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, 11 August 2022

Subnautica: Below Zero

Scientist Robin Ayou is dissatisfied with the official reports about the death of her sister, Samantha. Samantha died on the remote planet 4546B due to "employee negligence," according to Alterra Corporation. With Alterra withdrawing all personnel from the planet for unknown reasons, Robin smuggles herself onto 4546B and finds an arctic zone teeming with life and unexplained mysteries, some alluding to the disappearance of the starship Aurora in the vicinity. Robin's investigations into her sister's fate leads her to meet survivors of other expeditions...some from a very long time ago, and not even human.

Below Zero started life as an expansion or DLC for the original Subnautica but, as is so often the case, developed over time into an original title. This leaves it as that sometimes confusing beast, the "stand-alone expansion," a game that is smaller and more focused than the original but is newer, so has somewhat shinier graphics and improved quality-of-life features, like a better user interface and expanded base-building options.

As with most expansions (standalone or not), it would be very easy to say, "if you like Subnautica, you'll like this," and leave it at that. That is, as far is goes, true. However, Below Zero is something of a different beast to its forebear, being both slightly more difficult and somewhat more focused on its narrative.

The original Subnautica had you (playing Ryley Robinson) as the sole survivor of a starship crash, left initially fending for survival in tropical waters and later having to find your way off the planet whilst also battling an alien infection. The narrative elements were light, mostly appearing only in PDA entries and voice logs. Still, these elements drew players deeper and deeper below the planet's surface, eventually finding a way of curing their disease and fabricating the parts needed to build an escape shuttle.

Below Zero has you arriving on the planet deliberately, in search of your missing sister, although your only way of getting there is to hitch a lift with a passing ship and bailing out when nearby, with no ultimate exit strategy. This time you land in an arctic region, which introduces a major new problem that Ryley didn't have to worry about: freezing to death. Sticking your head above water long enough to breathe is fine, but staying out of the water for a few minutes is an invitation to turn into a popsicle. Building a base and vehicles are therefore more urgent tasks than in the original game, since these provide a respite from both suffocation and hypothermia during your explorations of the planet. However, building materials have been changed slightly since the original game, making building up a base slightly more difficult. Titanium, in particular, is thinner on the ground since you have not got a thousand-metre long wrecked starship leaving a miles-long trail of titanium parts across the biome this time around. A Subnautica veteran will overcome these issues in short order, but newcomers may find a game with a tricky difficulty curve.

As with Subnautica, the early part of the game is spent building up resources and building your initial tools, starting with a knife and expanding to torches, a base-building nano-device and small vehicles, like a "Seatruck," which can be expanded later on with additional modules (thus combining the functionality of the both the Seamoth submersible and the giant Cyclops submarine from the original game). Acquiring more tools and more equipment allows you to dive for longer and travel further across the map, eventually discovering the various Alterra facilities your sister was working at. Finding clues in each base leads you to the next location of note. Below Zero's selling point is that at several points your mission will lead you onto land, onto the massive frozen landmasses that envelop the map around its northern edge. Avoiding freezing is even harder than avoiding suffocating, requiring you to use vehicles (like the trusty Prawn Suit, returning from the OG game, or the new Snowfox hover-bike) or make judicious use of spicy food or standing next to hot springs.

All of this is mostly fun. Things are enhanced by a larger array of base-building options, with large, multi-purpose rooms and control rooms (allowing you to control power distribution and the visual theme of the base better) now available. The developers have also dramatically upgraded the game's engine, with slightly better graphics, far less crashes and clipping and some nice new options, like the ability to pin ingredients to your screen to stay on top of the things you are looking for. A new handheld scanner also makes locating minerals easier, though its range is extremely limited.

The traditional Subnautica gameplay loop - find, build, explore, repeat - remains compelling, but Below Zero does have a few limitations which means it's not quite as exciting this time around. The first is that Below Zero is a smaller game. The area of explorable ocean and seabed is much smaller and it's not as deep a game. Literally. In Subnautica you could drop down about two kilometres below the planet's surface, but Below Zero barely reaches half that, and there's not much in the deepest areas that require you to stay down there. This combination means that there's no Cyclops super-submarine - it literally couldn't fit down the crevasses leading to the deeper biomes - commanding which was possibly the single greatest thing about the original game.

In addition, exploring the surface arctic biomes is initially a refreshing change, but rapidly becomes more tedious. It's too easy to get turned around and end up walking in circles, and the various hostile creatures you encounter (the Snow Stalkers and Ice Worm Leviathans) are more inconvenient than actually dangerous. It's also a shorter game, easily completable in under 30 hours, whilst the original game took at least 40 hours to polish off and there was greater encouragement to do optional tasks like building bases in every biome or exploring more for the sake of exploration. You can still do stuff like that in Below Zero, but the much smaller map means you'll exhaust the game's opportunities pretty quickly.

I did enjoy Below Zero's more present story. The original Subnautica could be very obtuse in letting you know what your next goal actually was, whilst Below Zero makes it clearer through voice logs and even (gasp) actual cutscenes and conversations with other characters what your next goal is. The same dual mission structure as the original game is in play here as well, with you originally having to cure an alien plague to shut down a defence system before you could escape the planet. In Below Zero you have to find out what happened to your sister, complete her mission and then deal with a secondary objective related to various alien ruins on the planet. Those who enjoyed the sparseness of the original game (where your character never spoke, unlike here) might feel the story more intrusive here, but in reality the game is still 95% you doing your own thing to 5% story, as opposed to the original game's 99% to 1%. I also enjoyed the fact that there's more friendly flora and fauna, like the Sea Monkeys who are an initial annoyance but later help you find resources.

Subnautica: Below Zero (****) is not Subnautica 2, but it is a fun, enjoyable game that takes the original game's appeal, sands off some of the rough edges and introduces some quality of life improvements that make the game flow better, as well as featuring a better story. However, it does also struggle with a slightly steeper learning curve than the original game, the absence of some fan-favourite creatures and vehicles, and a significantly smaller map. I would certainly recommend that newcomers start with the original Subnautica before moving onto this game. Below Zero is available now for PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and X/S, and Nintendo Switch.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

The Sandman: Season 1

1916. English sorcerer Roderick Burgess, distraught over the death of his son at Gallipoli, seeks to bind and imprison Death itself. His plan misfires and instead he captures Dream. Dream is unable to give Burgess what he wants, and eventually Burgess leaves him to rot in a glass prison in his cellar. During Dream's absence, his realm, the Dreaming, falls into disrepair and many dreams and nightmares escape into the world of the living. Some people also fall into a permanent sleep, a sleeping sickness that lasts decades and claims thousands. Eventually Dream escapes, and finds he must return his realm to order and reclaim the dreams and nightmares...even those who are prepared to do anything to retain their liberty.

Adapting The Sandman for the screen is a Herculean task. Neil Gaiman's 76-issue comic series ran from 1988 to 1996 and was collected as ten dense graphic novels, telling stories spanning thousands of years and involving a cast running into the hundreds. At the centre of it all is Dream or Morpheus, a non-human anthropomorphic personification of the concept of dreams. In many issues Dream doesn't even show up, or only has a brief cameo. The series alternates between epic story arcs and self-contained fables, and the tone can spin on a dime from comedy to tragedy to outright horror to fantasy to historical drama. Very minor moments in earlier issues can have massive ramifications fifty issues later.

There is also the legacy that Sandman has accrued. The series occupies a space in comics similar to what The Lord of the Rings does in fantasy novels, a dominant force whose sheer name value and beloved following makes tackling an adaptation a humbling and challenging task. Fortunately, at least in this case the original creator was on hand to help tackle the adaptation and guide it to the screen.

Netflix's The Sandman is an unabashed triumph, something that is a relief to say after so many recent streaming adaptations of beloved fantasy works were underwhelming, if not outright terrible. The one-two punch in recent weeks of Sandman and Amazon's splendid tackling of Brian K. Vaughan's Paper Girls may make one wonder if streaming services are turning a corner and are now producing better adaptations, but I suspect we will continue to see variable results moving forwards.

The Sandman works because it combines a talented cast of actors, directors, vfx personnel and behind the scenes crew with excellent judgement over how to develop the source material. Some episodes are lifted from issues of the comic almost verbatim, with Gaiman's almost-thirty-five-year-old material still feeling as fresh and engrossing as when it was originally committed to paper. Other episodes see the source material reimagined or tackled in a different way due to practical concerns, or cost, or not having the rights to certain characters or ideas, and in every case the judgement is sound.

The first season of the TV series adapts the first two graphic novels in the series, Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House, constituting the first sixteen issues of the comic. In the former story arc, Dream is imprisoned, escapes and sets about repairing the Dreaming and recovering three of the symbols of office (a ruby, a bag of sand and a helmet), which involves confronting a murderous killer, tracking down a demon-hunter in contemporary London and descending into Hell itself for a tense audience with Lucifer. In the latter, Dream sets out to recover three missing inhabitants of the Dreaming who escaped during his imprisonment, as well as investigating the appearance of a "dream vortex" which threatens the fabric of reality.

The adaptation collapses these two stories into ten episodes (some of them surprisingly short by modern standards) and overlaps them a little bit more than in the comics, positing the Corinthian (a brilliant Boyd Holbrook) as more of an antagonist for the entire season. The result is a compelling pace, with excellently-crafted cliffhangers demanding you watch just one more episode. This is enhanced by brilliant casting: Tom Sturridge has a hard job playing the taciturn, oft-emotionless Dream, but he manages the impossible by nailing Dream's implacability but also giving him brief bursts of humour and charisma. Vivienne Acheampong is outstanding as the fussy librarian Lucienne, who keeps the Dreaming ticking over in Dream's absence, and Kyo Ra is superb as Rose Walker, the closest thing we have a to a "regular human" lead in the story.

Other actors appear just for one episode or so, but are fantastic: David Thewliss is chilling as John Dee, Jenna Coleman is suitably bedrazzled as walking human dumpster fire Johanna Constantine (a rights-enforced gender flip of John "Hellblazer" Constantine) and Gwendoline Christie is fire and ice personified as Lucifer Morningstar. Ferdinand Kingsley is also outstanding as Hob Gadling, an ordinary human whom is gifted immortality by the Endless on a whim to see how he handles it, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste imbues Death with the whimsy, humour, wisdom and depth of her comics counterpart.

Contained within the first season was the tricky mandate to adapt three of the greatest individual issues of comics ever published into live-action: "Twenty-Four Hours" (here realised as episode five, 24/7), "The Sound of Her Wings" and "Men of Good Fortune" (here combined into episode six, The Sound of Her Wings). "Twenty-Four Hours" had to be changed a fair bit, due to the absence of a narrating figure and limits on the amount of horror even Netflix can put on screen, but the end result is still fascinating (and horrific). But The Sound of Her Wings is flawless, taking the two vaguely related stories from the comic (the first in which Dream spends a day watching his sister, Death, at work, and the second in which Dream spends one day every 100 years meeting Hob Gadling, who may or may not be a friend) and combining them into a beautiful hour of drama.

Flaws are almost non-existent: Mervyn Pumpkinead's CGI feels a bit stiff compared to the flawless vfx elsewhere, and the utterly brilliant end credits (which vary from episode to episode) barely have a chance to start before Netflix forces them off the screen for the next episode. And that's really about it.

The first season (*****) builds to a suitably epic conclusion, with quiet moments that readers of the comics know will have a seismic impact further down the road, but ultimately leaves the viewer shocked that the team have managed the impossible: they have taken The Sandman and made a superb television series out of it. The hope now is that they can continue.

The first season of The Sandman is available to watch on Netflix worldwide right now and I recommend you avail yourself of the opportunity to catch up on it as soon as possible.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest

Menhir Forest is in danger. The Archdruid has gone missing and a horrible growth, known as "the Cancer," is spreading through the forest, consuming everything in its path. Corrupted, dangerous creatures are appearing. The druids call upon three allies to help investigate and solve the crisis: Aava, the Archdruid's daughter and a keen archer; Leonhard, the Warden, a mighty warrior with a mysterious past that he cannot remember; and Oiko, a renegade Red Priest who has rejected the evil ways of his former colleagues.

Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest is an intriguing game which mixes several influences: tactics games, like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Final Fantasy Tactics; JRPGs, particularly the Final Fantasy series; and old-school games which rewarded tactical thinking and creative combinations of abilities, perhaps unsurprising given the same creative team worked on the throwback Legend of Grimrock series. It is more accessible than Legend of Grimrock, and can easily be summed up as "fantasy XCOM" (even if it's not quite as accomplished in that field as the Banner Saga trilogy).

The game proceeds from quest to quest with your fellowship assigned a primary objective, achieving which immediately ends the mission, and secondary objectives. Secondary objectives are not essential to complete the mission, but they are essential to acquire gemstones, which boost your abilities. You will very quickly learn that these gemstones are not optional and are urgently needed to make some of the later missions achievable in any fashion.

Each mission plays out in a familiar XCOM style, with a grid across which your characters can move and take actions. You can move up to an allowance and attack, but attacking does not end your movement, so can pop out of cover to get line-of-sight on an enemy, fire off an arrow or magical attack, and then nip back into cover, which creates lots of intriguing tactical options. One limitation is that if you are adjacent to an enemy, you cannot move away from them without triggering an opportunity attack (the same is also true for you), although several items and abilities do allow you to accomplish this.

You have a baseline of abilities and levelling up your character allows you to add new abilities. More important are the gemstones, which enhance the abilities you already have. These may allow you to add more damage or a status effect to an attack, or simply use the ability more often. Using abilities usually replaces an attack action, but some are free-to-use and can combine with attacks or movements to impressive effect. Your magic-users can utilised "Focus" to enhance their magical abilities, such as taking Fire from a single-target ability to an area-of-effect ability that can hit up to nine enemies if they are standing closely together (or if you manipulate or trick the enemy into bunching together). Oiko has an underrated ability to swap places with any unit in his line of sight (friend or foe) which allows you to increase the range of your melee characters' movement (Oiko moves up to his maximum, swap-teleports with a melee character who can then move to the maximum of their movement, allowing them to get into combat a round earlier than just waiting for the enemy to approach).

Progress is mostly linear, although at key points you have a choice of several missions to proceed with. You can also revisit previously-completed missions to gain more experience and gold, although the amount you gain each time you replay a mission dwindles with each playthrough. You can also only get bonus gems from any given mission once. This does allow you to sometimes complete a mission without getting the bonus objectives and then coming back later on once your overall strength has improved.

Graphically, the game is solid but not amazing and the music is pleasant, even if more than one tune only narrowly avoids have Square Enix's lawyers frowning and reaching for the telephone. The user interface is great and an "undo move" button is a welcome sight given how easy it is to accidentally move somewhere you didn't want to go. More annoying is the way that Oiko's "teleport" and "forcebolt" icons are very similar, meaning you sometimes end up swapping places with an enemy you meant to attack and vice versa.

In terms of story, the game is okay but the lack of any voiceovers at all feels a bit outdated (as much as it kept the game's budget down). There's also sometimes far too much dialogue before a mission starts, little of it interesting. The story is also a bit odd, one subplot where a character is possessed by a another being and stays that way for the rest of the game being weirdly under-explored. There's also a strange thing where you really (eventually) have five party-members, but to bring the fifth party member into the battle requires summoning them at the start of every mission. It feels like they should really have just been in the party all along.

Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest (****) is not going to be winning any prizes for originality, but it is a tightly-designed fantasy tactics game with a nice story, interesting characters and some fiendishly designed missions. These make up for a sometimes confusing UI and a lack of voice acting in the game. The title is available now on PC.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Monday, 1 August 2022

Blogging Roundup: 1 June to 31 July 2022

The Wertzone




Atlas of Ice and Fire


Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Disney+ delays STAR WARS TV show ANDOR

Disney+ has delayed the launch of its next Star Wars TV series, Andor, by three weeks. The show will now launch on 21 September.

Andor is a prequel to the movie Rogue One and follows a young Cassian Andor as he takes up arms against the Empire for the first time. However, the film also has a more epic scope and follows Mon Mothma and other dignitaries on Coruscant as they take their first faltering steps in opposing the tyrannical government that the Galactic Empire has become. Other storylines span the Star Wars galaxy instead of the very tight focus on single characters from The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The reason for moving Andor is unclear, but there is speculation that it was to move it out of a crowded launch window which would have seen it going head-to-head with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (17 August), House of the Dragon (21 August) and The Rings of Power (2 September).

Andor sees Diego Luna reprise his role as Cassian Andor from Rogue One. Forest Whitaker also returns as Saw Gerrera, a role he played in Rogue One and also in Star Wars: Rebels. Genevieve O'Reilly returns as Mon Mothma, a role she played in Rogue One and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Stellan Skarsgård also stars as Luthen. Adria Arjona, Kyle Soller, Fiona Shaw, Anton Lesser, Ben Miles, Robert Emms and David Hayman have unconfirmed roles.

Sunday, 31 July 2022

RIP Nichelle Nichols

News has sadly broken that Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols has passed away at the age of 89.

Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, in 1932. Nichols' father was a factory worker who was elected mayor of Robbins in 1929. Nichols became interested in acting at school and studied in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as at the Chicago Ballet Academy.

After a number of lower-profile stage roles, her big break came in appearing in Kicks and Co. on stage in 1961. Although the play closed early, Nichols attracted positive notices and also began a side-career in modelling. She continued acting on stage, attracting higher-profile roles in Carmen Jones in Chicago and Porgy and Bess in New York. Her acting in musicals also opened an occasional career in music, singing with the Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington bands and later recording two albums.

On screen, she appeared in the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess as an uncredited dancer, but achieved a breakthrough in Hollywood in 1966, appearing in the films Tarzan's Deadly Silence, Made in Paris and Mister Buddwing. Her first television role came in 1964 in The Lieutenant, playing Norma Bartlett in the episode To Set It Right (alongside Dennis Hopper). Nichols' performance impressed producer Gene Roddenberry, who held her in mind for a science fiction television series he was developing.

In 1966 Nichols was cast as Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer of the starship Enterprise in Roddenberry's Star Trek. Nichols' role as a prominent African-American woman in a position of some authority on a starship was unprecedented and Nichols attracted significant fan mail, particularly from young black women who saw her as a role model. Despite the attention and profile, Nichols quickly realised that she was not likely to be the star of many episodes, as the focus shifted from an ensemble piece to a tight focus on the triumvirate of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley as Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Due to her low number of lines, Nichols considered leaving the show after the first season to resume her career on Broadway and even handed her resignation in to Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry urged her to take the weekend to reconsider. At a charity event over the weekend, Nichols met Dr. Martin Luther King who told her he was an enormous fan and her work was inspiring to himself and to the Civil Rights Movement. He also told her she was hugely inspiring to the next generation of young children, particularly black girls, who otherwise had very few role models on television. Nichols agreed to stay.

Despite nearly losing her from the show, Roddenberry rarely gave Nichols a starring role in episodes. He did, however, cause enormous controversy by producing an episode in which Uhura and Kirk kiss, Plato's Stepchildren. Apparently the nervous director suggested they film a "backup" version of the scene without the kiss. However, Shatner and Nichols both purposefully screwed up the other takes, leaving the scene with the kiss as the only usable take. This is sometimes - inaccurately - portrayed as the first interracial kiss on American television, although it was publicised as such at the time and caused a certain amount of attention. In her autobiography, Nichols noted that she was romantically involved with Roddenberry following their meeting on The Lieutenant, although the relationship was over by the time she was working on Star Trek. She remained friends with Roddenberry and his later wife Majel Barrett, and sang at his funeral in 1991.

Following the cancellation of Star Trek in 1969, Nichols agreed to return to voice her character in Star Trek: The Animated Series. In one episode Uhura took command of the Enterprise, whilst she played a more prominent role in several episodes compared to the live-action show.

Nichols began to work closely with NASA, with a view to inspiring women and minority recruits to sign up to work with the organisation. The program was highly successful and credited with recruiting Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut. As part of her NASA work, Nichols was invited as a special guest in 1976 to watch both the Viking 1 landing on Mars and the first flight of the American space shuttle Enterprise.

In 1979 she returned to the role of Uhura in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and reprised it in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). For her appearance in Star Trek V, Uhura infamously danced naked with only two strategically-placed fans and a phaser for comfort, which Nichols found amusing.

In 1994 she published her autobiography Beyond Uhura, which focused on all aspects of her career. She indicated that her greatest pride came from assisting NASA in the space program, which continued well into the 21st Century.

As an inspiration to younger generations, Nichols found herself being cast in later life in roles by fans, including reprising Uhura for a Star Trek fan production called Of Gods and Men in 2007. She also had small roles on Heroes (2007), The Cabonauts (2009) and The Young and the Restless (2016). She memorably played both herself and Uhura in episodes of Futurama.

Nichols had a significant number of awards, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1992), a Goldene Kamera (1999), an honorary degree from Los Angeles Mission College (2010), the Life Career Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films (2016) and the Inkpot Award (2018). She also had an asteroid, 68410 Nichols, named in her honour.

Nichelle Nichols passed away on Saturday 30 July 2022, whilst staying with her son in Silver City, New Mexico. She had been suffering from health issues for several years, including a stroke in 2016 and being diagnosed with dementia in 2018, which caused her to announce her retirement. She is survived by her son Kyle Johnson. An inspiration to many, Nichelle Nichols will be very much missed.

Nichols' passing leaves the surviving original Star Trek castmembers as William Shatner, Walter Koenig and George Takei.

Paper Girls: Season 1

 November 1st, 1988. Erin Tieng starts her first-ever early morning paper round, to the distress of her over-protective mother. She meets three other paper girls doing the same neighbourhood: Tiffany Quilkin, Mac Coyle and KJ Brandman. Their first challenges are late-night revellers and pranksters not over Halloween, followed by an escalation to getting involved in a temporal war spanning thousands of years. The girls have to navigate the timelines to find a way home, whilst also learning maybe far more than they should about their own personal futures.

Paper Girls started life as a comic by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang, which launched in 2015. The comic ran for 30 issues, ending in 2019 and wracking up significant critical acclaim along the way, including five Eisner Awards. Along with Stranger Things - which launched on Netflix ten months later - the comic was credited as being part of a wave of 1980s nostalgia-driven properties. Unlike Stranger Things, Paper Girls was credited for interrogating its nostalgia in a deeper way, and shining a light on the less pleasant aspects of the time period.

The television adaptation of Paper Girls is that rarest of beasts: a television adaptation that significantly improves on its source material. The same creative team as the brilliant Halt and Catch Fire are involved, so are no strangers to the 1980s nostalgia bandwagon with a darker and more cynical twist. But Paper Girls works primarily because the writers have the confidence to slow the comic's manic pace and focus more on character development. The comic is infamous for being relentless, throwing new ideas, time periods, factions and characters into the mix like a demented chef with a superfast new blender, which was both invigorating but also risked becoming seriously confusing at times. The TV show isn't slow-burning by any means, but it does know it doesn't have to be at full throttle all the time.

The show follows the comic in zeroing in on the central cast of four characters: Erin, Mac, KJ and Tiffany. It also achieves the near-impossible of finding the perfect cast to embody them: Riley Lai Nelet, Sofia Rosinsky, Fina Strazza and Camryn Jones respectively. These young actresses nail their characters from the opening moments and across the season rise to the challenge of having to drag them through the emotional wringer as they learn about their own futures, occasionally having arguments with their older selves about how their lives are nothing like what they had imagined.

They are ably supported by a top-notch supporting cast, led by Ali Wong and Sekai Abeni as the older versions of Erin and Tiffany, with the actresses doing great jobs of making them appear to be the same people separated by decades (shades of Yellowjackets, except the two incarnations of each character get to meet one another). There's also fantastic support by Adina Porter (True Blood, The 100), Nate Corddry (For All Mankind) and Jason Mantzoukas (Parks & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine Nine).

The show succeeds by mixing its time-travelling, crazy SF antics with more human stories. Erin dreams of graduating from college and becoming the first Asian-American President of the United States; she occasionally breaks from the action to filter events through an imagined Presidential TV debate with Ronald Reagan (the CG Reagan is the show's weakest link, effects-wise). KJ is worried that her future will be determined by her controlling parents. Tiffany dreams of going to a top university and using her intelligence for good purposes. Destitute Mac doesn't even know what her future could be. As each of them discovers their destinies, they have to confront the people they're going to be (literally) and what choices they can make in the past to change things for the better. This theme is a minor element in the comics but becomes a much bigger focus in the TV show.

But the time-travelling, crazy SF elements are still here and they show up in a big way. City-sized spaceships, raging mech fights, gun battles between time-travelling armies and dinosaurs (!) are all present and correct, just slowed down a bit and given more weight than in the comics.

The series starts well, ticks along nicely and ends on a hell of a cliffhanger. The cast is exemplary, the writing is strong and the effects are superb, not being allowed to overwhelm the show as they have for other properties. Above all, the show knows how to use its time-travelling premise to tell really human stories. The only weak link is that the throttled-down pace is maybe a tad too throttled-down, and the main storyline feels like it goes on a break a few times until they get back on track.

Paper Girls (****½) is the rare example of a TV adaptation that improves on its source material to become a compelling watch. It is available now on Amazon Prime Video worldwide.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Thursday, 28 July 2022

RIP Bernard Cribbins

News has sadly broken that veteran British actor Bernard Cribbins, OBE has passed away at the age of 93. He is best-known for his work on TV shows The Wombles and Doctor Who, and as part of the long-running British comedy film series Carry On. He also found fame as a successful singer during the 1960s and was active in charity work for military veterans.

Born in 1928 in Oldham, Lancashire, Cribbins grew up with his two siblings in very poor conditions. His father "dabbled in acting," giving Cribbins the idea of pursuing it as a career. He worked as an assistant stage manager in a local theatre, getting his first experience of treading the boards. He then worked with the Oldham Repertory Theatre. He was too young to fight in World War II, but subsequently did National Service with the Parachute Regiment. During this period he was deployed to Palestine, then a British Mandate. He later related some of his experiences to Russell T. Davies, who used them as backstory for Cribbins' character Wilf in Doctor Who.

After completing his service, Cribbins returned to acting, making his West End debut in 1956. When it was realised he could sing, he was recruited for musicals and revues, which resulted in him recording his first single, "Folksong" from And Another Thing. In 1962 Cribbins hit the UK Top Ten with three comic songs: "The Hole in the Ground," "Gossip Calypso" and the major hit "Right Said Fred," which occasionally crops up on the radio even today. This period saw Cribbins become something of a household name and rubbed shoulders with the Beatles.

Cribbins began appearing in British films in the late 1950s, starting with Yangste Incident in 1957. His highest-profile roles came through collaborations with Peter Sellers, in Two-Way Stretch (1960) and The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963), followed by two appearances in the Carry On series when it was at the height of its fame: Carry On Jack (1963) and Carry On Spying (1964). He later returned to the series for its reunion film, Carry On Columbus (1992). He also appeared in the classic children's film The Railway Children (1970) and in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972).

For television, he starred in his own TV series for ITV, Cribbins (1969-70) and had a memorable role in Fawlty Towers as a spoon salesman mistaken for a hotel inspector. He established himself as a star of children's television by narrating The Wombles (1973-75) and reading more stories on Jackanory than any other celebrity presenter, notching up 114 appearances from 1966 to 1991. He voiced a road safety film campaign in the 1960s, advertised Hornby model trains and hosted the children's panel game show Star Turn in the 1970s.

Cribbins is arguably most famous for his long-running association with Doctor Who. He debuted by playing companion Tom Campbell in the 1966 feature film Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD, alongside Peter Cushing as the human Dr. Who. In 2007 he appeared in the audio drama Horror of Glam Rock and, later that year, was cast by Russell T. Davies as a London newspaper seller in the 2007 Doctor Who Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned. Davies enjoyed his performance so much he decided to bring him back as a recurring character in the fourth series in 2008, retconning him as the grandfather of Donna Noble (who had previously appeared in the 2006 Christmas special The Runaway Bride), Wilfred Mott. After a series of guest spots, he was "promoted" to full companion status for David Tennant's final episodes in the role, The End of Time Part 1 (2009) and Part 2 (2010). Notably, it is to save Wilfred's life that the Tenth Doctor exposes himself to a dangerous level of radiation, triggering his regeneration.

Cribbins returned to the role in early 2022, playing Wilfred again for (at least) the first of three anniversary specials due to air for Doctor Who's 60th anniversary in 2023. For this appearance he was reunited with David Tennant and Catherine Tate.

These roles meant that Cribbins holds a number of distinctive Doctor Who records: the only actor to play two different companions on Doctor Who, the only actor to appear as a companion both the feature film and TV versions of the franchise, the only actor to face the Daleks in film and television, the oldest companion (he was 81 during his last appearance in The End of Time Part 2 and 93 during filming of the 60th anniversary specials) and the actor with the longest association with the programme, from 1966 to 2023 (although this may be broken if any actor who appeared in the show in 1963-66 was to return). 

Cribbins held several honours, including the General Service Medal for his service in Palestine in 1947-48, a special award at the British Academy Children's Awards for his work in children's television in 2009, and the JM Barrie Award for his contribution to children's arts in 2014. In 2011 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Cribbins was also engaged with charity work, particularly for military veterans. He worked with the Support Our Paras charity and the Fishing for Heroes organisation. 

Cribbins married Gillian McBarnet in 1955 and they had a lifelong romance and partnership, lasting until her death in October 2021. They had no children. Cribbins survived prostate cancer in 2009 and later reported being in excellent health, occasional back conditions excepted. In 2018 he published an autobiography, Bernard Who? 75 Years of Doing Just About Anything, which he later recorded as an audiobook.

Bernard Cribbins was hugely respected for his acting skills, his singing, his charity work, his comedy and his relentless good cheer. He was a professional who always brought his A-game to every role, no matter how big or how small, and something of a British institution. He will be sorely missed, although we have at least the pleasure of one last performance in Doctor Who to look forwards to next year.

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC remake on hold at Aspyr and in "serious trouble"

In surprising news, Aspyr Media has put its eagerly-awaited remake of classic Star Wars CRPG Knights of the Old Republic on hold.

Knights of the Old Republic was released by BioWare in 2003 and has been regularly acclaimed as one of the very best Star Wars video games of all time, and one of the very best CRPGs. A sequel, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords was released in 2004 and launched the career of Obsidian Entertainment. The game was released during BioWare's "imperial period" when everything they made was either great or at least ambitiously interesting. Baldur's Gate II (2000), Neverwinter Nights (2002), Jade Empire (2005) and Mass Effect (2007) all hail from this period as well. BioWare has since fallen on tougher times, with Dragon Age II (2011), Mass Effect 3 (2012), Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014), Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017) and Anthem (2020) all suffering controversies of one kind or another, and the latter two also experiencing poor sales. Critics and fans have frequently said that BioWare needs to get back to making games of the type and scale as Knights of the Old Republic to return to success.

Aspyr Media, based in Texas, has focused on porting existing games to new formats, including porting Knights of the Old Republic itself to MacOS in 2004. Knights of the Old Republic Remake was announced in 2021 as Aspyr's first large-scale, big-budget video game project. The game is a total, ground-up remake of the original title using modern graphics technology and new voice acting (including the return of fan-favourite actor Jennifer Hale).

Unfortunately, it appears that Aspyr were unprepared for the scale of the project. Internally and informally, Aspyr were targeting a late 2022 release date, but insiders have noted this is unachievable and unrealistic, and that a release date of 2025 is more likely. It also sounds like the game may have started off with more modest goals but transformed into a full-on remake when it became clear how difficult using the original code and assets was going to be. If it's the case that Aspyr envisaged a more modest remaster and scaled up to something of the scope of the Final Fantasy VII Remake, it's unsurprising that they've realised they've bitten off more than they can chew.

Whether the project is remounted in the future remains to be seen, but unfortunately, it looks like the project is not happening in the near future.