Tuesday 30 January 2018

Sam Raimi in talks to direct NAME OF THE WIND movie

Lionsgate Entertainment is in talks with acclaimed horror and fantasy director Sam Raimi to helm the movie version of The Name of the Wind, the bestselling fantasy novel by Patrick Rothfuss.

Lionsgate are developing an ambitious, multi-media approach to adapting The Kingkiller Chronicle. They are simultaneously developing a movie trilogy which will directly adapt the three novels - The Name of the Wind (2007), The Wise Man's Fear (2011) and The Doors of Stone (forthcoming) - and a prequel TV series which will explore the adventures of Kvothe's parents. The TV series is in development at Showtime.

Lindsey Beer has written the script for the film, but the real reason things are moving is down to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Having achieved superstar status thanks to his Broadway musical Hamilton, Miranda has made the Kingkiller project his next priority. He is working on the music for both the TV series and films, including the in-universe songs, and is executive producing. With Hollywood keen to tap his talent, interest in this project has sky-rocketed.

The financial success of the novels has certainly helped: Patrick Rothfuss is the biggest-selling debut fantasy author of the 21st Century. The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear and spin-off novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things have sold well over 10 million copies between them in just over a decade.

However, work on the project may be dependent on Rothfuss releasing the third novel in the series: despite claiming the trilogy was complete over a decade ago and releasing pictures of the apparent manuscript for The Doors of Stone in 2013, the book is still has no release date set.

Sam Raimi is an interesting choice to helm the movie: although his reputation was made in gory horror movies (such as the cult Evil Dead trilogy, its remake and the ongoing Ash vs. Evil Dead TV series), Raimi achieved his greatest success with his three Spider-Man movies starring Tobey Maguire. He also directed Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013 and has been looking for another feature film project since then.

Sunday 28 January 2018

Trailers and airdate for the TV adaptation of Dan Simmons' THE TERROR

AMC is bringing Dan Simmons' classic historical horror novel The Terror to the screen. The mini-series will debut on 26 March. They have now released two trailers for the series:

Set in 1845-48, the story follows the voyage of two Royal Navy icebreakers, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, as they try to sail through the Arctic Archipelago north of Canada in search of the rumoured Northwest Passage around North America and into the Pacific. The story mixes historical fact - the Franklin Expedition was a real, infamous event and in fact the wrecks of both ships have been discovered in the last few years - and supernatural fiction.

The Terror consists of ten episodes and stars Ciaran Hinds (Rome, Game of Thrones) as John Franklin, Jared Harris (The Expanse) as Francise Crozier, Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones, Outlander, Rome) as James Fitzjames and Nieve Nielsen (The New World) as Silence.

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

The world of Roshar stands in peril. The ancient, dark force of Odium has returned and the Voidbringer armies have come with him, subverting the parshmen, former slaves of humanity. Dalinar Kholin, the Blackthorn, one of the most feared warriors on the planet, finds himself tasked with leading the reformed Knights Radiant and uniting the world against this new threat. But to accomplish this he must overcome his own reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant and make peace with his own, half-forgotten past.

Oathbringer, the third volume of The Stormlight Archive sequence, is a big book. At just under 500,000 words in length, it may be the second-longest epic fantasy novel ever written, behind only Tad Williams' To Green Angel Tower and significantly longer than The Lord of the Rings in its entirety. Clocking in at 1,250 pages of fairly small print, reading it is a mammoth undertaking. At regular points in the narrative the saying "journey before destination" is uttered by key characters, perhaps a message from the author to keep going and stay the course.

The Stormlight Archive is certainly Sanderson's most ambitious work to date - seven more books are planned in this series alone, and many more in the linked Cosmere universe - and also his most accomplished. Sanderson has always been a skilled worldbuilder, creator of magic systems and an eager student of epic fantasy, learning from other authors in the genre, but this series has also seen those areas where he was lacking in earlier works, such as nuanced characterisation and the depiction of a large and diverse cast of characters, step up a notch. This is a solid series, but it's also one that has often creaked under the weight of its own complexity, and Oathbringer is almost brought low by the weight of the material.

At its heart, Oathbringer is a simple story: Dalinar Kholin is, for lack of a better term, the Chosen One who must united the world against, an ancient returning evil. However, he is also tainted by his own past in which he was a warrior with a reputation for savagery and butchery. The challenge he faces in Oathbringer is dual-pronged. Externally, he must work to unify the kingdoms of Roshar against the renewed Voidbringer threat. Internally, he must overcome the demons of his past. This is complicated because he deliberately suppressed his past through magical means to remove the pain of an event involving his wife. This is - rather more literally than is normal - the traditional story of a protagonist going through self-realisation and healing a past wound in order to achieve a necessary goal in the story. Whilst traditional, it makes Dalinar a far more relatable figure (but not always a more sympathetic one: Sanderson does not absolve Dalinar of the horrible acts he committed whilst younger).

However, this simple story is almost drowned under pages and pages and chapters and chapters of "other stuff." Heralds. Knights Radiant. Voidbringers. Shadesmar. Spren. Stormsurging. Soulbinding. The Recreance (which is set up as A Major Revelation and turns out to be merely the characters of Roshar learning something that readers of the wider Cosmere series will already be aware of). The Diagram (an epic fantasy take on Isaac Asimov's Foundation). Magical talking swords that you need to have read a completely different book (Warbreaker) to fully understand. There is a lot of stuff going on in this book, often requiring pages and pages of exposition, but only some of it is really relevant to the plot at hand. By the time I finished Oathbringer I was feeling nostalgic for Steven Erikson's more opaque but far more successful approach to worldbuilding and magic systems (explain what's needed, just let other stuff that's not unfold in the background and move on).

There's also a great deal of repetition in the book. The first half of the novel, in particular, is slow-moving with constant and repetitive strategy meetings and characters meeting up to discuss the plot which they - and we - already know about. Aside from some surprising new information about the returned Voidbringers, relatively little in this section of the book justifies the immense word count it took to get there.

Fortunately, the second half moves a lot faster. We get two massive climactic battles in key locations and a trip to the Shadesmar dimension, which underpins not just Roshar in the Stormlight Archive but all the planets in the wider Cosmere, so getting to see it in more detail is interesting. This side-story is also relatively brief and constrained, feeling like a tighter self-contained novella within the larger novel. The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance both did this a lot, with what felt like short stories contained within the larger novel that were there to flesh out the world and backstory but be entertaining in their own right. Oathbringer does this comparatively rarely, and not as successfully.

The concluding battle and accompanying revelations is epic and well-handled (maybe a little too long with a few too many reversals of fortune, but still relatively brisk compared to the rest of the book). There's some firm new understandings of the world and the stakes involved in the struggle against Odium. But the overwhelming feeling is that we could have reached this conclusion far more quickly and far more concisely.

More problematic, there is a very strong echo of Sanderson's earlier Mistborn series in how this volume unfolds. That trilogy saw a group of young, inexperienced characters discovering amazing magical powers and coming to a firmer understanding of their nature and how to use them when they get involved in the ancient struggle between the godlike Shard-holders resulting from the Shattering of Adonalsium, with the mysterious Hoid popping up a couple of times to help them. This is pretty much exactly what happens in Oathbringer, with just the magic systems and the characters swapped around. This is exacerbated by the fact that at the very end of Oathbringer Sanderson has an opportunity to do a ninety-degree turn and take one character in a very different and far darker direction that would have been much more original and interesting, but ultimately chooses a more traditional resolution to that story which feels like a massive missed opportunity.

By the time I finished the book I felt conflicted. On the one hand, my admiration for Sanderson's worldbuilding, plot construction and his continuing self-analysis as a writer and his capacity for growth remained undimmed. Oathbringer explores some wider literary themes of compassion and forgiveness and does so quite well, and Sanderson is definitely getting better by book at handling character. Unfortunately, his dialogue is extremely variable sometimes far too modern and grating. The romance storyline is also massively under-developed, although given how weak it is this may be for the best. Sanderson's sense of humour is variable, with some of the supposed witty banter between characters coming off feeling forced and unconvincing. Other elements, such as the single-minded bloodthirsty nature of the sentient sword Nightblood, are more entertaining.

Ultimately, The Stormlight Archive cannot withstand comparisons with the most accomplished works in the epic fantasy genre that nod towards realism: A Song of Ice and Fire has far superior prose and characters (though, obviously, a lamentably poorer release schedule); Wheel of Time has, for all its insane length, a much clearer plot through-line that goes through the series and doesn't overburden the reader with too many magic systems and unnecessary backstory plot coupons; and The Malazan Book of the Fallen (of which Stormlight all too-often feels like a less sophisticated YA remix) deals with a lot of the same ideas and themes in a far more original, literary and interesting manner.

What Oathbringer (***½) does do really well is action, worldbuilding and magic on one of the most interesting worlds developed in epic fantasy. From that viewpoint Stormlight reads like a crazy anime series in prose form, complete with impractically massive but awesome swords, bonkers magic and a somewhat juvenile take on romance. If you can overlook the problems with the unnecessarily-padded length of the book, there's a lot of fun to be had in this world, but it's not one of the deepest fantasy series around. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday 27 January 2018

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 4, Episodes 15-16

D15: No Surrender, No Retreat
Airdates: 26 May 1997 (US), 30 October 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Michael Vejar
Cast: Commander Sandra Levitt (Marcia Mitzman Gaven), Captain Edward MacDougan (Richard Gant), Commander Robert Philby (Neil Bradley), Captain Trevor Hall (Ken Jenkins), Lt. David Corwin (Joshua Cox), Guard (Skip Stellrecht)

Date: 2 September 2261.

Plot:    The White Star fleet arrives at Babylon 5 and Sheridan summons a meeting of the Babylon 5 Advisory Council. In return for the White Stars’ recent defence of their territories against raiders and aliens, he is declaring all the mutual defence treaties between the Earth Alliance and the Narn Regime, Centauri Republic and League of Non-aligned Worlds null and void. He tells them not to get involved in what is to come before asking they each contribute a destroyer-class vessel to the defence of Babylon 5. They agree.

Marcus takes a White Star to an area in hyperspace very close to Proxima III and contacts the rebels. More troops are assaulting the planet and they now think that they will have to surrender in a matter of weeks. Marcus has identified six Omega-class destroyers in orbit: the Heracles, Pollux, Vesta, Juno, Furies and Nemesis. According to the rebels the Heracles and Pollux have fired on civilian vessels, whilst the Vesta and Furies have apparently gone out of their way not to fire on civilians. Sheridan and the rest of the White Star fleet start arriving. They plan to attack in three waves to separate the enemy ships into easily containable groups. The Earthforce fleet begins to disperse to deal with the separate incursions and Captain Hall of the Heracles, commander of the fleet, orders all ships to open fire. However, Captain MacDougan of the Vesta proves reluctant: he used to teach Sheridan at the Earthforce Academy and doesn’t want to fire on him. Commander Philby tries to relieve MacDougan of command but he is overpowered by the bridge crew. MacDougan stands down. The battle is joined and the Furies also refuses to open fire. The Juno jumps out of the system rather than engage the enemy and the Nemesis is crippled by fire from the White Stars and surrenders. The Pollux manages to cripple a White Star, but the vessel crashes into the Pollux and explodes, destroying both ships. The Heracles takes colossal damage, but only surrenders after Commander Levitt relieves Captain Hall of command.

The commanding officers of the four remaining ships meet with Sheridan. Sheridan tells Levitt that the crew of the Heracles are going to have to answer to a war crimes tribunal after this is over, but for now they can decide on their own fate. Levitt decides to take the Heracles to the repair yards at Beta IX and sit out the rest of the war. The Furies will remain and guard Proxima III in case Clark sends another fleet against it. The Nemesis and Vesta both volunteer to join Sheridan’s forces and they are soon joined by other rebel cruisers, including the Alexander. They head for the next target on the way to Earth.

On Babylon 5 G’Kar and Londo decide to issue a joint Narn-Centauri statement approving of Sheridan’s actions. However, Garibaldi grows disgusted at the way Sheridan is handling the situation and leaves Babylon 5 for Mars, planning never to return.


Thursday 25 January 2018

BANNER SAGA 3 brought forwards to Summer 2018

Given that delays to eagerly-awaited games are the norm, it's good to see the reverse taking place for once.

Stoic's Banner Saga 3 was originally slated for a December 2018 release. However, a very successful Kickstarter campaign and a larger budget than they'd been expected allowed them to turbo-charge the game's development and it will now be dropping in the summer, possibly June or July.

The game is the concluding chapter to a trilogy that began with the excellent Banner Saga and continued with the also-excellent Banner Saga 2. I am expecting the final game of the three to be also excellent. The series depicts a world falling into annihilation at the hands of a darkness filling the skies and forcing a tidal way of unstoppable dredge to flee into the lands of the humans and their erstwhile giant Viking sometimes-allies, the varl. A mix of tactical, turn-based combat, caravan management which feels like a fantasy version of Battlestar Galactica meets The Oregon Trail and hard character choices with lasting consequences makes for an unusual, rich and atmospheric gaming experience. Hopefully this final game will see the series out in style.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 4, Episodes 13-14

D13: Rumours, Bargains and Lies
Airdates: 12 May 1997 (US), 16 October 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Michael Vejar
Cast: Neroon (John Vickery), Drazi Ambassador (Ron Campbell), Religious Caste #1 (Guy Siner), Religious Caste #2 (Chard Haywood), Brakiri Ambassador (Jonathan Chapman)

Plot: Delenn rendezvouses with the Minbari warcruiser Tukari, a ship controlled by the religious caste. Shai Alyt Neroon of the warrior caste has arrived on board as well. Delenn and Neroon discuss the growing crisis on Minbar – which has now broken out into full civil war – and agree to work together to stop the growing chaos. Some of the religious caste on board, however, believe that Delenn means to surrender to the warrior caste and decide to use poison gas to wipe out all occupants of the ship, including themselves, so the religious caste will keep fighting. When they learn that Delenn and Neroon plan to stop the civil war by cooperating, they panic and try to stop the gas spreading, only to find that Lennier has already dealt with the situation, despite taking some injuries in the process.

Back on Babylon 5 Sheridan sets a series of deceptions in motion, having Marcus and the White Star fleet attack barren asteroids in one sector, having Voice of the Resistance report that nothing of interest happened in that sector and having Londo vehemently deny that White Stars are protecting the borders of Centauri space. Confused, the League ambassadors begin wondering if their borders are under attack by some kind of new, invisible alien force and that Sheridan knows that something is going on and has sent the White Stars to defend Centauri space. They call a meeting of the Babylon 5 Advisory Council (the first in some time) and demand that Sheridan send the White Stars to protect their borders as well. Sheridan agrees, that of course being his plan all along: to get the alien governments to continue their mutual cooperation that began during the Shadow War.

Despite his earlier agreement with Delenn, Neroon leaves the warcruiser in secret at night and flies ahead to Minbar, sending a message to Shai Alyt Shakiri, head of the warrior caste, that the religious caste has fallen for the trap. He now has full access to all of the religious caste plans to defend themselves on Minbar.


Wednesday 24 January 2018

BioWare betting the farm on a game that no-one is excited about

Based on reports from Kotaku and Polygon, it sounds like the fate of BioWare, once one of the most critically-feted development studios in video games, is hanging by a thread. Everything may be resting on the fate of their next game, Anthem, an online shooter which, right now, has not done much to get people excited about it.

It has been clear for many years that BioWare has become a pale shadow of its former self. Like many developers before it, BioWare blazed a trail of innovative and interesting games which got noticed by the big publishers. Electronic Arts, the biggest of the big, swooped in and made BioWare an Offer They Couldn't Refuse back in 2007, buying out the company with grand promises that they wouldn't interfere with the company or its ethos. They almost immediately, of course, began interfering with the company and its ethos.

BioWare was originally founded in 1995 in Edmonton, Canada, and hit the jackpot with only its second game, the expansive and epic Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, Baldur's Gate (1998). Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) confirmed the first game's promise and is regularly still cited as both BioWare's best game and one of the finest CRPGs of all time. BioWare went on to release Neverwinter Nights (2002) and Knights of the Old Republic (2003), the best Star Wars video game of all time.

At that time the company was riding high with millions of games sold and tens of millions of dollars in the bank, but it was feeling a little creatively stifled. All of its games so far had been based on pre-existing universes and worlds. BioWare couldn't really shine, they felt, unless they created their own universe. And that's what they did in 2004, moving development of Knights of the Old Republic II  and Neverwinter Nights II to their former colleagues at Interplay who had regrouped as Obsidian Entertainment and shifting course to create three brand-new worlds from scratch.

The results were Jade Empire (2005), Mass Effect (2007) and Dragon Age: Origins (2009). Jade Empire, an atmospheric beat 'em-up/RPG hybrid, is easily the most underrated game in the BioWare canon but its sales were unspectacular and plans for a sequel were shelved. Mass Effect, a shooter/RPG hybrid planned as the start of a trilogy, was a much bigger success, helping drive sales of the X-Box 360 console and convincing Electronic Arts to buy out the company. But Dragon Age: Origins was a much more ambitious game, a vast, sprawling fantasy RPG that hearkened back to the glory days of the Baldur's Gate series. Whilst Jade Empire and Mass Effect streamlined (or "dumbed down," for the less charitable) the hardcore RPG experience for consoles, Dragon Age was complex, deep and extremely long (clocking in at almost four times Mass Effect's length). Making this game was neither cheap nor fast: the game cost several tens of millions of dollars (at a time when game budgets were much lower than today) and took a startling five years to develop. Even more surprising, the game was intended to be a PC exclusive at the precise moment that PC gaming was arguably in the weakest state it has ever been in.

When Electronic Arts took over, they were less than impressed. They mandated console ports of Dragon Age, which were awkward because the game was not designed with controllers in mind, and also ordered that a sequel be put in fast turn-around on a strictly limited budget to help ameliorate the cost of the first game. They ordered that Dragon Age II drop its large and impressive (and console-straining) engine to use Mass Effect 2's engine instead, as well as its conversation wheel and other features that the Dragon Age franchise was, arguably, not a good fit for. This rolling back  (or "dumbing down," to the less charitable) of the game's design ethos saw one senior BioWare designer ragequit the company. The game was slammed by fans on release, for its small scope, tiny number of locations and overall pervading feeling of cheapness. Later retrospectives have been kinder, focusing on the very solid story and characters, but it's hard to argue that the gameplay was lacking.

Worse was to come. In 2011 BioWare released The Old Republic, an MMORPG set in the Star Wars universe. What was actually a decent multiplayer online game was roundly condemned and slated for not being a third "proper" Knights of the Old Republic single-player game. The game sold very well - by some metrics it's the second-most-successful MMORPG of all time, behind only World of WarCraft - but it later went free-to-play and the Grand Star Wars Canon shakeup of 2012 has left the game's official status in doubt (which Disney has done little to alleviate, constantly dodging the question of whether the game is canon).

In 2012 Mass Effect 3 was released, concluding BioWare's grand space opera trilogy. Although the game was very decent, its ending was enormously controversial. It didn't really make sense and removed a lot of the player agency and choice that been the cornerstone of the trilogy. Although later DLC and patches resolved some of the issues, it couldn't resolve all of them and trilogy's reputation was marred as a result (although, again, retrospectives taking into account the three games as a whole have been kinder).

In 2014 Dragon Age: Inquisition was released, and sales and criticism-wise seemed to be something of a righting of a listing ship, although not completely. The game was large and expansive, but it was also criticised for being too blatantly an attempt to cash in on the success of Bethesa's open-world RPGs, such as Skyrim and Fallout 3. BioWare games had always been focused on character and story, with optional side-stories but always an urgency to the storytelling. Inquisition was criticised for throwing this out in favour of vast zones packed with repetitive, MMORPG-style grinding and fetch quests. It was an attempt to cynically meld BioWare's signatures of great storytelling and memorable characters onto Bethesda's open world design and it was a poor fit. Worse was to come in 2015 when The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was released and did exactly what Inquisition had tried to do - a character-focused narrative in a vast, morally murky open world with tons of side-content - and did it with seemingly effortless style, humour and warmth.

Still, the game sold well and reviews were stronger than for BioWare's two proceeding games, but these positive signs were undercut when a new RPG in development behind the scenes, Shadow Realms, was suddenly cancelled. Mass Effect: Andromeda was then released in early 2017. Riven with technical problems, unengaging characters and an unexciting storyline, the game was also set in a different galaxy to the first three Mass Effect games and none of the trilogy's characters or storylines were featured. The game sold poorly, the first genuine BioWare bomb, and suddenly the future of the company seemed in doubt.

BioWare's future now rests on three games: Anthem, Dragon Age IV and an untitled Star Wars game. Dragon Age IV is still relatively early in development and internally the game has been described as a "reboot". What that means, given that the Dragon Age franchise has always been pretty loose in terms of storytelling between games and each title has (more or less) stood alone anyway, is unclear. The Star Wars title is shrouded in secrecy but its future is doubtful, given that Visceral Games were developing a story-based, single-player-focused game that was canned and it was believed that this was also going to be the focus of the Star Wars game.

Anthem, on the other hand is in an advanced stage of development and is expected to be released in about a year. But the game has singularly failed to engage much in the way of pre-release excitement. The game is an action title with limited or no RPG elements. It's an online title without the narrative depth that BioWare is famed for. With its SF, post-apocalyptic vibe, the game also rather strongly resembles the Destiny franchise from EA's arch-rivals Activision, which has itself been rather divisive (although it has sold well). Anthem may luck out and pick up players disappointed with the rival game, but there seems to be a much greater fear at BioWare that people are simply not that excited about the game. Whilst a brand-new BioWare franchise would have once had gamers salivating in expectation, now it barely merits a shrug.

If Anthem fails to resonate, it may mean the end of BioWare, a very expensive studio which has never actually produced a mega-selling game. The entire Mass Effect series, all four games, have sold only about half the number of copies of Fallout 4 or Skyrim by themselves, for example. Dragon Age has done a bit better, but it's now been comprehensively overtaken by the Witcher franchise, a series from what was once a small Polish distribution company based on a series of novels that no-one west of Paris had heard of which has now sold 30 million copies and really does have people salivating for the follow-up, an epic SF game called Cyberpunk 2077.

BioWare's passing would be a shame, as they brought back the Western RPG from the brink of extinction, paving the way for many classic games both from their catalogue and others. Without them, it's arguable if Obsidian and CD Projekt Red (whom BioWare helped launch The Witcher back in 2007) would have taken off like they did. Even Bethesda may owe BioWare a debt of gratitude: The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1997) had not been a massive success and it was partially BioWare's resurrection of the CRPG that inspired them to revisit the series with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002), whose success led to where they are today.

Still, this may be premature. Anthem may turn out to be a fine game, EA may let them actually make a great Star Wars RPG and we could still see Dragon Age IV after all. Watch this space.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

RIP Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the greatest writers of science fiction and fantasy of all time, has passed away at the age of 88. The cause of death has not been revealed, but it was known that Le Guin had been in poor health for several months.

Le Guin's contributions to the field of science fiction and fantasy were legion, but she will be best-remembered for her seminal and defining Earthsea series, one of the earliest "YA" fantasy success stories, and several key and defining works of science fiction, most notably The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974). She has won the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award multiple times. Her fans and appreciators include Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood.

Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California in 1929. She was the daughter of well-known academics, anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Theodora Kracaw. She was raised in a happy family and inspired by her parents and their numerous academic friends, she started writing very early. Her first fantasy story was written at age 7 and by age 11 she'd started submitting short stories to magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction. Le Guin went on to achieve a BA in Renaissance French and Italian Literature and an MA in French and Italian Literature. She met and married Charles Le Guin in 1953, with whom she had three children, and she began publishing short fiction in the early 1960s.

“My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world and exiles me from it.”

In 1964 Le Guin published "The Word of Unbinding", the first story set on her signature fantasy world of Earthsea. In 1968 she followed it up with the first novel in the setting, A Wizard of Earthsea. The novel, unusually, attracted both tremendous critical acclaim and significant sales. She followed up the book with several sequels and other works set in the same world: The Tombs of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu (1990), The Other Wind (2001) and Tales from Earthsea (2001).

A Wizard of Earthsea has been adapted for the screen twice. In 2005 SyFy produced Legend of Earthsea, which "whitewashed" the cast (in the original novel, the entire cast was dark-skinned) and lost all of the thematic subtlety and depth from the novel. The following year Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli released Tales of Earthsea, an animated film. Le Guin had enjoyed Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro and was keen to see him handle the movie, but was disappointed when he handed the project off to his son to direct, who in turn produced a more conventional action-adventure story with the resolution revolving around simply killing the villain (a choice Le Guin found boring).

“I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.”
Le Guin also had an ambitious cycle of future history stories, known as the Hainish or Ekumen novels. These novels were relatively individual in story and theme, but united by a shared (if not explicitly stated) history, partially defined by the creation of an interstellar communication device known as "the ansible" (a name cheerfully stolen by David Langford for his long-running SFF newsletter). The two-best-known works in this sequence are The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores the definition of humanity and identification on a world of shifting genders, and The Dispossessed, a lengthy and sustained interrogation of the left/right political paradigm.

Le Guin's other notable work includes The Lathe of Heaven (1970), about someone whose dreams intrude on and shape reality, and Lavinia (2009), her final novel, which explores the titular character from Virgil's The Aeneid.

“Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

In later years Le Guin found herself enjoying her status as an elder stateswoman of the genre. She praised authors coming up through the ranks, particularly Neil Gaiman and China Mieville, and forged a friendship with Canadian literary author Margaret Atwood. Atwood went through a phase of hating being called a science fiction author, but through several public debates Le Guin explored with her the idea that maybe it wasn't such a bad label after all (Le Guin herself struggled with the label when trying to be taken seriously as a literary author in the 1970s, before concluding it didn't matter).

Ursula K. Le Guin's output was modest compared to many other authors, but her impact on science fiction, fantasy and literary fiction was seismic. A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are among the greatest works of speculative fiction ever written, her inspirational status in the field (especially to female writers, but to everyone who sought to layer greater themes and meaning into genre work) is unrivalled and her literary legacy formidable. She will be missed.

Radar Pictures hints at big WHEEL OF TIME announcement

Radar Pictures, the production company working with Sony Television on the Wheel of Time television project, is apparently set to make an announcement on the future of the project. This comes shortly after the project's showrunner and head writer, Rafe Judkins, tweeted that he was rereading the series (using his original, genuinely-battered paperbacks) in preparation for work getting underway.

Sony have been developing the project for over a year, but progress had slowed because Sony had failed to find a reliable network partner. Amazon were, according to rumour, close to signing a deal but backed off to pursue the Lord of the Rings TV prequel series instead. Other networks and streaming services have also been mopping up the rights to other fantasy series all over the shop, with Netflix developing The Witcher and Showtime nabbing the rights to a Name of the Wind prequel series, whilst Starz has Outlander and SyFy has The Magicians.

However, Apple TV are looking for a killer app, FX might be on the hunt for another prestige show and, most intriguingly, Disney have a new adult-oriented streaming service readying for launch in 2019 and money in the bank. There's also the possibility that Netflix or Amazon might decide to double-dip with a second fantasy show after all.

For themselves, Sony have also been bullish recently about developing a show by themselves for release on their PS Network or via Crackle. Radar's profile and financial firepower, which has been in the doldrums for years, have also been bolstered by the surprise success of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle at the box office (proving that once again in Hollywood, you're only as good or bad as your last release). Radar's boss, noted movie tycoon Ted Field, is apparently keen to move on with the Wheel of Time project and "big announcements" are on the way.

It'll be very interesting to see where Wheel of Time ends up, and how seriously the project is taken.

Thanks to Narg for the heads-up.

Sunday 21 January 2018

Denis Villeneuve confirms that DUNE project is moving forwards

Last year it was confirmed that Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve was developing a fresh film adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal 1965 SF novel Dune. Villeneuve indicated he might take a break or even direct a smaller movie before tackling another SF monster, but a new interview this week confirms that Dune is moving forwards (but not formally greenlit yet).

Frequent Villeneuve collaborator Peter Konig's take on sandworms.

At the moment Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Forrest Gump) has written a script and that's what's being developed at present. Only Dune itself is being adapted, with the five canonical sequel novels off the table unless the first movie is a major success.

There are also discussions going about making one film or splitting the story across two movies. David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of the book struggled to contain the whole story in two hours, with vast amounts of material from the book cut and more material filmed but edited out.

Villeneuve admits to being fascinated by Alejandro Jodorowsky's unfilmed version of Dune, but will not be taking any inspiration from that version or any of the filmed versions of the movie. This will be a completely new take on the source material.

The new film version is being financed by Legendary Entertainment. I wouldn't expect it before late 2020 at the earliest.

STAR TREK TV and movie franchies may be re-merged

CBS and Viacom (the parent company of Paramount Pictures) have apparently held early talks on a merger, which is a surprising move given the two companies "de-merged" back in 2005. The biggest SFF impact will be on the Star Trek franchise, the crown jewel franchise of both companies which they have - awkwardly - been sharing for the last thirteen years.

When the two companies split back in 2005, Paramount retained the film rights to the franchise whilst CBS walked away with the TV rights. Paramount rebooted the franchise in 2009 with a movie series helmed by J.J. Abrams, consisting of three movies so far with Quentin Tarantino developing a fourth film right now. Meanwhile, CBS instead masterminded an ambitious HD remastering of the entirety of Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation and last year launched Star Trek: Discovery, a brand-new series airing on CBS All Access in the US and on Netflix worldwide.

The split in the franchise has created an awkward lack of cross-pollination between the two sides of the franchise: Star Trek: Discovery had to delay its shooting date due to a legal agreement not to clash with the release of Star Trek Beyond in the summer of 2016. In addition, Discovery was unable to use any material or actors from the Paramount movie series and vice versa.

The re-merger has been proposed in the wake of Disney's monstrous deal to buy 20th Century Fox, which gives them control of a titanic amount of content on top of their previous Marvel and Lucasfilm acquisitions. Disney's power will increase further next year with the launch of a new streaming service, which will be led by a new Marvel show and the first-ever Star Wars live-action TV series. Paramount and CBS want a slice of that kind of action, and see CBS All Access and a merger of their properties as a possible way forward. This may also allow further cross-pollination of Paramount's movie properties to television (although it's difficult to see how, say, a live-action Transformers TV show would work).

What impact a merger would have on either the in-development new movie or Star Trek: Discovery, which is in pre-production on its second season, is unclear.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 4, Episodes 11-12

D11: Lines of Communication
Airdates: 28 April 1997 (US), 2 October 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by John C. Flinn III
Cast: Number One (Marjorie Monaghan), Phillipe (Paolo Seganti), Forell (G.W. Stevens), ISN Reporter (Carolyn Barkin), Emissary (Jean-Luc Martin)

Date: Within a few days of the previous episode.

Plot:    Forell, a member of the Minbari religious caste, arrives on Babylon 5 with disturbing news for Delenn. The Norsai, a peaceful, agrarian race living on the borders of Minbari space, have come under attack from unknown aliens. The Pak’ma’ra are also believed to have suffered raids. Delenn decides to take a taskforce of White Star ships out to investigate.

On Mars a hotel is bombed by elements of the Resistance working without the permission of the high command. Number One disciplines her supporters and Franklin and Marcus meet with the other rebels, offering Babylon 5’s full support. In return the rebels are not to hit civilian targets and are to keep a low profile until a plan for removing Clark and liberating Mars and Proxima III is fully worked out. In return, they will ensure that Mars is given its independence from Earth once President Clark has been removed from office.

The White Star taskforce reaches Norsai space and encounters a group of alien warships. Forell pulls a gun on Delenn and forces the White Stars to follow the alien vessels to their mothership. An alien shuttle docks with the White Star and a strange, humanoid creature who seems to shimmer in and out of existence comes on board. It identifies itself as a Drakh, although it refuses to disclose whether that’s its name or the name of its species (Delenn correctly identifies it as the species). Forell tells Delenn that events on Minbar are spiralling out of control. The warrior caste has evicted the entire population of a mixed-caste city and taken it over for themselves. The Minbari populace had to walk several hundred miles to the nearest city through freezing conditions and more than half of them died, including members of Forell’s family. The warriors are taking more and more power for themselves on Minbar and the religious caste is starting to oppose them. Forell fears that civil war may engulf the Minbari. He has contacted these aliens, the Drakh, and plans to ally them to the religious caste, even though Minbari do not use outsiders to settle inside affairs. Delenn agrees to further talks with the Drakh, but when the Drakh disclose that their homeworld was recently destroyed Lennier becomes disturbed and manages to warn Delenn that the Drakh may be the Shadow servants they saw fleeing Z’ha’dum several months ago (D7). Unfortunately, Forell mentions Delenn’s name, a name the Drakh recognise. Once the Drakh ambassador has returned to his ship the other Drakh fighters target the White Stars with their weapons. Thanks to some impressive manoeuvres the White Stars manage to escape to hyperspace, but Forell is killed in the battle. After effecting minor repairs, the White Stars return to normal space and destroy the Drakh fleet.

Sheridan, increasingly tired of ISN propaganda directed against Babylon 5, begins renovating the War Room with a new idea in mind. He plans to set up a rival news service, “The Voice of the Resistance”, with Ivanova as its main anchor. Ivanova isn’t thrilled about the idea but agrees to take part after her success in updating allied ships on enemy fleet movements during the Shadow War (D4-D5). Delenn arrives back on the station and tells Sheridan that there are troubles on her homeworld. She will be leaving for a while and hopes this time apart will also give Sheridan the resolve to deal with the situation on Earth. They have one last dinner together before she departs for Minbar.


Wednesday 17 January 2018

BABYLON 5: Season 4, Episodes 9-10

D9: Atonement
Airdates: 24 February 1997 (US), 18 September 1997 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Tony Dow
Cast: Dukhat (Reiner Schone), Callenn (Brian Carpenter), Morann (Robin Atkin Downes)

Date: This episode does not take place long after D8. There are extensive flashbacks to the early 2240s and mid-August 2245.

Plot:    Delenn receives a summons to Minbar by her clan and is compelled to obey. She and Sheridan spend the third of their nights together where the female watches and the male sleeps, before slipping away to the customs bay. Lennier intercepts her there and insists on accompanying her to the homeworld.

Marcus and Franklin are given new orders by Sheridan. Since Earth is playing dirty in its attempts to discredit the station (D7, D8), they have to do the same. He is sending Marcus and Franklin to make contact with the Mars Resistance and make whatever arrangements necessary to secure an alliance. Because of the blockade at certain jump gates, they’re going to have to go the long way around and won’t reach Mars for two weeks. They agree to the mission and set off.

Delenn arrives on Minbar for a meeting with the clan elders, represented by Callenn. They have grave doubts about her decision to take Sheridan as a mate, despite the fact that she is partly human. They want to know her reasons are pure and have arranged the Dreaming. The Dreaming is a holographic imaging chamber whereby the candidate, having taken drugs beforehand enhancing their mental powers, projects his or her thoughts and memories into the air for all to see. During Delenn’s first visit to the Dreaming she sees herself as a young acolyte some twenty years ago. She is assigned to watch over Dukhat during his own Dreaming. Intrigued by her wisdom and intelligence in one so young, he takes her into the Grey Council itself and tells her that the Council is divided over whether or not to make contact with a race known as the humans, who apparently the Centauri have had dealings with for some time. The warriors fear the military threat of the humans, the religious caste dislike of the idea of being exposed to alien belief systems and the workers are opposed to cheap imports at the expense of Minbari labour. Delenn asks about simple curiosity and Dukhat agrees that just being curious is a good reason in itself to contact other worlds, but the Council refuses to consider the idea. Dukhat makes Delenn his aide in return for embarrassing her before the Council. Over the next few years Delenn grows under Dukhat’s tutelage and is eventually elevated to the rank of the Council. When she swears the oath before the Triluminary, it glows. Dukhat goes to talk to her afterwards, but is interrupted by an alarm signal. The Minbari vessels have encountered an alien fleet approaching their space. Delenn confirms they are human warships, having studied Centauri reports. Morann, a warrior caste representative, tells them their gunports are open in the warriors’ tradition of showing respect to an enemy. Dukhat angrily tells them to stand down but the Earth ships open fire, convinced the Minbari are about to fire themselves. During the exchange Dukhat is killed and the Council becomes deadlocked about whether it was an accident or an act of hostility. Delenn, filled with grief and rage, breaks the deadlock by ordering the destruction of humanity.

Lennier is shocked and realises that the other Minbari will believe that Delenn is marrying Sheridan out of guilt for giving the order that broke the Council’s deadlock and began three years of bitter warfare, although he is sure that is not the case. Callenn announces that the Dreaming is over and tells them they will rest for the night and inform them of what they have discovered in the morning. But, in the night, Delenn suddenly realises that Dukhat was trying to say something to her when he died. She re-enters the Dreaming with Lennier and Callenn and they hear Dukhat’s last words, which Delenn herself did not hear at the time: “You are a child of Valen.” Afterwards Lennier raids the archives and confirms Dukhat’s words. Delenn, as hundreds of thousands if not millions of other Minbari, is a descendant of Valen himself. Since Valen was partly human, that means Delenn was partly human even before her transformation. It also means that most of the Minbari species has some trace of human DNA in their genetics, the true meaning of the humans and Minbari sharing the two sides of one soul. If the “purity” of the Minbari race hasn’t existed for a thousand years, then how can that purity be tainted by any children Delenn might have with Sheridan? Callenn admits that this knowledge has been kept secret for fear of confusing and dividing the Minbari race. They decide on a cover story, that Delenn is offering herself to the humans to further the spiritual bond between their species and as a sacrifice to the humans for their losses during the Earth-Minbari War, in the same way pre-Valen Minbari would marry the son and daughter of the two sides in a war to reunite themselves. Delenn is satisfied and heads back to Babylon 5.



The Paramount Network has cancelled epic fantasy show The Shannara Chronicles after two seasons.

The TV series, based on the fantasy novels by Terry Brooks, debuted on MTV in 2016 before moving to Spike for its second season last year. Spike has been rebranded the Paramount Network, which is inheriting many of Spike's shows but not Shannara. The fantasy show featured extensive visual effects and location shooting in New Zealand, so was on the expensive side. With the second season (which, by looks alone, had already had a significant budget cut) bringing in only 500,000 viewers even after time-shifted and online viewings were factored in, it's unsurprising that Paramount was unwilling to move forwards with a third season.

The producers, Sonar Entertainment, may choose to shop the show to other channels, but the indifferent audience reaction, poor ratings and relatively high price tag make this unlikely.

The first season of The Shannara Chronicles was mediocre, but had flashes of good fun and had some good performances from the likes of Manu Bennett and Ivana Baquero. The second season (I've seen about half of it so far) was unfortunately notably inferior, looking considerably cheaper with much less story focus and spending too much time on the show's wooden lead.

Shannara follows Legend of the Seeker and Camelot into premature retirement and serves as a reminder to networks that if you want to build on Game of Thrones' success, you really need strong source material and writers who know what they're doing, not just deep wallets.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Gratuitous Lists: Ten Classic DOCTOR WHO Serials

This is a reprint of an article from 2011, a Gratuitous List before I came up with the name.

So you've watched and enjoyed the new Doctor Who and want to dive into the morass of the original series. But you're hesitant because it's an old series (the first episode aired just over 54 years ago!) and there's 700 episodes to catch up on, not to mention that many of the early stories are incomplete. Here's a handy list of ten classic Doctor Who stories which I thoroughly recommend to anyone intrigued by the original series.

Also note that this list is in chronological order, not any order of merit.

An Unearthly Child (episode 1 only)
23 November 1963, Season 1
Written by Anthony Coburn & C.E. Webber

Doctor Who's first episode was broadcast on Saturday, 23 November 1963, and was almost completely ignored due to events that had transpired just a day earlier in Dallas, Texas. The episode was subsequently repeated a week later, where it got more attention. This episode revolves around two schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, who become concerned over the behaviour of one of their students, Susan Foreman. They decide to talk to Susan's guardian, her grandfather, only to discover that the address she gave the school is for a junkyard, the only notable feature of which is a police telephone box...

This first episode of Doctor Who is talky and tense, with the Doctor (played with a stern, authoritative air by William Hartnell) shown to be an ambiguous figure as he tries to work out what he's going to do about these two teachers who have stumbled upon the secret of the TARDIS. The rest of the four-part story is dull as dishwater (the Doctor and his companions become involved in a dispute between two opposing tribes of cavemen and inadvertently end up giving them the secret of fire), but this first episode is a chillingly effective opener to the series.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth
21 November-26 December 1964, Season 2
Written by Terry Nation

Doctor Who's opening story may have not been a great success, but its second turned it into must-see TV. The Daleks introduced the Doctor's most enduring foes and triggered the phenomenon of 'Dalekmania', which swept across the UK for much of 1964-66. This second Dalek serial saw the BBC respond to the success of the series by giving it a ramped-up budget, allowing generous amounts of location shooting in London. The premise is extremely simple: the Doctor and his companions arrive on Earth in the mid-22nd Century to find it under Dalek occupation. The team are split up among several different groups of prisoners, quislings and rebels and undertake separate adventures until their paths cross again for the epic showdown. By the standards of the time, this is a big story, well-paced (unlike most of the contemporary six-episode or longer serials, which are glacial by modern standards) with a large cast and some great set-pieces. The story also introduces some enduring ideas, such as the notion of a black-cased Dalek Supreme and the pain the Doctor experiences when one of his companions departs (here even moreso, as it's his granddaughter Susan who elects to remain behind on post-occupation Earth), ideas that even the new series has continued to mine.

The War Games
19 April-21 June 1969, Season 6
Written by Malcolm Hulke

Making a pick for the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, is difficult as his surviving stories tend towards the cheesy (most notably the so-bad-it's-glorious The Dominators, in which two aliens try to conquer a planet with the help of impractical shoulder pads and some very dumb robot servants). Basically it came down between The War Games and Tomb of the Cybermen, and Tomb has to lose out due to the astonishingly bad acting of quite a few of the supporting cast (though the Cybermen waking from their tombs of ice is still a haunting image).

The War Games is a long, long story, weighing in at 10 episodes, but the four-hour length just about works due to a shift in focus every few episodes. The first few episodes see the Doctor, Jaime and Zoe arriving on Earth during WWI and get involved in various shenanigans on the Western Front. However, it is eventually revealed that they are really on a planet divided into historical timezones where unknowingly-kidnapped soldiers from different periods of Earth history fight it out whilst aliens study them. After exploring a couple of the zones, the story takes an unexpected turn when we discover that the aliens' time travel technology is the creation of the War Chief, an exile from the Doctor's home planet. As the Doctor and the War Chief face off, it becomes clear that the War Chief is a pawn for the leader of the aliens, the War Lord (a formidable performance by British character actor Philip Madoc, who brings 100% deadly earnestness to the role). Where the story succeeds is that it throws the Doctor for a loop every time he thinks he's solved the crisis, with the War Lord shown to be a remorseless foe who may be more than a match for the Doctor. Patrick Troughton, always a strong actor as the Doctor, is tested more than in any other story and rises to the occasion, showing the Second Doctor becoming increasingly frustrated and desperate as the crisis escalates. Eventually, the Doctor's resolve to defeat the War Lord cracks and he calls in his own people, the hitherto enigmatic (and unnamed) Time Lords, to sort it out for him!

This then leads us into the extremely different and hugely revelatory final episode, in which the Time Lords, having dealt with the threat of the War Lord, now bring the Doctor to trial for his crimes of interfering in the affairs of other planets. The Doctor puts on an impassioned defence of his desire to fight evil and injustice wherever it may be found, which doesn't seem to move the emotionless Time Lords...until they read out the verdict, in which it appears that the Doctor's arguments have indeed swayed them, and he is exiled to Earth in the 20th Century. A rather grim final episode with an ending that is rather mixed in its outcome: the Doctor survives, but he loses his companions and (temporarily) the use of the TARDIS, and sets up a very loose story arc that unfolds over the next three seasons. Fans remain divided to this day on the morality of the Time Lords killing the Second Doctor by forcing him to regenerate as well.

Day of the Daleks
1-22 January 1972, Season 9
Written by Louis Marks

Day of the Daleks is a clever story as it's one of the vanishingly few times the original series dealt with temporal paradoxes (Steven Moffat used the temporal paradox story idea more times in his first two seasons in charge than in the entirety of the original series, for example). The Doctor, now played as more of an action hero by Jon Pertwee, is highly confused to find that Earth in the 22nd Century is again under the rule of the Daleks (since he defeated them in The Dalek Invasion of Earth) and learns that time-travel has resulted in the creation of an alternate future. Ironically, it's not the Daleks' fault, but rather that of the well-meaning rebels who are trying to stop them. The story is a tense affair as the Doctor tries to repair the timeline in the future, but in the present UNIT are put on alert by the apparently-imminent outbreak of World War III. Aubrey Woods gives the main human villain, the Controller, a sense of depth as he is shown to be ravaged by guilt for his actions as a collaborator of the Daleks, whilst Doctor Who gains a new race of villains with the entertainingly dumb Ogrons (footsoldiers of the Daleks). Crucially, the Daleks are not overused and are kept in the background throughout, Machiavellian masterminds rather than easily-defeated soldiers.

The Sea Devils
26 February-1 April 1972, Season 9
Written by Malcolm Hulke

One of the best things about the Pertwee Era was the relationship between the Doctor and his arch-nemesis, the Master, played in this incarnation by Roger Delgado. The Doctor and the Master here are portrayed as the alien equivalent of Sherlock and Moriarty, well-matched opponents who both hate and respect one another. The Sea Devils opens with the Master in prison and the Doctor paying a visit to the apparently reformed villain, but unsurprisingly the Master is soon revealed to be up to his old tricks. This time, he's in cahoots with the Sea Devils, an off-shoot of the Silurians (the original inhabitants of Earth who are in stasis far below the planet's surface, awaiting the chance to return; they most recently appeared with Matt Smith last year), who are planning to conquer the Earth etc. A lot of the story is rather forgettable, to be honest, but it's the game of cat and mouse between the Doctor and the Master which is most fascinating, especially when it escalates to a literal fencing match between the two (here enhanced with lightsabre effects because...why not?).

The Ark in Space
25 January-15 February 1975, Season 12
Written by Robert Holmes

In 1974 Tom Baker took over the role of the Doctor, bringing an element of demented insanity to the role that, in later seasons, took over the show to its detriment. Early on, however, Baker delivered a series of iconic performances where his humour, intelligence and dramatic skills were kept in balance. The Ark in Space is a perfect example of this, as the Doctor's comic early exasperation with new companion Harry Sullivan gives way to probably his finest speech about why he likes hanging around human beings so much (a speech so iconic even the new series has referenced it) upon viewing the thousands of humans in cryostasis on an immense space station:
"Homo sapiens, what an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds! They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. Now here they are out among the stars waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable."
Later on, things go a bit Alien as parasitical lifeforms attach themselves to the sleeping humans and turn them into ferocious monsters. Ignoring the fact that the alien grubs are clearly covered in green-painted bubble-warp, this was probably the scariest and most horrifying episode of Doctor Who to this time, marking the beginning of a period when Who was frequently criticised for being too disturbing for children to watch. But overall this is a well-written, dramatic and slightly disturbing story.

Genesis of the Daleks
8 March-12 April 1975, Season 12
Written by Terry Nation

After another period in which the Daleks had been heavily over-used, the production team decided to rest them for a while. But before they bowed out, Dalek creator Terry Nation decided to write a story exploring the creation and origin of the Daleks. He introduced their creator, the crippled, insane scientist Davros, and had the Doctor face an ethical dilemma as he is ordered by the Time Lords to destroy the Daleks at the moment of their creation (this move was later retconned as the opening salvo in the Time War). The Doctor thus spends the serial agonising over the morality of genocide even as the humanoid Kaleds and Thals slaughter one another with shocking abandon. Nation uses Nazi imagery to further make it clear that Davros and the Kaleds are Not Nice People, though the violent Thals hardly come out of it any better. This is Doctor Who at its most morally murky, but also at its most dramatic and watchable. A terrific story in which, again, the Daleks are purposefully kept off-camera as much as possible to make their appearances more memorable and powerful.

City of Death
29 September-20 October 1979, Season 17
Written by Douglas Adams*

City of Death may be the single most totally-bonkers story in the history of the series. Written by Douglas 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' Adams and filmed partially on location in Paris with a totally random cameo by John Cleese and Tom Baker's comedic skills being fully unleashed, City of Death is an unabashed joy from start to finish. Baker has some golden lines ("What a delightful butler, he's so violent!") and the plot is bananas (an exploding alien spaceship half a billion years ago splits its pilot into several incarnations scattered through Earth's history), but a key element here is Julian Glover (most recently seen as Pycelle in Game of Thrones) giving a steely, well-judged performance as the main villain. Boundlessly inventive and propelled by palpable cast enthusiasm, this is Doctor Who at its funniest and most entertaining.

The Caves of Androzani
8-16 March 1984, Season 21
Written by Robert Holmes

Peter Davison's sojourn as the Fifth Doctor comes to an end in a remarkably grim and 'different' Doctor Who story. Directed by Graeme Harper (the only director of the original series invited back for the new one) and written by the ever-reliable Robert Holmes (he also wrote The Ark in Space), this story pits the Doctor and Peri against the disfigured and violent Sharaz Jek (a blistering, intense performance by Christopher Gable). However, the situation is complicated by political machinations between Jek's allies and enemies, and frankly none of the characters come out of the situation very well. With its cast of fully-realised characters (each of whom has a fully-fleshed out motivation for what he's doing), this is Doctor Who at its best-written and darkest. It also features one of the best regenerations of them all, with Peter Davison's Doctor having to will himself through a difficult rebirth, egged on by visions of his past companions and threatened by images of his greatest enemy, the Master. The final scene, of the new Doctor Colin Baker rather threateningly saying that change has come, "Not a moment too soon," promises more than subsequent stories deliver, however.

Remembrance of the Daleks
5-25 October 1988, Season 25
Written by Ben Aaronovitch**

A tricky choice, since Remembrance does feature some of the weakest guest stars of Sylvester McCoy's admittedly difficult era, but Ben Aaronovitch's script is very strong and it's certainly one of the most ambitious Doctor Who stories. It brings us full circle back to the events of An Unearthly Child, being set just a few days after the Doctor, his granddaughter and two teachers vanished from Earth in late 1963, and we discover exactly why the Doctor was on Earth in the first place: to recover the Hand of Omega, an immensely powerful artifact capable of manipulating stars. No less than two factions of Daleks are also on the trail, and as they get closer to the device this results in some epic battles on the streets of London (the fact that the other three serials of Season 25 look like they had a combined budget of 25p is probably explained by this), most notably when the ludicrously over-powered Special Weapons Dalek is deployed which can take out streets full of enemy Daleks with a single shot.

But beyond the fireworks, it's McCoy's performance as the Doctor as a grand chess-master, orchestrating events from behind the scenes and manipulating others - even his companion Ace - into doing what he wants which really stands out. This is one of the few times in the original show's history that the Doctor himself sets in motion the events of the story rather than being reactive to it, and that simple change elevates the story to a new level, as does its raising of normally-ignored issues like racism in 1960s London. Stories like this one hint at the directions that the new Doctor Who would take on its return in 2005, dealing with threats lurking in suburbia as well as among the stars.

* Yes, that Douglas Adams, the author of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently books (and City of Death strongly inspired some elements in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency).

** Yes, that Ben Aaronovitch, the author of the Rivers of London fantasy series.

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