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.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

OBLIVION remaster inching towards completion

A fan-made remaster of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has released a major update on progress, for the first time making positive noises about completion in the not-too-distant future.

The remaster is called Skyblivion, although that's become a bit of a misnomer. The starting point was remaking Oblivion in the somewhat updated engine of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but in the years since then they have also redone the lighting and rendering engine, so it's even better than Skyrim and looks a lot more modern.

At the moment the exterior worldspace is almost complete and the team are working on the dozens of dungeons and shops in the game. For the dungeons they are going beyond just recreating locations but also redesigning dungeons to be larger and more interesting (Oblivion's dungeons were infamously tiny, often not being more than very modest caves). They are also creating new art assets for the entre project and have integrated every quest from the original into the game, although there are lots of issues and bugs they are tracking down and resolving.

No timeframe for completion is given, but from the look of it and bearing in mind this is a small team working in their own time, this may now be down to a couple of years away. Impressive given the mod's long, long-gestating status.

Bethesda themselves have been supportive of mods, especially mods that update and upgrade their older games. Despite re-releasing Skyrim on multiple platforms with updated graphics, Bethesda have indicated a reluctance to go back and update Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, noting that the technical compromises they made to get those games out were severe and they'd feel the need to completely remake them, which would be a huge amount of work they'd rather divert to working on their new games.

Bethesda are currently working on a new game in a new franchise, Starfield, and Oblivion's successor, The Elder Scrolls VI. Neither project has a timeframe for release at the moment.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

A semi-HD version of BABYLON 5 has been released to streaming services

A high-definition version Babylon 5 has been released on HBO Max in the US today, until the title of "Babylon 5 Remastered." The international Amazon and iTunes version of the show have also been updated to the new format.

I previously reported last year that a "remastered" version of Babylon 5 had been released on some streaming services, although it was released in standard definition only and the only major change had been shifting the format back to the 4:3 (non-widescreen) image that the show had been originally broadcast in. This change in format was good news because it meant restoring the show's pioneering CGI to its original format. The show had originally had its live-action footage shot in and protected for widescreen, but the CG and composite (live action/effects combinations) shots were only created in 4:3. To overcome the problem, the show's previous widescreen releases (such as on DVD) had cropped the effects footage by zooming into the image until it filled the screen, resulting in a loss of image quality. However, the "remaster" in standard definition otherwise seemed a bit pointless.

Today's move significantly improves the live-action image quality, with that footage now in higher definition. Warner Brothers report that they rescanned the original film negatives to create HD live-action shots (complete with colour correction and removing damage and problems) and have improved the CG footage by reverting to the original 4:3 image and applying some up-resolution techniques. These techniques have limits - the CG and composites still look lower-resolution and somewhat blurrier than the live-action footage - but they do look moderately better than before. The biggest problem is the credits at the start of each episode which now look somewhat washed out. Also the title sequence was natively created in widescreen even in the 4:3 cut, making the titles look almost comically tiny in the centre of the screen, which is a shame but unavoidable without remaking them from scratch.

The result is, having watched one episode to completion (Season 3, Episode 10, Severed Dreams) and sampled scenes from several others (And Now For a Word, Intersections in Real Time), probably the best the show has looked to date. The live action scenes are much better and the CG, although definitely still blurrier than is ideal, is at least hugely improved over the DVDs and the previous streaming releases. The loss of the widescreen live-action footage is a shame, though, and I suspect will annoy some fans, even as the improvements to the effects shots will please many others.

The new HD-ish version of Babylon 5 is also apparently headed to Blu-Ray, with various news sites and international sellers claiming that a box set release could happen as early as March, although some sites have since changed their dates to December, suggesting a date is not fully fixed.

There are several problems with the remaster. The first is that whatever technique they used to re-scan the original footage was clearly not on a par with the excellent Star Trek: The Next Generation remaster undertaken in 2012-15. The live-action footage from that remaster looks like it was shot yesterday, the footage in Babylon 5 does...not. It's still a big improvement on what we've seen before, but it's clearly not in that league. There are still artifacts particularly in dark scenes where pixilation is clearly occurring, probably not helped by the bitrate most streaming services use; these issues may not be present on a Blu-Ray transfer.

The pilot episode, The Gathering, has also not bee remastered; the original film footage was either lost completely or badly damaged in flooding in the studio (one rumour back in the day was that the film had also been nibbled on by rats), so it is presented in standard definition.

More concerningly, there are about three minutes of material missing from Season 1, Episode 20, Babylon Squared and around two minutes missing from Season 4, Episode 1, The Hour of the Wolf. Hopefully this will be fixed soon and will not be on the Blu-Ray release.

It is clear, unfortunately but understandably given Babylon 5's relative obscurity, that Warner Brothers are not prepared to spend the ~$20 million or more it would cost to completely remaster the show properly, that is do a high-quality scan of all of the film footage and then re-render the CGI at native HD resolution in widescreen (although one fan has recently recreated some scenes using the original CG models and scene data files at a much lower cost, with impressive results).

It looks like this might be the best we're ever going to see the show looking. If so, it's a reasonable compromise and will make attracting new viewers a bit more palatable.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman confirm new DRAGONLANCE trilogy

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman have confirmed that a new Dragonlance trilogy is to be published by Random House, starting this year.

The news comes after a lawsuit between the authors and Dragonlance IP owners Wizards of the Coast (and their parent company Hasbro) in October revealed the existence of the trilogy. The authors, Random House and Wizards had negotiated a deal for three new Dragonlance books and were halfway through writing the three volumes when Wizards put the series on indefinite hold. According to the filings, Wizards were experiencing problems with PR and image after a string of controversies and had decided that pursuing another legacy project was something they didn't want to deal with. However, this meant them breaking their contract with Weis and Hickman.

With Weis and Hickman suing for $10 million and Wizards in hot water with various other controversies going on, the two parties reached an out-of-court agreement in December and the lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice (meaning that Weis and Hickman could renew the lawsuit later on if there are further issues; usually a sign that the other party has surrendered without argument).

Dragonlance is a campaign setting for the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, which has seen a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years. Many of the basic Dragonlance concepts were created by Tracy Hickman and his wife Laura in 1983, then fleshed out by a team of writers and editors who turned the basic idea into a series of adventure modules for the D&D game. Hickman teamed with editor Margaret Weis to write the original Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy novels, followed up by numerous more books in the same world. The Dragonlance Chronicles (1984-85) and Dragonlance Legends (1986) trilogies sold over four million copies before the end of the decade, making them one of the biggest-selling fantasy series of the decade. To date, the Dragonlance novels penned by Weis and Hickman have sold over 30 million copies worldwide, making them the second-biggest-selling authors of D&D fiction (only slightly behind R.A. Salvatore and his Legend of Drizzt series) and among the top fifty best-selling SFF authors of all time. Weis and Hickman have also worked widely in other settings and with original material, including the Death Gate Cycle, Rose of the Prophet Trilogy and Darksword Saga.

The setting has previously seen some controversy. In 2008 urban fantasy author Jim Butcher was approached by WotC to spearhead a full reboot of the entire Dragonlance saga, including rewriting the original trilogy as a five-book series. Butcher would only proceed with Weis and Hickman's blessing and, when that was not forthcoming, the project was abandoned.

Dragons of Deceit (working title) by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, will be published this year. Although ordinarily a new Dragonlance book or trilogy might not attract a huge amount of attention (the last few books were not well-reviewed), the combination of the lawsuit and a dearth of recent official D&D fiction (this will be only the fourth D&D-branded novel to be published in the last five years) should mean that this does rather well.

Ron Howard returns to direct WILLOW

Ron Howard has stepped up to replace Jon M. Chu as the director-producer of the upcoming Disney+ series Willow, based on the 1988 fantasy movie of the same name.

Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians and Now You See Me 2, is stepping away from the project after repeated delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic caused scheduling conflicts. Ron Howard, who directed the original movie, has agreed to take on the project at short notice. It marks the second time that Howard has stepped in to help out a Disney project that had lost its directors, after his work on the 2018 movie Solo, although this time around at least shooting had not already commenced.

The new Willow TV series is set thirty years after the original movie and once again stars Warwick Davis as Willow Ufgood. Jonathan Kasdan, the writer of Solo, has written the pilot and is working as showrunner with Wendy Mericle (Arrow).

Howard will now direct the opening episode and potentially several more instalments of the first season. It is unclear if the other surviving stars of the original film, Joanne Whalley or Val Kilmer, will appear in the series, although Kilmer has suffered extensive health issues in recent years which may preclude an appearance.

Willow is expected to start shooting in the UK in the coming months and will debut on Disney+ in 2022.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Season 1

2380. The California-class USS Cerritos is a Starfleet vessel specialising in second contact: turning up to fill out the paperwork and pick up the busywork that more prestigious ships don't have time for as they are on their way to their next adventure. A group of "lower decks" ensigns on Beta Shift are assigned to the most tedious jobs on the ship, but find themselves becoming indispensable to the operation of the vessel.

When a new, animated Star Trek series was announced a couple of years back, some serious grimacing took place among the fanbase. Alex Kurtzman's resurrection of the franchise with the live-action series Star Trek: Discovery had been a mixed bag, at best, and the fear that the new show might be Rick & Morty with a Star Trek rebranding was high. Rick & Morty head writer Mike McMahan being put in charge of the project did little to alleviate those fears.

Fortunately, those fears have been proven groundless. Star Trek: Lower Decks is, genuinely, a fresh and enjoyable take on the Star Trek mythos whilst also paying its dues to the shows and movies that have come before it. Whilst Discovery and Picard have served up some solid instalments and had good ideas, they have also more frequently felt like shows whose writers have never watched a single episode of Star Trek in their lives, serving up generic and all-too-often lifeless adventures which are a disservice to their talented casts. Lower Decks avoids these pitfalls.

There is still much here that the Star Trek hardcore purist will recoil from - the very idea of a comedy series taking place in this universe is enough for that - but on almost every level Lower Decks is a winner. The writing is sharp and funny, the storylines benefitting from the shorter, more focused run-times and, despite the gags, the tone and atmosphere is much more in line with The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (shows which managed to frequently produce, very successfully, comedy episodes like Qpid and In the Cards).

Most episodes feature classic Trek set-ups, such as the crew clashing with an alien race who have claimed salvage rights over Federation technology or a cultural misunderstanding leads to hostility with a race the Federation is trying to diplomatically win over. The twist here is that the adventures are not told from the POV of the pioneering and brave bridge crew of the Federation flagship, but from the perspective of the lowest-ranking four ensigns on a ship dedicated to paperwork and bureaucracy. The USS Cerritos is an old, ill-maintained vessel which has the dirty job of popping along to planets after much more glamorous vessels have already made first contact and headed off to their next adventure. 

The core castmembers are excellent: Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome, Space Force), an experienced officer with good instincts who has been promoted several times, but demoted again due to her irreverent attitude; Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid, The Boys), a stickler for the rules who has excellent book knowledge but is inexperienced in the field; D'Vana Tendi (Noël Wells, Master of None), an enthusiastic fan of Starfleet with an irrepressible appetite for adventure; and Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero, The Good Place) a human engineer adjusted to life with a new cybernetic implant. This foursome is key to most of the adventures, either together or divided into two teams (usually Mariner/Boimler and Tendi/Rutherford). A subplot also usually follows the bridge crew of the Cerritos as they also try to deal with whatever crisis is going on, usually with less success.

The upstairs-downstairs dynamic between the bridge crew and the lower deck officers is entertainingly handled and used as a way to comment on Star Trek tropes. So yes, the show confirms that "most" people use the holodeck for sex, not for playing poker with Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton, and that whilst some officers might like to do a jazz or classical recital in the bar, some other crewmen want to form a 1970s punk rock band instead. The show also reveals that the adventures of the most powerful and advanced ships sometimes leak out to the rest of the fleet, Starfleet Security be damned, leading to confused crewmen on other ships learning about Lore teaming up with the Borg or Dr. Crusher having a relationship with some kind of space ghost.

There is a tension in Lower Decks between self-referential humour for hardcore Star Trek fans (the sort of people who jump up and cry "WE NEED ENGINES TO MAKE US GO!" when the Pakleds show up) and making the stories and humour work for people who've never seen an episode of Star Trek in thier life. I suspect people in the latter category may occasionally be left behind by rapid-fire references to the the joggers of Rubicun who murder people for walking on the grass, cameo appearances by Q and debates over the racial stereotyping of the Ferengi (a reference to the heated, real-life debate about the Ferengi being racial stereotypes of Jews or not). But the show also does a good job of rooting the conflict of any episode in contemporary issues related to characterisation: Boimler's perfectionism, Mariner's fun-loving hyper-competence being undermined by her lack of confidence in pursuing a Starfleet career and so forth. This allows episodes to stand alone even when they are fair to brimming with references to quasi-obscure episodes of a TV show that aired the better part of forty years ago (or even to the original series more than fifty years ago).

Aside from the self-referential tics, there aren't too many negatives. A few of the episode premises are stronger than others, and a few gags threaten to feel tired: a holodeck version of Microsoft's Clippy feels like a gag unearthed by archaeologists and carefully chiselled free, although it does then result in one of the show's finest, extended comedic sequences, so it's hard to be too down on that. The show also makes the Discovery/Picard mistake of feeling a little too reliant on bringing in characters and events from other Trek shows to save the day rather than letting our heroes stand alone. These minor issues are offset by the entertaining tone of adventure and exploration.

The first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks (****½) is easily the finest slice of Trek to emerge since the 2005 hiatus, and the most enjoyable season of Star Trek to air this century. With breezy writing, fun characters and a comedic tone set over genuine Star Trek ideals, it shades its recent live-action siblings. The season is available to watch now on CBS All Access in the USA and on Amazon Prime in much of the rest of the world. A second season is currently in production and should air later this year.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Seinfeld: The Complete Series

Jerry Seinfeld is a comedian in New York City who is constantly searching for new material. He finds it in the minutiae of everyday life, particularly his interactions with his old friend George Constanza, ex-girlfriend-turned-friend Elaine Benes and next-door neighbour Kramer. The foursome's increasingly odd adventures provide material for Seinfeld's career, but their lack of "hugging and learning" eventually spells their own downfall.

Airing between 1989 and 1998, Seinfeld is an odd entry in the pantheon of Great American Sitcoms. Most American sitcoms had and still have elements of heart-warming effusiveness, friendship and emotion. Characters may screw up or cause mayhem, but at the end of the day their problems would be resolved with the help of their friends or family. Some shows had started experimenting and playing around with this formula (M*A*S*H* with its wartime storytelling, Cheers with its serialised, soap-like character arcs) but Seinfeld was the first one to come along and, if not outright reject, then downplay those elements. One of the show's unofficial mottoes was "no hugging, no learning." Characters would frequently cause untold mayhem through their actions, words or inaction and go on to do exactly the same thing. Seinfeld acknowledged that a lot of lives don't really have an arc of growth and change but instead people finding a way of spinning their experiences into self-validation, even in the face of obvious truth that they've hurt others or themselves.

In this sense the "show about nothing" was really the "show about everything." No anecdote, story or idea was too small or too trivial not to be considered for a storyline. NBC famously blew a fuse early on when an entire episode was spent waiting in the line for a Chinese restaurant and writer-producers Seinfeld and Larry David had to stare them down to get the episode made. Entire episodes revolved around parking spaces, soup and the annoyances of just traversing the subway. Continuing storylines revolved around relationships, family and jobs, in particular George and Elaine's struggles to find interesting jobs that would reward their laziness and dislike of other people.

Unlike many sitcoms, the show did not take too long to find its feet. After a somewhat indifferent pilot, the short-run second season almost immediately established the familiar character dynamics and tone. An "imperial period" of top-quality would extend from at least the third season to the end of the seventh, with the fourth year being particularly impressive for its introduction of a season-spanning arc. An early example of metahumour, the season is about George (Larry David's obvious author-insert character) and Jerry being hired by NBC to make a sitcom Jerry's life. The development of the sitcom-within-a-sitcom allowed the writers to make jokes about the show's own catchphrases, cliches and some of its real off-air drama (such as Larry David's real next-door neighbour who'd become incensed when he based Kramer on him without letting him audition for the role). Arguably no other sitcom would tackle the actual issues of making a sitcom until Episodes in 2011-17, and that was a patchier show.

Likewise, the seventh season opens with George realising he's doomed to a life of loneliness and he quickly tries to rekindle a relationship with his ex, Susan, which then goes overboard and he ends up getting engaged...just before remembering why they split up in the first place, leading to a season of increasingly desperate moves as George tries to escape his fate (the highly-memorable conclusion being the departing Larry David's last-minute hail Mary when he couldn't think of another ending).

David's departure at the end of Season 7 created a creative void in the show which it initially struggled to fill; the first half of Season 8 is the nadir of the show, with bizarre premises and a lack of the detailed, slice-of-life stories that made the show such a success. The show undergoes a creative resurgence in the latter part of the eighth season and into the ninth, however, as the new writing team get to grips with the situation. Infamously, David's return for the finale would prove to be highly controversial, with the episode seemingly determined to make the four friends out to be rather more selfish, amoral and reprehensible than they were usually depicted as being.

Seinfeld's strengths remain its writing, which is still sharp and funny. Guest characters are usually well-drawn and intriguing, with many becoming recurring players as the writers found additional ways of mining them for more stories. In this sense the unusually small regular cast became a bonus, allowing them to thread in other characters as needed without having to balloon the weekly cast out to a huge size (a problem faced by Cheers towards the end of its run). If the writers had material for George's monstrous parents, Elaine's unhinged boss or Jerry's arch-nemesis Newman, they could bring them in and if not, leave them out. The actors mostly do a good job, with Seinfeld himself being the weakest link (by his own cheerful admission) and a key reason why Seinfeld is usually more reacting to the craziness that his three friends have gotten into than driving storylines himself. This kind of generosity in ostensibly the leading man of a successful TV show is quite unusual.

Like any show which runs for nine years and 180 episodes the series does have repetitive tropes which occasionally become wearying: Jerry and George's problems often revolve around their latest girlfriend or relationship issue, with a seemingly never-ending revolving door of attractive actresses passing through the show. It's notable that these relationship stories become better when the partners actually stick around for a bit longer and get better-defined characters. There's also a few episodes where Kramer's latest "whacky hijinks" feel stretched past of the point of lunacy. The continuous character clashes between George and Elaine also make it hard to swallow that these people would be friends and hang out, at least without Jerry being around. These issues do become more marked in the final two seasons, when the show's creative juices are starting to run dry. Some may also find subsequent events - such as Michael Richards' racist-filled tirade against audience members during a standup performance many years later, or Seinfeld dating a teenager at the height of his fame - colour their appreciation of the show in retrospect.

Seinfeld (****½) is an often hilarious, smart and well-played comedy series, arguably the greatest of its time, and one that paved the way for many shows that have come since. Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO takes the Seinfeld formula and propels it into the stratosphere. Similarly, FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia seems to ask what would happen if you made the actual show that Seinfeld is often accused of being, a dystopian nightmare of several hateful characters forced to live and work together and getting into at-times nihilistic misadventures. Some patchy later seasons and over-used tics are minor weaknesses for a show that's aged well. The show is available on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK and USA. Netflix will begin streaming the show in its entirety later in 2021.

RIP Mira Furlan

In tragic news, actress Mira Furlan has passed away at the age of 65.

Furlan was born in Zagreb, Croatia, in the former Yugoslavia. She became interested in acting as a teenager, and learned English due to being a fan of American and British music. She studied acting at college and made her TV debut in 1976 in a TV movie, Knez. She became a regular on television in the series Velo Misto in 1980-81 and gained acclaim for her performance in the 1985 movie, When Father Was Away on Business.

Furlan married her Serbian husband, director Goran Gajić, in the late 1980s and commuted between Zagreb and Belgrade where he was directing plays. She appeared in productions in both cities. Although Furlan considered herself a Yugoslav first and foremost, this became an unpopular position as the country was riven by fierce nationalism between its constituent parts. In 1991, after the civil war that would lead to the break-up of Yugoslavia began, she was fired from the Croatian National Theatre for refusing to stop acting in Serbia. After some discussion, she and her husband fled the country and moved to New York City.

A year later, they relocated to Los Angeles when Furlan was cast in her most famous role, that of Minbari Ambassador Delenn in Babylon 5. The role was challenging, as Furlan had to act through significant prosthetics. In addition, she had to play a character whose gender was indeterminate, who would undergo a metamorphosis at the end of the first season to become female. Although she was fine with the prosthetics, she was less happy when she learned her voice was going to be electronically distorted to hide her gender as well. It was decided to drop this idea for the pilot. When the show was renewed for a full season, it was also decided to modify her makeup to be less restrictive. The metamorphosis saw the makeup reduced further, which helped make Furlan more identifiable with her character.

Furlan played Delenn in all five seasons of Babylon 5, becoming one of the show's leading players, and in several spin-off TV movies based on the series, as well as an unreleased video game.

She also voiced the role of Silver Sable on the Spider-Man animated show and was a guest star on several other shows.

In 2004 she was cast on the television series Lost, the biggest show on American TV, playing the role of French castaway Danielle Rousseau. She appeared in twenty episodes spanning the whole show; her character was killed off in the fourth season, but she was able to reappear in the final season thanks to flashbacks, time travel and parallel universes.

In addition to acting on stage and screen, she did voice work for several video games: Payday 2 (2013), Elite: Dangerous (2014), Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (2016) and Mafia: Definitive Edition (2020). Her recent roles include Vonn Odara on Space Command and the Traveller on Just Add Magic. During recent years, Furlan was a frequent attendee at Babylon 5 fan conventions.

Furlan had been ill for some time, although there had been hopes of improvement recently. Babylon 5 showrunner J. Michael Straczynski confirmed her passing on social media. She is survived by her husband and son. An intense and skilled performer, she will be missed.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

GAME OF THRONES prequel series based on Dunk & Egg in development at HBO

In surprising news, Variety has learned that HBO are developing another Game of Thrones prequel series, this time based on George R.R. Martin's Dunk & Egg series of novellas. This is in addition to House of the Dragon, which is currently in pre-production and casting, and the Long Night pilot, Bloodmoon, which was shot in 2019 but HBO declined to pursue to series.

The Dunk & Egg stories begin eighty-nine years before the events of Game of Thrones (or the first Song of Ice and Fire novel, A Game of Thrones) and chart the adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall, a newly-minted common or hedge knight, and his squire, "Egg," a young boy who is more than he seems. George R.R. Martin has so far written three novellas about the characters: The Hedge Knight (1998), The Sworn Sword (2002) and The Mystery Knight (2010), with these three stories combined and released as A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms in 2015. Martin had planned for around twelve stories in total spanning some fifty years, with the next two, The She-Wolves (not the final title) and The Village Hero, already sketched out and partly written, but on hold until he completes the next Song of Ice and Fire novel. He also alludes to Dunk and Egg's further adventures in his companion book, The World of Ice and Fire (2014), as well as seeding mentions of their adventures in the mainline series novels. Duncan is also mentioned several times in the Game of Thrones TV series.

The Dunk & Egg stories are extremely popular with fans and have seemed ripe for adaptation for many years. Martin has downplayed such a possibility due to his disappointment that HBO overtook him with the main TV series and did not want to repeat the process with Dunk & Egg. Martin has reiterated this many times over the years, to the point of refusing even to hear pitches about the idea. Martin's contract with HBO gives Martin veto over future Game of Thrones spin-offs that do not meet his approval (at the cost that he cannot take material set in the same world to other networks or studios).

The fact that a series is now in development indicates that Martin has changed his mind. It may be that Martin has concluded that with The Winds of Winter already nine years in the works and a further novel to follow, it will simply be far too long before he is able to focus on Dunk & Egg and the stories will not get written in a reasonable timeframe if he continues to wait. This way, he can provide outlines for each of the twelve stories and have other writers develop them into scripts, and they can reach fans much more quickly.

From HBO's point of view, there is tremendous value to the project. It is much closer to the timeframe of Game of Thrones itself and characters from the earlier series can actually appear (the notorious Walder Frey actually appears as a baby in The Mystery Knight). The stories are more straightforward, eschewing the high-budget magic and massive battles of the parent series in favour of more focused adventures on the roads of Westeros. A more episodic road-trip of a series would also contrast favourably with House of the Dragon, which is likely to be very expensive and complex in its storytelling.

The project is in very early days at HBO and HBO have not yet made a pilot or series order, and it may yet not make the grade. However, it sounds like HBO are very keen to get the ball rolling on a series. If so, we should hear more news later this year.

Meanwhile, House of the Dragon is currently knee-deep in casting. It recently added Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen, Emma D'Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Olivia Cooke as Lady Alicent Hightower, along with Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen. Shooting is expected to begin at the Warner Brothers Studios, Leavesden, in the next few weeks for a 2022 debut.

EDIT: James Hibberd at Entertainment Weekly has added more information, confirming that a number of other Game of Thrones-related pitches are currently circulating at HBO and that the network is looking to woo back Bruno Heller, who created and ran the series Rome for them in 2005-07, to get involved. Apparently one pitch under discussion is a show based on Robert's Rebellion, the civil war that brought King Robert Baratheon to power, and is set only seventeen years before the events of Game of Thrones itself, with younger versions of characters like Ned Stark, Littlefinger, Ser Barristan Selmy and Jaime and Tywin Lannister playing key roles. George has been much more vociferous that a Rebellion-era series is unnecessary, which makes me wonder if all these reported pitches are actually pitches to George rather than having already consulted with him. If so that may cast the likelihood of a Dunk & Egg series in some doubt (although I could see George relenting on D&E long before the Rebellion).

Hibberd reports that HBO are looking at Game of Thrones as a streamer-establishing franchise for the HBO Max service, hoping to replicate the huge success of the various Star Wars and MCU shows (so far) on Disney+ and the multiple Star Trek shows on CBS All Access, and it sounds like projects are also in development.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

HBO Max reportedly planning a continuation of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES

According to Kevin Smith and other sources, HBO Max are planning a continuation of the classic Batman: The Animated Series.

Batman: The Animated Series aired between 1992 and 1995, producing 85 episodes and spawning a number of spin-off shows and series set in the same continuity. The series is one of the most highly-acclaimed animated and superhero TV series of all time and has recently reached new audiences through a HD remaster and appearing on streaming services.

The show drew on Tim Burton's live-action movies Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) for artistic inspiration, although it also charted its own course with unique characterisations for Bruce Wayne/Batman, Robin and Joker. The vocal performances by Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (Joker) and Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn) have also become regarded as iconic, if not definitive. The show is also highly notable for its additions to the Batman mythos, most infamously the character of Harley Quinn who was introduced in the animated series before migrating to the comic a year later. Renee Montoya, Lock-Up and Simon Trent are other characters originated on the series to play a role in other versions of the mythos later on.

The Animated Series version of the mythos directly inspired the storylines and characterisation in the Arkham series of video games, which also starred Conroy, Hamill and (in the first game, at least) Sorkin.

Smith indicates that Bruce Timm, the original showrunner and co-creator, is involved in the new series. It's unclear if writer Paul Dini is also on board, or if the original vocal cast will return; Hamill, at least, has said that his version of Joker has been retired (although he's also been tempted out of retirement in the past).

If the continuation is confirmed, it is unclear if it would be a reboot in the same art style or if it would continue the storylines from where the animated show left off. This might be complicated by the sheer number of other series which have followed on from The Animated Series (including a contemporary Superman series and the SF-tinged Batman Beyond).

HBO Max has not yet formally confirmed the news.