Saturday, 16 January 2077

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After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Movie poster for THE DARK TOWER revealed

Columbia Pictures has released the first poster for The Dark Tower, its upcoming movie adaptation of Stephen King's eight-volume novel series of the same name. The film stars Idris Elba as Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger, and Matthew McConaughey as Walter Padick, the Man in Black (in this version of the story, anyway). The film is flippable, focusing on Roland from one angle and on the Man in Black from the other.


The film is both an adaptation of, and sequel to, King's books* (see below, but SPOILERS). The plan is for this to be a multi-film project, with the first film drawing on elements from the first three novels in the book series. There will also be a TV series exploring Roland's backstory as revealed in the fourth novel, with Elba appearing in framing sequences for the flashbacks and a younger actor playing the teenage Roland.

The film is directed by Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) and also stars Tom Taylor, Katheryn Winnick and Jackie Earle Haley. It will be released on 28 July. The TV series will air in 2018.


SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP

A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE tabletop wargame announced

Dark Sword Miniatures, who have been producing high-quality miniatures based on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels for a decade, are now working on a tabletop wargame with CMON Games.


The new game will initially pitch Houses Stark and Lannister against one another. Later expansions will add the other houses and factions. The game will feature military units but also "heroes" (characters from the novels) who will add bonuses and special abilities to their armies.

This is the second ASoIaF miniatures game. The first was Battles of Westeros, based on the BattleLore rules and released by Fantasy Flight Games. Despite FFG's high profile and their proven success with the ASoIaF board game and collectable card game, Battles of Westeros never really took off, was fairly low-key and is no longer available. Dark Sword and CMON are promising much greater support for their new game.


There will be a Kickstarter campaign later this year for the game and a full release is expected in Spring 2018.

Star Trek: Enterprise - Season 3

Earth has been attacked by an alien superweapon. Florida and the Caribbean have been left in flames and over seven million people are dead. The alien attackers are traced to a mysterious region of space known as the Delphic Expanse and an alien race known as the Xindi, so Starfleet sends the NX-01 Enterprise to the region to investigate further and stop the Xindi before they can launch a second attack.


According to conventional wisdom, Star Trek: Enterprise gets a lot better with its third season. The show's best writer, Manny Coto, was promoted to producer and given more creative freedom. The entire season also has a strong, ongoing story arc. It's still not full-on serialisation - many episodes are still stand-alone, just with more frequent mentions of the ongoing storyline - but it's closer than Trek has gotten before across a whole year. There's also more attention paid to character growth, such as T'Pol developing an addiction to a chemical and then going through withdrawal, leaving her permanently emotionally damaged, whilst the human crewmembers initially hunger for revenge against the Xindi before learning more about them and how they've been manipulated by another alien race.

It is certainly true that Enterprise's third season is more interesting than the first two. There is more of a sense of tension and drama and the show feels more experimental. Long-term Trek producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, criticised by many fans for presiding over the long-term decline of the franchise, seem to have backed off and given Coto more freedom to innovate. The producers cleverly realised that their storyline, although it had legs, was still insufficient to fill 25 episodes, so were still able to bring in side-stories to expand the texture of the new setting of the Expanse. Although some of these episodes are undeniably filler (Extinction and Rajin are groan-inducingly boring), there seems to be a far higher hit rate than in previous seasons.

The season also gives us Enterprise's first truly classic episode. Twilight riffs on previous episode ideas but also takes a strong influence from the movie Memento, with Archer affected by a neurological problem which prevents him from forming long-term memories. The episode unfolds as an alternate view of what happens if the Enterprise's mission fails and, although we know it won't, the episode is well-written and directed enough that it doesn't matter too much.

Other strong episodes include Proving Ground (even if the arrival of Andorian occasional semi-ally Shran is a little implausible), Strategem and Doctor's Orders (an excellent showcase for John Billingsley's acting). The season also ends with a strong arc starting with Azati Prime, where Enterprise takes incredibly heavy damage and is left crippled for the rest of the season. The crew have to find a way of destroying the Xindi weapon without having their normal resources to call upon, so have to resort to a diplomatic solution. In a post-9/11 world and with the far darker Battlestar Galactica reboot hitting screens at the same time, Enterprise takes a very different approach is still very true to the ethos of Star Trek, and does so reasonably well. The season-ending cliffhanger is less than compelling, however.

The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise (****) is indeed better than the first two and the finest season of Star Trek since the end of Deep Space Nine. It's not perfect and occasionally resorts to tiresome Star Trek standbys, but it entertains and successfully finds a solution to the season-long arc that channels Star Trek at its finest. The season is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and on Netflix in the UK and Ireland.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Iron Fist: Season 1

Fifteen years ago a plane crashed in the Himalayas. The only survivor, 10-year-old Danny Rand, was found by monks from the otherworldly stronghold of K'un-lun. Trained in their ways of combat, meditation and mysticism, Rand became the Iron Fist, a warrior beyond compare, destined to protect K'un-lun from their mortal enemies, the Hand. Now he has chosen to return home to New York City, to find his father's company is making money from unethical sources. With the city threatened by the Hand, Rand steps up to save the world and his parents' legacy.


Iron Fist is the fourth collaboration between Netflix and Marvel, following on from Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. It's also the final set-up series before the whole gang gets together for an event mini-series, The Defenders, which will air later this year.

Netflix have batted high so far in this collaboration: the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones were excellent, the second season of Daredevil was less accomplished but still watchable and the first season of Luke Cage opened well but fell apart later on as it ran out of plot and interesting characters long before the season ended, but those early episodes were still great. All of these shows have been stylish and well-written with excellent action sequences, but have struggled at times with structure and pacing. Iron Fist is, contrary to some early reviews, not the weakest Netflix/Marvel collaboration (I'd say that goes, by a whisker, to Luke Cage, despite the stronger main character) but it is the most maddeningly inconsistent.

An early weakness is that the show tries to get us interested in the doings of Rand Enterprises and then doesn't do that (exactly what the company does and makes is left unclear as well). Danny Rand (Finn Jones from Game of Thrones) returns home to find everyone thinks he is dead and struggles to convince everyone he is who he says he is, particularly the people now in charge of the company, Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) and his sister Joy (Jessica Stroup). Aided by superstar lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss, returning from Jessica Jones), Danny eventually gets recognised and his foot back in the door. But he then promptly loses interest in the company for most of the rest of the series and the corporate dealings of the firm are deeply dull, not helped by Tom Pelphrey's uninspired performance in a mediocre role. More interesting is David Wenham - Faramir from the Lord of the Rings movies - as the Meachum patriarch, Harold, who has faked his own death and is overseeing things secretly from afar for initially baffling reasons. Wenham is charismatic, unpredictable and ambiguous, but goes from dominating episodes to barely showing up. In addition, having a second character who everyone thought was dead feels redundant and repetitive.

The corporate storyline never flies, but far more successful is the character arc of Colleen Wing, played with energetic gusto and charisma by Jessica Henwick (late of both Star Wars and Game of Thrones). Colleen is a martial arts instructor who faces having to close down her dojo due to financial problems before getting caught up in Rand's story. Colleen's storyline is very well-handled to the point where you start wishing she was the protagonist rather than Danny. Finn Jones does okay with the material he is given, but his character is less interesting, more rooted in standard tropes and the show constantly finds excuses why he can't use his superpower, which gets dull quickly.


I was bracing myself for the later confrontations with the Hand, since the Hand were absolutely terrible on Daredevil. Fortunately, the traditional Hand we are familiar with are soon out of the action and a different faction within the organisation emerges, one which contains actual characters with something approaching credible motivations. At first this nicely makes the organisation more morally murky and interesting, but eventually they return to base villainy.

Rosario Dawson also returns as Claire Temple from the other Netflix shows and she gets a lot more to do here, having been trained by Colleen in the ways of combat, so she actually gets mixed up in the action and feels more like a character contributing to the narrative than a random and incongruous cameo (as she was on Jessica Jones). The only thing that is a bit weird is that Claire does mention several times that she's been hanging around with other superheroes but Danny and Colleen are completely uninterested and no-one suggests recruiting these other guys to help them out against the Hand.

Iron Fist avoids the problem of Luke Cage and Daredevil S2, which both started off strongly and then fell of a cliff in quality and never recovered, by actually starting off a lot weaker and getting better as it goes along (particularly Colleen's story, which takes an unexpected turn which adds greater depth to the character). But there are problems which are constant: the show's moral message is murky and bizarre (at one point saying it's bad to kill but okay if someone else kills the person instead, as it gets you off the hook), dialogue can be thunderously clunky and the Hand go from being an omnipotent villain who is everywhere to being easily-defeatable goons. Finn Jones also gives the most pedestrian performance of the four Netflix leads (five counting the upcoming Punisher series).

Most damaging for an action show about a martial arts character, the action scenes are subpar. Some scenes use unconvincing stunt doubles and some - shockingly - resort to CGI blurring the stunt doubles' faces when they are too obviously not the right person. Given the absolutely brilliant action scenes achieved in Daredevil (that hallway fight in Season 1 remains the highwater mark for physical combat scenes in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date), Iron Fist's are startlingly bad, not helped by Jones's rather obvious lack of martial arts skill. Henwick's scenes are far more brutal and convincing and her two cage match fights are the most intense and believable action scenes in the series.

In the final analysis, Iron Fist (***) is nowhere near as bad as the early reviews make out but is still far from ideal. It's mostly okay, but never rises above the watchable. It doesn't outstay its welcome to the extent that Luke Cage and Daredevil's second year did, mainly because it knows when to introduce new elements and characters to explore to keep the story wheel turning more effectively. But it does suffer from some weak opening episodes, an uninteresting corporate subplot and some very underwhelming action scenes. It's also hard to shake off the feeling that the series is about the wrong character. Hopefully Netflix considers adding a Colleen Wing (either solo or teamed up with her traditional comics sparring partner, Misty Knight from Luke Cage) show to the roster at some point in the future.

Friday, 17 March 2017

THE EXPANSE renewed for a third season

The Expanse has been renewed for a third season by SyFy.


The news came after an exceptional critical response for the second season of the show, currently airing in the United States, and after the show was picked up for international distribution by Netflix, widely increasing its worldwide profile.

The first two seasons adapted the first two books in the series, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War. The third season will presumably cover any elements left over from Caliban's War and move into the events of the third book in the series, Abaddon's Gate.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

First thoughts: STAR WARS REBELLION

When I was a kid I enjoyed playing board games. There was the Pac-Man board game and Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs and Escape from Atlantis, amongst many others. When I got a bit older there was the epic Hero Quest and Space Crusade and Axis and Allies. As a teenager I stopped playing them: the UK board game market dried up and I moved on to roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, Deadlands and Star Wars.


But now board games are back, and in a big way. For the last few years there's been an explosion in the market. It's growing at an exponential rate and very few months pass without another game smashing Kickstarter targets or getting a few more expansions. Some of the better games of this latest explosion include Descent, Flash Point and of course the epic Pandemic and its recent Legacy reiteration. Epic fantasy is also getting in on the act, with Games Workshop now in its sixteenth year of its Lord of the Rings tabletop wargame and Fantasy Flight's A Song of Ice and Fire board game being one of the best-regarded in the business (and CMON Games are looking to introduce a tabletop wargame based on the books soon).

I recently picked up my first board game in over a decade. Star Wars: Rebellion shares a name with the 1998 strategy video game of the same name (released as Supremacy in the UK) and has a broadly similar set-up. The Rebel Alliance is trying to foment a galaxy-wide uprising against the Empire and needs both time and allies to achieve that. The Empire is is trying to crush the Rebellion before it can really get going by destroying its hidden base. The Empire has overwhelming superiority of strength but the Rebellion is more mobile and capable of sabotaging the Empire's war machine.

The game is played on an enormous board featuring thirty-one star systems from the Star Wars universe: Coruscant, Corellia, Ord Mantell, Dagobah, Yavin, Hoth, Tatooine and more are present and correct. One of these planets is home to the Rebel Base, but the Imperial player doesn't know where it is. Using probe droids and manually searching each planet, the Empire has to eliminate the possibilities until they find the base and destroy it. The Rebels can slow down the Empire's advance by undertaking sabotage missions (essential if you don't want a wall of Star Destroyers advancing across the map by the fifth turn) and also engaging in misinformation, getting the Empire to send troops to the wrong planet or diverting their forces by mounting a military attack elsewhere.

The game features an impressive array of counters, dice, cards (so many cards) and miniatures. There are tiny stormtroopers and Rebel troopers, snowspeeders, AT-ATs, AT-STs, TIE fighter squadrons, X-wings, Y-wings, Corellian Corvettes, Star Destroyers, Super Star Destroyers, Mon Calamari Star Cruisers and even three Death Stars (the Empire's ability to have multiple Death Stars flying around is the most notable callback to Supremacy). The miniatures are small but being able to assemble a fleet of six Star Destroyers led by Darth Vader's Super Star Destroyer and send it to crush a Rebel planet is still an awesome feeling.


Key to the game are characters. Each side has a plethora of characters to send on missions. The Rebels can call upon Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Lando, Chewbacca, Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar (amongst others) whilst the Empire can call on Darth Vader, the Emperor, Grand Moff Tarkin, Admiral Piette, General Veers, as well as various other characters. You can assign characters to missions but also use unassigned characters to disrupt the missions of other characters. The Empire also has the ability to try to capture Rebel leaders and interrogate them, whilst the Rebels then have the ability to rescue them. You also use characters to take command of fleets and guide them from system to system, but they can't both command a fleet and disrupt enemy operations, leading to interesting strategic missions. If the Empire has a massive fleet waiting to move on a Rebel system, the Rebels can send multiple agents to commit sabotage or operations in that system. The Empire can choose to disrupt those operations with their leaders in that system, but won't then be able to move their fleet. If they choose not to disrupt those operations, the Rebels might win significant advantages.

The result is an intricate game based on outright military action, covert operations and diplomatic games of bluff and double-bluff, all drenched in Star Wars flavour. The result is a game that does what modern games do best: generate stories from your actions, stories that shift and change each time.

Rebellion does have several issues, although these may be features to some players rather than bugs. It's a Fantasy Flight game, so that means that the rules are not always tremendously clear. The "quick start" manual omits about half the game rules whilst the main rulebook is not tremendously detailed. Expect to spend a lot of time studying errata and forum posts to explain more bizarre rulings. There's also the fact that the game is not a quick play. In our first game, it took four hours to run through about five turns (out of a possible fourteen). That was our first time and a lot of that was taken up going through the rules, but looking at board game sites, games lasting six hours or more are not uncommon (although games in three or four are certainly quite achievable as well).

Rebellion is also strictly a two-player game. There is a team option, with two players on each team, bu it's pretty thin stuff. Those who want a grand space strategy game with multiple players is directed to Fantasy Flight's Forbidden Stars (if you can find it before the final copies are sold), which scratches some of the same itch. Of course, if you regularly have entire weekends freed to dedicate to one game, there's always Twilight Imperium (cue readers screaming and running for the hills).

I'm still yet to complete a full game, but so far Rebellion is a fine and engaging strategy boardgame that makes excellent use of the Star Wars mythos.

PHOENIX POINT teaser trailer and new staff announcements

Julian Gollop, the creator of the original X-COM series of games (and an unofficial advisor on the modern XCOM reboots), is currently hard at work on Phoenix Point, a game that can be best described as "XCOM meets Lovecraft". He's now released the briefest of teaser trailers for the game:


The trailer suggests not much of the game exists, but in fact there was a playable build being shown off last summer and the game has an early-to-mid 2018 release date. I'm guessing this is the start of a more thorough marketing and release schedule to raise awareness of the game ahead of its launch in a year or so.

Gollop has also confirmed that composer John Broomhall is working on the new game. Broomhall previously wrote the music for the first three X-COM games (UFO Defence, Terror from the Deep and Apocalypse) and has since worked on the Forza and Railroad Tycoon franchises.


The game has also added Jonas Kyratzes as a writer. Kyratzes is a noted video game commentator, designer and writer, best-known for his work on cult hit The Talos Principle, as well as his own indie Lands of Dream series.

Phoenix Point is set in the near future when the world has been consumed by a strange mist (released from the Siberian permafrost) that has transformed vast numbers of people into monsters. The game features a detailed strategic layer in which players take control of a band of survivors and have to make alliances with other factions, recruiting soldiers and scientists whilst coordinating a defence against the mist and finding a way of dispersing it. The game also features turn-based combat against the monsters with detailed weapons customisation. Remarkably, as well as the game featuring procedural levels it will also feature procedural monsters, creating new mutant types out of hundreds of different body parts.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Starz release full trailer for AMERICAN GODS

Starz have released a full trailer for the first season of American Gods, based on Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel of the same name.


The eight-part series debuts on Starz on 30 April. The first season will cover approximately one-third of the novel, with the rest (and possible adaptations of the novel Anansi Boys and the short stories "Monarch of the Glen" and "Black Dog", as well as the unwritten American Gods II) to follow in succeeding seasons.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Producers confirm only six episodes for final season of GAME OF THRONES

Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have confirmed that the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones will only have six episodes.


The seventh season debuts on 16 July in the US on HBO and will consist of seven episodes. Weiss and Benioff said last year that they had planned to finish the series in just thirteen more episodes after the explosive finale to Season 6. HBO had refused to confirm that, hoping that the producers could be talked into making more episodes. Clearly that effort has failed.

The final two seasons have the same budget as the sixth ($100 million), bringing the per-episode budget of the series up to $14,280,000. In Season 8 this will increase to $16,660,000 per episode (a massive five times the budget of an episode of The Walking Dead, for comparison). Game of Thrones is, easily, the most expensive ongoing TV show in television history.

The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones will begin production towards the end of this year and will air in summer 2018. HBO are in early discussions with George R.R. Martin about making a possible spin-off series to replace it, but have not announced any firm plans. Such a series will not involve Benioff or Weiss, who have a movie development deal with Fox Studios.