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Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Netflix greenlights AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER live-action TV series

In a move that redefines the word "unexpected", Netflix has greenlit a live-action TV adaptation of the classic animated fantasy series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which aired between 2005 and 2008 on Nickelodeon. Alongside the announcement, they have also released a piece of concept art depicting Avatar Aang and his flying bison, Appa.


Original showrunners Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are also serving in that capacity on the live-action series, which will be a co-production between Netflix and Nickelodeon. There was a previous attempt to translate the story to live action, resulting in the movie The Last Airbender (2009) by M. Night Shyamalan. The movie was rightly reviled for its awful writing and direction and the controversial "whitewashing" of the core cast of characters (who hail from a mixture of Tibetan, Inuit and Asian analogue settings). DiMartino and Konietzko throw shade at the movie in the press release for the new show, confirming that the ethnic makeup of the original characters will be maintained.

The new Avatar: The Last Airbender will enter production in 2019, presumably for a 2020 debut on Netflix. This marks the networks's second major epic fantasy project, following on from The Witcher (which starts shooting next month for a late 2019 launch). According to Netflix and the producers, they have been planning this project for a long time.

Netflix is also producing a new animated series, The Dragon Prince, by Avatar writer Aaron Ehasz and director Giancarlo Volpe, with Season 1 released last week. I'll have a review shortly.

BLADE RUNNER TV series in development

A Hollywood gossip column has suggested that a Blade Runner TV series is currently in the works, although it lists no studio or creative talent as being involved.


According to the column, the producers of Blade Runner 2049 were disappointed by the film's poor box office performance, but were buoyed by the blanket critical acclaim so are moving ahead with a continuation on the small screen, apparently focused on the characters of Deckard, Ana Stelline and K escaping the situation at the end of 2049.

The creative team behind Blade Runner 2049 are unlikely to return: Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford will be too expensive and director Denis Villeneuve is currently prepping his two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune.

With no creative talent or studio attached and the movie not being a huge success financially, I think this project sounds very unlikely to come off, but you never know.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

American Vandal: Season 2

In 2016, high school student Dylan Maxwell was expelled from his school in Oceanside, California for drawing genitalia on twenty-seven staff cars. Amateur film-makers Peter Maldonado and Sam Eckland proved his innocence through a thorough video investigation, although they unearthed a lot of secrets about their school, friends and teachers in the process.


Eighteen months later, having been made famous through the Netflix series based on their exploits, Peter and Sam are back. A devastating prank known as the "Brownout" has taken place at St. Bernadine Catholic School in Bellevue, Washington. A student, Kevin McClain, has been found guilty and expelled, but his friend Chloe believes he was coerced into giving a false confession. Peter and Sam are soon on the case, and finding new secrets in a new school.

American Vandal's debut season was one of the unexpected highlights of 2017, a show with a juvenile premise (a guy spray-painting phallic imagery on cars) which quite unexpectedly turned into an insightful analysis of life in the modern American high school, with cliques, the popular kids, the ignored ones and the posers, all brought together by the power of social media.

The second season is, even more unexpectedly, better. The investigation is more serious, more epic and more involved: there are actually three crimes and the criminal remains at large, even taunting Peter and Sam through Instagram as the trail grows colder and warmer. In the first season Peter and Sam were part of the story (and, briefly, suspects), insiders who knew everyone involved. In the second season they are minor celebrities but outsiders who can come into the school with no pre-conceptions, which both helps the investigation (they can consider suspects everyone else immediately rejects) and hinders it (people are less likely to open up to them). This shift in format works quite well and leads to a more interesting investigation.

That said, it's an investigation that opens with a somewhat graphical account of what can only be described as an explosive faecal decompression on a large scale. Getting through the first episode or two may require a strong stomach (and don't repeat my mistake of watching the first episode whilst tucking into a curry) and a relatively high tolerance for toilet humour. Once this is out of the way, however, the story opens up and goes in interesting directions. The finger of guilt moves from Kevin (a great performance by Travis Tope) to basketball star DeMarcus Tillman (an outstanding turn by Melvin Gregg), allowing the show to make some interesting comments on class, race and the insidious nature of sports funding in American high schools, all with a tremendously light touch.

Like the first season, the story starts off as a comedy and moves into more serious areas as it proceeds, upending friendships and brutally exposing the insecurities and secrets of the characters. Unlike the first season, which ended on an ambiguous note with the identity of the graffiti cast only being (strongly) alluded to but not confirmed, the second season has a very definitive resolution, and the crime turns out to be far more elaborate than first though with multiple layers that expand American Vandal from being just about pranks to wider and more serious crimes. This leads the show into a thorough and effective exploration of digital relationships in the modern world. The first season touched on it a bit, but the second season eviscerates it and raises a whole load of interesting, disquieting questions.

But then it comes back to the poop, and as one of the characters says, "Poop is funny." American Vandal is a multi-layered show working on a lot of levels and exploring some serious topics, but always with a laugh a few moments away, whether it's a sharp line of dialogue or a strong visual gag or, indeed, scatological humour. I think a lot of people will pointblank refuse to watch the show because of that lowbrow premise when they would otherwise really enjoy the more serious turn the show takes in the last two episodes, and that's a shame.

For those with stronger constitutions, American Vandal's second season (****½) is an improvement over its already strong-predecessor and uses lowbrow humour as a way of exploring really relevant and interesting modern sociological phenomenons and how it impacts on young people, and in a far more entertaining, subtle and less-exploitative way than shows like 13 Reasons Why. It's a smart and intelligence show, albeit one built on gross foundations. It is available to watch now on Netflix.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Amazon signs development deal with GAME OF THRONES writer Bryan Cogman

Amazon Studios has signed a long-term exclusive development deal with Game of Thrones writer/producer Bryan Cogman. Cogman has worked on the show since Season 1, writing ten episodes so far, and is considered to be the "keeper of the lore" for the show, with his episodes notable for featuring more references to worldbuilding details than those by producer-showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.


The deal is an exclusive one, meaning that Cogman will not be able to develop further a pilot script he wrote for a potential Game of Thrones spin-off show for HBO. This script was one of three (out of five) shelved by HBO early in the development process, but kept on standby in case HBO decided not to proceed with the front-running project, The Long Night, or the backup choice, a rumoured Valyria-focused series.

Cogman's scripts rank amongst some of the finest written for Game of Thrones (particularly The Broken Man, starring Ian McShane in a memorable guest shot), so it'll be interesting to see what he brings to Amazon's table. It sounds like he will be working on new projects, but there may be scope for him to work on some of Amazon's other in-development genre projects such as Wheel of Time, Conan the Barbarian, Culture or the Lord of the Rings prequel show.

I've spoken several times to Bryan over the years and found him to be a pleasant and knowledgeable writer. Congratulations to him for the next phase of his career.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Production of AMERICAN GODS Season 2 in turmoil (again)

The troubled production of the second season of American Gods has somehow managed to get even more troubled.


To rewind a little, Fremantle Studios bought the rights to Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel American Gods several years ago. After developing the project at HBO with Gaiman involved as head writer, HBO chose not to proceed (surprisingly late in the day). Fremantle took the script to Starz. Starz greenlit the project, managing to win the services of the much-in-demand Bryan Fuller and producing partner Michael Green to work as showrunners and head writers on the project. Gaiman continued to be involved closely as an active producer.

Early tensions apparently emerged when it became clear that Fuller and Green had their own vision for the project, which was not quite in keeping with Gaiman's. Gaiman wanted a close adaptation of his novel, whilst Fuller and Green wanted something slower-paced and more like a magic realist fable, with complex visual dream sequences and flashbacks, some incorporating elements from Gaiman's other stories in the same setting and others completely original. Starz, who were funding the project to the tune of $7 million per episode, sided with Fuller and Green, and Gaiman and Fremantle's preferences were shut out. Executive producer Stefanie Burk, however, was able to keep the two factions talking to each other.

Despite this tension, the production of the first season of American Gods went relatively smoothly until fairly late in the day, when Starz began to get alarmed over the rising costs. They slashed two episodes from the season's length in an effort stop the overruns. Once filming was concluded, they allowed Fuller and Green to complete post-production, at which point it became clear that the season had gone $30 million - the equivalent of over four full episodes - over-budget. This may rank as one of the biggest overspends in television history, but fortunately Amazon swept in and saved the day by spending a huge amount of money on buying the international broadcasting rights to the series, dwarfing the overspend and putting Starz back into profit.

Apparently a meeting was held where Starz agreed to keep Fuller and Green on board, with the firm understanding that such a cost overrun could not happen again. A second season was ordered, this time for 10 episodes, and the budget was increased to $10 million an episode, making American Gods the third-most-expensive show on air (after only Game of Thrones and The Crown). Not long after this agreement, however, Fuller and Green presented the scripts for the first six episodes of the season to Starz and it was clear this budget was going to be insufficient. With Fuller and Green refusing to make needed cuts, they were fired from the show.

Jess Alexander was brought in to replace them as showrunner and head writer. Alexander was a close friend of Neil Gaiman's, but had also worked closely with Fuller on Star Trek: Discovery and Hannibal. Although he wouldn't be on-set (as he was showrunning the Good Omens project in the UK), Gaiman agreed to take a more direct involvement on the second season, making bigger decisions. The general feel was that Gaiman and Alexander would hew the TV show closer to the novel whilst maintaining the spirit and feel of the first season but without breaking the bank. To this end, they also dumped Fuller and Green's scripts for Season 2, preferring to start from scratch.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, trying to wear all these caps simultaneously proved impossible. Actors complained of the quality of scripts compared to the first season, with actor Ian McShane apparently coming up with better dialogue by himself on set (leading to alleged "screaming matches" with Alexander). Starz demanded hefty rewrites to Alexander's scripts. To make things worse, actress Gillian Anderson had quit over Fuller's firing and producer Stefanie Burk had left the company altogether, removing a key moderating influence on set.

To try to salvage things, Starz have slashed the episode count (again) to eight and have reportedly now sidelined Jesse Alexander after being hugely unsatisfied with his script for the season finale, promoting supervising producer Chris Byrne and line producer Lisa Kussner to the showrunning position as an interim measure (to put two junior producers into such a role is extraordinary).

Exactly how Starz will get the show back on track remains to be seen. They have, however, indicated that the media reports are overblown and are promising to drop a trailer for Season 2 in a few weeks to restore some faith in proceedings. Star Ricky Whittle, meanwhile, has also said that reports of chaos on set are in error.

American Gods is expected to return to the screen in early 2019, one way or another.

ALAN WAKE TV show in development

Contradiction Films has teamed up with Remedy Entertainment to make a TV drama series based on the latter's 2010 video game Alan Wake.


The story is set in the town of Bright Falls, Washington, and sees horror novelist Alan Wake trying to track down his missing wife. As the story unfolds, he gets involved in increasingly weird events. Strongly influenced by The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Stephen King novels, Alan Wake was a commercial and critical success for Remedy, selling over 4.5 million copies.

Peter Calloway (Cloak & Dagger, Legion) has written a pilot script for the show which is being shopped around various studios by Contradiction. The TV show will partially adapt the game's storyline, but will have the freedom to move beyond the constraints of the game (which remains focused on Alan at all times). In particular, the TV series will explore some of the secondary characters in the world.

Remedy Entertainment have long harboured plans to make Alan Wake 2, but despite the first game's success they have been unable to do so: their then-publishing partners Microsoft instead convinced them to work on an original game for the X-Box One's launch, the splendid (but under-performing) Quantum Break, and have not had an interest in publishing a sequel to the older game.

Remedy's next game, Control, will be released in 2019.

HBO joins the BBC and New Line to produce HIS DARK MATERIALS

HBO and the BBC have reached a deal to collaborate on the latter's production of His Dark Materials. This deal has taken place later in the day than is usual for such agreements, with the first season of the show already in production in Wales.


The deal will see His Dark Materials air on HBO in the United States and on various subsidiaries and partner channels worldwide. HBO will also co-fund later seasons of the show; the series is expected to last for five seasons of eight episodes apiece. The HBO deal is likely why the BBC felt confident enough to greenlight a second season of the series earlier this week.

This move will also allay budget concerns - even with New Line's help, this is one of the most expensive TV shows ever made by the BBC - and should also allow the show to follow a more aggressive production timeline. Actress Dafne Keen, who is playing lead character Lyra, has just turned 13 and is expected to star in all five seasons, meaning she will be 17 by the time the final season finishes shooting assuming a one season-per-year schedule (Lyra goes from 12 to 13 in the course of the novels). This will be exacerbated if the show goes 18 or 24 months between seasons.

The first season of His Dark Materials is expected to air before the end of 2018.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson

A Canadian science fiction writer is abducted by a UFO from the streets of Victoria, British Columbia. The world shrugs and dismisses it as a social media hoax. Days later, mysterious forcefields start appearing around wilderness areas in danger of human encroachment. Fracking sites are cut off, animal migratory routes disrupted by human civilisation restored and fishing boats are unable to cast their nets. Then people find themselves being forcibly prevented from hurting one another. An Intervention has taken place.

Far above the Earth, an alien presence has arrived. Its mission is to repair and restore the biosphere of the planet but it is conflicted over what to do about humanity, who have been abject failures in their role as custodian of the planet's welfare. Fortunately, they have another job in mind for humanity, one that merely requires them to completely transform the very paradigm of their existence, forever...


Steven Erikson is best-known in genre circles for his Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy sequence, consisting of ten brick-thick novels packed with battles, sorcery, comedy, tragedy, drama and musings on compassion, morality and ethics. The Malazan series is both an epic fantasy and an inverted interrogation of epic fantasy. His forays outside the field into science fiction have been less noteworthy, consisting of three Star Trek pastiches and a post-apocalyptic novella.

Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart is therefore his first serious, full-length science fiction novel and it's probably going to take people by surprise. It's relatively short (400 pages of quite large type), focused and a bit of a throwback to SF's golden age, consisting of story development through sequences of conversations between core characters. It feels like something Clarke or Asimov would have written in the 1950s, except with far superior character development.

Integral to the story is the fact that people can no longer hurt or kill one another, which means that the good old genre stand-bys - shoot-outs, nukes, battles, chases, character deaths - are unavailable to the author. This feels like a challenge Erikson has set out to himself and he meets with relish. The wit and erudition of the Malazan series is still present here, but seriously pared back to more human and witty levels. Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart is, surprisingly, Erikson's most approachable and accessible novel to date.

It's a novel that asks big questions about the future of humanity and what our fate will be, self-destruction (either in war or from societal collapse resulting from environmental disaster, dwindling resources or simple exhaustion of the human spirit) or enlightenment, discovering means of abolishing scarcity and moving into a truly utopian existence, and how that will impact on a species conditioned by centuries of exposure to free-market capitalism. To that end, those expecting "Malazan, but in space," (at least in terms of sheer scale) will be disappointed. But those up for a stimulating, question-raising, intelligent SF novel which explores ideas of scarcity, postcapitalism, paradigm shifts, fake news, populism, climate change, Big Dumb Objects and environmentalism, all done in a concise manner, this book is for you.

Challenges abound in the novel, most notably how to build tension when it's literally impossible to have any kind of military confrontation or action resulting in injury or death. Erikson does this with a great philosophical debate: the mysterious aliens spare humanity for a specific reason, because there's something we can do they cannot, and this central mystery is gently teased out over the course of the book in a manner that's compelling. It's also not quite resolved in the space of this one novel: sequels are not strictly necessary, but would be welcome to explore some of the mysteries left unexplained in this book.

This is also a novel which may be tapping SF's golden age, but it's also a very timely novel. There's nods to the #metoo movement and almost all of the movers and shakers in the story are based on real people. It's pretty obvious which US President the fictional one is based on, and spotting the fictional equivalents of the Koch Brothers, Elon Musk and Rupert Murdoch is amusing. The book also has a very human side, and the key theme of the Malazan series - compassion and empathy - rears its head here as well. There's also a few touching tributes to SF authors who have passed away in the novel, which may make a few lower lips quiver.

Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart (****) is going to be a divisive book, I feel. I suspect some will be bored by a novel which consists almost entirely of conversations between people without a laser gun battle in sight (there are a couple of small explosions though), but for those who read SF for ideas, for intelligent observations on the world around us and explorations of what humanity could be if it could throw off the shackles of inequality and exploitation, this is a fascinating work. It will be published in the UK and USA on 18 October 2018.

WHEEL OF TIME TV showrunner hosts Q&A

Wheel of Time showrunner Rafe Judkins has hosted a Q&A on Twitter, where he invited fans to pitch him questions about the show. Given that the project is still in an early stage of pre-production, a lot of questions couldn't be answered, but some interesting tidbits were dropped about how he sees the project moving forwards.


The current status of the project:

Judkins confirmed that the show is in development at with Amazon (via, as we know already, Sony TV Studios) but it has not yet been formally greenlit, either for a full first season or a pilot. As such, things like production timelines, timetables for casting and when we might get to see the show all remain up in the air.

Judkins notes that he is now able to talk about the show in a way he couldn't a couple of months ago, and that indeed something has changed to facilitate this.


The show's format and duration:

Judkins sees the show as lasting no less than 5, but no more than 14, seasons. The episodes will be around 1 hour each. He does not see the show necessarily mapping as one book per season or two books per season, but will be somewhat malleable. This sounds similar to The Expanse and the BBC's in-production version of His Dark Materials, which are both adapting books across seasons with no direct correlation between the two (i.e. the first Expanse novel is covered across all of Season 1 and four episodes into Season 2, then Book 2 starts etc).

Hello Rafe, Do you anticipate Season 1 taking up eye of the world and season 2 being The Great Hunt?

"Yes and no."

How faithful the show will be to the novels:

"I am telling the story of the books, but as with any adaptation to a different medium, there will be differences. Otherwise, what will people have to scream about after each episode? #ladystoneheart4ever"

"I actually think TV is a perfect format for these books. You can tell a hell of a lot of story per season!"

"We have freedom to do what we want, but what I want is to stay true to the books!"

"I mean let's all be honest, I'm gonna be condensing in the latter middle section of books."

What is the heart and soul of the story?

"To me, and the way I've pitched it since I first became involved, is that even though the world is incredible, the magic system one of the best in fantasy, and the gender dynamics are so fresh feeling, the thing at the heart of this are the characters."

On LGTBQ+ representation:

"I think that gender is such a key theme of the books, and discussing gender without a full representation of LGBTQ+ people would be a disservice to that discussion. Rest assured, their will be pillow friends out the wazoo."

"WoT is controversial regarding how it handles gender/sexuality/mental health. My audience at WoTTalk has expressed concern on how these topics will be handled. Would you mind commenting on these concerns/how you plan to approach these topics?"

"I think the explorations of these topics is something important and I'll be using a lot of advisors and writers around me to make sure that we tackle them thoughtfully."

"Rafe, will Rand's romance plot remain close to the books? I mean, liking one girl at first but ending up with three in the end?"

"No."

On whether Billy Zane will be resuming the role of Ishamael from the Red Eagle informercial:

"NO."

How would you ideally want to handle the Shadowspawn? (CGI, practical effects, etc.)

"I think trying to do practical as much as you can is always the right choice."

What's THE central/key/core conflict of the series?

"I think most people would say light vs. dark, but I'd actually say balance vs. imbalance."

"Will you show us who killed Asmodean when it happens or leave it as a WAFO to torture those that haven't read the books?"

"I love to torture people with a WAFO, so... WAFO"

What is your all time favourite moment of the series?

"Egwene’s final scene."

Hey @rafejudkins! How would you like to handle the prologue of EOTW, and the prequel 
scenes from New Spring?

"I have plans for both of these, but you'll unfortunately have to wait for the show to see"

Which storyline is the most difficult to bring to the screen?

"Tel’aran’rhiod is an exciting but difficult challenge."

How do you visualize the threads and weaving of the One Power on screen?

"This, as with most things, I want to stay true to the books. I think this can be done in a really cool way, but will hold on a firm answer until I've discussed more fully with a director."

Will you be keeping Min, Elayne and Aviendha as separate characters each with a role in the show and their relationship to Rand intact?

"That one you’ll have to WAFO."

"Rigid Mars-Venus gender division etc- troubling aspects of books. Plans to update/improve these? WoT’s gr8 to discuss gender but it isn’t without problems."

"I’m a feminist and it’s very important to me that the show is feminist in today’s context. So a lot of those things will be changing."

Will each "season," assuming there are multiple seasons, cover 1 book or will they be split up based on storyline?

"It’ll be dependent on book/season and not the same throughout."

Given free rein, how many seasons would you make in order to tell the story properly? "36. But that seems untenable."

"In an ideal world what real world locations would you use for the various settings of the the first book?"

"This’ll really depend on base of operations. But we hope to be going all over the world. Things that look different and fresh to me are important."

Are there any minor character/plot point/locations you are in love with but know you’ll have to cut for time? Non spoiler because I said minor right?
"We lose a lot of Cenn Buie, and I like his grumpy old manness."

"Considering all the fan questions Jordan, @BrandSanderson, and #TeamJordan have answered about the #WheelofTime over the years, have you studied that mountain of data not found in the books? If not, what’s your strategy to make sure you get all the details right?"

"I'm in communications with everyone on #TeamJordan, and will be even more so once we are further down the line. They've lived this and will be invaluable to me. I'm also the kind of writer who values all the data I can get, and then let it inform but not direct my decision making."

With the importance of Padan Fain to the series, do you plan to disguise his "true-self" in the show better than his introduction in the book for those who haven't yet read the series?

"Yessir!"

Hi Rafe, in regards to special effects, what are you envisioning for weaving the one power on screen.

"Again, director dependent but I think it’ll be great. I loved how it looked in Doc Strange."

Aside from the books themselves, what other TV shows or movies come to mind when you think about how you want the show to feel when viewers experience it?

"LoTR of course and GoT, but also not Shanarra (sic)."

Who are your favorite and least favorite characters from the series?

"Faile. But I promise she’ll be awesome on the show."

How many seasons you think the series would take in tv format? And how many episodes per season?

"This one I imagine will be malleable as we go. More than 5 but less than 14."

Will there be braid tugging and dress smoothing?

"Less than the books."

Confirmed characters (at least at this stage):
Rand, Egwene, Cenn Buie (if less than in the book), Logain (in an expanded role), Tam, Bela, Padan Fain, Faile, Mat.


More news on the Wheel of Time TV series as it comes in.