Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Tuesday, 1 December 2020

RIP Ben Bova

News has sadly broken that science fiction author Ben Bova has died at the age of 88 from complications related to COVID-19.

Born in Philadelphia in 1932, Ben Bova was educated at Temple University and, later in life, State University New York, in Albany and California Coast University. In the 1950s he worked as a technical writer for Project Vanguard, the US effort to launch an artificial satellite into Earth orbit.

He published his first novel, The Star Conquerors, in 1959. He worked with George Lucas on the novelisation of his first film, THX 1138, in 1971. A notable novel was The Starcrossed (1975), a fictionalised account of the apparently miserable time he had working on SF TV show The Starlost (1973-74); fellow writer and advisor on the project Harlan Ellison appears in fictionalised form in the book itself.

Bova became well-known in the SFF community in 1972 when he took over Analog Science Fiction & Fact from John W. Campbell, upon the latter's death. Bova controversially changed the nature of the magazine, allowing stories with more experimental and explicit content. Although not universally well-received, these changes are credited with helping maintain the magazine's relevance through the 1970s and the rise to prominence of the New Wave of the genre. During this time he shepherded the careers of authors such as Joe Haldeman (whose Forever War sequence began in the pages of Analog under Bova, having previously been rejected by Campbell). Bova won five Hugo Awards in a row (1973-77) for his stewardship of the magazine before he departed in 1978, and then won again in 1979 for his last year of work.

Bova took over the editing of new SF magazine Omni in early 1979 and published a number of significant stories, including "Sandkings" by George R.R. Martin (1979) (the only one of Martin's works to win both a Hugo and Nebula) and "Johnny Mnemonic" by William Gibson (1981), which was adapted to film in 1995. Bova departed in 1981 after a short but highly influential run.

Bova later served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) from 1990 to 1992.

Bova published fiction over the course of 61 years, incorporating the Watchmen, Voyagers, Star Quest and Orion series, among many others, as well as numerous stand-alones. His most famous work is the Grand Tour series, which covers the colonisation of the Solar system in some detail. This series began in 1985 with Privateers (but really got going with one of his most popular novels, Mars (1992), part of a "Mars resurgence" in science fiction around the same time (along with Greg Bear's Moving Mars and Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars). A prolific author, he published more than 120 books in SF, some fantasy, alt-history and non-fiction. He also wrote extensively in the non-fiction space.

Bova was a writer with a somewhat optimistic view of the future of humanity, with a belief that well-meaning entrepreneurs will succeed where governments and super-corporations fail. As an editor his impact was sizeable, introducing many key new voices to the genre in the 1970s and 1980s (including Spider Robinson, L.E. Modesitt Jnr, Ellen Datlow and Joe Haldeman, some of whom pay their respects here).

He passed away on 28 November 2020 and for his sizeable body of work and his influence on the genre, he will be passed.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Halo 2: Anniversary

AD 2552. The Master Chief has destroyed Halo and saved the galaxy from annihilation. Unfortunately, the Covenant have located Earth and launched an assault on the planet. As Master Chief helps in the defence, far across the galaxy, the Covenant commander who led the mission to Halo has been disgraced and dishonoured. However, he is offered the chance to regain his honour by becoming an Arbiter and leading a new a second Halo installation.

The original Halo was a frustrating first-person shooter: excellent outdoor environments and solid combat let down by stodgy pacing and exceptionally poor level design. The game has not aged well and, after my experiences earlier this year with a solid but not particularly exciting Halo: Reach, made me wonder if this was one franchise that is not for me.

Halo 2, fortunately, is a hugely superior game to its forebear. It has a great deal of mission variety, as the game follows Master Chief fighting Covenant forces in New Mombasa and the Arbiter fighting the Flood on a second Halo. The game's combat has been dramatically improved, with an elimination of the original game's endlessly copy-pasted rooms and replacing them with more dynamic combat areas. You can now dual-wield weapons (at the cost of not being able to easily melee or use grenades), allowing some excellent weapon combo tactics (using a weapon that's good against shields in one hand versus one good against armour in the other, or combining human and Covenant weapons together). There's a greater variety in enemy unit types, and more missions where allies help you out.

This is backed up by a much more involved storyline, taking in the Covenant's religious beliefs, their internal politics (including ostracising one member race and a resulting civil conflict) and the interaction between the Covenant, humanity and the Flood.

The Flood also return and are also improved beyond their Halo: Combat Evolved appearance, with them being far less annoying and more entertaining to fight. Giving the Flood a voice and intelligence to reason with is a bit of a misstep though, removing much of their formerly implacable, unreasoning menace (the same problem with the Borg in Star Trek).

Missions alternate (more or less) between Master Chief and the Arbiter and this gives rise to a reasonable amount of variety in gameplay. Keith David is particularly noteworthy of praise for his performance as the Arbiter and helps the player get invested in his story.

There are considerable improvements over the original Halo that make this sequel far more worthy, although a few weaknesses remain. Vehicle handling remains problematic (Banshees getting caught on scenery and flipped around is irritating), and friendly AI is decidedly weak. On several missions the friendly AI just switched off, leaving my allies standing around completely oblivious as they were gunned down by enemies. The new enemy types are mostly challenging, but the Brutes are annoying, being just massive sponges which take an immense amount of firepower to bring down and are not very fun to fight.

Also bewildering is the game's ending. Infamously, Bungie had to terminate Halo 2's development for time reasons, leaving the game not so much on a cliffhanger as just interrupted mid-flow. The Arbiter's story arc does get a satisfying conclusion but Master Chief's does not and his story is left bewilderingly hanging. Obviously this isn't so much a problem now when you can proceed immediately into Halo 3, but I can only imagine the rage that took place when the game originally came out fifteen years ago.

Otherwise, Halo 2 (****) is an enjoyable, well-judged first-person shooter with a good balance between action and storytelling. The game is available now on X-Box One and PC as part of The Master Chief Collection, which also includes a remastered version of Halo: Combat Evolved and graphically-updated versions of Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach and Halo 4.

RIP David Prowse

David Prowse, the actor who originated the role of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films, has sadly passed away at the age of 85.

Born in Bristol in 1935, Prowse attended Bristol Grammar School. Due to his unusual height (6 ft 6), he secured a job as a bouncer at a dance hall in the 1950s. He took up bodybuilding as a hobby and became the British Heavyweight Weightlifting Champion from 1962 to 1964. He represented England in the Commonwealth Games in 1962.

Prowse's imposing size and public profile as a sportsman caught the attention of casting directors. He made his screen debut in the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, appearing as Frankenstein's Monster in a hallucination sequence. He reprised the role of Frankenstein's Monster in The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974). In 1971 he was cast as Julian in the film A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick.

Additional roles followed on TV and film, with Prowse appearing in Carry On Henry (1971), part of British cinema's most successful comedy franchise, as well as long-running science fiction series Doctor Who (in 1973, playing a minotaur in the serial The Time Monster). In 1975 Prowse appeared as UK children's road safety warden - a "lollipop man" - in a road safety campaign for the Green Cross Code. He was continue in this role in different TV and poster campaigns for the next twenty years.

Prowse was cast in the role of Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977) by George Lucas, who remembered his imposing stature from A Clockwork Orange. Prowse was clad in the iconic black armour in this role. He also provided the voice for the character on set, but Lucas and the other cast and crew - who nicknamed him "Darth Farmer" - decided his strong West Country accent was not suitable for the imposing role of Vader. To Prowse's disappointment, his voice was replaced by that of James Earl Jones in the finished film.

The role immediately made Prowse very famous. Amusingly, he became one of the first people to propose that Vader was actually Luke Skywalker's father at a fan convention in 1978, something that apparently irked Lucas (although he hadn't finalised that idea himself yet) although Prowse had been joking around and, according to producer Gary Kurtz, "made a very good guess." Prowse reprised the role of Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) but his poor swordsman skills saw him replaced during the lightsabre duels by sword trainer and choreographer Bob Anderson. Anderson's shorter stature explains why Vader appears hunched over in some of the duel scenes. Prowse did get back in the costume for the scene where Vader picks up the Emperor and hurls him to his death, since Anderson lacked the stature and strength necessary to do so. Prowse was again annoyed to find himself replaced by another actor - Sebastian Shaw - for the sequence where Vader removes his helmet and his true appearance is exposed for the first time.

Prowse continued to do the Star Wars convention circuit, but his well-known grumbling over his sidelining in the original trilogy, being cut out of residual payments for Return of the Jedi due to "Hollywood accounting" and his immense dislike of the prequel trilogy, saw George Lucas ban him from attending official conventions in 2010. Because of these complaints, and advancing age, Prowse was not asked to reprise the role of Darth Vader in either Revenge of the Sith (2005) or Rogue One (2016).

Prowse continued to act and in 1981 appeared in the BBC mini-series version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, appearing as a gangster's bodyguard in which he got to use his actual face and voice to menacing effect. He appeared several times in Star Wars documentaries and reunion films. In 2000 he was made an MBE for his services to charity and road safety. 

In 2001 he was diagnosed with septic arthritis and underwent surgery to help minimise the problem. He became an advocate for arthritis charities in the UK. In 2009 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, underwent radiation therapy and was declared in remission in relatively short order.

Prowse announced his retirement from acting and public appearances in 2016, due to age and health issues. He passed away yesterday, with Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) among those paying tribute.

As the "man in the suit" of Darth Vader, Prowse helped create the most iconic SF villain of all time. He will be missed.

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Out of the Blue: An Orphan Black Retrospective

A young woman, Sarah, returns home to Toronto after almost a year away. Her plan is to pick up her daughter, Kira, from her stepmother Siobhan and use the gains from an ill-gotten coke deal to set up a new life for herself, her daughter and her arty stepbrother, Felix.

This plan is almost instantly derailed: at the station Sarah sees a woman who is her exact double suddenly jump in front of a train, being killed instantly. Sarah is horrified but also sees an opportunity. She takes the woman’s bag, phone and possessions, finds out where she lives and pretends to be her so she can empty her bank account. She learns the woman’s name is Beth Childs and she’s a police officer under investigation for accidentally shooting a civilian. Unfortunately, Sarah gets in over her head: she is forced to pretend to be Beth at work (despite having zero idea how police officers operate) and with Beth’s boyfriend Paul, and, to explain the body on the tracks, has to set up Beth as Sarah, making it look like Sarah herself is dead.

It’s complicated set-up and morass of double lives and identities. And that’s before Sarah finds out she’s really one of at least two dozen clones from an illegal 1980s experiment that went awry.

Orphan Black ran for fifty episodes across five seasons, airing from 2013 to 2017 on BBC America. It was critically well-received but relatively little-watched at the time, with very low viewing figures. Its critical cachet was considerably greater than its modest profile due to the performance of lead actress Tatiana Maslany, who played not just the main character of Sarah Manning but a dozen other roles across the course of the series (including voicing a hallucinatory scorpion). Maslany’s jaw-dropping performance saw her nominated three times for a Best Actress Emmy Award, winning once in 2016. The show also won a Peabody Award and a Hugo Award. Since its original airing, the show has been released internationally on Netflix and picked up many more appreciators.

Despite its acclaim, Orphan Black seems to have fallen out of favour pretty quickly. It rated mentions only on a few “Best Shows of the Decade” lists that appeared last year, and its status as the “little Canadian show that could!” feels like it’s been gazumped by sitcom Schitt’s Creek (not that it’s a competition, and Schitt’s Creek is also an excellent show). Rewatching the show in full for this article, it feels like Orphan Black has been a little undersold and underrated, especially as it’s a series whose original issues have largely been fixed by being able to watch the whole run now in one go.

Orphan Black’s overwhelming strength is its characters. Tatiana Maslany obviously has the heavy lifting to do here, playing the regular roles of not just British punk rebel Sarah Manning but also suburban housewife Alison Hendrix, genius scientist Cosima Niehaus, cool businesswoman Rachel Duncan and Ukrainian serial killer Helena. Later seasons add Swedish hacker Mika and nail technician and would-be social media influencer Krystal Goderitch, whilst cop Beth Childs appears a lot in flashbacks and video footage. Maslany’s ability to make each and every single character a fully fleshed-out individual, completely different from the others, is absolutely amazing. The complexity is increased when she has to appear in scenes with one clone impersonating another. From a technical standpoint, there are also multiple scenes with two, three or four clones interacting with one another (including a dance party in Season 2 and a dinner scene in Season 3), which required the use of cutting-edge effects techniques when the old greenscreen standbys were found to be inadequate. The combination of technology and performance delivers the very nearly flawless illusion of this one actress playing multiple characters.

Orphan Black probably doesn’t get enough love for its other castmembers, though. Jordan Gavaris plays Sarah’s stepbrother Felix, an artist, occasional rent-boy and one-man emotional support for the clones, to the point of putting his own life on hold (which becomes a source of anguish for him in the last two seasons, where he goes looking for his own biological family). I’m genuinely surprised Gavaris hasn’t had a bigger career, since he plays Felix with conviction, humour and steely resolve. Felix also has a nice line in metacommentary, frequently saying the exact thing the audience is thinking in any given moment. Perennial Canadian guest star Kevin Hanchard is also outstanding as Detective Art Bell, a genuinely good man whom Sarah is forced to lie to (by pretending to be his deceased partner, Beth) and who always tries to do the right thing even as the morality of the situations he finds himself in becomes murkier.

Particularly impressive is Maria Doyle Kennedy as Siobhan or “Mrs. S”, Felix and Sarah’s Irish stepmother and the unquestioned matriarch of their family unit. Her role is small to start with but later expands dramatically as she uses her network of contacts in Canada, the US, the UK and Ireland to help the clones. The same is true of Skyler Wexler as Sarah’s daughter Kira, who starts off with not much to do but Wexler’s impressive acting skills for such a young age make her a key player in later seasons.

Kristian Bruun plays Donnie Hendrix, Alison’s husband (Alison is the only one of the Clone Club to be married). Frequently played for laughs (such as when he and Felix have to pose as prospective gay parents when they go undercover in a fertility clinic), Donnie does have a greater dramatic role as the show proceeds. Keen board gamer Josh Vokey as Scott, Cosima’s partner-in-science-crime, is also an underrated key part of the ensemble. Évelyne Brochu is also outstanding as Cosima’s French girlfriend Delphine and the source of much of what Felix refers to as the show’s “lesbian drama,” who also can’t help but wear the most fabulous outfits on the show. Ari Millen is also great as a second set of clones, playing multiple roles. They’re not as numerous as Sarah’s doubles, but Millen does impressive work depicting very different characters.

The show also brings in genre veterans where necessary: Michelle Forbes (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood) has a brief but memorable role in the second season, Matt Frewer (Max Headroom, The Stand) is outstanding as recurring semi-antagonist Dr. Leekie and James Frain (The Tudors, Star Trek: Discovery) is deliciously evil as assassin Ferdinand. Also, special mention must be given to Alison Steadman, a British veteran of film, stage and television, cast slightly against type as Siobhan’s chain-smoking, permanently angry mother in the third and fourth seasons.

So, the cast, beyond just star Maslany, is outstanding. Where Orphan Black does trip up a little, and this is the most frequent criticism voiced about the show, is its storyline.

The main problem with the story is that it’s never quite original enough. As soon as it becomes clear that Sarah is a clone (by the end of the second episode, so this is hardly a spoiler), the viewer’s immediate assumption is that this is an illegal genetic experiment which has been overseen by a powerful corporation with government involvement…and that’s what it turns out to be. If there’s one set of clones, the logical conclusion is that there might be more, and perhaps a set of male clones as well; this is confirmed in the second season. If they’re all clones, they must be clones of a genetic original who will be important to the plot, and that turns out to be the case in the third season. Orphan Black never really sets itself up to do anything surprising in general terms with the plot. Anyone who’s passingly familiar with contemporary science fiction shows from The X-Files onwards will likely be able to see most of the major plot movements coming down the road.

That is certainly all true, but in general terms I found it not to matter very much. Execution is more important than surprises and Orphan Black tells its story of shady corporate operations, illegal genetic experiments and complex backstory revelations with confidence and verve. The plot twists are logical, the character arcs are well-judged and the show’s trademark fast pace makes it perfect for bingeing. Cliffhangers abound and, if characters are in a difficult spot, you can be assured that situation will be resolved quite quickly rather than allowed to fester on for many episodes at a time. The show’s relentless pace can sometimes be a problem (maybe a bit more time to stop and smell the roses would have been nice) but, in a sea of other series with plot elements advancing so glacially they can only be measured in ice ages, it helps Orphan Black stand out from the crowd. This is a show that knows how to set up, execute and resolve a story arc with brisk economy.

That said, the economy of storytelling does lead to repetition. The main enemy in the first two seasons is the Dyad Institute and their backers, an ideological cause known as “Neolution.” After Dyad falls from grace, Neolution becomes the primary foe of the third through fifth seasons, first through subsidiary organisations (Project Castor and BrightBorn Industries in the third and fourth seasons) and then the Neolutionists directly in the final season. There are also other enemies, such as the Prolethean religious cult, and various criminals and gangs. It has to be said that the show probably should have focused on one enemy more than bringing in lots of subsidiaries which end up just being variations on a theme.

Far more critical to Orphan Black’s success is its mastery of tonal variation. Each one of the clones has their own personal storyline as well as playing a part in the larger storyline and each one of these could easily be a TV show by themselves. Donnie and Alison’s façade of suburban bliss, soccer games with the kids and Tupperware parties hides a darker story of pill addiction, marital boredom and frustration that veers into drug dealing, murder, mayhem and an increasingly large number of dead bodies buried under the garage. It’s by turns genuinely disturbing, laugh-out-loud hilarious and at times gag-inducing. However, the show can then turn on a dime and delve deeply into Cosima and Delphine’s overwrought, tragic love story of woe, which teeters on the edge of outright cliché (not helped by Felix pretty much narrating this story from the sidelines with morbid fascination) before being brought back down to Earth. The Cosima-Delphine romance is arguably the most compelling in the show and, thankfully, the producers have the sense not to lean on the “kill your gays,” trope that too many shows have indulged in.

Elsewhere we have the story of Helena, the innocent young Catholic girl turned into a homicidal weapon of mass destruction by a deranged religious group that believes all clones must be destroyed. Helena, a deeply damaged individual who serves as something of a villain for the first season, eventually overcomes her “training” and joins forces with Sarah and her other “sestras” to defeat their enemies and even declares a maternal ambition (Maslany's faux-Ukrainian-accented proclamation of "What about my babies?" soon becomes a key catchphrase). Helena’s story arc is one of the most successful in the show, even if the fact she did kill several innocent people in the first few episodes of the series is brushed under the carpet a little too easily.

There are too many other stories to really relate all of them in detail: Sarah’s own insecurities and in particular her feelings of guilt and inadequacy which forces her to slam the “self-destruct” button whenever anything goes too badly wrong (or too badly right, in some cases). Dealing with the clone situation gives her purpose and sees her direct her creativity, spontaneity and capacity for invention and thinking on her feet in a productive manner, but at several key moments she does nearly fall off the wagon and spiral back into depression, alcohol and substance abuse because, hell, the situations she puts herself in are quite hairy, and traumatic. Then there’s the tragic story of Beth Childs, which the writers leave until the final two seasons, where we see her backstory in detail and discover what led her to taking her own life in the opening seconds of the show. For a show that only lasts fifty episodes (less than a quarter the run of The X-Files), Orphan Black packs a hell of a lot of story into its modest run-time.

This balancing of tonal variation, of sometimes going from laugh-out-loud, warm-hearted comedy to something bleaker and more depressing, or romantic, or action-based, in the space of a few minutes is a key part of the show’s success. If Orphan Black was too funny or too bleak constantly it wouldn’t work, but by moving between these tones and styles, to the point of sometimes feeling like an anthology series, it creates a much richer story and world. Orphan Black knows when to be harsh and brutal, but also when to be warm and funny.

The show has a few other weaknesses. It has a problem holding onto guest stars. Michael Mando has a major role in the first two seasons and then vanishes without trace (in reality, poached by Better Call Saul). Michelle Forbes’ character is set up as a big deal in the second season, but she doesn’t appear again. Similarly, Michiel Huisman appeared in the second season in a major role and came back briefly in the third year, but he was nabbed by Game of Thrones (playing flamboyant mercenary Daario) and never appeared again, leaving some storylines flapping in the wind. This even extended to more core castmembers, with Évelyne Brochu contracted to appear in another show in the third season (which didn’t go the distance, allowing her to return later on). These problems are annoying but bearable; the show is always able to course-correct and carry on. The show also did the reverse: it brought back characters who’d apparently left behind for good to show how everything was connected and to make sure most of the loose ends were tied up in the finale.

The theme of Orphan Black is probably one of the oldest in narration: family. As the literal orphans of the title, the clones have no real biological families. Several of them have loving, adopted families (like Sarah, Cosima and Alison, and Rachel to an extent) but several of them were raised in much harsher circumstances (most notably Helena). As they uncover the mystery of their background, they form a tight unit and create a new extended family consisting of the clones, their friends and allies. This “clone club” bands together to defeat their problems and support one another through their individual issues. The impact of this is shown most clearly on Sarah, the staunch, punk-inspired loner who needs no one’s help and initially feels a failure as a mother, who finds then herself becoming almost the matriarch of a large, complex family of people who need help and support.

Orphan Black feels under-appreciated, but it’s a good time to revisit the show. Its web of complex conspiracies between various corporations felt a bit much during its original run, but watched as a whole it’s much more comprehensible. The character arcs and main storyline are executed reasonably well, and at fifty 44-minute episodes, it doesn’t go on for too long and outstay its welcome, but it’s also not too short and cut down in its prime. It tells a five-year story well and once it’s done, it moves on.

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Modiphius tease new DUNE RPG and artwork for early 2021 release

Modiphius have been teasing their new Dune tabletop roleplaying game with a reveal of some of the artwork and confirming that they will start taking pre-orders next month.

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium utilises the 2d20 rule system that Modiphius have used for their Age of Conan, Dishonored and Star Trek RPGs, among others. The base setting is some years before the events of Dune, with the players and Gamesmaster working together to create a new noble House of the Landsraad, which the players can guide through political intrigue as well as representing its interests through agents who have to go on clandestine missions to distant worlds, including Arrakis.

The core Adventures in the Imperium rulebook will be available as a standard game and also a choice of one of three deluxe editions, with a special cover reflecting the sigil of House Atreides, House Corrino or House Harkonnen. There will be two dice sets available for the game, as well as a Gamemaster Screen and a Player's Journal to record adventure notes in. Further expansions to the game are in the planning stages.

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium is anticipated to be released in early 2021. Modiphius are also currently working on Fallout and Homeworld RPGs using the 2d20 system (the former separate to their Fallout: Wasteland Warfare miniatures range). There are also rumours that Modiphius are planning an Elder Scrolls roleplaying game to accompany their Call to Arms miniatures range.

Friday, 27 November 2020

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Season 2

2370. The Federation's attempts to help the planet Bajor recover from Cardassian occupation are strained when civil war threatens the planet and religious turmoil surrounds the election of a new spiritual leader. Whilst Commander Sisko and his crew attempt to navigate through tricky waters, a new Federation-Cardassian treaty has left colony worlds of each power in earth other's space, resulting in the rise of new tensions and a freedom fighting group, the Maquis. Meanwhile, the exploration of the Gamma Quadrant beyond the wormhole proceeds apace and the Ferengi become the first power to forge trading alliances with worlds there...only to learn of the existence of something called "the Dominion," which is not happy about the influx of new traffic into their space.

The first season of Deep Space Nine was reasonably entertaining, if not the most exciting collection of episodes in the franchise's history. The writers didn't seem entirely sure on the new show's tone and direction to start with and relied a little too heavily on bringing in Next Generation characters and ideas. Towards the end of the season, however, they decided to focus more on their own characters and premise, resulting in several excellent episodes (especially Duet).

Season 2 opens with the same confidence in their own skills on full display. For the first time ever in Star Trek's history, the season launches with a three-part story that delves deep into Bajoran politics and conflicts. It's a great story that uses the show's recurring cast - Dukat, Winn, Bareil - to best effect, but it's also a solid worldbuilding exercise for Bajor and has some great action beats (even if an atmospheric dogfight between Bajoran fighters is a little too ambitious for the effects technology at this point). It also has a very impressive main guest star in Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), who makes for a formidable antagonist.

The season has more than a few great episodes: Cardassians, The Wire, The Collaborator and Tribunal feature solid stories about the Occupation and its aftermath, providing great acting opportunities for the regular and recurring cast. Particularly, Andrew Robinson's Garak goes to incredible strengths and becomes arguably the best actor on the show, although he's given a run for his money by the likes of Marc Alaimo, Louise Fletcher, Nana Visitor and Rene Auberjonois.

Also outstanding is Sanctuary, where the Bajorans have to grapple with ethics and morality when they are asked to help a race which has suffered as much as they have. Whispers is an excellent character piece, focused entirely on O'Brien as the world around him goes strange and he has no idea what's going on. Armageddon Game is a great show about politics and perception, furthering the Bashir/O'Brien bromance in the process. Profit and Loss is a great Quark show, depicting more sides to the character than previously seen (as well as Garak). Blood Oath is an exceptional episode bringing back three key Klingon characters and actors from the original series in an action piece that also demonstrates Dax's involvement with the Klingon Empire (foreshadowing the later arrival of Worf). The Maquis is a great two-parter about how signing a peace of paper doesn't magically solve problems on the ground. Crossover begins the show's long-running flirtation with the Mirror Universe, featuring some great alternate roles for the actors to inhabit (Nana Visitor in particular).

The outstanding, best episode of the season is Necessary Evil, a lengthy flashback episode to the station's days under Cardassian occupation, where rejected scientific curiosity Odo is forced against his will by Gul Dukat to conduct a murder investigation. It's a moody, terrifically-written piece which sees the station's sets adjusted in a manner that makes them hellish and sees amazing performances by everyone involved. It also explains why Odo was allowed to retain his job on the station and why more than a few Bajorans (particularly Kira) are prepared to stand up for him despite him being, on the surface, a collaborator or at least an enabler of the Cardassian regime.

Rules of Acquisition is a solid Ferengi episode and marks the beginning of Deep Space Nine's long-running project to redeem the species. The "lol, misogyny" aspect of their Next Generation appearances starts its long road to being discarded here, and it's amusing to note in retrospect that it's one of Star Trek's most underrated races which first becomes aware of the Dominion, who will come to dominate almost the rest of the show's run. 

Other episodes have strong central ideas but don't really take off: Invasive Procedures wants to be a deep-rooted Trill drama about stealing Dax's symbiont, but can't really do the idea justice. Melora wants to say something about disability, but because the main character's disability is self-chosen and temporary, it doesn't really track. Second Sight wants to be a love story for Sisko, but goes off in a very weird "Star Trek hallucination...or is it?" direction that becomes a bit tedious. The Alternate starts off as a welcome piece of backstory exploration for Odo, as we meet the Bajoran scientist who raised him, but the episode refuses to make him really culpable for the pain he inflicted on Odo in his experiments and then goes off on a completely wild monster hunt tangent that feels incongruous at best. Paradise is a very interesting "back to basics" story about a Federation colony that has reverted to a hunter-gatherer level, but what seems to be an idyllic existence is rapidly exposed as a tyranny. This feels like DS9's first brush with dealing with oppression and bigotry (especially the scene of forcing Sisko into a punishment box), but it never really gets to grips with what it wants to say, especially compared to later episodes like Far Beyond the Stars.

There are a few more episodes that fit into the "okay" category: Rivals has promising ideas about a rival to Quark from the same species as TNG's Guinan who uses his powers for personal gain, but gets mixed up with alien devices that alter the laws of probability (possibly inspired by The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy). The episode is entertaining, but doesn't make the most of either possibility. Shadowplay is a nice mystery story about a village whose people are disappearing one-by-one. The resolution is quite good and there a nice subplot about Odo bonding with a young child, but it's not the most dynamic of episodes. Playing God has the DS9 crew confront one of the most serious threats in the entire history of Star Trek and resolving it in one of the most bafflingly off-hand ways possible.

The season ends on a very strong note. The Jem'Hadar properly introduces the Dominion and two of its three main powers, the Vorta and Jem'Hadar. It also has an outstanding space battle as DS9's runabouts and the Galaxy-class USS Odyssey join forces to take on a Jem'Hadar attack fleet, with decidedly mixed results. Amongst the explosions, the episode is also terrific for Quark taking Sisko and his stereotypical view of the Ferengi to task (the moment that Sisko realises is right and he has developed almost racist views of the Ferengi is quite impressive, well-handled by Avery Brooks and Armin Shimerman). The only downside to the episode is that the Dominion's position - they don't want people pouring into their space and colonising planets without their permission - seems quite reasonable and the Federation's response, that they're going to keep exploring the Gamma Quadrant regardless, feels off.

The second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (****) shows significant improvement over the first season. The show is still not operating at the height of its potential but it's making solid progress to getting there. The series is available on DVD in the USA and UK, as well as on CBS All Access in the States and Netflix in the UK.

Note: I previously reviewed DS9's second season as part of a wider review of the first two seasons twelve years ago. That review can be read here.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Gale Force Nine Games sues Wizards of the Coast

Gale Force Nine Games has sued Wizards of the Coast for breach of contract, following Wizards' attempt to terminate a previously-agreed contract a year early.

Gale Force Nine and Wizards of the Coast entered into four-year agreement in 2017 for GFN to provide overseas and foreign translations for WotC's Dungeons and Dragons RPG products in several overseas markets. GFN worked with localisation staff in each territory to produce a translated version of each product, which WotC then approved and was then published.

This contract was originally due to expire in February 2021 but was extended to the end of December 2021.

In May 2020, WotC contacted GFN to ask to terminate the contract one year earlier than planned. However, GFN had already begun work on projects due to be published after that period but which had been previously agreed upon, at considerable expense. Some discussions were held on a way of reconciling the issue, but when WotC proved inflexible GFN simply informed them they would abide by the original terms of the contract. However, since then WotC have refused to issue approval for completed products in line with the 2017 contract.

Once GFN made clear its intention to enforce the contract, WotC informed GFN they were in breach of contract by publishing two sub-par works in overseas markets, one in South Korea and one in France. However, GFN notes that both products had been authorised and passed the approval process. WotC also believed that the French translated work had been used in a copyright-infringing manner, but had declined to pursue legal action against the company involved. 

Gale Force Nine are seeking damages of $950,000 from WotC for their failure to fulfil their contractual obligations.

This is the second major lawsuit that Wizards have found themselves receiving in as many months. Last month, Dragonlance authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman sued Wizards for $10 million for breach of contract after summarily suspending work on a new Dragonlance novel trilogy.

Joss Whedon steps down as showrunner of HBO's THE NEVERS

Joss Whedon has stepped down as showrunner of HBO's upcoming historical fantasy series The Nevers. Whedon cites the workload and schedule conflicts brought about by delays to filming caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Whedon made his name in the 1990s as a writer on Roseanne and working on Hollywood movies including Toy Story, Twister and Alien: Resurrection, as well as his own original property Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Frustrated with how his scripts were constantly being changed by other people, he jumped at the chance to revamp Buffy as a TV series. The series aired between 1997 and 2003 and spawned a nearly-as-successful spin-off, Angel, which aired from 1999 to 2003. Whedon also produced the TV shows Firefly (2002) and Dollhouse (2009-10), along with a Firefly feature film spin-off, Serenity (2005), which marked his feature film writing/directing debut. Whedon also wrote and directed The Avengers (2012) and The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) for Marvel and Disney, as well as helping develop and launch the TV series Agents of SHIELD (2013-20). He also took over production of the film Justice League (2017) when director Zack Snyder had to step down following a family tragedy. The Nevers would have marked the first TV show he had completely helmed from start to finish in more than a decade.

Although Whedon cites other reasons for leaving, many commentators will be sceptical of his claims. In 2017, Whedon's ex-wife accused him of cheating on her with at least one and possibly more actresses in some of the shows he worked on, although specific accusations were not made. The news rocked Whedon's fanbase, which had previously praised him for his depiction of female empowerment in his work (although other critics had long held some of Whedon's writing to be problematic, particularly in Dollhouse and his alleged sidelining and then firing of actress Charisma Carpenter from Angel for becoming pregnant). The largest Whedon fansite shut down and his fans have been divided ever since.

In 2020 Whedon was accused of bullying and unacceptable behaviour on the set of Justice League by actor Ray Fisher. Initially Fisher's comments were not substantiated by other actors, but then Jason Momoa stepped forwards to back Fisher. Warner Brothers launched an investigation of Whedon's behaviour during production. Warner Brothers own HBO, meaning that this investigation would certainly have a bearing on Whedon's involvement on The Nevers.

The Nevers began shooting in July 2019 and completed production of five episodes prior to being shut down by the pandemic in March 2020. Filming resumed in September and was completed at the end of October. However, post-production and editing has only been partially completed.

Whedon's long-term writing and producing partners Jane Espenson and Douglas Petrie are also working on the show, along with Game of Thrones producer Bernadette Caulfield. It is assumed they will take over showrunner duties during the post-production phase and new plans will be made if HBO decides to renew the show for a second season.

Currently The Nevers is tentatively planned to air in the summer of 2021.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary

AD 2552. The Pillar of Autumn, a United Nations Space Command capital ship, is fleeing the fall of the human colony world of Reach to the Covenant, a hostile alliance of alien races. The Pillar has tracked Covenant intelligence leading to a remote star system. Upon arrival they find a massive ring, ten thousand kilometres across, with a habitable biosphere. Crippled in combat, the Pillar sets down on the object and it's up to the only specially-trained Spartan soldier on board, the Master Chief, to discern the origins of Halo and why the Covenant hold it in such reverence.

Halo: Combat Evolved was originally released in 2001 as the signature game of the original Microsoft X-Box game console, as well as the first game in the expansive Halo franchise, which has expanded to seven main-series games, three major spin-offs and numerous novels and comic books, as well as an upcoming TV series. It's always been an interesting anomaly that such an enormously popular franchise has expanded from such mixed beginnings.

This Anniversary Edition of Halo was released in 2011 to celebrate the franchise's tenth anniversary and was re-released in 2020 as part of the Halo Master Chief Collection on PC. Remasters of this kind are always controversial, since they sometimes alter and adjust the original game's level design and aesthetic. To be frank, in the case of Halo, I was looking forwards to some changes to the game's design, which have not only aged well, but were pretty poor going even in 2001. Alas, the remaster has stuck extremely close to the original game design, replicating its flaws as well as its strengths.

On the plus side of things, Halo has some very nice environments. The first third or so of the ten-hour game features entertaining outdoors combat on islands, in valleys and on grasslands, sometimes featuring vehicles with multiple crewing points and some pretty solid friendly AI. This is easily the best part of the game and, combined with the game's robustly entertaining multiplayer mode and some very strong multiplayer maps, is where the game's reputation mostly comes from. The graphics for this part of the game have been updated nicely, particularly the vast vistas showing Halo's interior structure rising up in the distance and then up overhead. Combat is reasonably solid and the Covenant enemies are reasonably intelligent and challenging (even if the monkey-like, comedic Grunts are far more irritating than genuinely threatening, but the Elites and Jackals make up for them).

In terms of the campaign mode, this enjoyable part of the game is sadly brief. After the opening levels you have to descend into the bowels of Halo and the game never really recovers after this point. The subterranean levels are mind-bogglingly repetitive on a scale that, over the years, I'd come to believe I had exaggerated in my mind. Replaying the game I discovered that no only had I not exaggerated them, I'd undersold them. You spend hour after hour making your way through identical rooms to flip a switch, then backtrack through these identical open rooms to the area you just unlocked, which consists of another series of rooms identical to the ones you just passed through. When this Groundhog Day section ends you find yourself in a large, temple-like structure having to do the same thing again, this time through much bigger rooms and with approximately four trillion, considerably less intelligent and interesting enemies chasing you: the Flood. The Flood are a not-very-well-disguised (and very much less entertaining) version of the Xen aliens from Half-Life, using small creatures to "zombify" enemies and turn them against one another, and are simply tedious to fight, since they just run at you and never use the more advanced tactics and AI of the Covenant enemies.

It's always been a mystery as to why Bungie made almost two-thirds of the game so repetitive and tedious as to at times feel almost miserable. The original X-Box had severe memory limitations, but that didn't stop them making the opening third or so of the game much more varied and entertaining. I suspect time was to blame and faced with critical deadlines, they just designed two areas and copy-pasted them to make larger areas. This is not unusual in gaming, but it's interesting that Dragon Age II - a later game that had the same problem but made up for it with a reasonable well-executed main storyline with a larger cast of more interesting characters - was criticised for it when Halo seems to have been given a pass for it.

A counter-argument is, of course, that Halo's campaign is really there as practice and warm-up for the multiplayer mode, which remains robustly entertaining (although perhaps a bit pointless; Halo 3, 4 and Reach have stronger multiplayer combat). Halo's story is pretty barebones in this first game and it was really only with Halo 2 that the storyline and characters started being fleshed out in much greater detail, giving rise to the popularity of the franchise.

As it stands, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (**½) is best experienced as a historical curiosity. It's not completely unplayable and the remaster adds a nice sheen to the graphics and some cool new backdrops, but doesn't solve the original game's severe problems with level design. It's certainly not aged half as well as Half-Life, the recent Black Mesa remaster of which is much stronger.

The game is available now on X-Box One and PC as part of The Master Chief Collection, which also includes a remastered version of Halo 2 and graphically-updated versions of Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach and Halo 4.