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Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Doctor Who: Series 1 (Season 27)

Earth, 2005. Rose Tyler is a normal 19-year-old Londoner, working, partying and still living at home with her mum. A mysterious stranger known as the Doctor whisks her off on adventures through time and space. Gradually, Rose learns of his origins as the last of his race, the once-mighty Time Lords of Gallifrey, and the Great Time War that destroyed his world. But their journeys through space and time are being followed, two words that appear almost everywhere they go, foreshadowing the great battle that is to come: Bad Wolf.

In 2005, TV writer and producer Russell T. Davies was faced with a daunting task: resurrecting and restoring to relevance the vintage British SF TV series Doctor Who. The show had aired across twenty-six seasons between 1963 and 1989 before being "rested" by the BBC due to declining ratings (the result of deliberately being put in a dead slot opposite the country's most popular TV show, Coronation Street). In the sixteen-year interregnum there had been several attempts to resurrect the show for TV and film, including a one-off 1996 TV movie as a co-production with the American Universal and Fox Studios. There'd also been enormous numbers of novels and audio dramas, with Davies himself making his Doctor Who debut by writing Damaged Goods, which saw the Doctor going undercover in a working-class housing estate to flush out an alien threat.

To bring back Doctor Who, Davies decided to make it a fast-moving, action-packed adventure series inspired by American shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but, also like Buffy, featuring serialised elements spanning the series, greater continuity, a larger cast of recurring characters and some quieter character moments. He also wanted to firmly reset Doctor Who as a show suitable for the entire family, feeling (as many critics had) that in the 1980s Doctor Who had become too focused on adults and long-term fans and was no longer entertaining to young children, who had felt that the show had become cheap and outdated compared to contemporary American shows. Davies also wanted to move the show on in terms of progression and representation, with a more balanced role for the companion, and more roles for characters of all colours and sexuality.

He did - eventually - succeed, but it is fair to say that it took most of the revival season to get there.

Airing on 26 March 2005, the episode Rose can be charitably described as a hyperactive live-action cartoon. It introduces Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper as his new companion Rose, both excellent performers but here performing in a story that has all the grace and subtlety of being hit in the face with a brick made of cow dung. Almost wholly lacking in logic or sense, the episode was a mess in 2005 and remains so today, and it's frankly remarkable it spawned a renewed series lasting thirteen seasons (and counting). The best thing about the episode is its enthusiasm, as well as its nostalgia-tugging by redeploying the memorable Autons from the Jon Pertwee serials Spearhead from Space (1970) and Terror of the Autons (1971). It got the job of resurrecting Doctor Who done, but rather unpleasantly, with gurning performances, a silly script and cheap effects.

Fortunately things improve immediately: The End of the World is an effective "base under siege" story of the kind that Doctor Who does so well, with the Doctor, Rose and assorted alien dignitaries stuck on a space station overseeing the final moments of the planet Earth, five billion years in the future. The Unquiet Dead, by resident Victorian expert Mark Gatiss, is an excellent horror story set in Victorian Cardiff, complete with Charles Dickens (a superb performance by Simon Callow). Other season highlights include The Long Game, with a cast-against-type Simon Pegg as an evil villain, and Boom Town, a surprisingly moving story which runs as a morality play with the Doctor and his companions being given the power of live and death over a villainous character and struggling with how to deal with that.

The season flags again with the Aliens of London/World War Three two-parter where the Earth is held to ransom by the Slitheen, a very silly race of farting aliens. Despite some effective set-up (including Big Ben being destroyed by an alien spacecraft crashing into the Thames) and some continuity-pleasing nods to the existence of UNIT, it's a story poorly afflicted by poor direction; it's notable that the director of this two-parter (and Rose), Keith Boak, never worked on the show again, and seems to have been criticised by Christopher Eccleston for how he ran the set.

The latter half of the season improves immensely. Dalek can be best described as Doctor Who's answer to Alien, employing a single Dalek to show the immense danger posed by just one of the Doctor's signature foes. Even better is Father's Day, by possibly the greatest living Doctor Who writer, Paul Cornell. Rose sets out to meet her father Pete, who died in 1987 when she was just a few months old, and inadvertently changing history for the worse. This is a five-star episode let down only by the poor execution (and inexplicable nature) of the monstrous Reapers.

The two-parter The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances marks the arrival of future showrunner Steven Moffat to the franchise. The serial slightly over-eggs the pudding (the creepy child saying "Are you my mummy?" starts off being uncanny and horrifying but gets rather old before the first episode is over) but is nevertheless effective, with superb guest performances, a great WWII period feeling and the debut of John Barrowman as fan-favourite Captain Jack Harkness.

The series finale is a tale of two halves, with Bad Wolf being amusing but now painfully dated with 2005 pop culture references which really don't mean anything any more. The cliffhanger is certainly impressive. The Parting of the Ways is far superior, a much more ambitious episode with impressive vfx and a real epic sense of danger as the Doctor takes on a Dalek battle fleet head-to-head, culminating in the first regeneration of the modern era.

The first season of the revived Doctor Who (****) has gotten a reputation of being rough and ready over the years, some of it much-deserved, but much of it has aged surprisingly well (dated CGI and the unfathomable decision not to shoot the show in proper HD until 2009 aside). Dalek and Father's Day are among the finest episodes of the revival era of the series, and most of the rest of the season is at least watchable. It's only really Rose and the Slitheen two-parter which emerge as really poor. Ultimately Russell T. Davies achieves his goal of resurrecting the show with enthusiasm, verve and heart, and beginning the process of turning it into a phenomenon. The season is currently available in the UK via iPlayer and in the USA via HBO Max.

  • 101: Rose **
  • 102: The End of the World ***½
  • 103: The Unquiet Dead ****
  • 104: Aliens of London **½
  • 105: World War Three **½
  • 106: Dalek ****½
  • 107: The Long Game ***½
  • 108: Father's Day ****½
  • 109: The Empty Child ****
  • 110: The Doctor Dances ****
  • 111: Boom Town ****
  • 112: Bad Wolf ***
  • 113: The Parting of the Ways ****½

TALES OF DUNK & EGG TV series picks up writer

HBO has assigned a writer to its in-development Tales of Dunk & Egg TV project, a spin-off of the Game of Thrones franchise.


Steven Conrad is best-known for writing the films The Weather Man, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Wonder, as well as creating the TV series Patriot, Perpetual Grace, LTD and Ultra City Smiths. Conrad (under his Elephant Pictures production company banner) would work on the prospective series as writer, executive producer and presumably showrunner.

The Tales of Dunk & Egg is based on the Dunk & Egg series of novellas by George R.R. Martin. So far three have been published: The Hedge Knight (1998), The Sworn Sword (2002) and The Mystery Knight (2010), previously assembled and published as A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (2015). Martin has a fourth novella partially written, The She-Wolves of Winterfell (working title), and between nine and twelve stories planned in total.

Martin previously proposed a Dunk & Egg series to HBO, before changing his mind on the idea due to the novellas being incomplete and not wanting to be overtaken by HBO again, as happened with Game of Thrones itself. However, with work on the main Song of Ice and Fire series still incomplete, it appears that Martin has changed his mind again and may see a TV series as a way of expanding and completing the Dunk & Egg series in a shorter timeframe.

The Dunk & Egg stories, which begin ninety years before the start of A Song of Ice and Fire (and Game of Thrones), revolve around the misadventures of Ser Duncan the Tall, a lowly hedge knight who acquires a squire named Egg, who is more than he seems. Dunk and Egg travel the Seven Kingdoms and become embroiled in various scrapes, some low-key stories and other adventures with more important ramifications for the history of Westeros.

The project remains in the development phase and has not so far been greenlit by HBO. Another spin-off series, House of the Dragon, has almost completed shooting of its first season for a project Spring or Summer 2022 debut on HBO. HBO is developing several additional prequel and spin-off series but has so far not greenlit any more.

Friday, 26 November 2021

Chris Wooding completes EMBER BLADE sequel

Chris Wooding has completed the follow-up to his 2018 fantasy novel, The Ember Blade. The Shadow Casket is the name of the second book and it's now with the publishers for a likely late 2022/early 2023 publication slot.


Wooding has spoken of delays to the sequel caused by his work on video game projects such as Assassin's Creed: Valhalla. In March he reported the novel was on temporary hold, indicating it might be a while before it could come out. It's therefore a bit of a surprise that it's now done and with the editors.

The Ember Blade was an accomplished "classic throwback" epic fantasy written with Wooding's customary verve and humour. I look forwards to the sequel, and finding out what the "secret project" he was working on, which briefly took precedence.

Amazon's LORD OF THE RINGS TV series chooses Bray Studios as its base of operations

Amazon's Lord of the Rings prequel television series has found its new home. After shooting the first season in Auckland in New Zealand, the second season sees the show basing itself at Bray Studios, Berkshire, just west of London.

The studio was built in 1951 by Hammer Film Productions, who were developing an old country manor estate overlooking the River Thames. The studio expanded rapidly, with Columbia coming on board in 1959 to co-develop the property. The studio was divided into different areas, with the BBC doing vfx work for Doctor Who in one area. In 2014 it was announced that the studio would close and be demolished, to be replaced by flats, in the face of fierce competition from Pinewood and Shepperton. However, although some redevelopment took place, the soundstages were saved and shooting resumed there in 2019, as other UK studio facilities had been maxed out and Bray was suddenly in demand once more.

Projects shot at Bray include the Quatermass movies, Space: 1999, a huge number of Hammer Horror movies, Poirot, Dracula, Ali G Indahouse and Terrahawks.

The UK and New Zealand were previously in fierce competition to host the Lord of the Rings project, with the UK presenting a convincing argument for basing shooting in Scotland. However, New Zealand won out due to better tax incentives and more impressive scenery. It was therefore a surprise when Amazon announced in August that the second season of the show would shoot in the UK instead. It was assumed that Scotland would again be the front-runner, although since the original presentation a whole host of projects have set up north of the border, including Amazon's own Good Omens (shooting at the moment) and Anansi Boys. Being based at Bray would still allow the production to shoot elsewhere in the UK, of course.

Additional shooting will also take place at Bovingdon Airfield. The former RAF base has frequently been used as a location for large-scale, outdoor shooting, appearing in projects such as The Prisoner and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Other fantasy shows are also eating up studio space in the UK: HBO's House of the Dragon has set up at the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden, whilst Netflix's The Witcher has taken over Arborfield Studios (not far from Bray).

Amazon's Lord of the Rings project is expected to debut on Amazon Prime Video on 2 September 2022. Production is about to begin on the second season.

The Wheel of Time: Season 1, Episodes 1-4

The peaceful tranquillity of the remote rural region known as the Two Rivers is abruptly shattered by the arrival of an Aes Sedai, a wielder of the One Power, named Moiraine. According to the Aes Sedai, the Dragon - the most powerful channeller who has ever lived - has been Reborn, and their return may herald the approach of the Last Battle against the Shadow. And the Dragon Reborn is one of four young people in the community. When Shadowspawn - Trollocs and Fades - attack the village and leave it in ruins, it appears that Moiraine was right. But three of the four candidates are men, and men who can channel the One Power are doomed to go insane and cause great death and destruction in the process...


It's taken almost thirty-two years since the first book was published, but Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time fantasy sequence has finally made it to the screen. There have been multiple aborted attempts involving strange paid-for adverts, Japanese animation studios and even a planned NBC show, but it's fallen to Sony and Amazon to bring the project to fruition. The lengthy production process has not helped, with filming repeatedly interrupted and delayed by the COVID pandemic. But it's here and the first four episodes - half of the first season - are now available.

The Wheel of Time is the latest big fantasy series to hit the screen but in some respects the most challenging. The novels consist of fourteen fairly massive tomes, with well over two thousand named characters (several hundred of which are semi-important to the narrative), set in a richly-detailed world with almost four thousand years of intricately-detailed history, accompanied by maps, a dictionary for a fictional language and a lengthy concordance of fictional names, terms and concepts. The books borrow heavily from various different religious and philosophical ideals, many of them not familiar to a western audience. There's an entire magic system with deeply-thought-out, complex rules. The sheer amount of information that needs to be transmitted to a newcomer is daunting.

The first episode, Leavetaking, makes the probably wise decision to not even try to frontload all this background in favour of focusing on the five key characters of Rand, Egwene, Mat, Nynaeve and Perrin, along with the newcomer Moiraine and her bodyguard, Lan. The episode spends 40 minutes or so in character and world-building, through scenes like Egwene going through a coming of age ceremony, Moiraine quizzing Nynaeve on her childhood, Rand struggling with what he wants from life, Mat trying to look after his sisters when his parents are wastrels and Perrin facing marital problems.

There are some pretty big changes from the novel here in an attempt to bring out internal character monologues and development into a visual shorthand. Giving Mat lame parents and turning him into a slightly darker character is controversial, but you can see where they are coming from. Giving Perrin a wife and having her die to provide him with character motivation is an egregious example of the fridging trope, and is easily the biggest mistake the show makes in its early going, especially because it leaves Perrin so shell-shocked and suffering from PTSD that the audience is unable to get a hand on the "real" Perrin's character.

The episode culminates in the Trolloc attack on Winternight, which is where Amazon's big bucks come into play. The Shadowspawn are realised mostly through superb prosthetic work (CGI long-shots of them in the distance are more variable) and the fight against them is mostly rendered in-camera with practical effects amidst all the swirling CGI. Seeing Moiraine cut loose with the One Power against the enemy is genuinely impressive, using fire, lightning, wind and earth in combination to lay waste to the Trolloc ranks.

The negatives are grating and, in some cases, inexplicable, but given the volume of information that has to be given to the audience and the amount of setup work that needs to be done whilst telling an interesting story, Wheel of Time's debut episode does work, if inelegantly.

Things improve in the second episode, Shadow's Waiting, where our heroes flee across the countryside to the ruined city of Shadar Logoth, having an awkward encounter with the Children of the Light along the way. Book fans may bemoan the loss of Baerlon and the delayed meeting with Min, but in its place we have more character development and exposition of the backstory, with Moiraine's horseback monologue about the fall of Manetheren being a well-acted highlight of the episode. The Shadar Logoth sequence is well-realised, with a genuinely creepy atmosphere, even if the "Breaking of the Fellowship" moment feels even more contrived than it is in the book.

The third episode, A Place of Safety starts to see the show firing on all cylinders. Rand and Mat's Nightmare Road Trip from The Eye of the World is partially condensed here (exemplified by them visiting the "Four Kings Inn" in Breen's Spring, whereas in the novel Four Kings and Breen's Spring are separate villages) but to great effect, with Izuka Hoyle's excellent performance as innkeeper Dana giving the episode an interesting spin. In the Wheel of Time novels, there is often a lack of convincing motivation given to those who follow the Shadow, but Dana provides very plausible reasons why a normal, sane person might do so. The episode also introduces Thom Merrilin, played with convincing gravitas by The Last Kingdom's Alexandre Willaume. TV Thom is younger and apparently a bit rougher around the edges than the book incarnation, but it's a great performance, hinting at the book character's colourful past. This episode is also where Zoe Robins steps into her own as Nynaeve, as she, Lan and Moiraine begin their three-way sparring.

The fourth episode, The Dragon Reborn, manages the not-inconsiderable feat of taking the largest liberties with the book, with Nynaeve, Lan and Moiraine encountering the Aes Sedai party taking the captive Logain to Tar Valon, whilst also being the truest to the book lore. How men and women channel, how shielding and linking work, what the Aes Sedai Ajahs are and how the Warder/Aes Sedai bond operates are all key parts of the episode, but rather than delivered through bald exposition, these concepts are exemplified through on-screen drama. The dramatically varying behaviour of different Aes Sedai is also shown. Subplots follow Nynaeve and Perrin with the Tuatha'an, a low-key storyline in the books here improved by the fabulous casting of Irish national treasure Maria Doyle Kennedy as Ila and promising up-and-comer Daryl McCormack as Aram, possibly the single most supremely punchable character in the books but here played with sympathy and charisma. The Tuatha'an's slightly iffy Irish traveller vibe from the books is also improved here in two sequences where Ila explains the Way of the Leaf in terms of its philosophical interaction with the ideology of the Wheel of Time. In fact, the show overall improves over the books in showing how the 100% knowledge of reincarnation as a fact of life impacts on everyday existence, with the philosophical belief in death and rebirth rendering traditional religion unnecessary in a way that Robert Jordan never really convinced with in the novels.

The Dragon Reborn culminates in the show's finest set-piece so far, with a large battle and inventive channelling of the One Power, including depicting ideas such as linking, shielding and gentling, which are hard concepts to get across without pages of expository text.

This steadily improving level of quality is quite impressive, and the show benefits from a superb musical score by Lorne Balfe (surprisingly low-key in the mix as it is), mostly effective CGI (some wonky Trolloc long-shots aside) and a battery of excellent performances by the mostly young and inexperienced cast, anchored by reliable stalwarts Rosamund Pike, Michael McElhatton and Daniel Henney.

Overall, the first half of the first season of The Wheel of Time (****) is a qualified success. A somewhat rough opening smooths out and the show grows in confidence and enjoyment as it carries on. Yes, in a perfect universe we'd have 30-episode seasons with each episode costing $40 million to tell the story of the novels in full, but given the time constraints the show has to work with, it's so far made reasonable choices (with that one glaring error of Perrin's backstory). Some clunky lines and uneven levels of exposition are balanced out by fine performances, great music and some fabulous location filming in the Czech Republic and Slovenia. So far, off to a promising start.


The Wheel of Time: Season 1
  1. Leavetaking ***
  2. Shadow's Waiting ***½
  3. A Place of Safety ****
  4. The Dragon Reborn ****½
Forthcoming episodes: Blood Calls Blood (3 December), The Flame of Tar Valon (10 December), The Dark Along the Ways (17 December), The Eye of the World (24 December).

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Reservation Dogs: Season 1

Bear, Willie Jack, Cheese and Elora Danan (named for film Willow) are four youngsters frustrated with their life on a small reservation community in Oklahoma. In honour of their friend Daniel, who died a year previously, they plan to save up some money and escape to California. But their hopes are interrupted by a series of challenges, including the arrival of a new, rival gang; family issues; and Bear acquiring a somewhat incompetent spirit guide who tries to give him useful life advice.

Reservation Dogs is an off-kilter, low-fi comedy series created and showrun by Sterlin Harjo, with Taika Waititi attached as co-creator and producer. The show is noteworthy for being the first American scripted series to entirely be written (or co-written) and directed by an indigenous North American team, as is the majority of the cast (Waititi is notable as the only non-indigenous creative involved, and notes his job was using his name to get the show set up and then getting out of the way of everyone else). Set on a reservation in Oklahoma, the show attempts to show how people live in an isolated rural community, making the best of things or, in some cases, not.

The show centres on four key protagonists: Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear Smallhill (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), who plan to escape their small town existence by fair means or foul, whether that's selling dodgy meat products or robbing vans. At the end of the first episode the gang gain a name and identity, the "Rez Dogs," which fires them up in their mission. Several of the eight episodes involve the Rez Dogs getting into various scrapes in the closest the show gets to acquiring a traditional format. However, the series also eschews that to focus on each character at a time, as they each get a solo mission which explores their character and backstory in which the other members of the gang don't appear, or appear only briefly. Other episodes focus much more firmly on supporting castmembers, such as local cop Big, Willie Jack's father Leon, Elora's uncle Brownie, or Bear's mother who is anxiously trying to find a happier life for herself.

The show is also not afraid to change gears and tones. The show is ostensibly a comedy, but several episodes are more serious, dealing with more dramatic issues. One episode is even something of a tragedy. At least one episode conjures up a genuine horror movie vibe with some decidedly disturbing moments.

Where Reservation Dogs works is by making all of this work so absolutely effortlessly that it's genuine pleasure to watch. Each episode is exactly what it needs to be in tone and style. The direction is frequently original and fresh, the young cast is absolutely on point, the supporting cast is brilliant and the comedy moments are genuinely hilarious (especially Dallas Goldtooth's brilliantly incompetent spirit guide). The show's low-fi, laidback vibe and the way the action unfolds very slowly through long, lazy summer afternoons in the middle of nowhere gives it a chill feeling, but the short running time and tight focus means it's never boring.

In fact, although the subject matter and characters are completely different, Reservation Dogs recalls FX sister show Atlanta, which similarly uses off-kilter humour, drama, tragedy and horror to explore the lives of a small number of characters. That's a high bar to raise as a point of comparison, but Reservation Dogs rather handily meets it. 

The debut season of Reservation Dogs (*****) is brilliantly-executed television. At times strange and artistic, at others accessible and riotously funny, it mixes and matches styles, stories and tones with assured ease and a confidence that belies its status as a debut show. The show is available to watch on FX and Hulu in the United States and Disney+ in most of the rest of the world.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Amazon developing a MASS EFFECT television series

Amazon Prime Television are developing a television series based on the popular science fiction video game series, Mass Effect.


The news came as Amazon celebrated the launch of their new Wheel of Time television series. The first three episodes, which dropped last Friday, have exceeded Amazon's launch expectations and become Amazon's highest-rated debut series of 2021, and one of their biggest of all time, in the same bracket as anti-superhero drama The Boys and the highly acclaimed comedy series The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel. A second season is already more than halfway through shooting and reports indicate that a third season has been at least "amberlit," with contingency planning underway before Amazon decides to pull the trigger on that order.

Mass Effect is a popular video game series consisting of a trilogy and a stand-alone sequel game, all developed by BioWare (also known for their Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age franchises). The trilogy - Mass Effect (2007), Mass Effect 2 (2010) and Mass Effect 3 (2012) - was released on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. A "Legendary Edition" of the three games was released this year on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, to some success and acclaim. Microsoft published the original game whilst the two sequels and subsequent re-releases were handled by Electronic Arts. Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017), which was supposed to start a new storyline set in a completely different galaxy, was not successful and EA and BioWare have since pivoted to make Mass Effect 5, which reportedly will lean harder on the original trilogy's characters and factions.

Set in the late 22nd Century, Mass Effect is set several decades after first contact between Earth and a community of alien civilisations who control most of the Milky Way. This community is represented by the Citadel Council, a sort-of United Nations in space who are based on the Citadel, a colossal city-space station which acts as a trade and diplomatic hub between the various species. Despite their newcomer status on the galactic scene, humans are petitioning hard for greater prestige and power on the Council, to the annoyance of alien races who've been waiting centuries for promotion to the higher ranks. Key to Earth's hopes is Shepard, a skilled human agent who has become the first of their species to join the Spectres, an elite special forces division which reports directly to the Council. Shepard's investigation of an attack by the cybernetic Geth leads them to uncover evidence of a massive threat to all life in the galaxy, and their attempts to convince other races of the threat before it arrives.

The trilogy was highly praised on release for its writing, characterisation and action, as well as the slowly-growing sense of dread that built until the third game turned fully apocalyptic. The trilogy was also acclaimed for the accumulating weight of meaty decisions the player could make, which could leave individual characters dead or alive, and even entire civilisations destroyed, hostile or allied. However, the ending of the third game was considered underwhelming on original release, resulting in enough of a fuss that the ending was revised in later patches. Despite this, the trilogy retained enough goodwill to make last year's "Legendary Edition" a reasonable success. To date, the franchise has sold almost 20 million copies across all formats.

Rumours of a movie or TV version have circulated for years, with different options on the table. It sounds like Amazon's current plan is the most serious yet. It is unclear if Amazon would directly adapt the trilogy to the screen or develop a new story in the same universe, but the trilogy's storytelling and character focus would make a direct transition more viable than it is for many other games. Amazon would have to make some interesting casting choices, including which gender of actor for Commander Shepard to pick (players could choose their gender in the trilogy, with different vocal performances from Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale).

It's worth noting that Witcher, Enola Holmes and Superman actor Henry Cavill was recently pictured with potential script pages for a Mass Effect project. A noted fan of the video game trilogy, it was assumed he had gotten a voiceover part for Mass Effect 5, but it might be he's also been put in mind for a role on the Amazon project, his other commitments allowing.

Amazon are also developing a Fallout TV series with the Westworld creative team. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts and BioWare are continuing to develop Mass Effect 5 for an estimated 2023-25 release window.

More news on this project if and when it develops,

Saturday, 20 November 2021

Foundation: Season 1

More than twenty thousand years in the future, known space has been united under the rule of the Galactic Empire. The Empire has provided stability and peace for twelve millennia, the last four centuries of which have been under the rule of the Genetic Triumvirate of the Cleon Dynasty. The three emperors are enraged when respected mathematician Hari Seldon announces the discovery of psychohistory, a mathematical and statistical modelling which allows the prediction of future events. Seldon predicts nothing less than the collapse of the Empire, plunging humanity into a period of barbarism he expects to last thirty thousand years.


However, Seldon also offers a slither of hope: by creating a repository of knowledge and data, a Foundation for future reconstruction, the period of barbarism may be reduced to a single millennia. The three emperors, disturbed when Seldon's model successfully predicts a devastating terror attack on the capital world of Trantor, allow Seldon and his followers to settle on the remote world of Terminus to build the Foundation. Decades later, Seldon's followers are living a tough life on a brutal and unforgiving world when they find themselves drawn into a conflict with the neighbouring power of Anacreon, which desires nothing less than the annihilation of the Empire...and they want the Foundation's help, willingly or unwillingly, to achieve it.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation saga was, for many years, regarded as one of the untouchable taproot texts of 20th Century science fiction. Originally published as eight short stories and novellas in the 1940s, Asimov combined them with a new story in the early 1950s as three collected "fixup" novels, the infamous Foundation Trilogy. Its tale of plucky scientists and cunning engineers outwitting warlords and generals struck a chord, winning the trilogy a special Hugo Award for Best Series in 1964 (defeating J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings along the way). After resisting the notion for many years, Asimov was convinced to return to the universe in the 1980s, penning two further sequel novels. After getting hopelessly stuck after introducing a new idea from way off left-field in those books, he went back to write two prequel novels, the last of which was published just before his death in 1992. These later sequels and prequels did not add much to the appeal of the series, being more concerned with dragging most of Asimov's work into a single "future history" of humanity than in telling a good story.

The first problem facing anyone who wants to adapt the Foundation series is therefore Asimov's own lack of coherence and consistency with the original work. Asimov only ever covered the first half of the Foundation's existence, leaving the chronologically-final novel, Foundation and Earth, with a lot of unresolved story arcs. Asimov's novels are also primarily concerned about people sitting in rooms talking, or sometimes standing in rooms talking, or sometimes sitting on a spaceship talking. Action is brief, occasional and underwhelming, with major and epic events alluded to off-page. Asimov's cast is also predominantly male with female characters playing only minor roles until the last couple of books (and even then not doing very much, at least with their clothes on). Combined with the stories in the opening trilogy being largely disconnected from one another, with many decades falling between each one, with no continuing characters beyond Seldon's holographic image, it makes turning them into a TV show problematic.

David Goyer's attempt to tackle the problem starts promisingly, focusing on the minor side-character of Gaal Dornick who is promoted here into a leading player. Played with grace and skill by newcomer Lou Llobell, Dornick is a psychohistory sceptic and mathematical genius whom Seldon - a headlining turn by actor-of-the-moment Jared Harris - recruits to help keep his project alive when the Empire tries to tear it down. The first episode, which is the most faithful to the books whilst also featuring massive changes, sets up an intriguing universe and story with a lot of promise and some absolutely brain-melting visual imagery. The spacecraft and hardware (mostly rendered through models rather than CG) feel like a vintage 1980s SF cover come to life, whilst the collapse of the Starbridge is one of the most impressive vfx set pieces put on television. It also helps that our antagonist for the episode is Emperor Cleon, or rather the three clones of the Emperor Cleon, with Brother Day (Lee Pace) and Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann) debating executing Seldon or indulging him.

Despite the major changes to the source material, the episode works in setting up the universe and retaining viewer interest. However, things quickly become divisive after this point. The storyline abruptly jumps forward fifty years to Terminus, where Warden Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) takes over as the main character. Terminus is barely-habitable rock, superbly realised through atmospheric location filming in volcanic regions of the Canary Islands. However, the story of events on Terminus is thin, and when the Anacreons show up to snarl about honour and vengeance like budget Klingons, you can feel you're watching a less-successful mid-season filler episode of Star Trek from around 1994. Harvey does her best, but saddled with some ripe lines and a poor American accent, it makes her a decidedly less interesting protagonist. Dornick does show up again in a self-contained side-plot, but doesn't really have a lot to do. The Foundation storyline ends up being the weakest element in a TV show called Foundation, which is a bit of a problem.

Fortunately, a wholly-new story has been invented which takes us into the Genetic Dynasty, with Brothers Dusk, Day and the young Dawn (Cassian Bilton) trying to rule over an empire from which they are almost completely separated by class, security and location. This storyline, which also features excellent performances by Laura Birn as the Emperor's right-hand robot, Eto Demerzel and Amy Tyger as a gardener, Azura Odili, is quite interesting and asks big-picture SF questions about cloning, consciousness, power and ethics. Despite being invented out of wholecloth, it's frequently intriguing and becomes moreso when Brother Day departs for the moon known as the Maiden to win the support of the Luminist faith for his policies. On Maiden, the Emperor has to face unique personal challenges and a formidable political opponent, Zephyr Halima (an excellent performance by T'Nia Miller).

This storyline works because it hinges on Lee Pace's superb performance (albeit one that falls squarely within the centre of his range). Pace has become a reliable performer for intense, charismatic roles requiring a degree of intelligence (see also his Thranduil in the Hobbit trilogy, Joe MacMillan in Halt and Catch Fire and Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel). Pace quickly becomes the show's most vital player, given that Jared Harris's heavily-trailed role in the series was somewhat...overstated: Hari Seldon is a low-key presence, and doesn't appear in many episodes.

If the Genetic Dynasty and the internal politics of the Empire were the main draw of Foundation, the show would have ended up being pretty solid. However, Foundation goes off-track whenever it tries to actually tackle the storyline involving the Foundation, at which point it veers from its semi-successful goal of being "Game of Thrones in space" to being a very generic action story without many compelling characters. This leaves the show feeling unbalanced, verging on the schizophrenic. Gaal Dornick's story is also potentially intriguing, but far too static, with the story going out of its way to prevent the character from interacting with the other plotlines until the very end but not giving her much to do in the meantime that's worthwhile.

Foundation's first season (***) is very strangely structured and paced. The storylines involving Trantor, the Emperors, the Starbridge and the Maiden are all very solid, verging on the good, but everything on Terminus involving the Anacreons and the Foundations is tedious. The cast is mostly solid, with Lee Pace, Terrance Mann and Jared Harris (in his fleeting appearances) excelling and Lou Llobell giving a great performance, but some of them are much better-served by the material than others. A second season has been commissioned, and will reportedly adapt the much more dynamic storyline from Foundation and Empire about Imperial General Bel Riose militarily confronting the Foundation, which could make for a much stronger narrative. But in its first season, Foundation squanders a lot of its Trantor-set promise on a badly-thought out, generic action story that goes nowhere. The show needs much more consistency if it's to become must-see TV. Right now, it's more "meh, check it out if you're not doing anything else or need some really awesome new desktop backgrounds."

Foundation is available to watch on Apple TV+ worldwide.

Friday, 19 November 2021

Sabine Wren cast for STAR WARS: AHSOKA

Lucasfilm and Disney have confirmed the casting of the live-action version of the character Sabine Wren for their upcoming TV series, Ahsoka. The character previously appeared in animation in Star Wars: Rebels.

The role will be played by Australian actress Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who previously appeared in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Hotel Mumbai and The Society. The character was previously voiced on Rebels by Tiya Sircar (The Good Place).

The character of Sabine Wren is a Mandalorian warrior who joins forces with the crew of the Ghost has they struggle to liberate the occupied planet of Lothal. During this conflict she joins the Rebel Alliance, continuing to work with the Ghost crew. As the conflict escalates, she also finds herself involved in the struggle for Mandalore's independence from the Empire. At the end of Rebels, she joins former Jedi apprentice Ahsoka Tano in tracking down their missing friend and ally, Ezra Bridger, who had disappeared into deep space along with Grand Admiral Thrawn.

The second season of The Mandalorian introduced the live-action versions of both Ahsoka (played by Rosario Dawson) and Mandalorian loyalist Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff, who also voiced the character in The Clone Wars and Rebels), or may or may not also recur in the new series. Ahsoka will apparently focus on Ahsoka's search for the missing Grand Admiral Thrawn, possibly as a way of tracking down Ezra. It makes sense that Sabine would join the mission. Ahsoka has also been confirmed to see the return of Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker, presumably in flashbacks.

Ahsoka is currently in pre-production and expected to start shooting in March for an early 2023 debut on Disney+.