Wednesday 31 August 2016

Jim Broadbent cast on GAME OF THRONES

Respected British actor Jim Broadbent has been cast for the seventh and penultimate season of Game of Thrones.

Broadbent is a veteran of stage, television and film, having won a Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. In 2002 he was named an OBE, but turned it down.

Casual viewers will recognise him as Horace Slughorn from the Harry Potter movies, but he has also appeared in films such as Iris, Hot Fuzz, Time Bandits, Brazil (alongside Game of Thrones actor Jonathan Pryce), The Crying Game, Moulin Rouge, Gangs of New York and Cloud Atlas. On television he was a mainstay of British comedy programmes for most of the 1980s and 1990s, but has also appeared in drama series.

HBO have declined to say who Broadbent will be playing. At this point we are so far off-book it's hard to pick out a role, but I do wonder if we'll be seeing more flashbacks to the Mad King Aerys Targaryen. Broadbent would do excellently in that role. And yes, that role was cast with another actor in Season 6 (itself the second time the role had been cast, as he'd been cast for Season 1 for scenes ultimately cut out of the show) but that's hardly stopped HBO before.

Another possibility might be that Broadbent is playing either the new Grand Maester or the new High Septon (both are needed after the explosive Season 6 finale), or possibly a new maester at Winterfell. Another possibility is that he is playing a Northern lord. Finally, he could be an Archmaester at the Citadel, potentially Marwyn if that character is being retained?

We'll find out next summer when Game of Thrones returns.

STRANGER THINGS renewed for a second season

Althought it was pretty much a done deal the second it launched to rapturous reviews and a huge number of views, Netflix have now formally renewed Stranger Things for a second season.

They confirmed that the second season will last for nine episodes, even going as far as to announce the episode titles in the preview video. Those episode titles are:
  1. Madmax
  2. The Boy Who Came Back to Life
  3. The Pumpkin Patch
  4. The Palace
  5. The Storm
  6. The Pollywog
  7. The Secret Cabin
  8. The Brain
  9. The Lost Brother

The Duffer Brothers have already been working on and planning the second season for a while. They've started submitting the scripts to Netflix and are looking to cast four major new characters for Season 2. However, they've confirmed that most of the major Season 1 characters will return but would not be drawn on if Eleven will be back, which given the ending of Season 1 is understandable.

To avoid the curse of bad sequels, the Duffer Brothers have apparently been studying the works of James Cameron, judging Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day to be the finest sequels ever made. Hopefully something rubs off and the second season of Stranger Things is as good as the first, if not better.

Season 2 of Stranger Things - and apparently there's a good chance it will be called Stranger Things II - is expected to air in late 2017.

Tuesday 30 August 2016

Peadar O Guilin's THE CALL available now

I reviewed Peadar O Guilin's The Call a few months ago and found it to be one of the best SFF novels I've read in a while. A smart coming-of-age story infused with the darker side of Irish mythology and based on a killer concept (the Sidhe return, imprison Ireland in a magical field and relentlessly hunt every teenage human inside down for sport), it's well worth a read.

The Call is out today in the United States from Scholastic and at the end of the week in the UK and Ireland from David Fickling Books. Reviews are already out in the wild:

Publisher's Weekly (starred review): "This is a bleak, gripping story, one where only the most muted of happy endings is possible."

Kirkus Reviews: "Where the book excels is in its worldbuilding, which imagines a realistically multicultural, modern Ireland unified by the Call and where the Irish language is no longer spoken and Sídhe is replacing English."

The Bookbag:  "There are a good many survival game stories about at the moment, but The Call feels fresh and interesting and powerful. It's beautifully paced, remorseless and is peopled with characters you can believe in. I couldn't put it down. I understand a sequel - The Cauldron - will follow, and I'll be first in line to read it."

Mugglenet:  "The Call is a stunner of a book. I was taken in immediately, and was so riveted that I flew through the entire thing in just a couple of hours...Many readers might immediately draw comparisons to The Hunger Games, but The Call has much more in common with 1999’s Battle Royale by Koushun Takami...The Call is enchanting, compelling, and utterly horrifying. I loved it."

Queen of Teen Fiction: "It was gory and twisted, definitely not for the faint-hearted, but it was hard to turn my eyes away. I was desperate to learn more about these faeries and their history. Since I’m pretty sure this book is the first in a series, I’m highly anticipating another trip into this world that O’Guilin has created, and I’m equally excited to see and dreading what nightmares await the characters next."

Sunday 28 August 2016

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

The Six Duchies are troubled by internal strife. King Shrewd's eldest son and heir, Prince Chivalry, has fathered an illegitimate son. Riven by guilt and controversy, Chivalry abdicates his position and goes into into exile. His son, Fitz, is raised in Buckkeep and tutored in the ways of becoming an assassin. For King Shrewd, Fitz is a weapon he can use to further the cause of his kingdom. But all Fitz wants is a home and a place to belong.

Assassin's Apprentice, originally published in 1995, is the first volume in The Farseer Trilogy, the first of nine books focused on the character of Fitz and also the first book in a sixteen-volume series entitled The Realm of the Elderlings. For a book that launched an enormously successful series, it is relatively small-scale and restrained.

This is traditional epic fantasy, but one that is slanted a little from the standard. It's medieval faux Europe, but the land of the Six Duchies is based on Alaska (albeit a slightly warmer one) and the neighbouring Mountain Kingdom is more inspired by Tibet. There are existential threats - the Red Ship Raiders who ravage the coastline and the threat of civil war - but for the most part these are kept firmly in the background. Assassin's Apprentice is primarily the coming of age tale of FitzChivalry Farseer as he grows up, gains allies, masters the art of the assassin and encounters two forms of magic: the Skill, a form of telepathic communication and control, and the Wit, a bond of empathy with animals.

Robin Hobb's greatest strength is her deft hand with charaterisation and her naturalistic way of presenting the world. Her greatest weakness is a tendency to meander, to have characters sitting around talking about the plot rather than getting on with things and taking a hundred pages to do what a more concise author would do in ten. These weaknesses manifest much more strongly in the later volumes of the series, however. Assassin's Apprentice is, at 480 pages in paperback, relatively short and breezy by Hobb's standards with both a strong character focus and clarity of storytelling.

Much of your enjoyment of these books relies on your engagement with the main character, Fitz. Fitz is an introverted, introspective young man who spends a lot of time reacting to events rather than taking decisive action (this changes in later novels, in which he is a lot less passive). This can be frustrating, but it is also realistic: Fitz occupies a place less than nobility but more than being a peasant, and this dichotomy leaves him isolated and almost friendless, his position in the world uncertain and unreliable. It is only towards the end of the volume, when he visits the Mountain Kingdom and encounters people less concerned with rank and pomp, that he is able to come out of his shell a little. As it stands, Fitz is a mildly engaging but far-from-compelling central character. However, he does serve as an effectively unreliable narrator: the further things and events are from Fitz's perspective, the less reliable they are. This serves to upset reader expectations several times over the course of the trilogy. It's not exactly Gene Wolfe, but it is an effective way of getting the reader to share in Fitz's biases and ignorance before presenting them with the truth of events later on.

Hobb is a superior prose writer and a gifted communicator of emotions and atmosphere. Although it's not a primary focus of her writing, she is also a good writer of horror: the Forged, people with their morals stripped away to be turned into monstrous echoes of their former selves, are a truly disturbing fantasy creation. In terms of politics she stumbles a little. Concluding events in the Mountain Kingdom are highly implausible and the way that Fitz escapes retribution for the events people genuinely believe that he has committed is extremely unconvincing. Fitz should be dead three times over before the book ends and the fact he isn't stretches the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.

But there's also a lot to enjoy here. Fitz's tortured upbringing, his relationship with Burrich and Chade, and his punishing tutelage under Galen are all vividly (and sometimes painfully) described. The Red Ship Raiders are an intriguing enemy and the Forged a horrifying creation. Certainly the novel leaves one wanting to move onto the sequel, Royal Assassin.

Assassin's Apprentice (****) is thus a conflicted book: extremely well-written with a interesting backdrop and a terrific atmosphere, but with a plot that is a bit start-stop and political intrigue that is rather undercooked. But in terms of emotional engagement and its use of an unreliable narrator, Hobb is a formidable writer. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 26 August 2016

R. Scott Bakker's PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy optioned for TV

According to the author, a television production company has optioned the rights to the Prince of Nothing trilogy: The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought.

More details are to follow, but this is startling news. Given the overwhelming "heaviness" of the books, with their dark atmosphere, brooding introspection and at times scenes of stomach-churning horror, this is neither an easy sell nor an easy project to get on the screen. There's also the fact that this series would require a budget, at the very least, as high as Game of Thrones in order to sell its scenes of vast armies marching, demons being summoned and sorcerous forces clashing in the skies.

Hopefully we will get more information soon so we can see how serious the offer is and how likely this is to happen. But interesting news nonetheless.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Season 2

The Clone Wars continue to rage across the galaxy. The Separatist robot armies and the Republic's clone troopers mean that both sides can feed millions of troops into the fray, raising fears that the war may continue indefinitely. The Jedi Knights attempt to bring about a final victory, even as Count Dooku and General Grievous press home their attacks...

The first season of The Clone Wars was enjoyable enough, but limited assets and a low (ish) budget meant that it was more of a proof of concept for what the series could be. In its second season, The Clone Wars starts to fulfil that promise. The animation is more impressive, the space battles more epic, the stories longer and more involving, interspersed with some quite effective (and occasionally even moving) stand-alones.

The big stories revolve largely around the activities of bounty hunters, particularly recurring enemy Cad Bane, major military campaigns on Geonosis and Christophisis, and political intrigue on Coruscant and Mandalore. There is also a ludicrous but entertaining multi-part homage to Godzilla and King Kong, when a gigantic "Zillo Beast" is defeated in battle and transported to Coruscant, where naturally it escapes and mayhem ensues. The big stories are well-written and entertaining, although some are more interesting than others: the different bounty hunters the show is trying to set up this season can be a bit interchangeable and therefore less effective as villains.

The stand-alones are extremely good. One episode where a Republic officer finds a clone deserter hiding out on a planet and resolves to turn him in, only to have his moral certainty tested, is very well-handled. An episode where Ahsoka loses her lightsabre and enlists the help of an elderly and apparently past-his-best Jedi to aid her is also extremely entertaining. Another episode sees Ahsoka, Obi-Wan and Anakin reluctantly joining forces with a band of mercenaries in a homage to Seven Samurai.

There's also a renewed focus on more realistic politics (at least compared to the prequel movies, which isn't saying much) and a solid season-ending arc which sees Boba Fett infiltrate the clone ranks in an attempt to avenge the death of his father Jango at the hands of Mace Windu (in Attack of the Clones).

The result is a stronger season overall that delves further into the nature of war and the morality of conflict. There is some excellent character development, particularly of Obi-Wan, Anakin and Ashoka, and a scaling back of less successful elements: Jar-Jar doesn't have much to do this season, thankfully. There is also a lot of excellent battle sequences, great voice acting and some marvellous production design.

On the negative side of things, the way the story jumps backwards and forwards between times and locations occasionally risks confusion. Fans of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe will also probably be less than thrilled to see what's become the Mandalorians, the battle-hardened super warriors from numerous video games, comics and novels now reduced to pacifistic, squabbling fools.

Aside from that, Season 2 of The Clone Wars (****) is a major improvement over the first season in every way and makes for excellent pulp fun. It is available now as part of the Complete Season 1-5 box set (UK, USA).

Sunday 21 August 2016

James Purefoy cast in Netflix's version of ALTERED CARBON

Netflix has announced casting news for Altered Carbon, its cyberpunk TV series based on the Takeshi Kovacs novels by Richard Morgan.

Joining Joel Kinnaman, who has already been cast as Takeshi Kovacs (or rather his Earthbound "sleeve" or body), are James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Dichen Lachman and Leonardo Nam.

James Purefoy is best-known to genre fans from his excellent turn as Mark Anthony in HBO's Rome. Since then he has starred in Blackbeard, Camelot and The Following on TV and is currently starring in Hap & Leonard for Sundance TV. His film credits include Ironclad, John Carter, Solomon Kane and the recent High-Rise.

Purefoy will be playing Laurens Bancroft, a centuries-old super rich member of the elite class known as Methuselahs. This is the kind of finely-characterised, meaty role that Purefoy revels in.

Mexican actress Martha Higareda (Royal Pains) will play police officer Kristin Ortega, whilst Dichen Lachman (Dollhouse, The 100, Agents of SHIELD) will play Reileen Kawahara, Kovacs's sister. Leonardo Nam (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Westworld) will play the young Takeshi Kovacs (the original body Kovacs was born into) in flashback sequences.

The first episode of Altered Carbon will be directed by Miguel Sapochnik (Game of Thrones) and the series is expected to debut in late 2017.

Saturday 20 August 2016

The Future of the STAR WARS Movies

In four months Star Wars: Rogue One will hit cinema screens. It will be the biggest risk in the forty year history of the franchise. It'll be the first movie in the series which does not revolve around lightsabres, the Force or the Skywalker family. A Dirty Dozen in space, it will carefully explore whether mass audiences are willing to watch stories in that universe which are not related to the characters or premise of the original movies.

"That's a nice eclipse. But wait, this planet has no moon, how can we have an eclipse?"
"That's no moon..."

That said, it's not that much of a risk. The film will be partially set on the Death Star and characters like Mon Mothma and even Darth Vader will appear (if only, in the latter case, for what sounds like an effective cameo). And whilst cinema audiences may not be used to Star Wars without the Skywalkers, it's something many millions of more dedicated fans have experienced for decades in mediums like the comic books, novels, video games and animated TV series like The Clone Wars and Rebels. Even if, somehow, Rogue One does badly, it'll only be another year before Episode VIII (still, curiously, not titled by Lucasfilm) hits cinema screens to continue the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Kylo Ren, Finn, Rey and everyone else from The Force Awakens.

We know that Disney wants to release a Star Wars movie every year from now until the end of time (probably) and this will mean them telling completely original stories in the setting. It's actually a clever move, because after Rogue One the other planned spin-off movies are actually dove-tailing into the main saga by exploring the backstories of major characters, which gives them time to see if Rogue One is a success before committing to more original movies. So here's a look at what we know about the upcoming movies and throw some ideas about for films beyond that:

In Production

Star Wars: Rogue One
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Release Date: 16 December 2016
Status: Late post-production

You should have already seen the trailers for this. Rogue One is a prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy, taking place just weeks before the events of A New Hope. The film chronicles the completion of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance getting wind of the Empire's new superweapon and a crack team of morally dubious commandos being dispatched to steal vital technical data on the weapon. It's this data that eventually gets into the hands of Princess Leia and R2-D2, kicking off the entire saga.

This film is unusual in that it focuses on non-Force-using characters, with Edwards describing it as a war film more in the vein of The Dirty Dozen than the fantasy adventure fun of the previous movies. The film will apparently have a slightly "grittier" tone than the main films and will probably not even have a scene-setting opening crawl. It will also be the first Star Wars movie to not be scored by John Williams. The film is likely to be a big success but whether it will match the heights of The Force Awakens remains to be seen: the marketing for this film has been extremely restrained so far, compared to where we were a year ago for Episode VII.

Star Wars: Episode VIII
Directed by Rian Johnson
Release Date: December 2017
Status: Early post-production

This film picks up after the end of The Force Awakens, with Rey trying to convince Luke Skywalker to train her in the ways of the Force, Finn recovering from the injuries he sustained in the battle with Kylo Ren and Ren, himself badly wounded, being taken to Supreme Leader Snoke to be healed and learn more of the Dark Side of the Force. The Resistance is reeling from the destruction of Hosnian Prime, but the First Order has also been dealt a serious blow with the destruction of Starkiller Base, likely leading to renewed fighting between the two sides.

The second of the new Star Wars episodes is directed by Rian Johnson, who is extremely well-respected for his original SF movies Brick and Looper, not to mention his excellent work on Breaking Bad. This movie will be huge - potentially bigger even than The Force Awakens - and hopefully a bit more original on the story side of things.

Star Wars: Han Solo
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Release Date: 15 May 2018 (likely, in my opinion, to change)
Status: Pre-production and casting

This film will explore the backstory of everyone's favourite smuggler, Han Solo. The movie is apparently set ten years before the events of A New Hope and will explain how Solo acquires the Millennium Falcon, with a young Lando Calrissian also expected to appear. You'd also expect Chewbacca to show up, but that has not yet been confirmed.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have a huge amount of both geek cred and studio support, having taken The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street (plus its sequel) to box office success and critical acclaim. They recently announced that Alden Ehrenreich will be starring as the young Han Solo, and the Internet approved mightily of the (unconfirmed) rumour that Community actor Donald Glover will be playing Lando. Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, is also co-writing this movie with his son. This seems like a pretty strong project, with Han Solo's roguish adventures being the perfect setting for a Star Wars movie. Interestingly, this may also be a relatively small-scale Star Wars movie without the planet-destroying superweapons and galaxy-spanning wars of the other movies. Some rumours have suggested it may also take cues from Ocean's Eleven, which would be interesting although possibly self-defeating (why make a Han Solo, er, solo movie if you then immediately add lots of other main characters?).

Even the suggestion that Disney might spin this out into a trilogy of films ending shortly before the events of Episode IV isn't necessarily a bad thing, providing the writers, directors and, most impotantly, the actor all deliver on the tremendous promise.

Star Wars: Episode IX
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Release Date: December 2019
Status: Pre-production and writing

Given that Episode VIII is still sixteen months away, it's probably premature to speculate too much about Episode IX. But this film will likely resolve the fates of Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey and the First Order and finally bring peace to the galaxy, at least until such time that Disney's finances require the inevitable Episode X-XII trilogy be made.

Colin Trevorrow was a bit of an eye-opening choice for this film, with only two previous movies on his resume and, unlike Rian Johnson, neither were critical successes. But when one of those movies was the franchise-rejeuvenating, money-making machine Jurassic World, that doesn't really matter. What is more hopeful is that Rian Johnson is hanging around to co-write the script.

In Development

These ideas have all been thrown around by Lucasfilm in interviews before, so we can assume that they have at least been discussed.

Star Wars: Boba Fett

A film revolving around everyone's favourite space mercenary Boba Fett has been mooted several times before. Fett was the break-out star of the original trilogy, a background character with a bare handful of words who was defeated by Han Solo by accident and eaten by a giant hole in the desert, but somehow retained his cool aura. The Clone Wars animated series actually did a reasonable job of filling in his character and backstory.

I'm a bit torn on this one. On the one hand, Boba Fett worked in the original trilogy because he was hardly in it. He showed up, showed some sass to Darth Vader and then apparently died. Both the Expanded Universe and the new canon have ruled that he survived his fall into the Sarlaac, but the Expanded Universe novels did arguably then over-use him, particularly in trying to make him a morally-justified Mandalorian warlord. Part of me thinks Fett should remain firmly off-screen.

But the approach suggested by Lawrence Kasdan is also interesting. Kasdan, who is known not to be a fan of the prequel trilogy, apparently penned a treatment in which the Boba Fett from Attack of the Clones is attacked and killed by a Clint Eastwood-esque "man with no name" who then steals Fett's identity before the events of the original trilogy. It's a nice idea, but I get the impression that Lucasfilm vetoed it, possibly feeling it was a bit of an insult to George Lucas (who clearly intended them to the be the same character, even redubbing all of Fett's lines in the original trilogy with the Attack of the Clones actor's voice). Kasdan later announced that Han Solo will be his last movie, so the Boba Fett project - which appears now to have been moved to the backburner - will have to find another writer.

Star Wars: Yoda

A Yoda-centric Star Wars story has actually been on the cards since George Lucas made Return of the Jedi. When the Expanded Universe took off a few years after that movie came out, Lucas forbade any of the novel authors, RPG designers or TV scriptwriters from giving any information at all on Yoda or his species. The closest anyone got was when Knights of the Old Republic II featured an alien of the same race. So clearly Lucas wanted to carefully protect Yoda's backstory for another time.

That said, a Yoda-centric movie might be a hard sell. The prequel trilogy didn't really endear audiences more to the character (who was rather more humourless and less relatable than his appearances in the original trilogy) and, like Fett, Yoda works more in small doses. Maybe a film that explores his 900-year backstory without necessarily featuring him in every scene might work. I suspect this film is also now on the backburner as Lucasfilm debate how to handle it.

Star Wars: Obi-Wan

This project doesn't appear to have been on Lucasfilm's radar, but came up as a possibility after Ewan McGregor enthusiastically endorsed the idea in interviews. McGregor had been lukewarm on his experiences filming the prequel trilogy (noting his numerous emotional scenes where he had only a tennis ball to react to), but apparently is keen to revisit the character with a better writer and more meaty material to handle. This film would presumably be set between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope and see Obi-Wan called away from Tatooine to undertake a new adventure. It is also possible that this film could dovetail into either (or both) the proposed Boba Fett and Yoda projects. There's also the fact that in A New Hope Luke notes he has met Obi-Wan before, so this movie could also explore that first meeting.

Mostly, I think a lot of people feel bad that an actor of McGregor's calibre was let down by poor material in the prequel trilogy and want to give him another shot with the character.

Possible Ideas

These are ideas that fans and writers have thrown around, with variable amounts of plausibility.

Star Wars: Rogue Two

Probably not revolving the character from The Empire Strikes Back (although at this rate, in another fifty movies' time that may actually be a viable idea). More plausibly, this could be another adventure with the Rogue One crew, or whoever survives that movie, perhaps going after the Death Star II plans (presumably helped by many Bothans) or getting involved in more between-movie shenanigans.

More likely would be a film that tries to do the same kind of thing as Rogue One: a completely new adventure with a whole new cast, just set in the wider Star Wars universe.

Star Wars: Mace Windu

Like Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson has expressed interest in reprising his prequel trilogy character of Mace Windu, famed for his purple lightsabre. Unlike the proposed Obi-Wan movie, this would be rather more difficult since Mace Windu dies in Revenge of the Sith when his arm is chopped off by Anakin Skywalker and he is then blasted out of the window of the Chancellor's office with Force lightning.


No, he does, but Jackson has heroically argued that Windu could have survived his multi-mile plummet onto the streets of Coruscant and gone into hiding, emerging many years later to wreak havoc on the Empire, presumably before dying for real (to explain why he's not in the original trilogy). It's a nice idea, but given the already-ridiculous return of Boba Fett from the dead I think this is probably an idea best avoided.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

BioWare's classic 2003 computer RPG is widely-cited as the finest piece of Star Wars material ever created outside the movies, with its 2004 sequel from Obsidian Entertainment (which explores a much more morally murky idea of the Star Wars universe) not far behind it. These two games have spawned enormous numbers of popular spin-offs, including the current online multiplayer game The Old Republic. A film version of the story, or exploring the same time period (4,000 years before the original trilogy) when the Jedi and Sith are both numerous and engaged in galaxy-spanning conflicts, could be quite interesting.

Star Wars: Thrawn

Grand Admiral Thrawn is the most popular Star Wars character not to appear in the films, instead having been the star villain of Timothy Zahn's early 1990s novels which launched the Expanded Universe. The EU is gone but Thrawn has been carried forwards into the new continuity, with him set to appear as a villain in Season 3 of the Rebels animated series and Zahn writing a new novel about him.

A movie featuring Thrawn as a villain would be very popular. Hugo Weaving was previously a fan favourite to play him, but Benedict Cumberbatch now seems to be the actor of choice to take on the role. Such a film would also, if set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, explore a time period which is still a bit murky and may allow other EU characters like Mara Jade to appear in the new canon.

This assumes that Thrawn won't just be killed off in Rebels, but that would appear to be a waste of an excellent villain.

Star Wars: The Huttfather

Jabba the Hutt stars in a Godfather-riffing trilogy exploring his backstory, rising from a poor young Hutt in the swamps of Nal Hutta to an immigrant to the Vertical City of Nar Shaddaa to his rise to a powerful crimelord of the Outer Rim, based on Tatooine. Robert De Niro will play the young Hutt in lengthy flashbacks.

Okay, I made that up. But at this rate this will be a viable project in about ten years or so.

Tucker and Dale Versus Evil

A group of college kids head out into the woods for a weekend of tomfoolery at the same time good-hearted hillbillies Tucker and Dale take possession of their new holiday shack. When Tucker and Dale rescue one of the college girls after she injures herself, her friends think she's been abducted. Misunderstandings escalate out of control, until both groups believe they're being hunted by psychopaths and resolve to defend themselves no matter what.

Comedy movies which riff off horror themes have been around for a while now, starting with the magnificent Evil Dead movies in the 1980s, continuing with the likes of Scream and Shaun of the Dead, and recently resurging thanks to the excellent Cabin in the Woods. Tucker and Dales Versus Evil is a fine addition to this pantheon of movies which seek to scare and amuse at the same time.

This is a quite clever movie which invokes almost ever single trope on the horror table: a bunch of teenage kids out in the woods drinking alcohol and taking drugs, chainsaws, people being picked off one-by-one, buildings burning down and a final confrontation in a sawmill. What makes the movie work so brilliantly is that the whole thing kicks off due to misunderstandings and the belief of the characters in what will happen based on their own exposure to horror movies. In fact, you could re-edit the movie to take place entirely from either Tucker and Dale's POV or that of the kids and you'd entirely get where each side is coming from.

That said, the movie doesn't hold an entirely unbiased view of what's going on: our sympathies are firmly with Tucker and Dale throughout the picture. Alan Tudyk (Firefly) plays Tucker, the somewhat more savvy of the two hillbillies (or so it first appears), with his usual brilliant comic timing but the heart of the picture belongs to Tyler Labine (Reaper) as Dale, whose early dumb schtick masks a much smarter and more resourceful person. One of the underlying premises of the movie is that Dale is trying to woo college girl Allison (a sympathetic performance by Katrina Bowden) which initially seems ridiculous but the actors actually sell the idea they might be just about right for one another. These kind of relationships are usually contrived in both horror and comedy films, but this one works just fine.

The college kids are less sympathetic, bringing about most of their stupidity and ludicrously gory deaths on themselves. Debut director Eli Craig seems to take glee in working out how each one is going to meet their end and then outdoes himself with the next one (although the woodchipper scene remains the most memorable death in the movie).

So the film is well-played, hilarious and takes a wry, smart look at the tropes of horror movies that pays homage to them (even fellow horror-comedies, as The Evil Dead 2 gets several shout-outs). The film does have two, relatively minor, weaknesses. First is that it is a little too quick to cut to the chase. Based on the effectively frantic pacing, the movie should really be over at around the 70 minute mark and the team then have to drag out the finale to get the film up to feature length. Perhaps a little more scene-setting at the start and making the college kids more interesting and sympathetic would have helped the audience care more when they start expiring.

Secondly, the film doesn't entirely have the courage of its convictions and ultimately drops in a real murderous killer into the story. I agree that it would be tough to let the carnage keep playing out as the result of a case of mistaken identity (although they do manage it for more than half of the movie), but it would have been interesting to see them try. Having a real bad guy in the film does kind of feel like it's going against its own premise.

Tucker and Dale Versus Evil (****) is spectacularly gory, extremely funny and cleverer than it first appears, but can't quite maintain the brilliance of its first half all the way to the end. But it's still an outrageously entertaining slice of horror-comedy. It's available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray). It's also available on Netflix in many territories.

Friday 19 August 2016

Amazon releases pilot episode of THE TICK

Ben Edlund's cult-classic superhero comic The Tick is getting another swing at becoming a TV show. It was previously an excellent animated series running from 1994 to 1996 and a brief live-action show in 2001. Amazon are behind this latest revival and have just released the pilot episode to view for free.

I absolutely loved the animated series of The Tick when it first aired, and must admit I found the notion of a live-action version somewhat absurd. That feeling lasted for as long as it took for them to announce they had cast the sublimely brilliant Peter Serafinowicz (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, The Phantom Menace, Guardians of the Galaxy) in the lead role and then that they had cast Jackie Earle Haley as arch-villain the Terror. The pilot also takes an interesting approach by showing things through the POV of the Tick's long-suffering sidekick Arthur (Griffin Newman).

As pilot episodes go, this is fast, smart and very, very funny. Hopefully this will go to series.

The Cats of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Many years ago, the great and incomparable Terry Pratchett uttered a truthism: 
"If cats looked like frogs we'd realise what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember."
He also said:
"In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this."
It does explain a lot.

Cats have been human companions for almost ten thousand years, and only dogs have been human companions for longer. This is probably why science fiction and fantasy authors tend to assume that in the future there will still be cats around, and even fantasy worlds with a ton of non-human races will also have cats showing up. Anthropomorphised cats - usually alien and fantasy races based on cats, but sometimes magically-transformed actual cats - are also commonly found in the genre. So I thought it'd be interesting to put together a greatest hits collection of cats in science fiction and fantasy (and yes, we do dogs as well).

Greebo, the lord and master of all feline activity in the Kingdom of Lancre.

The greatest - and certainly smelliest - cat in the history of genre fiction is Greebo, the cat/familiar of Nanny Ogg, one of the witches of Lancre. Greebo is old, scarred from a thousand battles and incapable of backing down from anything. Greebo is an unrepentant sex pest of a cat, having fathered definitely hundreds and potentially thousands of kittens across the kingdom. Possessed of an uncanny intelligence and the combat nous of a barbarian warlord, Greebo is noted for having killed at least two vampires in battle, near-mortally wounded an elf warrior, surprised a she-bear and chased a wolf up a tree. In fact Greebo has only lost an engagement once, when he chased a vixen into her den where her cubs were located. However, it is hinted that Greebo's mastery of battle is a result of him knowing when to fight and when not to: when confronted by Legba, the black cockerel of the voodoo witch Mrs. Gogol, he immediately backed down.

Greebo will not suffer to be touched by anyone other than Nanny Ogg, who, despite her normally formidable powers of observation and good judgement of character, remains convinced that he is a fluffy and friendly kitten rather than a furball of nightmares who is still wanted for crimes committed across the Disc, incurred when the witches travelled across the continent to Genua and then back again. In Genua Greebo was briefly transformed into human form. In this form he was six feet tall, well-muscled, with a mane of black hair and clad in form-fitting leather, along with an eyepatch over his bad eye. He exuded a kind of "greasy, diabolic sexuality". Fortunately he was returned to cat form before tremendous damage was wreaked on the population of Genua.

Greebo once furthered the cause of quantum science when, through experimentation, confirmed that a cat, upon being left in a box for an extended period of time, could in fact exist in one of three potential states: Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious. Upon the box being opened, the quantum waveform collapsed into one outcome, to whit, Greebo bit the face off the elf opening the box.

Greebo, of course, is the true star of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels and plays a substantial role in Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum and Wintersmith.


Having lived for circa 60 years, Jones might be the longest-lived cat in history in the Alien continuity.

Jones, the rat-catcher of the deep space mining vessel Nostromo, is a survivor. In fact, in the current Alien canon, he's sole crewmember of the Nostromo not to get killed by the xenomorph (it even got Ripley in the end). He also has the sense to stay at home in Aliens when Ripley zooms off to engage the xenomorphs on LV-426. Neill Blomkmap's off-on again Alien 5 will apparently eject both Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection from continuity but I suspect Jones will have long since moved on to the furry cat home in the sky.

Even Frankenstein knew that his slobby owner's plan to retire to Fiji to raise sheep and horses was moronic.

Frankenstein is a small black cat born on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Dave Lister, the lowest-ranking crewperson on the mining ship Red Dwarf, buys her to alleviate boredom. Horrified at the discovery there is an unquarantined animal on board, Captain Hollister orders Lister to turn over the cat so it can be cut up and dissected. When he refuses to promise to put the cat back together again afterwards, Lister refuses and is put in temporal stasis for the rest of the trip, forfeiting eighteen months pay (in the novel continuity Lister does this deliberately so he can get back to Earth faster). Unfortunately, a lethal radiation leak wipes out the crew and forces the ship's AI, Holly, to take the vessel into deep space until the radiation danger has passed...which takes three million years. When Lister wakes up, he finds himself quite possibly the last surviving human being in the entire universe. The only other living humanoid on board is a bipedal descendant of Frankenstein's kittens, known simply as "Cat", a vain and preening creature who can't maintain his concentration on anything other than sleeping or eating for more than five minutes.

Cats have played a key role in many SFF stories, but for Red Dwarf  (which returns for its eleventh season next month) they basically provide the very rationale for the show's existence and underpin its premise, which is pretty good going.

Kittenbus, the younger - and somewhat less nightmare-inducing - form of a Catbus.

The Catbus is an outrageously cute/despair-inducingly disturbing (delete as appropriate) form of conveyance from the Studio Ghibli film My Neighbour Totoro and its short spin-off, Mei and the Kittenbus. It's a giant cat with many legs which has been hollowed out (urgh) and turned into a vehicle, with its eyes serving as giant headlights and a permanent, rictus-like grin jammed onto its face and unleashing a haunting "miaow" in lieu of beeping a horn. It reminds me a bit of that stuffed dead cat that got turned into a drone. Younger catbuses (catbusi?) are known as kittenbuses, but are only big enough for a single child passenger.

Slag, the ship's cat of the airship Ketty Jay, as realised by Anjakes on DeviantArt.

If there was one thing missing from Firefly, as I'm sure everyone knows, it was a cat. That kind of low-down cargo ship was crying out for a ship's cat to get all up in everyone's business. However, Joss Whedon was probably enough of an old hand at Hollywood to know that trying to get a cat to act on-screen is an exercise in futility. Books, of course, have no such limitations and Chris Wooding's excellent saga The Tales of the Ketty Jay (which is basically a steampunk Firefly in a totally non-derivative and equally-awesome kind of way) features a feline crewmember of the good airship. Slag is an old cat, fond of catching rats and loyal (in a relaxed kind of way) to his crewmen. Part of the genius of the books is that we regularly get chapters told from Slag's perspective and the cat actually gets his own character arc throughout all four books. Slag is an ever-present character in the series very few of the other cats in this list are, which an impressive and surprisngly non-mawkish achievement.

The cover designer clearly went to town on this one.

Pixel is a timeline-hopping cat who appears in the novels The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset by Robert Heinlein. The cat has the inexplicable ability to pass through solid matter, apparently a result of its "inability to know any better". At one point the cat gains the ability to talk.

Sir Pounce-a-Lot and Anders (before going psycho), by Morteraphan on DeviantArt.

Ser Pounce-a-Lot is a cat who appears in the Dragon Age video games from BioWare. He debuts in Awakenings, the expansion to the original Dragon Age: Origins, as a small kitten. The Warden (the player-character) can give the kitten to his follower Anders as a gift. Anders raises the kitten to adulthood, occasionally producing it to talk to during idle moments. The cat can be deployed in battle as a means of healing the party mid-combat, although how logically this is achieved is never explained.

In Dragon Age II a rather grumpy Anders will confirm that he had to relinquish the cat at the behest of his fellow Grey Wardens after finding it distracted him. It is possible that this lack of feline affection contributed to his brutally ruthless decision to declare war on the templars at the end of the game. To the annoyance of fans, Sir Pounce-a-Lot likewise failed to reappear in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Some fans theorise that Dragon Age IV may feature Anders and Sir Pounce reunited as a battle-hardened adventuring duo stalking the wilds of Thedas.

Spot was a particularly resilient and hardy space-travelling cat who served with distinction on two of the Federation starships to bear the name Enterprise.

Spot is an interstellar feline and crewmember of the Galaxy-class starship USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D). Spot is adopted by android crewmember Lt. Commander Data as part of his ongoing attempts to understand humanity. Data's attempts to train Spot backfired when he inadvertently discovered the cat had instead trained him to feed and pet her upon command. Spot was noted for her calmness under pressure, at one point being transformed into an iguana with no after-effects. At one point Spot gave birth to a litter of kittens. Spot was noted for her intolerance of people she didn't like, unprovokedly attacking both Riker and La Forge. Apart from Data, she was only affectionate towards Lt. Reginald Barclay. She and Worf developed a mutual dislike for one another, but following Data's destruction in the battle with Shinzon Worf reluctantly agreed to adopt the animal. Later he cited the then-aged cat as having a "true warrior's spirit" hidden behind a facade of lazy indolence.

Spot appeared regularly in Seasons 4-7 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as the movies Generations and Nemesis.

Data once wrote a poem about the cat, Ode to Spot, which follows in its entirety:
Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,
An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature;
Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses
Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.

I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
A singular development of cat communications
That obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
For a rhythmic stroking of your fur to demonstrate affection.

A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
You would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aid in locomotion,
It often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.

O Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display
Connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.
 Spot's reaction to the poem is not known.

The Cat That Launched A Thousand Memes.

Lying Cat (a recurring character in comic book series Saga) is a very large feline and constant companion to the bounty hunter known as the Will. Lying Cat shares most common feline traits, but her size makes her formidable in combat. Lying Cat's most distinguishing feature is the ability to tell when someone is lying. Upon detecting deceit, the cat will simply growl, "Lying". This includes even when people are lying to themselves about some kind of emotional distress. One drawback to this power is that the cat will say it even if the person lying is her owner/partner, the Will.

Mrs. Norris and her master, a rare example of cat-and-human team villainy in SFF.

Mrs. Norris is the pet cat of Argus Filch, the caretaker of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The cat is grumpy and ill-tempered, like its owner, and possesses a strong bond with him, apparently able to alert him to any misbehaving children in the school grounds. The cat was briefly petrified by the Serpent of Slytherin, but later made a full recovery (although some claim her mood was worsened by this incident).

Mrs. Norris is, unusually for SFF, an antagonistic cat. She appears in the Harry Potter novels and movies. Some fans theorised that Mrs. Norris had some kind of magical bond with Filch but J.K. Rowling confirmed she is merely a normal - if nasty - feline.

Balerion, a cat with all the attitude, self-confidence and unreasoning love of violence of Gregor Clegane.

Balerion the Black Dread was the greatest dragon in the history of Westeros, a terrifying monster that helped its rider, King Aegon Targaryen, conquer an entire continent.

Three hundred years later, its namesake prowled the halls of the Red Keep in King's Landing. Originally a sweet kitten owned by Princess Rhaenys Targaryen, the cat seems to have not borne the death of his mistress (brutally killed during the Sack of King's Landing) very well. It had a torn ear (some fans theorise sustained during the Sack) and a disposition that was less "mean" and closer to "psychotically vicious". Perfectly willing to attack and kill even the largest crows and ravens in the rookery (to the despair of Grand Maester Pycelle), the cat is a legend in the Red Keep. He once stole into the dinner hall and snatched a quail out of the hand of Lord Tywin Lannister, a feat which earned the cat the respect of Robert Baratheon. The cat later evaded capture at the hands of Arya Stark (whilst being trained in water-dancing by Syrio Forel) and bullied the kittens belonging to Tommen Baratheon before being run off. At about twenty years old, the cat's belligerence shows no sign of abating.

Balerion, of course, is one of the more memorable animal characters of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Although Rhaenys's kitten and the black monster of the novels are not 100% confirmed to be the same cat, various official artwork and George R.R. Martin's comments suggest they are.

Haviland Tuf, a man who distrusts humanity and prefers the company of felines.

Dax is the genetically-enhanced master feline of the interstellar seedship Ark. Created by Haviland Tuf, the cat is notably larger than most felines and has formidable psi powers, capable of detecting subterfuge and deception and alerting his owner to any risks present. Dax is the largest and most capable of a number of cats living on the Ark, most of whom defer to his superiority.

Dax is another feline of George R.R. Martin's creation, being a notable character in his 1986 SF novel Tuf Voyaging.

There are, of course, too many cats in SFF to count in one article. Other notable examples include:
  • Mogget, from the Sabriel novels.
  • Isis, Gary Seven's shapeshifting cat from the classic Star Trek episode Assignment: Earth!
  • The Amazing Maurice from Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents.
  • Rowl, from Jim Butcher's The Aeronaut's Windlass.
  • Mister, from The Dresden Files.
  • Tailchaser from the classic Tad Williams novel Tailchaser's Song.
  • Spangle, from Michael Marshall Smith's Only Forward.
  • Lady May, from Cordwainer Smith's Game of Rat and Dragon.
  • Bast from Neil Gaiman's American Gods.
  • Sir Pounce, also from A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.
  • Mr. Bigglesworth, Dr. Evil's evil cat, from the Austin Powers movies.
  • Baudelaire from Phantom 2040.
  • Petronius Arbiter, also from the works of Robert Heinlein.
  • Zap the Cat from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga.
  • Orion from Men in Black.
  • Lylan from Lloyd Alexander's Castle of Llyr.
  • The cigarette-smoking mutant cat of Transmetropolitan.
  • Musty, the cat of the witch Rhea of Coos, in Stephen King's Dark Tower series.
  • In a similar vein, Churchill from Pet Semetary.
  • And the cats of Earth when they appear in the Dreaming, in Neil Gaiman's Sandman.
Cat-inspired races are also common in the genre. Notable examples include: the Kzinti of Larry Niven's Known Space novels, the (almost certainly Kzinti-inspired) Kilrathi of the Wing Commander video games, the Caitians of Star Trek (most notably regular crewmember Lt. M'Ress in Star Trek: The Animated Series) and the Khajit of The Elder Scrolls ("Khajit has wares if you have coin").

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Tuesday 16 August 2016

THE THORN OF EMBERLAIN might not be coming out in September (UPDATED)

A few months ago, Gollancz confirmed that Scott Lynch's The Thorn of Emberlain - the fourth book in his excellent Gentleman Bastard series - was a lock for release on 22 September this year. However, it is now looking less likely that the book will hit that date.

The book was recently pulled from Amazon UK and replaced by a 2018 placeholder, whilst the American edition of the novel has never been listed at all.

It might be that there has been some mix-up with the schedules, or that Bantam was unable to go to print that quickly and has now convinced Gollancz to delay until they are also ready. But so far no official explanation has been given for the book being pulled. If it has been delayed, it certainly won't be until 2018. Based on Scott's comments about how the book was coming together, I suspect (and hope) it will be more moderate delay until early 2017 at worst.

More news as soon as we get it.

UPDATE: Scott Lynch has confirmed that the book will not hit its release date, citing delays stemming from a move of house and writing space. He confirms that the current placeholder dates are not accurate and a more realistic date will be announced soon.

Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin

A thousand years ago the old Earth Empire collapsed. Most of its amazing technology was lost and the galaxy settled back into a period of decline. But one of the Empire's old seedships, the Ark, has been rediscovered. With its cargo of ferocious beasts and genetically-engineered plagues, the Ark can lay waste to entire star systems. Fortunately for the galaxy, its new owner is the morally-minded and fussy merchant Haviland Tuf. Accompanied only his crew of telepathic cats, Tuf sets out on a voyage that will take him to many worlds...and many problems.

George R.R. Martin began writing stories about Haviland Tuf in the mid-1970s. In the mid-1980s, following the disastrous performance of the novel The Armageddon Rag and his move into Hollywood, Martin was convinced to repackage the old stories with several new ones to make a "fix-up" novel, one book formed from several smaller tales. The result, Tuf Voyaging, sold reasonably and kick-started Martin's literary career again, leading to the Wild Cards series and, a decade later, A Game of Thrones. It might not be quite the book that saved Martin's writing career, but it certainly helped give it a bit of a leg-up when it was urgently needed.

The book consists of seven short stories (the first of which is long enough to qualify as a novella). After the first, "The Plague Star", which explains how Tuf came to possess the Ark, the rest relate episodes where Tuf has to use the Ark's amazing abilities to resolve a crisis or emergency. Three of these stories form a recurring narrative when Tuf has to visit the planet S'uthlam, one of the few worlds advanced enough to be able to repair and maintain the Ark. During his initial visit Tuf incurs a massive repair bill and he periodically has to return to satisfy his monetary debt to the planet and renew his personal friendship (as much as Tuf has one) with Molly Tune, the planet's dockmaster.

The stories often resolve around moral quandaries: "A Beast for Norn" sees Tuf recruited to help a planet which pits animals into gladiatorial combat against one another. Tuf is petitioned by each ruling house in turn to give them the most ferocious beasts. The result is a neat little morality play that wouldn't have been out of place on The Twilight Zone. "Guardians" sees Tuf taxed to the limit as he uses the Ark's capabilities to genetically engineer a solution to a planetary infestation of sea monsters, only to find some kind of intelligence working against him. "Call Him Moses" sees Tuf recruited by a planetary government that has been forced to surrender to an anti-technology religious maniac using the threat of plague to seize power. These are all clever stories, but also ones that have a common thread to them: rather than facing a naturally-occurring disaster, the problems Tuf encounters are the result of human hubris greed, stupidity and fanaticism.

The S'uthlam trilogy - "Loaves and Fishes", "Second Helpings" and "Manna from Heaven" - represents the book's high point as it gives Tuf a formidable foil in the form of Molly Tune. Each one of the stories sees Tuf confronted by the problem of S'uthlam's overpopulation: the planet's population is 39 billion and rising, outstripping its ability to feed itself. Each time Tuf presents a situation, carefully noting that it is a stopgap at best and the people of S'uthlam have to back it up by not breeding so uncontrollably and by carefully preserving their resources. And each time he is ignored, for religious or economic reasons. In the final story Tuf presents Molly with the final solution to the problem, one that will save her world from starving itself to death, but at the expense of her people's right to freedom and self-expression. It's one of the thorniest moral quandaries science fiction has ever presented to the reader, and the solution is grim.

The result may be George R.R. Martin's most resonant SF moment in his long career writing science fiction (before epic fantasy stole him away). In 1976, when the first Tuf story was published, the Earth's population was 4 billion. In 2016, it stands at almost 7.4 billion. The Earth's population has almost doubled the first story in this book was published. What was a theoretical concern when Martin started writing these stories is starting to look terrifyingly prescient, and the solution presented in these stories may be horrific but there are also a lot of people who would take the solution Tuf offers Tune in a heartbeat. This element adds a surprising amount of contemporary value to a book published thirty years ago.

Moving on from that aspect of the book, characterisation is excellent, particularly of Haviland Tuf himself (the reader may detect faint pre-echoes of Varys in his character and appearance) but also Molly Tune and the demented crew of space pirates who try to steal the Ark in the opening story (Rica Dawnstar may also be the best name for a space mercenary there ever has been). The writing style is a fair bit different from his prose in other books, being more whimsical, florid and witty. Martin's favourite author is the fantastic Jack Vance. Martin can't quite match Vance's supremely joyous command of the English language (frankly, no-one can) but he does come startlingly close on occasion. This is also a book that should appeal to all cat lovers, as Tuf's brood of felines grows, gets into antics, gets older and occasionally (and sadly) shrinks as the stories continue to unfold.

Tuf Voyaging (****½) is not quite up there with A Song of Ice and Fire and Fevre Dream as Martin's best work, but it a very well-written book packed with entertaining characters, moments of real comedy (it's Martin's funniest work, by a long way) and some unexpected moments of tragedy and pathos. It's also a book that's become more resonant over the years as real-life issues catch up to Martin's vision. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday 14 August 2016

ABC and Lucasfilm actively discussing a STAR WARS TV show

It has been confirmed that ABC and Lucasfilm are actively discussing a Star Wars television series. What type of TV show this would be is unclear, but with the animated Rebels series doing good business on Disney XD, it is assumed that this new series would be a live-action show.

This would follow the precedent established by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, also owned by Disney, which after several successful films moved into television with Agents on SHIELD on ABC, followed by a number of limited series produced by ABC but airing on Netflix: Daredevil, Jessica Jones and the forthcoming Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders.

A Star Wars TV series was previously in development for much of the latter part of the 2000s. George Lucas and Rick McCallum planned a live-action series lasting for at least 50 hour-long episodes and had at least that many scripts written ahead of time. To keep costs down the series was going to be set in the seedy criminal underworld of Coruscant and would focus less on space battles and Jedi and more on morally dubious goings-on between high-tech gangs. Despite these measures, the series was budgeted at $5 million per episode which put it outside the reach of most networks (the ABC network itself had only previously made Lost for that kind of money, and that was one the highest-viewed and highest-rated TV dramas in their history). HBO considered the project but passed, citing the lack of ownership they would have over the project which would reduce their ability to make money back (as DVD and Blu-Ray sales, along with a chunk of overseas sales, would go to Lucasfilm instead). In the wake of the Star Wars prequel movies, where the two later films performed more disappointingly than the first and all three were critically slated, the project did also not have the cultural cachet that it would have done earlier.

The new Star Wars project is assumed to be completely original, although Disney inherited those scripts and outlines along with everything else when they bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion four years ago. Radical improvements in effects technology, plus the new monetisation possibilities opened up by on-demand streaming, make the project more financially viable than ever before and the Star Wars brand name is arguably at its highest ebb since the mid-1980s, with new Star Wars movies due on screen every year from now until 2019 (and probably far beyond). The sheer size of the Star Wars universe would also make it easier to create a TV series that stood alone in its own corner of the setting and did not have to explain why movie characters weren't showing up every time a crisis erupts (a major criticism levelled at the Marvel TV shows).

These talks are at an early stage so I wouldn't expect to see any major announcements soon, but it is fascinating to consider when and where such a TV show would be set. Several possiblities come to mind:
  • Knights of the Old Republic: a highly-successful sub-setting within the Star Wars universe, encompassing several hugely successful video games and comics. This takes place 4,000 years before the events of the original trilogy and focuses on the battle between the Jedi, the ancient Sith and various powerful factions in the galaxy, such as the Mandalorians.
  • Between the Generations: the timespan between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens is currently being explored by comics and novels, but a TV show could slot in here quite nicely, showing how the initial euphoria surrounding the death of the Emperor and the rise of the New Republic gradually turns to cynicism as the Empire becomes resurgent under the banner of the First Order.
  • The Rebel Alliance: a series set within the ranks of the Rebel Alliance itself during the events of the first three movies, rather than from the POV of outsiders like Luke and Han.
It's unlikely that such as series would be set during the Clone Wars or between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, as both periods have been extensively covered by the animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels. A TV series focusing on movie characters is also unlikely, with future films set to explore the adventures of young Han Solo (with a young Lando expected to appear), the backstory of Boba Fett, the history of Yoda and potentially Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Stranger Things: Season 1

Hawkins, Indiana, 1983. Four young schoolboys spend their time watching movies, playing Dungeons and Dragons and avoiding bullies. One of the boys, Will, abruptly vanishes. Shortly afterwards, a mysterious girl appears in the woods. Known only as "Eleven" she agrees to help the three boys find their friend, if they help keep her safe.

A few moments into watching the first episode of Stranger Things it is entirely possible you will forget you are watching something made in 2016 and come to believe that the Duffer Brothers have somehow opened a space/time portal to 1983 and gotten their hands on a contemporary TV show that they have spruced up with modern editing and effects. Setting a story in the early 1980s is one thing, but Stranger Things takes a step forward in authenticity by making it feel like it was written and filmed then, with a battery of different techniques used to sell the period detail. It is a remarkable achievement.

It would be, however, all for naught if the show was not well-written and good enough to stand on its own feet. And it certainly is that. Stranger Things takes its cue from the 1980s but is clever enough to use more than just a few tropes and basic ideas. Stretching a single Steven Spielberg or Joe Dante movie idea across eight hours would, no matter how good the plot, result in a badly padded and stretched story. Instead, the Duffer Brothers throw a lot more into the mix. You have a kid-focused storyline reminiscent of The Goonies or E.T., a teenage-focused storyline that seems to be riffing briefly on The Breakfast Club but also every teen horror movie ever (and occasionally even The Evil Dead and John Carpenter's films) and an adult-oriented mystery story riffing more on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with lightbulbs replacing mashed potato), The X-Files and Twin Peaks. But Stranger Things uses these things as flavourings and touchstones. The story and characters are more than strong enough to stand on their own.

At the heart of the story is the disappearance of Will and the impact this has on his friends, his older brother and his mother Joyce (played with aplomb by Winona Ryder, whose casting provides a neat, authentic tie-in to the decade in question). This ties with themes of childhood, innocence lost, the worst fears of parents and helplessness in the face of an uncaring world. This very relatable theme informs everything else that goes on in the story. Similarly, the discovery of Eleven (12-year-old Millie Bobby Brown providing the breakout performance of the story) and the abuse she suffered at the hands of a coldly uncaring government institution only interested in results and advantages taps into societal beliefs about the innocence of children, the morality of scientific research and notions of corporate responsibility. The complexity of these elements, emphasised by Eleven's Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship with Dr. Brenner (a career-resurging move for Matthew Modine), is an element where Stranger Things differs from its forebears, where the likes of Close Encounters and E.T. ultimately had well-meaning government agents whom the heroes eventually team up with. In Stranger Things the bad guys remain relentlessly bad.

Other elements of the story also evoke traditional tropes but stand them on their head. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is caught in a love triangle between the cool Steve (Joe Keery) and the shy, more geeky photographer Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) which is so 1980s it hurts, down to Steve's cruel jokes and Jonathan being almost too shy to talk to Nancy but later proving his worth with a baseball bat ordained with nails. However, the show complicates things by showing Steve as having more nuance and depth than it first appears and by giving Jonathan some rather unlikeable traits (like taking pictures of people without their knowledge or consent). Nancy herself is also a more interesting character than many of her inspirations, with her later belligerence and disregard for her own safety (but deep concern over the safety of others) in tackling the monster being quite impressive. Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) feels a bit under-developed as a protagonist in the opening episodes but he acquires more layers as the series proceeds and the final episode sets his character on a path which is downright intriguing.

The heart and soul of the show, however, belongs to the kids: Brown's Eleven is the absolute Emmy-baiting stand-out, but Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) all feel like they've stepped onto the show fresh from trying out for The Goonies. They're funny, intense when needed, act with credible kid logic at all times and play a mean game of Dungeons and Dragons. If Stranger Things's tight eight-episode run is to mostly be lauded (for the tightness of the story and excellent pacing), it's the fact we don't get to see more of the kids' adventures which makes it regrettable. These kids are going to grow up and move onto other projects faster than you can blink.

The show also does atmosphere very well, with a terrific synth-driven score adding to the excellent design work and well-judged use of effects, particularly in the creation of the "Upside Down". Everything down to the juxtaposition of sleeping horror and the cheery Christmas spirit in the finale (riffing off both Stephen King and Gremlins) is pitch perfect.

The show is not flawless. The villains are somewhat one-note and it feels a bit of a shame to cast an actor of Matthew Modine's history and stature only to have him not do very much. Most of his character is explored in Eleven's flashbacks and these hint at a more complicated character than the one-note, science-obsessed, amoral person we seen in the present scenes, but it's not really enough to add real depth to the character. In addition, the show sometimes invokves "1980s movie logic" to further the plot and have characters make stupid mistakes. Two characters are standing right next to each other and one somehow manages to disappear without the other noticing. Characters are reticent to share information which would break open the story earlier (and with less bloodshed), even when there is no reason they wouldn't. A few characters, like Jonathan and Will's deadbeat dad, show up, don't do anything and then disappear, all equally pointlessly. And the show feels like it fumbles badly with supporting character Barb (Shannon Purser), whom, despite an excellent performance, it under-utilises badly before dismissing from the story rather abruptly (and, bafflingly, with no real consequences to the story when there should be).

But such flaws are niggling and easily borne. Stranger Things (****½) is nostalgic without being over-indulgent, well-acted throughout and features a brilliant soundtrack and some very good characterisation. It is available to watch through Netflix now worldwide, and a second season is in the planning stages.