Thursday 28 June 2018

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS spin-off TV show gets a trailer

Wellington Paranormal, the spin-off TV show from Taika Waititi's cult classic movie What We Do in the Shadows, has just had its first trailer arrive.

The TV series follows the misadventures of Wellington police officers Mike Mongue and Karen O'Leary (played by the actors of the same name). In What We Do in the Shadows they were the police officers who kept showing up whenever the vampires got into shenanigans and had to repeatedly hypnotise them to forget about what was going on. The show picks up on the idea that the police officers have finally twigged that something weird is going on and start investigating events more thoroughly.

Waititi and his collaborator Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, Legion) are producing the new series. Some fans are hoping to see them cameo in the series, although they are busy with other projects in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, FX has ordered 10 episodes of an American remake of the movie in the form of a TV series, to star British comedy stars Kayvan Novak and Matt Berry. Waititi and Clement have also confirmed they still want to make a sequel to the movie, provisionally entitled We're Wolves and focusing on the werewolf pack from the original film, and are waiting for a gap in their schedules where they can do this.

Waititi is reportedly being wooed by Lucasfilm to make a Star Wars movie, whilst also consulting with Marvel on a potential sequel to Thor: Ragnarok or another movie in the MCU.

RIP Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison, one of science fiction's best-known and most polarising figures, has passed away at the age of 84.

Born in 1934 in Cleveland, Ohio, Harlan Ellison held a wide variety of jobs whilst he honed his skills as a writer. He was kicked out of Ohio State University for punching a professor who said he was a bad writer and claims to have sent a copy of every story he published for the next twenty years to that professor in revenge (later, more moderate accounts suggest he was kicked out for just yelling at him).

He sold his first story to The Cleveland News in 1949 and began publishing short fiction regularly in 1955. In 1962 he moved to Hollywood and began working in the film industry, submitting scripts to shows such as The Man from UNCLE and The Outer Limits. He first attracted widespread notice with his work for the latter, particularly his 1964 episode Soldier, a story about a murderous soldier who goes back in time. Twenty years later he declared that this episode had been ripped off by James Cameron for his movie The Terminator and won a significant out-of-court settlement.

During his time working in Hollywood, Ellison incurred the ire of Frank Sinatra during a billiards game, who objected to Ellison's footware.

Ellison began working on Star Trek, penning the original script for The City on the Edge of Forever, widely acknowledged as the finest episode of the original Star Trek series and one of the very best of the entire franchise. Ellison's script was reworked by Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana (among others) into the aired version, something that irked Ellison, although not to the point of removing his name from the script. Ellison won the Writer's Guild Award for the original version of the script and also the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, for the shooting script. Ellison continuously claimed his original script was superior, publishing it several times (critics were less in agreement). In 2009 he sued Paramount for royalties and profits made from the episode; a significant out-of-court settlement was reached.

Ellison worked at Disney, for a day, before being fired after joking that they should make an animated pornographic film featuring Disney characters. He then continued his career in short fiction, penning the short stories "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktock Man" (1965), "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (1967) and "A Boy and His Dog" (1969). "I Have No Mouth" won a Hugo Award and was turned into a well-received video game in 1995, which Ellison collaborated on despite not owning a PC. "A Boy and His Dog" was filmed in 1975 (winning Ellison another Hugo) and was named as one of the key influences on the video game Fallout (1997); imagery from the film was particularly tapped in the marketing for the game Fallout 3 (2008). Presumably this escaped Ellison's attention, as he did not sue anyone involved.

In 1967 Ellison published the science fiction anthology Dangerous Visions. A ground-breaking work, it codified the New Wave movement of science fiction and was credited for almost single-handedly changing the way people thought about the genre. Three of the stories in the book won Hugo Awards and the book itself was massively successful and critically-acclaimed in and out of the genre. Ellison followed it up with Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972, which, improbably, reached similar levels of acclaim. Ellison announced The Last Dangerous Visions in 1973 and solicited approximately 150 stories for the third collection. The book was repeatedly delayed and some of the contributing authors either died or withdrew their stories. British author Christopher Priest was so incensed by the situation that he penned a non-fiction book about the affair, The Last Deadloss Visions (1987, reworked as The Book on the Edge of Forever ten years later), which exceedingly annoyed Ellison for the rest of his life. The Last Dangerous Visions, remarkably, remained unpublished at the time of Ellison's death, forty-five years after it was first announced.

In 1980 Ellison and Ben Bova sued Paramount Pictures, contending that their TV series Future Cop was based on Ellion and Bova's story "Brillo." Paramount decided to defend the case and lost, being forced to award the writers $330,000. 

In the mid-1980s Ellison worked on the rebooted version of The Twilight Zone, hiring George R.R. Martin as a writer on the show before Ellison quit in anger after disagreeing with the studio on the show's creative direction.

Ellison met Hollywood scriptwriter J. Michael Straczynski when the latter tracked down his telephone number and called him up, nervously asking what advice he could give a budding writer whose work wasn't selling. "Stop writing shit," was Ellison's response. They later met in person and struck up a friendship and collaborative relationship. Straczynski solicited Ellison's advice on his in-development TV series Babylon 5, and when the show was picked up by Warner Brothers Harlan Ellison came on board as creative consultant. Ellison contributed several voices on the show and cameoed as a Psi Cop in the Season 4 episode The Face of the Enemy, alongside Star Trek's Walter Koenig. Ellison hit on the idea of writing a sequel to his Outer Limits episode Demon with a Glass Hand, entitled Demon on the Run, for Babylon 5, but after several attempts was unable to complete a script to his satisfaction. He did collaborate with Straczynski on the Season 5 episode Objects in Motion. Straczynski spoke briefly about his passing today.

In the 2000s Ellison became known for his increasingly angry activism on behalf of writers: his rant "Pay the Writer!" where he talks about the contempt Hollywood holds for writers despite them being their most important resource went viral and has been cited many times in response to the suggestion that writers should work "for exposure." Ellison also became known for being disrespectful at public events; his most notorious moment came at the 2006 Hugo Awards when he groped writer Connie Willis on stage during the ceremony. He later apologised for the incident, but then complained when his apology was apparently not accepted.

It'd be fair to say that Harlan Ellison was one of science fiction's most colourful and divisive writers. A passionate advocate for not just creative impulse of writing but also paying the writer their due, he worked hard to ensure that his work was not plagiarised and his rights infringed. He wrote more than 1,500 short stories (some of them whilst sitting in bookstore windows in a kind of live performance art process) and dozens of scripts. He won seven Hugo Awards, three Nebulas and three Writer's Guild of America Awards, along with the 2005 SFWA Grand Master Award and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. His actual fiction - sometimes overshadowed by the author's tendency towards gossip-inducing shenanigans - was often scathing and powerful. According to John Clute, Ellison's writing shows that he was "a central witness to the pain of the world."

Ellison was also irascible, rude, quick to anger and slow to forgive. He never burned a bridge when he had the option of dropping a Tsar Bomba-class nuke on it instead. By the end of his days he'd managed to piss off everyone from Frank Sinatra to Gene Roddenberry to James Cameron. His colourful "bad boy of SF" image was tarnished by some of his behaviour at conventions towards the end of his life, particularly the shameful Connie Willis episode.

Love him or hate him, Ellison was impossible to ignore and will be difficult to forget. That, I think, is an epitaph he would be content to go out on (having first suspiciously checked his back catalogue and consulted a lawyer to ensure it hadn't been stolen from one of his short stories).

Showtime commission a 10-episode HALO TV series

In a surprising move, the cable network Showtime has commissioned a 10-episode TV series based on the space opera video game series Halo.

Kyle Killen (Awake, Lone StarMind Games) will act as showrunner and chief writer, whilst Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captive State, The Exorcist) will direct multiple episodes and serve as a producer.

The Halo video game franchise has included nine console and PC games, two arcade shooters and multiple spin-off novels and comics. The franchise has sold over 77 million units, generating $5 billion in revenue for Microsoft. The game series depicts a war between the United Nations Space Command (UNSC), including Earth and her colonies, and an alien race known as the Covenant. This war is complicated by the discovery of a massive, ring-shaped space habitat known as the Halo and the discovery of an alien threat known as the Flood, which the Halo is designed to hold back. In the original Halo: Combat Evolved and its direct sequels, it falls to a human hero (known as "Master Chief") to save humanity from the Flood. More recent games have focused on new threats and new discoveries about the origin of the Halo. It is not yet known when or where the Halo TV show will be set relative to the timeline of the games.

Peter Jackson spent some years developing a Halo movie series with future Game of Thrones writer Dan Weiss before the project foundered over budget concerns.

Showtime's move into big-budget, high-concept franchise TV is a response to the recent announcement of multiple high-profile projects by studios and networks including HBO, Netflix and Amazon. The acquisition of the Halo licence is particularly notable, since the Halo video games are partially inspired by Larry Niven's Ringworld and Iain Banks' Culture novel series, both of which are now being developed as TV shows for Amazon.

Showtime are apparently betting the farm on Halo, following the extremely expensive Twin Peaks revival last year which attracted critical acclaim but low ratings. The network are seeing this show as the opportunity to take the fight to their rivals.

When to Write: Debut Ages of Famous SF&F Authors

A few months ago, a fellow blogger announced they were writing their first novel via social media and were immediately criticised for being "too old" to start writing. This was a bizarre comment for several reasons, not least of which was that the person in question was really not that old at all, but also the idea that writing - a livelihood not dependent on fast reflexes or immense physical stamina, but one that benefits from life experience - should have any kind of appropriate age for it in the first place.
Still, I thought it would be interesting to take a snapshot of well-known SF&F authors and look at the ages they were when they debuted, and the results are surprisingly varied.

Coming in at the bottom end of the range is Catherine Webb, a British science fiction and fantasy author who has published critically-acclaimed work under her own name and under two pseudonyms: Kate Griffin and Claire North. Webb was 16 years old when she published her first novel, Mirror Dreams, 23 when she published A Madness of Angels (her first Matthew Swift urban fantasy novel) and 28 when she published arguably her best-known novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. She's only 32 now, with twenty novels under her belt in a career spanning sixteen years. More impressive is that Webb has attracted immense critical acclaim for her work, which is imaginative, thought-provoking, restless and constantly innovative.

Better-known, although considerably less artistically accomplished, is Christopher Paolini. His Inheritance series of fantasy novels began with Eragon, published when he was 19 years old.
Next up is that well-known young gun George R.R. Martin. His first published work was "The Hero", published in 1971 when Martin was 22 years old. His first novel, Dying of the Light, was published when he was 28, and he was 47 when his best-known novel, A Game of Thrones, was published.

Terry Pratchett got his novel-writing career off to an early start, publishing The Carpet People at the age of 23. However, he had long waits between his early books. His Discworld series kicked off with The Colour of Magic, published when he was 35.

China Mieville was 26 when he published his first novel, King Rat, but, overwhelmingly impressively, was only 27 when he published the massive, classic fantasy Perdido Street Station. He was still only 36 when The City and The City, one of his best-known novels, was published.

Robin Hobb aka Megan Lindholme was 27 when she published her first short story and 31 for her debut novel, Harpy's Flight. Her most famous novel (and debut as Robin Hobb), Assassin's Apprentice, was published when she was 43.

Arthur C. Clarke got into science fiction writing early, with numerous fanzine stories published in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but his first professional sale was "Loophole", published when he was 28. His first novel, Prelude to Space, was published when he was 33. However, his best-known novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was not published until he was 50, and his most acclaimed, Rendezvous with Rama, until he was 55.

Scott Lynch was 28 when he published The Lies of Locke Lamora, narrowly beating out Brandon Sanderson, who was 29 when he published Elantris.

Statistically, especially in SF&F, most debut authors are in their thirties when they start publishing. Falling in this bracket are Iain Banks (30 when he published The Wasp Factory, 33 when he published his first SF novel, Consider Phlebas); Robert Jordan (31 when he published The Fallon Blood and 41 when he published The Eye of the World); Joe Abercrombie (31 when he published The Blade Itself); Ursula K. Le Guin (31 for her first short story, 38 for A Wizard of Earthsea); Terry Brooks (33 for The Sword of Shannara); and Patrick Rothfuss (34 for The Name of the Wind).

For those starting publishing a bit later than the median, there's Raymond E. Feist, who published Magician when he was 37. Gene Wolfe was 39 when he published his first novel and 49 when he released his best-known novel, The Shadow of the Torturer, which opened his Book of the New Sun sequence.

Steven Erikson was 39 when he published his debut novel, This River Awakes, and 40 when he released his first Malazan novel, Gardens of the Moon

J.R.R. Tolkien was 44 when he published his first novel, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, and 62 when he began publishing its sequel, The Lord of the Rings.

Terry Goodkind was 46 when he published his debut novel, Wizards' First Rule.

David Eddings was an impressive 50 years old when he published Pawn of Prophecy, beginning The Belgariad.

Richard Adams was 52 when he published his debut novel, Watership Down.

Outside of SF, there are a lot of examples of famous writers who got going in middle age or later. Raymond Chandler was 45 when he published his first story and 51 when he published The Big Sleep. George Eliot aka Mary Evans was 40 when she published her first novel, but 55 when she released her masterwork, Middlemarch. Frank McCourt was 66 when he published his debut novel, Angela's Ashes, which won the Pulitzer Prize. 

The conclusion to be drawn from this is that there is no good or bad time to start writing. If you have talent and skill and good judgement, that will become apparent if you're 16 or 76.

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Saturday 23 June 2018

Casting about to begin for THE WITCHER TV series

According to showrunner/writer Lauren S. Hissrich, casting is about to get underway for Netflix's Witcher TV series.

To protect from spoilers, the production team has written all-new scenes for the characters that won't be part of the TV series itself. However, the notes confirm that Geralt, Yennefer and Jaskier will be among the roles being cast. Also of interest is that Geralt's bard companion will be called "Jaskier" rather than the more frequent English translation of "Dandelion," the name by which he is known in the video games and some of the English translations of the books.

The casting process will be international, meaning that actors from numerous countries will be looked at rather than just the United States (where the show is in pre-production) or Poland (where it will be filmed). This ties in with production expected to get underway towards the end of this year for an early 2020 debut on Netflix.

There's a lot of "dream choices" for actors for the role of Geralt floating around the Internet, most of which are surprisingly good. Here's a few of the more popular options:

Geralt of Rivia

The titular Witcher is many decades old, but looks to be somewhere from his late thirties to early fifties, thanks to his Witcher training and use of drugs that has extended his lifespan considerably. He is a skilled swordsman,

Mads Mikkelsen

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is best-known for his titular role in the TV show Hannibal. His recent appearances include as the villain Kaecillius in Doctor Strange and as Galen Erso in Rogue One. At 52 he is at the upper end of being the right age for Galen, and it should be remembered that (due to the typical 18-month gap between Netflix seasons) that if the show lasts for 5+ seasons, he may be in his sixties by the time it ends, which may be an issue given the physicality of the role. That said, Mikkelsen is in great shape, looks the part down to a tee and has a lot of star power. Mikkelsen is also now highly in demand for film work and may be less keen on committing to another TV show, although with only 8 episodes in its first season the actual filming time for the show may be relatively modest.

Mikkelsen is also the traditional choice of Witcher creator Andrzej Sapkowski to play the role, which may be influential.

Zach McGowan

American actor Zach McGowan has made a name for himself playing brooding and slightly growly athletic men with charisma and impressive combat prowess. He is best-known for playing Charles Vane in Black Sails and Roan in The 100, but has a long and impressive list of credits. At 38 he is at the younger end of the Geralt age spectrum (but this may be beneficial due to how long the show has to run) and has immense fighting experience from his previous roles.

McGowan has also expressed an interest in the role, exchanging Tweets with Hissrich and fans making it clear he'd be up for consideration.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau will need no introduction, having spent the last eight years playing the role of Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, which has given him impressive experience in riding horses and sword-fighting. He's a very fine actor and at 47 is in the right age bracket. The question would be if he was willing to spend potentially another decade riding horses and hitting people with swords, and if the producers would be interested in casting such a recognisable role from another and superficially very similar show in theirs.

Marcin Dorociński

If you're going to be making a TV show based on a high-profile Polish work of literature, you'd do well to at least consider some Polish actors for the role. Marcin Dorociński is a highly experienced Polish actor who's the right age (he turned 45 yesterday, actually) and has experience filming shows in English, recently appearing in British drama Spies of Warsaw and German-South African production Cape Town.

Bubbling Under

Other popular fan choices include Josh Holloway (best-known for player Sawyer on Lost) and Richard Armitage (best-known for playing Thorin in the Hobbit movies). However, both actors are tied in with long-running American TV Shows (Holloway on Colony and Armitage on Berlin Station) which means they are likely unavailable.

Other Roles

There's much more to The Witcher than just the Witcher, of course. For the role of the sorceress Yennefer, Eva Green seems to be overwhelmingly the favourite choice, although Evangeline Lily has some traction (the latter is less likely due to her commitment to the Marvel movies going forward).

Amanda Seyfried seems to be a popular choice for the role of Triss Merigold, although since the TV show is following the books rather than the games, Triss is likely to much less of a key player. Deborah Ann Woll has also been suggested for the role, which is interesting given that she has worked with Hissrich before on Daredevil and The Defenders.

For the role of Jaskier/Dandelion, David Tennant seems to be a very popular choice, although the producers may want to cast younger, in which case Aneurin Barnard would fit the role to a tee.

For the role of Vesemir, no less weighty an icon than Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker!) has thrown his hat into the ring. When fans repeatedly suggested him for the role on Twitter, he expressed an interest in learning more about the character and role. That'd be some impressive casting, especially given Hamill's relative absence from live-action roles in recent years before his return in The Last Jedi.

Casting will likely be completed and confirmed later this year.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

Disney put STAR WARS spin-off movies on hold

According to Collider, Lucasfilm have put the two Star Wars spin-off movies they have in active development - one focusing on Obi-Wan Kenobi and another about Boba Fett - on indefinite hold, apparently in response to the disappointing box office of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Solo launched a month ago to stronger-than-expected reviews (given the film's troubled and expensive production history), with especially strong notices given for man-of-the-moment Donald Glover's performance as Lando Calrissian. However, these failed to convince an audience that appeared to be sceptical of the need for a Han Solo origin story and was blockbustered out, having been hit by The Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 in just the preceding few weeks. With Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi only hitting cinemas five months earlier, there was also talk of "franchise fatigue" setting in.

Cinema chain owners have blamed the May release date, several apparently having urged Disney to move the film to December. It is possible that Disney deliberately targeted this movie for May as an early test to see if audiences would be prepared to see multiple Star Wars movies in a year, as they do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in preparation for a future increase in production cycles. If that test was the goal, clearly it has failed.

Whatever the explanation, the effects have been sobering for Disney's bottom line: in its first month on release, Solo has garnered a spectacularly low $350 million. This has meant that the film has broken even with its production budget, but has not come close to making back its marketing budget (for comparison's sake, all three previous Star Wars movies needed to make back triple their production budget before becoming profitable) and will now need healthy media sales and streamings to become profitable, which may take another year or so.

The Obi-Wan and Boba Fett movies are on hold now whilst Lucasfilm reassess the appeal of those movies: although fans seemed keen to see Ewan McGregor take on the role of Obi-Wan in a competently-directed and written film, news of a Boba Fett film was greeted with utter apathy when it was revealed last month. There also appears to be a strong blowback amongst even casual fans against the endless parade of prequels being announced. A key difference between the Star Wars and Marvel franchises is that the Marvel movies all take place in the same timeline and continuity, with characters crossing over from one to another and each contributing to a larger whole (people who loved Black Panther, for example, were thrilled to see those characters and storylines continuing just a few weeks later in Infinity War). Star Wars has not been doing that, with the prequel side-movies being seen as disposable compared to the main saga films.

Perhaps with this in mind, Disney and Lucasfilm are refocusing their attention on Star Wars Episode IX, which is shooting now with J.J. Abrams wrapping up the story of Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren that he began in The Force Awakens and is due to hit cinemas in December 2019. Rian Johnson is also developing a new Star Wars trilogy and Game of Thrones producer-writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are also developing ideas for a new multi-film series. These two projects remain in active development (although neither is formally greenlit yet).

Whatever the situation, Disney recently turned a profit on their overall Lucasfilm deal, so the $4 billion investment they made in the franchise in 2012 has now come good, but there may be some at Disney who were expecting a much bigger success from the franchise. As some fans have indicated, maybe the golden goose has been squeezed dry and Lucasfilm may be advised to let the franchise rest for a few years after Episode IX?

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

Two great empires have dominated the east of Embria, the fall of the great subterranean empire of the urds heralding the rise of Ossia, protected by the Ember Blade and the sacred order of Dawnwardens. But thirty years ago Ossia was invaded in turn by Kroda, a kingdom of order, logic and science. Declaring itself the Third Empire, Kroda sees its destiny is to unite the continent through the Sword and the Word.

Although it is a land under occupation, life is good for many Ossians. The Krodans keep the bandits in check and the roads maintained. For young Aren, an Ossian noble son born into happy fortune, he sees his nation's destiny is in alliance with Kroda. That dream dies when he is betrayed by the empire he believes in. Left to rot in a prison camp, he is given an opportunity to strike back against his enemies...and help reclaim the Ember Blade.

Chris Wooding has been one of science fiction and fantasy's most interesting and restless voices for a long time now, moving from writing cracking YA reads to mature, thoughtful works of science fantasy like The Fade. His work in adult fantasy is mostly contained in the excellent Braided Path series, rooted in Asian mythology and influences, and the rollicking Tales of the Ketty Jay, a dieselpunk saga of airships, fighters, rampaging titans, surly cats and heroes whose buckles are, indeed, swashed.

The Darkwater Legacy is Wooding's back-to-basics take on the traditional fantasy saga (even the title feels like it was copyrighted in 1985). Ossia is a land under the grip of a cruel empire, a heroic band of freedom fighters are trying to save the day and a young man finds himself touched by destiny. It's like David Eddings, Margaret Weis, Tracey Hickman and Terry Brooks had a brainstorming session over a power lunch. If they did, though, then Wooding stole their notes, drank their beer and set about skewing everything slightly away from the way you think it's going to go.

The Ember Blade introduces us to Aren, the son of an Ossian noble who thinks himself destined for great things, unable to accept that his blood means that he will never be taken seriously by the Krodans. His best friend is Cade, a carpenter's son. They are separated by class and their feelings about the Krodan invaders, but they are soon bound together by profound misfortune. Along the way they meet up with a highly dubious warrior, thief and scoundrel, Grub the Skarl (master of the boastful non-sequitur), and a bunch of rebels led by the enigmatic "Hollow Man", before they find themselves on the run from supernatural trackers and gradually realise more is going on than it first appears. So far, so Lord of the Rings meets The Eye of the World. When our characters join forces with a druidess searching for a hero who is the fulfilment of prophecy and reach Skavenhald, a terrible ruin inhabited by a profound supernatural evil (Moria by way of Shadar Logoth, with a name that nods at Warhammer), you may be trying to keep your eyes from rolling. Wooding writes with skill but there's the feeling that maybe the traditional fantasy archetypes are being assembled a bit too familiarly here, as if assembled from an IKEA flatpack.

But then things get a lot more interesting. Skavenhald is weird and a distinctly Lovecraftian tone creeps in as screeching horrible things from other realms threaten to break through the skein of reality. It's more Dark Souls than Balrog Retirement Village, and all the better for it. After this the book becomes more engrossing as Wooding strips back the psychology of his characters, revealing them to be less the Fellowship of the Ring and more the Companions of Utter Dysfunction. One late-emerging main character is fascinating, a middle-aged teacher and patriot whose ruthlessness and resourcefulness dwarfs that of almost any of the other characters. The story takes several extremely unexpected swings (complete with a few shocking dispatches of characters you thought were around for the duration) before we reach the appropriately epic conclusion and the inevitably-frustrating wait for Book 2.

The Ember Blade is Wooding's longest novel to date - just under 800 pages in tradeback - but has more story in it than most entire trilogies. We have a prison break narrative, a horror story, a war story and an urban fantasy adventure. There's pirates, wolves, dodgy Viking warriors and some discomforting WWII allegories. One sequence feels like it's come out of Moby Dick, another out of Baldur's Gate. Wooding has had a frankly unseemly amount of fun in assembling his Big Fat Fantasy Saga and is keen to share that with the reader. The pages rattle by, the worldbuilding becomes more well-rounded and intriguing and the characters never stop growing and changing. It would be easy to condemn the author for writing "just" another throwback fantasy here, but it's also easy to forget that writing a good epic fantasy is still very difficult, and Wooding does it with aplomb.

The Ember Blade (****½) is great fun, a classic epic fantasy which, after a perhaps slightly too-traditional opening, avoids becoming too predictable. The characters are memorable and charismatic, but also flawed, with their darker moments that give them more edge than the one-note heroes of yesteryear. The tone is light and fun to start with, but matures throughout, with a few moments of real darkness at the end as things get real. The novel will be published on 20 September 2018 in the UK (and will be available on import in the USA).

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Atlanta: Season 1

Earnest "Earn" Marks is a man who feels his life is drifting aimlessly, with an unrewarding job and difficulties in supporting his young daughter and his on-off again girlfriend Van. When his cousin Alfred starts a rapping career under the stage name "Paper Boi", Earn convinces him to take him on as his manager. And then life gets even more complicated.

Atlanta is a very hard TV show to pin down. Created and partly written by Donald Glover (Community, Star Wars: Solo), who also stars as Earn, it's a strange show that moves between different tones with assured ease. It's a comedy about an intelligent young man who constantly feels let down by society and his idiotic peers, but who also makes plenty of his own mistakes. But it can also go quite dark: the first two episodes see Alfred shooting a man after a parking lot altercation and both him and Earn ending up in the police station, where Earn endures a stark and uncomfortable night alongside drug-dealers, violent criminals and brutal cops.

Later episodes go out-and-out surreal. An entire episode is spent with Alfred as a guest on a strange Atlanta talk show, whilst another is set in a nightclub with secret doors and a lunatic rich guy who apparently drives an invisible car. Another episode revolves entirely around a search for a missing jacket, and another feels like the prototype for the movie Get Out, with Earn enduring the increasingly disturbing attention of a middle-aged white man who is crawling with inappropriately over-earnest guilt for slavery (co-star Lakeith Stanfield also has a prominent role in Get Out, which feels appropriate).

Atlanta is weird and fluid, flowing from being a show about one thing into a show about another. At first it's difficult to know if you even like the show or not: is it a comedy? A drama? A surrealistic visual tone poem? But the final analysis is that Atlanta is meant to represent Earn's life, which for all of its specific elements is a life pretty much like anyone else's, which moves from being funny to sad to being busy to being boring and back again.

What Atlanta remains throughout, however, is both entertaining and compelling. The direction (some of it by Glover himself) is remarkable, drawing the viewer into each episode's unique set-up. The writing is always sharp, the dialogue often joyously clever (especially when Earn gets up to speed and starts cutting down other people's idiocies with withering contempt), the characters immensely interesting even when they're not the most likeable. Earn may be (most of the time) our viewpoint character, but it's his long-suffering sort-of girlfriend Vanessa (an assured performance by Zazie Beetz) who emerges as one of the strongest characters, someone with drive and ambition but lacking the resources to fully achieve her goals.

Atlanta may not always be a comedy (despite its billing as a comedy-drama), but when it is it's the funniest show on television. Lakeith Stanfield's performance as philosopher-stoner Darius, master of the non sequitur, provides some of the show's best moments, but all of the cast have their moment in the sun.

Atlanta's first season (****½) is smart, engaging and endlessly inventive television. A second season aired earlier this year and a third season has been commissioned.

CBS planning multiple new STAR TREK TV projects

CBS is planning multiple new Star Trek TV projects after inking a $25 million deal with producer Alex Kurtzman to effectively take control of the TV arm of the franchise.

First up, Kurtzman has become Star Trek: Discovery's sole showrunner after writer-producers Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts were fired for alleged bullying and unprofessional behaviour in the writer's room. This shouldn't affect production of Discovery, which has filmed five episodes of its second season with the bulk of the writing for the season already complete. Discovery is due to return to CBS All Access at the start of 2019.

CBS are also considering four additional projects. Already in development is a fresh take on the long-mooted Starfleet Academy idea, this time fronted by Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz (Runaways). Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) is also developing a mini-series which will focus on the life of iconic Star Trek villain Khan Noonian Singh.

An animated series is also under consideration, but more interesting is another live action mini-series is planned, which is rumoured will be a sequel to the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager era and may focus on Jean-Luc Picard, with Patrick Stewart being courted to return to the role. Stewart has never ruled out returning to the franchise and may be open to the idea, depending on the script. Stewart's last appearance as Picard was in the 2002 movie Star Trek: Nemesis, although he did return in 2006 to voice an appearance in the video game Star Trek: Legacy.

It's possible that some of these projects may air on CBS All Access and others on CBS itself.

Sunday 17 June 2018

A board game catch-up

My home town of Colchester recently opened its first-ever board game cafe, Dice and a Slice, which allows people to try out board games whilst drinking copious amounts of tea or coffee with food. This has provided me with a fine way of trying out lots of board games without having to spend hundreds of pounds, which has been very handy. So here's a look at some of the games I've tried out recently:

Barbarians: The Invasion
Tabula Games

Barbarians: The Invasion can be best described as a death metal version of Settlers of Catan. Each player controls a tribe of barbarians competing for resources (such as iron, treasure and wood) which they can use to muster troops to pillage and ransack nearby civilised kingdoms. The tribes never fight one another, instead competing in a friendly manner to see who can cause the most murder, death and mayhem among civilised folk. Technically it's possible to win by going for economic bonuses, but the victory points you amass from this approach are minuscule compared to those resulting from carnage.

The game's big selling point is the volcano, a three-dimensional model of which accompanies the game. Each player places a figure on each ring of the volcano which determines which actions they are going to to attempt that turn. They can only place figures in a certain linked relationship to the first figure, meaning each player has to carefully plan where they are going to place their figures and what they can do to disrupt their rivals' objectives. In a nice twist, players can sometimes spin the levels of the volcano to throw enemies onto unwanted paths or achieve better outcomes. Each tribe can also build structures for bonuses, worship gods for more benefits and employ a chief with certain skills. If a tribe tires of a chief, they can sacrifice him to the volcano to get even more stuff.

After each go, the players have to either 1) appease a demon who will otherwise rain hellfire down on the tribe in its furious wrath, or 2) go to the pub and chill.

Barbarians: The Invasion is a flat-out insane game which is over-engineered past the point of lunacy and won't use one token when it can use fifteen and three cards instead. I certainly wouldn't recommend buying it - it's very expensive and fiddly - but I'd be happy to play it again if someone busted it out on a games night. Despite its intimidating size, it's a relatively fast and fun game, and worthwhile for someone who likes Settlers of Catan but feels it would be improved by having demons periodically show up.

Survive: Escape from Atlantis
Stronghold Games

Survive: Escape from Atlantis is a reprint of a game that I received as a Christmas present about thirty years ago. It's a very straightforward, fast-paced and fun game. Each player controls a tribe of refugees who are trying to escape from the island of Atlantis before it disintegrates completely. They have to escape by boat to nearby, secure islands, dodging sea monsters along the way.

It's a great game which can be surprisingly ruthless, with players unable to harm one another but they can very easily screw one another over by smashing their boats, or stealing a boat out from under the eyes of another player and so on. It may be the most fun passive-aggressive game ever made.

Taken on its own merits, this edition of the game is very enjoyable and a lot of fun. When you compare it to previous editions, particularly the 1980s original version, it does start to feel a bit skimpy. The original Escape from Atlantis had very well-detailed 3D plastic island pieces and a larger variety of sea creatures (including dolphins and octopuses) as well as allowing for more players. Survive replaces the plastic pieces with flat cardboard hexagons which feels and looks a lot cheaper. It also pulls out the dolphins and octopuses and puts them in an expansion, along with the pieces necessary to take the game to six players, which definitely feels like a price-gouging move given that this is a perfect party game or a game to play with younger players.

If you can overlook this slight cheapness (and to be fair the game is a lot more environmentally-friendly and it is a lot less expensive than other board games), this is a fun, enjoyable game.

The War of the Ring
Ares Games

The War of the Ring is, obviously, a game based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novels. The game attempts to retell the entire story of the War of the Ring, with one player taking command of the free nations (Gondor, Rohan, Dwarves, Elves, the North/Shire and the Fellowship of the Ring) and the other taking command of the forces of evil (Mordor, Isengard and Rhun/Harad).

Both sides are looking to score victory points, the easiest way of acquiring such is by conquering strongholds and cities, which is rather easier for the bad guys (whose armies are huge and regenerate after battle) than the good guys (whose armies are smaller and cannot be replenished once their initial forces and reinforcement pool have been depleted). Complicating things further is that the "good guys" are not a monolithic bloc and at the start of the game are actually very reluctant to go into open war against Sauron. Instead the good player has to expend diplomacy actions to bring the various factions into battle, which is easier said than done.

The trump card for the good player is the Fellowship. Each turn the good player can move the Fellowship secretly closer to Mordor with a very clever hidden movement mechanic. The evil player can expend resources to search for the Ring, but these are resources which will not be available for battles elsewhere. If the evil player does nothing, the Fellowship will eventually reach Mount Doom and destroy the Ring and thus Sauron, winning the game no matter how many victory points the evil player has amassed.

This gives rise to an interesting asymmetric game of choice and consequence. Both players have to decide how much effort to expand on either moving the Fellowship or hunting them down, as the actions expanded on this may also be sorely needed to move reinforcements to Helm's Deep or Minas Tirith, or rally the elves of the Grey Havens to reinforce the Shire against an orc army out of Angmar. This is all somewhat familiar, and indeed a similar system was later used by Fantasy Flight Games for the excellent Star Wars: Rebellion.

There is additional complexity to the game as well: both players have access to Characters (aka "Leaders" as seen in Rebellion) who have powerful abilities. Gimli can rally the Dwarves - arguably the good faction least likely to get involved in the war - to battle, whilst both Strider and Gandalf the Grey can level up (to Aragorn and Gandalf the White, respectively), becoming more powerful and adding new abilities to the fray. Evil has access to characters like Wormtongue, who can effectively paralyse Rohan with his poisoning of the king's ear, and the Witch-King of Angmar, who is a powerful general and opponent, but whose very arrival will rally all of the neutral nations to war.

The War of the Ring is a long and deep game, and I wouldn't want to review it further until I have a few more games under my belt. But so far it's a fascinating game with a lot of different strategies, presented with phenomenal artwork and amazingly detailed miniatures. The main negatives I'd say so far is that the miniatures need to be much more clearly differentiated from one another: finding a reinforcement unit for a particular nation in the heat of the moment can be far too difficult.

Memoir 44
Days of Wonder

I've spoken previously of my enduring enjoyment of Axis & Allies, which tackles WWII from a grand strategy perspective. Memoir 44 takes the opposite approach, tackling a single battle from the conflict at a time. Each battle has different terrain, objectives and forces available to both sides, both in terms of units (usually infantry, tanks and artillery) and command cards.

Memoir 44 uses the "command and colours" system used by Battlecry, Battlelore and numerous other titles, and is very simple. On each turn, each player can play a single card. This card will allow for a certain number of units to be moved in a certain part of the battlefield (either of the flanks or in the centre), usually allowing them to move and attack. For each enemy unit completely destroyed, the winner gains a victory point. Depending on the scenario, 4 to 6 points are needed to win. Additional points can be gained from seizing and holding strategically important chokepoints on the map, like villages or bridges.

The result is a game of strategic punch and counter-punch, with units taking damage and pulling back (to avoid total destruction and giving the enemy a victory point), or sometimes brave charges being mounted to allow your troops to rush into pointblank range to inflict heavier damage on the enemy. The focus here is a fast-moving game - the game has a faster turn-around than almost any other modern board I've played - where you can get battles done in under 20 minutes. The game is so fast to set up and comes with so many battle scenarios that you'll find yourself usually playing 3-4 battles in a single session, and you can string your battles together into campaigns.

Memoir 44 hits that sweet spot of being both streamlined and elegant, but allowing for an immense amount of complexity and depth (resembling that other Days of Wonder classic, Ticket to Ride). There are enormous numbers of expansions for theatres like North Africa and Russia (availability is spotty at the moment, though, with even the base game out of stock on Amazon UK but still available in shops) and optional rules for aerial bombardment and naval assaults, but generally speaking the game is fast, fluid and easy to understand, whilst being tricky to fully master. In that sense, it's the perfect board game, and definitely one of the strongest games I've played.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. SF&F Questions and The Cities of Fantasy series are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

SF&F Questions: Has Disney turned a profit on its Lucasfilm purchase yet?

The Basics
In 2012 Disney bought Lucasfilm from founder George Lucas, paying $4.05 billion for the company, all of its assets and sub-divisions (including special effects company Industrial Light and Magic), and all of its franchises, most notably Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

A common question that's often been asked recently is if Disney has made back the money on this deal in the last four years, which has seen multiple Star Wars TV shows and video games made, along with dozens of novels and comics and, of course, four feature films (with many more coming).

The answer is that this is difficult to answer definitively - Disney are not exactly releasing detailed financials to the public - but we do have significant evidence to go on.

Profit from the Films: $1.5 billion
Disney, of course, have not just spent $4 billion on buying Lucasfilm, but have also spent significant money on producing the new movies and materials. For that reason we are not interested in the total gross of the movies, but the profit alone (as each film - with the possible exception of the underperforming Solo - has made a profit on an individual basis).

Fortunately, we have figures confirming the profit made from the new movies. This confirms that The Force Awakens made $780 million in pure profit for Disney and The Last Jedi made $415.5 million. That's around 1/3 of the total gross in each case (The Force Awakens' box office total was $2.06 billion and The Last Jedi was $1.3 billion). Extrapolating, Rogue One likely made around $300 million profit from its box office of $1.06 billion. Solo, at this rate, will struggle to break even at the box office and will likely rely on future home media and streaming releases to carry it across the line, so that can be disregarded for now.

Profit from Media Releases: $1 billion
These figures are harder to come by, but it has been confirmed that The Force Awakens has made $151 million in Blu-Ray sales in the USA alone, followed by Rogue One at $66 million and The Last Jedi at $56 million. Worldwide figures can comfortably double this and DVD sales (as DVD remains, bizarrely, a strong-selling format) can double that again. This is also not including media releases from The Clone Wars and Rebels, and Disney's legacy re-release of the original six movies in multiple formats.

Streaming rights to different channels worldwide is also a significant income. I would bet that the home media releases in varying formats match the $1.5 billion made by the films (matching the profitability of the original franchise at the moment Disney bought it in 2012, where home media and box office were at parity), but certainly well in excess of $1 billion.

Profit from the Toys: $300 million
Star Wars has been a phenomenon in toy sales, with combined action figure, vehicle, playset, Lego and costume sales exceeding an astonishing $14 billion by 2012. Sales since then have been more modest (a reflection of kids spending more time and money on video games and mobile devices than physical toys), but Star Wars was still the biggest-selling toy franchise in 2015 and 2016 before falling to second place in 2017. Star Wars toy sales exceeded $700 million in fiscal year 2015-16, did slightly less in 2016-17 and a lot less in 2017-18 (so far), the latter surprising as it's the first fiscal year to see two Star Wars movies released.

Thanks to Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us, we know that Lucasfilm's deal with Hasbro (inherited by Disney) gives them 16% of the income from the toys. Assuming $1.75 billion from toy income since 2015, this takes us up to around $280 million conservative.

These figures doesn't appear to include the adult collectable market (which is small in overall numbers but huge in margin), books, comic books, collected graphic novels and the adult-oriented board games and miniature games from Fantasy Flight. Crucially, this figure also doesn't include early sales from 2012-15 as well. On this basis, Disney's merchandising sales likely far exceed $300 million in terms of pure profit.

The total sales and profits of the Star Wars franchise between 1977 and 2012.

Video Games: $500 million
There have been two major video game releases since Disney took over the franchise: Star Wars Battlefront (2015) and Star Wars Battlefront II (2017), along with several spin-off Lego video games and legacy sales of earlier titles. Many classic Star Wars games have recently been released on the GoG store and have cumulatively sold hundreds of thousands of new copies. The MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic has also generated significant income ($140 million in 2013 alone, for example).

We are predominantly interested in the performance of the two Battlefront games. Together, the two titles have sold 22 million copies, Battlefront accounting for 14 million copies sold and Battlefront II about 8 million. This would generate almost $1.5 billion in revenue. Disney's cut is rumoured to be around 30% (which would certainly explain Electronic Arts' bizarre claims about the games "disappointing" in their performance, since their cut is significantly reduced), which gives us an approximate figure of $500 million in profit to Disney. This figure does not include Disney's cut of microtransactions or income from mobile games and services, which are also significant.

Industrial Light and Magic: $1 billion
When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, they also acquired Industrial Light and Magic, a division of Lucasfilm that provides visual effects to the film industry. Since the 1980s, ILM has consistently been the largest and most successful provider of visual effects to the global film industry, despite challenges from the likes of Weta Digital and Framestore.

We know that ILM made over $180 million per year in the late 1990s, at a time when the global effects market was small fraction of its present day size. As a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lucasfilm and in turn Disney, ILM's profits are a mystery, but they appear to be significant, and certainly far higher than in 1997. The company is the largest employer of digital effects specialists in Hollywood, it has the largest render farm in the industry and it is capable of tackling half a dozen large movies simultaneously. As well as the Star Wars movies, it works on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Disney's new live-action division, as well as providing visual effects for the Transformers franchise.

A reasonable and massively conservative estimate of ILM's profits would be $200 million per year, every year, in 2013-17. This is likely a gross underestimate, not accounting for the sheer magnitude of ILM's global operations and work on dozens of films in multiple countries and franchises. As ILM charges a flat market fee (which is not dependent on the film's final performance, so they still get paid regardless of the film's performance), this gives them a commanding presence in the industry.

Final Tally: $4.3 billion
The final and highly conservative tally falls somewhere around $4.3 billion in pure profit garnered by Disney since 2012. There are significant shortfalls in these figures, however. We don't know what revenues the TV series Star Wars: Rebels have brought in, or the novels or comics (it should be noted that the novels and comics were highly profitable in the pre-2012 era, cumulatively bringing in over $2 billion in profit), nor the amusement park rides and attractions.

The final figure will be somewhat higher than this.

Answer: Since the takeover by Disney, Lucasfilm's franchises and divisions have brought in well over $4 billion in profit alone. George Lucas may have even significantly underestimated the value of the company when he sold. Disney are now comfortably in profit on the overall deal.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. SF&F Questions and The Cities of Fantasy series are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there one month before being published on the Wertzone.