Thursday, 20 July 2017

First previews for PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING

The first promo material has been unveiled for Pacific Rim: Uprising, the sequel to the 2013 movie where giant robots punched giant monsters in the face and was way more fun than it should have been.

Uprising is set ten years after the first movie, with Earth facing a renewed Kaiju threat. A new generation of jaegars, more powerful and capable than those in the first movie, stand ready to meet them. John Boyega (Attack the Block, the new Star Wars movies) stars as Jake Pentecost, the son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) from the first movie, whilst Rinko Kikuchi reprises her role as Mako Maori. Charlie Hunnam, who starred in the first movie, is not returning due to a scheduling conflict.

This sequel will also feature a more international cast, with Chinese actors Jing Tian and Zhang Jin having a large role, a nod to the first movie's enormous success in China and the involvement of a Chinese production company in co-producing the movie.

Guillermo Del Toro is still on board as a writer and producer, but Steven S. DeKnight (Daredevil, Spartacus) is directing this second movie in the series.

Pacific Rim: Uprising will be released on 23 February 2018. You can see a snazzy website with some more info on the world and characters here.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 1, Episodes 13-14


A13: Signs and Portents
Airdates: 18 May 1994 (US), 8 August 1994 (UK)
Working Title: Raiding Party
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Janet Greek
Cast: Lord Kiro (Gerrit Graham), Lady Ladira (Fredi Olster), Morden (Ed Wasser), Reno (Robert Silver), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Raider (Whip Hubley), Customs Guard (Lynn Red Williams), Freighter Pilot (Hector Mercado), Man (Garry Kluger), Pilot 1 (Lee Methis), Pilot 2 (Douglas E. McCoy), Station One (Marianne Robertson), Station Two (Joshua Cox), Station Three (Anita Brabec)

Date: Wednesday 3 August 2258. It is now closer to eleven years than ten since the Battle of the Line.

Plot:    Lord Kiro and his aunt, the Lady Ladira, arrive from Centauri Prime to see Ambassador Londo Mollari. Londo has recently brokered a deal with a dubious merchant, Reno, to recover the Eye, an ancient Centauri artefact possessed by the very first Emperor of the Republic. The Eye has been lost for a century. The Centauri have paid a huge amount of money to recover the Eye and Kiro and Ladira are to take it back home. Ladira is a seer who has prescient flashes of the future, once telling Kiro that he would be killed by “shadows”. She finds Babylon 5 unnerving and keeps seeing an image of the station under attack by strange forces in the future. Kiro tells Londo that he, and many other nobles, bitterly resent the loss of the Republic’s prestige and power in the Galaxy and wonder when the Centauri lost their will to rule.

A human arrives on the station. Going only by the name Morden, he arranges meetings with Ambassadors G’Kar, Delenn and Londo. He asks each of them a simple question: “What do you want?” G’Kar tells him he wants revenge on the Centauri, to blacken their skies and burn their cities, to kill their parents whilst the children watch and to utterly destroy them, as the Centauri broke the Narn a century and a half ago. However, G’Kar’s ambitions do not extend beyond that. He has no wish to see the Narn rule other races or conquer the Galaxy. Delenn ponders Morden’s question, but suddenly the sigil of the Grey Council appears on her forehead. As she watches, Morden becomes engulfed by darkness. She throws him out of her quarters, horrified at what she has seen: “They are here.” Londo tells Morden that he, like Kiro, despairs of what the Centauri have become and wants a renaissance of power, for the Centauri to be restored to their rightful position as rulers of a huge empire. Morden seems most pleased by this answer.

Sinclair tells Garibaldi about his recent experiences with flashbacks to the Battle of the Line (episode A8). He asks Garibaldi for help and he agrees. Garibaldi quickly comes up with something odd: the Minbari Federation co-funded Babylon 5 on the condition that they could veto the Earth Alliance choice for command. They vetoed everyone but Sinclair, who was way down the list. The reason is unknown.

The Raiders are mounting a major series of attacks on cargo ships headed for the station and Sinclair is determined to wipe them out once and for all, although he is puzzled at how the Raiders are getting in and out of hyperspace so fast when their attacks are taking place hours away from the nearest jump gates. The Achilles, a cargo ship from Earth, reports an attack and Ivanova takes out Delta Wing to investigate. Sinclair notes that the Achilles is two further sectors away than the other attacks and realises it is a diversion. He recalls Delta Wing and prepares Alpha Wing for launch under Garibaldi. A Raider operative on board makes his move, taking Kiro and the Eye hostage and commandeering the Centauri vessel. Sinclair shuts down the jump gate so they can’t escape, but a Raider command carrier – large enough to generate its own jump points – jumps in and launches a large number of fighters at the station. A full-scale battle erupts, but the Raider fighters are decimated when Alpha and Delta wings catch them in a crossfire with Babylon 5’s own defence grid. The Raider carrier jumps out with Kiro and the Eye on board. On the station Morden bumps into Ambassador Kosh, who tells him in no uncertain terms that he must leave at once. The time is not yet right and the lesser races are not ready as yet. Morden doesn’t answer and Kosh becomes more insistent and threatening.

The Raider ship re-emerges in open space and Kiro congratulates the Raider captain on a job well done. However, Kiro’s plans to use the Eye as a rallying symbol to topple the Emperor are ruined when the Raiders plan to just ransom the Eye and Kiro back to the Republic for an immense profit, enough to replace their lost fighters and buy two or three more command vessels. Suddenly an immense alien ship appears out of nowhere and destroys the carrier, precisely dismantling it with massive cutting beams. Kiro and his “friends” die. Ladira feels her nephew’s death back on Babylon 5 thanks to her prescient abilities.

Londo feels dejected, thinking he will be lucky if he isn’t stripped of all rank for this fiasco. Morden appears with the Eye, telling Londo that he has associates who sometimes do him favours. Morden leaves, promising to call back one day. Ladira also takes her leave of Sinclair, but before she goes she leaves Sinclair an image of her vision, showing Babylon 5 being destroyed by unknown forces. She tells him it is only a possible future.


Monday, 17 July 2017

RIP Martin Landau

American actor Martin Landau has sadly passed away at the age of 89.

Landau was an actor with a long and storied Hollywood career, making his major film debut in North by Northwest (1959). In 1966 he began appearing on the television series Mission: Impossible, first as a recurring guest star and then as a series regular. Given that he was still getting Hollywood film roles, his decision to regularly appear on TV, limiting his movie exposure, was unusual for the time. Mission: Impossible ended in 1973, but Landau was almost immediately recruited to star as Commander Koenig on Gerry Anderson's Space: 1999, which ran for two seasons from 1975.

Landau made a career comeback in the late 1980s, earning Academy Award nominations for Tucker: The Man and his Dream (1988) and then Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). Wood Allen, who directed him in the latter, was enthusiastic about Landau's skills and his professionalism and reliability to deliver the material.

Landau finally won the Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994). Landau watched two dozen of Lugosi's film and became a huge fan of his work, inspiring him to reach deeper to deliver a more worthy performance. In 1998 he also appeared in the first X-Files film.

Landau continued to work right up to his death, earning Emmy nominations for appearances on Without a Trace and Entourage. An actor of range, depth and intensity, capable of playing both standard leading man roles and more artistic, offbeat ones with equal relish, Landau was a tremendous talent, and will be missed.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 1, Episodes 11-12

Earthforce One, clearly inspired by the real-life Air Force One and almost certainly the inspiration for Battlestar Galactica's Colonial One (which was designed by some of the same people).

A11: Survivors
Airdates: 4 May 1994 (US), 25 July 1994 (UK)
Working Title: A Knife in the Shadows
Written by Mark Scott Zicree
Directed by Jim Johnston
Cast: Lianna Kemmer (Elaine Thomas), Cutter (Tom Donaldson), Sergeant Lou Welch (David Crowley), Nolan (Jose Rosario), General Netter (Rod Perry), Young Lianna (Robin Wake), Special Agent (David Austin Cook), ISN Reporter (Maggie Egan), Alien (Mark Hendrickson), Station One (Marianne Robertson)

Plot:    Earth Alliance President Luis Santiago is due to pay a visit to Babylon 5 to congratulate Sinclair on a job well done and also to present the station with a brand new fighter squadron, Zeta Wing. However, whilst preparing the Cobra Bays to receive the new fighters, a massive explosion rips along the docking arm, killing several workers. Earthforce special intelligence operatives arrive ahead of the President to investigate, one of whom, Lianna Kemmer, is the daughter of an old friend of Garibaldi’s who was killed on Europa when he refused to go on the take. Garibaldi slipped into alcoholism and Lianna’s idealised view of “Uncle Mike” was shattered. Kemmer angrily blames Garibaldi for not helping her father and is quick to pounce on any evidence that Garibaldi himself might be involved in the bombing.

One of the survivors of the blast, Nolan, dies whilst claiming that Garibaldi planted the bomb and a search of Garibaldi’s quarters turns up both a diagram of the Cobra Bay and Centauri ducats, a neutral hard currency (cash) which is untraceable, perfect for paying off assassins. Garibaldi goes on the run to clear his name and receives help from G’Kar and Londo. He is eventually captured by Kemmer after falling back on the bottle, but Sinclair searches Nolan’s quarters and turns up Homeguard propaganda and bomb-making equipment. Nolan must have set the bomb and inadvertently blown himself and the bay up ahead of schedule. Realising that Kemmer’s second-in-command, Cutter, must have planted the evidence in his quarters, Garibaldi manages to convince Kemmer to confront him. Cutter turns out to be behind the attack and has rigged the other Cobra Bays to explode when the B5 fighters launch as an honour guard for the President. Garibaldi manages to get Ivanova to stop the launch and knocks Cutter out himself. Kemmer heads back to Earth, her faith in Garibaldi restored.


Sunday, 16 July 2017

RIP George Romero

George A. Romero, the godfather of the modern zombie story, has passed away at the age of 77.

Romero was born in the Bronx, New York in 1940. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1960 and began producing commercials and short films. Night of the Living Dead was his first feature, shot on a shoestring budget in 1968 with Romero directing and, alongside John A. Russo, writing.

Night of the Living Dead was an enormous success, driven by cultural shock at the movie's explicit blood and gore. It was filmed for just $144,000 but made over $30 million at the box office. The success was seismic and transformative for Hollywood: it created both the modern zombie story paradigm and also popularised gory horror as a major franchise in its own right, paving the way for the likes of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween franchises.

Unexpectedly, Romero did not immediately embark on a sequel. Instead, he directed a romantic comedy (There's Always Vanilla), an occult thriller (Season of the Witch), a virus disaster movie (The Crazies) and a vampire movie (Martin) before finally making a sequel to his debut. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was just as seminal as its forebear, featuring only light narrative connections but it was praised for its taut direction and siege storyline. The third film, Day of the Dead, was released in 1985 but Romero showed little appetite for continuing the story, instead putting his stamp of approval on remakes of both Night of the Living Dead (1990) and Dawn of the Dead (2004), the latter marking the directorial debut of one Zack Snyder.

A resurgence of interest in Romero's work took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with Joss Whedon citing him as an influence on his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and Robert Kirkman's comic The Walking Dead (2003 onwards) taking off featuring a fresh, ongoing take on the zombie mythos. The Resident Evil video game series and movies, along with the films From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), 28 Days Later (2002) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), also featured nods and homages to Romero. Romero, inspired, filmed three new movies in his series: Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009).

Romero subsequently semi-retired from film-making, instead passing the reigns for a new sequel, Road of the Dead, to Matt Birman and Night of the Living Dead: Origins, a prequel that will finally explain the origins of the zombie apocalypse, to his son G. Cameron Romero.

George Romero passed away on 16 July 2017 from lung cancer. Few creative minds can claim to have achieved as much as did in completely transforming a genre of film and bringing it to a massive new audience. His influence lives on in the zombie movie and that ongoing fear and fascination with the living dead.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 1, Episodes 9-10

A9: Deathwalker
Airdates: 20 April 1994 (US), 11 July 1994 (UK)
Written by Lawrence G. DiTillio
Directed by Bruce Seth Green
Cast: Jha’dur (Sarah Douglas), Ambassador Kalika (Robin Curtis), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Abbut (Cosie Costa), Senator Hidoshi (Aki Aleong), Alien Ambassador (Robert DiTillio), Captain Ashok (Mark Hendrickson), Station One (Marianne Robertson), Station Two (Sav Farrow) 

Plot:    Na’Toth is sent to the docking bay to await the arrival of a senior Narn diplomat who is coming to the station for reasons unknown. However, Na’Toth instead sees an alien woman she recognises and brutally attacks her. Security guards pull her off as she screams “Deathwalker!” and horrified aliens look at the comatose woman with disgust.

Sinclair quizzes Na’Toth whilst the woman recovers in Medlab. Na’Toth is adamant that the woman is Deathwalker, more properly Jha’dur, a veteran of the Dilgar invasion of thirty years ago. The Dilgar were a brutal, callous race but not without their technological innovations. The Dilgar invaded the non-aligned sectors and committed crimes on an interstellar scale before the intervention of the Earth Alliance saw the Dilgar military defeated at the Battle of Balos. A few months later the Dilgar star went nova, apparently wiping out the entire race, but Jha’dur seems to have survived. Jha’dur herself confirms this, claiming to have taken refuge with the Minbari Wind Swords clan. The Wind Swords are the same clan as the assassin who tried to kill both Kosh and Sinclair last year (PM). Na’Toth’s grandparents were on Hylak IV and were tortured and butchered by Jha’dur’s forces. Na’Toth’s family swore the shon’kar, the blood oath, in response. Na’Toth will not rest until Jha’dur is dead.

Meanwhile, Talia Winters is commissioned to oversee a business meeting between Ambassador Kosh and a strange human named Abbut. The two of them speak in parables and sayings and Talia begins to tire of the secretive nature of the negotiations. Suddenly she suffers a flashback to when she scanned a serial killer four years ago. It was possibly the most terrifying experience of her life. After suffering the flashback, she sees Abbut remove a data crystal from a cybernetic implant in his brain and gives it to Kosh. Kosh tells her it is for the future and departs. When Talia complains to Sinclair and Garibaldi, they respond that the Vorlons seem “nervous” around telepaths, possibly due to the events last year when Lyta Alexander scanned Kosh whilst he was unconscious. Possibly Kosh wanted something he could use against Talia should she prove a threat (PM).

Na’Toth is released to G’Kar’s custody but is incensed when G’Kar asks her to suspend the shon’kar. G’Kar tells Na’Toth that Jha’dur has made a discovery which could benefit the Narn immeasurably. The Earth Alliance also knows about this discovery and orders Sinclair to send Jha’dur on to Earth at once. The discovery turns out to be a serum for virtual immortality. Jha’dur refuses to treat with the Narn unless they deliver Na’Toth’s head to her on a plate, so G’Kar alerts the League of Non-aligned Worlds to her presence on the station. The League demands that Jha’dur be turned over to them immediately to be put on trial for crimes against sentience and a full meeting of the Babylon 5 Advisory Council is convened. The League demand a full trial, but Sinclair has been ordered to turn Jha’dur over to Earth instead. The Centauri used to employ the Dilgar are mercenaries so vote against the League in case any of their secrets get out. G’Kar offers to support the League in return for Jha’dur being tried on the Narn homeworld. When the League refuses, G’Kar withdraws his support and votes against the League as well. Surprisingly, the Minbari join in the “no” vote. Lennier (voting in Delenn’s stead, for she has returned to Minbar) tells Sinclair that the Minbari used some of Jha’dur’s weapon designs during the war against Earth and that the Wind Swords don’t want their part in Jha’dur’s history to be revealed. With no support for the League’s demands, Jha’dur is to be sent on to Earth.

Warships from three of the most powerful spacefaring League races - the Drazi, Ipsha and Vree - arrive and blockade Babylon 5 until Jha’dur is turned over to them. Sinclair manages to arrange a compromise, allowing the League worlds to share all data extracted from Jha’dur and her innovations once they have been analysed on Earth. Reluctantly the League agrees and withdraw their warships. Jha’dur, amused by all this commotion, tells Sinclair in passing that her immortality serum requires one person to die for another to live forever. The legacy of the Dilgar when she is dead will have been to pave the way for a bloodier war than any in galactic history. Her ship proceeds to the jump gate, but without warning a Vorlon heavy cruiser emerges and destroys her vessel with a single shot. Kosh tells the other ambassadors that they are not ready for immortality.


13th actor to play DOCTOR WHO announced

The BBC has announced the identity of the actor who will play the thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker will be the first woman to play the role and is expected to debut at the end of the Christmas special.

Jodie Whittaker is best-known for the role of Beth Latimer on three seasons of Broadchurch, alongside former Doctor David Tennant and Olivia Coleman, whom many fans had favoured for the role (although her busy career made that less likely). She's also appeared on Black Mirror and Wired, as well as a recurring role in the newest version of the St. Trinians movie franchise. She also headlined the excellent 2011 SF movie Attack the Block, alongside John Boyega.

The decision to cast Jodie was taken by Chris Chibnall, the new Doctor Who producer and showrunner who is taking over from Steven Moffatt. Chibnall wrote previously for Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood, but more relevantly also wrote and produced all three seasons of Broadchurch.

Chibnall's own Doctor Who work has been...variable in quality, but there's no denying that he seriously levelled up with his work on Broadchurch, which was well-judged and powerful (a so-so middle season excepted). Intriguingly, there have been rumours that Chibnall has discarded many of the style guides, writing bibles and guidelines built up over the previous ten seasons of Doctor Who (since its return in 2005) and the next series is being written, filmed and directed with a completely different approach, apparently a mandate from the BBC who want to return to having the show on air every year with no more big breaks (blamed for a drop in viewing figures for the latest season) and to take advantage of the show's enormous international popularity.

Casting a woman in the role is bound to be controversial among some viewers, but the show has been teasing the water for a few years with the recasting of the Master, who had been played previously by seven male actors, as Michelle Gomez. Gomez was extremely popular and well-received in the role, suggesting that the audience was ready to at give the idea a whirl.

Peter Capaldi's final twirl as the Doctor - in which he teams up with the First Doctor (played by Game of Thrones and Harry Potter actor David Bradley) to save Gallifrey - takes place on Christmas Day. Whittaker's first full season as the Doctor is expected to air in late 2018.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Peter Parker is a New York school kid who has been bitten by a radioactive spider, developed powers and been recruited by Tony Stark to help out the Avengers with an internal dispute. Promised big things by Stark, Parker is soon dumped back in Queens with a badass spider suit but not much clue about what to do. Investigating an ATM robbery gone wrong, Parker uncovers evidence of a criminal gang selling weapons on the black market. With Stark busy with other projects, it falls to Parker - and Spider-Man - to tackle this threat on the streets of the city.

Oh yay, a new Spider-Man movie. We've had six Spider-Man movies in fifteen years - and sixteen Marvel movies in nine years - and this is the third reboot in that time, which feels a bit extreme. If there was ever a superhero movie which seemed utterly redundant before it even launched, it was this one.

Perhaps perversely, the film refuses to follow expectations and fall flat on its face. Instead, Spider-Man: Homecoming is comfortably the best Spider-Man movie ever made and is easily one of the very best Marvel movies. It's made with a surprisingly light touch, it blends genuine laughs (including the biggest belly laugh I've ever had during a Marvel movie) with a superbly-executed plot twist and, in Tom Holland, it finally finds an actor who can play both Spider-Man and Peter Parker excellently: Tobey Maguire was a fine Peter Parker but a subdued Spider-Man, whilst Andrew Garfield was a great Spider-Man but a firmly unconvincing (and way too old) Parker. Holland straddles both worlds, giving us the wise-cracking Spider-Man that cinema has been looking for but also playing the awkward, shy, teenage Parker to the hilt.

The film also gives us - in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for the first time since Tom Hiddleston's Loki - a genuinely outstanding villain. Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes as an ordinary hard worker who snaps for a pretty damn good reason: being driven out of business as the head of a clean-up crew picking up the debris of the Avengers' big fight scenes after Tony Stark muscles in (and thus getting paid to clean up the mess he himself is responsible for). Toomes becomes an arms dealer, selling alien equipment (or left-over bits of Ultron) for profit, but it takes quite a while for himself to cross the line into more overt, lethal villainy and become the Vulture, one of Spider-Man's more familiar enemies. Keaton also gets the best scene in the film, a conversation in a car in which he very gradually pieces together clues to uncover Spider-Man's true identity, and it's a masterclass of acting and writing.

Some reviewers have drawn comparisons between the movie and the work of John Hughes, which is a bit of an exaggeration: the move nods to high school/teenage issues but doesn't spend huge amounts of time in that milieu. Instead, Parker's struggles to impress Stark and the Avengers, and vindicate himself as a hero (at one point near-breaking down as he claims - somewhat histrionically - that he has nothing else going on in his life), take centre stage, with nods at his love life, which is more hypothetical than real. However, the high school scenes are quite funny and there's some nice inversion of tropes. An attempt by classmate Flash Thompson to embarrass and bully Parker falls flat because Parker simply doesn't give him the time of time, whilst Ned (a memorable debut performance by Jacob Batalon), Parker's best friend, is quite funny in his quest to be Parker's "chair man" who helps him out from behind the scenes.

The biggest weakness is the typical Marvel one: a slightly muddled concluding fight sequence that is overly reliant on CGI and also a lot of CG stunts and moves which feel out of keeping with the more grounded, realistic feeling the movie is going for elsewhere. This is particularly notable as the film avoids replicating the soaring but obviously fake CG NYC transition scenes from the Sam Raimi movies (highlighting that Parker isn't there yet in his skill set), but in the finale has no trouble suddenly throwing the character around a ludicrously fake situation that should have kill him five times over.

If you can overlook that brief dip in form, Spider-Man: Homecoming (****½) emerges as a terrific slice of entertaining, being funny, emotional and well-judged on just about every level. It is on general release in the UK and USA now.

A History of Middle-earth Part 1: The Sunless Years

In a distant age of darkness – circa 2003, I believe, long before I started blogging – I wrote a history of Middle-earth for another project. Drawing on The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth series, my goal was to put together a concise history of Arda as envisaged by J.R.R. Tolkien.

As always, my idea of "concise" was at variance with others (at over 40,000 words it is close to a third of the length of The Silmarillion itself!) so the project was shelved. But, having recently gone through my archived files, I dusted it down and realised that, with judicious re-editing (it turns out that 14-years-younger Wert had a much greater love of the word "Thus") it stands as a reasonable approximation of a history of J.R.R. Tolkien's world. Or at least as reasonable as my much-younger self could make of it at the time.

The World of Arda. Artwork by Gordon Theobald.


"Canon" is a fluid concept when it comes to the Middle-earth legendarium. The only works that can be considered fully, 100% canon are the two works that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, completed and published in his lifetime: The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). Tolkien died in 1973 with The Silmarillion still incomplete and his son and literary executor Christopher had to create a "best guess" version by drawing on a morass of incomplete outlines, timelines and narratives (aided for a time by Guy Gavriel Kay). The Silmarillion was published in 1977 and it is this book that serves as the inspiration for this history.

However, during the editing of The History of Middle-earth series, which sought to publish every writing and draft J.R.R. Tolkien ever conceived for Middle-earth, Christopher uncovered some other documents not available during the writing of The Silmarillion-as-published which he admits would have influenced the book to go in different directions if he'd known about them at the time.

Unfinished Tales, published in 1981 and consisting of essays and stories not intended for The Silmarillion, but for a vaguely-projected companion volume of Middle-earth miscellany, complicated matters even further. Several of the essays in this book were Tolkien's works-in-progress at the time of his death, most notably a radical reconception of the history of Galadriel and Celeborn (in which they would get a solo adventure in The Silmarillion, leading them to Middle-earth separately to the rest of the Noldor), a much more detailed account of the history of Numenor and more detailed prose accounts of the legends in The Silmarillion (the later-published Children of Hurin and Beren and Luthien draw on these versions). Since Tolkien was unable to complete these rewrites, this narrative history therefore reverts to the traditional Silmarillion versions.

However, some elements from The History of Middle-earth and Unfinished Tales are drawn upon to add flavour or detail, where they do not clash with other sources.

Calendar Systems

Four principal calendar systems are used to chronicle events in the history of Middle-earth. Years are dated in the Ages of the World, also called the Ages of the Sun. Millennia uncounted took place prior to the first rise of the Sun and Moon, but these years, the Sunless Years or Ages Before Sunlight, go uncounted because, with no Sun, there was no way to count the passing of the years (though according to the Valar, whose knowledge outstrips all others, approximately 30,000 years of later reckoning passed between the creation of the world and the first sunrise over Arda). Obviously, the events that took place at this time are recorded here for discussion.

There have been four Ages of the World that have passed since the rise of first sunlight. The First Age began with the rise of the Sun and Moon and ended in the War of Ruin which destroyed the subcontinent of Beleriand and saw the Dark Lord Morgoth cast into the Outer Darkness. The Second Age ended with the downfall of Sauron in the Last Battle of the Last Alliance on the slopes of Mount Doom. The Third Age ended when the last of the high elves departed Middle-earth for Valinor. The Fourth Age then began, after which details of history become unclear. Years counted in SA, TA and FA stand for Second Age, Third Age and Fourth Age, obviously. To avoid confusion between the First and Fourth Ages, dates in the First Age are counted as ED, being part of the Elder Days.

There is another calendar which comes into use near the end of this history. SR stands for Shire-Reckoning and counts the history of that curious country known as the Shire. SR is of interest because it extends across both Third and Fourth Ages and is particularly relevant to many who played a major role in the epic War of the Ring at the close of the Third Age.

Historical Sources

The principal source for any history of Middle-earth is The Red Book of Westmarch. This red-clad volume was written by Bilbo Baggins, partially whilst still in the Shire but mainly during his twenty-year sojourn in Rivendell. Of course, virtually all of the material on the Elder Days, Númenor and the Rings of Power comes from earlier sources, including discussions Bilbo had with Elrond, Galadriel and Celeborn (during their occasional visits to Rivendell) and translations Bilbo made from books written in Quenya and Sindarin. Frodo Baggins continued the book back in the Shire after the War of the Ring, filling in his and his companions’ adventures during the conflict. After Frodo departed over the Sea, it fell to Samwise Gamgee to keep the book in order.

Quite separate from this source, numerous books were written in Arnor and Gondor on their histories and the history of Númenor, and many of these survived. Other, rarer records, including many believed destroyed, were recovered from Isengard after Saruman’s departure. The elves contributed many historical accounts and books of legends, as did the dwarves. After the dwarves reoccupied Khazad-dûm following the death of the last balrog, other ancient records were recovered from those halls not spoiled by the orcs’ occupation.

The problem of historical drift is much less reduced by the extreme longevity of the elves: almost 7,100 years passed between Galadriel’s departure from Valinor and her return, for example, whilst by the end of the Third Age Círdan, the Keeper of the Ships at the Grey Havens, had lived for perhaps 15,000 years. With almost perfect memories, the wisdom of the elves has gone a long way to maintaining perfect historical accuracy over the passing of the centuries and millennia.

The Age of Creation

Before time began, the One Eru, whom the elves call Ilúvatar, dwelt alone in the void. From the darkness, he conjured the spirits known as the Ainur, and forged the timeless halls for them to dwell in. For a time, there was peace and light, until Eru called the Ainur together to work on a mighty theme, a tremendous anthem of music, and out of this theme was born the World of Earth, Arda as it is called in the old tongues. But Melkor, mightiest of the Ainur, determined to make his own mark upon this world, and brought his own music into the theme, creating disharmony. Eru perceived this, and he and Melkor strove for control of the theme. The other Ainur, believing it to be but a friendly contest, watched and cheered on, but the result was inevitable, and Eru gained the victory. Melkor accepted graciously, but for the first time his pride was damaged, and his defeat was something he came to dwell on.

Now Eru asked that the Ainur send some of their number down to Arda, and order it in preparation for the coming of his Children, beings devised of his spirit but of a lesser order to the Ainur. Many of the Ainur agreed, and they descended unto Arda in a great host.

Upon the world of Arda, the Ainur became divided into two orders, the Valar or “Powers”, and the Maiar or “Hands”. The Valar were the greatest of all beings upon Arda and the Maiar were their servants. Of the Valar there numbered fourteen: Manwë, Melkor, Ulmo, Aulë, Oromë, Mandos, Lórien, Varda, Yavanna, Nienna, Estë, Vairë, Vána and Nessa. Of the Maiar there was hordes uncounted, including the herald Eonwë, the sorcerer Thû, Ossë Lord of the Coasts, Uinen Lady of Waters, Ilmarë handmaiden of Varda, Melian the gardener and Olórin the wise.

At first the world was in harmony and all the Valar and Maiar worked together in peace, but before long the rage and frustration of Melkor came to the boiling point and he began to despoil all that the Valar had wrought, unleashing fire and destruction, earthquakes and terror, just because he could. The Valar were at first in confusion, then despaired as hundreds of Maiar flocked to Melkor’s banner, among them the dread sorcerer Thû (also called Gorthaur the Cruel), the fire-lord Gothmog and his hordes of Valaraukar, who in later years were called the balrogs. The First War of Arda was a ruinous one, but in the end the Valar rallied. After begging the favour of Eru, the Ainu Tulkas, Lord of Might, gained permission to come unto Earth and join the Valar, and Tulkas’ strength turned the tide of battle, and drove Melkor and all his hordes of darkness into the remotest regions of the north. Thus, Tulkas was welcomed amongst the Valar and counted in their ranks, and Melkor was outcast.

The Shores of Valinor by Tad Naismith

The Age of the Lamps

For a time, peace ruled upon Arda and the Great Lamps of Light were raised, Illuin and Ormal. Between them lay a vast lake, and the Valar built a city called Almaren upon an island in that lake. And again, they returned to the task of transforming Arda into a beautiful garden paradise.

But Melkor and his minions cried out against the light, for already their thoughts turned towards the darkness. Melkor raised a great chain of peaks known as the Ered Engrin or Iron Mountains around the remotest parts of the north of the world, and under their tall peaks he forged the fortress of Utumno, but even from its darkest pits the light of the lamps could still be seen.

Again, Melkor came forth in wrath. He assailed the lamps and cast them down. Darkness filled the world, blocking the Valars’ attempts to fight back, and earthquakes wracked the land. In the end, the Valar decided to remove themselves from Melkor’s evil. They created two vast seas, dividing the world into three great landmasses. In the far east lay the Sunlands, from which only rumour came to the rest of the world, whilst in the furthest west the land of Aman took shape. The Valar retreated to Aman and raised the vast towering peaks of the Pelori to guard against Melkor’s assaults, and made a new home beyond those mountains. The central continent they left to Melkor, and that continent became known as Endor or Endorémma, which in the ancient languages is translated as Midland, the Land in the Middle of the Earth, or Middle-earth.

The Age of Darkness

Now the Valar had peace for many thousands of years. Beyond the tall walls of the Pelori they founded their kingdom of Valinor and forged mighty cities, such as Valmar their capital, but mostly the Maiar dwelt here, for the Valar had their own homes. Manwë, Lord of the Valar, and his Queen, Varda, made their home upon the Taniquetil, the greatest mountain in the range of the Pelori, whilst Lórien removed himself to a great garden in the west of Aman. Aulë the Smith delved into the deep places of the earth to build his forges, whilst Ulmo dwelt in the seas about the shores of Aman. Mandos, Lord of Doom, forged his halls in the furthest west of Middle-earth, before the Door of Morning, and Yavanna planted her fields and pastures beneath the looming peaks of the mountains.

After they first arrived in this land, Yavanna conjured from the Earth the two Great Trees of Light, which were named Telperien and Laurelin, and their radiance filled all of Aman with light, but even their great radiance could not cross the Pelori and the Belegaer, the Great Sea, to Middle-earth. Thus, began the First Age of the Trees in Aman, which in Middle-earth is known as the Age of Darkness.

This was the age of the dominion of Melkor, for his forces ruled over all of Middle-earth with no challenge. To his servant Thû, who some called Gorthaur but who also took the name Sauron, the Accursed, he committed the task of building an armoury, for Melkor suspected that war against the Valar would come again. Sauron went into the west of Middle-earth and there built the fortress of Angband. Fierce were its defences and numerous its defenders, but it was but the palest shadow of the might of Utumno in the east.

In Aman, the long ages of peace passed, and the Valar turned their hands to creation. Up to now they had created animals and other lower-order creatures, but Aulë and Yavanna became more ambitious. Aulë created a race of sturdy, squat humanoids and imbued them with a love of artifice and creation. He named them the Naugrim, which is often translated as “dwarves”. Yavanna imbued with life the very trees themselves, creating mighty, primitive but beautiful entities called the Huorns, and also created a race of shepherds to protect them, the smaller, more intelligent Ents. But Eru the One had forbidden sentient life to come into the world of Arda before the coming of his Children, and he forbade life to the dwarves, huorns and ents. The huorns and ents were placed dormant in the midst of the great forests of Middle-earth, and the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves were placed in deep places far below the surface of Middle-earth.

The Age of Starlight
Thus, the Age of Darkness passed, until Varda, Queen of the Valar and Lady of the Skies, came to weep for the lands of Middle-earth, denied the light of the Trees and shadowed in darkness from Utumno as well as the endless night. She decided to let light flood into Middle-earth and created the Net of Stars to cast across the Outer Airs of the world. The Stars were created, and their light, faint but discernible, blazed down upon the world of Arda, thus ending the Age of Darkness and beginning the Age of Starlight.

The stars shone and the servants of Melkor cowed at this sign of the might of the Valar. But, unbeknown to all, the first shining of the stars had other effects. In the furthest east of Middle-earth, on the shores of the Mere of Cuiviénen, the first shining of the stars awoke the First Children of Ilúvatar. These were the Quendi in their own tongue, but history records them more famously as the elves. Strong, tall and graceful they were, immortal, immune to disease and ageing so slowly as to not be discernible, and only killable in battle. The elves lived for many years in peace in Cuiviénen. Some of their kind became curious and set out to explore the lands to the west and north, but of these few returned.

Melkor’s spies captured some of the elves early on and delivered them to Utumno, where Melkor became disgusted with the nobility and beauty of these creatures, clearly creations of the One. Enraged, he perverted and corrupted the elves, breeding from them a mutilated form of life known as the orcs. Capable of breeding quickly, the orcs began to increase in numbers to tremendous levels. After the Awakening of the elves, Eru awoke the dwarves, huorns and ents also. The dwarves escaped notice for many long millennia, and the huorns were barely recognised as living beings by the orcs, but the ents soon found themselves assailed. Many were captured and taken in chains to Utumno, where from them Melkor bred the evil race of trolls.

Now Oromë the Huntsman, who alone of the Valar often ventured into Middle-earth to hunt servants of Melkor, came across the elves of Cuiviénen. Sensing that these were indeed the First Children who’s coming the Valar had waited for long ages of the world, he dwelt amongst them and learned much of their kind. But Oromë also learned of the evil of Melkor, and in a rage returned to Valinor. He summoned the Valar to the Circle of Doom in Valmar itself, and there presented his findings to all, including Manwë. Then the Valar agreed that the evil of Melkor could not be permitted to harm the First Children. They resolved to go to war.

Melkor had no warning of the sudden, swift strike from across the seas. Barely was he warned before Tulkas the Mighty uprooted the mountains protecting Utumno and tore the fortress apart almost by himself. Melkor’s servants fled in terror and their master was chained. He was then taken captive and delivered to a deep pit below Valmar, to there reflect upon his crimes.

Then the Valar went before the elves and offered them a choice: to remain in Middle-earth and make their own lives, or to journey with the Valar to the Undying Lands and dwell there with the Valar in their paradise homes. A few refused, fearing the unknown, and remained in Cuiviénen, and these became known as the Avari, or ‘Unwilling’. But the overwhelming majority of the elves did agree to pass into the west, and set forth on the long road.

The elves moved in three hosts. The first was led by Ingwë and was known as the Vanyar. The Vanyar were closest to the Valar in thought and deed and hurried quickly to the shores of Beleriand, the western-most part of Middle-earth, where the shores of Aman and Middle-earth drew closest. The second was led by Finwë and was known as the Noldor, or deep-elves. These elves loved artifice and creation, and stopped along the route to talk to the dwarves they met along the way, but they were more intrigued by news of the great smiths and forges of Aulë that awaited them in Valinor, and they did not tarry long.

The third host was the largest, and was led by the brothers, Olwë and Elwë. This host was known as the Teleri, and tarried often upon the road, often splitting into lesser groups, some going their own way only to rejoin the main group later on. The Teleri were divided between staying in Middle-earth and going to Aman, or between rushing to the Hither Shores after the Vanyar and Noldor, or going at a more sedate pace and exploring leisurely other parts of the world. After many years had passed and Ossë, vassal of Ulmo, had already departed for Valinor, pulling a great island with the hosts of the Vanyar and Noldor upon them, the Teleri host at last came before the mighty Hithaeglir, the impenetrable chain of mountains later called the Misty Mountains. Raised in earlier millennia by Melkor to hamper Oromë’s journeys in Middle-earth, the Misty Mountains presented a formidable obstacle to the elves. Some turned back, fearful of the great peaks, and became known as the Nandor, “Those Who Turned Back”. But the bulk of the Teleri pressed on, following the Misty Mountains south to a great gap between its peaks. Thus, the Teleri in their descriptions divided the great mountain chain in two, naming them the Misty Mountains in the north and the Ered Nimrais, the White Mountains, in the south. So, they passed into Eriador.

The Nandor passed much further south, eventually coming to the coast of the sea at the mouth of the Great River Anduin. Then they turned west along the sea, crossing the steep foothills of the south-western White Mountains and passing into south-eastern-most Eriador by a different road to their kindred. Some remained in Eriador, finding the vast Huorn and Ent-inhabited woods of the land to their liking, but a few pressed on westwards to the Ered Luin, the Blue Mountains. By chance they found a narrow pass leading down into a beautiful, verdant country fed by the waters of seven rivers, and they remained there, becoming the Laiquendi or green-elves, and they named their new home Ossiriand, which in later ages was called Lindon.

The main Teleri host had already passed into Beleriand ere the Laiquendi arrived in Ossiriand, and were disheartened to find that the ship-isle of Eressëa had departed without them. Knowing it might be many years before the island returned, they spread out along the coasts of Beleriand and explored the interior of this country as well. One of the oldest among the Teleri, Círdan, developed a love of the sea and became a mighty shipwright. He founded the castles of Eglarest and Brithombar, and built many great ships. When the time came to depart Middle-earth for Valinor, he refused and decided to remain in the Falas (the coastlands of Beleriand) with those who would follow him. More serious to the Teleri was the loss of Elwë. He wandered far into the heartland of Beleriand and vanished, and those who sought him also disappeared, but in long years afterwards it was revealed that Elwë had passed into the great twin forests of Neldoreth and Region, and there under the starlight met the Maia Melian, who often visited this spiritual place. They fell in love and Melian adopted elvish form so she and Elwë could be together. They gathered others to them, and founded a kingdom they called Eglador.

In time Ossë returned, towing the mighty island of Tol Eressëa behind him, and those Teleri that remained loyal under Olwë boarded the island-ship and passed west over the Great Sea of Belegaer to Valinor. Many of their kindred they left behind, those who stayed willingly and others who had tarried on the way and become lost, but still the host that set foot in Valinor was still larger than the Noldor or Vanyar. So did the last of the Eldar, the elves of the Great Journey, come to Valinor.

Melkor and Ungoliant by John Howe

The Unchaining of Melkor and the Great Revolt
For many long ages both the Valar and their elven guests in Valinor and the elves of Beleriand had peace, for Melkor was imprisoned in chains, and his servants quailed in fear of the Valar, and made no move against them or their elven allies. But Sauron, in great secret, foresaw that his master would escape the Valar’s clutches if he could and return to Middle-earth, and Sauron gathered to him all of Melkor’s creatures, and Angband he strengthened further, in preparation for that day.

In Valinor the Eldar dwelt in peace. The Vanyar and Noldor took for themselves the city of Tirion, which they built on the great hill of Túna in the midst of the Calicirya, the Pass of Light through the Pelori, linking the inner plains of Valinor to the Bay of Eldamar. In the midst of that bay lay the great island of Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, which had borne the Eldar from Middle-earth, and on the northern shores of the bay the Teleri founded Alqualondë, the Swan-haven, from where their great swan-ships set out to explore coasts of Aman and the seas of Arda.

In time, the Vanyar’s piety to the Valar was rewarded, and they were permitted to move from Tirion into Valmar itself, and Ingwë, King of the Vanyar and Lord of the Eldar, was permitted to build himself a mansion on the lower slopes of the Taniquetil, thus signifying the deep bond between the Vanyar and Manwë Lord of the Valar.

However, the Noldor were not so blessed. They were not permitted to settle in Valmar, but were allowed to build for themselves another city on the inner plains of Valinor, and this they named Formenos. The Lord of the Noldor, Finwë, had three sons, Fëanor from his first marriage to Míriel Serindë and Fingolfin and Finarfin from his marriage to Indis of the Vanyar. Míriel was exhausted by childbirth and went to rest in the gardens of Lórien, but so great had her exertions been that she laid herself down and her spirit passed to the Halls of Mandos, not to return, the first of the Eldar to perish in Valinor. Finwë was grieved, but in time learned to love again and took Indis to wife, and had two more sons. But between Fëanor and his brothers there was jealousy and dislike.

After thousands of years uncounted passed, Melkor begged for an audience before his brother Manwë and Manwë relented. Melkor threw himself on his brother’s mercy, begging to be let loose from his chains and declaring his repentance at his crimes. Manwë eventually agreed, but through true belief that Melkor had repented or through a belief that the Valar could contain Melkor’s evil should it spring forth anew remains unknown. Indeed, if Melkor himself repented truly or merely feigned servitude is also unknown.

In Formenos Fëanor grew to become the greatest of all Noldor smiths, but his jealousy of his brothers continued to consume him. Out of this petty malice many great items of power were forged, and Fëanor was acclaimed when he forged seven seeing-stones of great power, the palantíri. But, although they were wondrous, Fëanor felt they were but minor heirlooms at best, and continued his quest for perfection. Eventually he succeeded in capturing the truth of beauty, for he forged three great jewels of everlasting perfection, and inside he captured the light of the Great Trees themselves. Thus were born the Silmarilli, the Silmarils, the most perfect items ever created by the elves upon Arda. All who saw them, even Manwë himself, were captivated by their beauty. But none were more ensnared by their radiance than Melkor. In great secret Melkor journeyed into the southern-most regions of Valinor and there, under the peak of Hyarmentir, found one of the most ancient forces in the world, Ungoliant the Terrible, a great spider of tremendous strength and avarice, and Melkor bound her to his service once more with a promise of destruction to sate her dark hunger.

A time came when a great feast was to be held in Valmar, and all the Eldar were invited. Even Fëanor forgot his petty jealousies and went with his brothers to the feast, and there most of the Teleri and Vanyar went as well. But Finwë, Lord of the Noldor, did not go. His son Fëanor had been banned from visiting Tirion for a period of twelve years for openly speaking of defying the Valar and returning to Middle-earth. Finwë vowed not to step forth from Formenos until Fëanor was granted pardon.

The great feast of Valmar began, but it had not long been in progress when Ungoliant and Melkor came forth from the southern mountains. With his mighty spear, Melkor cast down the Trees of Light themselves, and Ungoliant defiled the mound where they grew, so never again could they be grown. Then Ungoliant weaved a great shadow around herself and Melkor and they passed northwards at speed. They came to Formenos and shattered the doors of the fortress. There Finwë stood fast, sword in hand, but his valour was in vain, for Melkor slew him, shattered the storerooms of Fëanor, and seized the Silmarils. He and Ungoliant, clad again in shadow, then went forth into the uppermost north of the world and passed over Helcaraxë, the Grinding Ice, and travelled on towards Beleriand.

Now all the Eldar and Valar were dismayed. Fëanor drew his blade and declared that Melkor was now Morgoth, the Great Enemy of All the World, and swore to revenge himself upon Morgoth even if it took to the end of the ages of Arda. He committed his seven sons (Maedhros, Maglor, Celegorm, Caranthir, Curufin, Amrod and Amras) to the oath of vengeance, and his brother Fingolfin and his own two sons and one daughter (Fingon, Turgon and Aredhel) also joined the call. Finarfin, most peaceable of the brothers and the closest to the Valar, hesitated, but after much thought joined the oath-swearing, committing his four sons and one daughter (Finrod, Orodreth, Angrod, Aegnor and Galadriel) to the return of the Silmarils. But the Valar forbade the Noldor from leaving. They ordered them not to leave the Undying Lands, for Morgoth was now the concern of the Valar for casting down the Trees of Light and betraying the oath of peace he had sworn before Manwë. But the Noldor did not listen. They gathered their hosts and marched east to Alqualondë. There the Teleri refused to surrender their swan-ships to the Noldor and even burned some rather than defy the Valar. In a righteous fury, Fëanor led his sons into battle against their own kindred in the First Kinslaying and even some of Fingolfin’s troops entered the fray as well. Finarfin held back his host, dismayed at what he had seen, and many of his kin turned back to Valinor in disgust. But at length the slaughter was done and the Noldor had ships enough to carry one half of their host. They sailed north, whilst Fingolfin and Finarfin led their hosts north along the coast by land.

Then, at Araman in the north of Aman, the voice of Mandos prophesied the Doom of the Noldor, cursing them to walk in death’s shadow forever for the evil they had unleashed upon the world. Fearful, Finarfin’s will at last broke and he abandoned the chase, leading his host back to Valinor, whilst his children remained. But Fëanor and Fingolfin would not relent. Fëanor took the ships across the north of the Sea of Belegaer, promising to return them for Fingolfin’s host. But upon reaching the Hither Shores of Beleriand, Fëanor’s wrath took hold of him, and he ordered the ships burnt.

So many ships were destroyed that day that their flames could be discerned even across the wide sea, and Fingolfin knew he had been betrayed. With little other choice, he led his people onto the Helcaraxë, and began the cruel passage of the Grinding Ice, which claimed many of the lives of the host.

In Valinor the Valar gathered around the fallen Trees, knowing they could grow no more, but from the last embers Yavanna kindled two saplings of light, one fierce and burning, one pale and ghostly, and Aulë the Smith fashioned two great orbs to carry and amplify the lights. Arien, maiden of the Maiar, was chosen to pilot the burning orb, Anar they called it, the Sun, and Tilion, the hunter of the Maiar, was chosen to pilot the ghostly orb, Isil, the Moon.

As the Sun and Moon rose into the skies for the first time and brought full-wrought day into the lands of Middle-earth for the first time, so the shadow of the host of Fingolfin fell upon the land of Hithlum in the north-west of Beleriand and, under the light of the Sun, Fingolfin entered Beleriand, vowing vengeance against both his mortal enemy Morgoth and against his treacherous brother Fëanor.

The War of the Jewels had begun.

Parts 2-5 of the History of Middle-earth Series are available to read now on my Patreon feed as follows:

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Friday, 14 July 2017

The Genesis of Babylon 5

Babylon 5's original concept art, by Peter Ledger. More info here.

When Babylon 5 debuted on the Prime Time Entertainment Network in February 1993, it was the culmination of an epic, five-year struggle. At the forefront of that struggle was Babylon 5’s creator, showrunner, main writer, spokesman (or “Minister of Propaganda”): Joseph Michael Straczynski, popularly known to his fans as “JMS”.

Straczynski was born in July 1954 in Paterson, New Jersey, to parents of Polish descent. His father, a manual labourer, moved around a lot for work and by the time he was sixteen Straczynski had already lived in New Jersey, Illinois, Texas and California. Finding it hard to make friends when he knew he might leave them behind in a few months, Straczynski became a voracious reader, particularly of science fiction and fantasy. His favourite books included Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Childhood’s End, the works of Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, and Alfred Bester’s two seminal novels, The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. He was also a keen fan of comics and television, enjoying at an early age both The Twilight Zone and the original Star Trek and, a bit later during the PBS era of the 1970s, Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.

In 1974 Straczynski moved to San Diego to attend San Diego State University. He earned his BA with a double major in psychology and sociology, as well as minors in philosophy and literature. He was also a prolific contributor to the University magazine. After graduating he worked as a journalist and playwright. Although Straczynski enjoyed his time in San Diego, he also experienced a traumatic event when he was brutally mugged and left badly beaten on the streets of the city.

In 1981, Straczynski moved to Los Angeles with his future wife, Kathryn Drennan, and continued working as a journalist and writer. In 1984 he sent a spec script to Filmation for their animated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which was purchased, and he was then brought on-board as a staff writer. He met and befriended Larry DiTillio and they worked on both He-Man and its spin-off, She-Ra: Princess of Power. Work on several animated series followed until Straczynski was hired to work on The Real Ghostbusters as script editor and writer.

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987-88).

In 1987 Straczynski was hired as a writer on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, an action show aimed at kids and young adults which had an accompanying line of toys from Mattel. Straczynski saw the potential to tell a bigger and more interesting story than was normally seen in science fiction: he suggested that the entire season tell a single story across its episodes rather than being a collection of stand-alone episodes with the “reset button” hit at the end of every episode. The result was a dramatic, impressive storyline but also one that had problems, particularly the tension between the post-apocalyptic, dark tone of the series, its selling of toys and the more light-hearted moments meant to appeal to kids. In trying to service many masters, it couldn’t serve any one very well and was cancelled after just one season. Still, Straczynski gained important contacts from the show, most notably befriending veteran Hollywood producer Douglas Netter.

During this period Straczynski was also given the chance to present his own radio talk show, Hour 25, which he used as a means of interviewing major science fiction and fantasy authors. Using this show, he met writers and creative forces such as Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, John Carpenter and Harlan Ellison. Straczynski hit it off with Ellison – as a much younger writer he’d once asked Ellison why his work wasn’t selling and Ellison suggest he stop “writing shit” – and they became friends. Straczynski also got his first live-action credit for The New Twilight Zone, the back end of the production run that Ellison and George R.R. Martin had kicked off the previous year and then left when it became clear that the studio didn’t really want a successor to the Rod Sterling show (a conclusion that Straczynski also reached).  After this Straczynski went to work on Murder, She Wrote, which became his day job whilst he worked on other projects in the evenings and at weekends.

Straczynski had been toying around with two ideas for science fiction shows of his own devising for a while. The first was for a tightly-written character drama set on a space station, with special effects kept to a minimum and the focus firmly on a group of characters living on the station trying to coexist. He envisaged this a harder SF tale with a focus on realism.  The second idea was a grand space opera in the tradition of Star Wars, Lensman or Dune, with lots of alien races, spaceships and huge space battles. Aware of the restrictions in television budgets, Straczynski realised the latter was not a realistic goal, but he kept nudging at the idea anyway.

According to Straczynski, in 1986 or 1987 he had a “Eureka!” moment in the shower, when he realised that the two stories – the space station and space opera narratives – were the same story. He could use the space station setting as a window onto the larger universe in which the space opera story unfolds. He quickly grabbed a noisome name out of the ether: Babylon 5. He came up with the idea early enough for the “Babylon 5 Genetic Engineering Colony” to even be namechecked in Captain Power.

From left-to-right: John Copeland, Douglas Netter, J. Michael Straczynski in 1996.

After Captain Power ended, Straczynski met with Douglas Netter and another producer, John Copeland. He unveiled his vision for Babylon 5 and suggested that the show could be made on an even lower budget than Captain Power (which cost a reported $1 million per episode, an extraordinarily large figure for the time which even Star Trek: The Next Generation wouldn’t surpass until its second season) with lots of pre-planning and respect for the budget. Straczynski wrote a script and an outline for not just one season, but five. Straczynski envisaged the entire series telling one epic story unfolding over five years.

Netter and Copeland were impressed, not just by the pilot script but by the way Straczynski had grounded what sounded like an unachievable goal – of doing a Star Wars-style saga on television – within a realistic framework of budgets and practical realities. They set out to woo the major networks, only to encounter strong resistance: CBS, HBO, ABC and Fox all passed on the project.

The team discovered that there were several key things working against them. First up was that the networks were not keen on science fiction that looked like overt science fiction. At one stage, they were passed over in favour of another show called Quantum Leap, which was a fine piece of character drama but very rarely engaged with its core science fiction premise. It was an ordinary drama with a tiny dollop of SF, which suited the studio very well. The team’s ambitiously low budget and production model was also not taken seriously, and Peter Ledger’s concept artwork sometimes confused studio executives. At one point, one executive pointed at a picture of B5’s cylindrical garden (where the people are held to the floor by centrifugal force), spotting some figures on the “ceiling”, and could not conceive of what they were doing there. Straczynski suggested they were held up by “crazy glue” and was dumbfounded when the executive took him seriously.

They did get support from source: Evan Thompson and the Chris Craft TV Group (later United Television) saw a great opportunity in the show to appeal to a young male demographic and were convinced that long-form, serialised storytelling (already pioneered, to an extent, on shows like Hill Street Blues) was going to be the future. Thompson came on board to help shop the show around.
The team encountered a new argument that there was room for only one space opera show on American television and that was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Other networks were simply not interested in competing with the Paramount juggernaut. Confronted by this argument one time too many, Thompson suggested they take the bull by the horns and pitch directly to Paramount themselves.

Paramount was intrigued by the pitch, which took place in early 1989. Internally, several executives appeared to like the idea of launching another, non-Trek show which was not riding the success of an earlier series (as ST:TNG would be accused of regularly until at least the end of its third season), but higher executives didn’t like the idea of cannibalising their own audience. They were also concerned about potentially confusing the audience with having two space opera shows, one set in the Star Trek universe and one set elsewhere. The two sides argued for about nine months, until Netter gave up on them and asked for the script and season outlines back.

The team finally caught two lucky breaks in a row. The first was in the realm of visual effects. Netter, Copeland and Straczynski had worked with a visual effects designer on Captain Power named Ron Thornton. Thornton was an old-skool British model-maker and effects guru, starting his career working on Doctor Who (specifically the Peter Davison years) and Blake’s 7; Thornton had built the Scorpio starship model in his living room. Thornton had then moved to Hollywood as there was a lot more work there. Whilst working on Captain Power, Thornton had a chance to see the show’s CGI (computer-generated imagery) in action and wasn’t impressed: there was no texture mapping and the effects had a very blocky look. He’d been more impressed by the contemporary film The Last Starfighter, which, at least in brief shots, had CG ships roaring through space that looked like models.

By 1990 Thornton had bought a Commodore Amiga 2000 and plugged in NewTek’s graphics card, the Video Toaster. This allowed him to run Lightwave 3D, a powerful graphics application which had a sophisticated system for generating texture maps and light sources. He’d stayed in touch with the Captain Power team and they’d told him about the new space opera show they were developing. Thinking it sounded cool, he presented them with some spaceship shots he’d generated on his computer. That got him a meeting with Peter Ledger, and the chance to translate some of the concept art into CGI. This finally resulted in a 30-second sequence showing the Babylon 5 space station floating in space above its planet (at this point called Euphrates, but later renamed Epsilon III).

A Commodore Amiga 2000 - complete with the iconic, awful mouse - running a Video Toaster plug-in.

The second break was that both Netter and Thompson were acquainted with Dick Robertson, the head of Warner Brothers Domestic Television Distribution. Robertson, unlike any of his peers, was actually keen to get a space opera show to compete with Star Trek, but was aware that he was not going to have the budgetary resources to go toe-to-toe with the Paramount juggernaut. When Straczynski showed up with a costed, affordable show with a kick-ass, cutting-edge but also cheap way of generating the visual effects, Robertson invited him to formally pitch the show.
Warner Brothers were putting together a new way of marketing TV shows: the Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN). PTEN was a network of local channels stretching from coast to coast, a way of getting the same shows aired across the country at (more or less) the same time without the enormous cost of setting up a proper television network. A whole bunch of producers and writers were invited to pitch, although Babylon 5 was one of the most mature projects, having already had three years of development work and a completed pilot script.

Warner Brothers was then a competing morass of different departments and PTEN acted like a moth to a flame: the number of shows being pitched went from four to fifteen and when Team B5 showed up they found themselves competing against action shows, sitcoms and other shows which were less ambitious and hence cheaper and easier to understand. Straczynski was so stressed by the experience that he managed to split a molar lengthwise whilst grinding his teeth in the waiting room. Netter and Copeland suggested they rush him to the dentists but he refused, instead swallowing a bucket of ice and painkillers before going in to give the pitch.

How Straczynski’s painkiller-led explanation of the story and characters went is not recorded for posterity, but the attending studio executives sat up suddenly when they saw the budget forecasts and reports. These had been prepared for Steve Papazian, a senior programming exec at Warner Brothers who had cut his teeth as production manager on V, the 1984 SF mini-series which had been (briefly) extremely popular before dying as an extremely expensive and ill-advised long-run TV show. Papazian pointed out that the B5 production model expertly avoided almost all of the things that had caused V to spiral out of control, such as avoiding its expensive model shots and lots of location filming, which meant that controlling the budget was much more feasible. Ron Thornton’s demo reel convinced the last few doubters: Warner Brothers could have its own, proper science fiction TV show for a fraction of the cost of Paramount’s Star Trek franchise.

Babylon 5 was formally commissioned for a two-hour pilot movie in February 1991. Pre-production began early, Thornton began working on the 3D models of the final station layout and other ships, sets were designed, the producers started considering questions of casting and music and directors…

And Paramount announced the launch of its own, big-budget space station series. In a blaze of publicity, they confirmed that they were going to launch their own spin-off from Star Trek: The Next Generation, entitled Star Trek: Deep Space IX (later tweaked to Deep Space Nine after too many media queries about, “What is Deep Space Ix?”). It was going to use cutting-edge effects and would launch directly with the most expensive pilot in television history (a monstrous $12 million dollars, or just under $21 million in today’s money) into a first season of twenty episodes. It was a display of confidence and budget that got Warner Brothers seriously spooked.

How close DS9 came to killing B5 is something that Warner Brothers have never really admitted, except it was quite close. Warner Brothers eventually decided to stick with B5. They’d announced their project first, they’d already spent a lot of money on it and they’d already greenlit the pilot. Cancelling it would look bad for WB’s business reputation. In addition, despite being caught off-guard by the announcement, Warner Brothers didn’t want to look weak or on the run from what Paramount was doing. Finally, B5 was committed to leading the charge of the PTEN and cancelling it and developing another show would delay the launch of that project, which was something WB and its affiliates and partners did not want to do. So, after many delays, the project was resumed in late 1991, with shooting planned for mid-1992 for a November 1992 debut (later pushed back to February 1993, to allow more time for post-production).

Babylon 5’s pilot aired, got very good ratings and good reviews (especially versus DS9’s first season, which was a bit lacklustre until really good episodes like Duet started cropping up in the back half), so Warner Brothers felt vindicated and commissioned the full first season of Babylon 5.
For Joe Straczynski it was the end of a five-year struggle to get the show on the air. Now another five years remained to actually tell the story to its conclusion…which was not the conclusion he first envisaged.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

CYBERPUNK creator Mike Pondsmith on the upcoming video game

Rock Paper Shotgun has an interesting interview with Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the Cyberpunk roleplaying game franchise.

Pondsmith discusses the game and the genre, his extremely in-depth research and how work is progressing on Cyberpunk 2077, the upcoming video game by Witcher developers CD Projekt Red, and how that is influencing the next iteration of the pen-and-paper game.

Cyberpunk 2077 does not have a release date yet, but is not expected before late 2018/early 2019 at the earliest.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 1, Episodes 7-8

It takes a special kind of confidence - or lunacy - for any man to try to chat up Ivanova in that jumper.

A7: The War Prayer
Airdates: 9 March 1994 (US), 27 June 1994 (UK)
Written by D.C. Fontana
Directed by Richard Compton
Cast: Malcolm Biggs (Tristan Rogers), Shaal Mayan (Nancy Lee Grahn), Roberts (Michael Paul Chan), Kiron Maray (Rodney Eastman), Aria Tensus (Danica McKellar), Mila Shar (Diane Adair), Alvares (Richard Chaves), Thegras (Mark Hendrickson), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Security Officer (Chuck Botto), Alien (Mike Gunther), Station One (Marianne Robertson)

Plot:    The Homeguard - a racist, anti-alien group operating on Earth - has sent a group undercover to cause problems on Babylon 5. Sinclair’s attempts to track down the group come to nothing and the alien races begin to get restless after a respected Minbari poet, Shaal Mayan, and two Centauri teenagers, Aria Tensus and Kiron Maray (Vir Cotto’s cousin), are attacked.

Sinclair warns Ambassador Kosh about the problem and is surprised to see the Vorlon studying images of Earth. Afterwards Sinclair recalls how Lyta Alexander and Dr. Kyle were recalled to Earth after seeing what the Vorlon looked like when he was injured, and ponders how Kosh was poisoned through his encounter suit (PM).

Ivanova discovers that an old flame who has turned up on the station, Malcolm Biggs, is the leader of Homeguard forces on Babylon 5 and she and Sinclair set him up. The Homeguard operatives are captured and sent back to Earth for trial.

Meanwhile, the two Centauri teenagers, Aria and Kiron, are on the run from their families who have arranged marriages for them both to other, older nobles when they are in love with one another. Vir asks for Londo’s help in letting them marry one another, but Londo believes in the traditions of his race. However, recalling his own unhappy marriage and his three wives (‘Famine, Pestilence and Death’) waiting for him on the homeworld, Londo decides to give the youngsters a better hope for the future and arranges for them to join House Mollari. The prestige their families gain from this connection allows them to marry without fear of loss of face.