Monday 29 February 2016

Star Trek at 50: The Star Trek Paradox

The Star Trek franchise turns fifty this year. The first transmitted episode of the original series, The Man Trap, was aired on NBC on 8 September 1966. Since then, Star Trek has gone on to become one of the dominant science fiction franchises of all time, competing only with Star Wars and Doctor Who. To date, Star Trek has spanned 723 episodes over six television series, thirteen feature films, over sixty video games and over 600 books.

Star Trek's success is extraordinary, which is all the more puzzling why it has been treated so badly recently. In 2004 the sixth Star Trek TV series, Enterprise finished after four seasons due to disappointing ratings and a "mixed" critical reception. This was two years after the tenth Star Trek movie, Nemesis (2002), had proved to be a critical and commercial failure. The feeling was that the audience had become over-saturated with Star Trek; since 1987 no less than 25 seasons of Star Trek had aired on television, accompanied by six movies. "Franchise fatigue" was blamed by executive producer Rick Berman for the declining interest in Trek. However, others suggested other reasons: the rise of "grittier" and more adult SF franchises like Firefly (2002) and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica (2003-09) made Star Trek look increasingly tired and quaint. The new BSG's critical success was particularly notable since it was produced and written by ex-Star Trek writers unhappy with the direction of the franchise post-Deep Space Nine. At the same time, the StarGate franchise - spanning three TV series airing between 1997 and 2011 - had won a loyal fanbase for its greater use of self-aware humour and serialisation.

Whatever the reason, "resting" Star Trek for a few years was generally regarded as a good move, allowing fresh creative voices to come on board and for the franchise to eventually be relaunched. This happened in 2009, when director J.J. Abrams helmed a reboot of the series by creating a parallel timeline with new actors playing younger versions of the classic crew of Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and so on. The new film, simply called Star Trek, was a reasonable box office success ($385 million worldwide) and was critically warmly received. Its sequel, Into Darkness (2013), was an even bigger worldwide box office success ($467 million) but revenues were down in the American market on its predecessor and the film faced a much rougher ride from critics. These factors led to a budget cut for the third movie, Beyond, due for release this year.

The caution Paramount is showing over the reboot franchise is surprising, given that the films have made reasonably good profits, but it is a sign that Paramount wanted and expected a lot more from the franchise. They wanted them to break out and be massive hits in the $1 billion range, allowing Star Trek to compete as a franchise with the Marvel movies and the likes of Transformers. In particular, the film's underperformance (if only in their view) versus the absolute barnstorming success of J.J. Abrams's Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens ($2.05 billion and rising) has to particularly grate, as Abrams jumped ship on the Trek franchise to help relaunch Star Wars.

This caution has extended to the new Star Trek TV series. CBS has announced that the seventh TV series will debut on the main CBS channel in January 2017 before transferring to CBS's on-demand streaming service. The series will not be available - at least initially - on more widespread platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu. CBS hopes that Star Trek's draw will inspire more people to sign up to their platform. However, the move has been widely criticised as both limiting the available audience for the show and also as being disrespectful of the franchise and its fans in its 50th anniversary year, demanding that fans of the series shell out a lot more money to be able to see new episodes. A new Star Trek show should, it has been argued, be a big-budget show launched on CBS's main channel with a blaze of publicity to celebrate the anniversary. Instead, it is being sneaked out the back gate and awareness of the new series seems to be verging on the non-existent, only ten months out from transmission.

Star Trek Into Darkness is the odd case of a profitable movie which the studio nevertheless regarded as a commercial disappointment, and seems to have resulted in plans for more films and TV shows to be scaled back.

The two issues seem to be related - the film franchise's relative underperformance has probably impacted the new TV show's low-key profile - although they really shouldn't be. Star Trek is and always has been, first and foremost, a franchise that worked best on televisions. Its iconic characters grew and developed over dozens of hours of weekly episodes. The films came about due to a desire to cash in on the success of the original Star Wars and the reluctance of the original actors to commit full-time to another series. However, the huge success of The Next Generation and (somewhat more modestly) Deep Space Nine showed that the franchise worked best on TV. The problem with the latter two TV series, Voyager and Enterprise, beyond simple creative exhaustion and the aforementioned franchise fatigue, was that they became too derivative and too faithful in sticking to tried-and-tested storylines rather than shaking the paradigm up as Deep Space Nine had. The failure of Voyager to deliver on its promise to show an increasingly broken-down ship on the edge of the frontier with a crew driven to desperation drove veteran Star Trek writer-producer Ronald D. Moore to work on Battlestar Galactica instead, and that series has often been described as being how Voyager should have been, at least aesthetically.

However, there is also another fundamental issue. Star Trek has always positioned itself as the most optimistic of the major SF franchises. It postulates that, 300-400 years from now, we have not destroyed ourselves but have instead overcome war, plague and environmental catastrophe to form an interstellar alliance of like-minded worlds, primarily concerned with exploration and scientific research. Where hostile enemies and violence forces are encountered, they have to be fought and defended against, but diplomacy and negotiation are preferred. The only times the Federation really does have to resort to violence and military action is when confronted by an unstoppable force like the Borg or the insidious threat of an "anti-Federation" willing to turn its own tactics against it, the Dominion. Even in these cases, the corrosive effects of war (even if justified) are examined.

The prevailing mood in recent science fiction has been considerably more dystopian. Battlestar Galactica presented the aftermath of a genocide, the deaths of 20 billion innocent people and the reduction of the human race to just 50,000 souls fleeing on a ragtag bunch of increasingly unspaceworthy ships. SyFy's The Expanse depicts a more "realistic" view of the future, with exploited miners and workers in the asteroid belt being screwed over by the rich rulers of Earth and Mars. The currents elsewhere in popular entertainment are also dark: The Walking Dead's nihilism, Game of Thrones's cynicism and violence, House of Cards's political corruption and the state paranoia of The X-Files relaunch all paint a much bleaker portrait of humanity.

If the new TV series will attempt to recapture the optimism that is at the heart of Star Trek (and was notably missing from Into Darkness) or whether it will take the easier route of channelling violence, action and explosions remains to be seen. However, the decision to employ Bryan Fuller and Nicholas Meyer is a hopeful one. Both are accomplished writers with a reasonable amount of Trek experience, and both are good at examining the darker side of human nature whilst maintaining an optimistic outlook that is respectful of where Star Trek has come from. Deep Space Nine also provides an excellent model of a serialised, intelligent show with more violence and darker moments than any of the other series but also retains the core Trek morals of optimism, progress and hope. If the new show can hit the same notes as DS9 and The Wrath of Khan, it may be just the show of energy the franchise and the genre needs. Come January, a small number of CBS subscribers will find out.

Saturday 27 February 2016

WRATH OF KHAN writer/director joins new STAR TREK TV series

Nicholas Meyer has joined the new CBS Star Trek series as a writer and producer. Meyer is the acclaimed writer/director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), as well as a writer/producer on Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Meyer's successful handling of the franchise after the disappointing critical and commercial reception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) is credited with saving Star Trek and paving the way for The Next Generation and all the later series and films.

Nicholas Meyer (right) directing William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Meyer joins already-announced producer/showrunners Alex Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller. The new Star Trek series is intended to go into production later this year to debut on CBS in January 2017. The show's setting, time period, premise and cast has yet to be announced.

Thursday 25 February 2016


2035. Twenty years ago, aliens invaded Earth. An elite military organisation was formed to stop them: XCOM. It failed. Despite a heroic effort, the world was overrun and is now run by a joint alien-human government called ADVENT. On the surface ADVENT is peaceful and benign, pressing forward with advancements in medical technology and science. But they rule at the point of a gun and more sinister experiments are taking place in the background.

Now an underground resistance organisation, XCOM is creating sleeper cells around the world and stealing the aliens' technology to turn against them. All it needs now is a leader.

XCOM 2 is a sequel to 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown (and its expansion, Enemy Within), itself a remake of 1993's X-COM: UFO Defence. The X-COM/XCOM franchise has a reputation as one of the greatest video game series of all time, its combination of managing the defence of the entire planet with commanding individual combat missions against the aliens providing some truly sublime gameplay moments. XCOM 2 starts with a controversial premise: you lost the war against the aliens in the original game and now have to fight back with an underground resistance movement. There's a canonical (kind of) explanation for why you may remember winning in the original game, but you can just rationalise it as an alternate timeline if you really want.

Gameplay is similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, although there are a few twists. Once again you have a base of operations and have to upgrade it, building new facilities and carrying out research and development. However, your base is now a mobile SHIELD helicarrier alien cargo ship called the Avenger. You have to physically move the Avenger around the world map to recruit new agents, pick up supplies and carry out assault missions. As well as supplies (which replace money from the first game) you have to glean Intel to uncover the alien plans and you have to be more tactical in how you get hold of resources like elerium and alien alloys, which are required to research and build new equipment. When a mission starts, the game switches to a turn-based strategy map as you guide your team of up to 6 soldiers to fulfil an objective. This can vary from killing all the aliens present to rescuing a VIP to hacking a data terminal, often against a punishing time limit.

As the game continues (a first playthrough of the campaign will take around 25-30 hours) new, more powerful aliens are introduced so you have to stay on your toes, constantly researching weapons and armour so you can survive these tougher opponents and take them down. XCOM: Enemy Unknown sometimes forced you to compromise between different research tiers and trees, but XCOM 2 is positively evil in how it forces you to switch between different objectives, rush around trying to put out lots of fires simultaneously and in how long everything takes when the aliens are almost constantly attacking. XCOM 2 certainly makes you feel like you've got the whole world against you. It's a much, much tougher game than its forebear even on the equivalent difficulty levels.

It's also a game that gives you a lot of options. Character builds were something you could get away with not studying intently in the original game, but XCOM 2 is so tough that optimising your upgrade path is much more vital. For example, you can pick upgrades for your Sharpshooters that allow them to snipe enemy targets across the map with chained shots and using other soldiers to spot for them. You can also eschew that and pursue a gunslinger series of upgrades that give them up to six pistol shots a turn. A pistol doesn't do much damage, but upgrade it to a plasma pistol and fire it six times and it rapidly becomes one of the most powerful weapons in the game. The other classes get similar upgrades, with Grenadiers able to deal out masses of high damage with explosives and heavy weaponry and Specialists getting powerful drones that can dish out first aid and force fields (effectively) from right across the map. Rangers get excellent scouting and melee combat abilities that makes them formidable both at range and up-close.

For those who love rolling dice and comparing stats, XCOM2 is immensely rewarding. For those who want to just enjoy the game and get through to the end, don't be afraid to whack the difficulty down to easy ("Easy" in XCOM 2 is really not all that easy at all) and save-scum your way through the game. It doesn't take prisoners.

The game does hit the same sweet spot as the original of combining the widescreen, epic war for humanity's survival on a global level with individual combat missions, allowing you to customise your soldiers in almost any way that you please. However, whilst in-mission combat is tenser, more varied and more scenic than before - helped by the new, randomly-generated maps - the global strategic game is a lot more annoying. Some things take inexplicably long amounts of time - three days to pick up a supply drop you've just been given the coordinates to? - and you can bet that a vital, non-skippable mission will crop up 2 seconds before you'd have otherwise successfully researched your next tier of body armour. The game does a great job of making you feel like you're up against insurmountable odds, but all too often goes over that line and makes it almost impossible to proceed. The problem is that this steep increase in challenge abruptly falls off once you get the best weapons and gear and the game becomes, if not easy, than relatively straightforward.

XCOM 2 (****) is therefore a very good game, but ends up being frustrating. The combat is more interesting than in Enemy Unknown and represents a major step forward over it, but the grand strategic game feels random, arbitrary and at times tedious, and is a bit of a step back from Enemy Unknown's. Combined with the much more punishing difficulty level, this makes the game hard to recommend unambiguously. If you enjoyed the previous game and want more of the same, but more hardcore, XCOM 2 is certainly worth your time. If you haven't tried the franchise yet, I would definitely recommend starting with the previous game before tackling this one. XCOM 2 is available now on PC.

Technical Notes
XCOM 2 launched in a heavily bugged state on PC, featuring unusual lag, inexplicable CPU and GPU spikes and frame-rate drops, and occasional crashes. I was lucky in that I experienced only one actual crash in the whole game, and this guide helped improve performance immeasurably. However, waiting for a more comprehensive patch to fix the game's problems may be advisable.

Finn Jones cast in lead role in Netflix's IRON FIST TV series

Netflix have cast Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones (Ser Loras Tyrell) in their upcoming Iron Fist TV show. This is the fourth of six TV series they have planned with Marvel, following Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, with The Defenders and possibly The Punisher to follow.

Jones will be playing Danny Rand, a New York kid trained up in supernatural martial arts in a mysterious city. He returns to New York to fight crime, and presumably team up with Luke, Jessica and Daredevil at some future point.

The series, which will be run by former Six Feet Under producer Scott Buck, is expected to enter production in the summer to air in very late 2016 or early 2017. The second season of Daredevil airs next month, and a second season of Jessica Jones is expected to start production imminently to air around November. Luke Cage's first season just wrapped shooting and is expected to air in the summer.

THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES debuts in the UK tonight

UK viewers keen to see MTV's The Shannara Chronicles will get their chance tonight when the show debuts on 5Star at 9pm.

Unfortunately, 5Star is not available in HD so if you want to see the show at its best, you'll have to wait for the Blu-Ray release.

Get tons of PATHFINDER books for just $18

The Humble Store is running a promotion where you can get a lot of Pathfinder roleplaying books if you pay more than the average donation ($17.05 at present). Given that the books separately are worth $354, this is a bit of a no-brainer even if you already own a couple of the books.

Paying that amount of money gets you:
  • The Pathfinder Core Rulebook
  • The GameMastery Guide
  • The Digital Beginner Box
  • Player Character Folio
  • GM Screen
  • Advanced Class Guide
  • Advanced Player's Guide
  • Inner Sea World Guide
  • Strategy Guide
  • Bestiary
  • Bestiary 2
  • Ultimate Equipment
  • Ultimate Magic
  • Ultimate Campaign
  • Ultimate Combat
  • Inner Sea Poster Map Folio
  • Adventure Path: In Hell's Bright Shadow
  • Adventure Path: Turn of the Torrent
  • Adventure Path: Dance of the Damned
  • Scenario: Between the Lines
  • Scenario: Year of the Sky Key Megapack (23 adventures)
If you pay $25 or more (plus shipping), you also get the physical copy of the Pathfinder RPG Beginner Box.

On top of all of that you can also get the Inner Sea Primer and Guild Guide free if you sign up to the Paizo newsletter.

As is normal in Humble Bundle deals, a chunk of what you pay will go to charity as well. The deal is running for the next two weeks.

Wednesday 24 February 2016

PACIFIC RIM 2 re-greenlit for 2018

It was on, off and now back on again. Universal and Legendary Pictures are moving ahead with Pacific Rim 2, probably for a 2018 release date.

The original movie did reasonably well at the box office (especially internationally) but wasn't a smash hit, so there was a bit of a wait before the sequel was confirmed, originally for 2017. However, having greenlit the movie Universal decided to put it on ice whilst it sorted out its development and production schedules. This has unfortunately meant that Guillermo Del Toro will be unable to return to direct, having already moved on to other projects. However, Del Toro will still co-write (with Jon Spaihts) and produce the movie.

The new director is Steven S. DeKnight, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran who went on to create Spartacus and is currently working on Netflix's Daredevil. The film will be DeKnight's directorial debut.

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Warner Brothers close to greenlighting FORGOTTEN REALMS movie

Warner Brothers are reportedly close to greenlighting the Forgotten Realms/Dungeons and Dragons movie they've been developing recently.

Warner Brothers secured a deal last year with Sweetpea Entertainment and Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast (who were in litigation over the Dungeons and Dragons film rights) to end a legal dispute and start work on a film set in the Forgotten Realms world. There were indications that Warner Brothers wanted to fast-track the movie, seeing a ready-made opportunity to develop a shared universe akin to the Marvel or DC movies.

Producer Roy Lee confirmed that the long-term plan is to develop films based on several of the Dungeons and Dragons worlds, not just stay in the Forgotten Realms. Other D&D worlds they may consider visiting include the blasted, post-apocalyptic Dark Sun; the epic, dragon-centric Dragonlance; the cosmic, bizarre Planescape; and the old-skool, traditional Greyhawk. Other candidates may include the steampunk Eberron, the horror-tinged Ravenloft or the Game of Thrones-esqe (but note it predated the books) Birthright.

David Leslie Johnson has written the script, which according to Lee is aiming for Guardians of the Galaxy, more light-hearted tone than other fantasy movies. Lee also confirmed that the film will feature the Yawning Portal Inn, which means that the great, iconic city of Waterdeep will feature in the movie.

It sounds like Warner Brothers are keen to move on with the project, especially given the substantial amount of money they spent on sorting out the legal mess and bringing the warring parties together. However, the one fly in the ointment may be the WarCraft movie, which is released on 10 June. If the movie does badly, it may force other studios to reconsider their fantasy options. However, it is not believed that the D&D movie will have as large a budget as WarCraft or will be so dependent on elaborate effects.

Tony Todd up for a role on the new STAR TREK series

Veteran science fiction and horror actor Tony Todd is apparently being considered for a role on the new Star Trek TV series from CBS.

Tony Todd as the adult Jake Sisko in the Deep Space Nine episode The Visitor, which aired in 1995.

Tony Todd rose to fame playing the title character in the Candyman movies, but in the 1990s got involved in the Star Trek franchise. He is most famous in that franchise for playing the role of Commander Kurn of the Klingon Defence Forces, Lt. Worf's younger brother. He appeared in that role in four episodes: Sins of the Father (Season 3), Redemption (Season 4) and Redemption, Part II (Season 5) for The Next Generation and Sons of Mogh (Season 4) for Deep Space Nine. He also played two other characters: a far-future, adult version of Jake Sisko in DS9's The Visitor (Season 4) and the Alpha Hirogen in Star Trek: Voyager's Prey (Season 4).

Having played three different roles on three Trek series set in the same universe, Todd's possible return does not mean that the new series will definitely take place in the original continuity rather than the revamped canon of the J.J. Abrams movies. It's also unclear if Todd is being considered for a recurring role or a series regular.

The new Star Trek series will debut on CBS with following episodes to be released CBS's on-demand digital service. Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman will be producing the new series, expected to debut in January 2017.

Sunday 21 February 2016

A new blogging project: The Atlas of Ice and Fire

Because running this site isn't work enough, I have started a new blog: The Atlas of Ice and Fire.

This new blog will concern itself with fantasy geography, mapping and other issues related to maps. As the title implies, it will deal primarily with maps related to A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, but it will also deal with maps related to other fantasy novels and other topics related to ASoIaF and GoT.

Of course, blogging on general SFF topics will continue here on The Wertzone and topics of interest to both sets of readers will be cross-posted on both sites.

Saturday 20 February 2016

A History of Epic Fantasy: Appendix A - Timeline of Notable Books

With work proceeding on the book version of A History of Epic Fantasy, I thought I'd share a tidbit with you here.

This is the first appendix, a timeline of notable, influential or discussed works in the history of epic fantasy or other subgenres which have had a reasonable degree or profile or impact on what came after. The list is, of course, highly subjective but I think this covers both the expected, major works and a number of lower-profile, interesting books. The list is not based on quality, which is why you may find a few lesser-regarded books on here which were, nevertheless, massive sellers. These are also the books that (mostly) will be discussed in the main body of the text.

With a couple of exceptions, only the first volume of a series is listed because otherwise the list would be fifty times longer than it is right now.

Timeline of Key Books:

c. 760-710 BC: The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer
19 BC:            The Aeneid, Virgil
8 AD: The Metamorphoses, Ovid
1485:   Morte d'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory
1725:   Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift
1854:   The Rose and the Ring, William Makepeace Thackeray
1858:   Phantastes, George MacDonald
1862:   Goblin Market and Other Poems, Christina Rossetti
1896:   The Well at the World's End, William Morris
1900:   The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum
1922:   The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison
1924:   The King of Elfland's Daughter, Lord Dunsany
1926:   Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirlees
1927:   Kull the Conqueror (short story series), Robert E. Howard
1932:   Conan the Barbarian (short story and novel series), Robert E. Howard
1934:   Jiriel of Joiry (short story series) by C.L. Moore
1937:   The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, J.R.R. Tolkien
1938:   The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King), T.H. White
1939:   Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (short story and novel series), Fritz Leiber
1946:   Titus Groan (Gormenghast Trilogy), Mervyn Peake
1949:   The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia), C.S. Lewis
1950:   The Dying Earth (Dying Earth), Jack Vance
1954:   The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson
1954-55: The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
1961:   The Dreaming City (Elric), Michael Moorcock
1962:   The Letter for the King, Tonke Dragt
1963:   Witch World (Witch World), Andre Norton
1964:   The Book of Three (Chronicles of Prydain), Lloyd Alexander
1965:   Elidor, Alan Garner
1968:   A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea), Ursula K. Le Guin
            Dragonflight (Dragonriders of Pern), Anne McCaffrey
            The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle
1970:   Nine Princes in Amber (Chronicles of Amber), Roger Zelazny
            Deryni Rising (Deryni), Katherine Kurtz
            The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart
1974:   The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia A. McKillip
            Dungeons and Dragons (roleplaying game), Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson
1976:   The Riddle-Master of Hed (Riddle-Master), Patricia A. McKillip
1977:   The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
            Lord Foul's Bane (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), Stephen Donaldson
            The Sword of Shannara (Shannara), Terry Brooks
            A Spell for Chameleon (Xanth), Piers Anthony
1978:   The Stand, Stephen King
1979:   The Neverending Story, Michael Ende
1980:   The Shadow of the Torturer (Book of the New Sun), Gene Wolfe
1982:   Magician (Riftwar Saga), Raymond E. Feist
            Pawn of Prophecy (The Belgariad), David Eddings
            The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower), Stephen King
            Suldrun's Garden (Lyonesse), Jack Vance
            Daggerspell (Deverry), Katharine Kerr
1983:   The Colour of Magic (Discworld), Terry Pratchett
            The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
            Harpy's Flight, Megan Lindholm (Robin Hobb)
            Cloud Warrior (Amtrak Wars), Patrick Tilley
1984:   Legend (Drenai), David Gemmell
            The Black Company (Black Company), Glen Cook
            Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance),Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
            Stormwarden (Cycle of Fire), Janny Wurts
1986:   The Wizards and the Warriors (Chronicles of an Age of Darkness), Hugh Cook
            The Anvil of Ice (Winter of the World), Michael Scott Rohan
1987:   Arrows of the Queen (Valdemar), Mercedes Lackey
            The Eyes of the Dragon, Stephen King
            Wolf in Shadow (Sipstrassi), David Gemmell
            Godslayer (Renshai), Mickey Zucker Reichert
1988:   The Dragonbone Chair (Memory, Sorrow & Thorn), Tad Williams
            Dragon Prince (Dragon Prince), Melanie Rawn
            The Crystal Shard (Icewind Dale), R.A. Salvatore
            The Labyrinth Gate, Alis A. Ramussen (Kate Elliott)
            Sheepfarmer's Daughter (Deed of Paksenarrion), Elizabeth Moon
1989:   Shadowrun (roleplaying game), Jordan Weisman
            Guards! Guards! (Discworld), Terry Pratchett
            Sandman (comic series), Neil Gaiman
1990:   The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time), Robert Jordan
            Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay
            Homeland (Dark Elf), R.A. Salvatore
            Good Omens, Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
1992:   Earthdawn (roleplaying game), Jordan Weisman
1993:   Small Gods (Discworld), Terry Pratchett
            Curse of the Mistwraith (Wars of Light & Shadow), Janny Wurts
            The Last Wish (The Witcher), Andrzej Sapkowski
1994:   The Ruins of Ambrai (Exiles), Melanie Rawn
            Wizards' First Rule (Sword of Truth), Terry Goodkind
1995:   Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer), Robin Hobb
            Hawkwood's Voyage (Monarchies of God), Paul Kearney
            The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay
            The Baker's Boy (Book of Words), JV Jones
            Northern Lights (His Dark Materials), Phillip Pullman
1996:   A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire), George R.R. Martin
            The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones
            The Roof of Voyaging (Navigator Kings), Garry Kilworth
1997:   Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Harry Potter), J.K. Rowling
            Dark Lord of Derkholm, Diana Wynne Jones
            King's Dragon (Crown of Stars), Kate Elliott
1998:   Colours in the Steel (Fencer), K.J. Parker
            Heroes Die (Acts of Caine), Matt Woodring Stover
            Ship of Magic (Liveship Traders), Robin Hobb
1999:   Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen), Steven Erikson
            A Cavern of Black Ice (Sword of Shadows), J.V. Jones
2000:   Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle
            Perdido Street Station, China Miéville
2001:   Kushiel's Dart (Kushiel), Jacqueline Carey
            Cities of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer
            The Magician's Guild (Black Magician), Trudi Canavan
            Across the Nightingale Floor (Otori), Lian Hearn
            The Curse of Chalion (War of the Five Gods), Lois McMaster Bujold
            American Gods, Neil Gaiman
2002:   The Scar, China Miéville
            Eragon (Inheritance), Christopher Paolini
2003:   The Etched City, K.J. Bishop
            The Weavers of Saramyr (Braided Path), Chris Wooding
            The Briar King (Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone), Greg Keyes
2004:   The Darkness That Comes Before (Prince of Nothing), R. Scott Bakker
            Night of Knives (Malazan Empire), Ian Cameron Esslemont
            The Year of Our War (Castle), Steph Swainston
            Banewreaker (Sundering), Jacqueline Carey
2005:   Elantris, Brandon Sanderson
2006:   The Blade Itself (First Law), Joe Abercrombie
            The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard), Scott Lynch
            His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire), Naomi Novik
            Scar Night (Deepgate Codex), Alan Campbell
            A Shadow in Summer (Long Price), Daniel Abraham
            The Final Empire (Mistborn), Brandon Sanderson
2007:   The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicle), Patrick Rothfuss
            The Cardinal's Blades (Cardinal's Blades), Pierre Pevel
            Spirit Gate (Crossroads), Kate Elliott
            The Summoner (Necromancer), Gail Z. Martin
2008:   The Steel Remains (Land Fit For Heroes), Richard Morgan
            The Ten Thousand (Macht), Paul Kearney
            The Crown Conspiracy (Ririya Revelations), Michael J. Sullivan
            The Painted Man (Demon), Peter V. Brett
2009:   Pathfinder (roleplaying game), Paizo Publishing
            Nights of Villjamur (Legends of the Red Sun), Mark Charan Newton
            Retribution Falls (Tales of the Ketty Jay), Chris Wooding
2010:   God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha), Kameron Hurley
            Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay
            The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance), N.K. Jemisin
            The Way of Kings (Stormlight Archive), Brandon Sanderson
2011:   Prince of Thorns (Broken Empire), Mark Lawrence
            The Dragon's Path (Dagger and the Coin), Daniel Abraham
            Tome of the Undergates (Aeons' Gate), Sam Sykes
2012:   The Killing Moon (Dreamblood), N.K. Jemisin
            Range of Ghosts (Eternal Sky), Elizabeth Bear
            Blood Song (Raven's Shadow), Anthony Ryan
            The Heir of Night (Wall of Night), Helen Lowe
2013:   Malice (Faithful and the Fallen), John Gwynne
            The Grim Company (Grim Company), Luke Scull
2014:   The Mirror Empire (Worldbreaker), Kameron Hurley
            Prince of Fools (Red Queen's War), Mark Lawrence
            The Emperor's Blades (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne), Brian Staveley
            Promise of Blood (Powder Mage), Brian McClellan
2015:   The Fifth Season (Broken Earth), N.K. Jemisin
            The City Stained Red (Bring Down Heaven), Sam Sykes

Thursday 18 February 2016

Trailer for ORPHAN BLACK Season 4

BBC America have released a new trailer for the fourth (and apparently penultimate) season of Orphan Black.

Season 4 will start airing on Thursday 14 April in the United States (and presumably Canada, which usually airs the same night on the Space Channel). No UK airdate has been set. With the demise of the show's former home on BBC3, it's assumed it will go straight onto the BBC iPlayer service. However, last year they still, bizarrely, made fans wait six months for this. The timescale this time around is not known.

So a new HALF-LIFE game came out today

Sadly not Half-Life 3. Instead the new game is called Prospekt and is a stand-alone expansion for Half-Life 2 whilst also serving as a sequel to the classic, original Half-Life expansion Opposing Force.

Long-term gamers will recall that in Opposing Force you played Adrian Shephard, one of the special forces sent into the Black Mesa facility to kill the witnesses to the resonance cascade event that permitted the invasion of Earth by the evil Combine in the first place. Shephard didn't take part in the morally murky shenanigans, instead being enlisted by the enigmatic G-Man to help out Gordon Freeman in his mission from behind the scenes. At the end of the game G-Man temporally suspended Shephard like he did Freeman.

In Prospekt, Shephard is awoken after a decade or so in suspension. Earth is now under Combine occupation and the events of Half-Life 2 are underway. Gordon Freeman is mounting his assault on the Nova Prospekt prison facility and Shephard is once again deployed to help him from behind the scenes, diverting Combine reinforcements and so forth. The game pits Shephard against traditional Half-Life 2 enemies (and some from the episodes). The game features updated visual effects because, well, it's not 2004 any more.

Sadly, overeager fans shouldn't read too much into the release of this episode and what it might mean for the long-MIA Half-Life 3. The game is the creation of Half-Life superfan Richard Seabrook. It so impressed Valve that they've agreed to release it officially, and you can get it on Steam here.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

Warren Spector working on SYSTEM SHOCK 3

In a surprising but welcome move, legendary video game designer Warren Spector has joined Otherside, the company who are making the long-awaited System Shock 3.

Warren Spector has a storied history in video games development. He began his career at Origin Systems working on the Wing Commander and Ultima franchises in the early 1990s, particularly on the well-received Ultima Underworld which was praised for its cutting-edge 3D graphics system and the game's remarkable reactivity to player choice. When Origin became defunct he joined the infamous Looking Glass Studios, where he worked on System Shock and Thief: The Dark Project. When Looking Glass Studios broke up, he co-founded Ion Storm and worked on System Shock 2 and Thief: The Dark Ages. However, his main claim to fame is creating the Deus Ex franchise and working on both Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War. After Ion Storm broke up he joined Disney and worked on the Epic Mickey franchise. Most recently he has been working at the University of Texas in Austin on a game development programme.

Otherside Entertainment is currently working on both System Shock 3 and Underworld Ascendant, a spiritual successor to Ultima Underworld and its sequel. Having Spector on board to work on both is a huge boon. He is one of the few video game developers with big name recognition and will no doubt reduce concerns that both games are simply nostalgia cash-grabs. It'll be interesting to see how these develop.

Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles Vorkosigan is enjoying his honeymoon...right up to the point that he is diverted to Graf Station in Quaddiespace to sort out a diplomatic mess involving Barrayaran warships, Komarran transports and some missing personnel. What initially appears to be a straightforward mission rapidly escalates into a major incident that threatens to break out into full-scale war.

After several novels in a row concerned primarily with Miles Vorkosigan's character development, Diplomatic Immunity sees Lois McMaster Bujold returning to something of a more "normal" approach for the series. She sets up a series of interconnecting mysteries built around some interesting SF ideas and then sets Miles loose to investigate and resolve the situation with a (relative) minimum of fuss. This time around Miles is accompanied by his wife, Ekaterin, and reunited with one of his old Dendarii compatriots, but for the most part it's Miles doing what Miles does best: fast-talking, quick-thinking and having a lot of fun in the process.

The novel is also a bit of a sequel to one of Bujold's earlier novels, Falling Free, which is set in the Vorkosigan universe but is not part of the core series. That book explored the development of the quaddies, humans genetically engineered to best exploit freefall by being given an extra pair of arms and hands instead of legs. Diplomatic Immunity also catches up with the quaddies and reveals what has become of their society in the  intervening two centuries (Falling Free accompanies Diplomatic Immunity in the omnibus edition).

The book is standard fare for Bujold and Miles: well-written, with some clever ideas, some unexpected twists (the escalation of the situation from a minor drama to a massive diplomatic incident is sudden but convincing) and some nice work in terms of both characterisation and plot. It's a smart novel, although it is a little too reliant on coincidences. We are told repeatedly how obscure, bizarre and off the beaten track Graf Station is, so Miles running into two people he's met in previous adventures purely by chance is a little hard to swallow. Once you move past that, it becomes a more interesting story combining mystery, action and politics.

If Diplomatic Immunity does have a major flaw, it's that it feels a little slight in terms of Miles's own character development in the wake of Mirror Dance, Memory, Komarr and A Civil Campaign. But after a whole series of traumas, it is also kind of fun to see Miels not being put through the emotional or physical wringer so much and just getting on with his job.

Diplomatic Immunity (****) is a fun, enjoyable addition to The Vorkosigan Saga. It is available now as part of the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus (UK, USA).

Tuesday 16 February 2016

The Wire: Season 5 (HD)

On 4 February 2009 I reviewed the fifth season of The Wire. I recently completed rewatching the season thanks to the recent HD re-release, courtesy of HBO, and here's the original review with some updated thoughts.

The fifth and final season of The Wire is given the task of wrapping up all the loose ends from previous seasons and also to give space to a new storyline element, that of the media. With the police, criminals, politicians, working class and teachers already covered, moving into the newspapers is the logical next port of call, especially since many of the show's writers cut their teeth as journalists at one time or another.

Thanks to the efforts of the ever-redoubtable defence attorney Maurice Levy, Marlo Stanfield and his crew have avoided jail time, despite being linked to 22 bodies discovered in vacant housing in Baltimore. New mayor Tommy Carcetti wants the murders solved, so the Major Crimes Unit has been reconstituted with most of the old team back in play: Kima, Freamon, McNulty and Sydnor. Meanwhile, Herc has been forced to leave the police and is now working for Levy as a private investigator, and Omar is enjoying a holiday life down in the Caribbean, having apparently left behind the game for good. Unfortunately, Carcetti has inherited a massive education budget deficit from his predecessor and is forced to divert substantial financial resources away from the police to the schools. The Major Crimes Unit is disbanded, and even the street cops find their vehicle maintenance funding being pulled. With the police off his back, Marlo's consolidation of control over the city's drug trade suddenly ramps up to a new and dangerous level and he vows to settle his score with Omar.

With bodies dropping but no funds available to investigate them, McNulty comes up with a scheme to get attention and resources back to the police force but, needless to say, it backfires spectacularly. At the same time, the Baltimore Sun is facing cutbacks but an ambitious young reporter, Scott Templeton, finds unorthodox means of finding new stories that please the bosses but annoy his editor.

The final season of The Wire has a lot of ground to cover, as the police force's attempts to take down Marlo hit a brick wall and a new case rapidly rises to prominence, whilst a whole new facet of the city is explored through the newspaper. Simultaneously, many subplots running from the previous season continue to be explored, such as the continuing trials of the former schoolchildren from Prez's class (although only Dukie and Michael have a lot of screen time this season, Namond and Randy being reduced to cameos) and Marlo's attempt to dispose of the last barrier between him and total control of the city's drug trade. As a result a lot of other storylines fall behind. Carver and Herc appear a lot less than before (although when they do appear, they have some important things to contribute to the show's ending), Prez only has a brief cameo and the school storyline is pretty much abandoned. Cutty also only has a brief appearance, although given that his rehabilitation arc through Seasons 3 and 4 is pretty much complete that is more understandable.

The name of the game this year is resolution. McNulty and Freamon are out for Marlo's blood and plan to bring down his organisation and put him in jail at any cost, and the extraordinary (and increasingly illegal) lengths they go to achieve that are breathtaking. Having played the system for four seasons prior without much to show for it, the two police officers are at breaking point, which isn't surprising. We also see Carcetti, the wonder boy who wanted clean stats and a new dawn for his city, being driven down by the system into the same morass of murky compromises and grey morality that blighted his predecessor. The newspaper storyline is nicely handled, and encapsulates the idea of people trying to do the right thing and getting beaten back for it whilst those who ride and exploit the system can succeed. It's a very cynical view of the world, although one that seems to be depressingly backed up by reality.

But inbetween the cracks there are rays of light. Michael has been put through the wringer in the show's last two seasons and done some very bad things, but towards the end he comes to the realisation that he is in the game but not a gang player, which leads to a very logical end point for him, whilst Bubbles' traumas over the years finally lead him down the path of redemption. It would have been easy for the writers to have had Bubbles rehabilitate at the end of Season 1, but making his journey much longer and more painful before the possibility of a happy ending presents itself results in a more satisfying resolution.

The series ends by showing us the hard-won victories the forces of law and order have achieved, but elsewhere many of the villains are still at large with blood on their hands. Some of the 'good guys' are left broken, or homeless, or without their jobs, or as drug addicts. But some people get what's coming to them, and the series ends with a long, lingering shot of Baltimore, a crime-addled, bankrupt city where the people are just struggling to survive day by day. It was this city, which stands in for pretty much any city in America, that was the real star of the show. David Simon and his writers, directors and actors are to be commended by giving us the definitive portrait of the American city in the 21st Century, and that portrait is not a positive or a happy one. But it has a ring of truth and authenticity to it that no other cop or lawyer show has ever achieved.

Season 5 of the The Wire (*****) is a fitting end-point to the series, and a fine capstone to one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Storylines and mysteries stretching back to Season 1 are resolved satisfyingly, but no easy answers are given and the ending is anything but neat. The season is available on DVD in the UK and USA, and as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA).

Updated Thoughts

The fifth season of The Wire is widely regarded as the weakest. On my original viewing I wasn't too sure, feeling it tied with the second season. However, on this HD rewatch it became clear that the second season was far superior on a rewatch, with my initial scepticism of it coming more from the jarring shift of tone and storyline from the first season. If the second season improves on a rewatch, the fifth season certainly declines a little.

Which is not to say that it is bad, but for the first time in the series it feels like David Simon doesn't really have a lot to say. The decline of print media and well-paid, driven reporters is bad for journalism? Hardly a major revelation. The bosses become the bosses due to a bland willing to compromise and sell out their ideals in the process? The previous four seasons said the same thing and in a much better way. The fifth season doesn't bring much that's new to the table and the newspaper storyline, particularly the bizarre activities of Scott Templeton (who on this rewatch now appears to be mentally ill rather than simultaneously ambitious and lazy, which I think was the original intent), is not really well thought-out. Not to mention that the police storyline, where McNulty crosses the line to secure more funding for the police department, is implausible to the point of being farcical. For a show so steeped in criminal and social realism, these aspects of the fifth season feel unconvincing and even contrived.

Fortunately the show is about much more than that. The war on the street between Marlo Stanfield and Omar is absolutely gripping, driven by fantastic performances and an escalating level of violence and rising stakes that is compelling. Carcetti's decline in moral authority and ability as he loses his earlier idealism and capitalises on disastrous crime and and school issues to try to get into the governor's mansion is also phenomenal, Aiden Gillen bringing all of the snake-oil charm, political nous and wafer-thin charisma that he doesn't to the role of Littlefinger in Game of Thrones (seriously, what is up with that?). Other elements are much reduced this year, with characters like Prez and Cutty being reduced to cameos, but others return to prominence, such as the return of the Greek and his gang from the second season.

When The Wire hits the right notes, even in this more problematic final season, it more than earns its title of the Best TV Show Evaaaah. At its best, the writing and casting and direction are sublime. At its worst, the show loses focus and becomes just another crime show, but still a well-made one. Fortunately, the cast and crew do manage to turn around the moderate decline in quality in the last two episodes of the series and bring things together for an absolutely outstanding finale that really encapsulates what the show is about.

The Wire complete series blu-ray set is available now in the UK and USA and, for anyone who enjoys good drama and good television, is an absolute must-purchase.


Wade Wilson is a smart-talking mercenary who takes a lot of small-time jobs warning off stalkers and helping people (for money). He meets Vanessa, the love of his life, but then discovers he has cancer. Fearing losing her, he accepts an offer from a shadowy surgeon named Ajax to grant him superpowers of healing to get rid of the cancer, in return for working for Ajax. When it turns out that Ajax is a lunatic and only gives Wilson his powers after disfiguring him for life, Wilson is "unimpressed" and seeks revenge, becoming the crime-fighting lunatic (and constant thorn in the side of the X-Men) Deadpool.

Conventional wisdom is that superhero movies are for, if not kids, then all the family. People in funny costumes running around and blowing things up? Definitely something mainly for children that adults can also enjoy. That assumption has driven the marketing and budgets of almost every superhero movie since the original Superman in 1978, but it has certainly been the dominant market stance since Iron Man in 2008. The occasional attempt to make a superhero movie for adults like Watchmen and Kick-Ass, complete with swearing and more graphic violence, has met with relative financial failure. If you have an adult-oriented comic and want to see it faithfully on screen, your only bet has been to get it on TV instead (the route chosen by Preacher and The Walking Dead).

Ryan Reynolds doesn't do conventional wisdom. A long-time fan of the Marvel Comics character Deadpool, he finally got to play the role in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. After an extended cameo, the character had his mouth sewn up and turned into a lobotomised bad guy. Reynolds wasn't impressed and neither were the fans. So began a seven-year campaign to get the character on screen, taking in multiple script runs, test footage, leaked test footage, last-minute budget cuts and a genius marketing campaign. Finally Reynolds and comic fans everywhere have had their patience and faith rewarded: Deadpool got rave reviews and took just under $300 million in its first five days on release. The R-rated action movie may have just had the shot in the arm it needs.

Deadpool is a gloriously demented, funny action move about a dude who gets disfigured for life by a British villain and then spends ages trying to get revenge, only for it to be upset by the X-Men (well, two of them). He then spends a bit more time trying to get revenge, the bad guy kidnaps his girlfriend because reasons and there's a big showdown on a beached aircraft carrier. The stakes are surprisingly low, the action fast and brutal and the one-liners never stop coming. Deadpool is a very, very good action film and superhero movie as well as a satire on the genre. This is what helps make it successful.

The other thing is timing. Watchmen isn't a terrible movie, but its heavy, metafictional commentary on superhero movie tropes didn't resonate very well in 2009 when the superhero movie genre was still in a relatively early stage (there'd been loads of them, but it wasn't until the Marvel Cinematic Universe took off that it became all-encompassing). In 2016, with a new superhero movie coming out every five minutes, Deadpool's fourth-wall shattering commentary on the genre works a lot better. Plus Deadpool is genuinely funny, the result of a tremendous script and some excellent ad-libbing from the cast.

The cast are phenomenal. This is the role that Ryan Reynolds was born to play and his delivery of hilarious, foul lines is perfect. More importantly, he can also sell scenes of anger and emotional distress. His Wade Wilson is a flawed human being, not just a delivery mechanism for dick jokes. TJ Miller is equally hilarious as his friend/barkeeper/confidante Weasel, whose ad-libbed responses to Wilson's new appearance may form the best part of the film. Ed Skrein doesn't have a lot to do as villain Ajax, lacking any kind of backstory or motivation, but then that's kind of the point. Stefan Kapičić turns in a great vocal performance as Colossus, whose role in this movie is to try to make Deadpool become a hero (mainly by boring him with unnecessarily long speeches), and Brianna Hildebrand brings the requisite teenage moodiness as Negasonic Teenage Warhead. Particularly well-cast is the Tony Award-winning, Emmy-nominated actress Leslie Uggams (noted for many prestigious film and stage roles in the 1960s and 1970s) as Blind Al, Deadpool's somewhat reluctant housemate. One performer who starts out brilliantly but then drops off (due to the script, not her) is Morena Baccarin (Firefly, Gotham, Homeland). Baccarin plays against type as a foul-mouthed escort who matches Wilson's verbal quippage and wins his heart, but ends the film reduced to a damsel in distress (a line lampshading this in the trailers is, slightly oddly, removed in the film), which is a bit disappointing.

What helps the film is its short running time, its focus on a relatively straightforward story and the clarity of the stakes. Alongside last year's Mad Max: Fury Road and Ant-Man, it certainly makes another argument for action movies where the scale is more personal and the fate of the whole world is not at stake. It is certainly a vast improvement over the leaden and overblown pomp of films like Age of Ultron and Man of Steel.

Deadpool (****½) is fast-paced, well-written and tremendously well-characterised. It's a funny movie but doesn't rely on just being funny, remembering to bring heart, satire and thunderous action as well. It is, in a rather bizarre way, charming under all the filthy one-liners and sexual references. It is on general release right now, and a sequel has already been greenlit.