Saturday 30 September 2017

Anniversary Triple Bill: Fallout, Homeworld and Star Trek: The Next Generation

Three SF franchises have celebrated anniversaries this week.

The highest-profile anniversary is the 30th of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show debuted on 28 September 1987 with its two-hour pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, and lasted for seven years, 178 episodes and four feature films. It utterly transformed the fortunes of both Star Trek and science fiction in general, inspiring the boom the genre saw in Hollywood in the 1990s.

Related articles: ST:TNG during my "Star Trek at 50" article series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
Reviews: Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4, Season 5, Season 6, Season 7.

Celebrating its 20th birthday this week is the Fallout video game franchise. The original Fallout was released by Interplay and Black Isle on 30 September 1997, and to celebrate you can pick it up completely free for the weekend. A sequel, Fallout 2, followed a year later, along with several spin-off games. After Interplay's collapse, the licence was bought by Bethesda, who developed Fallout 3 and released it in 2008 to huge acclaim, taking an obscure franchise and transforming it into one of the biggest brands in gaming. Two sequels, New Vegas (2010) and Fallout 4 (2015) have followed.

Related articles: Fallout Franchise Familiariser.
Reviews: Fallout 3, Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage, The Pitt & Broken SteelFallout 3: Point Lookout & Mothership ZetaFallout: New Vegas, Fallout: New Vegas expansionsFallout 4, Fallout 4: Far Harbor.

Celebrating its 18th birthday is the Homeworld game franchise. The original Homeworld was released on 28 September 1999 and revolutionised video gaming with its full 3D interface and graphics. The game an enormous success and was followed by Homeworld: Cataclysm a year later. However, Homeworld 2 performed unsatisfactorily in 2003 and the franchise was put on ice for a decade. Gearbox picked up the Homeworld licence and released Homeworld Remastered in 2015, followed by a full prequel game, Deserts of Kharak in 2016. There have been hints that the franchise may continue.

Related articles: Map of the Homeworld Galaxy.
Reviews: Homeworld. Homeworld: Cataclysm. Homeworld 2. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 11-12

B11: All Alone in the Night
Airdates: 15 February 1995 (US), 18 April 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Mario DiLeo
Cast: Lt. Ramirez (Nick Corri), Narn (Marshall Teague), Satai Hedronn (Robin Sachs), Satai Neroon (John Vickery), General William Hague (Robert Foxworth), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Station One (Joshua Cox)

Date: Late June or early July 2259.

Plot:    General William Hague, one of the Earthforce Joint Chiefs of Staff and the officer who informed Sheridan and Ivanova of the change in command six months ago (B1), is paying a visit to the station to see how things are going. It will be several hours before he arrives, however, and Sheridan decides to get in some more flight-time. After hearing of strange occurrences in Sector 92, including several ship disappearances, he takes out a patrol of Starfuries to investigate. An alien vessel appears, wipes out most of the patrol and cripples two of the Starfuries. Sheridan manages to bail out in his Starfury’s escape pod and is promptly taken prisoner. The other pilot, Lt. Ramirez, manages to effect repairs to his ship and heads back to Babylon 5. Unfortunately, he has been subjected to a massive, lethal amount of radiation and dies in Medlab shortly afterwards. Ivanova analyses the sensor logs from his Starfury and discovers what has happened to Sheridan. General Hague arrives and decides to call in some heavy support in their search for Sheridan.

Meanwhile, Delenn is summoned before the Grey Council. Before she leaves Lennier decides to join her. They rendezvous with the Minbari flagship and Delenn is confronted by Hedronn (from B1). He tells her that the Grey Council have decided she is no longer worthy to sit in a place prepared by Valen himself. She disobeyed their direct order (in A20) not to pursue the prophecy instead of just waiting for it to unfold. She has been removed from the Grey Council and been replaced. Delenn demands to address the Grey Council as is her right and her request is granted. The Council agrees that she can retain her position as Ambassador to Babylon 5 but Delenn is horrified that her place on the Council has been taken by Neroon (A17), a member of the warrior caste when her replacement should have come from the religious caste. This gives the warrior caste unprecedented power in the Grey Council. Neroon tells her that if a great darkness is coming, then the warrior caste must lead the war against it. Delenn and Lennier leave for Babylon 5.

Sheridan recovers on the alien ship and finds himself pitted against a Drazi in combat. He kills him and notes that he has some sort of cybernetic implant in his head. A similarly mind-controlled Narn attacks, but Sheridan manages to knock him out and remove the implant. When he recovers the Narn suggests that they work together to escape. The aliens have captured representatives from many species to see which ones are weak enough for conquest. Sheridan and the Narn attempt to lever open the door, but cannot find a crack to get enough leverage.

The EAS Agamemnon, Sheridan’s old command, arrives at Babylon 5. Ivanova takes out Delta Wing and the cruiser and fighters wait for any word from their search parties. Delenn contacts Babylon 5 ahead of her arrival to clear the way for docking and learns about Sheridan’s capture. Analysing the design of the alien ship, Delenn reveals the aliens are called Streibs. They attempted to invade Minbari space centuries ago and were taught a humiliating lesson. She rendezvouses with the B5 forces and leads them to the Streib homeworld.

Whilst on the Streib ship, Sheirdan has an odd dream. He sees Ivanova with a raven on her shoulder. He then sees Garibaldi with a dove on his shoulder saying “The man in between is searching for you.” Ivanova, dressed as if for a funeral, says “You are the hand.” Sheridan is then confronted by himself, dressed as a Psi Cop. Kosh appears and Sheridan asks him why he is there. Kosh tells him, “We were never away. For the first time your mind is quiet enough to hear me.” Sheridan asks, “Why am I here?” and is told, “You have always been here.” Sheridan wakes up as the cell door opens slightly, apparently due to a malfunction. He manages to open the door and he and the wounded Narn escape.

The Streib ship comes out of hyperspace and approaches their homeworld, but comes under fire from the Agamemnon. The Streib ship is crippled and Delen orders them to surrender their prisoners at the risk of reprisals by the Minbari. The Streib instead dump the alien prisoners into space, killing them. Enraged, Ivanova orders the Agamemnon to destroy the Streib vessel. She picks up an SOS and confirms that Sheridan and his Narn associate managed to escape in a lifepod. The pod is recovered and they return to Babylon 5. The Agamemnon heads back to Earth space and Sheridan recovers from his experiences.

Later General Hague comes to see Sheridan and asks what he has to report. Sheridan confirms that over the past six months he has come to trust Franklin, Ivanova and Garibaldi and their loyalty to Earth is beyond reproach. Hague updates Sheridan on what he has learned about events on Earth. He is certain that President Clark arranged the murder of Santiago so he could ascend to power. He is also certain that Psi Corps and at least some high-ranking Earthforce personnel were involved. Hague orders Sheridan to expose Clark’s betrayal by any means necessary. Clark seems to think that Sheridan is a patriot who will put his loyalty to Earth above any doubts about Santiago’s death, so Sheridan won’t be watched as closely as some other officers. Sheridan agrees to do his best. Hague leaves the station and Sheridan brings Garibaldi, Ivanova and Franklin into the counter-conspiracy and they agree to help. Sheridan then sees Ambassador Kosh passing in the corridor, who says, “You have always been here,” just as in his dream.


TABOO renewed: Tom Hardy's Hat will return

Splendid news for fans of Tom Hardy and the Greatest Hat in the World: BBC grimcamp romp Taboo has been renewed for a second season.

Airing at the start of the year, the drama starred Tom Hardy as James Delaney, an enigmatic guy in a hat who inherited some land in Vancouver that the East India Company wanted and was willing to do anything to steal. The drama was magnificently nonsensical, but as a slice of watchable hokum it was thoroughly enjoyable. The series only did okay in ratings for the BBC, but attracted a more impressive audience on FX in the States and also picked up a lot of views on the BBC iPlayer service.

The second season will pick up on the adventures of Tom Hardy, his hat and his crew of misfits and scoundrels as they arrive in the New World to investigate his newly-acquired land and, presumably, uncover some more of Delaney's Dark Past. Season 2 of Taboo will likely air in late 2018 or early 2019 on the BBC and FX. Hardy and writer Steven Knight are apparently already planning a third season as well.

Star Trek: Enterprise - Season 4

Earth has survived an attack by the alien Xindi. The crew of the NX-01 Enterprise have been hailed as heroes, but Earth is also in the grip of anti-alien xenophobia, fanned by a terrorist organisation known as Terra Prime. There's also growing tensions between the Vulcans, Andorians and Tellarites, with Earth caught in the middle...and an unseen enemy manipulating events from behind the scenes.

The fourth and concluding season of Star Trek: Enterprise is the moment when the show finally starts fulfilling its premise. For its first two years the show seemed to too often disregard the potential of its setting in favour of doing too-traditional Star Trek stories, just with less advanced technology. In the third season the show adopted more long-form storytelling that made it more dynamic and interesting, but still had problems with pacing, not to mention telling a story that had nothing to do with the show's reason for existing. This final season finally lines everything up just right to deliver the most consistently excellent season of Trek since the end of Deep Space Nine.

The season is divided up into several multi-episode arcs. The first quickly disposes of the Temporal Cold War, an ill-thought-out plot device that hamstrung the first two seasons of the show. Very quickly the show moves into stories tying together the augments (the genetically-engineered descendants of Khan) into the humanoid-looking Klingons of the original series (a story that really didn't need to be told, but isn't awful) with other stories bringing in the Romulans as masterminds of a plot to thwart the growing relations between the eventual founders of the Federation. Other episodes involve a social revolution on Vulcan (including an appearance by a young T'Pau, a fan-favourite character from the original Star Trek) and, most effectively, a two-parter entirely set in the Mirror Universe. Another multi-part story revolves around the last gasp of fascism on Earth and its final defeat, setting the scene for Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision to come to pass.

The result is a relentlessly enjoyable season of television. It's still not the sharpest-written season of Star Trek, let alone SF in general, and the fact this season aired alongside vastly superior first season of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica probably did it no favours, but removed from that context it stands up pretty well. This Enterprise as it should have been from the start, deftly mixing together original stories with the established history of the Star Trek canon and having fun in the process. The writers and cast are clearly having more fun than they have in previous seasons and that joy finds its way onto the screen.

Of course, there is a big "but" in all of this. There are a few weak episodes this season, and the few stand-alone episodes peppered between the two and three-parters are mostly forgettable. There's also some problems within the longer arcs. The augment story is too long and mostly unnecessary: it tries to explain what happened to genetically engineered humans after Khan, a story already adequately explained on Deep Space Nine, and it laboriously tries to explain why Klingons looked different in the original series, a story, er, already adequately explained on Deep Space Nine. There's also a bafflingly pointless story which tries to mine drama from Trip's decision to leave Enterprise permanently (hint: he doesn't), which is undercut by the fact that no-one cares.

Worse, and most famously, is the season and series finale, These Are the Voyages. This episode is framed as a flashback from Star Trek: The Next Generation with Riker weirdly consulting a holo-programme about Enterprise's final mission to justify some personal decisions. This is an insult to the cast and crew of Enterprise, putting too much focus on TNG characters rather than the show that is actually ending, and feels forced. The episode is ill-conceived, badly-written and lacking in tension and drama, making it easily the weakest Star Trek series finale since Turnabout Intruder (and at least the writers of that episode had the excuse they didn't know it was the finale).

Still, at least it's a single really awful episode in a season featuring some stand-out and, in the form of the In a Mirror, Darkly episodes, a genuine classic two-parter. Overall, the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise (****) is thoroughly enjoyable and shows the potential of this show that went unrealised for so long. The season is available on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and on Netflix in the UK and many other parts of the world.

Friday 29 September 2017

Amazon developing TV versions of RINGWORLD, SNOW CRASH and LAZARUS

Amazon have announced a slate of new, high-profile projects of interest to SFF fans.

First up is Ringworld, based on Larry Niven's novel series of the same name. The series began with Ringworld (1970) and continued with The Ringworld Engineers (1980), The Ringworld Throne (1996) and Ringworld's Children (2004), before generating a spin-off series co-written by Niven and Edward M. Lerner, consisting of Fleet of Worlds (2007), Juggler of Worlds (2008), Destroyer of Worlds (2009) and Betrayer of Worlds (2010). In 2012 the two authors released Fate of Worlds, which concluded both the original Ringworld series and the latter spin-off series.

The titular Ringworld is a massive artificial structure which completely encircles a star, having the surface area of three million Earths. In the first novel the Ringworld is discovered by the bewilderingly alien Puppeteers and a low-key reconnaissance mission is sent to investigate the structure. The mission goes wrong when the ship is shot down by the Ringworld's asteroid defence system and lands on the surface, with the crew discovering that the inhabitants of the Ringworld have become primitive and are unable to help them repair their vessel. Later books in the series see the Ringworld's existence became more widely known.

The Ringworld is a (somewhat) more practical version of the classic SF Big Dumb Object, the Dyson Sphere, although it is still ludicrously huge. Iain M. Banks later created considerably more practical versions of the Ringworld, merely 3 million kilometres in diameter. The Halo video games, drawing on inspiration from both Banks and Niven, postulated the existence of rings just 10,000 km in diameter. Terry Pratchett famously satirised the Ringworld series (and the entire Big Dumb Object subset of SF) in his 1981 novel Strata, which went on (after a fantasy rewrite) to spawn the Discworld series.

The Ringworld novels are part of a much larger future history known as the Known Space universe. If the Ringworld series is successful, it is possible that other elements from this series will be brought into play.

Also in development is a series or mini-series based on Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash. A cyberpunk novel (or a pastiche of cyberpunk), the book focuses on a pizza delivery boy named Hiro Protagonist who discovers a conspiracy which threatens humanity. The story takes in cyberpunk themes but also ideas about language, the origin of modern human consciousness and cognition. Hollywood has shown an interest in Stephenson for a while, as his books are bestsellers, but has struggled to find ways of adapting his massive and complex stories for a wide audience. Snow Crash, being a relatively short and approachable book, is the first attempt to bring his work to a visual audience.

Also in development is Lazarus, a futuristic thriller based on the comics written by Greg Rucka (Gotham Central). The story is set in a world dominated by sixteen families, who have turned future Earth into their domain. The families use a representative warrior known as a Lazarus to fight on their behalf, ending disputes without the need for costly wars. Forever Carlyle, a Lazarus, begins to question this system and the bleak, dystopian world it has engendered.

All three projects are officially "in development" with Amazon to decide on which (if any) to formally greenlight.

Wednesday 27 September 2017

Cities of Fantasy: Dunwall

Dunwall is a sprawling, industrial city located on the south coast of the island of Gristol. Dunwall has existed for centuries, dominating the whale oil trade around the Isles, but in recent decades it has grown in importance and become the capital city of the Empire of the Isles, spanning the major islands of Tyvia, Morley, Gristol and Serkonos. It is a city riven by internal strife between the aristocratic class and the workers, which has led to violence and, occasionally, outright rebellions.

Dunwall is located on the south coast of Gristol, at the mouth of the enormous River Wrenhaven as it twists and turns before meeting the Ocean. The city commands the head of a wide bay opening out into a gulf formed by Gristol to the north and the island of Serkonos to the south. Regular ferry services run across to the city of Bastillan a few dozen miles to the south-west on the north coast of Serkonos.

Physical Description
Dunwall sprawls across approximately twenty square miles. The city is cut in two by the Wrenhaven. There are three significant bridges in the western part of the city, but in the east there is only Kaldwin's Bridge, which is tall enough to allow large ships to pass underneath it. Frequent ferry services run between the north and south sides of the river in the eastern part of the city.

Draper's Ward, the Clock Tower, the Boyle Mansion, the Estate District, the Old Waterfront, Tower District, Dunwall Tower and Coldridge Prison are located in the northern part of the city. The High Overseer's Office, Slaughterhouse Row, the Legal District, the Golden Cat, the Distillery District, the Hound Pits Pub, the Old Port District, the Chamber of Commerce and the Rudshore Financial District (aka the "Flooded District") are located in the southern. Also significant is Kingsparrow Island, topped by an enormous lighthouse, located several miles out into the bay.

Other locations include the Civil Service District, Tailors' District, Dunwall Water District, the Rust District,

The Mutcherhaven District is located to the north of the city, outside the old city walls on the river. The infamous Brigmore Manor is located here. The New Mercantile District is also located in this region.


An ancient civilisation once existed on Gristol, more than four thousand years ago. The fate of this civilisation is unknown (but may be linked to the Great Burning, an ancient cataclysm which marked the beginning of the modern calendar), although it is known to have practiced black magic. One of the consequences of this magic was the apotheosis of a young man to become the Outsider, a trickster being of formidable power. Three thousand years later another kingdom or empire arose on Gristol which worshipped the Outsider as a god and created numerous magical trinkets or artifacts. The destruction of this empire saw many of these artifacts thrown into the sea. Over centuries, many of these totemic items have washed back up in Dunwall.

Modern Dunwall began as a small whaling village. It rapidly grew in size and prestige, it's strategic location seeing it attract huge amounts of traffic from passing ships. The town's centralised location behind sturdy walls and located on bluffs towering some 125 feet above the surrounding territory meant it was very difficult to attack, and it slowly began to expand in military power and prestige.

Within a few centuries Dunwall had come to conquer all of the island of Gristol. Its economic power became indomitable and it came to command all trade on the southern seas, to the irritation of some of the other cities. The sea lanes to the north are harder to traverse and downright dangerous in winter, when icebergs can threaten ships, so Dunwall's dominance of the southern sealanes became a major problem. Finally, approximately 1,620 years after the Great Burning, the four islands fell into warfare. Gristol's economic and military might, not to mention its huge population, saw it win the War of the Four Crowns in 1625; Tyvia, Morley and Serkonos surrendered and accepted Gristol's rule. Finlay Morgengaard I was duly crowned Emperor of the Empire of the Isles in 1626.

The Empire's power was further consolidated by the rise of a state religon, the Abbey of the Everyman, which was founded in Dunwall in 1701. Dunwall had formerly been a religiously tolerant city, but the Abbey brooked no opposition, deeming all followers of other gods and creeds as heretics (and reserving a special hatred for the Outsider). Under the leadership of the first High Overseer, John Clavering, the Abbey led the Rectification War, cleansing the cities of Gristol of heresy. The war ended in 1708 with the Siege of Whitecliff. In 1711 Emperor Yefim Olaskir decreed that the Abbey was now the State Religion of the Empire.

By the end of the century the Empire had further consolidated its power and began the widespread exploitation of Morley, particularly its mines and its fertile fields. The people of Morley came to feel mistreated by the Gristolians, and were particularly resentful of the Abbey forcing their beliefs on them. In 1801, enraged by religious strife, famine and oppression, the people of Morley rose up in rebellion. They launched a military uprising which caught the imperial forces by surprise and secured territory on Morley before launching attacks on Gristol. Rebels from Morley managed to infiltrate Dunwall and assassinated Empress Larisa Olaskir in a surprise attack; the reprisals by the Empire were swift and terrifying.

The rebellion ended after two years, the Empire proving victorious due to its superior navy and vastly superior resources. Several cities in Morley were destroyed and there were widespread atrocities. Famine swept the island and thousands died, hundreds of thousands more fleeing to other islands. It would be generations before Morley would begin recovering from the rebellion, and the lesson of what happened to those who defied the Empire was not lost on the other islands and cities.

By 1810 the Empire had begun explorations of the vast Pandyssian supercontinent located several months' travel to the east of the Empire of the Isles. Exploitation of that landmass proved impractical due to both the vast travel times and also to the continent's own hostility, particularly down to the plagues which seemed widespread there. In addition, the Outsider, relatively quiet for centuries, took a sudden interest in those who had travelled to Pandyssia and returned.

In 1825 Jessamine Kaldwin became Empress of the Isles. A trusting and honourable ruler, Jessamine was concerned with justice, fairness and ruling for all of the citizens of the Isles, not just the aristocracy and merchants. Her willingness to stand up for the poor and to try to improve their lot, as well as an apparent coolness to the ruthlessness of the Abbey of the Everyman, soon won her a lot of enemies in the Empire. Kaldwin was protected by a bodyguard, Corvo Attano, a warrior without compare, and advised by Hiram Burrows, the Royal Spymaster, whose ability to root out plots against her was legendary.

Eventually, Burrows turned against the Empress, apparently distraught by her trusting nature, her refusal to take a husband, and the fact that the Empire seemed destined to pass to Jessamine's daughter Emily, a bastard born of unknown parentage. In 1835 the Rat Plague struck Dunwall, killing thousands, and Jessamine's response to the crisis was insufficient; in 1837 Burrows commissioned the assassin Daud to kill the Empress and frame her Royal Protector, Corvo Attano for the deed. Attano was imprisoned in Coldridge Prison whilst Burrows assumed the mantle of Lord Regent and imprisoned Emily Kaldwin.

In events that are now well-known, there was a popular uprising against the Lord Regent, Burrows was killed (betrayed, in part by Daud, who came to bitterly resent what he had done) and Corvo Attano, aided by the Outsider, rescued Emily and restored her to the rule of the Empire. Fifteen years later, in 1852, the now-adult Emily was deposed by the Brigmore Witches. Aided by Corvo Attano, now confirmed to be her father, Emily escaped to the southern city of Karnaca, gathered resources and allies and then retook her throne.

Origin and Influences
Dunwall is the primary location of the 2012 video game Dishonored and its expansions, The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches (both 2013). It also appears at the start and end of Dishonored 2 (2016) and in its stand-alone expansion Dishonored: The Death of the Outsider(2017)

Arkane Studios created the Dishonored franchise for their new owners Bethesda, wanting to create and develop a new video game series in which players were given objectives but also total freedom on how to achieve those objectives, either with blood and violence or stealth. They were heavily inspired in structure by both the Deus Ex and Thief video game series, which had been dormant for many years when development began. New instalments in both series surprisingly arrived during and after development of Dishonored.

The visual design of the city of Dunwall was led by Viktor Antonov, who had created the starkly beautiful City 17 for the classic 2004 video game Half-Life 2. Whilst City 17 was inspired by crumbling post-Soviet Eastern European and Russian cities, Dunwall was inspired by Victorian London. Indeed, the first design document for Dishonored had it set in the real London of 1666, the last year of the plague and on the eve of the Great Fire. This shifted when the designers decided to incorporate elements of magic and steampunk design, but not before Antonov had visited London and Edinburgh and taken substantial amounts of photographs to help inform the later design of the game.

During development, the city of New Crobuzon (from China Mieville's Bas-Lag novels, most notably Perdido Street Station) was cited as a strong inspiration. The City, the steampunk setting for the Thief trilogy of video games, was also an influence on both the design of Dunwall and the gameplay. Although the game originally had a historical setting, the decision to move to a fictional one resulted in the designers creating a substantial amount of lore and worldbuilding for the game.

Dishonored was released in 2012 to immense critical acclaim, which only continued with its expansions and sequel, the latter set in the more Mediterranean-influenced city of Karnaca. It is assumed that Arkane will return to the setting with more games.

See also: Dunwall at Dishonored Wiki.

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Tuesday 26 September 2017

SENSE8 finale enters pre-production

The two-hour finale movie of Netflix's Sense8 has entered -preproduction, with the script being distributed for the cast for read-throughs before shooting begins.

Sense8 was cancelled by Netflix earlier this year, after citing disappointing streaming figures for the second season (despite Netflix themselves doing an awful job of advertising it). A strong fan campaign, helped by lots of news stories and more people watching the show, allowed Netflix to give the series a reprieve and allow the writers to tie up the story.

The finale, intriguingly, is written by Lana Wachowski with novelists David Mitchell and Aleksander Hemon. Wachowski previously collaborated with Mitchell on the Cloud Atlas movie. J. Michael Straczynski, who co-created the series and co-wrote the first two seasons, is surprisingly absent. Despite some speculation to the contrary, Lily Wachowski has also not returned to contribute to the finale (although there remains a chance she may return as a producer or director).

Officially, this will be the last-ever episode of Sense8, but there remains a small chance of a further revival or a spin-off if this finale is well-received.

Money Talks: The Explosion of Television

Over at Variety, TV critic Mo Ryan has an excellent series of articles on the rising costs of television and the fears that the TV market could be headed for some kind of meltdown or crash. It's a fear that more than a few in the American TV industry share, but its clear that costs and the amount of shows in production are not slowing down any time soon.

This is the level of effects fidelity TV viewers now demand from their shows.

In 2016 some 455 scripted TV series were produced and aired in the United States. That's not 455 hours, that's 455 actual separate, discrete series. The final figure for 2017 isn't in yet, but the eight-month figure as of the start of August was 342 to 325 in the previous year. The final figure for this year will be higher than last, and may come close to 500. That will easily be broken next year: 2018 is when a number of series commissioned by Netflix in their mammoth, multi-billion dollar expansion last year, and counter-commissioning by the likes of Amazon, will hit our screens. With Apple wading into the original TV space as of next year, it's possible that over six hundred scripted TV shows will air in the United States in 2018 (that's more than double the 2012 figure). That's going to be close to ten thousand hours of scripted television airing in one year. If you spent 12 hours a day watching TV, it'd take you two and bit years to watch one year's worth of scripted TV alone.

And that's not counting hundreds more shows coming out of the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, and that's just in the English language.

The explosion of television is also being accompanied by an explosion in budgets. This year the seventh season of Game of Thrones clocked in at around $14,285,000 per hour. That will rise to around $17 million per episode for the final season, which is just about to start shooting. Thrones is very much an outlier, but other shows are getting up there: Star Trek: Discovery and Altered Carbon are both in the $7-8 million per episode bracket, and Netflix drama The Crown reportedly exceeded $10 million per episode. The second season of Sense8 rocked in at $9 million per episode (enough to get it cancelled when not enough people tuned in quickly enough). Stranger Things' first season cost a modest $6 million per episode for eight episodes, but its success has seen the second season increase to $8 million per hour with an extra episode bump, so the season as a whole costs $72 million compared to the first season's $48 million, which in real terms is a 50% increase in just one-and-a-half years.

These budgets are insane. Back in 1990, Star Trek: The Next Generation caused consternation when its budget exceeded $1 million per episode. Although exceeded for mini-series and specials, that budget for an ongoing TV series seemed remarkable. By a few years later, however, more was the norm. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's pilot was made for $12 million in 1993 and its regular episodes came in at around $2 million. Star Trek: Voyager's pilot was shot two years later for the same amount of money (so slightly less, given inflation), and the record of those two pilots stood for a decade, until Lost's pilot was shot for a reported $15 million or more. By the mid-to-late 2000s it was generally considered normal for a TV show to cost between $2 and $3 million per episode, with a high-end show like Heroes costing $4 million per episode. Lost wound up costing $5 million per episode, due to the expense of shooting in Hawaii, a factor which was likely influential in seeing later seasons reduce their number of episodes.

The true super-budgets were strictly the preserve of high-end cable, and especially HBO's prestige mini-series. In 2001 its Band of Brothers mini-series cost $12.5 million per episode to produce; its 2010 companion series The Pacific was roughly double that. HBO's ongoing series were more modestly budgeted until the advent of Deadwood in 2004 and Rome the following year. Rome's budget exceeded $100 million for the first season and was slightly less for the second, but these costs were considered too high and the show was cancelled; HBO later considered this to be a mistake, given Rome's long tail on DVD, foreign sales and in streaming. Still, HBO exercised caution in the following years, bringing in shows like True Blood for substantially less money. Even when Game of Thrones started in 2011, it's episodes were budgeted at under $7 million per hour. HBO probably now regrets being that thrifty, especially considering they turned a profit on the series in foreign rights sales and merchandising before a single episode was screened.

In the arena of traditional network television, lower budgets have continued to be the norm but have also been seen as a major problem. On around $4 million per episode, ABC's Agents of SHIELD struggled to even remotely match the big-budget set pieces seen in the Marvel movies which are supposedly set in the same universe. Yet suggestions that ABC should raise its game have been resisted, with a strong implication that any higher budget would be unaffordable and the show would be cancelled (and in fact appears to have been lucky to reach a fifth season).

Money pouring into TV is a good thing: compared to film, television has looked quite cheap for quite some time now, and TV shows having the budget to do their stories justice is welcome. However, there is something to be said for frugality. Necessity is the mother of invention and sometimes restricted budgets can result in inventive and impressive solutions. Battlestar Galactica's budget never exceeded $2 million per episode (albeit after a more expensive pilot mini-series which helped built its enormous standing sets) but the show put every single cent of that money on screen, coming up with incredibly inventive ways of portraying epic scenes and space battles relatively cheaply.

The Walking Dead likes to give maximum bang for the studio's buck.

The golden child of responsible TV spending is The Walking Dead, which is made on less than $4 million per episode yet credibly presents a post-apocalyptic world featuring hordes of ravenous zombies and occasional battle sequences with dozens of people exchanging gunfire. Although The Walking Dead is feeling the pinch of its budgetary issues - the last couple of seasons have featured some extremely ropy effects at times - it still shows you can still achieve quite a lot even with relatively little money. This frugality is even more eyebrow-raising when you realise that Thirteen Reasons Why - a teen drama with virtually no effects, no heavy make-up requirements, relatively limited location filming and no massive explosions - costs over $1 million per episode more than The Walking Dead. Whilst Game of Thrones has long supplanted The Walking Dead's viewership and place at the water cooler, AMC executives probably have some smiles about how incredibly taut and well-budgeted their operation is compared to HBO's sprawling epic.

The rise of TV budgets has been helped by the rise of the streaming services. Netflix doesn't have to sell adverts, it simply has to sell subscriptions and it can do that worldwide. No longer does it need to chase the 4-7 million viewers a prime-time US drama might hope to grab at best, it's now targeting hundreds of millions of viewers in 190 countries. And that means it is floating in a sea of money it can use to commission and make hundreds of shows at budgets network TV in the States can only dream of. This isn't the preserve of Netflix alone, though. HBO leveraged its formidable international sales muscle to get Game of Thrones sold around the world before it aired a single frame of footage, whilst Fox TV recently crowed over the success of its X-Files reboot by saying the season was watched by over 70 million viewers in a couple of dozen countries.

More topically, CBS has turned a profit on Star Trek: Discovery's first season after selling it to Netflix for worldwide distribution. The $105 million budget of the first season has already been accounted for even before people started subscribing to CBS All Access (which is why those threatening to boycott the service are really not going to change CBS's minds on this).

The fear that the TV market will eventually implode is a real one. Social media, video games and even good-old fashioned books are competing for attention, not to mention non-scripted TV shows and of course movies. The bubble may burst and we'll see the number of TV shows tumble to a more manageable level, but it's also likely that the victors will be those services which can reach a global audience instantly, and will continue churning out TV on a massive scale. The most important thing is that they also continue their recent trend of hiring talented writers and film-makers and allowing them to get new and interesting ideas on screen, and giving them the resources to do it properly.

Monday 25 September 2017

STAR TREK DISCOVERY: first impressions

The first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery have aired in the US and are now available on Netflix in most other countries. Here's my thoughts after watching both episodes.


First up, the first two episodes, The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, are a single two-hour episode, and really should have been presented as such. Dividing the two episodes doesn't help either half (and shutting the second episode behind a paywall in the US is a really bad idea). Secondly, the two episodes combined are a prologue to the rest of the series. We know that the premise of Star Trek: Discovery is that it will cover the adventures of the USS Discovery during a time of renewed Federation/Klingon hostilities, ten years before the events of the original series. These first two episodes establish the reason for the renewal of hostilities, but the Discovery itself and Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) are both MIA, which is a weird choice. At the end of these two hours we may have gotten to know a couple of the characters but we really don't know how the series itself will play out week-by-week.

Instead the two episodes focus strongly on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a Starfleet officer who had been been raised on Vulcan after her parents were murdered in a Klingon border skirmish. Burnham is a mass of contradictions, her human emotions straining against Vulcan logical training and conditioning, which leads to a couple of bad choices which stain her reputation. Burnham is the executive officer of the USS Shenzhou, serving under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), who has mentored Burnham extensively and considers her now ready to step up as a captain in her own right, just before a crisis gives her an opportunity to show those skills...and she fails. The two-parter ends with Burnham being court-martialed for mutiny and imprisoned.

There's a lot to unpack here and a full review will have to wait until the season (or at least the first half, which is airing as a discrete mini-season with a break over Christmas) is complete. It's a brave idea to show such a flawed central character in Star Trek and have them disgraced and having made several bad calls before the pilot is over. It's even odder to have them making those decisions for stupid reasons. Sarek reveals that the Vulcans would attack Klingon ships on sight, attacking with overwhelming force until they had earned the Klingons respect. With the Shenzhou already outgunned and then, seconds later, massively outnumbered by the Klingon reinforcements, this option - logical under other circumstances - is clearly not viable, but Burnham pursues it regardless of the change in circumstance. I'm hoping this is a well-thought out character flaw - Burnham's need to win Vulcan respect results in her pursuing courses of action through dogma which even Vulcans would reject - rather than bad writing, but I am not hopeful on that point.

Performance-wise, the episode is a strong success. Doug Jones is exceptional as Lt. Commander Saru and Martin-Green gives an excellent performance, especially compared to her less-developed role on The Walking Dead. Michelle Yeoh is, of course, utterly superb. The Klingon actors fare less well: the new Klingon makeup is incredibly restrictive and inhibits emoting. The need for all the Klingons to speak Klingon all the time also massively restricts their performance. Whilst the TNG-era Klingons could be theatrical and OTT, they at least got across their passion and the actors could go to town with the roles. The Klingon actors here might be doing exceptional work, but with both the make-up and language choice constraining them, we can't really tell. This is something they need to address moving forwards, otherwise the Klingons are going to be a pretty tedious enemy.

Effects-wise the show is quite impressive, with tons of ambitious tracking shots and full-on space battles. Things aren't as hectic and nonsensical as with the Abrams movies and some of the shots are breathtaking. However, there's less attention paid to things like strategy in the space battles, which devolve into lots of ships flying around firing at things randomly. Ship design could also be better: the Shenzhou is derivative of earlier designs (particularly the NX-01 Enterprise and Akira) and the Klingons are a baffling mish-mash of random designs which don't follow very logically on from established Klingon designs.

Discovery's connections with the rest of the Star Trek canon are questionable: Spock having an adopted human sister he never once mentioned ever seems...unlikely. The Shenzhou looks more advanced than Picard's Enterprise-D, let alone the Constitution-class Enterprise which (according to the timeline) is already in service at this point in Star Trek history (with Spock on board) under Captain Pike. And the less said about the awkward new Klingon design the better.

As the two-parter draws to a close, it has certainly set up an interesting paradigm that is worth exploring further. In terms of effects, casting and performances the show is very promising, but the writing needs to be better, the characterisation more coherent and the show really needs to start paying attention to the canon and stop trying to change things just for the sake of change (if you're going to do that, why even make a Star Trek show in the first place?). Based on this evidence, Discovery still has it all to play for and The Expanse is in no danger of losing its title as "Best Space Opera Show Currently on Air" just yet.

Star Trek: Discovery airs every Sunday on CBS All Access in the States and every Monday on Netflix in most of the rest of the world.

Sunday 24 September 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 9-10

B9: The Coming of Shadows
Airdates: 1 February 1995 (US), 4 April 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Janet Greek
Cast: Ambassador Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), Centauri Emperor (Turhan Bey), Centauri Prime Minister (Malachi Throne), Lord Refa (William Forward), Security Aide Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway), Kha’Mak (Neil Bradley), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Ranger (Fredric Lehne), Narn Pilot 1 (Kim Strauss), Narn Pilot 2 (Jonathan Chapman), Customs Guard (Bryan Michael McGuire)

Date: Mid-April 2259.

Plot:    On Centauri Prime the Emperor of the Centauri Republic is preparing to depart on a state visit to Babylon 5. His Prime Minister objects due to the Emperor’s ill health, but the Emperor insists he must go, now, before it is too late. On Babylon 5 Ambassador G’Kar objects to Captain Sheridan in the strongest possible terms. The Emperor of the Centauri Republic being allowed to visit Babylon 5 is an insult against the Narn government. Sheridan points out that the current Emperor has actually gone out of his way to appease the Narn and is genuinely interested in peace. When Sheridan confirms that the Emperor will be allowed to visit Babylon 5, G’Kar storms out.

Lord Refa (from episode B3) arrives on Babylon 5 to consult with Londo. Refa tells him that the Emperor is sick, old and frightened. Without an heir, when he dies it will fall to the Centaurum to decide which nearest relative succeeds him. Refa wants Londo to make a speech to the Emperor outlining what has gone wrong recently with the Republic and predicting what will go wrong next. The meeting will be recorded. When the “predictions” come true, the Emperor will be seen as shortsighted, whilst Londo and Refa’s faction will appear to have their eye on the future. When the Emperor dies, they will determine who will follow him. Londo agrees to make the speech, although reluctantly. Vir disapproves strongly.

A human arrives on the station and immediately starts looking for Garibaldi. He finds him, but chooses to follow him rather than confront him directly.

G’Kar contacts Narn and is informed that the Kha’Ri has approved G’Kar’s plan to assassinate the Centauri Emperor. G’Kar records a last will and testament confirming that his government had no role in the attack and prepares to strike at the reception. He plans to leave his copy of The Book of G’Quan to Na’Toth in the hope of her future enlightenment.

The Centauri flagship arrives at Babylon 5 and the Emperor is welcomed on board. An official reception is organised and G’Kar turns up, unexpectedly. The Emperor is about to arrive when he suffers a massive heart attack and is rushed to Medlab. The Emperor is in a fragile state and might die at any time. He gives Franklin a message to deliver to G’Kar and the doctor agrees. Franklin tells G’Kar that the Emperor came to apologise to G’Kar for everything the Centauri did to the Narn during their occupation of the Narn homeworld and formulate a new peace treaty between their worlds. G’Kar is shocked and surprisingly moved.

Londo and Refa anxiously discuss what repercussions the Emperor’s premature death could have on their plans. Refa states they need to do something “spectacular” to assert their faction over the opposition and Londo recalls Morden’s promise to help him (B2). He tells Refa to have their allies in the Centauri Navy send a few ships to Quadrant 14, site of the largest civilian Narn colony. He then has Vir go and find Morden. Vir tells Londo not to do this, not to go down this path, but Londo’s mind is made up. Londo has a nightmare in which he sees his hand reaching out of the sun (as prophecised by Elric in B3) and images of dozens of huge, dark ships covering the sky of Centauri Prime. He sees himself as an old man, sitting on the throne of the Centauri Republic, dying with G’Kar’s hands wrapped around his throat (as previously related in episode A1). He wakes up, realising that he has just set himself unavoidably on the journey that will lead to his death. It is too late to change anything.

The Narn Regime’s largest civilian colony is located on a planet in Quadrant 14 with more than 250,000 inhabitants. A massive space station is in orbit, along with dozens of fighters and a heavy cruiser. Three Shadow warships appear and in their first salvo destroy the station and the warship. The fighters counter-attack, but lack the heavy weapons needed to damage the Shadow ships. They are annihilated and the Shadows bombard the colony from orbit before departing. On Centauri Prime agents of Refa murder the Prime Minister.

On Babylon 5 Garibaldi notices the man following him and has him arrested. The man agrees to tell him what he wants, but only if can speak to Garibaldi alone. Garibaldi agrees to talk to him later. Elsewhere, G’Kar meets with Londo and offers him a drink in salute to his honourable Emperor. A shaken Londo accepts the drink, realising that he unleashed the dogs of war at the moment a lasting peace could have been forged. At the same moment, a Centauri flotilla reaches Quadrant 14 and finds the colony in flames. As they begin to send down troops a Narn patrol arrives and opens fire on the Centauri ships, believing they carried out the attack.

Ambassador Kosh arrives to see the Emperor and answer his wish to see a Vorlon before he dies, although Kosh doesn’t reveal his true form. He tells the Emperor that the situation between the Narn and Centauri can now only end in fire. The Kha’Ri contact Babylon 5 and tell G’Kar about the attack. They send the news on an open frequency so that the B5 command crew overhear. G’Kar goes insane with rage and sets out to kill Londo, but Sheridan manages to stop him. Londo and Refa are summoned to Medlab to see the Emperor die. Just before he expires, he damns them both, but Londo lies and says that the Emperor has blessed the new Centauri military expansion.

Garibaldi’s prisoner delivers a data crystal to him and Garibaldi plays it. To his surprise, it contains a message from Sinclair, now on Minbar as the Earth Alliance Ambassador. Sinclair tells Garibaldi he has a greater purpose on Minbar than just representing Earth and tells him he is in charge of a group known as the Rangers, consisting of both humans and Minbari. Their job is to patrol the frontier, watching out for unusual signs. Sinclair tells him a great darkness is coming and that the Minbari have been waiting for it for a long time, but is not yet able to tell him everything. Garibaldi goes to Sheridan and tells him what he can, namely that the Centauri are in contact with the same alien race G’Kar was talking about a few months ago (B2). These aliens must have overwhelmed colony’s defences to allow the Centauri to slip in and conquer the planet. Sheridan realises they can use this information to their advantage.

A full meeting of the Babylon 5 Advisory Council is convened. Londo refuses to allow the Narn civilians who survived the attack to leave the planet, promising they will be “taken care of”. Sheridan tells him that Earth will send observers to make sure the Narn are well-treated. The observers’ will also determine what new weapon the Centauri used to take out the defences so quickly. Londo refuses to risk the bluff and agrees to let the Narn civilians return to the homeworld after all. However, this is not enough for the Narn. The Narn Regime declares war against the Centauri Republic, vowing not to let the Centauri overrun them again. Babylon 5’s mission has failed: the Centauri and Narn are now at war.

Refa leaves Babylon 5, telling Londo that the Emperor’s nephew has risen to the throne, a young man who feels as they do about the future. Vir is surprised that Londo has not asked for a reward like being named to the Royal Court himself, but Londo insists that he will work from behind the scenes only. It is much safer that way. The Ranger also leaves, promising to supply Garibaldi with the information he needs to keep track of the war. Meanwhile, Delenn also receives a message from Sinclair...


Saturday 23 September 2017

A History of Middle-earth Part 10: The War of the Ring, and After

The forces of good in Middle-earth had won great victories through the founding of Rohan, the re-founding of the dwarven kingdom of Erebor and the slaying of the dragon Smaug. But in the years that followed it became clear these victories were transitory: Sauron the Dark Lord, lieutenant of the once-great Morgoth, had returned to achieve dominion over all the lands of Middle-earth.

The Black Rider, by John Howe. 

The Return of the Shadow
By 2944 Sauron had returned to Mordor and began the reconstruction of Barad-dûr. The loathsome Gollum had left the mountains to search for "Bagginses", whom he was now convinced had stolen his magic ring. Over the next seven years Sauron built up new armies in Mordor, reinforcing Minas Morgul, rebuilding the Black Gate of the Morannon and sending new emissaries into the Harad and Rhûn to win the allegiance of those peoples.

In 2951 Mount Doom burst into flame once more. Sauron declared himself openly and sent three of the Nazgûl led by Khamûl to retake Dol Guldur. Less than two years later a new meeting of the White Council was called to meet this threat. Saruman declared that he now believed that the One Ring had been swept downriver and into the sea, much to Gandalf’s disbelief. Saruman now only believed that victory could be achieved by strength of arms, but with both Gondor and Rohan suffering from raids and war, Gandalf did not believe this to be a likely event. With Saruman’s unhelpful attitude now becoming clear, Gandalf recruited the aid of Aragorn, now a man grown and aware of his heritage. Aragorn agreed that they needed to cultivate allies among the Rohirrim and Gondorians and, posing as a warrior named Thorongil, aided both countries in their wars over the next twenty years.

A valiant effort to win another victory for good was made in 2989 when Balin, one of the heroes of the Quest of Erebor, led a large force into Moria. They drove out the orcs and found no trace of the balrog. However, in 2994 the balrog re-awoke and emerged to slay Balin and his followers.

In the 3,000th year of the Third Age, Saruman employed the palantír of Isengard to try to locate the Ring, but instead awoke the interest of Sauron, who had come into possession of the Ithil-stone of Minas Morgul a thousand years earlier. Sauron forced Saruman to kneel before him and swear allegiance. Saruman began amassing his own army at Isengard to keep Rohan out of the coming war, whilst Sauron was able to accelerate his own plans to amass large armies in Mordor to strike at Gondor directly.

By now Gandalf had come to suspect that Bilbo’s ring was the One Ring. In 3001, during his 111th birthday, Bilbo decided to leave the Shire and retire to Rivendell. With some difficulty, Gandalf persuaded Bilbo to leave the ring with his other possessions to his young cousin Frodo, whom Bilbo had raised after the deaths of Frodo’s parents. Bilbo agreed and departed the Shire.

Gandalf made it his goal to find the creature Gollum and discover where he had acquired the ring, but Sauron got there first, his servants finding Gollum by chance lurking in the pass of Cirith Ungol in 3015. They tortured Gollum for two years before the loathsome creature’s will broke. It was revealed that, roughly about the year 2463 TA (at the end of the Watchful Peace and the forming of the White Council), Gollum, or Sméagol as he was then known, had been a Stoor hobbit living in the Gladden Fields area of the Vale of Anduin. Sméagol was fishing with his kinsman Déagol, who fell in the river. He emerged, sodden and damp, clutching the One Ring in his hand. Sméagol promptly murdered Déagol and took the Ring for himself. His family guessed he had killed Déagol after noting his descent into madness and outcast him. Roughly seven years later he hid in the tunnels under the Misty Mountains and let the Ring consume him. During the torture he finally capitulated and mentioned “Shire” and “Bagginses”. Sauron summoned together all nine of the Nazgûl and told them it was their duty to find this “Baggins” and recover the One Ring at all costs. Simultaneously, Gandalf found in the records of the White Tower of Minas Tirith a scroll that revealed a test could be performed to ascertain the legitimacy of the One Ring. He returned to the Shire in a hurry, reaching it in April of the year 3018 Third Age, whilst the Nazgûl were still tarrying in Minas Morgul. At the same time, Aragorn located and captured Gollum, who had been thrown out of Mordor in disgust, Sauron too bored with the wretch even to kill him. Aragorn bore Gollum north to Thranduil’s realm and learned much of interest from him. He left Gollum in the care of Thranduil’s son, Prince Legolas, and headed west to confer with Gandalf.

On 20 June 3018 the armies of Minas Morgul assailed the crossings of Osgiliath, held by Faramir, younger son of the Ruling Steward Denethor II. They took Osgiliath, but then retreated when Faramir’s brother Boromir brought up reinforcements from Minas Tirith. Under the cover of the attack, the Nine had crossed the river and headed north for the Shire. This battle marked the official beginning of the great War of the Ring, last conflict of the Third Age of Middle-earth.

The Dark Tower, by John Howe.

 The War of the Ring

Gandalf rode to Bag End, arriving there on 12 April 3018, more than two months before the Nazgûl forced a crossing of Anduin. He tested the Ring and confirmed that it was the One. For once, Gandalf miscalculated, believing that Sauron would stay his hand until the following spring at least, as he had not completed the assembly of forces from the Harad and Rhûn in Mordor. He allowed Frodo time to prepare to leave the Shire, acting out the pretence he was moving to Crickhollow on the eastern edge of the Shire to be nearer his closest remaining family members, the Brandybucks of Buckland. Gandalf decided the best course was to consult with Saruman and departed the Shire immediately, leaving a message for Aragorn to meet him in Bree and aid him in getting Frodo to Rivendell, where an additional course of action could be decided, although Gandalf had privately decided that only the destruction of the Ring in the flames of Mount Doom could halt Sauron’s forces in their tracks. He sent word to Elrond to host a great gathering of the wise in Rivendell so the matter could be decided.

The attack on Osgiliath came and went and Denethor, previously doubtful about the value of his elvish allies, agreed to send his eldest son Boromir to the council. However, Gandalf discovered that they had been betrayed. Saruman had been seduced to Sauron’s cause, transformed Isengard into a mighty fortress and was breeding an army of orcs to attack the Kingdom of Rohan. After some weeks in captivity, the Windlord Gwaihir rescued Gandalf and bore him to Rohan. After subduing the great horse Shadowfax, Gandalf rode at speed for the Shire, only to find Frodo gone. Frodo, accompanied by his gardener Samwise Gamgee and cousins Meriadoc Brandybuck (“Merry”) and Peregrin Took (“Pippin”), had fled the Shire with the first appearance of several of the Nazgûl. They made it to Bree and met up with Aragorn, who bore them to Weathertop. They were attacked by the Nazgûl and Frodo was injured. Only after an arduous further journey did they make it to Rivendell, just in time for Elrond to heal Frodo. Elrond and Gandalf aroused the wrath of the River Bruinen and the Nazgûl were washed downriver in a tremendous flood.

The Council of Elrond was held and Frodo agreed to bear the Ring south and east to Mordor. Pippin, Merry, Sam, Gandalf and Aragorn elected to join the quest and they were joined by Boromir of Gondor, Gimli son of Glóin who had been one of Thorin’s thirteen of the earlier quest, and Legolas, son of King Thranduil. Legolas bore dire news: Gollum had escaped, last seen heading south and west towards the Misty Mountains. The nine companions became known as the Fellowship of the Ring and departed Rivendell on 25 December 3018, heading south.

The Fellowship attempted to cross the Pass of Caradhras, but was forced back by severe weather and a wolf attack. Against Gandalf’s better judgement, they decided to brave the mines of Moria. Balin, another of Thorin’s companions from the Quest of Erebor, had entered Moria some years earlier to establish a new dwarven outpost and the last report was that he had been successful. However, it was confirmed that Balin and his companions had all been slain by orcs. The Fellowship made it to the far side of Moria before coming under sustained attack by orcs. However, the balrog which had lain dormant in Moria for many years had been awoken by the commotion and came forth to confront the Fellowship at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm at the eastern end of the mines. Gandalf stood against the balrog and slew it, but was himself apparently slain in the process. The remaining members of the Fellowship escaped to Dimrill Dale and thence to Lothlórien, where they were given shelter by Celeborn and Galadriel. They proceeded by boat down Anduin to Parth Galen, a pleasant wooded land beside the great lake Nen Hithoel, there to decide their route. However, Boromir had become consumed by a lust for the Ring and tried to take it from Frodo by force. Aware that the remaining members of the Fellowship would also be consumed by the Ring if he remained, Frodo took a boat and crossed the lake. At the last moment, he was joined by Sam.

Meanwhile, a raiding party of uruk-hai (powerful orcs in the employ of Saruman) attacked the remaining members of the Fellowship. In a mighty struggle Boromir was slain, having atoned for his actions by saving Merry and Pippin from death. The two hobbits were taken captive and borne westward to Isengard. After much debate, Aragorn decided against pursuing Frodo and Sam. With Legolas and Gimli, he chased after the orcs into the countryside of Rohan. However, the orcs were intercepted and slain by a part of Rohirrim commanded by Éomer son of Éomund, Marshal of the Mark of Rohan and nephew of King Théoden. Pippin and Merry escaped into nearby Fangorn Forest, a dark forbidding place. Aragorn and his companions were surprised to be confronted by Gandalf when they attempted to enter Fangorn! Gandalf revealed that his mortal body had been slain in the battle with the balrog, but had been sent back (from Valinor) to complete the struggle against Sauron. Gandalf took the companions to Edoras, capital of Rohan, and drove out Gríma Wormtongue, a spy of Saruman’s who had corrupted the king with foul draughts. Gandalf restored King Théoden to his full health and won Rohan to the cause of defying Sauron. Aware that Saruman meant to destroy Rohan, Théoden and Aragorn agreed to make a stand at the great northern fortress of Helm’s Deep and set out. Gandalf headed out to round up those Rohirrim who had broken away from Théoden’s rule as he sunk further under Wormtongue’s influence.

Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin met Treebeard, oldest and wisest of the Ents, the great tree-herders of the forest. After much debate they convinced Treebeard and the other Ents that Saruman would not rest until he had destroyed all potential enemies, including the Ents. The Ents readied for war. Saruman’s army of orcs and uruk-hai launched a massive assault upon Helm’s Deep but a stalwart defence directed by Aragorn, Théoden and Éomer managed to keep the fortress long enough for reinforcements under Gandalf and Elfhelm to arrive and turn the tide of battle. The oldest and most ferocious Ents – the Huorns – made a forced march by night to intercept and destroy the remainder of Saruman’s armies as they retreated from Helm’s Deep. At the same time Treebeard led a main force of Ents in attacking Isengard, slaying the orcs present and imprisoning Saruman and Wormtongue in the tower of Orthanc. During a parley between Gandalf and Saruman, Wormtongue cast down the palantír of Isengard in the hope of smiting Gandalf, but he missed and Gandalf recovered the item. Pippin stared into the device and Sauron became aware of him. Believing him to be the Ring-bearer, Sauron saw that he was far from Mordor, where he would be a threat. Gandalf grabbed hold of Pippin and rode for Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor.

Frodo and Sam made their way south through the tangled rocks of the Emyn Muil. They were pursued by Gollum, who made an attempt to grab the Ring. Overpowered, he reluctantly agreed to serve them as a guide. He took them through the forbidding Dead Marshes to the Black Gate of Mordor, the Morannon, but they found it guarded by hundreds of orcs with thousands of Haradrim and Easterling troops arriving. Gollum told them of another route and guided them south through the once-fair country of Ithilien. Here they were intercepted by Faramir, brother of Boromir, and his Ithilien Rangers. Faramir proved less susceptible to the power of the Ring and guided them to the entrance of the Morgul Vale, the eastern way into Mordor. However, Frodo and Sam were betrayed by Gollum, who led them to the cave of Shelob, a great spider-demon. In the ensuing melee Shelob was killed, but Frodo was taken prisoner by orcs and dragged to the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Sam pursued and rescued Frodo and they began the hazardous descent down the far side of the pass into Mordor itself.

Gandalf and Pippin arrived at Minas Tirith to find the city unprepared for war. Denethor had sent out a call to arms for the armies of Gondor to defend their capital, but few had responded. The southern coastal provinces were wide open to attack from the sea, for the Corsairs of Umbar had called their banners and were marshalling for an attack on Gondor, so the provincial lords had kept their armies at home to defend their own lands. Only Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth had managed to muster his levies from the province of Belfalas and marched to the relief of Minas Tirith. However, this still only left 5,000 defenders for the city against Sauron’s countless legions. The Red Arrow – a symbol of emergency and aid – was delivered by a rider of Gondor to King Théoden of Rohan, but many Rohirrim were still unsure of the King after his recent influencing by Sauron. When assembled at Dunharrow, the Rohirrim army numbered only just over 6,000 riders, less than half of Rohan’s potential strength. Aragorn was surprised to be joined by Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond, and a host of Rangers of the North. Together with Legolas and Gimli they formed the Grey Company and battled their way through the hostile White Mountains and the Paths of the Dead under the mountain known as the Dwimborberg. The spirits of oath-breakers of Gondor arose around them and followed Aragorn to the Stone of Erech, where he pledged to release them from their oaths if they fought for him. They agreed and descended in a fury on the city of Pelargir, which had been captured by the Umbarians. The pirates were slaughtered by the vengeful spirits and Aragorn was able to gather the armies of the southern fiefs onto the ships.

By now a vast host of arms had crossed the Anduin, destroying the garrison at Osgiliath (and wounding Faramir in the process). Led by the Witch-King of Angmar, chief of the Nazgûl, the vast host began battering at the gates of Minas Tirith with a huge ram named Grond. The defenders of the city inflicted terrible losses on the enemy through the use of archers and catapults, but it was not enough. The gates were breached and enemy troops poured into the city’s lower level. Sauron’s forces were completely taken by surprise when 6,000 Rohirrim heavy cavalry smashed into them from the north whilst Prince Imrahil led a sally from inside the city, turning back those forces within the walls and pushing them back onto the great Pelennor Field they surrounded the city on three sides. A devastating battle erupted, but the tide swung back in the favour of Sauron when he deployed the mûmakil, giant war-oliphants of Harad, and when the Witch-King slew Théoden of Rohan. Unexpectedly, Éowyn, niece of the King, emerged and, taking up her uncle’s sword, slew the Witch-King with the aid of Merry. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields was finally won when Aragorn’s forces disembarked their ships at Minas Tirith’s harbour, turning the southern flank of Sauron’s army and forcing it to withdraw back to Mordor. The battle was over but many thousands of defenders, including Denethor himself, had been slain.

Aragorn and Gandalf assembled the remaining strength of the armies of Gondor and Rohan and led a force of some 6,000 to the Black Gate, where they issued a challenge to Sauron of Mordor. As they had hoped, this drew Sauron’s gaze from Mount Doom at the precise moment Frodo and Sam were making the perilous ascent of the volcano. At the last moment Frodo was consumed by the power of the Ring and Sauron hurled his army of tens of thousands against the armies of Gondor and Rohan in the Battle of the Morannon, but it fell to Gollum to (inadvertently) rescue the situation. He seized the Ring of Frodo and, whilst celebrating his good fortune, tumbled into the flames of the volcano, taking the Ring with him. Sauron promptly died, the Barad-dûr crumbled to dust and Sauron’s terrified forces were either killed in a torrential eruption of Mount Doom or a simultaneous earthquake that cracked all the lands around. The Great Eagles had arrived during the battle to lend support and Gandalf employed them to fly to Mount Doom and rescue the stranded Frodo and Samwise from the mountainside. By now other armies Sauron had sent against Lothlórien (from Dol Guldur) and against Erebor, Esgaroth and Thranduil’s realm had also been defeated, though not without considerable cost.

All now seemed well. Aragorn was proclaimed King Aragorn Elessar Telcontar of Gondor and Arwen, daughter of Elrond, was wed to him. Éomer became King of Rohan and his sister Éowyn came to love Faramir, Steward of Gondor and Aragorn’s right-hand man in the rule of the new kingdom. The Fellowship was regretfully broken and the companions travelled back home, but along the way stopped at Isengard and learned that Saruman and Wormtongue had escaped. The four hobbits at length returned to the Shire to discover, much to their horror, that Saruman had conquered it and turned it into his own private fiefdom! The hobbits roused their fellows and met Saruman’s ill-trained ruffians in the Battle of Bywater. The hobbits won a great victory. Enraged and demented, Wormtongue stabbed Saruman to death before himself being shot by hobbit archers. Thus ended the War of the Ring on 3 November 3019 Third Age.

Gandalf the Grey, by John Howe.

The End of the Third Age and the Dawn of the Fourth
Although the Great War of the Ring marked the end of the Third Age, it was held that the Fourth Age did not begin until 29 September 3021. On this day Frodo, Bilbo, Elrond, Gandalf and Galadriel departed Middle-earth in a ship sailing from the Grey Havens, bound for Valinor. Sam, Merry and Pippin returned to the Shire, whilst Celeborn assumed lordship of Lothlórien. He extended Lórien’s borders into Greenwood, as it was again called, whilst Thranduil extended his rule much further south. For a time, the two elven realms enjoyed a time of peace and plenty, but now was the waning of the Eldar upon Middle-earth, and before too many years had passed Thranduil and Celeborn and all their peoples eventually sought the Grey Havens and the passage to Valinor.

Legolas, meanwhile, had established an elven outpost in fair Ithilien, and often journeyed to Minas Tirith to speak with Aragorn. His friend Gimli rode to Aglarond, the Glittering Caverns behind Helm’s Deep, and there established a dwarven fortress which was ever-after in alliance with Rohan and Gondor.

This was the age when men grew mighty indeed. In the year 14 Fourth Age King Aragorn came north and restored the great city of Annúminas on the shores of Lake Evendim, and proclaimed the re-founding of the North-kingdom of Arnor. He made the Mayor, Thane and Master of the Shire into offices of the North-kingdom and exempted the Shire from taxation as a reward for the hobbits’ stalwart support in the War of the Ring. Many years later he also extended the Shire west to the Tower Hills, increasing its size considerably. Bree was also incorporated into the new kingdom and the old city of Fornost was also rebuilt, but both Rivendell and Lindon were held apart from it.

Gondor and Arnor were proclaimed the Reunited Kingdom of the Dúnedain upon Middle-earth and their power grew mighty, dominating the north-west of Middle-earth for many centuries. King Aragorn’s rule was just and wise. In his time the lost heirlooms of Gondor returned to their rightful place, save only the palantír of Minas Ithil, lost in the downfall of Barad-dûr. The Elendilmir, great treasure of Númenor lost in the Battle of the Gladden Fields and the death of Isildur, was found in a treasure chest in Isengard, having evidently been found and kept by Saruman many centuries earlier, and Aragorn took possession of it.

In the south Rohan and Gondor’s friendship grew mighty and their peoples numerous. King Aragorn Elessar and King Éomer Éadig led many expeditions into the south and after at time won peace with Umbar and destroyed many of the hostile tribes of the Harad, though his realm was never entirely free of the threat of the defeated forces of east and south.

In 61 Fourth Age Mistress Rose Gamgee, wife of Samwise, died and Samwise rode to the Grey Havens. For his support of Frodo in the great Quest, he was given a place on an elven ship departing Middle-earth for Valinor. Two years later King Éomer of Rohan died, but not before Merry and Pippin journeyed to Edoras to see him one last time. They then went to Minas Tirith and passed their last few years in the company of King Aragorn and Queen Arwen. When they too passed, they were laid to rest in Rath Dínen, the Tomb of Kings.

Finally, on 1 March 120 Fourth Age, King Aragorn died of advanced age. He was 210 years old. With news of his passing, Legolas built a fair ship in Ithilien and sailed down Anduin and passed over sea. With him, it is said, went Gimli the dwarf. Thus a final end came to the Fellowship of the Ring in Middle-earth.

The years passed and Gondor and Arnor grew great and powerful under the rule of Aragorn’s son and heir Eldarion and his heirs after him. But the numbers of elves grew fewer and fewer, until the last of their kind departed Middle-earth forever, led by Círdan the Shipwright. After that time, the Straight Path to Valinor could no longer be found.

The fate of men and dwarves and hobbits remains unknown; the dwarves delved deep into the bowels of the earth and some say after a time they were simply not seen again. Hobbits endured much longer, and some say they endure still, but in secret, remote places of good earth and fine living, far from the troubles of the world. And men inherited the Earth, building greater and vaster kingdoms, falling into terrible wars but always rising again afterwards to rebuild. Their story continues, but it is not in the scope of this history to tell more.

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