Friday, 20 July 2018

First trailer arrives for UNBREAKABLE / SPLIT sequel

M. Night Shyamalan has dropped the first trailer for Glass, the film which will act as a simultaneous sequel to two of his best-received movies: Unbreakable (2003) and Split (2017).

Unbreakable saw David Dunn (Bruce Willis) gain superhuman powers but also a nemesis in the form of Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a physically weak but intellectually formidable opponent. Split explored the character of Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), a mentally disturbed man with 23 split personalities inhabited his psyche, at least one of which seemed to have unusual powers. Glass will see the titular villain trying to join forces with Kevin, with David determined to stop them.

The film will be released on 18 January 2019.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER reboot series in the works

20th Century Fox are developing a new Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, which will be set in the modern day and feature a fresh take on the story.

Details are still thin, but Monica Owusu-Breen (Agents of SHIELD) will be the executive producer and showrunner of the project. Joss Whedon is involved as executive producer and may co-write the pilot, but his involvement will be limited due to his commitment to The Nevers, a new genre show for HBO.

Reports suggest that a new African-American actress will be playing the role of Buffy, suggesting a total reboot of the franchise. However, the same reports suggest the show will be "building on the mythology of the original series." Buffy ended with the magical limitation that there could only be one Slayer being lifted, allowing thousands of new Slayers to arise all over the world. For a long time fans have speculated that a "Next Generation" show could launch years later with a team of Slayers as the core cast with maybe a couple of returning actors to work as mentors and parental figures. However, the suggestion seems to be that this will be a contemporary reboot instead with a new Buffy, although this seems to contradict Whedon's statement last year that a new show would feature the same actors.

More news as it comes in.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Season 2 gets a trailer

CBS All Access have released a trailer for Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery.

Picking up shortly after the events of the Season 1 finale, Season 2 of Discovery sees the crew of the Discovery rendezvousing with the USS Enterprise. Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) assumes command of the Discovery in order to use its superior scientific technology to investigate strange signals emanating from deep space.

Season 2 of Discovery will apparently be focused on getting back to a sense of space exploration and fun with a looser story arc, following complaints about the dour first season of the show.

Star Trek: Discovery will air on CBS All Access in the United States and Netflix in most of the rest of the world in early 2019. Before that, though, will be a series of four short episodes (10-15 minutes long) featuring Saru, Tilly and Harry Mudd, called Short Treks. These will air later this year.

PATHFINDER: KINGMAKER gets a release date

Pathfinder: Kingmaker, an expansive computer RPG set in the signature Pathfinder world of Golarion, will be out on 25 September this year.

Kingmaker is a Baldur's Gate-inspired CRPG which allows you to both take part in traditional roleplaying activities, like quests, monster-slaying, dungeon-delving and romances, but adds on a strategic layer of realm management (similar to the old Birthright setting for Dungeons and Dragons). As you progress through the Stolen Lands - a sort of unclaimed no-man's land in the middle of the River Kingdoms (the pen-and-paper incarnation of which was contributed to by China Mieville, slightly randomly) - you gain more control and influence over the local population, allowing you to build a town and rule over it as a tyrant or a benevolent ruler. As the game progresses your influence over the region grows.

The game's storyline was co-written by the omnipresent Chris Avellone, who has contributed to games including Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, Knights of the Old Republic II, Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol, Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of NumeneraDivinity: Original Sin II and the forthcoming Dying Light 2.

Pathfinder was, for a while, the world's most popular pen-and-paper roleplaying game. Created as an alternative to the unpopular Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (which not so much threw the baby out with the bathwater but hurled it into orbit), Pathfinder developed from the D&D 3rd Edition rules and sold many hundreds of thousands of copies. After the release of the considerably better-received D&D 5th Edition, Pathfinder lost its crown for a while but is now looking to reclaim the spotlight with a 2nd Edition of its own game rules, a recently-released SF variant (Starfinder) and now its first spin-off video game.

Director James Gunn fired from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3

In an unexpected move, Disney has fired James Gunn, the director of the first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, over seven-year-old tweets.

Apologising for the remarks on Twitter, Gunn claimed he made the "provocative" tweets when he was interested in edgy and dark humour and no longer ascribes to such jokes.

The move has complicated the Disney schedule, as Gunn was beginning pre-production on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 which was expected to be released in 2020. Disney will be looking for a director who can step in at short notice to take on the project. I strongly suspect they are putting some urgent calls in to Taika Waititi right now, whose Thor: Ragnarok aesthetic would make a good fit for the Guardians sub-franchise.

Although Gunn's tweets are clearly unacceptable and inappropriate for the director of a franchise which has a strong appeal to children, it is less clear why Disney have taken action only now, as the tweets have been widely reported on for years, during which time Gunn directed two movies for the company, as well as providing some assistance and advice on other Marvel Cinematic Universe projects.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Timothée Chalamet in talks to play Paul Atredies in DUNE

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Duncan Jones to direct a ROGUE TROOPER movie

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

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

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

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

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

The Basics

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

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

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

What is an epic fantasy?

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

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

What is Harry Potter about?

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

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

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

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

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

Does Harry Potter fulfil the criteria?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 July 2018

HBO greenlights new Joss Whedon TV show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Billy Dee Williams to return to STAR WARS in Episode IX

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

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

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

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

Details leak on second GAME OF THRONES spin-off show

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting to get more news on this as it develops.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Filming concludes on GAME OF THRONES, for good

Filming on the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones concluded yesterday, according to fan site Watchers on the Wall.

This news marks the end of a journey that began on 24 October 2009, when HBO began shooting the show's pilot episode in Scotland. A crowd of mostly-unknown young actors and a few seasoned hands like Sean Bean and Mark Addy arrived at Doune Castle to begin work on a speculative pilot based on a series of (relatively) obscure fantasy novels. The script was promising and, of course, HBO's involvement intrigued everyone, but it still felt like a shot in the dark.

Twenty-six days later, shooting on the pilot was complete, following additional location shooting in Morocco (for the Pentos scenes) and set filming in Belfast, Northern Ireland (which became the show's primary production base). HBO was sent the completed pilot a few months later and, well, they didn't like it. Mortified, producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss sat down with HBO to go through the problems. Impressed by Benioff and Weiss's willingness to admit their mistakes and find workable solutions, HBO greenlit the show itself, with production on the rest of Season 1 resuming on 23 July 2010. The series debuted on 17 April 2011 with a heavily recut and partially-reshot version of the pilot, which immediately garnered a positive critical reception.

Even so, no-one could foretell that Game of Thrones would become an international sensation, the biggest drama show in the world for most of its duration. Everyone from Snoop Dogg to Prince William is a fan and the show has generated online discussion on a scale that's truly remarkable. It's also made stars of young actors including Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, propelling them into the Star Wars and X-Men universes, among others. The size and scale of the production has also peaked with this last season, with each episode officially costing over $16 million on paper (but in practice the budget appears to have no upper limit on it, as long as it's justifiable) and the shooting schedule running the longest of the entire series, from October 2017 to July 2018. Officially there are just six episodes in the final season, but it appears these episodes have no cap to their run time, so they may run significantly longer than the hour each episode has (mostly) clocked in at previously.

George R.R. Martin has also seen his personal fame explode as a result of the show's success, which has blasted sales of the Song of Ice and Fire novels from 12 million (in 2011) to almost 90 million today, making it possibly the biggest-selling epic fantasy series since Tolkien* (the series now has approximate sales parity with the Wheel of Time sequence, but far more actual readers) and dramatically increasing fan hunger and demand for the sixth book in the series, The Winds of Winter, to fevered levels.

It's been a hell of a ride since the start of filming (which I was privileged to experience a little of, as related here, here and here) and we'll see how it ends next year. Although the actors and extras can now relax (barring possibly some dialogue looping and of course promotional duties), the directors, producers and VFX crews are still working full-tilt on post-production, visual effects and scoring to bring the episodes to life. Game of Thrones' final season is currently due to air in Spring 2019. It will be followed, a year or two further down the line, by a possible spin-off series from a different creative team.

* Assuming you don't count Harry Potter as an epic fantasy, as some people do.

RIP Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko, best-known as an artist and writer for Marvel Comics in the 1960s, has passed away at the age of 90.

Born in 1927 in Pennsylvania, Ditko developed a strong interest in art from a young age. He studied art under Batman artist (and Joker creator) Jerry Robinson, who was one of his idols. It was Robinson who introduced Ditko to Stan Lee, then working as an editor at Atlas Comics (the forerunners to Marvel). Ditko began his publishing career in Daring Love in 1953, followed up by Fantastic Fears the year after. Ditko began working for renowned writer-illustrators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (the creators of Captain America), working on many of their titles in the mid-1950s. He then moved to Charlton Comics, where he co-created the character of Captain Atom (who later inspired the Watchmen charactr Dr. Manhattan) in 1960.

At the same time, Ditko began an association with Atlas Comics in 1956, particularly on Amazing Adventures where he directly collaborated with Stan Lee on numerous one-shot mystery and horror strips. In 1962, the final issue of Amazing Adventures (now retitled Amazing Fantasy) introduced a new character co-created by Ditko and Lee: Spider-Man.

Lee had originally planned to create Spider-Man with his regular collaborator (and Ditko inspiration), Jack Kirby. However, Kirby wasn't too keen on the idea and his designs proved unusable. Lee turned to Ditko, who very quickly created the character's signature look, including the gimmick of the secret identity. Eric Stanton, who shared a studio with Ditko, offered advice such as having the webs shoot out of Spider-Man's hands directly (rather than using a "web gun" as Lee had planned), but otherwise the character design was wholly Ditko's work.

The character took off and his own title, The Amazing Spider-Man, quickly launched. As well as Spider-Man himself, Lee and Ditko co-created many of his signature villains: the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus and the Lizard. Their collaboration also resulted in the creation of another character, Doctor Strange, who debuted in Strange Tales #110 (1963) before getting his own title.

In 1966 Ditko chose to leave Marvel Comics. He and Lee had not been getting along for a while and their collaborations had been handled by intermediaries. Even Lee was uncertain exactly why they had fallen out, although their politics and ideologies were on very different wavelengths. Ditko was a hardline Objectivist and wanted to create characters more in line with his believes. In 1967 he created the entirely creator-owned character Mr. A, whose adventures he would continue to intermittently relate. Mr. A divides the world into black and white, good and evil, and is uncompromising in his pursuit and punishment of evil. Writer Alan Moore found the character quite ridiculous, later penning silly songs about him and, in the ultimate tribute, created the Watchmen character of Rorschach as a satirical dig at the character.

Ditko spent several spells at DC Comics and continued his work on the Charlton characters up until the line folded in 1986. He also returned to Marvel in 1979, working on Machine Man and Micronauts. He continued to work as an artist-for-hire, but his latter work is largely undistinguished.

In 2007, comics fans and broadcaster Jonathan Ross presented a documentary on Ditko's career (see above), eliciting comments from Stan Lee, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. An intensely private man, Ditko refused to appear on camera but did agree to an off-screen conversation with Ross and Gaiman.

Ditko helped create one of the most iconic fictional characters of all time, and his other contributions to the field of comics remain notable and impressive. He will be missed.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Dying Light

The city of Harran has been overrun by a mysterious virus which transforms those it effects into feral, deranged monsters. The city has been quarantined which international organisations and the government ruthlessly enforce. The Global Relief Effort (GRE) presents itself as a humanitarian organisation, but a more sinister side emerges when they send operative Kyle Crane into the city to find a file stolen from them by Kadir Suleiman. Arriving in the city, Kyle finds refuge at the Tower, a stronghold defended by "runners", survivors who have picked up parkour skills to avoid the infected. Despite himself, Kyle finds himself drawn into the lives of the runners and their perilous battle against a local warlord.

Dying Light is a survival horror open world zombie game, which sounds like a concept created by throwing darts randomly at genres and mashing together whatever they hit. Against the odds, it's a concept that works tremendously and surprisingly well. Although certainly not obscure, Dying Light didn't make a lot of noise on its original release in 2015, but over time has gained an impressive reputation for quality, most of it well-deserved.

The game is an open-world title, with the (very large) slums of the city of Harran open for exploration from the start. In the open world you can rescue survivors, hunt for supplies, kill zombies (who are vulnerable alone but dangerous in numbers) and upgrade your skills. The survival horror element comes from the fact that decent supplies and weapons are rare, so you have to craft your own out of the spare parts you find lying around, and from the day/night cycle. The zombies are more irritating than dangerous during the day, but at night their skills and agility increase and more dangerous zombie variants appear, including ones that can chase you up the sides of buildings. Going out at night is dangerous, but rewarding: any skill points you gain at night are doubled. Survive the night, and you get a healthy skill point bonus (if you die, they're lost). Two-thirds of the way into the game, you unlock a second region, the Old Town, which is even more fun to run around in.

The game's main selling point is parkour, or free-running: Kyle is a nimble character and can jump large gaps between rooftops, haul himself through windows and made dangerous ascents of rickety towers. As his skills unlock, he gains the ability to grapple his way between buildings and fall greater distances without taking harm. Kyle is arguably the most nimble such character since Faith from Mirror's Edge, and it's as much fun to run and jump across the city as it is to defeat a zombie pack in combat.

The zombies are also interesting, being surprisingly quiet and challenging in battle with a number of variants who make things more interesting and lethal. Their biggest threat is their sheer numbers and their response to noise: a loud, long-running battle can draw hundreds of zombies into the area and the mid-game discovery and use of firearms and grenades turns out to be more of a liability than a useful development. However, the game also allows you to make strategic use of this fact: rival human factions can be overwhelmed by summoning a vast zombie horde and then setting them loose on the enemy rather than rushing in yourself.

All of these elements interact really well with one another. Overlaid over the top of this is a strong narrative. There's a core storyline following Crane's attempts to find the enigmatic Suleiman but there's also a sizeable number of side-missions. Surprisingly, there's only a few fetch quests with instead most of these side-missions developing into labyrinth storylines of their own, often spawning their own related secondary missions and objectives. These missions usually expand on how the city fell into its current state and tell lots of short stories about people's lives, many of them falling into standard horror-tragedy tropes but are still generally well-told.

Graphically, the game is very solid (although rarely spectacular) and special mention must be made of the electronic, minimalist soundtrack, which is very accomplished. There's also some great sound effects (the shotgun is satisfyingly meaty in battle and the shuffling undead are accompanied by the gruesome schlopping sounds of bits of them falling off) and the fact that most of the game can be played co-op, which makes it even more fun.

A couple of problems do emerge. The central, main storyline is pretty predictable. Even worse, it becomes progressively linear as it continues, with the end of the game seeing it transform into a standard corridor shooter where most of your parkour skills are unusable. There's also the feeling that the game hasn't really thought through some of the consequences of its abilities: the ending missions disable your grapple, for example, because it would make them far too easy, and a very lame "you are too tired to use the grapple" message pops up if you try. Eventually this narrowing of the game's focus reaches utterly farcical levels: the final battle of the storyline is, astonishingly, a Quick Time Event like it's 2006 or something.

A more omnipresent issue is that, in order to overcome the problem of memory-intensive saves and lengthy reloading screens, the game just respawns you if you "die", with all of your items and inventory intact (you just lose some of your accrued experience points). This means that there is no real price to be paid for dying and, weirdly, you can abuse this respawning system to brute force your way through problems. You may even get to the point where simply killing yourself to get to the nearest shelter is a viable alternative to running there (the game has no fast travel system), which kind of goes against the serious ethos of the game.

It'd be easy to let these problems drag the whole game down, but Dying Light does so much, so well it's hard to criticise it for things that make up a tiny amount of the 30+ hours if takes to complete the base game (not including the numerous DLCs and the expansion). At its best, Dying Light sells the fantasy of surviving against the odds in a post-apocalyptic city, with a rich atmosphere and satisfying combat. At its worst, it turns into a bog-standard linear borefest. But the game spends far more time at its best.

Dying Light (****) is available now in the UK (PC, PlayStation 4, X-Box One) and USA (PC, PlayStation 4, X-Box One). An expansion, Dying Light: The Following, is also available now. A full sequel, Dying Light 2, will be released in 2019.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Why the time is NOT right for a ROBOTECH reboot have published an article arguing that, following in the footsteps of Voltron, there should be an animated reboot of classic 1980s animated series Robotech. Unfortunately, the article ignores several major problems with this idea.

If you're not familiar with Robotech, please check out my Franchise Familiariser on the series here.

To recap briefly, in 1985 an American animation company, Harmony Gold, was in need of a new TV series. They really wanted to release the classic Japanese animated show Macross in the USA, but Macross was only 35 episodes long and they needed at least double that for syndication purposes. Producer Carl Macek stepped in and cleverly edited together three unrelated Japanese anime - Macross, Southern Cross and Mospeada - so it looked like one story unfolding over three generations with three different sets of characters and antagonists. The resulting show, dubbed Robotech, was very popular and led to some video games, comic books and an excellent 21-volume novel adaptation by Brian Daley and James Luceno.

However, whilst this was occurring in the USA, in Japan Macross became a monster hit show, spawning multiple sequels, prequels and spin-offs. The Japanese creators were keen to share Macross in the West, but Harmony Gold's contract allowed them to block the release of all material under the Macross banner, which they duly did, fearing the confusion that would result from Macross and Robotech coexisting. This situation has earned Harmony Gold the enmity of the anime fanbase ever since and various legal challenges have taken place since then.

The latest result of these these legal challenges is that Harmony Gold will lose its Macross licence in 2021. This will mean that, after 2021, the Japanese studio behind Macross can finally release the original show and its myriad sequels in the United States and Europe. This will also make it dramatically more difficult to make any new Robotech material, as it will not be able to use any elements from the Macross portion of the series, which is by far the most popular part of the franchise.

Sony are developing a feature film version of Robotech, with Andy Muschietti, the director of the two-part It movie, assigned to bring it to the screen, but the status of the project in the wake of the legal decision is now unclear. It may be that Sony will be developing an all-new version of the story that does not use any pre-existing designs or characters so won't run afoul of the new limitations, although in that case you may ask what is the point?

I think we can safely say that Netflix - the most likely home for a new Robotech series (given their immense success with Voltron - won't be interested in starting a reboot of Robotech if they'll lose the licence to the best part of it in just three years.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The Prisoner of Azkaban was a major hit movie for Warner Brothers and the Harry Potter franchise, rewarding their faith in choosing an unusual director for the project and focusing more on the bigger picture of the overall story of the series and worrying less about making each movie stand alone. However, for the fourth film in the franchise an even bigger challenge lay ahead: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was an enormous novel, more than twice the length of The Prisoner of Azkaban and almost three times the length of the first book in the series. Fitting the book into one move proved challenging.

For this film and the remaining ones in the series, producer David Heyman and writer Steve Kloves realised it would now be necessary to strip each book back to its key storyline and major moments and use simplified plot beats and storytelling to get from one moment to the next. In the process, numerous subplots and minor characters would have to be cut. This was a difficult decision, but ultimately one that allowed them to tell the story in as effective a manner as possible, and ultimately the decision was supported by writer J.K. Rowling.

With Cuaron reluctant to repeat himself, veteran and versatile director Mike Newell was brought on board. Having made films as different as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco and Mona Lisa Smile, Newell was adept at fitting his vision to the tone of the material and creating reliably effective cinema. It helps that The Goblet of Fire is one of the best books in the series, Rowling opening up her world to show more of the magical society beyond Hogwarts and introducing a whole host of new characters and factions. The wizarding tournament with its sequential challenges also allows for both very effective pacing and tension-building, resulting in periodic key set-pieces throughout the movie.

The biggest success of the movie is in furthering the characterisation of our heroes. They are now more confident and competent, although the teenage angst of growing up is also present (exemplified by Ron and Harry's falling-out and Hermione's confused romantic feelings). Like The Prisoner of Azkaban before it, The Goblet of Fire succeeds in making sure that, no matter what else from the books is dropped or condensed, the core characterisation of the three leads is made paramount. This expands in this movie to include a few other significant secondary characters, like Neville Longbottom.

New actors joining the franchise in this movie include the mighty Brendan Gleeson, whose deranged performance as Mad-Eye Moody makes you want to stand up and applaud, and Ralph Fiennes who debuts as the ultimate villain, Voldemort. As expected by now, the secondary cast give excellent performances.

The script is also impressive, jettisoning as it does all repetitive and not-immediately-relevant elements and characters and focusing on the core of Harry's journey. In this manner the film's pacing and structure manages to be significantly better than The Prisoner of Azkaban.

The movie does have some significant weaknesses, however. There simply isn't enough time to fully develop the secondary cast. Whilst Cedric (a pre-Twilight Robert Pattinson) gets a few key moments and scenes to flesh him out, Viktor and Fleur (the other two tournament competitors) barely get any development at all. It's also a bit weird to cast an actor of the stature of David Tennant (even pre-Doctor Who, he was still a well-known up-and-comer) and only have him in a couple of scenes before vanishing from the film (and the franchise).

Still, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (****½) is the strongest movie in the series to date, with a strong cast and some clever writing that condenses the huge narrative down to a manageable, exciting screenplay. The movie is available now in the UK (DVDBlu-Ray) and USA (DVDBlu-Ray) as part of the Complete Harry Potter Movie Collection.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

After directing and releasing the first two Harry Potter movies in under three years, The Philosopher's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, director Chris Columbus took a back seat and Warner Brothers made the bold choice of hiring Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron to helm the third movie in the series. Known for edgy, experimental and realist work, the move paid off with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban being an enormous financial hit and the first major critical success in the series.

Straight away, it's clear we're in different territory. The Prisoner of Azkaban has more handheld and realistic camera shots than the previous two movies, which were much more safe and traditional. Cuaron shows a strong affinity for effects work (which would set him in good stead for his later movie Gravity, which would be filmed almost entirely in front of green and blue screens), for story and for character. He's an excellent director of actors and elicits terrific performances from both the young child stars and the increasingly impressive galaxy of well-known supporting actors, this time around including the impeccable David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon (taking over from the late, great Richard Harris as Dumbledore).

Much of the film is also shot on location, whilst the first two movies only used a few location shots and filmed almost everything else in the studio. This immediately results in a much more realistic feel to the film and grounds the film more effectively. There is also greater attention to continuity, with Hogwarts now feeling like a real place with the location of each scene and piece of the action effectively communicated.

However, the film does suffer in pacing. The Prisoner of Azkaban, as a book, is almost half again the length of the previous two books in the series with many more subplots and characters. The film makes an attempt to fit the whole book into the movie, but a lot of extraneous material had to be cut out in rewrites (such Harry's tentative interest in fellow student Cho Chang, which was moved to the following film) and then edits. This problem is increased by the fact that Chamber of Secrets (the longest film in the series) was deemed too long for a children's movie, so Prisoner is a full twenty minutes shorter with even more story cut out as a result. The result is a great story but one that feels a bit too chopped around and bitty in pacing. This odd structuring of the story also means that a key subplot, which relies on the viewer picking up on odd clues from earlier in the film, may not be as apparent as it should be.

Still, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (****) is definitely an immense improvement on the first two movies in the series and is a by turns funny, dark and exciting family adventure film, with Alfonso Cuaron's direction bringing out the best from the source material and the resources at his command. The movie is available now in the UK (DVDBlu-Ray) and USA (DVDBlu-Ray) as part of the Complete Harry Potter Movie Collection.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS spin-off TV show gets a trailer

Wellington Paranormal, the spin-off TV show from Taika Waititi's cult classic movie What We Do in the Shadows, has just had its first trailer arrive.

The TV series follows the misadventures of Wellington police officers Mike Mongue and Karen O'Leary (played by the actors of the same name). In What We Do in the Shadows they were the police officers who kept showing up whenever the vampires got into shenanigans and had to repeatedly hypnotise them to forget about what was going on. The show picks up on the idea that the police officers have finally twigged that something weird is going on and start investigating events more thoroughly.

Waititi and his collaborator Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, Legion) are producing the new series. Some fans are hoping to see them cameo in the series, although they are busy with other projects in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, FX has ordered 10 episodes of an American remake of the movie in the form of a TV series, to star British comedy stars Kayvan Novak and Matt Berry. Waititi and Clement have also confirmed they still want to make a sequel to the movie, provisionally entitled We're Wolves and focusing on the werewolf pack from the original film, and are waiting for a gap in their schedules where they can do this.

Waititi is reportedly being wooed by Lucasfilm to make a Star Wars movie, whilst also consulting with Marvel on a potential sequel to Thor: Ragnarok or another movie in the MCU.

RIP Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison, one of science fiction's best-known and most polarising figures, has passed away at the age of 84.

Born in 1934 in Cleveland, Ohio, Harlan Ellison held a wide variety of jobs whilst he honed his skills as a writer. He was kicked out of Ohio State University for punching a professor who said he was a bad writer and claims to have sent a copy of every story he published for the next twenty years to that professor in revenge (later, more moderate accounts suggest he was kicked out for just yelling at him).

He sold his first story to The Cleveland News in 1949 and began publishing short fiction regularly in 1955. In 1962 he moved to Hollywood and began working in the film industry, submitting scripts to shows such as The Man from UNCLE and The Outer Limits. He first attracted widespread notice with his work for the latter, particularly his 1964 episode Soldier, a story about a murderous soldier who goes back in time. Twenty years later he declared that this episode had been ripped off by James Cameron for his movie The Terminator and won a significant out-of-court settlement.

During his time working in Hollywood, Ellison incurred the ire of Frank Sinatra during a billiards game, who objected to Ellison's footware.

Ellison began working on Star Trek, penning the original script for The City on the Edge of Forever, widely acknowledged as the finest episode of the original Star Trek series and one of the very best of the entire franchise. Ellison's script was reworked by Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana (among others) into the aired version, something that irked Ellison, although not to the point of removing his name from the script. Ellison won the Writer's Guild Award for the original version of the script and also the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, for the shooting script. Ellison continuously claimed his original script was superior, publishing it several times (critics were less in agreement). In 2009 he sued Paramount for royalties and profits made from the episode; a significant out-of-court settlement was reached.

Ellison worked at Disney, for a day, before being fired after joking that they should make an animated pornographic film featuring Disney characters. He then continued his career in short fiction, penning the short stories "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktock Man" (1965), "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (1967) and "A Boy and His Dog" (1969). "I Have No Mouth" won a Hugo Award and was turned into a well-received video game in 1995, which Ellison collaborated on despite not owning a PC. "A Boy and His Dog" was filmed in 1975 (winning Ellison another Hugo) and was named as one of the key influences on the video game Fallout (1997); imagery from the film was particularly tapped in the marketing for the game Fallout 3 (2008). Presumably this escaped Ellison's attention, as he did not sue anyone involved.

In 1967 Ellison published the science fiction anthology Dangerous Visions. A ground-breaking work, it codified the New Wave movement of science fiction and was credited for almost single-handedly changing the way people thought about the genre. Three of the stories in the book won Hugo Awards and the book itself was massively successful and critically-acclaimed in and out of the genre. Ellison followed it up with Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972, which, improbably, reached similar levels of acclaim. Ellison announced The Last Dangerous Visions in 1973 and solicited approximately 150 stories for the third collection. The book was repeatedly delayed and some of the contributing authors either died or withdrew their stories. British author Christopher Priest was so incensed by the situation that he penned a non-fiction book about the affair, The Last Deadloss Visions (1987, reworked as The Book on the Edge of Forever ten years later), which exceedingly annoyed Ellison for the rest of his life. The Last Dangerous Visions, remarkably, remained unpublished at the time of Ellison's death, forty-five years after it was first announced.

In 1980 Ellison and Ben Bova sued Paramount Pictures, contending that their TV series Future Cop was based on Ellion and Bova's story "Brillo." Paramount decided to defend the case and lost, being forced to award the writers $330,000. 

In the mid-1980s Ellison worked on the rebooted version of The Twilight Zone, hiring George R.R. Martin as a writer on the show before Ellison quit in anger after disagreeing with the studio on the show's creative direction.

Ellison met Hollywood scriptwriter J. Michael Straczynski when the latter tracked down his telephone number and called him up, nervously asking what advice he could give a budding writer whose work wasn't selling. "Stop writing shit," was Ellison's response. They later met in person and struck up a friendship and collaborative relationship. Straczynski solicited Ellison's advice on his in-development TV series Babylon 5, and when the show was picked up by Warner Brothers Harlan Ellison came on board as creative consultant. Ellison contributed several voices on the show and cameoed as a Psi Cop in the Season 4 episode The Face of the Enemy, alongside Star Trek's Walter Koenig. Ellison hit on the idea of writing a sequel to his Outer Limits episode Demon with a Glass Hand, entitled Demon on the Run, for Babylon 5, but after several attempts was unable to complete a script to his satisfaction. He did collaborate with Straczynski on the Season 5 episode Objects in Motion. Straczynski spoke briefly about his passing today.

In the 2000s Ellison became known for his increasingly angry activism on behalf of writers: his rant "Pay the Writer!" where he talks about the contempt Hollywood holds for writers despite them being their most important resource went viral and has been cited many times in response to the suggestion that writers should work "for exposure." Ellison also became known for being disrespectful at public events; his most notorious moment came at the 2006 Hugo Awards when he groped writer Connie Willis on stage during the ceremony. He later apologised for the incident, but then complained when his apology was apparently not accepted.

It'd be fair to say that Harlan Ellison was one of science fiction's most colourful and divisive writers. A passionate advocate for not just creative impulse of writing but also paying the writer their due, he worked hard to ensure that his work was not plagiarised and his rights infringed. He wrote more than 1,500 short stories (some of them whilst sitting in bookstore windows in a kind of live performance art process) and dozens of scripts. He won seven Hugo Awards, three Nebulas and three Writer's Guild of America Awards, along with the 2005 SFWA Grand Master Award and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. His actual fiction - sometimes overshadowed by the author's tendency towards gossip-inducing shenanigans - was often scathing and powerful. According to John Clute, Ellison's writing shows that he was "a central witness to the pain of the world."

Ellison was also irascible, rude, quick to anger and slow to forgive. He never burned a bridge when he had the option of dropping a Tsar Bomba-class nuke on it instead. By the end of his days he'd managed to piss off everyone from Frank Sinatra to Gene Roddenberry to James Cameron. His colourful "bad boy of SF" image was tarnished by some of his behaviour at conventions towards the end of his life, particularly the shameful Connie Willis episode.

Love him or hate him, Ellison was impossible to ignore and will be difficult to forget. That, I think, is an epitaph he would be content to go out on (having first suspiciously checked his back catalogue and consulted a lawyer to ensure it hadn't been stolen from one of his short stories).