Saturday, 16 January 2077

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

Thursday, 28 May 2020

A legal dispute may have confirmed the ELDER SCROLLS VI subtitle

A legal tussle between Bethesda Softworks, their owners Zenimax Media and a small-press publisher may have inadvertently given away the subtitle of their next Elder Scrolls video game.

Bethesda filed a trademark claim for the name "Redfall" over a year ago, prompting a response from BookBreeze, the publisher of author Jay Falconer. Falconer had written a series of post-apocalyptic novels under the Redfall banner title.

After the threat of legal action, Zenimax and BookBreeze reached an out-of-court settlement (read: money exchanged hands) in May 2019 which appears to allow both Zenimax to use the title in the future and for BookBreeze to continue publishing books under that name.

The story has resurfaced in recent weeks due to a series of alleged leaks about The Elder Scrolls VI, most of which later turned out to be false. However, the "Redfall" title tussle is one of the view hard pieces of information we have about the game. Based on the very brief teaser released two years ago, it is widely expected that the game will take place in the provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell, the home of the Redguards, who loom large in Elder Scrolls lore. There is also the matter of a side-quest in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), which hints that a "red plague" is currently loose in High Rock and a character is headed back there (Bethesda had previously lined up Skyrim with repeated references to that province in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion back in 2006).

The Elder Scrolls VI: Redfall or Whatever will very likely not be released until the middle of the next decade, as Bethesda are still hard at work on their epic SF CRPG Starfield, as well as further expansions to online survival shooter Fallout 76.

Henry Cavill to resume his role as Superman

In a surprise move, Henry Cavill is in serious talks with Warner Brothers about resuming his role as Superman in the DC Movie Universe.

Cavill first played the role in the risible Man of Steel (2013), although Cavill himself was fine in the role, his role was just badly written and indifferently directed. He reappeared as the co-lead in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), alongside Ben Affleck's Batman, and then in a supporting role in Justice League (2017). Multiple discussions over a new Superman solo movie stalled and the fate of the DC Movie Universe was thrown into doubt after Affleck quit as Batman. However, with several more films in the setting doing extremely well (Wonder Woman, Shazam! and Joker, although the latter's place in the extended universe canon seems debatable), it appears that Warner Brothers have decided against a full reboot as yet and are keener to retain the services of one of their big hitters.

Cavill's growing stardom outside the role has also likely played a role. Cavill picked up great notices for his appearances in films such as Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018), as well as the TV series The Witcher. Cavill has also gained a lot of "geek-cred" for his social media appearances discussing his love of video games and painting Warhammer miniatures (to the point where a character based on Cavill is appearing in next month's Total War: Warhammer II update), which DC would like to tap into.

Apparently Warner Brothers are still cool on a new full solo Superman movie, instead envisaging Superman's role going forwards as a bit like the Hulk's in the MCU, as a solid supporting player. Indeed, Cavill was meant to appear in Shazam! in a brief cameo, but his appearance was pulled late in the day. It sounds like Warner Brothers are now keen to bring him back into the fold and see how he does, with a view to revisiting the solo movie option further down the road.

Pacific Rim: Uprising

2035. Ten years have passed since the destruction of the dimensional rift, through which an alien race was sending biological war machines - kaiju - to weaken humanity's defences. Although Earth appears to be safe for now, humanity has not rested on its laurels and has rebuilt the Jaeger programme, giant war mecha capable of taking the fight to the aliens. Jake Pentecost, the estranged son of the late Stacker Pentecost, is drafted back into the Jaeger programme to help teach a new generation of students, but moral is low when it is revealed that the the Pan-Pacific Defence Corps are developing a new generation of drone Jaegers that do not need human pilots. When a rogue Jaeger attacks a PPDC conference, Pentecost realises that the aliens are not the only enemy...

The original Pacific Rim is one of favourite movies of the last decade on the level of being a purely entertaining action flick. It didn't make a colossal amount of sense and the story was hardly deep, but Guillermo Del Toro made the "big robots fighting big monsters" story he'd always wanted and had a huge amount of fun in the process, making sure that viewers joined in with that fun.

Del Toro spent years trying to get the sequel made and, unfortunately, by the time the wheels were turning on it, he'd already moved on to other projects. Stepping into the breach - so to speak - was Steven S. DeKnight. DeKnight is hardly on the same level of reputation as Del Toro, but is also no slouch, having been a writer-producer-director on shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and the first season of Daredevil.

Unfortunately, the loss of Del Toro was only the first setback for the movie. It was quickly followed by the discovery that leading actor Charlie Hunnam was also going to be unavailable. With several of the other leads of the original Pacific Rim having been killed off in that movie, it left the sequel with a lot of storytelling void to fill. Still, the movie rallied by casting hot man-of-the-moment John Boyega (Finn in the Star Wars sequels) as the new lead and setting up a strong new story about the Jaegers becoming obsolete. The movie also undercuts expectations by leaning into a human-vs-human struggle based around Jaeger technology and kaiju bio-technology. This makes the movie feel a bit "smaller" than the first movie, with less of an omnipresent sense of dread and instead more of a mystery angle. I quite like it when a sequel goes cleverer rather than bigger for a sequel and was pleasantly surprised when Uprising took that route.

I was even more surprised when Pacific Rim: Uprising decided to also double down on characterisation compared to the first movie, which painted its characters with a fairly broad (to the point of transparent) brush. Uprising spends far more time setting up its characters and their motivations, particularly in the key subplot about a new team of cadets where all the characters are established in more detail compared to the first movie (where we didn't even learn the names of some of the Jaeger pilots). Again, no great shakes here (stereotypes and cliches abound), but the fact that I could tell which character was which and why they were doing what they were doing was an improvement over the original film.

Part of the problem with this approach is that it's perhaps a little wasted: Pacific Rim was a film about giant robots fighting giant monsters, not an in-depth character study, and it wasted no time in telling that story. Uprising's greater character focus proves to be structurally problematic, meaning we're 45 minutes into the movie - almost half its runtime - before the stakes and main storyline become clear. The second it does become clear, the movie slams the accelerator down and bombards the audience with a series of impressive set-pieces, including mecha-on-mecha battles in Sydney and in the Siberian wastes, and a truly impressive daylight slugfest rampaging through the streets of Tokyo before the movie ends at under the two hour mark (a clear twenty minutes shorter than the first movie). This makes the film feel a bit lopsided: the first half is a little too slow, the second half a bit too fast, especially when several plot twists (and the old plot twist that is itself then twisted five minutes later) undercut expectations superbly, but a little confusingly.

Still, Uprising ended up being far better than its mixed reception had led me to expect. Del Toro's defter hand on the directing tiller is missed, but DeKnight does reasonably well (even if he's a bit too in love with slow-mo action shots). I actually cared about the characters a bit more than in the first movie, although the somewhat brusque offing of some of the first movie's characters (on and off-screen) felt a bit off. In terms of plotting, the movie was surprisingly clever, adding meat to the fairly thin worldbuilding of the original and setting up a lot of plot directions the franchise can take in the future. The script had a fair few clunkers, sharing with the original an often inappropriate-feeling level of humour, but then this was never going to be an Academy Award-troubling film. The performances are all fine to good - John Boyega is clearly enjoying himself immensely - and the action sequences satisfyingly chunky.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (***½) is an enjoyable and fast-paced sequel to the original. Like the original, it's a B-movie with a huge budget and, on that level, delivers what it set out to do, and in some areas (like plotting and characterisation) is actually better than the first flick. Unlike the original, the pacing is not as strong and DeKnight, although perfectly solid, lacks Del Toro's directorial confidence, meaning the film occasionally flags a little when it should be ramping up and goes too manic during moments when it could do with slowing down. Still, a surprisingly decent sequel.

Pacific Rim: Uprising did not set the box office on fire on release and a third movie is unlikely at the moment, but the franchise is continuing with an animated Netflix show, due to air in late 2020.

Cover art for new Joe Abercrombie book revealed

The UK cover art for Joe Abercrombie's new novel has been unveiled.

The Trouble with Peace is the follow-up to last year's A Little Hatred and is them middle volume of the Age of Madness trilogy, itself a sequel to his earlier First Law series.

The cover summary:
Savine dan Glokta, once Adua’s most powerful investor, finds her judgement, fortune and reputation in tatters. But she still has all her ambitions, and no scruple will be permitted to stand in her way.
For heroes like Leo dan Brock and Stour Nightfall, only happy with swords drawn, peace is an ordeal to end as soon as possible. But grievances must be nursed, power seized and allies gathered first, while Rikke must master the power of the Long Eye . . . before it kills her.
The Breakers still lurk in the shadows, plotting to free the common man from his shackles, while noblemen bicker for their own advantage. Orso struggles to find a safe path through the maze of knives that is politics, only for his enemies, and his debts, to multiply.
The old ways are swept aside, and the old leaders with them, but those who would seize the reins of power will find no alliance, no friendship, and no peace, lasts forever.
The Trouble with Peace will be published on 15 September this year. It will be followed by The Beautiful Machine (although Joe is mulling a title change to The Wisdom of Crows at the moment).in September 2021.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Mahit Dzmare has been appointed as the new ambassador from Lsel Station to the homeworld of the vast Teixcalaanli Empire. The previous ambassador has gone silent under unusual circumstances and Mahit's job is to find out what happened to him and why he failed to return home for fifteen years prior and how he has maintained Lsel's independence. Mahit's mission is complicated by a malfunctioning implant containing the memories of her predecessor (fifteen years out of date) and by an internal web of politics within the Empire which threatens to undermine Lsel's position...whilst factions on Lsel itself are interfering with her work from afar.

A Memory Called Empire is the debut novel by Arkady Martine and the first part of a loosely-connected duology (a second book, A Desolation Called Peace, will be published in early 2021). It is a far-future, science fiction epic revolving around the Teixcalaanli, a civilisation that fuses cyberpunk technology (though with a proscription against brain implants) and Aztec and Mongol cultural influences.

As is always handy when introducing an alien new culture, our POV character is herself an outsider. Mahit hails from a much more practical, pragmatic society based inside a space station, a self-regulating habitat which is totally technology-dependent with no single points of failure. Every time someone dies, their memories and something of their personality are implanted in a successor, who gains access to their lifetime's knowledge and experience and can start building on it. As such every life is inherently important, as it contributes materially to the development of the culture and society as a whole. This is the inverse of Teixcalaanli, where brain implants are seen as anathema and the society is much more inherently conservative: with access to amazing technology which could be used to create entertainment, their primary cultural obsession remains poetry.

There's a lot of clever ideas floating around in A Memory Called Empire. The philosophical concept of identity and how it is built from memory and cultural influences is a key part of the text, but one this explored subtly and intelligently throughout. There is also a fair bit of worldbuilding of the Teixcalaanli and their homeworld, which is mostly achieved through plot developments and action. Infodumping is occasional but fortunately rare. Characterisation is strong, as Mahit expertly chooses which sides of herself (and her culture) to show to the Teixcalaanli, and is not above preying on their instinct that she is an uncultured barbarian from a society with nothing to offer.

A few people have drawn similarities in tone to Ann Leckie's 2013 debut, Ancillary Justice. I think there are a few such comparisons to be made, mainly down to the idea of a technology-driven identity crises, but A Memory Called Empire is also a stronger book, and in particular it does a much, much better job of laying pipework for a sequel whilst being a complete novel in itself (Ancillary Justice was very much a strong stand-alone somewhat undermined by two lacklustre and unnecessary sequels). I think comparisons to the work of Lois McMaster Bujold and to China Mieville's SF novel Embassytown can also be drawn, with regards to how identity, history and language are interrelated concepts which can define people as individuals and a culture.

If I did have one complaint it would be that the ending feels a little neat (I'm not sure if a symbolic gesture would be really enough to get a determined enemy commanding a vastly superior army to surrender) and abrupt, but Martine does enough good work here to make the semi-sequel an immediate buy.

A Memory Called Empire (****½) is a striking debut novel which muses on big questions and wraps them around a compelling story that is part identity crisis and part socio-political thriller. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday, 22 May 2020

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE given greenlight to resume filming in August

Production of The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age (not the final title) is set to resume in August after the New Zealand government approved precautions to put in place for the shoot.

Production of The Second Age had been underway at production facilities in Auckland for several weeks when it was halted in mid-March due to the global pandemic outbreak. The bulk of the first two episodes had been shot, and a five-month hiatus had been baked into the schedule after March anyway, so the production schedule for the show had not been as adversely affected as other projects.

New Zealand has had arguably the greatest success of any country in the world in containing and controlling the pandemic, putting in place a strict lockdown which has severely restricted the spread of the virus and keeping the number of deaths extremely low at just 21 (compared to 93,000 in the United States and 36,000 in the UK, both still growing). With very few cases reported in recent weeks, the country has undertaken a gradual easing of lockdown measures (with no reported spike in new cases).

Filming will be dependent on cast and crew flying in from overseas self-isolating for two weeks before beginning filming, with regular testing.

It is anticipated that the first two seasons of The Second Age will shoot back-to-back, totalling twenty episodes in total, with the first season expected to air on Amazon Prime in late 2021 or early 2022.

Production is also expected to resume imminently on James Cameron's Avatar movie series. Filming was well underway on Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 (which are shooting back-to-back in New Zealand) before the pandemic delayed things. Cameron and his team have continued working on the film's ambitious digital effects remotely. Avatar 2 is planned for release in December 2021 with Avatar 3 to follow in December 2023. Avatar 4 and Avatar 5 have also been greenlit with planned 2025 and 2027 release dates, but production on them has not yet begun.

Filming restrictions have also begun to ease in the Czech Republic, with Carnival Row set to resume filming it second season in the next few weeks and The Wheel of Time also set to resume shooting a bit further down the line (with the speculative possibility of wrapping up Season 1 being folded into the shooting of Season 2, which was expected to start in late 2020 anyway).

Thursday, 21 May 2020

The Office (USA): The Complete Series

Scranton, Pennsylvania, 2005. A local PBS documentary crew start capturing the everyday lives of the workers at the local branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company as part of a series looking at ordinary working Americans. However, the office they choose is under the management of Michael Scott, a small man with big dreams, and increasingly befuddling behaviour of the employees leads to a documentary project that lasts much, much longer than anticipated.

If there is an immutable rule of reality, just as inarguable as the speed of light or that every other Star Trek film is tripe, it is that British sitcoms cannot be transferred to the American market. Fawlty Towers, Red Dwarf and Men Behaving Badly were all remade for a US audience and bombed, heavily. When NBC announced in 2005 that they were remaking Ricky Gervais's breakthrough vehicle, the mockumentary The Office, for the USA, the full (and perhaps slightly smug) expectation was that it would fall flat on its face.

Of course it didn't. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's sitcom was well-suited to the transition, since sitting in a boring office working hard for poor pay is probably the most relatable and universal experience of human existence for the past seventy-five years, as true in Scranton, Pennsylvania as it was in Slough, Berkshire. Furthermore, Gervais and Merchant's work was itself heavily inspired by the pioneering mockumentary work of Christopher Guest, particularly This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show. The final piece of the puzzle was that veteran American scriptwriter and producer Greg Daniels (The Simpsons) was a good fit for taking their vision to a US market, assembling a talented group of mostly young writers and producers to help him out (chief among them Michael Schur, who would go on to create or co-create three of the greatest comedies of the 2010s: Parks & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place).

The US version of The Office gets off to an awkward start, with a first season that feels far too close to the British version for comfort (even down to the pilot using the same script, just slightly tweaked). The dynamics of the office are also extremely familiar, with Steve Carell's Michael Scott being well-meaning but self-unaware and prone to gaffs, Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute being officious, pedantic and somewhat tedious, Jim (John Krasinski) being the perennial unlucky-in-love straight man and receptionist Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) feel unable to escape her underachieving relationship and disappointing career path. These are pretty much 1:1 matches for the British cast of characters.

Fortunately, the American writers show increased confidence over the short first season run and things quickly improve. A big difference to the British version is that the secondary and tertiary cast of the American show is much larger and the expanded episode count gives many of them multiple episodes to shine, which makes the feeling of everyone being in an office a lot more realistic, with even the only-intermittently-seen warehouse workers receiving some development (and, in the case of Crag Robinson's Darryl, eventual promotion to the main cast).

The show is anchored in Steve Carell's performance as Scott. At first glance Scott and Ricky Gervais's David Brent are clones, but a key difference soon emerges: Brent seemed to know, albeit deeply buried underneath his bluster, that he was a small and underachieving man. Scott is much more oblivious of his failings. However, whilst Brent was also not a particularly good manager or businessman (basically coasting on his subordinate salesmen's reasonably competent performance), Scott is shown to actually be a really good salesman when push comes to shove, and although his humour is often inappropriate for the workplace, he is generally good at helping (or rather, letting through inaction) his staff deal with their various problems. Keeping this tightrope performance going is difficult, but it's impressive how Scott keeps it up for seven whole seasons (that's what she said™).

The other cornerstone of the show is the slow-burning romance between Jim and Pam, which like Tim and Dawn's relationship in the British original, is centred in their friendship and mutual desire to play pranks on Dwight but gradually becomes more serious when Pam realises her current relationship is unsatisfying. The romance was so key to the British original that it wasn't really resolved until the series finale (and several attempts to revisit the show have foundered because of the dubious decision to focus on David Brent alone, not the rest of the cast), but fortunately (since it would have gotten maddening otherwise) the US version of The Office pushes the button on it by the end of Season 3 and then spends a six further seasons exploring the development of the romance, with marriage and kids following. This risks being twee, so it's a welcome surprise when the writers show the relationship has its ups and downs, with a realistic complication introduced in the final season when Jim gets the opportunity to follow the job of his dreams in Philadelphia but Pam is less willing to uproot their family. This ends up being one of the best explorations of a long-term romance in television history, avoiding the problems that a lot of shows have when the "will they/won't they" tension is resolved.

The other castmembers all get their time in the sun, but the show does have one major fly in its character roster: Andy Bernard, played by Ed Helms. Andy joins the cast in Season 3 as one of a "new intake" of workers from another branch which is absorbed into Scranton and is initially presented as hyper-competitive and unpleasant with an anger management problem. This appears to have been down to the original plan being to keep the character around in a short-term recurring role and then get rid of him, but Ed Helms' huge success in the Hangover movies caused a rethink. Andy went off to anger management therapy and came back a changed man, a relatively nice (if low-key) guy with a sideline in singing and playing banjo. In fact, he's a bit of a sap, and in a supporting character role that's vaguely amusing and sometimes sympathetic (even if his on-off again romance with receptionist Erin - Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's excellent Ellie Kemper - is astonishingly dull) that's absolutely fine. Unfortunately, in Season 8 it appears that Helms (or his agent) leveraged his movie profile to get him promoted to replace Steve Carell as the show's star, which is when the wheels of the series not so much come off as are ejected with terrifying explosive force and the directionless remnants are allowed to crash into the ground and explode. Fortunately, Helms was called in to make The Hangover 3 and is missing from more than half of the final season, allowing the show to regain most of its former quality.

The Office (USA) is an inconsistent show, sometimes maddeningly so. Its initially rocky first season, when it is too much in the shadow of the British original, soon expands into an "imperial period" of quality in Seasons 2-4 that can withstand comparison to the best seasons of any other show. There's then a three-season slow decline to the end of Season 7, during which time the show is still certainly watchable with some absolutely outstanding moments and individual episodes but also a lot of wheel-spinning, and then Season 8 is dreadful, despite the heroic efforts of recurring guest stars James Spader (who can be hilarious but his character has been teleported in from a completely different universe) and Catherine Tate, but there's a marked return to form in Season 9, culminating in a genuinely effecting final run of episodes and one of the best TV sitcom finales of all time.

The US version of The Office (***½) is, at 201 episodes, a daunting prospect to watch, especially compared to the UK version's slim and breezy 14 instalments. But it's mostly worth it, with genuinely funny (if often cringe-inducing) moments and strong characterisation helping the show transition from its early, more realistic feel to the decidedly implausible plot developments of its later seasons. The cast is exemplary and, at its best, this is a show that can withstand comparisons to the greatest of all sitcoms (especially episodes like Dinner Party, which comfortably outshines anything in the British original). However, it is also inconsistent in quality over the long run, and the disappointing run of episodes late in the show's life means that it will likely be outshone in history by the shorter, funnier and much more consistent Parks & Recreation and the conceptually much bolder The Good Place. The complete series is available to watch in the UK on Amazon Prime Video. In the US it is currently available on Netflix, but will leave the service imminently in favour of NBC's new streaming platform, Peacock.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Original DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN trilogy to get first UK audiobook release

Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series is to be released in audiobook format for the first time in the UK.

Gollancz will be releasing the original three books in the series - Dragonflight (1968), Dragonquest (1970) and The White Dragon (1978) - next month. Dragonflight and Dragonquest will be narrated by Sophie Aldred (Doctor Who) whilst The White Dragon will be read by Joe Jameson (Grantchester).

McCaffrey, who passed away in 2011, wrote, co-wrote or authorised some 29 books in the Pern series in total.

First look at CBS's unexpectedly topical adaptation of THE STAND

CBS may have found reality adhering rather uncomfortably close to fiction when their nine-part adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a global pandemic was forced to shut down due to...a global pandemic.

Whoopi Goldeberg as Mother Abigail, the enigmatic old lady who gathers the survivors together.

Fortunately, their take on The Stand was only four days from wrapping when the shutdown happened and they are hopeful that the work that still needed to be done can be picked up relatively quickly as soon as shooting restrictions are lifted.

Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo) and Rita Blakemoor (Heather Graham) trying to escape the carnage of a depopulated New York City.

CBS's version of the story differs from both the original 1978 novel and the 1994 mini-series starring Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald. The new version starts in media res, with the "Captain Trips" virus having already struck and wiped out 99% of the global population. In the United States, where the population has been reduced to just three million scattered across a vast continent, several communities have survivors have gathered, the most prominent in Boulder, Colorado. This community, which is trying to survive through cooperation and hard work, finds itself opposed by a much darker group holed up in Las Vegas, Nevada, where the darker excesses and urges of humanity have been given free reign by a mysterious, charismatic stranger named Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgard).

Owen Teague as Harold Lauder and Odessa Young as Frannie Goldsmith.

The new mini-series will focus on characters in both groups, relaying their backstory through extensive flashbacks that will inform the choices they make in the present.

Alexander Skarsgård as Randall Flagg.

The Stand, produced by Benjamin Cavell and Taylor Elmore (Justified) and directed by Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars, The New Mutants), will be released on CBS All Access in the United States in late 2020. It is assumed that either Netflix or Amazon Prime will pick up the international distribution rights, but this has not been confirmed yet.