Saturday, 24 February 2018

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER to be released on Blu-Ray

In extremely pleasant news, Avatar: The Last Airbender, the greatest fantasy TV show of all time*, is getting a snazzy HD re-release for the 10th anniversary of its first run ending.

The show will arrive on Blu-Ray on 1 May in a box set containing all three seasons, as well as some new documentaries, commentaries and an "animated graphic novel" called Escape from the Spirit World. Sadly, a lengthy video featuring M. Night Shyamalan apologising for the Last Airbender live-action movie will not be included.

Avatar's spin-off sequel series, The Legend of Korra, is already available on the format, allowing completionists to assemble the combined seven seasons of the two shows for a complete HD run-through (and hey, remember to throw in the canonical graphic novels as well!)..

* Yes, including that one.

Happy 25th Birthday to BABYLON 5

Twenty-five years ago today, the pilot episode of Babylon 5 aired on US television for the first time. It was the culmination of five years of hard work, as I have detailed here.

Babylon 5 was an important and influential TV show. It was the first network American TV series to have a detailed, pre-planned, multi-year story arc. It eschewed the normal format of episodic television to deliver an epic, massive saga, told over five years and 110 stories that cumulatively tell one story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Although several writers contributed to the show - including veterans of the original 1960s Star Trek and even Neil Gaiman - it was largely the work of one man, J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote 91 of the 110 episodes (including the entire third and fourth seasons), plus the pilot and a further six TV movies. It certainly wasn't auteur television but in terms of being the creative vision of one showrunner who was responsible for the direction of the series, it helped consolidate a trend (previously hinted at by Stephen Bocho and David Lynch) that is in full flow in television culture today.

Babylon 5 is the story of the titular space station, a five-mile-long trade hub and diplomatic gathering place functioning as an interstellar United Nations. Five major powers - the Earth Alliance, Centauri Republic, Narn Regime, Minbari Federation and Vorlon Empire - and two dozen or so lesser ones (the League of Non-aligned Worlds) have come together to help keep the peace and facilitate interstellar commerce and diplomacy. It's revealed early on that the human race and the Minbari fought a devastating war that ended with the Minbari battle fleet closing in on a barely-defended Earth, only to mysteriously abandon the campaign and leave. It's regarded as an act of mercy by a more powerful and advanced race towards a lesser one...apart from by the station commander, Jeffrey Sinclair, who has no memory of the final 24 hours of the war, and was bizarrely chosen to command the station over a dozen more experienced officers.

Over the course of the first season, the show focused on crisis-of-the-week storylines, such as the station dockers going on strike after Earth refuses to pay for more advanced and safer equipment after a horrendous accident kills several workers, and also on a series of longer-running mysteries. Sinclair's missing memories (which gradually start to return) is the most prominent of these, but there are also the military provocations by the resurgent and belligerent Narn Regime against their former conquerors, the Centauri, which infuriate the proud Centauri Ambassador, Londo, whose constant plans to stymie the Narn are frustrated by what he considers to be a cowardly government...until he is offered a deal with the devil that rapidly spirals out of control. Other storylines are more mundane, such as Security Chief Garibaldi's constant struggles to stay sober and first officer Ivanova's constantly painful family and love life. In Season 2 the show unexpectedly has the Babylon Project's mission of peace ending as two of the major powers go to war, manipulated by shadowy forces behind the scenes. Later seasons see the outbreak of a massive galaxy-spanning conflict, with the station's crew going from bureaucrats and pen-pushers to big damn heroes, doing whatever it takes to make sure they and their homeworlds survive.

Babylon 5 is unapologetically big, brash and fun space opera, but layered inside it are many other stories, some of them comic, some of them desperately tragic. The cast of characters (regular and recurring) is huge, most of them well-played and given often joyously brilliant dialogue to play around with. Babylon 5 can also be a satire, particularly of the American Dream and how easy it is for democracy to be subverted into fascism. Babylon 5 is also a great tribute to many other works of science fiction, name-checking authors like Isaac Asimov and Alfred Bester and employing Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold and Neil Gaiman directly as writers. Babylon 5 is noteworthy for winning the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation twice, back-to-back, at a time when the award was still given to both TV shows and movies.

Babylon 5 also broke the mould in its ground-breaking use of CGI for visual effects, being way ahead of the curve in the use of computers to do what only models had done up to that point. It was also influential in how it was shot and filmed on an incredibly tight budget, becoming one of the most critically-acclaimed SF shows on-air despite having a budget roughly one-third that of the Star Trek series airing at the same time.

Babylon 5 was far from perfect. There are quite a few weak episodes, most of them in the first and fifth seasons, and there were frequently cheesy lines or slightly awkward exposition scenes. Several times the carefully-planned storyline was thrown for a loop by an actor quitting the show unexpectedly, leading to some course-correcting. But each time, Straczynski and his team righted the boat and got the show back on course.

The influence of the show is tremendous. Joss Whedon watched and enjoyed the show, and made the character of Xander on his Buffy the Vampire Slayer series a Babylon 5 fan (he even had the collector's plates!), as well as drawing on some of the show's structural ideas for his own shows. Firefly's use of actual Newtonian physics in space can also be seen as a nod to B5, which pioneered the idea. Damon Lindelof was also a big fan, citing Babylon 5 as a major structural influence on Lost. George R.R. Martin, an old sparring partner of Straczynski's from the SF convention scene, was an appreciator of the show. Daniel Abraham drew on the show for ideas for his Dagger and the Coin fantasy series (which also mixes politics, military action and economics alongside the return of an ancient, spider-like force). The Wachowskis were also big fans of the show, and later worked with Straczynski on the Netflix series Sense8.

Happy 25th Birthday, Babylon 5. Possibly no other series - book or TV - has had such an important impact on myself and my appreciation for writing and scriptwriting. It may also hold a special place in the pantheon of TV series, even today in the so-called "Golden Age of Television." There are shows since B5 aired that had better effects and better individual episode scripts but none (maybe excepting - and maybe only excepting - The Wire) have executed a multi-season, multi-character storyline on such a scale anywhere near as successfully. For that reason, it is a show that must be respected and given its due.

Just a reminder that I am also currently engaged in the great Babylon 5 Rewatch Project, which is approaching the end of Season 4.

Friday, 23 February 2018


Mute is the story of an Amish-raised (but not devout) man who can't speak and who can't use technology who has to find his girlfriend when she vanishes into the crazy brashness of mid-21st Century Berlin, which requires him to make a journey through the seedy underbelly of a city riven by crime.

Mute is also the story of two ex-US soldiers, both adversely affected by their tours of duty in the Afghanistan (in a war now in its fifth decade with no sign of ending), who team up in the Berlin underworld, one for the money and one in the hope of making a better life for himself and his daughter, but can't help falling prey to their worst instincts.

There are two potentially interesting stories here around which you could build effective movies. Director Duncan Jones appears to, at one point or another, decided to mash them together into one film which is at tremendous mistake. Mute is a movie that is somewhat less than the some of its parts.

It's impossible to dismiss the feeling that Duncan Jones's career hasn't gone quite the way it should. He started out with the excellent Moon (which occurs in the same universe as Mute, although this is in no way relevant to the plot), before moving onto the entertaining Source Code. His third movie was the insaneo-budgeted WarCraft which was, although by no means a complete disaster, not the break-out, effects-driven hit he needed either. He's now gone back to his (relatively) low-budget roots with Mute, a film which he's been planning to make for over a decade, at one point conceiving it as a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-style Mockney comedy-thriller before deciding (somewhat randomly) to turn it into a Blade Runner homage and introducing a love story, a mute lead and a missing persons, noir thriller plot.

To say these two plots are a tonal mismatch is an understatement. Alexander Skarsgard plays our non-speaking protagonist Leo with a lot of intensity, putting to use the years of brooding he finely honed on True Blood. He makes for an interesting lead you can't help but root for, even if you're not quite sure how he puts together the clues needed to follow his missing girlfriend's trail (or pay his rent or take part in modern society at all) since he refuses to use the internet or own a mobile phone. However, every time his dogged pursuit through Berlin's neon-lit underbelly threatens to become compelling, we cut away to Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux), the American vets whose experiences in Afghanistan have left one a borderline psycho with a Bowie knife obsession and the other one, apparently, with an unhealthy interest in very young girls (which kind of kills any enjoyment you could otherwise get from Theroux's otherwise game performance). Bill and Ted's adventures could have perhaps been more watchable - with less paedophilic overtones and more dark comedy - in a Tarantino kind of way, but the writing doesn't quite snap into life enough to make them interesting protagonists. And even when their storyline does become more intriguing, the camera suddenly cuts away to Leo, who is now doing something completely incongruous from where we left him (like hanging out with a depraved, sex robot-owning Dominic Monaghan or trading punches with Noel Clarke: Mute at least provides gainful employment for actors who were moderately big about ten years ago and have faded from view since then).

It's a bizarre film filled with bizarre characters that doesn't really hang together very well. There's some nice visual effects moments and some entertaining musical homages (Jones's father David gets a few musical shout-outs, and Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" gets a music box cover version because why not), as well a grin-inducing moment when a bunch of what are blatantly cyborgs from classic 1993 cyberpunk game Syndicate (which had a level set in Berlin) show up. Jones's direction is also very effective on a scene-by-scene basis.

Mute (**½) is not without merit and has some outstanding performances, particularly by Paul Rudd who badly needed a role to show him being something other than an amiably goofy nice guy and steals every scene he's in as an unhinged psycho. But overall this is a film that feels like the script needed another two or three passes and a tonal rewrite before it was ready for the screen. Every time the movie does something that makes you really like it, it delivers another moment that makes you groan with embarrassment. But as a failure, it's still an interesting one. Mute is on global release via Netflix right now.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

(Very Strong) Rumour: Amazon developing the WHEEL OF TIME TV series

According to Deadline, Amazon is the company that has been secretly developing the Wheel of Time TV series alongside Sony for the last few months.

Amazon had previously been strongly linked to the Wheel of Time deal prior to their acquisition of the Lord of the Rings TV prequel rights. It was assumed that Amazon would not be interested in developing two epic fantasy shows simultaneously. Since then, they've also announced that they are developing a Conan the Barbarian TV project and are moving forwards with TV adaptations of Larry Niven's Ringworld, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas. Amazon are not short of money and the company's owner, Jeff Bezos, is a known SFF fan with very, very deep pockets.

Recently there has been forwards movement on the project: the Sony-appointed showrunner Rafe Judkins has tweeted he is in full writing mode on the script and producers Radar Pictures have been gearing up for an announcement (the massive success of their movie Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle meaning that some of their other projects are moving forwards).

A formal confirmation of the news is still awaited, although at this point Amazon is considered the front-runner for developing the series (with the small possibility of Apple TV, CBS All Access or maybe the new Disney streaming service sweeping it up) and it'd be surprising if it went anywhere else.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Alternate ending to QUANTUM LEAP discovered

Twenty-five years ago this May, the time travel drama TV series Quantum Leap ended. Starring Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, the show ran for five seasons and followed the adventures of Dr. Sam Beckett, the inventor of the "Quantum Leap Accelerator". Beckett is stuck leaping from person to person through time, putting right what previously went wrong, solving crimes, helping broken romances etc. It was a very popular, feel-good show.

Or at least it was until it's finale. Mirror Image was a strange episode where Sam leaped into a small American town on the very day of his birth. He met a barkeeper played by an actor who'd been in the very first episode, with the suggestion that both may be a manifestation of "god, fate, time or whatever", and this force had been responsible for Sam's leaps through time. At the end of the episode Sam discovers that he has always had the power to return home, he just chose not to because there were still people to help. In his final leap, Sam sets his friend Al's life to rights, making sure the woman who'd left him because she believed he'd died in Vietnam (instead of being made a POW) knew that Al was safe and coming home. A final title card revealed that, "Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home."

It was a contentious and slightly odd ending, especially because the cancellation of Quantum Leap had come about fairly late in the day, so the finale was a recutting of what had originally been planned to be merely a season cliffhanger (if a far more dramatic one than any before it). Creator Donald P. Bellisario has been tight-lipped about how the story would have continued in a sixth season, but rumours have abounded of a different ending that was filmed and then cut.

A full quarter of a century years later, it's been revealed that there was indeed an alternate ending filmed. Quantum Leap fan Allison Pregler bought some negative from publicity shots for the series via eBay and discovered some odd images that she didn't recognise from any episode. It was only after looking at them closely she realised they came from the much-rumoured alternate cut.

In this scene, we discover that Sam did indeed change history so that Beth waited for Al, they got married and lived very happily together for thirty years. We also discover that Al had still joined Project Quantum Leap, still met Sam and still been his Observer through all his adventures (making fans everywhere breath a sigh of relief). We discover that Sam has vanished without a trace after his last adventure went as normal. The scene ends with Beth convincing Al to go into the Accelerator himself and jump in search of Sam. This, presumably, would have been the premise for the sixth season, with Al physically joining Sam in his adventures through time.

It's great to find these questions that fans have been asking for 25 years have been answered, and will no doubt fuel speculation that the show could either be rebooted or even continued directly (as both Bakula and Stockwell are still with us and acting frequently) in the future.

Amazon developing Iain M. Banks' CULTURE novels as a television series

In a surprise announcement, Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, has personally confirmed that his company is developing Iain M. Banks' Culture series of science fiction novels as a television series. The series will open with an adaptation of the first novel in the series, Consider Phlebas.

Originally published in 1987, Consider Phlebas introduces the Culture, a hyper-advanced, post-scarcity civilisation which appears to be a utopia. However, the existence of the Culture is dependent on the incredibly sophisticated AIs known as Minds, which control most of the Culture's ships and space habitats, and also on the existence of Special Circumstances, an elite intelligence agency which intervenes on other worlds to stop them developing into a threat against the Culture (or the rest of the galaxy). Consider Phlebas is set during a brutal war between the Culture and the Idiran Empire and follows the misadventures of the central character, Horza, a mercenary hired by the Idirans to recover an imprisoned Mind from a distant planet.

Banks published nine novels and a short story collection set in the Culture before his untimely death from terminal cancer in 2013. The novels were immensely critically-acclaimed and sold well. Banks also published three SF novels not related to the Culture and fourteen "mainstream" novels (Banks published SF under the name "Iain M. Banks" and non-SF as "Iain Banks"), three of which - The Crow Road, Complicity and Stonemouth - have been adapted for the screen.

The Culture novels have been hugely influential, with Banks regularly acclaimed as the greatest British SF author of his age. The Culture Orbitals - massive, ring-shaped artificial planets (theselves a more plausible iteration of Larry Niven's Ringworld concept) - are one of the main influences and inspirations for the Halo series of video games. Elon Musk has also cited Banks as a literary hero, even naming two of his drone ships after Minds from the books. Bezos himself is also a major fan.

Dennis Kelly, the acclaimed showrunner of Utopia, is developing the new series, which apparently is guaranteed a direct series order if the scripts impress.

Amazon is on a bit of a roll recently, having also greenlit new TV series based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian character.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Pre-production begins on the HIS DARK MATERIALS TV series

Bad Wolf Productions today confirmed that shooting is complete on their first project, a TV version of Deborah Harkess's novel A Discovery of Witches for Sky TV, which is interesting in itself. However, more exciting for many will be the news that Bad Wolf are rolling straight into working on their TV version of His Dark Materials, the Philip Pullman novel series.

His Dark Materials consists of the novels Northern Lights (retitled The Golden Compass in the United States for no immediately discernible reason), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. One of the biggest-selling YA fantasy series of all time, it's also controversial (mostly in the US) for its depiction of religion and criticism of dogma and fundamentalism. A previous attempt to adapt the series with a movie version of The Golden Compass in 2007 was a box office disappointment.

Writer Jack Thorne is working on the new version, which will adapt the three books as five eight-episode seasons. The BBC is funding and co-developing the project with Bad Wolf, New Line and Warner Brothers. Bad Wolf also has an American co-development deal with HBO (they are collaborating on Industry, a drama about the global financial crisis) which may see the show end up on HBO in the US, although this has not been confirmed.

Bad Wolf are also developing a TV series based on Bernard Cornwell's fantastic Warlord Chronicles novel trilogy, although it sounds like this may be on the backburner for now.

His Dark Materials will probably air in late 2019 or early 2020, assuming that they start shooting this year.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS movie switches studios, gets a 2021 release date

The long-running saga of the Dungeons and Dragons movie has taken another twist.

After a lengthy and curious legal battle between Universal and Warner Brothers, the latter emerged with the rights to develop a D&D movie back in 2016. The project was fast-tracked, with Rob Letterman (Gulliver's Travels, Goosebumps, Detective Pikachu) hired to direct and Ansel Elgort (Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, Baby Driver) in talks to star. The movie was going to be set in the Forgotten Realms world, specifically the city of Waterdeep and the Yawning Portal Inn, including its secret entrance to the vast subterranean dungeon of Undermountain.

However, things have changed rapidly in the last few months. Warner Brothers' option expired and Hasbro gained full control of the D&D movie rights (for the first time; the previous film rights were sold before Hasbro's acquisition of D&D owners Wizards of the Coast, to their displeasure). They have now teamed up with Paramount to develop the movie project instead. Paramount and Hasbro have developed a close working relationship together over the course of five successful Transformers movies and two successful G.I. Joe pictures.

It is unclear if Letterman and Elgort are still in the frame for the movie and how much of the previous concept will be retained, but it does now at least have a release date: 23 July 2021.

Hasbro hinting that a reboot of the TRANSFORMERS movies may be imminent

Hasbro and Paramount have released a curious statement that suggests that a full reboot/rethink of the Transformers movie universe could be incoming.

The current iteration of the Transformers movie universe began in 2007 with the release of Michael Bay's Transformers. It then continued with Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Dark is the Moon (2011), Age of Extinction (2014) and The Last Knight (2017), all of them excruciating. The next film in the series is Travis Knight's Transformers: Bumblebee (2018), which is the first movie in the series not to be directed by Michael Bay. It's also the first film in the series to pick up some positive vibes, mainly due to the revelation that the movie will be set (at least partially) in the 1980s and will feature Bumblebee in his original Volkswagen Beetle form from the original toys, comics and cartoon series.

Paramount had previously slated another full Transformers movie for 2019 and had also assembled a writer's room to discuss options for other movies, including a movie set on Cybertron at the start of the Autobot-Decepticon War and another one set in Ancient Rome, where the Transformers would have presumably transformed into chariots, triremes and giant war elephants.

As of today's announcement it sounds like this idea has been cancelled. Many of the writers in the collective assembled by Paramount have decamped to other projects - Akiva Goldsman to Star Trek: Discovery, Lindsey Beer to the Kingkiller Chronicle movie and TV series, and Robert Kirkman to an exclusive development deal with Amazon - and the 2019 Transformers VI movie no longer appears on Paramount's development slate, suggesting it has also been canned.

This may be down to the disappointing box office of The Last Knight. It made $600 million worldwide, only slightly more than half of the previous two movies' $1.1 billion. With a production budget of $220 million and marketing to match, The Last Knight certainly still turned a profit, but that 50% audience drop seriously surprised Paramount and clearly has them pondering the future of the franchise.

Hasbro's plans now include a rebooted G.I. Joe movie for 2020, which will ignore the previous two films and will be a return to the franchise's roots. They will also be releasing a Micronauts movie in 2020 and the long-gestating Dungeons and Dragons movie (more on that soon) will launch in 2021. More intriguingly a "Hasbro/Paramount Event Movie" will be released in 2021 as well. This may be a Transformers reboot, but it may also be the long-mooted G.I. Joe vs. Transformers crossover movie. The two properties have crossed over many times previously in comic books and there was a hint that the two 1980s cartoon series took place in the same universe (with a character showing up in Transformers who was almost certainly Cobra Commander in disguise), but this would be the first on-screen, large-scaled team-up of the two brands.

Unlike many franchises, many Transformers fans have been praying for a reboot of the movie franchise almost since it started, with many of Michael Bay's decisions (particularly his awful direction, incompetent action scenes, poor scripts and the genuinely terrible production design of the Transformers themselves) roundly criticised and rejected. Here's hoping if there is a reboot, the next creative team will do a better job.

Friday, 16 February 2018

WHEEL OF TIME showrunner confirms he is working on the script

Wheel of Time showrunner and writer Rafe Judkins is working on the script for the show whilst on a writer's retreat near ACTUAL DRAGONMOUNT.

Okay, I lie, it's the volcano of Volcan de Agua, near Antigua, Sacatepequez in Guatemala.

Judkins is on a retreat with several other writers, including Amanda Kate Shuman who has written episodes of Chuck, The Blacklist, Berlin Station and The Following. This may just be a coincidence, or it may be a sign of other potential writers coming on board for the project.

With recent indications that the project is moving forwards (albeit slowly), with Sony Television working with an as-yet unannounced network/streaming partner, hopefully we'll get confirmation of the project soon.

Thanks to Narg at WoTTV for the heads-up.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Gratuitous Lists: The Ten Best RED DWARF Episodes

In honour of Red Dwarf's thirtieth anniversary today, it's time to take a look at the ten best episodes of the show's run.

The stories are not presented in quality order because at this level, there's not much between these episodes. This is the show firing at its very best and frankly all of these episodes are worth watching.

The End
Season 1, Episode 1

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

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

It's a great premise which gets the show off to a good start (arguably the second episode, Future Echoes, is also required viewing as it sets up how the show can move beyond its limited premise), showcases the amazing cast and features some good gags. It all started here, and it's startling to think how far it would come.

Better Than Life
Season 2, Episode 2
Red Dwarf started off being quite claustrophobic, but in Season 2 the writers started finding ways of getting the crew off their miserably grey spaceship. In Better Than Life the crew get hooked into a video game designed to give them their fantasies. Unfortunately, the game is not prepared for the invasion of Rimmer's self-loathing, disturbingly twisted psyche which sets about sabotaging the game for everyone else with wild abandon. The result is an escalating series of catastrophes in the game as Rimmer's subconscious sets about destroying anything that threatens to make him or his friends happy. It's both extremely funny and also desperately sad and twisted as we realise for the first time that Rimmer has deep-seated reasons for being such an unpleasant man, which the series soon starts mining for great material.

Season 4, Episode 6

Red Dwarf is at its best when mixing pathos and comedy, mining the characters to produce funny material. But sometimes the show just likes to kick back and be absolutely daft with a high concept, in this case ripping the mickey out of the movie Westworld. This episode is definitely in that category. The crew arrive on "Waxworld", a theme park planet inhabited by wax-droids who are supposed to act out historical scenes for the edification of visitors. Unfortunately the droids have gone a bit insane over the last million years or so, and are now trapped into fighting a horrendous war based on their characters' programming.

Or, to put it another way, the episode features the crew teaming up with the unlikeliest band of heroes in history, consisting of Pythagoras ("Alas our numbers do not reach twenty-one; at least then we could form an equilateral triangle,"), Santa, Stan Laurel, Marilyn Monroe, Sergeant Elvis Presley, Gandhi ("DON'T EYEBALL ME GANDHI! Drop to your knees and give me fifty, now!"), Mother Theresa and Queen Victoria. Their enemies are the ultimate team-up of evil and depravity: Adolf Hitler, Rasputin, Emperor Caligula ("Bring hither the swimsuit with the bottom cut out and unleash the rampant wildebeest!"), Al Capone, Richard III and James Last. Inspired by the martyrdom of Winnie the Pooh, the good guys have to fight one last battle to gain victory. Which would be more hopeful if some idiot hadn't put Rimmer in charge of military strategy.

Season 2, Episode 1 
The second season of Red Dwarf immediately opens up the world of the series, introducing the character of Kryten, a service mechanoid suffering from neuroses and an obsession with cleaning. For this first appearance, the character is played by David Ross rather than Robert Llewellyn (who took over when the character was made a regular in Season 3), but Ross nails the character's tics very well. The episode works so well because it gets up our heroes hopes - Kryten reports that the all-female crew of his starship, the Nova 5, are still alive which turns out to be a slight exaggeration - and then shatters them before delving into both Kryten's character and also the worst excesses of Rimmer at his most obnoxious. The "Kryten's rebellion" scene, where Kryten suddenly starts channelling Marlon Brando, remains excellent.

Back to Reality
Season 5, Episode 6

When Season 5 of Red Dwarf aired back in 1992, the production team let it slip that negotiations for a sixth season had become complicated and the show might end forever. This made the final episode's conceit - that the last four years have been part of a VR game played by four people desperately trying to escape a dystopian cyberpunk future of total law enforcement - a little more disturbing as it could possibly have been true. The episode leans into genuine dramatic moments surprisingly well before bringing things around for an uproariously hilarious finale in which the crew engage in an epic car chase whilst being pursued by rocket launcher-wielding motorcyclists and helicopter gunships...all of which happens conveniently (for the sake of the budget) offscreen. This episode also introduces us to the crew's alternate-reality alter-egos, most memorably Duane Dibley (the Cat's thermos-wielding, sandal-wearing alter-ego) and "Jake Bullet, Cybernautics! (traffic control)".

Season 5, Episode 4
Given that, for most of its run, Red Dwarf has an all-male cast, it's interesting when the show spotlights this fact. Quarantine forces the Cat, Kryten and Lister into living in the same room for a week. At first this seems fine as they hang out all the time anyway, but the inability to leave the room for a break soon pushes them past breaking point. The examination of not-always-healthy male friendships is interesting but not allowed to interfere with the comedy, which kicks in a notch when we are introduced to Mr. Flibble, the universe's most psychotic laser-wielding penguin.

Gunmen of the Apocalypse
Season 6, Episode 3
Did you know that Red Dwarf won an Emmy Award? It did, an International Emmy in 1994, for this episode. Gunmen of the Apocalypse was filmed on location in a replica Wild West town erected in, er, Kent and it's clear that both the writers and actors fell in love with the concept. The episode sees the Wild West town stand in as the personification of Kryten's mind as it is invaded by a computer virus. The crew take on new personas thanks to a VR game and enter his mind to fight the virus, which takes the form of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, here re-conceptualised as Wild West gunfighters.

The whole thing is massively high concept but works well, with some fantastic lines, comic timing and possibly the best musical score ever written for the series.

Thanks for the Memory
Season 2, Episode 3
Thanks for the Memory may be the most melancholy episode of Red Dwarf ever made. Feeling sorry for Rimmer on the anniversary of his death, after Rimmer drunkenly confesses he's never been in love, Lister decides to gift him the memory of the love of his life. It's an act of kindness which, of course, backfires.

The episode works because it has a central, genuinely SF idea that is explored in an interesting manner (namely memory transferal and the question of whether memories are what defines us, recently the focus of Altered Carbon) and the story explores the characters of both Lister and Rimmer in intelligence and depth. A criticism of the series is that the writers found Rimmer such a rich source of humour and story that they sometimes left the other characters out in the cold, including our ostensible hero Lister, but this episode works well in telling us more about Lister and the mistakes he's made in his own life. The result is one of Red Dwarf's finest hours, being emotionally affecting as well as very funny.

Season 3, Episode 2

With the third season of Red Dwarf running rather expensive, Doug Naylor and Rob Grant decided to write a tight bottle-episode focusing on Lister and Rimmer after their ship, Starbug, crash-lands on an ice moon. With supplies running low (Lister being forced to choose between a Pot Noodle and a tin of dog food and is genuinely wracked by the decision), the two are forced to resort to desperate measures to survive. We learn more about the two characters than ever before and the episode is unusual in making Lister a bit more at fault than Rimmer. Rimmer is also shown for the first time to have a laudable sense of honour (even if it takes a lot to kick it into action).

Marooned is hilarious and Barrie and Charles have often mooted taking it on the road as a two-man play. Possibly Red Dwarf's best-written half-hour and an unmissable episode.

Season 3, Episode 3
One of Red Dwarf's strictest rules is that there are no aliens. Everything that appears in the show has to be human or made by humans. That means no ravaging monsters. Or at least it didn't, until the writers hit on the idea of GELFs (Genetically-Engineered Life Forms), human-created creatures which, invariably, had broken free of human control and turned in to raging maniacs. The shapeshifting polymorph, which also drains subjects of their negative emotions (turning Lister into a homicidal maniac, Cat into a bum and Rimmer into a vegan hipster) is the finest of these creatures. The crew set out to take on the creature in a mickey-take of Aliens that works fantastically well, resulting in some of the show's finest sight gags. This isn't Red Dwarf at its cleverest or deepest, but it may at it's just laugh-out-loud funniest.

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Happy 30th Birthday, RED DWARF!

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the airing of the very first episode of Red Dwarf, the world's longest-running science fiction comedy show. Set 3 million years in the future, Red Dwarf is the story of the last known human being alive, Dave Lister, a slovenly bum, and his friends and allies (and the officious, arrogant and borderline insane Arnold Rimmer, Lister's nemesis) as they explore deep space and occasionally try to get home.

Red Dwarf was created by writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor in the mid-1980s. Grant and Naylor had been writing together for years, working as writers on satirical puppet show Spitting Image and on radio shows such as Son of Cliche. On Son of Cliche they created a character named "Dave Hollins, Space Cadet", an Earthman who gets stuck millions of years in the future with only a senile computer for company. They developed and expanded the concept, re-titling it Red Dwarf, and trying to sell it to the BBC or Channel 4.

They initially had a cool reception: the BBC was trying to shut down Doctor Who, feeling the show had run its course (they succeeded, if only temporarily, in 1989), and was fiercely resisting making another SF show. There wasn't much interest from other quarters. The show was only finally greenlit after influential producer Paul Jackson - who had produced the massive hit shows The Two Ronnies, Three of a Kind and The Young Ones - took on the project and championed it.

Despite this success, the show was assigned a tiny budget that badly affected Grant and Naylor's casting choices. They'd originally wanted Alfred Molina to play Lister and Alan Rickman Rimmer, but with less money to hand they settled on "punk poet" Craig Charles and one of their voiceover funnymen from Spitting Image, Chris Barrie. Dancer Danny John-Jules and stand-up comedian Norman Lovett completed the cast, place a humanoid descended from Lister's pet cat and the ship's super-advanced AI Holly, respectively. Given their original casting choices had all been white, Naylor and Grant had ended up with a cast that was 50% black, which came in for some bizarre criticism in the British press at the time. The show also had no regular female characters, although this was the point: later episodes established that the absence of any women on board would contribute to the crew's growing list of neuroses and bizarre tics. The show wouldn't gain a recurring female character until Season 3, when Hattie Hayridge took over from Norman Lovett as Holly (who could change his/her appearance at will), and then the addition of Chloe Annett as Kochanski in Seasons 7 and 8.

Red Dwarf debuted on 15 February 1988 to largely indifferent ratings, but a surprisingly strong critical response. In fact, the first episode of Red Dwarf - the ironically titled The End - attracted the highest Audience Appreciation Index response since the Queen's Coronation in 1952! The rest of the first season was patchy, with the terrible budget and awful sets letting the show down even when the gags were pretty funny.

The cast of Red Dwarf in the first episode, which aired thirty years ago today: Danny John-Jules as Cat, Chris Barrie as Rimmer and Craig Charles as Lister.

Season 2 followed later the same year, and saw a slight budget increase that allowed for location filming and some pretty good model work. Grant and Naylor also adjusted their writing style. Having been influenced by Alien and Silent Running, they liked the idea of nailing the isolation of the characters. They built episodes around the idea of loneliness and also around Rimmer's tragic backstory (which they were careful to ensure made the character more understandable, not magically more likeable). The second season was vastly superior to the first and ensured that a third season was commissioned. Naylor and Grant took more direct control as producers and were able to assign the budget more carefully, making it look like the series had been given a much bigger budget increase between seasons than was really the case. Season 3 had a faster pace, more location shooting, more elaborate visual effects, all-new sets and the addition of a new character, service mechanoid Kryten, played with scene-stealing relish by Robert Llewellyn.

It was at this point that Red Dwarf became a breakout, smash-hit success. Seasons 3-6 (airing from 1990 to 1993) saw a very high, consistent run of quality, with some remarkable effects and character work. The show benefited from Naylor's decision to include more actual science in the show, with it riffing on quantum science, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, parallel universes, alternate timelines and other cutting-edge ideas. Ratings were huge, breaking records for a show airing on BBC-2, and the critical acclaim was immense. Grant and Naylor co-wrote two bestselling novels based on the series, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better Than Life, and discussions over a feature film began. The show's future appeared bright.

Then the show was rocked by two major problems. First off, Craig Charles was arrested on serious criminal charges. Although these charges were later dropped and he was fully exonerated, they took over three years to fully resolve. During this time Rob Grant also quit the show. He felt that the potential of the premise had been exhausted and he wanted to try other projects, including writing novels. Doug Naylor was left to take the reigns himself. With Charles's problems resolved, Seasons 7 and 8 were finally shot and aired in 1997 and 1999. Season 8 won the show's highest ratings of all time, smashing BBC-2's highest ratings recorded up to that time. However, Seasons 7 and 8 only got a lacklustre critical reception, with many viewers feeling that the show had run out of ideas and was badly missing Grant's input, who was much better at character whilst Naylor was more the ideas man.

Then the show disappeared for eleven years.

Chris Barrie as Rimmer, Craig Charles as Lister, Robert Llewellyn as Kryten and Danny John-Jules as Cat in Red Dwarf XII, which aired in 2017.

Doug Naylor had made a decision that Red Dwarf belonged on the big screen and dedicated the next decade of his life trying to get the show into cinemas. Scripts were written and rewritten, investors were lined up (only to pull out). Several times the film got within weeks of entering production only to fall apart at the last minute. Frustrated and annoyed, Naylor finally got the show back on the air in 2009, writing and producing a three-part mini-series for the BBC-owned cable channel Dave called Back to Earth (since retconned as Season 9). It was not well-received, but did get enormous ratings. These paved the way for a return of the series in full, resulting in Seasons 10 (2012), 11 (2016) and 12 (2017), all of which had a positive critical reception, as well as setting records for the Dave cable channel. A thirteenth season is now in the planning stages.

Red Dwarf's appeal has largely been down to the everyman factor, putting blue-collar workers in space who don't know anything about quantum entanglement or slipstream drives, they're just there to keep things ticking over. The show also mixes quite advanced gags about science with very basic gags about bodily secretions, as well punching a hole through the po-faced nature of science fiction. Kryten's quest to become human and learning about human concepts is treated dubiously by the rest of the crew (resulting in the memorable line, "Knock off the Star Trek crap, it's too early in the morning") and then given a very amusing resolution, when he actually becomes human for an episode and is so horrified by having to manage a penis ("Is that the best design someone could come up? The 'last chicken in the shop' look?") that he elects to become a mechanoid again ASAP.

The early appeal also came down to the mixture of laughs and tragedy, pathos and comedy, particularly in the character of Rimmer and in Lister's loneliness which he only manages to surmount by devoting every waking hour to winding Rimmer up. Red Dwarf is a sitcom but one with tremendous and maybe unparalleled characterisation.

There's also something admirable about the show in how it refuses to die. Seasons 2-6 were inarguably the show's golden period and it's been variable ever since Rob Grant left (reaching a nadir in Season 9 but then recovering strongly since then), but it constantly explores new SF ideas and finds new angles with which to approach the universe and the characters. It also helps that the actors were mosty in their twenties when the show started; the transition of these young twenty-something men into middle-aged and slightly world-weary fifty-somethings has felt very natural, helped by the fact they have pretty good genes. I can see these guys still exploring deep space and finding fun ways of doing so in another ten years. The show's long hiatuses, resulting in only 12 seasons in 30 years, have also helped in building up anticipating for the show's return and in giving the writers more time to come up with new ideas.

Red Dwarf is one of science fiction TV's great survivors, being funny, dramatic and human as required. Here's to many more years of exploring the final, smeggiest frontier.

Star Trek: Discovery - Season 1.5

The Federation-Klingon War continues to rage, with the Federation gaining some victories thanks to the USS Discovery's spore-based quantum teleportation drive. Unfortunately, the last jump has carried the Discovery way beyond where anyone has gone before...into another universe.

Star Trek: Discovery had a rocky start, with a prequel two-part story before we even got to meet most of the show's actual recurring cast and the ship itself. The show's tone has been all over the place, whilst the writing has frequently let down the excellent actors that the show has assembled. The second part of the season - which consists of six episodes compared to the first chunk's nine - solves some of these problems. This batch of episodes is much faster-paced, more consistent in quality and delivers some very solid payoff to the mysteries set up at the start of the season, if several of those revelations were predictable months in advance.

Again, Discovery benefits from its very solid cast. Jason Isaacs, James Frain, Sonequa Martin-Green, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman and Shazad Latif all continue to deliver stand-out performances, bringing real depth to their characters and performances even when the scripts occasionally falter. Wiseman and Latif in particular benefit from the back run of episodes, with Tilly channelling her youth and enthusiasm in some very unexpected directions and becoming a far more impressive character as a result. Latif's Ash Tyler gets put through the emotional winger and although there are some holes in the way his story developers, the actor never gives less than 100%.

The show continues to be one of the best-looking on television, with sets to die for and some very accomplished action scenes. The CGI and space scenes continue to disappoint, however. Discovery has gone for a very stylised and colourful look (Nebulas! Everywhere!) to its space scenes which are arty but also not very good at getting across the staging and geography of its space battles. The clean lines of the previous series where you could tell what the hell was going on are sadly missed at this point. Starship designs also continue to disappoint: the Klingon ships, which seem to be a hodge-podge of ideas thrown together with little regard for logic or design philosophy, are particularly poor.

In terms of story, a large chunk of this back run of episodes takes place in the Mirror Universe, Star Trek's go-to place when it wants to do morally unambiguous action stories (because everyone in the Mirror Universe is All Evil, All the Time). Discovery's use of the Mirror Universe is effective - avoiding creeping tone of camp that crept in during Deep Space Nine's frequent excursions there - if a bit overdrawn at four episodes, even if these did allow the reappearance of Michelle Yeoh as the evil Philippa Georgiou, whom Yeoh plays with scenery-destroying relish. Still, it gives the series a much-needed dramatic focus.

The show's final stretch feels badly compromised by earlier decisions. Putting both L'Rell and Voq on Discovery and killing off every other Klingon character of note means we have no real stake in the Klingon side of the conflict, especially once L'Rell and Voq both realised that the Federation is absolutely totes awesome after spending five minutes hanging out with them (the "assimilation" threat of the Federation from earlier in the season feels appropriate at this moment). The decision to retire the teleportation device, reinstate Burnham and end the war with a literal deus ex machina (at least from the Klingon POV) also makes it feel like Discovery is giving us easy, pat answers to large, complex problems. The final shot of the season is also very cool, along with the choice of theme music, but it also feels like the show should perhaps have tried standing on its own two feet for a while before playing this card.

Ultimately, the second half of Star Trek: Discovery's first season (***½) is watchable and enjoyable, with a very strong cast (easily the strongest assembled since Deep Space Nine a full quarter of a century ago) and some really interesting ideas being explored. It's a also still a bit muddled in its storytelling, confused in its canonical status and veers inconsistently from setting up complex, morally murky situations to delivering pat, easy answers. But it remains the finest opening season of a Star Trek show since DS9 (if not the original series) and provides a solid foundation for the second season to build on. Star Trek: Discovery can be watched on CBS All Access in the USA, SPACE in Canada and Netflix in most of the rest of the world.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 4, Episodes 19-20

D19: Between the Darkness and the Light
Airdates: 6 October 1997 (US), 27 November 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by David J. Eagle
Cast: Lt. Eisensen (Marc Gomes), Interrogator (Bruce Gray), Number One (Marjorie Monaghan), Captain James (David Purdham), Felicia (Musetta Vander), Guard (Greg Poland), Evan (J.P. Hubbel), First Guard (James Laing), Assistant (Anneliza Scott)

Date: Approximately 30-31 October 2261.

Plot:    Garibaldi, anxious to rescue Sheridan and start paying back for some the things he did whilst under Psi Corps’ control, attempts to contact the Mars Resistance. He is captured and brought before Number One, who offers Franklin the chance to kill him. Franklin almost agrees, but lets Lyta scan Garibaldi to learn the truth. They discover that he was used by Psi Corps, but is now free of their influence. After convincing Number One into helping them, Lyta, Garibaldi and Franklin set out for the Earthforce prison complex.

On Babylon 5 Delenn and Lennier discover that Londo has called a meeting of the Babylon 5 Advisory Council without informing them. They arrive just as the Narn, Centauri and League worlds unanimously vote to send ships to support Ivanova’s fleet.

The liberation fleet is moving towards the Solar system and successfully defeats the Earthforce destroyers Damocles and Orion in combat. In return for leniency at the war crimes tribunal, one of the captured crewmen reports that some of the ships that have joined Ivanova’s fleet are really still working for Clark and are providing intelligence to Earthforce on their movements. Clark is setting a trap involving some new-model destroyers employing lethal technology. Clark wants to destroy the rebel Earthforce vessels in Ivanova’s fleet to make it look like the liberators are really alien invaders. Ivanova decides to take the White Stars by themselves to intercept and destroy the new vessels before they can attack the Earth ships in the fleet.

Garibaldi, Lyta and Franklin arrive at the prison complex and Garibaldi manages to use his well-publicised face as Sheridan’s captor to get past the outer guards. Lyta uses her telepathic powers to overwhelm the inner guards and they rescue Sheridan from his cell. However, they then have to fight their way back out. With the help of the Resistance, Sheridan is put on a shuttle headed for the liberation fleet.

The White Star forces arrive at the ambush coordinates and encounter a large number of Earthforce destroyers fitted with Shadow technology, namely much improved hull armour and superior weaponry. Full-scale battle erupts and, despite heavy losses, the White Stars emerge triumphant. However, when the last enemy vessel explodes the White Star 2 is crippled and Ivanova severely injured. She and Marcus bail out in a lifepod and the ship explodes.

Sheridan’s shuttle reaches the liberation fleet shortly after Minbari, Narn, Centauri and League warships arrive to support them. He assumes command of the Agamemnon and orders a course set for the Mars colony.


Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Black Panther

Aeons ago, a vast meteorite crashed into central Africa, leaving behind a mountain of vibranium, the hardest and most versatile metal on the planet. The nation of Wakanda has grown up around it, developing into the most technologically-advanced nation on Earth whilst keeping its capabilities secret to avoid drawing the eye of invaders. When a shipment of vibranium is stolen by noted arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, the newly-crowned King T'Challa - the Black Panther of Wakanda - sets out to capture Klaue and avenge a great crime he committed against the country years earlier.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a smoothly-operating machine at this point, having hit a stride where it has consistently churned out well-produced movies for several years now without missing a beat. The strength of the MCU is both its over-arcing storyline extending across multiple movies (and set to culminate in this year's Avengers: Infinity War) and also its growing willingness to let talented, slightly offbeat directors helm individual movies and bring a sense of individuality to them. This could be seen in the Russo Brothers' Winter Soldier (influenced by 1970s spy movies), James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy (influenced by 1970s space opera) and Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok (influenced by glam rock and the 1980s Flash Gordon). And it certainly can be seen in Ryan Coogler's Black Panther.

This film hits all the checkboxes you expect of a Marvel movie: it's colourful, it's fun, it has a slightly knowing sense of humour and it has enough of a broad appeal to keep adults and kids entertained alike. However, it also provides what arguably no Marvel movie has since The Winter Soldier: a palpable sense of menace and a villain who is extremely effective. For the first part of the movie that villain is Andy Serkis's Klaue, who is dynamic and convincingly wide-eyed insane. Later on, Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger rises to the fore and Jordan plays the character with a nonchalant confidence that boils over into simmering rage. It's a powerful performance. Jordan has been on a lot of people's radars ever since his memorable turn as the tragic Wallace in the first season of The Wire, but this film should take him to another level. Most impressively, Killmonger becomes a villain who is clearly in the wrong, but whose motives are clearly understandable and who has human moments of weakness and doubt that make him a more interesting enemy.

In terms of performances, the film overflows with great ones. Lupita Nyong'yo and The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira are both outstanding as warriors defending Wakanda (one from behind the scenes and one with a massive spear), with Letitia Wright stealing every scene she's in as bonkers Wakandan inventor Shuri (think of Tony Stark, but young, female and less prone to tedious angst). Winston Duke has a small but highly memorable role as M'Baku, the leader of a tribe less than happy with T'Challa's ascension, and he gets the lion's share of the film's best lines. Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya is also excellent, using his thoughtful thousand-yard stare to great effect as W'Kabi, one of T'Challa's friends and allies. Angela Bassett also has a strong, elder stateswoman presence as T'Challa's mother. Martin Freeman returns from earlier Marvel films and has a surprisingly important role to play, which he lives up to nicely (and gets an intense conversation with Serkis wherein the director restrains himself from any Hobbit references).

It would be wrong to call his performance disappointing, but Chadwick Boseman gets a little lost in the mix at times, surrounded by far more interesting characters with senses of humour, or righteous honour, or dread-inspiring menace. Boseman's T'Challa gets to be a stoic straight man to most of the rest of the cast, which is fine but does leave Black Panther feeling like one of the less-interesting things about a film called Black Panther. However, he does rally in the film's final act when he discovers the heinous mistake his father made which risks shaming the entire nation, and has to fight to regain his family honour. Forest Whitaker also has a great performance, but only shows up for about ten minutes, making me wonder if he has some contract with Disney where gets to appear for short bursts in each one of their franchises in return for a lot of bank.

Structurally, the film is sound and keeps things ticking over with frequent changes of location and pace, and the subtle use of flashbacks throughout the film to establish character motivations. Some Marvel films trip over having too large a cast or not having enough story to fill their two hours, but Black Panther expertly juggles characters, drama, action, effects, comedic beats (of which there is a fair but, but mostly low-key which is a relief after Thor: Ragnarok) and thematic elements. The movie raises interesting questions about colonialism, imperialism and whether vengeance is better than forgiveness, but does in a restrained manner. Coogler knows this is Hollywood popcorn entertainment, not a treatise on the history of Africa and slavery, but that makes what he does do - subtly weaving these themes throughout the film without slamming the audience over the head with them - more impressive.

The film ends in a big flashy fight and the usual overreliance on CGI, although at least this time the geography of the fighting and the use of the effects is understandable. The final battle is also kept fairly breezy as these things go (learning from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's interminably never-ending effects overload, perhaps) and there's some nice foreshadowing of the stakes in the final fight earlier in the movie. Also as usual, we get some mid-credit "secret" scenes. There's only two and both are fairly disposable, although the second at least nods at the wider MCU we know Wakanda is going to collide with in Infinity War in just ten weeks' time.

Black Panther (****½) is one of the stronger entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It adheres to the Marvel formula, but it does so in a much more successful manner than most of the movies in the franchise, as well as a more serious one than some of the more recent films. It's a film that's unrelentingly entertaining, action-packed and layers its story of vengeance, family betrayal, politics and blood like an Afrofuturist take on Game of Thrones. It's fun and finds time between the explosions to say some interesting things. It's on general release in the UK now and hits the US at the end of the week.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

ROBOTECH movie gets a new director, writer and (rough) time schedule

Sony are continuing to develop their long-gestating Robotech film project, based on the 1980s American animated TV series (based, in turn, on three Japanese anime series edited together into a single narrative). They now have a director and a writer for the film.

James Wan has withdrawn as director, to be replaced by hotter-than-sun Andy Muschietti, the director of the two-part movie version of Stephen King's IT, the first half of which was released last year to critical acclaim. Muschietti is currently working on IT Part II, which will be released on 6 September 2019. Muschietti will begin work on Robotech in earnest once IT Part II wraps post-production, which probably won't be until mid-2019 at the earliest.

Jason Fuchs has also been attached to the Robotech project as writer. He's thrown out the scripts developed over several previous years and is now working on a fresh take. Fuchs is also in demand following his credit as a co-writer on last year's Wonder Woman. However, his other scripts (Ice Age 3 and Pan) have been less well-received.

Assuming this project moves forward - which seems more likely now a firmer directorial deal seems in place (Wan's deal apparently foundered over DC's inability to confirm a timescale for his Aquaman project, although that is now shooting) - it'll probably be 2021 or 2022 before we see the film on the screen. There also remains a major issue in that Harmony Gold (the creators of Robotech) are in dispute with Studio Nue and Big West (the creators of the Macross anime, which is the primary source for the Robotech story and animation) over international distribution rights for the Macross series, sequels and prequels in the United States and Europe. As a result of this dispute, Studio Nue have refused to licence the original Macross mecha designs to Harmony Gold or (as far as is known) Sony. This means that if the Robotech film moves forward, it will not be able to use any of the mecha, starship or vehicle designs from the original Robotech series, This will not go down well with fans eager to see the Veritech fighters from their childhood in action on-screen.

Still, interesting to see how this project develops as it goes forward. The basic Robotech/Macross premise is incredibly strong: an alien starship crash lands on Earth just before a nascent World War III is about to go nuclear. The world's superpowers band together in the face of this greater threat and reverse-engineer the starship and its technology. A decade later, the alien owners of the ship (or, more accurately, their genetically-engineered slave-soldiers) show up to reclaim it and all hell breaks loose.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

RIP Jóhann Jóhannsson

In surprising news, it has been confirmed that Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has passed away at the age of 47. No cause of death has been given.

Jóhannsson had been releasing solo albums since 2002, but had come to recent, widespread attention for his work in film scores, in particular his collaborations with Denise Villeneuve. He provided the moody, minimalist scores for Villeneuve's films Prisoners, Sicario and, most memorably, Arrival. He also provided the score for The Theory of Everything. He won a Golden Globe for Everything and a World Soundtrack Award for Arrival.

He'd recently made headlines when his complete or partially-complete scores for Blade Runner 2049 and mother! were not used. Hans Zimmer replaced Jóhannsson on Blade Runner 2049, somewhat bafflingly proceeding to produce a very Jóhannsson-like final score. The changeover on mother! was more amicable, as Jóhannsson himself felt that the score he'd produced interfered with the movie's atmosphere; after consulting with director Darren Aronofsky, they decided to drop the score almost completely, instead using only distant echoes of it melded into the film's sound design. Jóhannsson instead accepted a sound design credit on the film.

Jóhannsson had completed three additional scores before his passing: Mandy, The Mercy (released just last week) and Mary Magdalene, due out at the end of this month.

Jóhannsson's passing is sad news, especially as such a young age. His music was inventive, haunting, devastatingly emotional and immediately recognisable. His work on Arrival was utterly sublime. He will be missed.

On the GAME OF THRONES showrunners making STAR WARS

As we heard last week, the Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been tapped by Disney to write and possibly direct a new Star Wars movie series. Benioff and Weiss will start work on the films the second they finish up on the final season of Game of Thrones (which is shooting until the late summer, probably to air in February or April 2019).

This is a logical decision on several levels: Benioff and Weiss have delivered the biggest and most successful television show in HBO's history and the biggest drama show on the planet right now. They have made HBO an insane amount of money and (albeit helped by the simultaneous rise of Amazon TV and Netflix Originals) raised the bar for the scale and scope of television in a way that has completely redefined the medium, possibly forever. The impact of Game of Thrones on television may eventually be seen as being analogous to the impact the original Star Wars had on cinema back in 1977 in terms of scale, visual effects and cultural impact.

There are, however, two reasons to be cautious about this news.

The Star Wars universe, by Paul Shipper.

How Much Star Wars Is Too Much Star Wars?

Between 1977 and 2005, Lucasfilm released exactly six Star Wars movies, three cartoon series (none of which lasted more than a single season's worth of material) and three TV movies. They authorised a lot of other content - novels, video games, comics, board games and RPGs - but for the core Star Wars canon that was it. They released a six-season CG series after 2005 (which had an ill-advised movie spin-off), but generally speaking, the amount of core Star Wars content produced in the first 30 years of its existence was relatively modest for what was arguably the worlds biggest SFF franchise.

Since October 2014 - less than three and a half years ago! - we've had another three movies (The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi) and a four-season animated series (Rebels). Another movie (Solo) is due out in just three months. After that we've got one movie in pre-production (Episode IX) and at least six more in the formal planning stage beyond that (Rian Johnson's trilogy and the Benioff/Weiss project), plus one more "Star Wars Story" that's very likely to happen (the Obi-Wan movie) and two movies at the proposal stage (a Boba Fett movie and allegedly a Yoda one). Lucasfilm have also apparently put a further core Skywalker trilogy (Episode X-XII) into the earliest planning stages. In addition, Disney are planning "several" live-action Star Wars television series for their new streaming service. This new Star Wars canon has also been expanded by dozens of new novels and comic series, as well as several video games.

That's an awful lot of content to take on board. Disney are clearly putting Star Wars into the same bracket as their Marvel Cinematic Universe, a setting that can sustain multiple, high-grossing movies per year.

However, it's questionable if that is true. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is based on almost sixty years' worth of comic books, encompassing thousands of characters, hundreds of titles and thousands of storylines that can be mined for the cinema. The eighteen movies in the MCU to date really only consist of one major comics storyline (the Thanos/Infinity Stones arc) and a dozen or so smaller stories (such as Civil War, Planet Hulk and Age of Ultron). That's barely scraping the surface of the potential on offer in the Marvel universe, especially now that Marvel can tap the Fantastic Four/X-Men/Deadpool arm of the comics universe as well. In addition, Disney has been careful to vary both the tone and content of the MCU, slowly allowing writers and directors greater freedom to innovate and improvise as long as they remain within the confines of the greater roadmap of the universe.

Or to put it another way, the secret of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been that it allows for much greater individual freedom per film (which is how we ended up with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The AvengersGuardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, all with radically different sensibilities) whilst retaining to a tightly-orchestrated, over-arcing masterplan which will culminate in Infinity War II in 2019.

Star Wars hasn't really had that as yet. Each film has been tightly controlled and the merest sign of the director deviating from the perceived brand message has been met with swift firings (Colin Trevorrow, Phil Lord and Chris Miller) or the film being reshot and recut at the last minute (Rogue One). This is at the same time that it was confirmed that there was no over-arcing storyline in place for the new trilogy, meaning that nothing J.J. Abrams set up in The Force Awakens actually had any kind of solution in mind, allowing Rian Johnson to engage with that material or just ignore it in The Last Jedi.

Or, to put it another way, the Star Wars universe is allowing for much less greater individual freedom per film whilst not having any kind of tightly-orchestrated, over-arcing masterplan at all.

In addition, the Star Wars movie writers show little inclination to tap the wider Star Wars universe of novels, comics and games for ideas. Rebels cleverly used Ralph McQuarrie concept art and elements from the novels and video games (like Grand Admiral Thrawn and Imperial Interdictor Cruisers) to strengthen its storytelling, but the makers of the films seem to hold this other material in much greater disdain. There's a reason why Mike Stackpole and Aaron Allston's X-Wing novels are so highly regarded, why Matt Stover was picked by George Lucas to write about the corruption of Anakin Skywalker and why Knights of the Old Republic is not just the most beloved Star Wars video games of all time, but one of the best-rated Star Wars stories full stop of all time. Yet, unlike Marvel, there seems to be a lack of willingness to engage with this excellent material of proven, massive popularity.

I would argue that, until Lucasfilm can find a way of telling a much greater variety of stories in the Star Wars universe (and yes, that includes romances, comedies, hard boiled war stories, small and intimate stories as well as big ones), they're going to run into problems of repetition and getting stale much faster than the MCU has.

Are D&D a Good Fit for Star Wars?

On one level, this sounds like a dumb question. Benioff and Weiss took a (relatively) obscure fantasy book series and turned it into the biggest TV show on the world, bar none. They revived HBO's fortunes at a moment when it appeared to be flagging. They have brought more "watercooler moments" to the screen in the last seven years than any other TV show or film series. Disney tapping that ability for their films seems a no-brainer.

There are, however, some pretty big caveats to that. Game of Thrones is based on George R.R. Martin's novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and - at least up until the TV show overtook the books in Season 5 - was an unusually close and faithful adaptation. Most of the big, most memorable moments from the TV show, such as the Red Wedding, the Blackwater, Ned Stark's execution, Tyrion's trial, the battle at the Wall and so forth, are straight out of the novels. Even the battle at Hardhome is alluded to in the books, and director Miguel Sapochnik was primarily responsible for the staging. It's arguably not until the sept explosion in the Season 6 finale that Benioff and Weiss started creating their own major set-piece events for the series. Some of their set pieces have also been pretty risible (the Battle of the Bastards, although visually impressive, makes zero sense and is pretty badly-written).

So in that sense Benioff and Weiss's strongest moments came from adapting George R.R Martin's work and since they haven't had the books to draw on, the show has become much more uneven (Season 5 being pretty heavily panned up until Hardhome, for example) and has certainly suffered from more issues with dialogue, pacing, structure and characterisation.

There's also the fact that Benioff and Weiss have also shown a remarkable tone-deafness to the nuances of Martin's work - bizarrely claiming that Arya only sees Needle as a symbol of revenge rather than a remembrance of family and loyalty as her Stark identity is stripped away from her by the Faceless Men; or whitewashing Tyrion and stopping him from doing any of the more heinous things he does in the books because they don't want to damage the popularity of the character - and also to external factors. Their handling of sexual abuse and torture has been pretty heavily criticised (so has Martin's, to be fair) and they were criticised in Season 2 when it was revealed that they had been urging directors to put more nudity into scenes than even the script called for, to cater for the "pervs in the audience".

Their proposal for a TV series named Confederate also seemed extremely under-cooked and ill-thought-through (and if they wanted to do an alternative-history story in this vein, Harry Turtledove has a whole raft of much more interesting takes on the idea), and resulted in significant blowback on HBO which the network was not impressed by. Confederate has been quietly dropped as a proposed series and HBO's attitude to working with Benioff and Weiss again seems slightly cooler than it was previously. On the other hand, they have gone to some lengths to retain both George R.R. Martin's services and those of Bryan Cogman (the best-regarded other GoT scriptwriter) for the proposed Game of Thrones spin-off shows.

Or, to put it another way, as writers Benioff and Weiss have so far proven themselves to be better as adapters of other people's work than originating material on their own. When they have worked on their own, the results have been far more variable. This is proven by their track records: Benioff's solo work of note amounts to two middling novels (The 25th Hour and City of Thieves). His other film work has been adaptation of other people's work, such as Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, or Homer's mythological take on the Trojan War. Weiss's work is even less notable; before GoT he'd spent many years in development hell on Peter Jackson's Halo movie.

As producers however, Benioff and Weiss are on another level. Their work ethic and commitment to the job is undoubted. They delivered 10 hours of material every year for seven years straight, juggling multiple filming units in up to three countries for six months at once and navigating HBO's complex corporate politics. They knew when to roll over (rewriting and re-shooting the pilot) and when to stand their ground (getting the money they needed for the Battle of the Blackwater). They have also shown a frankly near-supernatural instinct when it comes to picking people to work with them. Their choices for directors have almost been wholly outstanding, their set and costume designers are the best in the business and the world owes them a huge vote of thanks alone for giving Ramin Djawadi the job as the show's composer. Their employment of David Petersen massively increased the profile of the global conlang (constructed languages) scene, and their decision to tap Nina Gold as casting director was an incredible stroke of good fortune, from which the show's unbeatable casting has flowed. And of course, it was their reading of the books in early 2006 and early commitment to working with both George R.R. Martin and HBO that got the show on the air in the first place.

It remains to be seen if Benioff and Weiss will do a good job on Star Wars, but on previous form I would be more intrigued by them acting as producers and facilitators on a Star Wars movie, or acting as writers if they were adapting someone else's work. Their form does not preclude them making a terrific Star Wars movie or three, but if I was Disney I'd perhaps be a bit cautious about giving them a free hand with a mega-budgeted movie without some more oversight and consideration of their ideas.

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