Sunday, 31 July 2016

Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey

Several years of constant duty has left the independent frigate Rocinante damaged and in severe need of a refit. With the ship in a repair dock for several months of work, the crew scatters back to their homes to catch up with old friends and family. With humanity moving out to explore the new worlds beyond the alien wormhole gateway, it feels like a time of peace and opportunity. This abruptly changes when the largest terrorist attack in human history kills millions and suddenly the Solar system is plunged into chaos. The crew of the Rocinante have to regroup and stop the crisis from getting even worse.



Nemesis Games is the fifth of nine planned books in The Expanse series, carrying us firmly into the second half of the story. Co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing as James S.A. Corey) have structured this series in a very interesting way, using only Jim Holden as their ongoing POV character and swapping other characters in and out with every passing volume. The story has also evolved in an organic way, moving from a near-future thriller rooted in realism in Leviathan Wakes to much grander stories involving aliens and gateways, as well as frontier colonialism. This approach helps keep things fresh, especially when compared to the numerous military SF series out which go on year after year, getting more stale with each passing volume.

Nemesis Games is different to the preceding books in several ways. First off, it splits the POVs between the four crewmembers of the Rocinante. Holden still present, but Alex, Amos and Naomi now all get their own storylines and perspectives. This is a very welcome and overdue move, especially for Naomi who always clearly had more background and complexity going on than Holden (who is often somewhat dense, it has to be said) was able to discern from her. Focusing on Amos, a deeply violent man who requires external stabilising forces to keep himself from snapping altogether, is also a rewarding move which furthers his character more. Alex is the most straightforward crewmember on the Rocinante and this makes him arguably the least interesting, but Abraham and Franck throw in a crowd-pleasing move by teaming him up with Bobbie Draper, the fan-favourite Martian marine from Caliban's War, for most of his mission.

The rotating chapter structure keeps things ticking along quite nicely and at first it appears that our characters are all involved in completely different events. Links soon appear between them and suddenly everything comes crashing together when the terror attacks take place. This is a game-changing moment in the series when the powers and factions we have gotten used to through four previous volumes are challenged by the arrival of a new, more dangerous force and all the existing rules are thrown out. The abruptness of the catastrophic attack is brutally effective, even if the scale of the conspiracy required to bring it about is at times unconvincing: Abraham and Franck evoke a similar feeling of shock to the events of 9/11 but on a far vaster scale involving thousands of conspirators, but that makes the likelihood of the plan succeeding without being found out rather less likely.

Once chaos has been unleashed the authors slam down the accelerator. Nemesis Games moves rapidly between Alex and Bobbie on a desperate rescue mission to Holden's politicking on Tycho Station to Amos and Clarissa Mao trying to escape from a scene of utter devastation to Naomi reluctantly trapped on the inside of the criminal conspiracy. There's a feeling of doom-laden relentlessness to the book which keeps things moving along quickly. This is also the first time in the series where the authors haven't felt the need to tie up the primary storyline before the end of the novel, as they seem to consider Nemesis Games and the forthcoming sixth volume, Babylon's Ashes, as a duology within the framework of the larger series. The novel ends with the bad guys still at large, the catastrophic aftermath of the attack still unfolding and new threats emerging beyond the wormhole gateways.

There are flaws in all of this: Naomi is captured and spends the bulk of the novel imprisoned and trying to talk her captors down from their villainy. Although the authors change things up by having Naomi's captors being her friends from childhood, it still feels a little too much like a retread of Naomi's story in the previous novel in the series, Cibola Burn. The actual moment of the terror attack also feels a little undercooked, as we move from the villain declaiming that something huge is about to happen to seeing a news report on the aftermath. But the impact on the characters is immense and the way it restructures the story going forwards is quite well-handled. In addition, some readers may be disappointed that there is little to no expansion given for the protomolecule storyline and the mystery of what happened to its creators, but arguably after three books focusing on that to the possible detriment of the human story, that's not too much of a problem.

Nemesis Games (****½) finally fulfils the promise laid down by Leviathan Wakes five years ago and is the best volume in The Expanse to date. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The next book in the series, Babylon's Ashes, will be published on 2 November 2016.

Watch Dogs

Aidan Pearce is a hacker whose latest job attracts more attention than he'd like. His car is attacked, his niece is killed in the crossfire and he is left hungry for vengeance. His investigations reveal something dark lurking at the heart of the new computer system which is running the utilities and services of Chicago, and put Pearce on a collision course with both the corrupt administration of the city and some of its most dangerous criminals.




Watch Dogs (aka WATCH_DOGS) is what happens when you create a game not based on its own merits or a killer idea, but by borrowing elements from just about every single other AAA game franchise in existence and throw them all into the blender to see what happens. This is an open world game that borrows - a lot - from Grand Theft Auto V and Assassin's Creed, with a side-dose of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a mild flavouring of Far Cry. It's a bit of an unholy mess, a game that tries to be a jack of all trades and ends up a master of none. It realises some of its ambitions efficiently (but never outstandingly), but it makes a total hash of others.

The game is a set in a fictional version of Chicago which has been put under the control of a new computer network which you can hack into at will. This allows you to change traffic lights (generating comical car crashes), burst water mains, blow up electrical junctions and detonate sewer mains with a few taps of your phone. You can do this just for a laugh, but you can also use these abilities whilst fleeing from pursuit or trying to infiltrate a building for secrets.

Watch Dogs it at its best during these infiltration missions, with Aidan hiding around the corner and hacking into the building's camera network to see what's going on instead. From the cameras you can lure enemies into traps, shut down communications, remote-detonate explosives carried by guards and so on. When these systems work, the game is absolutely great.

A lot of the time they don't work or are unnecessary. Hacking the cameras to defeat enemies works well, but it also takes time. A laborious thirty minute stealth infiltration can be resolved in two minutes by just having Aidan wade into the place with grenade launchers and machine guns. Aside from one or two missions, there is no penalty for simply wading into a situation and killing everyone in sight. One mission, which sees Aidan ascending a tenement block to hack a crime lord's data files, even has bad guys spawning in areas you've already cleared with the cameras (on occasion you can even spot them materialising out of nowhere, which is shockingly bad game design for a modern, big-budget video game), rendering the whole option pointless.

Combat is okay, if unremarkable, but the game's stealth systems are a dog. Cover is sticky and won't let go of you easily. I died far more often from a grenade landing at my feet and Aidan standing still as I hammered the controls to disengage from cover than I ever did from enemy action. Nonlethal takedowns are an option, but on more than one occasion Aidan pulled out his gun and blew away the bad guy rather than simply knocking him out, automatically failing one mission due to being discovered. There are also bad guys who use power armour (somewhat incongruously with the rest of the contemporary or very-near-future setting) who simply act as tiresome bullet sponges who can't be defeated with takedowns until you unlock a late-game skill at which point they become easily disposable.

The open world basics are a mixed bag. There are data towers in parts of the city which you can hack into to discover the locations of side-missions (just like Assassin's Creed and the more recent Far Cry titles) and there's a lot of nice urban detail to the game. One of the big selling points of the game is that you can tap into anyone's mobile phone nearby and learn more about them, perhaps being able to read their texts, listen in on their calls or hacking their bank accounts. Although clearly these elements are randomly assigned from a massive database of descriptions, it still gives the civilian population more character than in, say, a GTA title. Vehicle handling in the game is atrocious: apart from the very fastest sports cars, vehicles handle likes cement blocks on wheels. Bikes are a bit better but in the end I preferred travelling by speedboat (fortunately the map design means most objectives can be reached pretty easily from the river, canals or lake) simply because they had fast turning circles and I wouldn't kill passers-by whilst simply trying to stay on the road.



The storyline - the reason for doing all this running around - is unfortunately insipid, predictable and tiresome. Aidan Pearce is a complete non-entity as a character, a guy with a gravelly voice who wants to be Batman (but a Zach Snyder Batman who is happy murdering people as long as they are bad or it can be self-justified) and wants to avenge his niece's death, but seems rather ludicrously un-self-aware of the mayhem he continues to unleash on his family. Occasional moments when Pearce feels guilt over murdering everyone in sight to achieve an objective ring hollow, since nothing stops him doing the exact same thing on the next mission. Pearce builds up a network of allies and friends over the course of the game, from friendly gangster (and constant scene-stealer) Jordi Chin to French hacker Clara to legendary data ninja T-Bone, but we're never really given a good reason why any of these people want to help an uncharismatic, selfish bore with fluid morality like Aidan.

Despite these criticisms I had some fun with Watch Dogs. The environmental detail is quite impressive, the graphics are effective (if not outstanding) and the sense of place is unusual. The game gave me a bizarre sense of deja vu when travelling the freeways around Chicago from my own visit to the city. It can also be fun to cause havoc in the city, playing with traffic lights, shutting down trains and blowing up cars with sewer pipes. The typical open world problems remain - 99% of buildings cannot be entered and the police won't bother to investigate the two dozen murders you just committed as long as you stay out of their sight for two minutes - but the city feels a bit more alive than in most other open world games. The environmental puzzles can also be a lot of fun. But the game is also deeply flawed, especially in comparison to the competition: Grand Theft Auto V has much more interesting characters and is far better-realised open world with much better vehicles. The new Deus Ex games do hacking and cyberpunk far better. Far Cry 3 and 4 are a much better open-world combat games. And almost any modern action game has stealth and cover systems that make Watch Dogs look inept by comparison. If you're looking for an open-world city game that isn't a GTA title, I would recommend Sleeping Dogs much more strongly over Watch Dogs, as that game has a strong storyline and its unique selling point - martial arts - is handled much better than Watch Dogs' hacking elements.

Ultimately Watch Dogs (**½) feels like a game that needed a good six months more development to iron out the bugs and make the systems work more efficiently together. If Ubisoft can overcome these problems and employ better stealth and vehicles, than the forthcoming Watch Dogs 2 may be a much stronger game.

Cold Steel by Kate Elliott

Revolution has come to Europa. Radicals are urging the oppressed workers, born into clientage to the nobles and mage houses, to rise up and seize control of their own destiny. At the same time the Iberian general Camjiata has returned home, raised an army and invaded the Gallic lands. But these great events are of lesser important to Cat Barahal than finding her husband, Andevai, now a prisoner of her enigmatic father.



Cold Steel concludes the Spiritwalker Trilogy, Kate Elliott's skillful and intriguing blend of epic fantasy, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, steampunk and, er, dinopunk, all told as something approaching a Victorian comedy of manners. It's a highly unconventional work from an author constantly seeking out new angles in the fantasy genre.

It's also the best book in the series. The first two novels set up a lot of complicated elements, such as the Wild Hunt, the mage houses, Camjiata, Cat's intricate family backstory, the magical abilities of her cousin Bee and the radicals, but then let them drop into the background in favour of Andevai and Cat's romance. With that now established, these other elements rise to the fore and the story becomes more epic and complete, moving between the difference storylines and characters with greater ease than in the first two novels. It helps that the fire mage James Drake is now promoted from middling annoyance to outright supervillain in this novel, giving Cat and her allies something more tangible to fight against than the mysterious Master of the Wild Hunt and the otherworldly courts he answers to.

The pace is crisp and effective, with the book not getting bogged down in side-elements as occasionally threatened in Cold Fire, and indeed some elements feel a little under-explored given their set-up in earlier novels (most notably the dragons, who get one spectacular scene but otherwise don't play much of a role in affairs). A very minor issue is that the book does become slightly obsessed with Andevai's wardrobe choices to the point of parody (although I suspect this is the point): I could certainly do with never reading the words "dash jacket" in a fantasy novel again.

Beyond that, Elliott fulfils in Cold Steel (****) the promise laid down in the earlier two, delivering a finely characterised, enjoyable and offbeat conclusion to an original and different kind of fantasy trilogy. It's less weighty and intense, and maybe less memorable, than her earlier Crown of Stars and Crossroads series, but it may also be more fun. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

HBO confirm GAME OF THRONES to end after eight seasons

HBO have formally confirmed that Game of Thrones will end in 2018 with its eighth season.



This has been the preferred plan of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for some time, but HBO head of programming Casey Bloys has now confirmed that HBO is on board with this as well. The seventh season, consisting of seven episodes, will start shooting in the next few weeks and is expected to run through January, to air perhaps in June 2017.

Benioff and Weiss had indicated that the eighth season might only consist of six episodes, but HBO have not confirmed this so far.

Bloys said that HBO have had some exploratory talks about a spin-off show, but there were no firm plans. If a spin-off project is developed, Benioff and Weiss are unlikely to be involved as they have already committed to a film deal with Fox.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Gratuitous Lists: All 13 STAR TREK movies...ranked!

The point of Gratuitous Lists is that the things on it are not listed in order of excellence, but are just on there so people can talk about the shows/games in question rather than argue about the order, which is often arbitrary. But sometimes arguing about the order is just too much fun. After Entertainment Weekly issued a list of Star Trek movies ranked by quality that is simply objectively wrong (how high up is Nemesis?), here's my riposte:




13. Star Trek Into Darkness

Directed by J.J Abrams • Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof • Released 23 April 2013

Woah! Shots fired! Into Darkness isn't a good Star Trek movie, I think most people agree, but the worst? Worse than The Final Frontier or Nemesis? That seems harsh.

But on reflection, I think not. Each of the previous eleven Star Trek movies, even the deliberately nostalgia-evoking 2009 reboot, at least had at their heart a core idea, or something they wanted to say. Not necessarily anything that was particularly original or good, but at least something that gave them a reason to exist. Into Darkness doesn't do that. Having laid down a fresh new direction in the 2009 movie, J.J. Abrams abruptly reverses course and gives us a poor remake of The Wrath of Khan whilst completely missing everything that made that earlier movie work (like the fact that it was based on us having known the characters for fifteen years, 79 episodes and another movie previously; this cast and crew hadn't earned that story yet), whilst also dialling back on screen time for everyone bar Kirk and Spock. There's a nasty, dark undercurrent to the film, a lack of respect for innocent life that just isn't very Star Trek and a horrendous casting decision in using Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. Add to that the lacklustre final battle against a poorly-designed enemy ship and a near-total absence of plot logic, and Into Darkness becomes a sprawling, incoherent mess which aims to be gritty and morally murky and ends up just being comically inept.




12. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Directed by William Shatner • Written by David Loughrey, Harve Bennett & William Shatner • Released 9 June 1989

The Final Frontier is, in many respects a badly-directed, indifferently-written movie which is saved by some absolutely killer lines ("I've always known that I'll die alone" could be a Wrath of Khan line; "What does God want with a starship?" could...not) and the emotional bond between the characters. It also acts as some kind of trans-dimensional portal, through which you can gaze into the inner workings of William Shatner's mind. If you emerge with your sanity intact, congratulations, but spend too long gazing into the abyss and The Final Frontier starts looking like something approaching a good film, an offbeat and bizarre character piece with an occasional decent action beat and an ending that was so far beyond the budget's ability to deliver that someone should really have stopped Shatner from attempting it. But of course no mere mortal could stop Shatner once he had been given this kind of power.

I can see why EW put The Final Frontier further up their list. There's something compulsively watchable about the movie, if only because you're not entirely sure what the hell Shatner is going to do next (either directing, acting or writing-wise) and you have to admire the fact that a movie starring actors in their fifties and sixties went up against the Tim Burton Batman film and the Ghostbusters sequel and somehow held its own. But it does only work once. On rewatches, the film's many flaws including its howl-inducing dialogue, weak effects, uncertain tone and poor villain become almost overwhelming.





11. Star Trek: Nemesis

Directed by Stuart Laird • Written by John Logan, Rick Berman & Brent Spiner • Released 13 December 2002

Nemesis almost killed Star Trek. The only film to bomb at the box office (although thanks to DVD it did eventually turn a modest profit), it was responsible for ending Rick Berman's stewardship of the franchise and causing Paramount to completely rethink their plans for how the property would be handled going forwards. For all of that, Nemesis is not entirely without merit: in a young Tom Hardy as a Reman general (and clone of Picard) it has a reasonably good villain, the concluding space battle is one of the better in the series and both Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart deliver killer performances, both rich in tragedy, introspection and pathos. It's also good to see some major changes to the Next Generation paradigm, with characters being promoted, getting married and moving on with their lives.

But it's also a bitty and underwritten film. The scenes focused on character development were almost entirely cut from the final movie, leaving a string of half-thought-out and underwhelming set pieces (the buggy racing scene is a bit pointless). The film also makes the mistake of killing off a major character and then bringing him back five minutes later. You can only do that once in a franchise (and Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock earned it a lot more), and doing it for the second time here (and a third time in Into Darkness) is a big mistake in terms of building suspense and tone.

Nemesis isn't the worst movie ever made or even the worst Star Trek movie. At its core it has a really strong premise, which is more than you can say about The Final Frontier, but it's certainly the most undercooked and indifferently-directed movie in the history of the series.




10. Star Trek: Insurrection

Directed by Jonathan Frakes • Written by Michael Piller • Released 11 December 1998

Insurrection is the Star Trek movie that everyone kind of forget exists. It's just kind of there. A lighthearted film, even marketed as the "Star Trek date movie" (because that is a thing that anyone ever asked for or wanted), it's completely inoffensive. The villain (played by F. Murray Abraham in fine, scenery-destroying form) is okay, the effects are okay, the story is okay and everything about it is kind of okay without ever being outstanding. It's worst sin is being boring, like a late-Season 5 episode of TNG that you completely forget ever existed until you hit it on a complete rewatch and then you've forgotten about again ten minutes after it ends. However, the film does have one outstanding moment: Data going haywire and Picard defeating him using Gilbert and Sullivan. For that gloriously demented scene, we'll forgive Insurrection its overwhelming beigeness.





9. Star Trek: Generations
Directed by David Carson • Written by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga • Released 18 November 1994
Picard and Kirk meet and team up! To ride horses! And punch Michael McDowell! In the last twenty minutes of the film!

In terms of marketing, Generations oversold the idea of Kirk and Picard joining forces to take down an enemy threat. The budget wouldn't allow for the entire crews of both past and present Enterprises to meet and writers Ron Moore and Brannon Braga were distracted by also having to the write the (far superior) Next Generation series finale, All Good Things, which even Patrick Stewart admitted would have made for a better film.

As it stands, Generations isn't too bad. The saucer separation and crash-landing sequence is splendidly realised, McDowell is a reasonably charismatic bad guy and director David Carson brings a dark, subdued tone to the film which doesn't make any sense (apparently it was encouraged by the studio who loved his work on the classic TNG episode Yesterday's Enterprise) but is extremely atmospheric. Patrick Stewart also gets a meaty emotional storyline when confronting his own mortality and that of his family. But the plot is clunky and filleted with holes (why doesn't Soran just fly into the Nexus in a ship instead of blowing up entire star systems and killing billions of people?), Whoopi Goldberg doesn't get enough to do and the feeling is that they destroyed the wonderfully-designed Enterprise-D (its successor is a much less interesting design) just for shock value.


8. Star Trek
Directed by J.J. Abrams • Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof • Released 7 April 2009
J.J. Abrams's reboot of Star Trek is filled with problems which sound rather damning: the comedy moments are awful, there is zero respect given for science or plot logic and Chris Pine is woefully miscast and unconvincing as the young Captain Kirk. But at the same time, the film is energetic and kind of fun, the rest of the new cast (especially Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and Zoe Saldana) is excellent and the film makes a decent fist of tying in to the existing mythology and continuity whilst also doing its own thing. You also have to give massive respect to Leonard Nimoy who delivers a well-measured performance filled with gravitas. It's also surprising and welcome that Abrams gives us a whole new villain (played with deranged intensity by Eric Bana) rather than trying to bring back any of the big Star Trek monsters or aliens. There's many wince-inducing moments and a tonal mismatch with what came before, but the 2009 Star Trek reboot hits a lot more than it misses.





7. Star Trek Beyond

Directed by Justin Lin • Written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung • Released 7 July 2016

The newest Star Trek movie is, fortunately, one of the better ones in the series. Problematic elements in the new canon (beaming between star systems, magic blood) are simply ignored, the plot is refreshingly straightforward and mostly bereft of major lapses in logic, the cast is much-better served by the script and Starbase Yorktown is the first outright stunning piece of new Star Trek design in decades. The film moves fast, Idris Elba is a good villain and overall this feels like a fresh, breezy and massively-budgeted episode of the TV show.




6. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Directed by Robert Wise • Written by Harold Livingston, Alan Dean Foster & Gene Roddenberry (uncredited) • Released 7 December 1979

In Gene Roddenberry's head, all of Star Trek would have looked like The Motion Picture and the first season of The Next Generation: slow, talky and only occasionally letting off a phaser for the fun of it. If the Roddenberry who made the original Star Trek series was a fast-working administrator who understood the beats and needs of action-adventure television, a decade of constant praise and being hailed as a visionary ("The Great Bird of the Galaxy") at Star Trek conventions had not so much gone to his head as triggered an explosion of vanity that could have sunk the franchise. The Motion Picture, in particular, is held up as an example of film-maker overindulgence at its flabbiest.

It's hard to argue with that. But it's also hard to argue against the idea that The Motion Picture is a good film. Whether it's a good Star Trek film is another matter, but The Motion Picture makes some quite bold decisions that, in an absolute million years, no director or writer on Earth would get away with today. It's a slow-paced movie with tons of expensive visual effects. There's lots of scenes where characters sit around and make philosophical scoring points. Spock doesn't get involved in the plot until almost halfway through the film. The Enterprise only fires its weapons once, to destroy an asteroid. There's more lip-service paid to science and the dangers of the everyday technology the characters use (the death-by-malfunctioning transporter scene is still grimly disturbing). There isn't even a bad guy. The Motion Picture is much more Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars, which for an effects SF movie released in 1979 was a very bold and counter intuitive decision.

But there's a sense of gravitas, of vision and of scale to this film that Star Trek never achieved before or since. V'Ger is a stunning creation, the best-realised Big Dumb Object in the history of SF cinema, and Kirk and crew's first reaction being to study and negotiate with it is welcome. The film is also a love letter to the starship Enterprise, which arguably has never been depicted with more aplomb than in this movie, and of course its design in this film is now the gold standard for all other attempts to depict the ship. And it easily has the best soundtrack of any Star Trek film (which given how good some of the others are, is saying something). It's not for everyone, and if Roddenberry had been allowed to continue with the franchise he probably would have wrecked it, but The Motion Picture is the oddest, weirdest and - arguably - most interesting Star Trek movie of them all. But, obviously, not the best.





5. Star Trek: First Contact

Directed by Jonathan Frakes • Written by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga • Released 22 November 1996

When The Next Generation created the Borg, it always felt like they were trying to unleash an enemy they didn't quite have the money to realise fully. This, combined with the fear of over-using them and losing their implacable menace, saw them deployed on TNG in only six out of 178 episodes, and arguably only in three of those episodes were they the "proper" Borg.

Using the second TNG movie to fully realise the Borg as a horrific, invasive force of assimilation and destruction was a wise move and First Contact is full of well-directed moments showing this unstoppable enemy in full swing (all handled with aplomb by TNG actor Jonathan Frakes). It also features some rather howl-inducingly terrible moments which are best forgotten (most of the Earth subplot involving James Cromwell's spectacularly grating mad scientist), not to mention how the ridiculous ease with which the Borg cube is defeated in the opening minutes of the film reduces the threat level of the Borg quite a lot. But overlooking that, Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart deliver killer performances, as does Alice Krige, whose Borg Queen may be the most sinister and disturbing Star Trek movie villain of them all. One ends up wishing for an adult-rated version of this movie where they really go to town with the body horror and action sequences.

We never quite get that and ultimately First Contact pulls a few too many punches. But it's a watchable, enjoyable action film featuring one of Stewart's best performances in the role of Picard, and certainly is the only TNG movie which can withstand comparisons with the best films in the franchise.




4. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Directed by Leonard Nimoy • Written by Harve Bennett • Released 1 June 1984

The Search for Spock is the Star Trek movie franchise's most underrated entry, and one that seems to be gaining more in popularity as time goes by. It's the film that introduces more iconic ships and ideas into the Star Trek universe than almost any other: the Klingon Bird-of-Prey, Spacedock, the Excelsior and transwarp technology go on to star in many future Trek movies and episodes. It also uses a fairly narrow plot directive - resurrect Spock - in an enjoyable and rather smart way throughout. Like The Wrath of Khan the script is built on a series of thematic elements which resonate throughout the movie. Kirk's growing age, his frustration with his desk-bound career and his mixed feelings on family: in The Wrath of Khan he gained a son but lost his best friend. The Search for Spock's absolute masterstroke is giving Kirk back his best friend, but taking away his son and his ship and his career: his very reasons for living. For a film that gets a lot of flak (some, like Christopher Lloyd's well-played but ill-defined Klingon villain and the dodgy planet sets, justifiably) The Search for Spock delivers two of the franchise's most brilliantly-staged and tensest moments: stealing the Enterprise from Spacedock and later blowing it up over the Genesis Planet. I mean, how many movies can make reversing the car out of the garage into one of the most iconic set-pieces in the franchise's history?

The Search for Spock's best moment is when Kirk nails that being human is to be irrational and illogical: "The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many" doesn't make sense, especially when the many includes Kirk's son, his ship, his career and those of his crew. But then in the final scene Spock lives again, and more adventures are promised, and then it makes sense.




3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Directed by Leonard Nimoy • Written by Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer, Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes • Released 26 November 1986

A plot summary for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home sounds like a bad acid trip. Millions of years ago, an alien probe surveying the galaxy visited Earth and made contact with the most intelligent species on the planet at that time: whales. Figuring that the whales would eventually evolve into a more impressive lifeform, the probe leaves with a promise to swing back by. It does, only to discover that the whales have been killed off by the ape-descendants who have evolved in the meantime. The probe is a bit annoyed by this and prepares to destroy the planet and everyone on it. Kirk and co., heading home to face the music after the events of The Search for Spock, realise they have no choice but to travel back in time to rescue two humpback whales and bring them back to tell the probe to bugger off.

But it works. The Voyage Home is a barmy film which starts off as a relentless, doom-laded SF thriller before turning into an 1980s-tastic comedy in the second act, complete with "nuclear wessels" and right-on ecological messages. It's also genuinely funny, with some great culture-clash moments. It's unusual because there is also no sense of tension: because Kirk and co. can return to their own time at the exact moment they left, they could spend several years in the 20th Century if they really wanted to. This results in some breezy pacing and great character interplay. The finale, where they return home and try to see if their plan worked, is predictable but effective.

The result is the most light-hearted Star Trek movie and the most atypical. It's fun and slightly cheesy but is rooted in these characters and the easy chemistry they've developed over twenty years.




2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Directed by Nicholas Meyer • Written by Nicholas Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn • Released 6 December 1991

After The Final Frontier's ghastly critical reception, both the original series actors and Paramount wanted to to send them out on a stronger note. Leonard Nimoy was brought in to produce and he decided to re-recruit Nicholas Meyer to direct and co-write, developing the idea of glasnost and the notion of the Federation and the Klingon Empire making peace whilst generals and spies on both sides desperately want to prolong the cold war.

The result is a film that takes the metaphor and pushes it forwards a little too obviously, but is really watchable and clever for that. The movie also tackles racism (Kirk invoking the death of his son by Klingons in The Search for Spock as a reason for hating them) and the notions of age and moving on, with Sulu and his Excelsior, a ship bigger, more powerful and faster than the Enterprise, making the Enterprise crew realise that their adventures are over. Thrown in some fun battle sequences and a great villainous turn from Christopher Plummer as a Shakespeare-quoting Klingon general and you have a perfect send-off to the original crew.




1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Directed by Nicholas Meyer • Written by Harve Bennett, Jack B. Sowards & Nicholas Meyer (uncredited) • Released 4 June 1982

This is the film that saved Star Trek, by bringing on board a writer and director who had no knowledge about the franchise at all and letting them deliver a faster-paced and better-written movie than the ponderous Motion Picture. Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer hit paydirt by bringing back the powerfully charismatic Ricardo Montalban as Khan, a villain from the TV series, and turning their limited budget into a boon. More than half the film is shot on the same set standing in for the bridge of both the Enterprise and the Reliant, and a large chunk of it is a taut, expertly-directed game of cat and mouse in a nebula. The film also has one of the cleverest doomsday weapons of all time with the Genesis Device, a terraforming aid which can be perverted into a force for destruction, and it also competes with The Motion Picture for the title of "best soundtrack in the franchise", promoting James Horner to the big leagues of Hollywood composing.

But where the film works best is its exploration of age, which sees Kirk plunged into a depression as he struggles with the demands of responsibility and his desire to command a starship once again, and it is only as the film unfolds and Kirk gains a family, defeats an enemy and loses a friend that he realises how well off he really is. The film usually sees William Shatner praised - this is by a light-year his finest moment as Kirk - as well as Leonard Nimoy, but DeForest Kelley also does sterling and under-appreciated work as McCoy acting as Kirk's conscience.

Great music, fine performances, brilliantly-developed themes and a superlative soundtrack all make The Wrath of Khan the best Star Trek movie...and we haven't even mentioned the fact that its groundbreaking CG sequence resulted in the creation of Pixar Studios. Not just the best Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan is one of the finest SF movies of all time.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY already profitable before production begins

Star Trek: Discovery, the new Star Trek TV series that will launch in January, has already started generating a profit for CBS. Which is pretty good going considering not a single frame of footage has been shot for it yet (discounting some CG test shots released at the weekend).



Hollywood accounting is bizarre and obscure at the best of times, but this is an extreme example. CBS has pre-sold the show to Space in Canada and to Netflix in pretty much the rest of the world. Combined with a recent bump in subscribers to CBS All Access (where the show will debut), taking it over two million subscribers, this has made the show profitable. It is currently in pre-production in Toronto with filming next expected to start until September.

As part the announcement, CBS also confirmed that Season 1 of the show will consist of thirteen episodes.


RIP Jerry Doyle

It's been announced tonight that Jerry Doyle, best-known for his role as Michael Garibaldi on Babylon 5, has passed away at his home in Las Vegas at the age of 60.



Gerald "Jerry" Doyle had an unusual career trajectory, first training as a commercial pilot before switching gears and going to work as a stock broker in New York for ten years. In 1991 he decided to try his hand at acting and moved to Hollywood. This wasn't completely out of left field, as in 1987 he'd been hired for a guest shot on Moonlighting, based primarily on his resemblance to star Bruce Willis. Shortly after arriving in Hollywood full-time, he won a recurring role on soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful and guest shots on Homefront and Reasonable Doubts before he auditioned for a new science fiction show from J. Michael Straczynski, Babylon 5. Straczynski and his fellow producers responded to Doyle's no-nonsense attitude and cast him in the role of Garibaldi, the titular space station's ex-marine security chief.

Jerry Doyle ended up being one of only four regular actors on the show to make it from the pilot to the finale, and was also the most prolific actor on the series: he appeared in every episode of the series bar one. He also appeared in two of the spin-off TV movies, River of Souls and Call to Arms. Doyle was noted for his mixture of professionalism on-set with playing practical jokes on his co-stars. Doyle was noted for his right-wing political views and enjoyed backstage discussions with his fellow castmembers (particularly the very liberal Stephen Furst, whom Doyle liked to wind up). The Babylon 5 set was a very demanding work environment, as the show's cripplingly low budget meant that there was no overtime budget and the series had to be filmed in strict time limits without the usual Hollywood allowance for re-shoots. This particularly required all of the actors to be on their game, especially the guest stars. When one guest star showed up not having learned his lines, Doyle angrily chewed him out on set.

After Babylon 5 ended, Doyle ran as a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives. Joe Straczynski, although mainly a Democrat, donated to his campaign out of respect for Doyle's convictions. Doyle failed to win office, but later won a new level of fame as a radio talk show host with a nationally syndicated show. He also continued to act on shows such as Martial Law (during which he was used as makeshift weapon by Sammo Hung), Sliders, JAG, NYPD Blue and Open House. He mostly retired from acting in 2004 to focus on his radio work. Appropriately enough, his final acting role was a guest slot on a crime show called Republic of Doyle in 2010.

Joe Straczynski has penned a memorial to Doyle here.

I very briefly met Jerry Doyle at the BabCom '96 convention in London. Held the weekend after the classic episode Severed Dreams aired in the UK for the first time, the convention celebrated Babylon 5 at the very height of its success and popularity (B5 - arguably - was a better-known and more successful SF show in the UK and most of Europe than it was in the States). Doyle, then still married to co-star Andrea Thompson (who played Talia Winters in the first two seasons), was highly charismatic, telling stories about life on set and acting as a impromptu compere and stand-up. As Joe Straczynski was not attending, Doyle also took it on himself to brush up on news about the show and some of the spin-off media to handle the more hardcore questions. He was very funny and clearly enjoyed his time on the series.

Doyle is the latest in a surprisingly large number of Babylon 5 actors to have passed away long before their time. Also sadly deceased from the show are Andreas Katsulas (Ambassador G'Kar), Richard Biggs (Dr. Franklin), Michael O'Hare (Commander Sinclair), Jeff Conaway (Security Chief Zack Allen), Tim Choate (Zathras) and Robin Sachs (Hedronn/Na'Kal).

D&D movie entering pre-production

The new Dungeons and Dragons film is moving forwards after a lengthy span spent in legal battles. A couple of months ago Warner Brothers announced that Goosebumps director Rob Letterman would be directing the film and now they are deep in the casting process.

To be clear, Vin Diesel has not been cast in the new Dungeons and Dragons movie. But he probably should be.

Ansel Elgort, who played the lead in The Fault in Our Stars, is in advanced talks to star in the D&D movie. Warner Brothers are also looking for "a Vin Diesel" type of actor for another role, which run through the Universal Marketing Translator, means they want Vin Diesel to do it but not necessarily for his usual high fee. Given The Diesel's well-known love of D&D (he got a cake in the shape of the rulebooks for his birthday), he might be open to negotiation. Let him split a beholder in half whilst screaming "CRITICAL HIT!" and he'll probably be on board.


The new Dungeons and Dragons film will be set in the Forgotten Realms world and will involve the Yawning Portal Inn and the city of Waterdeep. However, slightly curiously, it will be an original story rather than drawing on the hundreds of best-selling novels, gaming supplements or video games. Hasbro and Warner Brothers are looking for a slightly less serious tone for the movie, something more like Guardians of the Galaxy rather than Game of Thrones, and are also hoping it will be successful enough for them to launch a shared movie universe. Normally this would elicit groans, but given the vast diversity and richness of the dozens of D&D worlds, this franchise is actually uniquely suited for such treatment.

It looks like the movie will enter production proper later this year for release in 2018 or 2019.

Meanwhile, producer Tom DeSanto is developing new film and TV properties based on the work of the late D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. D&D itself will not be involved, as Warner Brothers and Hasbro control the screen rights to it, so this will draw on Gygax's other games, novels and materials.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Cover art for THE HEART OF WHAT WAS LOST by Tad Williams

DAW Books have revealed the cover art for The Heart of What Was Lost, the new Osten Ard novel by Tad Williams taking place between the original Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy and the new Last King of Osten Ard series.



This book will be published on 3 January 2017. It will be followed by The Witchwood Crown, the first novel in the Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, on 4 April 2017.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

First trailer for Season 2 of THE EXPANSE released

SyFy have unveiled the first trailer for Season 2 of The Expanse, their SF TV series based on Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck's space opera novels (published under the pen-name James S.A. Corey).


Season 2 will combine the grand finale of the first novel of the series, Leviathan Wakes, with the events of the second novel, Caliban's War.

SyFy have also signed a distribution deal with Amazon Prime, which will see The Expanse launch in several new territories (including the UK and Ireland) in December this year via that service. Season 2 will air on SyFy in early 2017, possibly February.

There are five novels in The Expanse series already available: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate, Cibola Burn and Nemesis Games. The sixth novel, Babylon's Ashes, will be released in November this year.

New STAR TREK TV series given a name and setting

CBS have confirmed that their new Star Trek series will be called Star Trek: Discovery. The new series will follow a mission involving the USS Discovery (NCC-1031), a Federation starship, and will be set in the "Prime" timeline (i.e. the same timeline and continuity as the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager).



Executive producer Bryan Fuller would not confirm precisely when in the timeline the show would be set. He previously shot down a rumour that the show would be set between Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: The Next Generation and suggested that characters and actors from the previous shows could appear in later seasons of the new series, hinting at a post-Voyager timeframe. However, the USS Discovery is a deliberately retro design (drawing on Ralph McQuarrie's 1970s concept art for Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and its early design number suggests it's an old ship, predating even the original Enterprise. Fans have already speculated that it's an old ship pulled back into service for some reason, or the vessel is carried forwards in time as part of the new storyline.

Little else is known at the moment, save that filming starts in September, the series will consist of between 10 and 13 episodes and the show will debut in January on CBS before moving onto CBS All Access in the States. Space will air the show in Canada and Netflix will broadcast the series in most other territories.

Friday, 22 July 2016

First trailer for AMERICAN GODS released

Starz have unveiled the first trailer for American Gods, their upcoming TV series based on Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel.




American Gods hits Starz in early 2017.

Star Trek Beyond

The USS Enterprise is three years into its five-year mission exploring deep space. However, Captain James T. Kirk is feeling boredom settling in. The mission consists of a lot more diplomatic work and less boldly exploring the frontier than he was expecting. Whilst docked at the massive Starbase Yorktown, the Enterprise receives a distress call from the heart of a nearby, mysterious nebula. Kirk sets out, eager to see something new...only to get a lot more than he bargained for.




When J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek in 2009, he assembled an absolutely killer cast. Replicating the chemistry of the original crew was a tall order, but he somehow achieved it with the likable - if massively flawed - first reboot film. It was also pretty much the only thing holding together the appalling sequel, Into Darkness, in 2013. The diabolical quality of that movie lowered expectations for this third entry in the new series, especially when it was announced that Simon Pegg would be writing the script and Justin Lin would be directing.

To some degree that was counter-intuitive, given Pegg's geek credentials and his strong writing experience (especially on the Spaced TV series and his collaborations with Edgar Wright). But Pegg's recent writing work has been patchy and Justin Lin is best known for the Fast and Furious franchise, not known for its thoughtful exploration of the unknown. Fans may have been a little too quick to judge there: not only is Lin a massive Star Trek fan from his chilldhood but his F&F movies transitioned quite cleverly from just dumb action movies into actions movies with a strong sense of character interplay, family and heart.

These sensibilities come into full force on Star Trek Beyond. Lin delivers explosions, impressive stunts and some great action set-pieces - and unlike the two previous movies, most of these are well-shot and comprehensible - but he also delivers on bringing the characters together and driving them apart and finding out what makes them tick as individuals and as a group. He is well-served by Simon Pegg's script (helped out by Doug Jung), the writer relishing his chance to finally write an all-out science fiction blockbuster and delivering. Pegg, like Abrams, is known to be a Star Wars fan much more than a Star Trek one, but whilst Abrams ill-advisedly set about trying to turn Trek into Wars, Pegg has actually sat down and worked out what makes Star Trek different and brought those elements into the script. For example, fans were bemused by the near-total lack of any decent Spock/McCoy banter in the Abrams movies but here get an entire, fairly substantial subplot focused on the two characters which works extremely well. Zoe Saldana's Uhura also gets a great (if a little brief) storyline as she gets under the skin of main villain Kraal (Idris Elba under heavy makeup) and tries to find out what makes him tick. Anton Yelchin's Chekov gets a fair few action scenes, so of the main cast it's only John Cho's Sulu that gets short shrift. And even he still gets to command the Enterprise, lead a prison break and is given the most personal stakes in the final showdown (nicely underplayed, as well).

Star Trek Beyond in fact tries to do something that is very clever: it goes for the all-out CG blockbuster stuff but then suddenly reins it in and goes for unexpected restraint. A lengthy (and slightly nonsensical) CGI space battle turns into a low-tech, far more relatable struggle on the surface of a planet. A major CG fest of phasers and spaceships in the finale gives way to that greatest of Star Trek staples: Kirk and the villain facing off with just their fists, but done in a near-zero gravity environment against a dizzying backdrop (if you suffer from strong vertigo, I would advise against seeing this film in 3D). The movie also sacrifices the shining Apple-influenced hallways and bridge of the Enterprise for a more primitive NX-class starship (cue the Star Trek: Enterprise fans cheering, although it's not that one) and brings back a genuine sense of wonder to the graphic design. Starbase Yorktown is a jaw-dropping creation, a multi-sided city floating in what is effectively a snowglobe, evoking not just previous Star Trek designs but also the Citadel of the Mass Effect trilogy.

The film also remembers it's the 50th anniversary year and uses the recent death of Leonard Nimoy to pay homage to that: young Spock learning of the passing of his older, other-dimensional self and then discovering a box of his possessions allows the movie to tip its hat at what came before in a surprisingly effective move which informs Spock's excellent character development throughout the rest of the movie. Zachary Quinto has less to do than in either of Beyond's two predecessors but his character arc is considerably more satisfying, emotional and, as some may say, logical.


New characters are surprisingly thin on the ground. The villain Kraal is well-played by Elba, but for most of the film lacks decent motivation. The finale finally explains who he is and what he wants, and it's a great moment, but comes rather late in the day. Still, Elba's villain satisfies far more than either Benedict Cumberbatch-trying-to-be-Ricardo-Montalban or Eric Bana's way too expositionary and over-explained Nero. Also impressive is Sofia Boutella as Jaylah, a native of the new planet who quickly becomes a key ally of Scotty (and later the rest of the gang). Boutella gives Jaylah just the right mix of badass warrior and slightly overwhelmed local girl, and her fascination with science and engineering plays well into the finale. I hope we see her back in the next film (if there is one; Beyond's opening numbers are looking a bit iffy at the moment). Shohreh Aghdashloo also gets a memorable cameo as a Federation commodore, a pick-up shot to help with exposition and sell Kirk's motivations a bit better. Given it was a late addition to the film, I do wonder if Lin and Pegg had seen her in The Expanse (or, more likely, the trailers) and decided to borrow her authoritative space leader charisma for their movie. In that case, good job.

It's not all a glorious bed of roses, though. There's a fairly obvious plot hole in why Kraal decides to stay on his rubbish planet long after he managed to take control of a swarm of warp-capable spacecraft which could have taken him anywhere he wanted in the galaxy. The Beastie Boys return to the soundtrack for a very well-explained (indeed, somewhat oversold) reason but it still feels out of place, and Star Trek Beyond tries to get a lot of mileage out of a joke that was a toss-off in a 1965 episode of Doctor Who (modern rock music is described as "classical music" by people in the future...BECAUSE THEY ARE IN THE FUTURE!). Kirk also gets to ride a motorbike because, hell, why not?.

But ultimately, Star Trek Beyond (****½) brings a surprising amount of heart to proceedings, doesn't entirely neglect the brain, engages in some great characterisation and team interplay, pays homage to its departed castmembers in a genuinely moving way (a toast to "departed friends" gains tremendous pathos during Anton Yelchin's reaction shot) and features Kirk punching an alien in the face, McCoy and Spock bickering like an old married couple, Scotty pulling off an engineering miracle, Sulu pulling off an insane piloting maneuver, Uhura figuring out how to communicate with an alien species (also: best depiction of the universal translator ever), and Chekov explaining how Russia invented everything, including Scotch. It is, inarguably, the best Star Trek movie in twenty years, since First Contact, and may even (much more arguably) be the best in twenty-five, since The Undiscovered Country. The film is on general release now.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

An alien artifact has opened a wormhole nexus leading to a thousand different star systems, all of them containing at least one Earth-like world. A mass exodus, the greatest diaspora in human history, is threatening to take place but one group of Belter settlers have already staked a claim to a world they call Ilus, although the corporation granted UN settlement rights prefers to call it New Terra. As the settlers and corporate representatives resort to violence, it falls to Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to mediate their dispute. This proves to be a lot easier said than done.



Cibola Burn is the fourth novel in The Expanse series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing as James S.A. Corey) and the first to take place outside the Solar system. The Expanse's big success in its opening novels was that it created a relatively restrained vision of the future, with humanity forced to employ slower-than-light travel between the worlds of the Solar system. After the events of Abaddon's Gate, the way to the stars has been thrown open, but it still takes months to get anywhere. For the colonists on Ilus and later the Rocinante crew, this puts them well out of the range of immediate help when things go disastrously wrong.

Each of the Expanse novels has taken a somewhat different tone, helped by Holden being the only continuing POV character, with the rest being exclusive to each novel. Cibola Burn feels like a Western (and more Deadwood than Gunsmoke), with the unruly settlers on the frontier being reeled back in by the mining company backed up by a reluctant sherrif with Indians and smallpox on the horizon. There's lots of hard moral questions and tough challenges posed by both the situation and the environment. This shift of tone is welcome and well-played as it allows a tighter focus on real, low-tech issues and solutions like the first (and still the best) novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes. The threat of the protomolecule, its creators and its even more enigmatic enemies does reassert itself towards the end of the book, along with a space-borne problem that feels a little too reminiscent of Abaddon's Gate, but it definitely takes a back seat for the most of the book.

The focus is on three new characters: a Belter settler named Basia, who is reluctantly drawn into becoming a terrorist; a security officer called Havelock on the orbiting corporation ship and a scientist named Elvi who just wants to be left alone so she can get on with cataloguing the planet's crazy flora and fauna.  These are all well-crafted characters, if not particularly original. Havelock, as the company man who suddenly realises his corporate masters are useless, is an archetype that is looking dangerously overused at this point in the series. Other characters are less well-defined, and main villain Murtry is as cliched and uninteresting as they come: a rigid, dogmatic man unable to adapt to changing circumstances unless it involves shooting things. I get the impression that Abraham and Frank wanted to create a morally murky situation with sympathetic POVs on both sides, but Murtry's outright villainy soon means that the corporate side loses all sympathy and interest.

For a novel almost 600 pages long (in hardcover!) the pages fly past briskly and there's an interesting move away from the gunfights and set piece explosions of the previous novels. There's still a zero-G battle or three, but the writers dial back the more obvious shooting in favour of evoking the occasional SF sensawunda that represents the genre at its best. The social commentary on us bringing our baggage to the stars is well-handled, if a little obvious, and events run enjoyably up to a climax that hints at bigger things to come.

Cibola Burn (****) is the best book in the series since Leviathan Wakes, restoring focus and verve to a series that felt like it was becoming predictable. It'll be interesting to see how they adapt this book to the screen in later seasons of The Expanse, however. Although the producers will likely enjoy the far smaller scale (and hence budget) of things, I can't see viewers being too interested in taking a season off from the rest of the Solar system to see Holden and his crew dealing with frontier settler problems. But as a novel, it workers very well. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

HBO confirm shorter season and late start for GAME OF THRONES in 2017

HBO have confirmed that the seventh season of Game of Thrones will just be seven episodes long, as has been long-planned by the producers. They have also confirmed that location shooting will take place later than usual this year, with some shooting expected to extend into the New Year in Iceland. Normally Game of Thrones shoots from July to December to debut in April, but the producers wanted to take advantage of some actual winter weather to shoot scenes in the North and beyond the Wall.



Game of Thrones previously filmed in Iceland in the second through fourth seasons, primarily for scenes in the North and beyond the Wall, but also for scenes set in and around the Vale of Arryn. The seventh season will also continue to use Spain and Northern Ireland as other filming locations.

Because of this, the seventh season will also air later in the year than normal. Although a precise date was not announced, HBO seem to be planning for the series to return in around June 2017.

However, to alleviate fan disappointment, they will be releasing the sixth season on DVD and Blu-Ray earlier than normal. Traditionally they release the box sets in February or March, just ahead of the new season, but this time they will be releasing the physical media on 15 November.

The show is expected to end with a six-episode eighth season in 2018, but HBO has not formally committed to this plan as yet.

Terry Pratchett's WEE FREE MEN optioned for film

Narrativia, the production company set up to bring Terry Pratchett's works to the screen, has announced that it is partnering with the Jim Henson Company on a movie version of The Wee Free Men, the first of Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series of novels set in his popular Discworld setting.



Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Terry and a critically-acclaimed writer in her own right, will be penning the adaptation. Brian Henson is on board to produce. At the moment it's unclear if this means the Jim Henson Company's formidable expertise in puppets and animatronics will be brought to bear, or if it will be relying more on their digital technology. No director has yet been named.

This is not the first time the project has been optioned. Sam Raimi previously optioned the novel with an air to direct a film himself, but it fell into development hell whilst Raimi was working on the Spider-Man movies and later his aborted attempt to bring WarCraft to the screen. Narrativia is also developing a City Watch television series (previously with the BBC but now believed to be with another company after the Beeb's cutbacks) and an adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's novel Good Omens, with Gaiman himself penning the script.

Orphan Black: Season 4

Sarah Manning and her clone-sisters have defeated the threat of an illegal attempt to create an army of cloned soldiers, and it seems like maybe they might be able to get back to their lives. But the Neolutionists, who want to expand genetic engineering far beyond mere cloning, have other plans. Sarah and her friends, aided by an enigmatic newcomer known as "MK", are threatened by different factions within the Neolutionist movement and have to face the possibility of making a deal with the devil just to survive.



The first three seasons of Orphan Black were excellent, with the writers showing unusual self-awareness by slimming down a potentially confusing morass of subplots and factions in the third season to a much more straightforward conflict. The fourth season sees this conflict resolved and a whole new storyline begun, but one very much rooted in what came before. The Neolutionists, an opposing faction established in the first season but soon superseded by other groups, return to prominence and the show goes back into its roots by exploring the character of Beth Childs in greater depth. This is also gives supporting characters like Art (who was a little lost in the third season) more to do.

This results in some focused, dramatically-accomplished storytelling. One episode focuses almost entirely on Beth's life as she discovered she was a clone, meeting Allison and Cosima and then the shadowy MK, with events building to the tragic and inevitable end we are already aware of from the opening seconds of the whole series. Tatiana Maslany is so great in her multiple roles that it feels like we've gone beyond redundant in mentioning it, but she somehow manages to up her game even further in the fourth season with both her portrayal of the doomed Beth and also in the present day, particularly her performance as Cosmia where she adds more nuance, depth and tragedy than ever before.

The fourth season risks getting heavy at times, so as usual relies on the screamingly dysfunctional (and dystopian) domestic adventures of Allison and Donnie Hendricks to draw things back in with jet-black humour. This season they also do a great job of involving Allison and Donnie more in the main storylines (in Season 3 it felt like they were making their own spin-off in the context of the larger show) and tonally varying things up a bit to make things more interesting. Donnie and Felix posing as a gay couple looking to have a baby might be the funniest storyline the show has ever done, especially as Felix reels in Donnie's stereotypical performance. Felix, who also got a little lost in the mix in Season 3, gets more to do this year as he embarks on his own quest to find his biological family. We get a lot more insight and empathy into the "villains" of the show this year as well.

Season 4 doesn't really falter at all, although some fans will bemoan a distinct lack of screen-time for Helena (although when she does return, she makes it felt in her own inimitable style) and the total absence of Cal (Michael Huisman possibly busy filming Game of Thrones). Particularly brilliant is the ending, which sets us up with a new villain who is actually an old one: Orphan Black and Game of Thrones have both realised that there is nothing more satisfying than having your ultimate main bad guy as someone you've gotten to know already over multiple years and set up accordingly. Things are set up for what will hopefully be an exhilarating showdown in the final season next year.

Orphan Black's fourth season (*****) sees the show somehow get even better than it was previously. Even in a golden age of television, it is entirely possible that this little SF show from Canada might be the very best thing on TV at the moment. The show is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD in the USA, with a UK release to follow in a few months. It is available now on Netflix in the United Kingdom and Ireland.