Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Monday, 20 May 2019

Gratuitous Lists: Top Ten SFF Pilots

Five years ago, I talked about the best SFF finales, the shows that stuck their landings with good, rousing endings. Even rarer than a good ending is a good pilot, a great first episode that hooks you into a show for the duration. Many shows take a good 3-4 episodes to bed in and start getting good, so shows which are on fire from the first episode are rarer, and more valuable to networks.

Here is a list of ten of the best show-openers (in no particular order). Note that I have used "pilot" to mean "the first episode of the series" rather than the technical definition (a premiere episode filmed separately to the rest of the series, not always for public consumption).

Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series
Aired 8-9 December 2003

Ronald D. Moore worked on the Star Trek franchise over a decade, starting on The Next Generation in 1989 and rounding off the final season of Deep Space Nine in 1999, co-writing two movies along the way. In 2000 he joined the writing team of Star Trek: Voyager in its sixth season, but quickly found his goals for the series being thwarted. He wanted to see Voyager, trapped far from home on the other side of the galaxy, taking damage and staying damaged from episode to episode. He wanted to see more consistent characterisation, the morals of Starfleet being tested in extreme circumstances. Instead the other writers and producers wanted to hit the reset button at the end of every week.

Three years later, Moore was approached by the Sci-Fi Network (now SyFy) with an intriguing offer. They'd picked up the rights to 1978 space opera Battlestar Galactica and were developing a remake project. A previous reboot attempt, with X-Men producers Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto, had foundered in the wake of 9/11 and SyFy were now looking for a fresh take. Moore agreed to take on the project on the understanding that he wanted to make it a more gritty and adult show. Although he'd enjoyed the original show, he felt the premise had been under-valued. The destruction of twelve planets and the deaths of billions of people would have left a staggering mental scar on the survivors, not to mention raising extreme ethical concerns of how the military and civilian authorities worked together in such circumstances, not to mention the collective PTSD of having tens of thousands of people trapped in spacecraft with dwindling supplies for months or years on end.

The result was a mini-series, aired on SyFy and then NBC in 2003, which served as a backdoor pilot for a series proper. And it'd be fair to say that Moore and his team knocked it out of the park. The second the mini-series opens it feels different. Director Michael Rymer created a shaky, immediate style of shooting that put the viewer in the heart of the action. Composer Richard Gibbs used a drums-heavy sound to create a very different, military-feeling soundtrack. The actors, a mix of newcomers like Jamie Bamber and Katee Sackhoff and industry veterans like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, are uniformly excellent. The visual effects by CG studio Zoic are (still) amazing. Over the course of a generous three hours, the mini-series builds the world of the Twelve Colonies and then tears it down, leaving the bewildered survivors to try to escape and build a new life for themselves.

It's not the series at its best - the first episode of Season 1 and thus the next episode after this, 33, may hold that honour - but it does set up the show well and leave you wanting to watch more.

Blake's 7: The Way Back
Aired 2 January 1978

In the late 1970s, veteran TV writer Terry Nation was called in to a meeting at the BBC to discuss creating a new show. A respected writer with a huge amount of experience in the industry, he was still best-known for creating the Daleks for Doctor Who fifteen years earlier, and the BBC were hoping to tap that magic again. Nation had several ideas for crime dramas and other ideas, but the executives he was talking to seemed underwhelmed. Improvising on the spot, Nation suggested a dystopian space opera, with a band of malcontents and criminals reluctantly joining forces to escape a tyrannical government. He left with a commission to write a pilot.

Blake's 7 was developed as a conscious riposte to the relentless optimism of Star Trek; the symbol of the despotic Terran Federation is that of Star Trek's Federation but turned to the extreme right. Nation decided he didn't want to write a children's show, and instead wrote an adult, tough and at times brutal pilot script in which engineer Roj Blake is taken to a clandestine meeting of rebels against the government and learns that he was once a respected military leader, captured by the Federation and mind-wiped to be turned into a model citizen. Blake is horrified and suffers a mild mental breakdown as his real memories come flooding back. His new associates are killed in a massacre and Blake finds himself on trial on trumped-up charges of child molestation. His lawyers discover the truth and embark on a quest to clear Blake's name...with invariably fatal results. Only at the end of the episode does Blake meet some of his other soon-to-be fellow shipmates (Jenna and Vila; Avon doesn't appear until the second episode), as he is carried away from Earth on a transport, vowing to return to destroy the government.

The Way Back is uncompromising and quite astonishingly cynical, landing in tone somewhere between Nineteen Eighty-FourThe Prisoner and a waking nightmare, and light-years from the cowboy theatrics of the then recently-released movie Star Wars. It has money problems - Blake's 7 was commissioned as a replacement for contemporary crime drama Softly Softly: Task Force and given the exact same budget! - but these are mostly overcome by cunning use of industrial wastelands and locations as sets and some quite excellent model work. What remains overwhelmingly impressive is the bleak atmosphere and superb acting, particularly from Gareth Thomas as Blake. Not just a great pilot episode, this is one of the best episodes of the entire series.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child
Aired 23 November 1963

The day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the BBC started broadcasting a very unusual drama series. Commissioned as a stopgap between the Saturday sports coverage and an evening pop music show, Doctor Who was a show that combined elements of historical drama, science fiction and educational show. Its long list of creators (Sydney Newman, Anthony Coburn, C.E. Webber, Donald Wilson, Verity Lambert and David Whittaker all played a role in development) shows it was a tough concept to translate to screen, but eventually they succeeded and filmed a pilot episode.

Unfortunately, the pilot episode was a failure. The direction was off, the actors fluffed their lines several times and bits of the set broke off during filming. Unusually (because of the considerable expense), the BBC took the step of mounting a full re-shoot of the pilot, along with a partial rewrite of the script to make the characters more relatable. This time, the team hit it out of the park, crafting a remarkable 25-minute science fiction mystery series that would ultimately launch a franchise that would run for fifty-six years (and counting).

An Unearthly Child sees Coal Hill School teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright becoming concerned about the welfare of one of their students, Susan Foreman, who is quite astonishingly bright and intelligent about somethings (like science and maths) but astoundingly ignorant about others. They are bewildered to discover that she lives with her grandfather in what appears to be a junkyard. Her grandfather, who answers only to the title "Doctor," tries to escape their attention by taking refuge in a police telephone box, but the teachers follow him inside only to discover it is in fact a camouflaged space/time machine, a TARDIS. Shenanigans ensure in which they also learn that both the Doctor and Susan are aliens, exiles from another world, before the TARDIS malfunctions and carries them away from Earth, beginning an adventure that will last a long, long time.

The first episode of Doctor Who has many of the ingredients of later episodes, including a mystery and dramatic revelations, but this time they're about the Doctor himself. This was the first time people had encountered the character, or the TARDIS, and in many cases the very idea of time travel. With some impressive sets (by 1963 BBC standards), good writing and an off-beat atmosphere, not to mention a superlative performance by William Hartnell (the Doctor), which is somewhere between stern and outright threatening, An Unearthly Child sets the scene for all that has followed since.

The Expanse: Dulcinea
Aired 23 November 2015

Bringing James S.A. Corey's series of space opera novels to the screen was always going to be a big challenge, but it's one that the team at Alcon Entertainment rose to with a relish. Dulcinea introduces the setting of the 23rd Century Solar system as vividly as Ron Moore introduced the world of the Twelve Colonies in Battlestar Galactica a dozen years earlier. The attention to detail is amazing, from the lighter gravity in the asteroid settlements to the way the crewmembers of ships not under thrust have to float in zero-g. More important are the actors, with Thomas Jane as a world-weary detective and Steven Strait as the idealistic would-be hero who puts his life (and those of others) on the line to do what he considers to be right.

The result is a vivid and immediately-impactful vision of the future, and a show that starts already in fifth gear and only accelerates from there. Stunning visuals (the effects team on the show deserve all the plaudits for their clear, detailed style, and to be frank the guys creating the murky, often barely-discernible CG on Star Trek: Discovery could learn a lot from them), some excellent music and some terrific directing (the opening imagery of Julie Mao on her terror-stricken ship is now iconic) help propel the story onwards.

The Expanse is the best space opera show since - and possibly including - Battlestar Galactica and this first episode is an important part of the reason why. Remember the Cant!

Firefly: Serenity
Aired 20 December 2002

Serenity was the first episode of Firefly to be written and shot, but it was not the first to be broadcast: Fox felt the episode was low on action and pace, so they ordered Joss Whedon to create a punchier opening (resulting in The Train Job) and moved this premiere to later in the run. Of course, as this episode was the one that established what the hell was going on and introduced the characters and premise, this didn't do much but leave viewers extremely confused and switching off in their droves, leading a few weeks later to the show's cancellation.

This was a huge shame (understatement) as Serenity - not to be confused with the movie of the same name - is a splendid pilot, the best Joss Whedon has ever written. It sets up both the world and the worldview of its characters, introduces a relatively large cast and establishes a significant mystery that will run across the season. It also has to tell rollicking good story in its own right, which it does with enviable skill.

Whilst it's hard to pinpoint one reason why Firefly failed, taking it's excellent opening two hours and burying them at the end of the first season probably had a key role to play.

Lost: Pilot
Aired 22 September 2004

Costing almost $15 million, the pilot episode to Lost is still the most expensive TV pilot ever filmed. To sell the crash-landing of Oceanic Flight 815 on a remote island in the South Pacific, ABC shipped a broken-up Lockheed L-1011 to Hawaii, scattered bits of it along a beach and then, after several weeks of shooting, had to carefully remove it again. It was absurdly indulgent, but every second of the expense ends up on screen, resulting in a scene of chaos, explosions and people trying to save one another that grabbed the audience and didn't let up.

J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof's script is intriguing, setting up no less than fourteen regular characters (and several more recurring) and establishing almost all of them with some interesting character work before later episodes would do the heavy lifting of fleshing them all out via flashbacks. Excellent acting and fantastic location shooting in Hawaii added up to that rarest of things, a network TV show that looked as expensive as premium cable.

Lost's pilot shows the value of starting your show with a bang, grabbing the audience's attention, and then not letting it go.

Mr. Robot:
Aired 24 June 2015

Mr. Robot began life as a movie script by Sam Ismail which he developed for some time before realising that the story was too big and the characters bursting past the page count, demanding more material. Ismail reframed the two-hour movie as a ten-hour season of television, with the pilot expanding from the first thirty pages of the script.

Mr. Robot's pilot is remarkable, an intense drama blending psychology, hacking, cyberthriller and drama. Rami Malek is perfectly cast as Eliot Alderson, a man suffering from depression and loneliness who relates to people by hacking them online, even his therapist. In doing so he finds out secrets about them that they don't even know, and is able to influence their lives without them ever knowing.

Mr. Robot's pilot also has unusual rewatch value. You can watch it on the surface as the technothriller it comes across as, but after watching Season 1 you can go back with fresh information and see all the events again in a different light. A remarkable opening episode to a very unique-feeling series.

Red Dwarf: The End
Aired 15 February 1988

"Everybody's dead, Dave." The very first episode of Red Dwarf sets up a very strong premise, with Dave Lister, the lowest-ranking crewmember on the five-mile-long mining ship Red Dwarf (because the service robots have a better union than the human maintenance crew), being sentenced to spend the rest of the mission in temporal stasis after smuggling an unquarantined cat on board. This proves unexpectedly helpful when the crew is wiped out by a lethal radiation leak. Holly, the ship's AI (IQ 6,000, "the same as 12,000 traffic wardens"), steers the ship into deep space and waits for the radiation to die down to a safe background level...which takes 3 million years.

Emerging from stasis, Lister discovers his only company is the now-senile Holly, a humanoid lifeform who descended from his pregnant cat and a holographic recreation of Lister's commanding office, the painfully officious and unpleasant Arnold J. Rimmer.

It's a great premise which gets the show off to a good start (arguably the second episode, Future Echoes, is also required viewing as it sets up how the show can move beyond its limited premise), showcases the amazing cast and features some good gags. A 31-year (and counting) journey started here.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Emissary
Aired 3 January 1993

Deep Space Nine is almost certainly the finest Star Trek television series for myriad reasons, from its greater levels of serialisation to its intricate character arcs to its refusal to push the reset button at the end of each episode, but one that is oft-overlooked is the fact that it has the best opening episode in the entire franchise.

The Cage was so esoteric and weird that it put the broadcasters off and nearly killed the original Star Trek, before it came back with the (somewhat) stronger and mostly-recast second pilot Where No Man Has Gone Before; the broadcasters were still unconvinced and ended up dropping in a random early Season 1 episode to kick things off instead. Star Trek: The Next Generation's Encounter at Farpoint was intriguing but clumsily-written, with the characters pale shadows of their later, more fleshed-out incarnations. Voyager's Caretaker was only okay, and Enterprise's Broken Bow started off well by promising a more low-tech approach to Star Trek that it had pretty much broken by the end of the pilot. Discovery took arguably three whole episodes to even finish off setting up its basic premise.

Emissary, though, is a much more successful episode. It opens with a literal bang, with producer Michael Piller finally apologising to fans for having to wimp out on showing the Battle of Wolf 359 from The Next Generation's Borg epic The Best of Both Worlds three years earlier (due to cost). An epic flashback depicts the desperate struggle as the Borg cut through a Starfleet armada of forty starships with contemptuous ease, Commander Ben Sisko losing his wife in the process.

The rest of the episode is fascinating. The Cardassians have withdraw their occupation force from the planet Bajor after forty years of brutal conquest, leaving massive religious and social upheavals in their wake. The Federation has stepped in to help the transition and run an orbiting Cardassian space station, but to the surprise of the Starfleet personnel, they find a hostile reception among those Bajorans who fear they've swapped one oppressor for another. It's all rather messy and a big departure from The Next Generation, where everyone is so civilised and reasonable and solves problems over cups of (Earl Grey, hot) tea and sessions with the ship's counsellor. The fact that the main cast includes a significant number of both Starfleet and non-Starfleet personnel (a first and, to date, last for the franchise) allows for more character and cultural conflict than we'd previously seen on Trek, and fuelled seven full (and mostly excellent) seasons of stories.

The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye
Aired 31 October 2010

The Walking Dead has become such a divisive and polarising show, that it's easy to forget how well-received the first episode (and most of the first season) was. Directed by Frank Darabont (that's Mr. Shawshank Redemption to you and me), the opening episode is a masterclass in slowly building tension and character interplay, particularly the exchanges between Rick and Morgan (so effective that Morgan would return to the series years later by popular fan demand).

The visuals are striking throughout, particularly the closing images of Rick riding a horse into an eerily deserted Atlanta, only to be attacked by a vast horde of walkers and forced to take refuge in a tank. It's rare to see a pilot given this level of production value, scripting and direction, and a genuine pleasure to watch.

Of course, Darabont would be forced off The Walking Dead in -contentious circumstances a year later (with litigation still continuing today), and The Walking Dead would go through so many showrunners, writing staffs and contortions of premise that the show today barely resembles how it started, but this opener remains excellent and compelling viewing.

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Friday, 17 May 2019

New HIS DARK MATERIALS trailer reveals the daemons

The BBC and HBO have dropped a new teaser trailer for His Dark Materials, their TV adaptation of the Philip Pullman trilogy of the same name.

The new trailer shows off the daemons (animal familiars) of the main characters for the first time. It also confirms that the armoured bears will appear in Season 1. With the show planned to adapt the three books over five seasons, it was unclear if the bears would be included in the first season.

The trailer also shows scenes that appear only at the very end of the first novel in the series, Northern Lights (retitled The Golden Compass in the USA for no readily apparent reason), suggesting that perhaps they have rethought the five-season strategy and might be considering a shorter run.

His Dark Materials has already been renewed for a second season, which is expected to enter production soon. Season 1 is expected to start airing in October or November this year.

Amazon cancels THE TICK

In frankly horrible news, Amazon has cancelled the fantastic The Tick after two seasons.

Amazon have not provided a reason for not proceeding with the series. Creator Ben Edlund has confirmed that he will try to find a home for the series elsewhere, but the initial signs do not look promising.

Across its two seasons, The Tick was funny, oddly moving and brilliantly written and acted, particularly by the immortal Peter Serafinowicz as the title character. It's a real shame we will not be seeing more of the show.

It's also unusual, because Amazon have prioritised finding commercial and critical successes in their quest to rival Netflix. The Tick's two seasons have scored hugely well with critics, including a 100% critic rating for the second season on Rotten Tomatoes. However, Amazon did not publicise the release of the second season well, sneaking it out with relatively little fanfare, which may have impacted on the reception (the same problem Netflix had with Season 2 of Sense8, in which case many viewers didn't know that the second season had been released until the show was cancelled).

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Halo Wars: Definitive Edition

The year 2531. The United Nations Space Command and the alien Covenant are engaged in a war for control of vital resources. The UNSC starship Spirit of Fire investigates Covenant activity on the planet Harvest and uncovers evidence of a plot by the Covenant which could imperil all of humanity. The Spirit of Fire has to pursue a Covenant taskforce into deep space and attempt to thwart their plans without backup.

The Halo series began life as a real-time strategy game for Mac, before transitioning into a first-person shooter for PC before finally arriving on the original X-Box in 2001, the first shooter since GoldenEye to really work with a console controller. The series became a huge success, selling millions of copies of the original game and its sequels Halo 2 (2005) and Halo 3 (2007), and a spin-off, Halo 3: ODST (2009). In a sign of things becoming full circle, Microsoft decided to expand the franchise to other genres and commissioned a real-time strategy spin-off, Halo Wars, which was eventually released on the X-Box 360 in 2009. In 2016, the game was finally ported to PC as a "Definitive Edition," which is the version I have reviewed here.

Halo Wars gained praise on release as the first real-time strategy game made to really work on console. An intuitive interface allows players to build units, expand their bases, select forces and advance across the battlefield from a standard controller. Some standard RTS controls and ideas had to abandoned or simplified for the experience, but the transition was surprisingly successful.

As with most RTS games, Halo Wars opens with you having control of a single base. This can be upgraded with modules, such as supply depots (which generate supply, the game's sole resource), power stations (which generate power, which determines what upgrades and advanced units you can build), barracks, vehicle construction stations and aircraft construction stations. You can also add turrets to bases to help defend them. In an interesting twist, even a fully-upgraded base can't hold all of the structures you need, forcing you to expand early and explore the map to find areas where you can set up secondary bases.

The resource gathering is a particularly nice touch. Rather than send out a harvester of some kind to mine a resource, you simply generate supply points. The more supply depots you have, the more supply you generate, but of course you only have a limited number of expansion modules, so if you build lots of supply pads you may find yourself unable to build a vehicle factory or a barracks. This encourages early-game expansion and exploration. The supply mechanic isn't new, originating as it did in the Command and Conquer: Generals expansion Zero Hour many years earlier, but Halo Wars makes it really work as part of the mechanics.

You can build an extensive army consisting of infantry, aircraft, tanks, anti-air batteries and other units. The elite Spartan super-soldiers can't be built (at least in campaign mode) but can join the fray as special elite units for certain missions.

For a supposedly "cut-down" RTS, Halo Wars surprisingly enjoyable even for an experienced PC strategy gamer. The unit variety isn't the most extensive, but the focus on a smaller roster helps streamline the game and make it more enjoyable. It also allows for battles to be fought faster and more furiously, rather than you agonising of which of several very slightly different units to build.

The campaign is enjoyable, with a fairly straightforward SF story. As the game is set twenty years before the original Halo: Combat Evolved, no prior knowledge of the franchise is needed, making it a perfect jumping-on point ahead of the release of the upcoming Halo Master Chief Collection on PC (which will bring Halo: Reach, Halo: ODST, Halo 3 and Halo 4 to PC for the first time, alongside upgraded versions of the original Halo and Halo 2).

The game does have several problems, however. The game doesn't use many "standard" RTS controls, instead forcibly mapping camera controls to WASD and not allowing you to reassign them. This means many standard RTS controls - A for attack-move, S for stop - are not available in the game. The game is also on the short side: I polished off all 15 campaign missions in about 11 hours. The game feels like it really needs a Covenant campaign to make the game a more worthwhile single-player experience, and indeed the story feels a bit opaque at times, like we were supposed to be getting more information about the Covenant version of events but at some point this was cut.

The other problem is that the game can't help but feel a little familiar, particularly in missions fighting the organic Flood where you have to destroy their living technology. This feels very reminiscent of fighting both the Zerg in StarCraft and the Tyranids in Dawn of War.

Still, given it is now available at a very reasonable price, Halo Wars (****) succeeds as a short, focused and fun real-time strategy game which doesn't make too many concessions to its console origins. It's available now on Steam.

Atlanta: Season 2

Earn is continuing to manage his cousin Alfred, whose career as rapper "Paper Boi" is blowing up. Alfred is unhappy with Earn's management style, whilst Earn feels that Alfred isn't taking advantage of social media and other opportunities to boost his profile. Meanwhile, it's "Robbin' Season" in Atlanta, the pre-Christmas crime spree, which results in a lot of weird stuff going down.

The first season of Atlanta was a mash-up of comedy, hard-hitting drama and bizarre psychological study. It cemented Donald Glover's (formerly of Community) position as a hot up-and-comer. After that season aired, Glover's music career (as Childish Gambino, of "This is America" fame) went stratospheric and he starred as a young Lando in the Star Wars movie Solo. Other castmembers also went big, with Lakeith Stanfield nailing a major role in Get Out and Zazie Beetz starring in Deadpool 2.

On that basis, it's perhaps a surprise we got a second season of Atlanta so soon, but Glover prioritised it and managed to create something even stranger, sadder, funnier and more heartwarming than the first season.

If Season 1 of Atlanta was a surrealist tone poem, Season 2 is a full-blown odyssey of the strange and the grotesque. It moves through a dense period of several weeks in which a lot of stuff goes down for the characters, so much that rather than try to cover events chronologically it instead splits the events between characters. This means we get few episodes where all the major characters appear, with instead most episodes focusing on a single character or group of characters. This results in an intense focus which at times feels claustrophobic, but this is appropriate for the stories that are being told.

Atlanta remains hilarious, with comic highlights including Darius and Earn trying to defuse a confrontation between Earn's insane uncle and the police, involving an alligator. A later episode sees Earn and Van defusing their relationship problems with a game of table tennis at a German party. Barbershop sees Alfred going for a simple haircut, but gets dragged into an increasingly hilarious road trip with his eccentric barber, whilst in Champagne Papi Van and her friends attend an offbeat house party where they hope to meet Drake. In North of the Border Earn, Darius and Alfred travel to a college campus to take part in a publicity event, but things go sideways and they end up taking refuge at a very uncomfortable frat boy initiation ceremony.

The season also goes dark, very dark. It feels like the shadow of the movie Get Out lies heavy on this season and Glover leans into it, delivering in Teddy Perkins possibly the freakiest 35 minutes of television of 2018. Woods is also a dark and depressing episode, but one that ends on a bizarrely redemptive note.

The season ends by coming almost full circle, as major events in the opening episode come to fruition (including one of the most literal uses of the Chekhov's Gun trope you'll ever see) and leaves things in an interesting place for the third season (which isn't expected to air until 2020).

The second season of Atlanta (*****) improves on the first to become a study in tension and tragicomedy, and has an infusion of horror running through it which is both incongruous and compelling. It remains one of the most unique and distinctive shows on air.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Two children have immense and varying gifts. Patricia is a nascent witch, can talk to animals and has a special bond with nature. Laurence is an engineering and scientific genius who has built a semi-functional AI and a two-second time machine. As children they are both dismissed as freaks, which draws them closer together. They are separated in their teenage years but fate draws them back together as adults, in a world slipping into despair from political, technological and scientific challenges.

All the Birds in the Sky is the second novel by Charlie Jane Anders, a noted writer and critic best-known for co-founding SFF website io9 (for which, full disclosure, I have written the occasional piece). It's a novel rich in character and variety which develops two protagonists and has them engage in two distinct narrative threads (one science fiction, the other fantasy) which merge as the novel progresses.

It's a novel which wears many hats, from coming-of-age-against-adversity YA adventure (the opening chapters), to adult relationship drama to science fiction disaster novel to a lyrical fantasy fable. Anders' strength as a novelist is moving between these subgenres with impressive ease, flipping from the YA setting to the apocalyptic SF one on a dime but never losing the book's momentum. The book has a lot of humour and drama in it (along with a topping of tragedy) and it handles these shifts in tone with skill.

Core to the book's success is the characterisation of its two leads, the rigorous and logical Laurence and the more instinctive and spontaneous Patricia. The two characters gain strength from leaning on and learning from one another's differences, and overcoming their challenges by working together. Disastrous moments in the novel come from them not trusting one another or working as cross-purposes instead of pooling resources. It's a book that, above all else, focuses on the idea of empathy and understanding, and facing down challenges through cooperation rather than division.

There are some undercooked moments. I would have liked to have known more about the Order of Assassins that crops up several times in the novel, and some late-book revelations about how much the scientists and magicians know about each other come out of nowhere, but otherwise this is a very fine and appropriate novel for our times.

All the Birds in the Sky (****½) comes across as a fusion of Neil Gaiman (on a very good day), Diana Wynn Jones and Robert Holdstock, but with a twinkling flair to the prose that is all Charlie Jane's. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Disney take over Hulu streaming service

Disney have taken control of Hulu, a popular American streaming service which competes with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in the States.

It's been speculated for some time that this was Disney's plan. Disney are launching their own streaming service, Disney+, in November this year but have been clear that the channel will only be for children and "family" programming. This left questions over Disney's ability or willingness to create material for an adult audience. It also raised questions about Disney's vast new store of films and TV shows from 20th Century Fox, which they recently completed acquiring, as many of these would be unsuitable for a family audience.

Disney's acquisition of Hulu now ends that speculation. Hulu already produce adult programming, such as the critically-acclaimed Handmaid's Tale (which is preparing to release its third season), and in fact have several more adult-oriented Marvel TV shows in development, including Ghost Rider. It is assumed that, as licences expire elsewhere, Disney will move all of Fox's adult-oriented shows over to Hulu and the younger children's shows to Disney+ (they have already confirmed that Disney+ will be the new home of The Simpsons, although presumably the likes of Family Guy would have to go on Hulu).

A key weakness of the Hulu purchase is the lack of international exposure. Hulu licences its shows to overseas partners, with Channel 4 showing The Handmaid's Tale in the UK, for example. As part of the purchase, Disney will begin expanding Hulu's overseas footprint, possibly as part of a pairing deal with Disney+ when it launches in overseas markets.

GAME OF THRONES showrunners to write and direct next STAR WARS movie

Disney have confirmed that the next Star Wars movie after J.J. Abrams' Rise of Skywalker will be written, directed and produced by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

It was previously known that Benioff and Weiss had been contracted by Lucasfilm to produce a new Star Wars film "series," along with The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson who had his own full trilogy to make (although Johnson is only contracted to write and produce, and may direct one of the films). The news today from Disney and Lucasfilm confirms that Benioff and Weiss's first movie is up first, due for release in 2022.

The subject matter of the new films is unclear, although head of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy has confirmed that both new film series will be unrelated to the Skywalker Saga (as the numbered episode films are now being called) and will be set in different parts of the Star Wars universe, in time, space or both. Some Star Wars fans have speculated that some or all of the new films will be set in the popular Knights of the Old Republic era, the setting for multiple video games and comics, but this remains speculation at the moment.

GAME OF THRONES prequel pilot starts shooting

The prequel spin-off to Game of Thrones has started shooting under the working title Bloodmoon. This is unlikely to be the final title, with George R.R. Martin preferring the title The Long Night (HBO appear to be less keen).

The pilot is shooting in the same Belfast Paint Hall studios that hosted Game of Thrones, with location shooting due to take place in Northern Ireland and several locations in Europe, including reportedly the Canary Islands.

Naomi Watts stars alongside actors including John Simm, Jamie Campbell Bower and Miranda Richardson. The series is set approximately 5,000 years before the events of Game of Thrones, in the Age of Heroes, and charts the collapse of a golden age society into the chaos of the Long Night, when the White Walkers and the Night King arose for the first time and the Wall was built. With the possible exception of the Night King, no Game of Thrones characters are expected to recur in the new series.

Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First ClassKingsman) is writing and executive producing the new series, with S.J. Clarkson directing the pilot and George R.R. Martin serving as a creative consultant.

If HBO greenlight the pilot, full production of the first season is expected to start before the end of the year, for a 2020 debut.