Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


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.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey

The Solar system has been plunged into chaos. A third of the Martian fleet has defected to a new cause, an OPA breakaway faction has committed the greatest terrorist attack in human history and the new colony worlds beyond the gateways are engulfed in strife. It once again falls on the shoulders of Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to help end the crisis.

Babylon's Ashes is the sixth novel (of nine) in The Expanse series, but is really the second half of the preceding novel, Nemesis Games, which took the Expanse universe we'd all grown to know and tossed it through a blender. Ashes picks up the wreckage from that book and tries to restore some sense of normalcy to the setting.

The book is huge in scope. In fact, it's the broadest in scale of the series to date, with numerous POV characters in multiple factions, including picking up on various one-off POVs who appeared in earlier novels. Seeing characters like Prax and Anna show up again several volumes after their own storylines apparently ended and lend a hand (or take a view) on what's going on is quite good fun.

However, since Babylon's Ashes is pretty much exactly the same length as the other books in the series, this enlarged scope does mean we get a lot less time with other characters. In fact, the book's pace feels a bit accelerated, as we pin-pong back and forth between a large cast. Having more characters in a standard-sized book means that we spend less time with each character, and the resulting story arcs are much choppier.

It also doesn't help that there is a repetition of structure and plot here. We've seen Jim Holden and the team getting into hijinks with the Nauvoo aka Behemoth aka Medina Station and the "slow zone" previously whilst various other factions shoot at one another and here we are, doing it again.

The Expanse is, at its best, a thrillingly executed political thriller in space, with normally enjoyable adventure elements added. At its worst, the series' workmanlike prose and tight focus can leave it feeling repetitive and a bit MOR as these kind of space operas go. Nemesis Games was probably the best book in the series because it gave readers a "Red Wedding" level of shock, something which overthrew the apple carts and put our heroes on the back foot with a genuinely thrilling sense that anything could happen. Babylon's Ashes wastes that promise by lowballing the damage done from the disaster in the previous novel (the characters are now completely removed from the carnage so it's only related through statistics and people looking glumly at reports on screens), eliminating the over-arcing threat easily with a convenient mcguffin and then establishing a new status quo with almost indecent haste.

That's not to say that Babylon's Ashes is a bad book. Even at its weakest, The Expanse is competent. But there is the prevailing feeling here that the books feel like a first draft with the (decidedly superior) TV adaptation coming in afterwards and rearranging the character and plot elements into something considerably more compelling.

Babylon's Ashes (***) is readable and interesting, but after Nemesis Games it feels decidedly underwhelming, occasionally bordering on the lacklustre. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Season 2 of THE WITCHER moves filming to the UK, builds entire town

Season 2 of The Witcher is moving its filming base from Hungary to the United Kingdom.

Season 1 of The Witcher was based in Belgrade, with location filming in both Hungary and Poland, the home of the author of the novels, Andrzej Sapkowski. However, the production has shifted to the UK for the second season which shoots next month. Season 2 will be based at the newly-built Arborfield Studios near London with location filming across the country, including Scotland.

The reason for the move is likely linked to the much more established film and post-production base in the UK, the wider pool of English-speaking actors and the fact that much of the cast is already based here (including Henry Cavill, who lives in London), as well as the UK government's generous tax breaks for filming.

An entire medieval town is also being built near Arborfield, likely to stand in for several different locations in the books (probably including Gors Velen and Oxenfurt, potentially Novigrad as well).

Although production being based in the UK means that opportunities for location filming in Eastern Europe will be more limited, there will still be some scope for it, especially given the production team's keenness to ensure that Poland is still represented in the project.

Season 2 of The Witcher begins shooting on 17 February and is expected for around five to five and a half months, with an estimated wrap date of late July or early August. Based on the post-production turn-around of Season 1, that means the earliest Season 2 can air is March or (more likely) April 2021.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Terry Pratchett's daughter and writing assistant throw shade at THE WATCH TV series

The first publicity photographs from The Watch, a BBC America series "loosely inspired" by Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, were released this morning and in just a few hours have prompted a massive backlash from fans of the series. Beloved characters and settings have been changed for no immediately discernible reason, resulting in a storm of protest from readers.

In an amusingly-timed move, Terry Pratchett's daughter (and respected video game writer) Rhianna Pratchett and his former assistant and partner in Narrativia Productions, Rob Wilkins, both tweeted a link to a 2004 interview with Ursula Le Guin, where she eviscerated the Sci-Fi Channel's appalling mini-series based on her Earthsea novels which changed the source material for no reason.

Unfortunately, with production drawing to a close on the eight-part series, it's far too late for BBC America to change course and produce a more faithful adaptation of the books. As a result, it's likely that fans will now have to wait even longer for a decent version to appear in the future.

Another WHEEL OF TIME episode title and director confirmed

We now have a new Wheel of Time episode title.

The fifth episode of the first season will be called Blood Calls Blood, written by Celine Song and directed by Salli Richardson Whitfield. The photograph comes from the third table read block (each table read accounts for two episodes of the season).

Actress Priyanka Bose, who is playing the Aes Sedai Alanna, revealed the story via her Instagram Stories account. This of course confirms that Alanna will be in either the fifth or sixth episode of the season (or both).

The title is from the "dark prophecy" that appears at the start of The Great Hunt, the second novel in the series. This may hint at that the fifth episode will reach the start of The Great Hunt, but much more likely is that the title is being used early. The fifth and sixth episodes are believed to focus on a new storyline in which we follow the Aes Sedai and armies opposed to the false Dragon Logain and see him being captured, an event which happens off-page in The Eye of the World, the first novel in the series.

The full list of episodes so far is as follows:

101: Leavetakings, written by Rafe Judkins, directed by Uta Briesewitz
102: Shadow’s Waiting, written by Amanda Kate Shuman, directed by Uta Briesewitz
103: A Place of Safety, written by the Clarkson Twins
104: The Dragon Reborn, written by Dave Hill
105: Blood Calls Blood, written by Celine Song, directed by Salli Richardson Whitfield
106: The Flame of Tar Valon, written by Justine Juel Gillmer
107: unknown
108: unknown, probably written by Rafe Judkins

As usual, more news when we get it.

BBC America release first publicity images for Terry Pratchett's THE WATCH

BBC America has released the first publicity images for Terry Pratchett's The Watch and, well, yikes.

In this first image, Sybil Ramkin (Lara Rossi) appears to have either set someone on fire or are watching them on fire, plummeting through a hole in an Ankh-Morpork street. If you're thinking, "This never happens in the books," and "Why is a middle-aged, stout woman now a smoking hot vigilante?" you are not alone.

In this second image, we meet Constable Angua (Marama Corlett) and Constable Carrot (Adam Hugill) of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, although they seem to have lost their armour. Carrot at least looks spot on, if a few years older than the character.

In this image, Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer) and Angua (Marama Corlett) visit an Ankh-Morpork market. This image is the clearest example of a major shift in the setting aesthetic. Whilst the books are set in a late medieval/early Renaissance-level city slowly transitioning into a steampunk one (albeit over the course of forty books), the series looks set to open in a full Victoriana environment, with no traditional armour and the Watch characters wearing lanyards in lieu of a uniform.

This image shows Carcer Dun (Sam Adewunmi) up to no good. His guards appear to have parachuted in from a mid-franchise Final Fantasy video game, but okay.

Angua (Marama Corlett) and Constable Cheery (Jo Eaton-Kent), the latter of whom doesn't appear to have a beard. Or be a dwarf.

The TV show has attracted negative coverage for its decision to only be "loosely inspired" by the books and instead pursue their own path with regards to casting, writing and setting. These images are not likely to improve this.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Taika Waititi in talks with Disney to helm STAR WARS movie

Lucasfilm and Disney have opened discussions with director Taika Waititi on helming a Star Wars film.

Disney already has a productive relationship with Waititi, who is credited with achieving a major franchise turn-around after directing Thor: Ragnarok (2017), not to mention playing the role of Korg in both Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame. Waititi has also directed an episode of the well-received TV series Star Wars: The Mandalorian and voiced a droid character, so has already dipped his toes in the Star Wars universe.

Waititi, who presumably never sleeps, is also an executive producer on the comedy TV series What We Do in the Shadows and is basking in the glow of success of his latest movie, Jojo Rabbit. He's also just finished directing another small-scale movie, Next Goal Wins, and is in pre-production on Thor: Love and Thunder, which is expected to start filming in the summer for release on 5 November 2021. Waititi may fit in some more TV work before then as well.

As a proven and fan-popular pair of hands, Waititi is a good choice to helm a Star Wars movie. It's unclear if this would be the Kevin Feige-produced stand-alone film which is currently in development at Lucasfilm, although this would make sense given Waititi and Feige's strong collaborative bond. There's also the Rian Johnson-helmed trilogy still in development at Lucasfilm, although Johnson reportedly would be directing at least the first film in that series himself.

If Waititi does sign on, it likely means the end of his Akira live-action project. Waititi had put the project in active development and successfully developed a script which restored the Neo-Tokyo setting and predominantly Japanese cast (the previous draft had been set in New York instead), but it sounds like the studio was having cold feet and Waititi bailed to make the new Thor movie. If Waititi rolls from that into Star Wars, thus puts Akira off until sometime in the middle of the decade at best.

Whatever the case, Lucasfilm need to get a move on if they want to release a new Star Wars movie in 2022. Originally that was going to be the David Benioff/D.B. Weiss-developed film, but their departure for Netflix has left a production gap which Lucasfilm are anxious to fill.

HORIZON: ZERO DAWN earmarked for PC release, signifying major release strategy shift from Sony

In a surprising move, it appears that the critically-acclaimed PlayStation 4 video game Horizon: Zero Dawn is heading for PC. It marks the first time that a Sony-owned and developed video game will being ported to the PC platform.

Sony has previously paid independent developers for exclusivity periods on their games, but once those periods expire, they are free to port those games elsewhere. This is what led to Quantic Dreams' Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls and Detroit: Beyond Human being released on PC last year and why Death Stranding will be released later in 2020 after its exclusivity period on PS4 ends.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is different in that it was originally released in 2017 from Guerrilla Games, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sony. The game being ported to PC would mark a strategic shift from Sony who have previously locked exclusives down to their consoles to encourage unit sales, but it would be similar to Microsoft who have effectively ended the X-Box exclusivity idea entirely, with all X-Box games now planned for PC release. That makes more sense as Microsoft have skin in the game (Microsoft obviously develop the dominant PC operating system, Windows 10).

Although significant, the move is not entirely without precedent. Sony have made their PlayStation Now service available on PC, which already allows PC players to stream PS3 and PS4 exclusives to their machines, albeit with no improved graphics and only being able to use PlayStation controllers. Allowing their exclusives to be natively ported to PC could of course be seen as an evolution of this service, especially if such games are only exclusively available through PlayStation Now.

It's possible that Horizon: Zero Dawn is a test pilot for the idea. By the time it reaches PC, it will nearly be four years old and it being revamped and updated for PC would also allow it to be re-released for the next-generation PlayStation 5 console. Whether this means other PS exclusives, such as The Last of Us and its forthcoming sequel, will follow remains to be seen.

HBO delaying decision on third season of HIS DARK MATERIALS

HBO has decided to wait a little longer before pulling the trigger on Season 3 of His Dark Materials.

The BBC produced the first season with some international production partners before HBO snapped up the overseas distribution rights and became co-producers. This allowed Season 2 to be commissioned and put in front of cameras months before Season 1 aired. The current reports are that Season 2 should wrap filming in the next few weeks, allowing it to air later this year.

The theory was that HBO and the BBC would be able to analyse the performance of Season 1 and then make a fast decision on Season 3 so they could start shooting it this year. The performance would also factor into the decision whether the story would conclude with a third season or extend into a fourth (the producers have already indicated that they would prefer to split the events of Book 3, The Amber Spyglass, over two seasons). That decision needs to be made ASAP so the writers can get the required number of scripts ready ahead of shooting.

The performance, however, is a little vague. After all repeats and streamings were accounted for, His Dark Materials averaged 5 million viewers for HBO. Compared to most HBO shows, this is a reasonable showing, if way behind Game of Thrones. The show did better in the UK, where the first episode debuted to over 7 million first-run viewers before dropping back to a still-respectable 4 million by the final episode (not accounting for time-shifting, streaming and downloads).

Both HBO and the BBC are also pleased by the show hitting the "family viewing" demographic, normally something HBO doesn't aim for, especially since the BBC's other family viewing genre heavyweight, Doctor Who, has had a fairly mixed reception with its new season.

On that basis it sounds like the scales are tipped towards renewal, but HBO and the BBC are going to take some more time to think about their options. In theory they could wait to see the performance of Season 2 before making a final decision, although this would delay production until well into 2021 and the airing of a third season until 2022, which might cause issues with the ageing of the young castmembers.

RIP Christopher Tolkien

Christopher Tolkien, the third son and literary heir of J.R.R. Tolkien, has sadly passed away at the age of 95.

Born in 1924, Christopher was the youngest of J.R.R. Tolkien's three sons (he is survived by a younger sister, Priscilla, born in 1929) and the most like his father in character and interests. J.R.R. Tolkien had already begun writing stories about Middle-earth in 1917, but it was his decision to write a children's book set in the same world - The Hobbit - around 1929-30 which attracted the interest of his children. Christopher was particularly taken by the story, keen to hear how it ended and helping his father type up the manuscript when it was accepted for publication in 1937.

It was Christopher whom his father confided in during the writing of The Lord of the Rings. In 1944 Christopher joined the RAF and was sent to South Africa for his flight training. His father had been struggling with the huge book but Christopher's absence inspired him to write the sequence which became the second part of The Two Towers, charting Frodo and Sam's journey to Mordor. He wrote up each chapter and sent it (with notes and annotations) to Christopher as a serial to help him pass the time between training operations.

With the end of WWII and his return to the UK, Christopher studied English Literature at Trinity College, Oxford, and joined the Inklings literary group, of which his father had been a founding member. In the 1950s, Christopher acted as an informal editor and map-maker on The Lord of the Rings, producing the maps of Middle-earth and the Shire that accompanied the novels (at one point staying away for twenty-four hours solid to hit a production deadline). He continued to act as his father's advisor and confidante during the extremely long gestation of The Silmarillion. In the late 1960s, when J.R.R. Tolkien realised he might not live long enough to complete the book, he granted Christopher permission to complete the book for publication.

After J.R.R. Tolkien passed away in 1973, Christopher set about preparing The Silmarillion for publication. Assisted by future fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay, Christopher combined several of his father's manuscripts into a working outline which then formed the basis of The Silmarillion as published in 1977. During this process Christopher collected a number of other manuscripts, essays, short stories and notes written by his father about Middle-earth that were not part of The Silmarillion proper. Christopher edited and released these in 1980 as Unfinished Tales, the fourth and final of the canonical Middle-earth texts.

Despite the monumental achievement of assembling and understanding J.R.R. Tolkien's often-contradictory and confusing morass of drafts, partially-completed manuscripts and half-scribbled maps into working texts, Christopher continued to second-guess and worry about his editorial decisions. In the interest of maximum transparency, he decided to make all of his father's Middle-earth material publicly available so that other Tolkien scholars could look through the manuscripts and see if they came to different conclusions. This resulted in the massive, twelve-part History of Middle-earth series, which assembled every single one of J.R.R. Tolkien's extant writings on Middle-earth with extensive analysis and commentary (including four volumes dedicated almost entirely to the writing of The Lord of the Rings). The series was published between 1983 and 1996.

Christopher Tolkien was sceptical over the value of film, television and video game adaptations of his father's work. As his father had sold the TV, film and media rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1969, Christopher was unable to prevent such projects from moving forwards, but as the head of the Tolkien Estate he barred other Estate members from approving of or supporting these endeavours. When his son Simon travelled to New Zealand and visited the set of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, Christopher disowned him and the two did not speak for many years, although they eventually reconciled.

Christopher also refused to sell the film or TV rights to The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, despite interest from production companies. In the wake of Jackson's movies, Christopher did release "selected cuts" from Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth as three approachable, commercial editions for the more casual reader: The Children of Hurin (2007), Beren & Luthien (2017) and The Fall of Gondolin (2018).

Christopher Tolkien resigned as chair of the Tolkien Estate in August 2017. Shortly afterwards, Amazon and the Tolkien Estate reached a new agreement for the production of a new TV series set roughly 5,000 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age is currently in production in New Zealand for possible release in 2021 or 2022.

Christopher Tolkien spent the latter decades of his life living in France. In 2016 he was awarded the Bodley Medal for his services to literature. He is survived by his second wife, Baille, three children (Simon, Adam and Rachel) and two grandchildren.

Christopher Tolkien is arguably the most important editor of fantasy fiction of the last century. Without his father's trust, it is entirely possible that The Silmarillion and the other writings of his father would never have been published, and a vast swathe of background material about Middle-earth would have been effectively lost forever. Christopher is to be commended for his restraint in only editing and publishing work actually written by his father, when he could have cashed in by writing Middle-earth fiction of his own.

What the future holds for the Tolkien legacy is now uncertain, and with the Amazon TV series we may be seeing a more commercial future unfolding, but Christopher's work in furthering his father's legacy is almost beyond reproach, and he will be missed.