Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Creator of HAMILTON working on NAME OF THE WIND TV series, movie and...stage show?

Lin-Manuel Miranda has gained recent fame as the creator, writer, songwriter and star of hit Broadway musical Hamilton, based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. His next project will be epic fantasy, with him tapped to work on on Lionsgate's multimedia Kingkiller Chronicle project.



Lionsgate bought the film, TV and video game rights to Patrick Rothfuss's fantasy trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicle, a year ago. Their plan was to directly adapt the novels as a trilogy of movies, as well as using a TV show to explode side-stories and characters. Apparently they are also considering a stage show based on the trilogy.

Lindsey Beer is writing the script for the first movie, based on The Name of the Wind, and Miranda has been hired to write original songs and work on the soundtrack. Those familiar with the novels will now that the main character Kvothe is an accomplished musician and songwriter, so this is a surprisingly good match. Rothfuss will also be working on the film and TV show as a producer, with Miranda likely to serve as a musical director on the TV project as well.


The Kingkiller Chronicle consists of the novels The Name of the Wind (2007) and The Wise Man's Fear (2011). Together they have sold over 10 million copies, making Rothfuss the biggest-selling debut fantasy author of the century so far. The much-delayed third volume, The Doors of Stone, is expected in 2018. Rothfuss's writing will next be seen in the video game Torment: Tides of Numenera, due early next year from inXile Entertainment.

Monday, 28 November 2016

New maps of Osten Ard

Hodder & Stoughton have released the new maps which will adorn the UK editions of The Heart of What Was Lost, as well as their cover art and that of the new editions of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn they will be releasing shortly.


The Heart of What Was Lost will be published on 3 January 2017. It is a short (150-page) novel set between the end of To Green Angel Tower proper and the epilogue set several years later.




Presumably these maps will also appear in The Witchwood Crown, the first novel in The Last King of Osten Ard, which will be published on 4 April 2017. A much longer novel (650+ pages), The Witchwood Crown picks up the story of King Simon thirty years after the events of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.



Teaser poster and release date for ALIEN: COVENANT unveiled

20th Century Fox has released a teaser poster for Alien: Covenant, as well as confirming a new release date. The new movie, which will bridge Prometheus with the original Alien, will be released on 19 May.



Ridley Scott has directed the new film, which started life as a direct sequel to Prometheus before metamorphosing in development into a "proper" Aliens movie.

Michael Fassbender reprises his role as android David, with Noomi Rapace returning as Elizabeth Shaw. Guy Pearce is also expected to reappear as Peter Weyland (presumably in flashbacks or recordings). New actors include Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup and Danny McBride.

The new movie will involve a human colony ship arriving on a planet where the only inhabitant is the android David, from Prometheus. According to some reports, the planet may be the homeworld of the Engineers and will involve both the traditional xenomorph and a new type of alien creature, the neomorph, which may be what results when a facehugger impregnates an Engineer.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Dunk & Egg heading back to comics

Dunk & Egg, the stars of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire prequel novella series, are heading back to comics. Bantam Books will release a graphic novel version of the third story, The Mystery Knight, next year.



Dunk and Egg's adventures start eighty-nine years before the events of A Game of Thrones, during the reign of King Daeron II Targaryen. Dunk is a hedge knight who is reluctantly drawn into the orbit of the Targaryen royal family when a royal prince, "Egg", is given to him as a squire. They travel the Seven Kingdoms, with Egg's true identity kept a secret, getting involved in various scrapes. The first two novellas, The Hedge Knight and The Sworn Sword, are both available as graphic novels.

I worked on The Sworn Sword adaptation in a minor capacity, detailing geographic and location descriptions to help the artist.

Mike S. Miller is returning to provide the artwork for the new adaptation, which will be released on 4 July 2017.

Those looking for the prose version of The Mystery Knight can find it, along with its two forebears, in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. George R.R. Martin has two more stories in the planning stages, with the working titles The She-Wolves and The Village Hero, but will not work on either until The Winds of Winter is completed.

Over at Atlas of Ice and Fire, I'm just about to reach the same time period in the cartographic history of the Seven Kingdoms.

Show Me a Hero

1988. The city of Yonkers has defied a federal court order to build two hundred units of public housing to meet its growing shortage of living space, and these new homes should be built in different areas of the city to encourage desegregation of the black and white communities. Judge Leonard Sand decrees that the city will be fined until it goes bankrupt if it does not comply. Incoming mayor Nick Wasicsko, the youngest mayor of a major city in the United States, initially opposes the move but, when it is upheld by the Supreme Court, moves to enact the order to his political cost.



The premise of Show Me a Hero is not immediately gripping: a six-part drama series about urban planning and house building? But then you hear it is being written by David Simon, the creator of Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, and one of his co-writers from The Wire, William F. Zorzi, and immediately it becomes interesting.

As anyone who's seen The Wire, The Corner, Generation Kill or Treme can attest, Simon is fascinated by the intersection of communities, politics and social engineering, how decisions made in a city hall council chamber on a wet Wednesday afternoon can affect the life of a single mother and her kids struggling to make ends meet (or a soldier in Iraq or a policeman in Baltimore). There is a cynical viewpoint in the United States (and the UK for that matter) that politics doesn't matter, that everyone is corrupt, and no-one can do anything to change anything, but Simon doesn't have any truck with that. As Mayor Carcetti's story arc in The Wire shows (based loosely on several real-life Baltimore mayors), people can make a difference, if the system allows them.

Show Me a Hero, based on Lisa Belkin's 1999 book, uses the housing crisis as a lens to examine community relations in an American city. Architect and urban planner Oscar Newman argued that by pushing everyone from one community - in this case the African American community - into one tiny area defined by tower blocks with lots of hidden places where crime could take place, like stairwells and inner courtyards, it created a breeding ground for poverty and violence to the detriment of the entire community. His argument was that by splintering the social housing amongst the middle and higher-class districts, and making it nice enough to fit in with the area, then this would benefit the residents and lead to a safer environment, a "defensible space" as he called it. Newman's theories are widely accepted today, but in the late 1980s they were radical and controversial, and Yonkers reluctantly agreed to allow him to use their crisis to carry out an experiment.

This resulted in bitter opposition from white middle-class residents who had concluded that their new black neighbours would bring crime and violence with them, because that's what happened in the existing places. Some people genuinely believed this simply happened whilst others were overt in their racism. More interesting were those who successfully made an effort to welcome their new neighbours, integrate them into their communities and make new friends.

The story, which could be dull in the wrong hands, is told from both the bottom-up and top-down. At the top we have Nick Wasicsko, played with incredible sincerity and ease by Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron in the new Star Wars movies). Wasicsko is a young rising star of the Democrats, witty and charismatic, an ex-cop with a yearning desire to do good which occasionally conflits with his burning political ambitions, which extend to Congress and maybe beyond. Wasicsko is forced into a difficult but inevitable decision which destroys his career, despite its moral justice, and he struggles with the decision afterwards. Carle Quevedo plays his wife, Nay, who is supportive but also intolerant as his self-pity starts to take over. Winona Ryder (continuing her career resurgence, also seen in Stranger Things) gives a tremendous performance as Vinni Restiano, a political ally of Wasicsko. The best actor in the piece, however, is the magnificent Alfred Molina, who is both almost unrecognisable and tremendously passionate in the role of Wasicsko's arch-nemesis, Hank Spallone. There are also strong turns from Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, Daredevil, The Punisher) as a civil rights attorney and Jim Belushi (the 1980s) as Angelo Martinelli.


At the other end of the spectrum we have four struggling African-American women: Norma O'Neal (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), a strong-minded, middle-aged carer who is losing her sight; Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul), a single mother who falls into drug use but, helped by her family, overcomes it; Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera), a hard-working Dominican immigrant trying to raise her kids on a tiny paycheck; and Billie Rowan (Dominique Fishback), a teenager who falls in with a criminal and makes some bad decisions. It's these women, all played superbly, who stand in for a wider part of the community and whose lives are directly impacted by the decisions made in city hall.

Most interestingly, because they are all too often forgotten, we also have characters from the middle class, most notably the excellent Catherine Keener as Mary Dorman, who initially bitterly opposes the new houses for fear of it ruining the neighbourhood, but then becomes concerned about the growing racism of some of her like-minded citizens and decides to make things better by helping the new arrivals integrate, befriending them in the process.

Show Me a Hero unfolds at a steady, resolved pace, perhaps occasionally too leisurely, backed up by a soundtrack of contemporary artists (with Bruce Springsteen high in the mix). A lot of the action unfolds in town planning meetings and angry city hall exchanges, mixed in with vignettes from the lives of those hoping to escape their crime-blighted tower blocks and the increasingly complex life of Wacisko, who struggles to balance his desire to do the right thing with not destroying his political career. Simon and Zorzi bring the same skill they had juggling multiple, complex and at times seemingly disconnected storylines in The Wire before bringing everything together sharply. As before, "all the pieces matter".

Show Me a Hero (****½) is beautifully-written, well-acted by everyone involved and makes fascinating points about city planning, community-building, politics and society without ever getting preachy or trite. It's David Simon doing what he does best and few other writers even attempt to do: telling the real story of people trying to survive. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

RIP Ron Glass

Actor Ron Glass, best-known for playing the role of Shepherd Book in Joss Whedon's classic space opera Firefly, has passed away at the age of 71.


Glass, a practising Buddhist, started acting in the 1970s, landing a recurring role on sitcom Barney Miller which ran from 1975 to 1982. He appeared in more series like The New Odd Couple and Rhythm & Blues. He voiced a role in the animated Disney movie Aladdin and also appeared as a guest star in dozens of American TV shows, including Star Trek: Voyager, CSI and Friends.

However, his most ardent fanbase comes from his regular role on Firefly in 2002. Shepherd Book was a main of faith and peace whose morals came into question from working alongside the crew of the Serenity. Joss Whedon hinted at a complex backstory for Book, but the show's premature cancellation meant that this was not explored further. The 2005 movie Serenity wrapped up Book's story, as he was killed off during the events of the film. However, Whedon subsequently wrote a comic book mini-series, The Shepherd's Tale, which explored Book's backstory in greater depth.

Glass's role on Firefly led to a friendship with Joss Whedon. He later appeared in two episodes of Whedon's TV show Agents of SHIELD.

Glass passed away on 25 November from respiratory failure. He will be missed.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

10 Years of the Wertzone: Listing the Classics

Occasionally I award a particularly special book, video game, movie or TV show the honour of being a "Wertzone Classic". To be a classic, the work has to both be excellent and also to have withstood the test of time and emerged as a true defining work in its field.

The following is a complete list of all works to be awarded a "Classic" award since the start of the blog in 2006. I would strongly recommend all of these works to anyone interested in science fiction and fantasy, be it in print or on screen.


Books

Non-Stop, Helliconia Spring and Helliconia Summer by Brian W. Aldiss
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
Blood Music by Greg Bear
Startide Rising and The Uplift War by David Brin
Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold
Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
The Black Company, Shadows Linger and The White Rose by Glen Cook
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton
Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb
The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Monarchies of God by Paul Kearney
The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin
The Scar by China Mieville
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jnr.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon
Guards! Guards!, Small Gods, Lords and Ladies and Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
The Affirmation, The Prestige and The Separation by Christopher Priest
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
The 900 Days by Harrison E. Salisbury
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny




TV Series

Babylon 5: Seasons 2-3
Band of Brothers
Battlestar Galactica: Season 1
Deadwood: Season 1
Firefly
Red Dwarf: Seasons 3-4
Rome: Seasons 1-2
Spaced: Seasons 1-2
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 3
The Wire: Seasons 1-4
Ultraviolet


Films

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi 
The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three 


Video Games

Anachronox
Company of Heroes
Dungeon Keeper
Fallout: New Vegas
Far Cry
Ground Control
Half-Life 2
Homeworld
Homeworld: Cataclysm
Hostile Waters
Mafia
Max Payne
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge
Portal
Portal 2
StarCraft
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords
Star Wars: TIE Fighter
Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance
XCOM: Enemy Unknown

10 Years of The Wertzone: Stats

Monday marks the 10th anniversary of The Wertzone. I know, where does the time go? Well, into the past, of course, thanks to the energy-sapping effects of universal entropy. Maybe that should have been a rhetorical question.

Anyway, the anniversary is on Monday but I probably won't get much of a chance to post on that day. So today and tomorrow I'll be throwing out some articles related to the occasion.

In the meantime, here's some pointless stats to muse over:

Number of Books Reviewed: 599
Number of TV Seasons Reviewed: 178
Number of Video Games Reviewed: 148
Number of Films Reviewed: 85


First Book Reviewed: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
First Review Copies Received: The Prefect by Alistair Reynolds, Black Man by Richard Morgan and Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
First TV Show Reviewed: Battlestar Galactica (Season 3)
First Film Reviewed: Sunshine
First Video Game Reviewed: Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars


Thursday, 24 November 2016

Michelle Yeoh cast in STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

CBS has announced the first casting news for its upcoming new Star Trek TV show, Discovery. Michelle Yeoh has been cast as Captain Han Bo of the USS Shenzhou.



Yeoh is best-known for her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tomorrow Never Dies, as well as Memoirs of a Geisha, Sunshine, Reign of Assassins and the TV show Marco Polo. Her character will not be the captain of the USS Discovery itself, but rather another ship that plays a key role in the 13-part serialised story. It sounds like she may be a recurring character rather than a regular.

CBS have yet to announce any other casting information for the series.

Star Trek: Discovery will launch on CBS in the United States, SPACE in Canada and Netflix in most other territories. It will debut in May 2017.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

RIP Ron Thornton

The news has broken that Ron Thornton, a pioneer of visual effects in both the UK and USA, has passed away at the age of 59.




Ron Thornton was born in London, graduated from West Kent College and went to work at the BBC. He worked in the special effects teams on Doctor Who and Blake's 7 in the late 1970s, building spaceships and props and learning how on-screen visual effects were handled. Working for the famously underfunded BBC gave him a good grounding in how to get the maximum bang for the buck.

In the mid-1980s he moved to Los Angeles to work in the Hollywood visual effects industry. He worked on the movies Real Genius, Commando, Critters, Spaceballs and Robot Jox. However, Thornton was fascinated by the power of computers to achieve visual effects, and was inspired by the movie The Last Starfighter. In 1991 he worked with visual artist Todd Rundgren on a short computer-generated film. This attracted the attention of J. Michael Straczynski and Douglas Netter, who were putting together a proposal for their TV series Babylon 5. Thornton designed the titular space station and, using a Commodore Amiga with a Video Toaster plug-in, rendered a series of shots of the space station orbiting its host planet. Warner Brothers were completely blown away by the quality of the images. Their decision to pick up Babylon 5 in July 1992 was heavily influenced by Thornton's effects work.


Later that year Thornton set up his visual effects house Foundation Imaging and began producing shots for the Babylon 5 pilot, The Gathering, which aired in February 1993 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Thornton and his team at Foundation Imaging worked on the first three seasons of the show, producing hundreds of CGI shots and pushing the boundaries of what TV visual effects were considered capable of, particularly in episodes like The Coming of Shadows, The Long, Twilight Struggle, Messages from Earth and Shadow Dancing. The highlight of his team's work on the show was the third season episode Severed Dreams, which featured a full-scale, massive fleet engagement, hundreds of starfighters dogfighting, and the Mars colony being bombed. Thornton is also notable for having pushed heavily to include non-bipedal, fully-CGI aliens which could interact with the human actors.

Between the third and fourth seasons of the show, Foundation Imaging was forced off the show due to dubious backstage politics. Facing potential ruin, Thornton and his crew were saved by the Star Trek team, who hired them to do work on both Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Foundation Imaging helped out on the massive fleet battles in the sixth and seventh seasons of the former and soon became the primary provider of CG effects for the latter, starting in the third season cliffhanger episode Scorpion. Foundation Imaging would go on to work on the remainder of Voyager, the special director's cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the first season of Enterprise before closing down in 2001. Thornton also provided support and CG assistance on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Thornton later worked on Gerry Anderson's New Captain Scarlet, a purely CG show, which aired in the UK in 2005, the pilot for Nashville and several web projects. Some of Thornton's fellow CG experts at Foundation Imaging would go on to work on shows like Battlestar Galactica, Caprica and Lost.


Thornton also designed many of the spacecraft and space stations on Babylon 5. He designed the Babylon 4 and 5 stations, the White Star, the Vorlon transport and heavy cruiser, the Minbari warcruiser and the Shadow ships, as well as advising on many of the other designs.

Thornton was a vital pioneer in the development of CGI effects on the small screen, showing it was possible to create movie-quality effects on a much smaller budget and thus finally allowing science fiction to bring some of its epic grandeur to television.

He is survived by his wife Lada. Some of Thornton's friends and associates have set up a GoFundMe page to help with his outstanding medical expenses.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Legendary Pictures acquires film and TV rights to DUNE

Legendary Entertainment has picked up the film and television rights to Frank Herbert's classic 1965 SF novel Dune. Previously, Paramount Pictures had an option but that lapsed several years ago.



Dune has been filmed several times before. In 1984 David Lynch released a very weird and stylised take on the film, whilst in 2000 and 2003 the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) released two mini-series that adapted both Dune and its two sequels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. Oddly, the franchise has had much greater legs in video games, with several popular titles released based on the books.

The rights were let by the Herbert Estate with Frank Herbert's son Brian involved as a producer. It is unclear if the rights are for just Dune or also its five canonical sequels. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have also released an interminable series of terrible prequel and sequel novels to Frank's work.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Daenerys signs up to meet Han Solo

Emilia Clarke has been cast in the new Star Wars spin-off movie about Han Solo.



The actress, best known for playing Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones and Sarah Connor in last year's disappointing new Terminator movie, Genisys, joins announced castmembers Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo and Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian. Her role in the film is not known.

The Han Solo movie will be the second stand-alone spin-off Star Wars movie, following on from next month's Rogue One. It will start filming in January and is currently slated for release on 25 May 2018, although that is subject to change. It will be directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) and may be the start of a trilogy covering Han Solo's life leading up to the events of A New Hope.

Vikings: Season 2

Ragnar Lothbrok is now Earl of Kattegat and a vassal of King Horik. They combine their forces to wage war on Jarl Borg, who is allied to Ragnar's brother Rollo. After fighting to a standstill, Ragnar proposes they mount a new alliance to invade Northumbria in England and seize land there. Ragnar reluctantly allows Rollo to return to Kattegat and spends the next four years preparing his forces. When the time comes, Ragnar and Horik betray their word and invade England without Borg, but are blown off-course and instead land in Wessex, ruled by the wily and cunning King Ecbert who immediately sees opportunity with these invaders from the sea.



The first season of Vikings was a welcome, straightforward tale of blood, lust, cunning and surprising restraint. Although it would be difficult to call it fully historically accurate, it was far more historically accurate than any other show about the Viking Age and made a good attempt to show the full complexities of the Viking culture and the Anglo-Saxon one they came into contact with. It also channelled some Game of Thrones-style political machinations and some very well-realised action and effects scenes. It was, overall, a winner.

Season 2 is, if anything, better. It opens up the world a little, bringing in the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia and delves deeply into the psyches of the core cast of characters: Ragnar, Lagertha, Aslaug, Rollo, Floki, Athelstan and the now-grown-up Bjorn, as well as developing some minor characters from Season 1 (Horik and Borg) and introducing a major new player in the form of the canny Ecbert. Actors both established and new do exceptional work, especially English actor Linus Roache, who portrays the ambitious King Ecbert of Wessex with intelligence and off-beat candour. George Blagden also levels up as Athelstan, who's conflict of faith and culture is played to the hilt and done incredibly well.

The show moves between several long-running storylines, mixing up Ragnar's ambitions on the home front (which Donal Logue's brilliantly-played Horik is increasingly wary of) with his desire for conquests in the west but also his deep-seated longing for family, good earth and to live in peace. Ragnar's preference for negotiation before bloodshed marked him out as a different kind of Viking in the first season and that continues in the second, particularly his relationship with Ecbert, the first opponent that Ragnar has met who is as cunning and clever as he is (despite Ecbert's curious obsession with holding every major diplomatic meeting in a communal bath). Elsewhere, Lagertha's attempts to step out of Ragnar's shadow are compromised by her political decision to marry another jarl which backfires when he turns out to be a violent and abusive imbecile. Lagertha, as to be expected, does not take well to this and soon is setting up her own grab for power. This ties in with young Bjorn, who refreshingly doesn't hate his absentee father or deify him, but instead treats him with cautious respect as he tries to figure out who he is.

Vikings therefore has evolved into a curious hybrid of family drama, history lesson, political potboiler and all-out action story. There are several major battles (and lots of smaller skirmishes), some of which are very impressive indeed, but the writers are more interested in this band of characters, some historical, some legendary, some brand-new but all fascinating, flawed and human.

Flaws? Well, watching manly men with swords pledging brotherhood and alliance and knowing they'll be turning on each other in a couple of episodes time risks feeling repetitive, but this does set up some last-minute plot twists that are well-handled. The growing sense of scale can also feel like it trivialises what were once epic and dangerous quests, with Ragnar and his men shooting back and forth over the North Sea like they're taking a brief stroll when it was a major life-threatening voyage in the first season (although that was probably true to the actual historical experience as well). There's also some very oddball historical inconsistencies: Ragnar and his men accidentally land in Wessex without knowing it's there and they don't seem to know about France just across the Channel, despite Ecbert waxing lyrical about Vikings visiting the court of Charlemagne five minutes earlier. But these are fairly minor.

Season 2 of Vikings (****½) is a gripping and enjoyable continuation of the first season and well worth a watch. It is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and DVD (UK, USA).

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Major DOCTOR WHO revamp on the way

British tabloid newspaper The Mirror is hardly a bastion of reliability, but its entertainment sources are usually pretty good. This week The Mirror has been reporting on large changes coming to Doctor Who.


Doctor Who returns to our screens next month for a Christmas special, followed by a season of new episodes in the spring, possibly March or April. This season - the 10th since the show's return in 2005 and the 36th overall - will also be the last to be helmed by Steven Moffat, who has been in charge of the series since Russell T. Davies departed in 2010. Peter Capaldi returns as the Twelfth Doctor and Pearl Mackie will be introduced as the Doctor's latest companion, Bill.

According to The Mirror, the BBC is planning major changes after this season. Chris Chibnall, a former Doctor Who and Torchwood writer better-known these days for working on Broadchurch (the third and final season of which will air next year), will be taking over as showrunner from the 11th/37th season in 2018. According to the reports, he will be ditching the Bill character immediately (which seems a bit harsh, but follows in the Davies tradition of having only one companion/Doctor combo per season) and replacing her with a new character. More importantly, that season will also allegedly see Peter Capaldi being replaced by a new Doctor.

According to the report, the BBC wants a complete revamp and reboot of the show, apparently unimpressed by declining merchandise sales and lengthy periods where no new episodes air. They want a return to 12-13 episodes per year, airing in the same slot, believing this predictability helped give the show its cachet and popularity during the David Tennant years (as well as, y'know, David Tennant).

Given the future of the show was in question a couple of years ago, it's heartening to hear (even if not confirmed) that the BBC is committing to the show's future. It does feel a little disingenuous of the BBC to be blaming the show's intermittent scheduling as a problem when it's the BBC's own budget crisis that caused and mandated it in the first place though.

If the story is true, it'll be interesting to hear if Capaldi has chosen to go - which is quite possible - or if he's been encouraged to leave by the BBC so they can cast a younger actor. If the latter is the case, it will be annoying as Capaldi's performance has been absolutely splendid.

We should learn the truth next year.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Arrival

Louise Banks is a linguist, haunted by images of her daughter who died at a young age from an incurable disease. When twelve alien spacecraft materialise around the world, including one in Montana, Louise is asked by the US government to lead attempts to communicate with the occupants, seven-armed, squid-like aliens nicknamed Heptapods. Louise concludes that the aliens' verbal language is completely indecipherable but finds more meaning in their written language, a dizzyingly complex collection of subtly shifting ink swirls. As Louise falls deeper into the alien language she finds it awakening more and more visions...but also finds signs that the aliens want something from the human race, and an offer that may also be a threat.


It is only ever possible to watch Arrival once. When you have watched it, it you can never watch it again, not properly. You will only ever be able to experience the memory of it. It's not entirely the first movie that's done this, and people will wax lyrical about "twists", but that's a simplistic disservice. When the story elegantly opens up and tells you what's really going on, it's an absolutely dazzling moment which makes the audience feel what the characters felt during an earlier set piece, during which the gravity in the alien spacecraft shifts and the walls become the floor. This is quantum movie watching, where the act of observing it changes the work and the observer, and it's an experience I've never had watching a film before. It's just one of the breathtaking feats that director Denis Villeneuve and scriptwriter Eric Heisserer accomplishes with this movie.

Arrival is based on the short story Story of Your Life, published in 1998 by Ted Chiang, the best science fiction author you've never heard of. A low-key figure on the SF scene, he has written just fifteen short stories and novellas in twenty-six years, but each short story is an Event which sends fans of hard science fiction scrambling. His 2002 collection Stories of Your Life and Others (he hasn't - yet - published enough material to warrant a second collection) is widely cited as the greatest SF short story collection of all time, certainly by a single author, and the title story is often-cited as the best short work of SF of all time.

Story of Your Life is the hardest of hard SF stories, riffing on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistics, Fermat's principle of least time and how causality interfaces with free will. It's also a deeply emotional story about parenthood, communication and empathy. It should be completely unfilmable. It isn't. Arrival - despite the rather unnecessary title change - is a masterpiece of SF cinema.

We've had a lot of "thinking screen SF" in the last decade and a half or so, from A.I. to Moon to Gravity to The Martian. Some of it has been brilliant, but blighted by a chickening out into needless action or deaths (Sunshine), or by a plot hole-ridden, overwrought ending (Interstellar). Arrival may be the best of the lot for its sharp, laser-like focus, lack of sprawl and Villeneuve's resolve in keeping cliches out of the camera lens. Several times during the movie, guns are fired. Each time it is off-screen, and more dreadful for what you imagine happening than any identikit firefight could be. At another point there is a big-ass CGI explosion, but it also accompanies a moment of profound plot revelation and emotional power which is more important than the fireball. The alien ships show up with a relative lack of fuss, without any five-minute CGI tracking shots and images of people gaping at the sky. We don't see the ship or the aliens until Louise does, which is a wise and canny show of restraint.

The film focuses on Amy Adams's character almost completely, so it's a good thing that she dominates the film with an intense, measured performance. She discovers and learns things about the aliens as we do, and makes the connections about what's going on at the same time we do, leading to a rare moment of total audience and character connection that's genuinely powerful. She pulls it off with her typical skill. Coming off the back of Nocturnal Animals, it's been a remarkable year for her and between these two films she should really get some major awards next year. Jeremy Renner also does great work in an understated, relatively low-key role for him (and one in which he seems to relish not having to dodge explosions or shoot a bow).


Other castmembers are few, with Forest Whitaker doing the standard out-of-his-depth US general thing and Michael Stuhlbarg playing a completely predictable CIA hawk. More interesting by far is Chinese General Shang, played by veteran actor Tzi Ma. Mostly seen on news screens and overheard in snatched moments, he gives an interesting and key performance despite a very limited screen time. One can imagine an alternate universe where we see the film from the Chinese point of view (probably equally fearing the US are about to do something dangerous that the US are about the Chinese) and it'd probably be still fascinating.

Arrival feels timely, tapping into post-millennial existential angst and contemporary problems with communication, perception, media and political bubbles and plain old-fashioned paranoia and fear. But, like Netflix's superb series Sense8, it mainly traffics in empathy, the idea of understanding and on notions of commonality that transcend national borders and even worlds. It's a deeply human film in which one of the most devastatingly effective emotional lines is delivered by what looks like a faceless twenty-foot tall facehugger from Aliens. It's a film that will leave you thinking - if not actively reeling - for a long time afterwards.

Flaws? Well, the "military guys getting jittery and threatening to blow everything up" trope has been done to death, even if it's a marginal subplot in this film at best. The Chinese being more hawkish and willing to blow up the aliens than the Americans feels a little bit far-fetched. And that's really about it.

Arrival (*****) - which feels right now like it could have been entitled Story of Our Life instead - is a moving, beautifully-directed, wonderfully-written, smart, painstakingly-constructed and unrelentingly intelligent science fiction film with heart and wit. Excellent performances and a fantastic musical score (partly drawing on Max Richter's work) combine to make some thing exceptional and memorable. The film is on general worldwide release right now. And the director's next movie will be Blade Runner 2049, which suddenly got a whole lot more interesting.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

What news on the WHEEL OF TIME TV series?

Back in April, the Robert Jordan Estate (aka the Bandersnatch Group) confirmed that the TV and films rights issues related to the Wheel of Time novels had been resolved and a studio had optioned the rights, with an announcement anticipated from the studio directly shortly thereafter.



Seven months later, we still haven't received any confirmation of the studio involved or any other information. This is unusual given the significance of the deal. With between 90 and 100 million copies sold, The Wheel of Time is easily the biggest-selling epic fantasy novel series since Lord of the Rings*, giving it a much bigger audience, name value and cachet than the likes of Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Peter Brett's Demon Cycle or other works of fantasy that have been optioned, if not indeed actually put into production (or in the case of Shannara, already filming a second season).

There are several likely reasons for this. There may have been a last-minute legal snarl-up which has put everything on hold. Given the contentious state of the rights, with the Jordan Estate in dispute with Red Eagle Productions (who optioned the screen rights in 2004 on an eleven-year basis), that is quite possible. It's also possible that the studio which has bought the rights has decided to hold back and make a much more substantial, "done deal" announcement with a showrunner confirmation as well. If the option is tentative, that may prevent another studio from trying to outbid them (which after an option is sold is unusual, but not impossible given the brand value of this particular series).

Here's what we know so far:
  • A "major studio" has bought the rights.
  • They are to make a big announcement at some undetermined point in the future.
  • The Estate's legal contentions with Red Eagle have now been satisfactorily resolved, allowing the project to go ahead.
  • This will be a TV series. The previously-mooted movie deal is dead in the water.
  • Universal previously held the film rights but let them lapse.
  • Sony Television held talks with Harriet McDougal (Robert Jordan's widow and chief executor of the Estate) and Red Eagle in 2014 about a possible TV project but it is not known if they are involved in this new deal.

Here's the text of the original announcement from 28 April 2016 in full:
The following is a press statement that has been approved by the studio involved in contract negotiations:

Update: Wanted to share with you exciting news about The Wheel of Time. Legal issues have been resolved. The Wheel of Time will become a cutting edge TV series! I couldn’t be more pleased. Look for the official announcement coming soon from a major studio —Harriet 


And the last official word from the Jordan Estate, made on 9 September:
Sorry, folks, we would love to be able to tell you more about the announcement Harriet made in April, but according to the terms of the contract, we can't say anything more about it. We assume the next statement will come from the studio. We share your frustration.

Here's what is heavily rumoured but not confirmed:
  • The deal is allegedly worth "eight figures" (so therefore $10 million minimum).
  • Some well-known Wheel of Time fans may be involved in an advisory capacity on the project.
  • HBO is not involved in the project whatsoever, already having their epic fantasy TV show (Game of Thrones) and recently confirming that they have started speculative, early work on a spin-off from that show as their next fantasy project.
  • Given that the book rights have been purchased, we can assume the TV show will directly adapt the novels and will not be a new story set in the same world, or a prequel or sequel to the books. 
  • Given the money apparently involved, this will be a live-action project (an animated series would involve far smaller figures).
  • Given the money involved, this would likely either be a cable or streaming (Netflix/Amazon) show. A mainstream network is unlikely to have spent so much money on an option alone.


I have previously speculated on how a Wheel of Time TV series should be adapted and undertaken. The current big debate in the fandom over the TV project is what studio is on board. I think the following options are possible:
  • Sony Television previously held discussions with the Estate and Red Eagle. Having deep pockets and a string of recent hit shows (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Blacklist), this makes them a stronger contender for the role. They are also working on The Dark Tower TV series, a spin-off from the new film, which may have given them a taste for fantasy.
  • AMC are currently on a roll with shows like The Walking Dead and Preacher. A Wheel of Time TV show would allow them to go head-to-head with Game of Thrones in the fantasy stakes. If Sony are developing the project, AMC (whom they previously partnered with on Breaking Bad) are the most likely contender to air the show.
  • Starz have some big-hitting genre shows at the moment, such as Outlander and the forthcoming American Gods. Starz likewise are looking at big fantasy projects and may be the second-most-likely home after AMC on cable.
  • Netflix have a lot of original content and are going all-in on it, producing vastly more original content in the next couple of years. A full-scale epic fantasy series, their own Game of Thrones, has to be an attractive prospect. They certainly have the funds to do it and a flexible release schedule, not to mention automatic worldwide distribution.
  • Amazon have some very solid original content (such as the excellent Man in the High Castle), but arguably lack a killer app, a must-see show which gets people to sign up in droves. Wheel of Time could provide that. They also have access to sales figures of the Wheel of Time novels since 1998 and a much greater pre-built awareness of the franchise. I would rank Amazon as a more likely streaming possibility than Netflix.
I would comfortably rule out the following options:
  • HBO already have Game of Thrones and Westworld as their mega-budget shows, and they are interested in a Game of Thrones spin-off show as their next fantasy project. According to rumour, HBO are highly unlikely to be interested in Wheel of Time.
  • SyFy has spent big bucks recently developing The Expanse, The Magicians, Dark Matter and Killjoys. It is unlikely they have the resources to also buy and develop Wheel of Time.
  • The CW has some additional critical kudos recently with The 100, but they have severe budget restrictions which makes them highly unlikely to be able to afford Wheel of Time, at all.

Hopefully, we won't have to wait too much longer until we can get some reliable information on what's going on.



* If you assume that Harry Potter isn't epic fantasy, as some do. Also, A Song of Ice and Fire has sold c. 70 million copies and is bearing down on Wheel of Time like a freight train, and already has far more sales-per-book (and thus overall readers) than WoT.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb

The fortunes of the Vestrit family have become more desperate. Their liveship, the Vivacia, has been captured by the notorious "pirate king" Kennit and is now helping liberate slaver ships on the seas between Jamaillia and Chalced. The Vestrits have no choice but to help refloat the mad liveship Paragon in the hope they can convince the deranged vessel to help them regain the ship and rescue their kin.




The Mad Ship is the middle volume of The Liveship Traders trilogy and very much reads like one. The story doesn't really start or finish, instead transitioning from the beginning to the end without necessarily having a defining storyline itself. The storylines begun in Ship of Magic are pretty strong so having them continue is fine, and the new additions to the world - a subplot involving the Satrap of Jamaillia and one of his Consorts, and a new story set in an Elderling city in the Rain River Wilds - are well-judged and engrossing.

However, the novel definitely loses some of the pace and momentum of Ship of Magic, which remains my favourite Hobb novel (again, only having read the first six). Hobb's net is cast wider here and the story, world and characters remain fascinating, but there's also much greater periods of time in which nothing much seems to be happening, or we touch base (again) with the Vestrit family having another grim conference about the status of the lower field and getting embarrassed with a family friend whose clothes are a bit old.


Still, if the momentum isn't quite as swift as in the previous novel, Hobb's other strengths remain on full display. The depth of characterisation is remarkable, especially of previously-annoying characters like Malta who develops impressively in this novel beyond the more stereotypical, troublesome teenager of the first book. The biggest success is in the curious relationship between Kennit, Etta, Wintrow and Vivacia, which defies cliche at every turn and becomes a gripping study in character dynamics, power structures and obligation (Hobb does torpedo this, rather frustratingly, in the final volume of the trilogy but at this point it's fascinating).

There's also some uncharacteristic (for Hobb) large-scale action scenes which she handles well, some more deft political maneuverings and some effective mystical dream sequences which hint at a major plot revelation about the nature of the liveships and their place in the world.

The Mad Ship (****) doesn't impress as much as Ship of Magic and definitely feels like it's a slower, more relaxed book, but it evolves the story and characters nicely and sets things up well for the final (and rather more problematic) volume in the trilogy, Ship of Destiny. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Mad Max (2015)

Years after the collapse of civilisation in the great resource wars, former cop-turned-survivalist Max Rockatansky is headed for the Plains of Silence in his trusty car, the Interceptor. He runs afoul of Scabrous Scrotus, the ruler of Gastown and son of Immortan Joe, who steals the Interceptor - after Max stabs him in the head with his own chainsaw - and leaves Max to die. Max is rescued by Chumbucket, a maverick and zealous engineer-priest who believes that Max is "The Saint", a holy figure who will save the world using an amazing car that Chumbucket has been building for years, the Magnum Opus. Max reluctantly takes on the mantle of the Saint so he can find and defeat Scrotus and reclaim his Interceptor.



Given that the Mad Max franchise has been around for almost forty years, it's surprising that it hasn't been the inspiration for a good video game before. There was one previous attempt, a rather poor action title released in 1989, but that's it. This game is very different. It's a huge, sprawling open-world game combining an intricate third-person fighting system with vehicular combat, held together by a typically Mad Max-esque story of revenge and heartbreak.

Mad Max: Confusingly Lacks a Subtitle was created by Avalanche Studios, the team behind the Just Cause series. They know a thing or two about creating massive open-world games featuring lots of action and explosions, and the DNA of the Just Cause games can be seen in Mad Max. However, this is more than just a reskin. They very cleverly repurpose elements from those earlier games to the Mad Max universe and create a title that is very much a worthy addition to George Miller's post-apocalyptic franchise. Miller's own relaxed attitude to canon means that there isn't a huge effort made to fit the game into the existing storylines, but it can be said to take place between Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road without too many difficulties (and the presence of Gastown and a brief appearance by Immortan Joe ties it more into the latter).

The massive map is divided into several territories, each controlled by a major character: Jeet, Gutgash, Pink Eye and Deep Friah. Each warlord is subservient to Scrotus and keen to help Max bring him down. Max has to do missions for each leader to progress the main storyline, but can also do a lot of side-missions and optional activities (such as racing or exposing hideouts of the pirates of the wastelands, the Buzzards) or just cause mayhem for Scrotus by destroying his camps, tearing down his "scarecrow" map markers, ambushing convoys and assassinating the snipers he has set up at strategic locations across the map. There's also some pleasing Mad Max-style lunacy in that you can also clear minefields using your mine-detecting dog (!). In terms of game structure, there's more than a whiff of Assassin's Creed and Far Cry to it, even down to the use of a mechanism to allow you to spy out surrounding regions. Rather than radio towers, you instead have to float a balloon (!!) above the landscape and use your binoculars to identify points of interest. The game's combat system, which is robust and crunchy, is heavily influenced by the Arkham games and Shadows of Mordor and relies on a steady progression of blocks and counter-punches.



Mad Max: No Colon Here is tremendous, unmitigated and unrelenting fun. These kind of open-world games are starting to become a little repetitive, with everyone just copying the Ubisoft model (including Ubisoft themselves) to the point of boredom, but Mad Max just ditches a lot of the more tedious busywork and brings a lot of fun to proceedings. The game lets you engage in combat on foot or with your vehicle, the Magnum Opus, which starts off being a bit slow and unimpressive but by the end of the game has become a powerful death machine complete with rocket launchers, side-mounted flamethrowers and a grappling hook that can attach itself to both people and enemy towers to destroy them. Collecting scrap (the game's currency) allows you to unlock an absolutely massive array of upgrades for both Max and the Opus, with a huge degree of customisability.

The game is enormous. Focusing on the core storyline alone, you could probably put the game away in about 20 hours. However, I also decided to completely liberate one quarter of the map (which took 10 hours by itself), unlocked all the balloon rides and did all of the factional side-missions, as well as dozens of races and other optional elements. I eventually finished the story at the 32 hour mark, but completing everything outstanding in the game would easily have taken at least a couple dozen more hours. Pleasingly, it's a huge game but also one that allows you to push on to the end of the story once you start getting bored of it.

What is remarkable for a game of this size is that it is hand-crafted. Just Cause 2 used a lot of procedural generation for its enormous map and many of its enemy bases were interchangeable, with very similar layouts. Mad Max's outposts are all intricately detailed. Completing each outpost (you have a separate counter for each one, telling you if there's still stuff to do there) takes a lot of time in combat, exploration, looting and resupplying: you have to keep the Opus fuelled up and Max in supplies of water, which adds some tension to the opening hours of the game but later on is almost negligible thanks to character upgrades.

 
Graphically, the game isn't cutting edge but still looks impressive, especially the frequently-beautiful environmental effects and skyscapes. Having a map of this size as just wasteland sounds boring, but Avalanche carefully sculpts each region to make it stand out, whether it's a network of deep canyons or the bleached remnants of a dried-out seabed or an actual Sahara-style desert or mountainous badlands. Avalanche get a surprisingly huge amount of variety out of what sounds like a limited premise.

The game is brilliant fun to play, dialogue is sharp and true to the movies and you get a huge amount of game for your money. There are a few negatives, however. The storyline is fairly bare-bones and not always gripping. The Mad Max films are all fairly minimalist and restrained in exposition and background, but you're only spending two hours with each movie. With this game easily taking over 50 hours for completionists, a bit more engagement with the world would have been nice. Also, whilst Avalanche go to enormous lengths to make each one of the hundreds of locations in the game unique and interesting, repetition does eventually set in. The same problem as the Just Cause games - that the game may be a bit too big - does start creeping in towards the end.

The biggest surprise of the game is how true it is to the cynical nature of the films. In a few moments they look like they're going to cop out and turn Max into a hero but they always hold back and keep him more the character we all know. Max isn't always very likable in the game, which is definitely true to the movies but some people may find controlling what is a really an antihero for the length of the game to be wearying.

Overall, though, Mad Max (****½) is the most unexpectedly enjoyable game I've played in a long time. It's the best video game version of a movie series since the iconic Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay back in 2004, will consume a lot of your time and ties in very well with the style and tone of the film. It is available now on PC, X-Box One (UK, US) and PlayStation 4 (UK, US).

Trailer and airdate for THE EXPANSE Season 2

SyFy have released a new trailer for The Expanse and confirmed that it will be airing in the United States from 8 February 2017.



Season 2 will utilise elements from the first two novels of the series, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War and introduce Frankie Adams as new castmember Bobbie Draper, a Martian marine.

The Expanse Season 1 is now available in many territories (including the UK and Ireland) on Netflix. Season 2 is expected to debut on SyFy within 24 hours of US transmission.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Trailers for MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA

BioWare are gearing up for the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda. This is the fourth game in the Mass Effect series, but is also the start of a new trilogy which will not be releated to the events of the previous games.



The training video above explains the basic premise: in 2176 Jien Garson (voied by Sense8's Jamie Clayton) convinces Earth and several other worlds to sponsor the Andromeda Initiative. This project sees three large colony ships and an even larger mobile base, the Nexus, constructed with the goal of colonising the Andromeda galaxy, over two million light-years from the Milky Way. In 2185, between the events of Mass Effect 2 and 3, the Initiative is launched. All four vessels are well outside the Milky Way galaxy when the events that conclude Mass Effect 3 take place, meaning that they are not effected by the choices the player makes at the end of the trilogy.

Andromeda itself will begin circa 2780. After a journey of roughly six hundred yeaers in cryosleep, the Nexus and the colony ships have reached the Helios Cluster, a region on the outskirts of the Andromeda galaxy. Unfortunately, one of the ships, the Hyperion, crewed and operated by humans, has gone off-course. You control either Scott or Sara Ryder, the children of Alec Ryder, the Hyperion's Pathfinder. Something happens and Alec goes AWOL, leading you to pick either Scott or Sara (the other character remains in the game as an advisor, but not a squad-mate) and promote them to replacement Pathfinder. Unlike Shepard from the first three games, who was already a combat veteran, your character in Andromeda will be untested and new to command.


The game will unfold in a broadly similar manner to the previous trilogy, with you flying to new worlds and taking part in missions. This time there's more freeform content based on exploring each planet in your new vehicle, the Nomad (an advancement from the Mako), and getting into scrapes with new aliens. There is a new adversary race, the Kett, but not much has been revealed about them. BioWare want to keep a lot of surprises for the game itself, which sounds like it will be focused much more on exploration than the previous games in the series. However, they have revealed a new classless levelling system, based instead around skills, and a more nuanced take on morality rather than the old binary Paragon/Renegade system.

Mass Effect: Andromeda will be released in Spring 2017 on PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4.

The Walking Dead: Season 5

Rick Grimes and several of his fellow survivors are imprisoned in Terminus, a society of cannibals. They seek to escape whilst several of their friends, such as Carol, attempt a rescue. At the same time Beth finds herself a reluctant guest of a hospital in Atlanta. Out in the woods, a frightened priest cowers in his church. But the survivors now have a promise of salvation, a cure for the Turn, which calls them to Washington, DC...if they can survive.




The Walking Dead reaches its fifth season, in which everything is awesome and our heroes are happy and smiling. Or maybe not. The season opens with our heroes prisoners in a cannibal stronghold before joining forces with a priest losing his faith and ending with them deliberately traumatising a peaceful community into accepting them as their new protectors. Along the way several major characters die for no immediately-discernible reason and the writers tease the audience with the possibility of some kind of actual over-arching storyline with a firm resolution in mind before snatching it away, leaving both characters and viewers with no hope and to wallow in misery.

Or to put it another way, welcome to another season of The Walking Dead, y'all.


George Romero - someone who knows a thing or two about zombies - once called The Walking Dead a "zombie soap". He's not wrong. That's not a criticism, because Robert Kirkman also called the story that of a "zombie movie that never ends". Week in, week out, month in, month out, on screen, in the comics and in the video games, people tune into the next instalment of this story which tries to make a strength out of the fact it has no end, no master plan and no planned resolution.

This sense of an ongoing narrative works in soap operas, however, because of the shifts in tone. Yes, characters get divorced, get into fights, occasionally die, but they also get married, fall in love and have moments of real happiness. The Walking Dead's biggest problem has always been its nihilistic streak, that the world is full of misery and pain after the Turn and that both the walkers and other people are dangerous and out to kill you at any given moment and every day is a remorseless, never-ending struggle to feed yourself and your family, to avoid injury and disease, and to find shelter and ammo. Other TV shows embrace the darker side of life, but lighten things with moments of genuine humanity (like The Wire, whose cast The Walking Dead continues to pilfer for new roles), occasional comedy (Breaking Bad) or hope (Game of Thrones). The Walking Dead does this only very, very occasionally, which makes it a harder show to watch. It's the ultimate example of "grimdark" on television, with the strengths and weaknesses of that movement.

Season 5, like the past two seasons, attempts to overcome one of its biggest problems - the inability to sustain a narrative over 16 episodes - by dividing the season into two halves. The first half sees our heroes at their lowest ebb in Terminus, but they also have the hope of a cure and an endgame in mind. This ultimately proves a blind alley which is deeply frustrating, but perhaps true to the show's basic premise. Finding a cure for the walkers would, ultimately, feel like a cheap way of ending the series, even if it did provide some kind of upbeat resolution.


The first half of the season is a mixed bag. Our heroes spend way too much time hanging around in a church and the enemies they face from Terminus are characterless ciphers. There's a very half-hearted attempt to inject pathos by suggesting these people were once as good as Team Rick, but turned evil after meeting some bad people. But they never really follow up on it in enough depth to justify the sheer depravities they resort to. This part of the season also makes an ill-considered choice to use fractured, non-linear storytelling, moving from place to place, reversing back in time to fill in back story and accelerating forward again. Non-linear storytelling is a great device when handled well, but The Walking Dead uses it instead in this instance as a way of annoyingly retconning storylines and engaging in cheap emotional manipulation (when Person A was about to die and you thought Persons B and C were miles away, but it turns out in a flashback that Persons B and C were miles away hours earlier, and are now ready to save Person A). It also allows them to pad out the story with filler episodes in which not much happens. The Walking Dead TV show has always been far superior at characterisation than the comic books, and sometimes its use of quieter episodes to expand on character is effective. In the first half of Season 5 it never really works, however.

Once the show returns from its mid-season break, it regains a sense of momentum. Our heroes arrive on the outskirts of Washington, DC (those expecting some great shots of an abandoned Mall won't get them: the show's relatively low budget is never quite as painfully obvious as this season) and find a new safe haven, Alexandria. This results in a much more engaging storyline in which our heroes are presented as the unsafe invaders in a peaceful and stable community, Rick's ruthless pragmatism presented as cynical selfishness and maybe even outright villainy by the existing community leaders. This idea of turning Team Rick into the bad guys has always been an ace in the show's hole and their employment of it is well-assured, accompanied by some excellent performances. However, the show presents even this storyline with the training wheels still on. The revelation of a new group of bad guys who employ tactics far worse than anything Team Rick have done; some of the people in Alexandria turning out to be cowards and murderers; and the Alexandrians genuinely not having a clue about the world outside mean that our sympathies remain firmly lodged with Team Rick throughout. When offered a chance to make a genuinely interesting point on morality, The Walking Dead shrugs and keeps walkin' instead.

Still, The Walking Dead's primary strengths remain intact: some excellent actors, fantastic prosthetics work and some outstanding moments of cinematography and framing of shots. On a moment to moment basis, the show is mostly watchable and there are some outstanding action scenes. Carol (Melissa McBride) remains the best performer on the show, with some brilliant scenes and the opportunity to channel her inner soccer mom in the concluding episodes. She also gets most of the best lines. Many of the other actors also do quality work. But the sense remains that the show needs more of a sense of an endgame and more of a direction to the story. A zombie soap is great fun, there's only so long that it can keep doing that and remain fresh.

Season 5 of The Walking Dead (***½) is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Name the Young Adult Hugo Award!

The Hugo Awards are in the process of adding a new YA category, for works of speculative fiction predominantly aimed at young readers. And now they want help naming them!



The new award will have its own special name (so it won't just be "The Hugo Award for Young Adult Fiction") and the organising committee are looking for suggestions. There have been suggestions to name the award of a predominant YA author or character, as well as a more descriptive title (like "The Gateway Award" or "Threshold Award").

If you have an idea, let them know via their Twitter account, Facebook page or website.

THE DARK TOWER movie delayed until summer 2017

In not-unexpected news, Sony have delayed the release of The Dark Tower from February until the summer. For a film so close to release, they had not yet released any footage and reportedly could not get the effects finished in time.



The Dark Tower - which may or may not have a subtitle - is based on Stephen King's novel series of the same name (but, confusingly, not the individual novel with that name, which concludes the series). Starring Idris Elba as Roland Deschain and Matthew McConaughey has his nemesis, the Man in Black, the film spans multiple realities and worlds. Despite its major stars and large scale, Sony got the movie made on an impressively restrained budget of just $60 million on a very fast turn-around.

A spin-off TV series is also in the works, which will also star Elba as he reminisces on Roland's early days.

Sony have not yet settled on a new release date.

THE EXPANSE arrives in the UK and Ireland

Syfy's critically acclaimed space opera series The Expanse has arrived on Netflix UK, so viewers in the UK and Ireland can now check it out. It should also be hitting some of Netflix's other international subsidiaries as well.



Season 1 is up now and Season 2 is expected to air on the platform shortly after it debuts on SyFy in the USA in the New Year.

You can check out my review of the first season here.