted by AI chips with notable personalities built into his helmet, gun and backpack. Rogue discovers his unit was sold out to the enemy by a "traitor general" and he sets out to expose and punish this individual in a storyline that lasted four years. Since the conclusion of that story, Rogue has appeared in numerous further adventures in both comics and video games.

British director Duncan Jones is the director of Moon (2009), Source Code (2011), WarCraft (2016) and Mute (2018), and is a director of some skill, although Mute was disappointing. It's unclear how far into development this project is, but we hope to hear more soon.

SF&F Questions: Is HARRY POTTER an epic fantasy?

The Basics

Harry Potter is the biggest-selling novel series of the past twenty years. More than 600 million copies of the seven-volume sequence have been sold and the nine movies set in the same world have grossed over $9 billion (with a tenth due for release this year). The series is a huge crossover success, attracting both young and adult readers, and its characters, terminology and storylines have entered the popular consciousness.

One question that arises occasionally is to do with the genre of the series. The field of epic fantasy has boomed in popularity in the last twenty years, driven by the success of the Lord of the Rings movies and, more recently, the Game of Thrones TV series (both based on huge-selling novel series). It is therefore interesting, if ultimately unimportant, to ask the question, is Harry Potter an epic fantasy? If not, what genre is it in?

I asked this question previously in 2011 and this generateda lot of discussion (lots of excellent points in the comments as well), but I hadn’t fully caught up with either the books or films at that point. Now that I have done so with the films, it seemed an interesting idea to revisit the question.

What is an epic fantasy?

What makes this question more problematic is that no generally-accepted definition of what an epic fantasy is seems to exist. Most people seem to respond with a variation of, “I don’t know, it’s got magic and dragons and elves in it, or something?”

The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy (1997) offered this definition by SFF uber-critic John Clute:
"An epic is a long narrative poem which tells large tales, often incorporating a mixture of legend, myth and folk history, and featuring heroes whose acts have a significance transcending their own individual happiness or woe. The classic epic tells the story of the founding or triumph of a folk or nation... Prose fiction which might be called EF include several of the central secondary world tales central to the development of fantasy over the past 100 years - e.g. much of the work of Kenneth Morris, E.R. Eddison, J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen R. Donaldson. Any fantasy tale written to a large scale which deals with the founding or definitive and lasting defence of a land may fairly be called an EF. Unfortunately, the term has been increasingly used by publishers to describe heroic fantasies that extend over several volumes and has thus lost its usefulness."
Not tremendously helpful, so in my own blog series A History of Epic Fantasy I offer the following definition:
"An epic fantasy is a substantial work of fiction set either in a fictional realm, or a fictionalised version of the real world, in which several characters (and sometimes many dozens) are faced with transformative goals and tasks. Something inherent in the setting must be impossible or fantastic, to set it aside from being merely an alternative history or work of science fiction. There is usually an antagonist to defeat, magical items to utilise and battles to be fought on a large scale. The work is usually long or extends across multiple volumes, although short epic fantasies are not unknown."
Although not definitive, I think that works as a rough idea of the elements you might expect to see in the genre.

What is Harry Potter about?

If you’re one of the three people on Earth not familiar with the series, it may be constructive to briefly summarise the series to see how well it fulfils the tenants of epic fantasy:

Harry Potter is a fantasy series written by J.K. Rowling consisting of seven novels: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007). An eight-film adaptation of the books (The Deathly Hallows was broken into two films) began in 2001 and concluded in 2011. A sequel stage play (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and two prequel movies (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Crimes of Grindelwald) have followed.

The books are set in a fantasied version of the real world, where magical creatures, wizards, witches and sorcery exist in parallel to our world, but sophisticated magic is employed to keep the existence of this world secret from the mundane one. The magic community regards the non-magic community disparagingly as “muggles” and takes little interest in them, despite their technology and numbers. Children with an aptitude for magic are taken to one of several magic schools, with apparently one school for each country or region: the UK’s school, located in Scotland, is called Hogwarts.

Eleven years before the books begin, the magical world is rocked by a conflict where one wizard, Tom Riddle, attempts to seize power and conquer the magical world (and possibly the muggle one as well). Taking the name “Voldemort” and styling himself “the Dark Lord”, nearly succeeds in his mission. During a final battle in the village of Godric’s Hollow, he successfully kills two wizards opposed to him – Lily and James Potter – and tries to kill their one-year-old son, Harry. However, Harry is able to resist the attack and Voldemort is apparently killed as a result. When the books open, Harry is being looked after by his mother’s sister Petunia and her husband Vernon, both muggles who despised Lily and James, and hate and mistreat Harry as a result. Despite their objections, Harry is recruited into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry, who was hitherto unaware of the existence of the magical world, starts off on the backfoot. He is also taken aback by his fame as a result of his role in Voldemort’s apparent destruction. Potter quickly makes two very close friends, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, but earns the enmity of Draco Malfoy and the potions teacher, Severus Snape.

Over the course of his time at Hogwarts, it becomes clear that Voldemort was not killed, but instead reduced to a shadow or wraith-like existence. Voldemort’s followers, the Death-Eaters, successfully restore their master to a corporeal and apparently invulnerable form and Voldemort quickly launches a renewed attempted to conquer the magical community. Harry, aided by friends and allies, organises a resistance and learn Voldemort’s weakness, that to preserve his life he has split his life force between seven vessels, known as Horcruxes. Harry sets out to destroy the Horcruxes and also draw Voldemort’s forces into a decisive battle at Hogwarts.

Does Harry Potter fulfil the criteria?

At first glance, Harry Potter fulfils most of the criteria to be counted as an epic fantasy. The story is epic in scale, unfolding over seven novels (and eight long movies), the latter four of which are quite large. Although the story is episodic, at least to start with, a clear over-arcing storyline quickly emerges and comes to dominate the saga.

The story itself is also the most familiar one in epic fantasy: a Chosen One (Harry) is prophesied to stand against a Dark Lord (Voldemort). Magic is a fact of life and non-human races (elves, goblins, centaurs and giants) and creatures (dragons, giant spiders, basilisks and many others) abound. There are several key and major battles throughout the series and there are a large number of Plot Coupons (magical mcguffins or plot devices), including magical swords, a secret crown (or diadem), the Horcruxes, the Deathly Hallows and magical wands, among many others. There are also conspiracies and political intrigue, with the return of the Dark Lord being regarded with scepticism by many factions which hinders Harry’s attempts to forge an alliance to stand against Voldemort.

Several arguments mustered against Harry Potter being an epic fantasy seem unconvincing. The series is predominantly aimed at children and teenagers, but several key epic fantasy works are likewise aimed at younger readers, including J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (and The Lord of the Rings at least starts in a similar mode before becoming more adult), C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series and Christopher Paolini’s Eragon saga, whilst other series seem to be deliberately calibrated so either children or adults can enjoy them, such as David Eddings’ Belgariad (recently reissued in a YA edition) and Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance books. Being aimed at younger readers does not disqualify a work from being an epic fantasy.

More debatable is the fact that Harry Potter ostensibly takes place in our world but with a magical hidden society. Some have argued this makes the series more akin to an urban fantasy than an epic one. This seems flawed, as urban fantasies take place in urban environments: Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files features a secret magical world existing alongside our own, but the action itself takes place in the real world (most regularly in and around Chicago). The same is true for Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series and other works of urban fantasy. Harry Potter, by contrast, does not take place in urban environments (a few isolated moments aside) and the majority of the story takes place in fictional locations, mostly in and around Hogwarts Castle.

Furthermore, many epic fantasies do take place in remote and fictional historical periods of our world (such as Tolkien’s Middle-earth works and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time), in parallel universe versions of our history (such as Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy and Crown of Stars series) and feature characters crossing over from our world to a fantastical one (such as Narnia, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry and Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever). It’s actually less common to encounter epic fantasy worlds with absolutely zero connections to our one.

The level of worldbuilding that Rowling has done for the series also exceeds that of many epic fantasies, with vast numbers of characters, timelines, backstories, magical rules, terms and bloodlines created and detailed.

Answer: Harry Potter fulfils most of the requirements for being an epic fantasy, and the arguments used to counter its place in the genre would also eliminate many works considered to be inarguably core to the genre. As such Harry Potter can be counted as part of the epic fantasy subgenre, as well as being a YA fantasy.

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The fifth Harry Potter novel, The Order of the Phoenix, is also the longest, clocking in at over 800 pages in paperback and taking the author three times longer to write than any previous book in the series. When it came time to adapt the novel the screenwriters had to take a chainsaw to the manuscript.

Mercifully, this approach worked. Michael Goldenberg expertly focused the script on the core of the story from the novel whilst removing extraneous subplots. The loss of some of this material is a shame, particularly the removal of Ron's Quidditch storyline, but for the most part the cuts are well-judged and give us a fast-paced, action-packed film with some moments of more atmospheric reflection, courtesy of new director David Yates.

The addition of Yates adds an interesting visual texture to the film. Best-known previously for the excellent BBC mini-series State of Play, Yates darkens the visual tone of the series and introduces a much greater sense of continuity and creeping menace. The Harry Potter world makes a bit more sense as a setting in the Yates movies, and his grasp of film-making is assured and compelling. Keeping Yates around to direct the next three movies as well was a very good move. New castmembers such as Imelda Staunton as Delores Umbridge and Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange are also outstanding, Staunton's brittle-to-the-point-of-deranged Umbridge being a particularly effective antagonist.

Where the film falters is when it includes elements from the book but can't pay them more than lip service: Nymphadora Tonks is well-played by Natalia Tena (later to appear in Game of Thrones) but she has such little to do in this or subsequent films that you wonder if the character should have just been cut altogether. The death of one major character, which was an important moment in the novels, is also kind of glossed over here.

Still, the film succeeds in being a well-paced, well-directed and compelling piece of fantasy cinema.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (****½) is another fine addition to the film series. The movie is available now in the UK (DVDBlu-Ray) and USA (DVDBlu-Ray) as part of the Complete Harry Potter Movie Collection.

The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron

Eli Monpress is a trickster, a thief and a manipulator of spirits. His latest caper involves kidnapping the King of Mellinor, but the kingdom holds a dark and ancient secret that triggers an intervention by the powerful Spirit Court, the arbitrators of the use of spirits and sorcery. Monpress may be in over his head, but he has resources to call upon that no-one suspects.

The Spirit Thief is the first novel in the five-volume Eli Monpress fantasy series by Rachel Aaron, and was her debut novel. The book is standard fantasy caper fare, a little bit Ocean's Eleven by way of Dungeons and Dragons, with a group of mismatched protagonists forced to work together to pull off a challenging mission.

In the right hands - say Scott Lynch with his excellent Lies of Locke Lamora or Joe Abercrombie with a considerably bloodier take on the idea in Best Served Cold - this can make for a gripping and compelling novel. The Spirit Thief doesn't really come close to that kind of quality, but Aaron makes up for the relative lack of depth by making a book that's short, fun and even kind of airy. There's not much in the way of grimdark here (a few cynical musings on power aside), with Aaron instead clearly having fun writing the book and creating a breezy palate-cleanser of a fantasy novel.

There are some interesting ideas, most notably the magic system which revolves around the manipulation of spirits. Every organic object in the world has its own spirit and sorcerers can "talk" to those spirits to bring about events they want: getting a wood spirit to lose cohesion so a door frame collapses and the door can just be pushed over, for example. Monpress's skill is in negotiation: rather than commanding or cajoling spirits, he makes friends with them and can thus extract a much greater level of service than other wizards. Exactly why Monpress has this level of spiritual empathy is unclear, but will presumably be explored in later books.

The magic system is interesting and the central characters are interesting, but so far pretty archetypal: Spirit Court investigator Miranda is by-the-book and overconfident, Eli is a rogue and charmer but with notable secrets, Josef is an honourable warrior whose ideology gets in the way of practicality and Nico is an apparently young girl but with weird superpowers. There's also a talking wolf and a couple of sentient swords, because why not? If you're going to write a fantasy novel you might as well go all-out.

This sometimes leaves The Spirit Thief feeling derivative of other works and it struggles to maintain its own sense of identity. This isn't helped by extremely limited worldbuilding (the nation of Mellinor is so bland it's barely even described, which is a problem when the geological history of the kingdom suddenly becomes important in the finale) and the prose, which can tend towards the bland. Dialogue is a bit better and there are some interesting tics in characterisation which are promising for future books. But overall the book is fun and easy to read.

The Spirit Thief (***½) will win no prizes for originality or the quality of its writing, but it's also a refreshingly straightforward and even more refreshingly short and concise fantasy adventure with some hints that the series may get more interesting in the sequels. The novel is available now in the omnibus The Legend of Eli Monpress (UK, USA).

Friday, 13 July 2018

HBO greenlights new Joss Whedon TV show

HBO have given a straight-to-series order for a new Joss Whedon project called The Nevers. Like much of Whedon's output, the series will focus on a strong central cast of female characters (presumably the Nevers of the title), this time who develop unusual powers in Victorian England. Mayhem results as various forces try to get their hands on these women and their abilities.

Dubbing it his "most ambitious narrative yet," the series will mark Whedon's first foray into television as a showrunner since Dollhouse in 2009, although he has since executive produced and directed his brother Jed's show Agents of SHIELD and worked as a director and writer on individual episodes of shows such as The Office.

Whedon is, of course, best-known for creating, writing and directing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the hit 1997-2003 fantasy show. This spawned a successful spin-off, Angel (which ran for five seasons), before he wrote and produced Firefly, a space opera show which founded a fevered cult following but only a small audience. It was cancelled after just 14 episodes were made. Despite vowing never to work with Fox Television again, he was later lured back to make a show called Dollhouse, which likewise was cancelled prematurely, although this time after at least making it to two seasons.

Whedon began working in film in the 1990s, working as a writer and script doctor on such movies as Toy Story, Twister, Speed and Alien: Resurrection. In 2005 he wrote and directed Serenity, a film sequel to the Firefly TV series, and in 2008 he made Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a musical comedy. He then joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe's creative team, initially as an advisor but then as writer and director on The Avengers (2012) and The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Expressing dissatisfaction with Marvel's creative interference in the latter project, he decamped to rivals DC, where he stepped in at short notice to complete the filming of Justice League when Zack Snyder had to drop out before filming was complete to deal with a family tragedy. Whedon was developing a Batgirl film script before concluding it wasn't going the way he wanted and leaving the company.

Last year, Whedon was rocked by a personal scandal when his ex-wife accused him of carrying out multiple affairs with younger female castmembers on several of his shows. Whedon has downplayed the allegations via legal representation, but the news shocked his fanbase who had previously praised him for his depiction of female empowerment in his media. The biggest Whedon fansite shut down in the wake of the allegations and his fans have been divided ever since.

It's been speculated for some time that Whedon would find a better home for his projects on cable TV, with him blaming network interference for problems on most of his projects. In particular, Whedon struggled with Fox's restrictions in dealing with more challenging material on Dollhouse and the network airing Firefly out of order and with insufficient advertising. HBO should give Whedon a lot more freedom to develop the project according to his own wishes.

The news also sees HBO doubling down on genre content, with Damon Lindelof's Watchmen pilot recently completed and expected to go to series, a third season of Westworld ordered, J.J. Abrams producing a new SF show called Demimonde and Jordan Peele developing Lovecraft Country. Game of Thrones will also air its final season next spring, with two spin-off in active development, one of which has already been ordered to pilot.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Billy Dee Williams to return to STAR WARS in Episode IX

Billy Dee Williams is returning to the Star Wars franchise. He will be reprising the role of Lando Calrissian in Episode IX, which is currently in production for a December 2019 release.

Williams played the role in the films The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), but has returned to the role in projects including The Lego Movie (2014) and episodes of Star Wars: Rebels (2015), as well as video games. Apparently both J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson considered including him in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, but ultimately decided he didn't really have a role.

The sad passing of Carrie Fisher (who played Princess/General Leia) and the on-screen elimination of Harrison Ford (Han Solo) and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) means that Williams will be the highest-profile returning member of the original cast in Episode IX, alongside Anthony Daniels (C3-PO) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca).

A younger version of Lando was played by Donald Glover in the recent Solo spin-off film.

Details leak on second GAME OF THRONES spin-off show

Last month HBO confirmed it was moving ahead with a pilot script for a Game of Thrones spin-off show based on the Long Night, the ancient war between the First Men and the White Walkers that ended with the construction of the Wall and the founding of the Night's Watch. Jane Goldman has been developing the project (in consultation with George R.R. Martin) and HBO have been happy enough with her work to push it through to the pilot stage. We're now hearing that the pilot will shoot in October and November - nine years exactly after the pilot shoot for Game of Thrones itself - with a view to the first season shooting next year and airing in 2020, mirroring the GoT development process.

Ted Nasmith's depiction of Valyria, from The World of Ice and Fire.

There are also now rumours spreading that HBO is leaning towards greenlighting a second pilot, this time set around the Doom of Valyria. This is the project that Max Borenstein (Godzilla, Skull Island) has been working on for some time and has the working title Empire of Ash. According to the reports, HBO and Borenstein - presumably also in close consultation with George R.R. Martin - have developed a significant amount of worldbuilding for this project, with a five-season, 10-episodes-per-season story arc worked out in some detail which presumably culminates in the Doom and its aftermath.

According to the report, the story will be predominantly set in Valyria and its colonies in Sothoryos, and will feature a much more diverse cast of characters in terms of religion and ethnicity. The story will follow several characters with House Targaryen very much a minor background faction, but which will presumably become higher in profile later on. According to the reports Aenar Targaryen and his daughter Daenys the Dreamer will play a role, which suggests this will be multi-generational story, spanning the century between Aenar's departure for Dragonstone and the Doom itself. In this manner the show sounds highly reminiscent of HBO's epic series Rome (2004-07), except set in a fictional setting.

Is this story plausible? Yes, of the five spin-off ideas HBO originally commissioned, I understand that three are still in serious play, including both a Long Night and Doom of Valyria series. The third, which may be the Dance of Dragons, may actually be dependent on how far they go down the Doom of Valyria route, as both would be dragon-heavy story with political intrigue; Empire of Ash may be more tempting as it's a whole new story whilst the Dance's storyline will be presented in full in Fire and Blood, so I suspect the Dance project would move onto the backburner if Empire moves forward (in fact, the suggestion that HBO are actually considering two projects indicates this may have already happened).

The reasons why Empire of Ash has not been formally greenlit yet appear to be myriad: HBO want some more space from The Long Night's announcement before confirming this project and they have also been courting Miguel Sapochnik to direct the pilot. However, Sapochnik has also reportedly been approached by Netflix to direct possibly multiple episodes of the first season of The Witcher, which is now in formal pre-production and casting, with a view to shooting at the end of this year or the start of next, potentially clashing with the Empire of Ash pilot.

Interesting to get more news on this as it develops.