Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Rosamund Pike cast as Moiraine in WHEEL OF TIME TV series

It's been officially confirmed (after several days of rumours) that Rosamund Pike has been cast in the role of Moiraine Damodred in Amazon's Wheel of Time TV series.

Pike is a veteran British actress who started her career with A Rather English Marriage (1998). She came to Hollywood attention by playing Bond girl Miranda Frost in Die Another Day (2002), Pierce Brosnan's final James Bond movie, and Jane Bennett in Pride & Prejudice (2005). Subsequent movies have included Doom, An Education, Wrath of the Titans, Jack Reacher and The World's End. She currently plays Lady Penelope in the rebooted Thunderbirds Are Go (2015-present).

In 2014 she achieved her biggest breakthrough by playing the role of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, alongside Ben Affleck. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, as well as Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for the same role.

In The Wheel of Time, Moiraine Damodred is an Aes Sedai of the Blue Ajah. As an Aes Sedai, she can channel the One Power, a source of tremendous sorcerous power. As a member of the Blue Ajah, she specialises in intrigue, politics and causes. Twenty years before the events of the series, Moiraine learned a vital piece of information which has set her on a hunt across the continent known as the Westlands, accompanied by the Malkieri warrior Lan Mandragoran. The events of The Wheel of Time begin when Moiraine learns what she is looking for can be found in the Two Rivers, a remote part of the kingdom of Andor. Moiraine then becomes a guide and mentor for a group of young people she encounters in the course of her mission.

The Wheel of Time TV series is now in pre-production with production based in Prague in the Czech Republic (which is also expected to at least partly stand in for the city of Caemlyn). The team have recently been working on both casting and location scouting (most recently in Denmark, possibly for the Two Rivers). Filming is set to being in September for transmission in late 2020 or early 2021.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Warmaster by Dan Abnett

The Tanith First have completed a near-impossible strike mission to the remote enemy outpost of Salvation's Reach. As well as stealing a vast amount of intelligence material from the enemy, their attack has triggered an internal conflict within the Chaos armies between Sek and Gaur, allowing the Crusade to reach new levels of success. But a warp mistranslation on the way home throws the First into a dire new battle, as Gaunt and his team have to face a desperate Sek in battle on the forge world of Urdesh, and face a renewed threat from within the Crusade's own leadership.

The Warmaster is the fourteenth novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series and the penultimate volume in the "Victory" arc. It was also released after an unprecedented five-year publishing gap in the series, the result of internal realignments within the Black Library and Games Workshop.

As a result, the book takes a little while to rev up to speed, with a somewhat disjointed narrative that attempts a lot of ideas - the Ghosts being shipwrecked in deep space, visited by Chaos horrors and suddenly in the thick of urban warfare and political intrigue on Urdesh - before the story comes together.

When it does, the results are impressive. We are fourteen books into this series now and we've never even met the guy in charge of the entire operation, and in fact (as Abnett's Sabbat Worlds Crusade companion book makes clear) the Ghosts have been operating on the fringes of the main war effort. Their actions have occasionally been decisive and even affected the main course of the war here and there, but only to a small degree. That revelation gives a real sense of scale to the war - in which tens of thousands of Imperial starships are carrying hundreds of millions of Imperial Guard troops, millions of support vehicles, thousands of Space Marines and hundreds, if not thousands, of skyscraper-sized Titans into battle across dozens of star systems simultaneously - which is remarkable. The Warmaster does a good job of pivoting the action, so suddenly the Ghosts and Gaunt are right in the middle of the key decisions being made for the entire war effort.

Abnett's key gifts are characterisation - finding ways of differentiating the two dozen or so characters of import within the Ghosts, plus various recurring side-characters - and action. He makes you care about the characters and their stakes. Like Bernard Cornwell before him (as tired as the "Sharpe/Uhtred in Space" comparisons are, they remain somewhat apt), he paints these soldiers as individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses and quirks, and makes you care about what happens to them (even the cowards and malcontents). That continues through The Warmaster, with an astonishing array of subplots being furthered in a remarkably constrained page count.

The Warmaster (****) does a good job of bringing together plot threads from the previous books in the series and making it feel like the war has reached a decisive turning point. The temptation to carry on this series forever must be strong, but in this book it does feel like the end of the Crusade is starting to lurch into view. On the minus side, aside from the slightly choppy opening, the ending to the book does feel a bit perfunctory for a Gaunt's Ghosts novel, although the reasons for this become clearer in the following book (Anarch), which is less of a successor and more of a direct continuation of this novel. No five-year wait this time for the next part of the story, fortunately. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Several centuries ago, Earth was verging on becoming completely uninhabitable. The survivors fled the planet in a fleet of thirty enormous space arks, the Exodus Fleet, whilst others sought survival in primitive colony domes on Luna, Mars and Titan. Years later, humanity was contacted by the alien alliance known as the Galactic Commons and welcomed as a member, but rather than abandon the Exodus Fleet for a planet, most of its complement remained behind. The remarkable spaceborn civilisation continues to survive in deep space...until a terrible accident makes it clear how tenuous their existence is.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book in Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series, following on from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. It only shares a setting in common with those earlier books and a very tenuous character connection (far moreso than the previous novel), so can be read completely independently of those books.

What it does share is Chambers' enjoyable, laidback writing style, her attention to detail and gift for crafting interesting characters with some depth. Unfortunately, it also shares her tendency to focus on extremely "nice" characters and neglect any kind of over-arcing narrative. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - SF novels which eschew explosions and people running around lots in favour of worldbuilding and atmosphere are all too few - but it does feel like this time we've been invited back to visit the Galactic Commons, only for there not being very much going on when we arrive.

A Closed and Common Orbit worked because of the very tight character focus on just two protagonists and how it explored two timelines in tandem. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet worked because of its exploration of the whole crew of a small ship and how they come together to overcome a series of challenges. Record of a Spaceborn Few doesn't really have the same kind of engine driving it. Instead, it feels like a series of interlocking short stories as we flip between six characters in different parts of the Exodus Fleet. There's a human who's arrived on the Fleet from one of the colony worlds and tries to fit in; a corpse disposal specialist who has a huge amount of respect for the importance of the job in the community; an ageing archivist; an alien visitor keen to learn more about the Fleet; a teenage boy trying to escape the society; and a mother and worker trying to make the best of life in the fleet for her family.

Individually these are interesting stories, which are brought together by a surprising event towards the end of the novel, but beyond that there isn't much connecting them together. The whole point of a Wayfarers novel at this point is reading a slow-paced, well-characterised book lacking the blood and lasers of more familiar space opera, but this one feels so laidback it is bordering on falling asleep, and the book never really comes alive because of it.

Record of a Spaceborn Few (***) is readable and has some interesting characters, but it lacks much of a kind of narrative drive. As an exercise in worldbuilding and establishing more information about the Galactic Commons, it's very good (helped by an appendix), but as a novel it lacks cohesion and tension. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Unknown Pleasures at 40

Joy Division's debut album, Unknown Pleasures, turns 40 tomorrow. One of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time, the record has withstood the test of time like few others.

The band began life in 1976 when former school friends Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook attended a Sex Pistols gig in Manchester. The band only played for half an hour, but Sumner and Hook left and promptly bought instruments (Sumner an electric guitar and Hooky a cheap bass) and taught themselves to play. Within weeks they were putting together their first, halting compositions. They advertised for a singer and drummer and recruited charismatic, enigmatic frontman Ian Curtis and the relentless, machine-like Stephen Morris, completing their lineup. They started performing under the moniker Stiff Kittens, but soon came to dislike the name, so switched their name to Warsaw, under which they made their live debut in May 1977.

The band had befriended local superstars the Buzzcocks early on, which proved a boon when the Buzzcocks invited them to support them in local gigs and on tour. It wasn't long before music journalists started paying attention to Warsaw and gave them favourable write-ups in the press. This attracted the attention of London-based group Warsaw Pakt, who angrily demanded that they change their name. Exasperated, the band started looking for a new name and seized gratefully on a suggestion of Ian's: Joy Division. Ian, a history buff, had fished it out of a book on the Third Reich, with the name coming from the nickname from a group of Jewish women sold into prostitution for the edification of Nazi officers; needless to say, this connection soon became controversial, with the band being accused of fascism and attracting a neo-Nazi element (the latter was true, resulting in several violent clashes at gigs).

The band recorded their debut EP in late 1977, An Ideal for Living, which attracted rave reviews but also brought renewed criticism as the cover art depicted a member of the Hitler Youth. Stephen Morris, who vehemently hated the coverage, said that the band had a contrarian streak where they got annoyed with the Nazi criticism, so kept doing it to annoy people even more (later on the band recanted, although not before naming their next incarnation "New Order").

Throughout 1978 the band write and toured incessantly, building up a collection of songs for their live performances and constantly adjusting them based on audience feedback. This year was crucial for their development, as it saw them take on an experienced manager (Rob Gretton) and sign to the nascent Factory Records, TV presenter Anthony Wilson's publishing company. Wilson also featured Joy Division on his TV programmes. Music press coverage grew and became outright laudatory, with John Peel pushing the band hard on his BBC radio programmes.

The result was a frenzy of anticipation for the band's debut album. Recording it proved slightly stressful: Wilson assigned maverick, visionary producer Martin Hannett to produce the album. He'd already worked with the band on some songs for A Factory Sample (a collection of songs from Factory's line-up), but for the album he went Full Hannett on them. According to legend, he once had Stephen Morris take apart his drum kit and reassemble it with parts from a toilet; during another recording session he told him to take the drums up to the roof and record them in the open air. Hannett had a massive array of digital delay devices, drum machines and synthesisers which he insisted on using, which the band initially felt was slightly weird. Bernard Sumner was particularly impressed with the technical wizardry Hannett was displaying and became intrigued by the use of synthesisers (Sumner built his own synthesiser from scratch a few months later).

Hannett's peculiarities aside, the band were also pushed for time, as Factory had only paid enough money for the studio for three weekend sessions. As a result the entire album had to be recorded in just six days. To make matters worse, the band's time estimate for their songs proved overly generous, forcing Hooky and Morris to lock themselves in a room and bash out "Candidate" and "From Safety to Where" in short order ("Candidate" ended up being longer than planned, so "From Safety to Where" was booted from the album).

Eventually, after a great deal of stress, the record was completed. The band initially were bewildered by it. Live, they played the songs loud and aggressively, but Hannett had stripped the songs down and added a strange sparseness, as well as overdubbing parts with keyboards (on a couple of occasions, without telling the band first). Curtis was unsure about how his voice sounded, declaring that he sounded like Bowie, whom he hated (Curtis had actually been a Bowie fan, but Bowie wasn't particularly trendy at that moment in time). The band were somewhat unhappy with the record, but Wilson and the rest of the Factory team loved it. Designer Peter Saville created a cover which is arguably more iconic than the record: a visual depiction of the x-ray pulses from pulsar CP1919 (spotted by Sumner in a book on radio astronomy). When the album was released on 15 June 1979, it was an immediate critical success, acclaim which only continued to grow over the following months.

The band didn't release any singles from the record, at all, which severely damaged its commercial chances. Instead, they let the entire album stand by itself. This bolstered their critical integrity, but did mean for lean sales; the album sold roughly 15,000 copies in its first few months on sale and didn't trouble the UK Album Chart. However, the release of non-album single "Transmission" in September saw the album start selling in greater quantities. Word of mouth about the band, who were continuing to tour full-tilt in the meantime and begin working on songs for a follow-up, spread like wildfire. They recorded their second album Closer in London in March 1980, along with the single-only releases "Atmosphere" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which was already starting to tear up their gigs and remains their best-known and best-loved song.

The band seemed poised for greatness, but Ian Curtis's life was falling apart at the same time. His marriage was collapsing at the same time he was trying to start a new relationship and he had been diagnosed with epilepsy. The frequency and intensity of his epileptic fits had worsened to the point where it made his future in the band doubtful. On 18 May 1980 he committed suicide at his home in Macclesfield. His shocked bandmates eventually rallied as New Order and began a new career that was every bit as remarkable as their incarnation as Joy Division. Unknown Pleasures finally got its first single in late 1980 when "She's Lost Control" was paired with "Atmosphere" as a double A-side release. The album also finally cracked the UK Album Chart when publicity in the wake of Curtis's suicide pushed the band into higher levels of public awareness.

At 40, Unknown Pleasures still sounds alien, odd and slightly ethereal, a result of Hannett's far-ahead-of-its-time production making the record sound much more recent. Its sparseness, initially derided by the band (until Hooky, grudgingly, admitted twenty years later that it was genius), gives the record a feeling of alienation at odds with its punk contemporaries, and makes it more timeless. But the production can only do so much. It's the four songwriters who take centre stage, with Hooky's pounding, melodic bass lines not only supporting punchy lead guitar riffs from Sumner but taking the lead on several songs (such as "Disorder," where the bass is often mistaken for the guitar, and the high-fret playing of "She's Lost Control"). Ian Curtis's deep, slightly off-kilter vocals go through a battery of strange treatments, a lot of them Curtis's own ideas; on stage he'd plug his microphone into a synthesiser to create odd effects for his vocals, like the multiple layering on "She's Lost Control." Morris's rhythmic, pounding drums, executed with beyond-robot efficiency, make it impossible to tell when he's playing and when a drum machine kicks in. It's a remarkable achievement, bearing in mind three years later these guys didn't know how to play any instrument, and a year earlier they were still blasting out fast-moving 2-minute punk songs.

To this day the argument will rage whether Unknown Pleasures or Closer is the stronger album, but it is clear that the two-punch release of the two records barely a year apart represents a musical achievement to rival any other, and Joy Division will endure for many decades to come.

At the moment the Joy Division YouTube page is releasing brand new music videos for each of the ten tracks on the record. The rest should be released over the coming days.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Salvation's Reach by Dan Abnett

The Tanith First and Only, the Ghosts, have been newly-reinforced by fresh troops from Belladon and Verghast and are preparing for their most audacious operation yet. Using intelligence gained at great cost from a Chaos prisoner, the Imperium has located Salvation Reach, a top-secret research facility for the Sons of Sek, their most tenacious foe in the Sabbat Worlds Crusade. The Ghosts and several powerful allies having to mount a spaceborne assault on the facility, a single surgical strike which may decide the fate of the entire Crusade.

Salvation's Reach is the thirteenth novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series (and the second in the "Victory" arc) and marks a new phase in the massive conflict known as the Sabbat Worlds Crusade. The Ghosts aren't taking on an enemy head-on, but are instead manufacturing division in the enemy's ranks, trying to turn the Blood Pact and the Sons of Sek against one another so the Crusade can take advantage of the division and secure victory. It's a difficult, ugly mission and one that most Imperium forces wouldn't be able to handle, but for the clandestine Ghosts it's a task more suited to their talents.

The previous book in the series, Blood Pact, was good but atypical for the series, focusing more on a much smaller-scale conflict. Salvation's Reach is a return to mass engagements, but in a different context, with the Ghosts have to take part in hostile boarding action on a space habitat hidden deep inside an asteroid. Along the way they have to take part in an absolutely massive space battle (which will have Battlefleet Gothic fans cheering), deal with a shapeshifting Chaos assassin and negotiate - delicately - with the three Space Marines assigned to help them with the mission.

The action side of things is, as usual, well-handled with the requisite fighting, brave last stands and tactical discussions all being quite good. However, the heart and soul of the series has been Abnett's handling of the characters, from Ibram Gaunt all the way down to the lowliest, greenest new recruit in the Ghosts' ranks. The character arcs are uniformly handled superbly, with several slow-burning story arcs extending across the series coming to startling climaxes in this book (with several callbacks to Necropolis, still arguably the best book in the series and certainly so far the most important). Several beloved characters bite the dust, but more impressive is the way character relationships are developed. The best scene in the book is where a stoic and merciless Space Marine solves one trooper's long-standing medical problem in one swift action and restores his life and military career (previously thought over) to him, without ever breaking character or the tone of the series.

On the negative side of things, there's a few cliches I could have done without (such as hitherto unknown family members showing up unexpectedly), but otherwise Salvation's Reach (****½) is a gripping, excellently-executed science fantasy war novel with a brilliant line in characterisation. It is available now (alongside Blood Pact) in The Victory: Part 1 omnibus (UK, USA).

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Lovelace, the former AI of the Wayfarer, has been given her own body and is now living undercover as a human on a remote settlement. She is adapting to life as a human by her friend Pepper, who as a former genetically-engineered slave knows a thing or two about having to overcome your past to achieve a greater future. But Pepper also owes someone a debt, one that will take her across the galaxy as a way of fulfilling it.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the second volume of the Wayfarers series, following on from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It's not a sequel as such, picking up only on a single dangling plot thread from that book and expanding on several very minor characters, and can be read as a stand-alone novel.

The book is about many things, including friendship, humanity and what it means to be a person. There are human, AI and alien perspectives on this thorny question and on the ethical dilemmas involved. The story unfolds in two distinct threads, a current-day story about Lovelace adjusting to life as her new cover personality, Sidra, and an extensive flashback to Pepper's life as a slave and how she escaped. The story therefore unrolls in two directions simultaneously, backwards and forwards, until the two meet up satisfyingly near the end.

Like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, this is book is much more concerned with character, relationships and moral quandaries than it is in shooty action. There are a few tense moments and sequences, but the characters are rarely in physical jeopardy. This is a book much more concerned with the characters, their backstories and their motivations and how that impacts on important moral and ethical decisions they have to make going forwards. Both characters having two names - Lovelace/Sidra and Jane/Pepper - is also a nice clue that the characters are going on journeys as their identities shift to deal with the new worlds they find themselves in.

One advantage A Closed and Common Orbit has over its predecessor is that it is primarily and tightly focused on just two characters rather than half a dozen. This means that both characters get a huge amount of development and we become deeply immersed in their lives.

The weakness is that A Closed and Common Orbit is also very much a relaxed, chill novel without much in the way of drama. The decision to move away from space opera cliches like laser gun battles and explosions is laudable, but there are moments where you do feel like it could use a few more stakes. The few tense and dangerous moments that do occur take place in Pepper's flashback, where you already know she's going to be just fine.

A Closed and Common Orbit (****) confirms Becky Chambers' place as the natural heir to Lois McMaster Bujold in writing interesting, innovative science fiction which examines moral and ethical concerns and how they impact on characters, but those looking for action and dramatic events are best-served elsewhere. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Tatiana Maslany teases new ORPHAN BLACK announcement for Thursday

Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany has teased a major new announcement related to the show to be made this Thursday (13 June).

Orphan Black ran for five seasons from 2013 to 2017 and told the story of a group of clones, all played by Maslany, who were trying to figure out where they came from. The show attracted critical acclaim for the way Maslany differentiated the four core clone characters (Sarah, Alison, Cosima and Helena) and another half-dozen or so minor clones from one another, and for how the show featured the clones in the same scene. Maslany won an Emmy Award for Best Actress (Drama) in 2016 for her multiple performances.

The show did attract some criticism for the corporate/government espionage/conspiracy storyline, which grew quite convoluted and stretched before it was finally resolved. The creators have teased a spin-off show for some time, but the suggestion was that this would not be related to the main series and would not feature Maslany.

It's unclear what this announcement could allude to, but it could be confirmation of the spin-off series or maybe a stand-alone TV movie featuring Maslany reprising some of the clone roles.

PHOENIX POINT gets release date

Phoenix Point, the new game from the original creator of X-COM, has a finalised release date and it's pleasingly soon: 3 September 2019.

Phoenix Point is the second game from Snapshot Games, the studio set up by legendary British designer Julian Gollop to revisit some of his previous titles. Following the success of Chaos Reborn (2015) (a remake of Gollop's 1985 game, Chaos: The Battle of Wizards), Gollop launched Phoenix Point with a crowdfunding campaign in 2017.

Phoenix Point uses a similar structure to Gollop's 1994 game UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka X-COM: UFO Defence), but draws on elements from X-COM: Apocalypse (1997) and the recent XCOM series from Firaxis Games, which began with X-COM: Enemy Unknown (2012). A strategic metagame is played via a global view, in which mode new technologies can be researched, targets selected and equipment upgraded. Once a possible mission is identified, the player can send a crack squad of soldiers to the location in question, at which point the game turns into a turn-based tactical wargame.

Unlike XCOM's near-future pulp SF setting, Phoenix Point is a post-apocalyptic game set several decades into the future, after most of civilisation is wiped out by a mysterious mist that has risen from the oceans, bringing mutated and horrifying creatures with it. The Phoenix Project is an organisation devoted to restoring order to the world. To do this, the organisation must deal with several rival human factions, including the cult-like Disciples of Anu, the militaristic New Jericho and the high-technology Synedrion, aligning with some and perhaps eliminating others, whilst also working to contain the threat from the sea.

Phoenix Point is launching on PC and X-Box One. The game attracted some controversy when it was revealed that the game would be exclusive to the Epic Games Store for one year after release. It will, however, also be available on the X-Box Game Pass, which will also allow access for PC gamers.

LOVE, DEATH AND ROBOTS renewed for second season at Netflix

Animated SF anthology show Love, Death and Robots has been renewed for a second season at Netflix.

The first season, produced by David Fincher, dropped earlier this year and featured 18 short films in a variety of animation styles from numerous different animation houses. Apart from two originals, all of the films were adaptations of short stories from well-known SFF authors, including John Scalzi, Peter F. Hamilton, Ken Liu, Joe Lansdale, Marko Kloos, Michael Swanwick and Alastair Reynolds.

The second season will also have a new art director in the form of Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Plans for the second season are being kept under wraps, but hopefully it will involve more female writers. With authors like Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin, Becky Chambers, Ann Leckie and Naomi Novik being among the most prominent of the current generation of SFF authors (not to mention Lois McMaster Bujold still producing strong work), the first season focusing on older work by male authors felt a bit strange.

Given the long production lead time of the first season, it is unlikely we will see the second season before 2021.

Terry Pratchett's AMAZING MAURICE AND HIS EDUCATED RODENTS optioned for film

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, the first Discworld novel for children by the late Terry Pratchett, is getting an animated film adaptation.

Toby Genkel (Richard the Stork, Oops! Noah is Gone and Legends of Valhalla: Thor) is directing from a script by Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Shrek). It will be a German-Irish co-production with a budget of around $15 million.

The previous adaptations of the Discworld series include live-action mini-series based on four of the novels (The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Hogfather and Going Postal) and animated mini-series based on another two (Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music), along with three video games, a soundtrack album, numerous graphic novels and more. A new live-action series based on the City Watch sub-series is currently in pre-production at the BBC.

DUNE TV series based on authorised fanfiction in development

A Dune television series is in development, as a partner project to Denis Villeneuve's new Dune film (currently shooting on location). However, the TV series appears to be primarily based on the authorised fanfiction by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert, and not on the canonical Dune novels by Frank Herbert.

Dune: The Sisterhood has been given a straight-to-series order by Warner Brothers for their inevitable new streaming service, WarnerMedia. The series will focus on the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, a key element of the Dune novels but one kept on the sidelines by Frank Herbert in his original books (although they receive significant development in the final two books in the series, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune).

The Bene Gesserit did receive additional development in Herbert and Anderson's officially-authorised novel Sisterhood of Dune. However, their conception of of the Dune universe is at radical odds with that presented in Frank Herbert's original novels and is notably unpopular with Dune fans.

Dune: The Sisterhood will be executive produced by Denis Villeneuve, who has also agreed to direct the first episode. Jon Spaihts, who co-wrote the movie with Villeneuve, will also write for the TV show. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson are listed as producers.

Villeneuve's movie, the first of two adapting the original 1965 novel Dune, is currently planned for release on 20 November 2020. It is currently shooting on soundstages in Hungary and on location in Jordan.

Monday, 10 June 2019

FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE (Part I) gets release date

The first part of Final Fantasy VII Remake will be released worldwide on 3 March 2020.

Square Enix have spent the last five years or so working on an ambitious, ground-up remake of their classic 1997 RPG Final Fantasy VII. Rather than settling for a simple re-release with better graphics, they have instead completely rebuilt the game, as if they were making it for the first time in 2019.

This means a considerably longer game, with previously closed-off areas of the game now available to explore in an open-world fashion, with more side-quests, new enemies and new content in the game. This has also meant splitting the game into multiple parts for release. Part I is expected to include at least the opening part of the game, set in the city of Midgar. In the original game the Midgar episode took roughly 5-6 hours to complete, but the Remake version sounds like it may last for several times that amount.

More information will be released on the game in the next few days, including hopefully more information on the release schedule for the remaining parts.

UPDATE: Square Enix have released more information about the game, including a new cinematic which reveals the character of Tifa for the first time and a more extensive gameplay demo. They have also confirmed that the first part of the game will focus almost entirely on Midgar and will fill two Blu-Ray discs for the physical version of the game. At the moment they don't have a confirmed timescale for release of the other episodes, although in previous interviews they had compared their plans for Final Fantasy VII Remake to be similar to those for Final Fantasy XIII, which ultimately took four years to release all three of its parts.

The game will initially be released on PlayStation 4, with X-Box One and PC versions of the game likely to follow (based on Final Fantasy XV, probably within 18 months of the original release).

Confirmed: BALDUR'S GATE III is happening

Last week's rumours have been confirmed: Baldur's Gate III is coming from Larian Studios.

The Baldur's Gate series is regarded as one of the finest computer roleplaying game series of all time. Consisting of the titles Baldur's Gate (1998), Tales of the Sword Coast (1999), Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) and Throne of Bhaal (2001), the series was set in the Forgotten Realms fantasy world and used a derivation of the 2nd Edition of the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons rules. It launched the career of developers BioWare and has been credited with paving the way for the renaissance of the Western roleplaying game genre.

Larian Studios are the developers of the critically-lauded Divinity: Original Sin series. Baldur's Gate III will use technology developed for that series and will be a party-based adventure (controllable by a party of players in co-op or a single player) drawing on the 5th Edition of the Dungeons and Dragons rules system. The game will be set in the present day of the Realms setting, 122 years after the events of Baldur's Gate II, and will see the heroes gathering together to face down an illithid invasion of the city of Baldur's Gate.

No release date has been set for the game; some reports suggested it would be available for the launch of the Google Stadia service in November this year, but this has not yet been confirmed.

THE OUTER WORLDS gets release date

Obsidian Entertainment's science fiction roleplaying game The Outer Worlds has been given a release date: 25 October 2019.

The game, an original title in a brand new universe, sees the character (who can be fully customised by the player) waking up from cryo-sleep in the remote Halcyon system, which is dominated by powerful corporations. The player finds themselves embroiled in a struggle between the different factions and can choose which side to support and which characters to align with.

Created by the team behind the original Fallout and Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, the game will be available on PlayStation 4, X-Box One and PC via the Windows and Epic Game Stores (with a Steam release to follow in 2020).

CYBERPUNK 2077 gets release date and bonus Keanu Reeves

Over seven years after first announcing it, CD Projekt Red have finally provided a release date for Cyberpunk 2077, which is either the most eagerly-awaited video game of the next year or the most eagerly-awaited entertainment product of all time, depending on your hype level.

To commemorate the date, CD Projekt Red have released a new cinematic trailer. They have also confirmed that Keanu Reeves will be playing the iconic role of Johnny Silverhand, an ex-rock star who is now deeply immersed in the world of corporate espionage. Reeves voices the character and also had his likeness digitally scanned.

Set in Night City, California, in 2077, Cyberpunk 2077 tells the story of a hacker who gets in over their head. Unlike their previous Witcher games, Cyberpunk 2077 will allow players to create their own protagonist and customise them extensively to tackle a long, branching storyline which responds to their actions with numerous sub-quests.

Cyberpunk 2077 will be released on 16 April 2020 on PC, PlayStation 4 and X-Box One.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Wertzone Classics: Chernobyl

At 01:23:40, Moscow Time, on 26 April 1986, the core of Number. 4 Reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in the Soviet Union exploded. A vast fire took hold and started belching plumes of radioactive smoke into the air. Radioactive particles eventually fell as far afield as northern Scandinavia and Britain. In the aftermath of the disaster, nuclear experts were sent to the site to lead containment and clean-up efforts, among them Valery Legasov. Legasov's actions and those of the scientists with him helped prevent a turbine steam explosion of much greater proportions, and allowed the clean-up to proceed. But Legasov's investigation revealed a fatal design flaw in the reactor design, one still used at a dozen other stations across the USSR, and his struggle to warn the world and lead to reform was challenged by a bureaucracy where accountability and passing the buck are the norm, and truth and lies were seen as only theoretical concepts.

Chernobyl is a co-production between HBO and Sky TV which attempts to recreate the worst nuclear accident in human history, explain why it happened and what happened afterwards. Written by Craig Mazin (the Scary Movie and Hangover franchises, believe it or not) and directed by Johan Renck (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Halt and Catch Fire, and music videos for New Order, Madonna, Beyonce and David Bowie), Chernobyl is an impeccably-researched series which veers between outright body horror, taut character drama and hauntingly beautiful scenes rich in atmosphere and melancholy.

The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was one of the defining moments of the era. Years later, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that it may have been the event that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, as the implacable visage of Soviet engineering competence was fatally cracked. Following the Three Mile Island incident in the United States, it caused the world to reassess its relationship with nuclear power and dramatically slowed the building of new reactors. To what extent this was an overreaction is something the series itself debates, with it noted that Soviet-era reactors lacked the containment vessels and other safety features enjoyed by Western designs that would have prevented the same kind of accident from occurring.

The series is focused on the real-life character of Valery Legasov, perfectly played by Jared Harris. Harris has been one of the most reliable and astute actors of modern times, fantastic in Mad Men, The Crown, Fringe, The Expanse, The Terror and many, many other productions, but he's not been a household name. Chernobyl should change that, and if Harris doesn't walk off with a ton of awards, there is no justice in the world. His more famous co-stars Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson are also utterly fantastic, and scenes between these three actors are worth their weight in uranium. The entire cast is excellent, with Paul Ritter (best-known in the UK for his comic role on Friday Night Dinner) particularly making the most of his small but crucial role as Anatoly Dyatlov, the assistant chief engineer whose bull-headed approach was at least partially responsible for causing the chain of events leading to the explosion.

The five episodes are divided broadly between two narrative strands. The first and most consistent focuses on Legasov's investigation, aided by Ulana Khomyuk (Watson), a composite character of a dozen or so scientists who worked on the disaster, and the attempts by Boris Shcherbina (Skarsgård) to give them political cover and allow them to work. The relationship between Legasov and Shcherbina is fascinating, moving slowly from mutual dislike and antagonism to respect and support with total conviction.

The second narrative strand is more of an anthology, following several characters whose lives are impacted by the disaster. These include Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley), the pregnant wife of a fireman who works on the blaze on the first night and is subsequently moved to a hospital of horrors in Moscow; Andrei Glukhov (Alex Ferns), the head of a gang of miners drafted in to help contain the damage; and Pavel (Barry Keoghan), a young soldier called in to help clean out the evacuation zone of civilians. These subplots allow the sheer scale and scope of the disaster to be understood, and the way it affected millions of people.

The decision to start the first episode at the very moment of the explosion and then delve into the events afterwards feels a bit odd at first, but it turns out to be a stroke of utter genius, as it means we know about as much as Legasov as to what's happened, and learn about preceding events when he does. It's only in the finale episode, when Legasov has a full picture of events that the drama rewinds to the hours and days before the explosion and counts down to the event, allowing the sheer magnitude of the disaster to become more apparent to an audience who now knows that graphite-tipped fuel control rods are a bad idea and the significance of the safety test being run at the time of the accident.

Beautifully-written, impeccably-directed, cast to perfection and with a timely message on the intersection of science, the environment, facts, opinions, propaganda and the truth, Chernobyl (*****) sits comfortably alongside the likes of Threads and Edge of Darkness as fantastic examples of drama acting also acting as a powerful warning. It is available to watch on HBO in the United States and on Sky and Now TV in the UK. The Chernobyl Podcast, which goes behind the scenes of each episode in detail, is also essential listening.

Good Omens

The End Times have arrived. The world is counting down to destruction and the legions of hell and heaven are massing their armies. The demon Crowley and angel Aziraphale are old enemies, so old they're also actually good friends. Faced with the annihilation of humanity and the end of their cushy life of teas at the Ritz and long drives in Crowley's Bentley, they make a pact to help avert the apocalypse and let the human race survive. The problem is that there's been a bit of a mix-up with the Antichrist and now no-one knows where he is. Fortunately, one woman knows exactly what's going on. Less fortunately, she died in the 17th Century.

Good Omens is a six-part television adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's 1990 novel of the same name. The history of getting the novel to the screen is itself epic, with Terry Gilliam trying for years to develop it for both film and TV before giving up. Unfortunately, it took the untimely and far-too-early death of Sir Terry in 2015 to spur the project forwards and finally get it made. Neil Gaiman himself wrote the script, updating it for the modern day, removing elements from the book that didn't work (or were too expensive) and introducing new scenes to make the story work better on screen.

At the heart of Good Omens is the relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley, played to note perfection by Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex, Twilight) and David Tennant (Doctor Who). This relationship is the fulcrum around which the show revolves and it is excellently handled throughout, with the two characters engaging in both humorous banter, mutual support and affectionate sniping at one another like an old married couple. The series highlight is the opening of the third episode, which dedicates a full half of its runtime to exploring the characters' backstory and relationship across six thousand years of human history. Sheen and Tennant's chemistry is palpable and a constant delight.

This relationship is central to the show's success, but it can also feel like a crutch. The other performances are also mostly excellent, but the characterisation feels flatter. Some of this is inherited from the book, such as the feeling that Anathema Device (Adria Arjona) and Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall) should really be the protagonists but the writers realised the demon/angel conflict was far more interesting and pivoted to focus on them. Anathema and Newton remain somewhat underdeveloped on TV as well, despite the best efforts of the actors to make them work, which is an issue when they play a vital role in the resolution of the story. Similarly, the young gang of children feel undercooked as well. Ideally we'd get a Stranger Things vibe going on with them but instead their storyline comes across as bland.

Another slight misstep is the presence of God as the narrator, voiced by Frances McDormand. In some scenes this is effective, but in too many others it's incongruous, over-explaining jokes that don't need explaining or dragging scenes out far too long. Having God explain how the babies get mixed up is an odd choice when we can visually see what's going on and it doesn't need expansion. Good Omens has occasionally been criticised for being a bit too Douglas Adams-like in tone and voice, and the narrator doing the same job as the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (but with far less in-universe justification) certainly contributes to that feeling. The pacing feels like it could be either a little tighter or a little looser. At four or five hours the end-of-the-world countdown tension would have been stronger, but the story would have needed to have been cut a lot more; at nine or ten we've have had more time to develop the secondary characters. But at six hours, enough to polish off in a couple of evenings, it's hard to complain.

Fortunately, everything else is pretty much on fire. Nick Offerman and Jon Hamm do a huge amount with small roles, and the production design, visual effects and location filming are all superb. There's a joy in the attention to detail as the centuries roll by and the protagonists' fashions change only moderately. Most of the jokes land on screen as well as they did in print, and there is a sense of enjoyment from seeing something so quintessentially British (occasionally veering towards tweeness, but being intercepted before it gets there) being rolled out for the entire world on a massive budget and being handled so well.

Good Omens (****) certainly isn't a flawless adaptation, but it is fun, doesn't outstay its welcome and its lead performances are for the ages, even if the rest of the characters sometimes struggle to keep up. It is available to watch now on Amazon Prime.

Monday, 3 June 2019

RIP Paul Darrow

In sad news, it's been confirmed that actor Paul Darrow has passed away at the age of 78. A veteran of stage and screen, he will forever be associated with the infinitely-quotable character of Kerr Avon on cult space opera TV show Blake's 7.

Born in Chessington in 1941, Darrow studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He picked up his first screen roles in the 1960s, appearing on medical soap opera Emergency - Ward 10 as well as contemporary series such as Z-Cars and Dixon of Dock Green. He also played the Sheriff of Nottingham in the 1975 BBC adaptation of The Legend of Robin Hood.

In 1970 he appeared as UNIT Captain Sam Hawkins in the second Jon Pertwee Doctor Who serial, The Silurians (Season 7). He returned to Doctor Who fifteen years later to play Tekker in the Colin Baker story Timelash (Season 22). He subsequently appeared as Kaston Ialdo in the Kaldor City sub-series of audio dramas (2001-04), set in the Doctor Who universe but not involving the Doctor.

In 1978 Darrow was cast as Kerr Avon in Blake's 7. Writer Terry Nation wanted a second lead, a coldly logical, amoral and cunning foil to the idealistic heroism of lead character Blake (Gareth Thomas). Darrow debuted in the second episode, Space Fall, and appeared in every subsequent episode until the end of the series; only Michael Keating as Vila appeared in more episodes than him. Darrow played Avon as ruthless, conniving and sometimes even treacherous, but with a massively-buried sense of decency that emerged at inopportune moments. Avon rapidly became the most popular character on the series, mainly thanks to his tendency to puncture the heroic speeches of his fellow rebels with cutting sarcasm or devastating one-liners.

Gareth Thomas left the series at the end of Season 2, leading briefly to conversations that the series might have to end (with the question, "Can you have Blake's 7 without Blake?" logically being asked). Avon was effectively promoted to lead character, continuing the revolution without its leader. Darrow noted this would cause a huge case of conflict for the essentially selfish character, and for the remainder of the series portrayed Avon as effectively cracking up from the stress caused by him trying to lead a cause he didn't always believe in. The writers picked up on this conflict and used it to drive some of the most dramatic moments in the series, culminating in the series finale where Avon mistakenly believes Blake has betrayed him and has an effective mental breakdown. The series ended after four seasons with Avon either dead or captured by the Terran Federation, a cliffhanger that was never resolved because the BBC oddly cancelled the show, despite huge ratings.

Following his work on Blake's 7, Darrow continued to act mostly in the theatre (where this writer caught him in an excellent staging of MacBeth in 1996), including a run as Sam Vimes in the touring play version of Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards!

Darrow also developed a side-line in working in video games. He was particularly excellent as Walker in the superb 2001 strategy game Hostile Waters, where he acted alongside fellow Blake's 7 alum Glynis Barber and former Doctor Who Tom Baker, in a script by Warren Ellis. He also played Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Empire at War, Zarok in MediEvil and Overseer Tremel in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

However, Blake's 7 continued to overshadow Darrow's career, something he did not resent but in fact actively embraced. He acquired the rights to the series in the mid-1980s and worked on several projects to bring the series back, initially as a sequel but later as a reboot. At different times ITV, Sky TV, SyFy and Microsoft worked on different versions of a reboot but ultimately all passed on the project. Darrow continued to be involved in the production of audio dramas, several times reprising his role as Avon, and wrote a novel, Avon: A Terrible Aspect, in 1989. In 2006 Darrow penned his autobiography, You're Him, Aren't You?, which he also recorded the audiobook for.

Darrow suffered an aortic aneurysm in 2014, which required the amputation of both of his legs. Despite being restricted to a wheelchair, he remained active and appeared alongside fellow Blake's 7 actor Michael Keating on the quiz show Pointless just last year.

This is sad news, as Darrow's performance on Blake's 7 was a magnificent display of portraying a selfish, amoral and unlikable character but making the audience root for him anyway through sheer charisma. He will be missed.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME directors working on a MAGIC: THE GATHERING TV series for Netflix

The Russo Brothers, directors of multiple Marvel movies including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Civil War, Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (which should imminently become the highest-grossing movie of all time), have pivoted to Netflix and animation, where they are developing a Magic: The Gathering TV series.

Magic: The Gathering is a card game where players engage in battle using cards to represent spells and summoned creatures. Designed by Richard Garfield and originally released in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, the game was an immediate smash hit, selling millions of cards in a short space of time. The game made Wizards of the Coast hugely successful, leading to them buying TSR (the creators of Dungeons and Dragons) in 1997. Wizards in turn were bought out by Hasbro in 1999. In 2015 it was believed that more than 20 million people worldwide had played the game.

The game has expanded far beyond its original incarnation to incorporate video games and novels. Some of the settings from the card game have also been developed as campaign settings for the current Dungeons and Dragons rules set.

Hasbro were keen to develop the property as a movie, point tapping Game of Thrones writer Bryan Cogman to write a script in 2014. However, the project stalled and appears to have now pivoted to television, with Hasbro's Allspark Studios working on the project. Joe and Anthony Russo are working on the project alongside Henry Gilroy (Star Wars: Rebels) and Jose Molina (The Tick), who will serve as the head writers. The series will apparently follow the adventures of a band of planeswalkers, including Chandra Nalaar (pictured in the concept art above), a popular character from the fiction.

No production timeline has been released, but I imagine we'll see this project in 2020 at the earliest.

Netflix are also collaborating with Hasbro on War for Cybertron, a Transformers prequel TV series aimed at older viewers.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Calgar's Fury by Paul Kearney

A massive space hulk, an accumulation of thousands of vessels long lost to the warp, has emerged in the Realm of Ultramar, close to the agricultural world of Iax. The Ultramarines land on the hulk in force, planning a thorough reconnaissance before destroying it. They find signs of the taint of heresy, but also incredibly technological resources which could reinforce their battle against the enemies of mankind. Reluctantly, Chapter Master Marneus Calgar allies with both the Inquisition and the Adeptus Mechanicus to explore the hulk and seize its secrets in the name of the Emperor.

Calgar's Fury is the second book in a trilogy which explores the history and backstory of Marneus Calgar, Chapter Master of the Ultramarines and one of the most famous warriors in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. The first book, Calgar's Siege, depicted how Calgar stood fast against the orks at the gates of Zalathras in a massive siege involving tens of thousands of troops.

The scale of Calgar's Fury is smaller, with a hundred or so Space Marines and allies dropped onto the space hulk Fury to delve into its secrets. This makes for an immediately much more claustrophobic and tense story. Exploring a space hulk has been a cornerstone of the Warhammer 40K setting ever since the release of the Space Hulk board game in 1989, followed by the Space Crusade game of a year later. Drawing influences from the likes of Aliens and Starship Troopers, the trope pits well-trained and well-armoured troops against overwhelming odds in tight corridors on an ancient spacecraft that could collapse at any time.

Kearney enjoys himself to the full here, painting the various characters in great depth and taking advantage of the competing interests (the Ultramarines, Inquisitions and Adeptus Mechanicus each have their own agenda) to create drama among the human characters. There's also a refreshing approach to the cliches of 40K here. Most space hulk stories pit humans against genestealers (an offshoot of the tyranids) or Chaos, but Calgar's Fury blurs the lines between the factions and makes for a more morally murky and uncertain story, an area where he thrives.

There is indeed a lot of action and fighting in the book, but it takes a surprising amount of time to arrive. The opening section of the book is a masterclass in slowly building, mounting dread as the Imperial characters investigate the mystery of the hulk and only gradually become aware of what it is they are dealing with. There are also several splendid plot twists and reversals that keep the reader guessing at what is going to happen next. The pacing is excellent, with Kearney letting the story last as long as it needs to and then clearing out without much fuss.

Calgar's Fury (****½) is a spendidly superior slice of science fantasy, tense and atmospheric building anticipation where the action, when it arrives, does not disappoint. It is available now in the UK and USA.

KINGKILLER CHRONICLE prequel TV show writer completes Season 1

Scriptwriter John Rogers has completed his writing for the first season of Showtime's Kingkiller Chronicle prequel TV series.

Rogers announced the completion of the writing on Twitter, and that he is now working on revising the overall season arc to make sure it all hangs together.

Showtime greenlit a TV series that will serve as a prequel to The Kingkiller Chronicle last year, although Rogers has been working on the project since 2016. The series is expected to be set decades before the novels and will feature Kvothe's parents as important characters. Lin-Manuel Miranda is serving as executive producer and composer for the TV series, and has already delivered several songs for the first season.

A trilogy of movies which will directly adapt the books is also in development, but suffered a blow when director Sam Raimi, who was being courted for the role, chose to move on to other projects. Without a major director helming The Name of the Wind, it's less likely that the project will move forwards. However, with the third and concluding novel in the series still unpublished, time is not a critical factor at the moment.

Rogers' previous credits include writing or co-writing the movies Catwoman, The Core and Transformers, and working on TV series such as Leverage, The Librarians and The Player.

According to Rogers, the first season of the show will consist of ten episodes. It will start filming before the end of this year for transmission on Showtime in 2020. The Kingkiller Chronicle is part of Showtime's aggressive plan to reassert themselves in the genre TV space, where they've been outshone by HBO (Showtime rejected the Game of Thrones pitch in 2007, presumably to their regret), Starz and AMC in recent years. As well as Kingkiller, they are working on a big-budget Halo TV series which is in the casting phase.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The crew of the Wayfarer are a tight unit with a complicated history. Rosemary Harper is a newcomer to the vessel, having to find a way of fitting into the crew whilst also avoiding her own past. But all of the crew of the Wayfarer have their secrets and their demons. When the ship accepts a commission to fly all the way to the galactic core (a journey of a year) to build a new hyperspace tunnel, these secrets will come spilling out.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the debut novel by Becky Chambers and the opening volume in the Wayfarers series. The novel was crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 2012, a result of Chambers not being able to find a publisher for the book, and it has since been a huge success. It was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy Award and Kitschies, and its two sequels and the series overall have been nominated for Hugo Awards.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet opens in a highly familiar manner, with a cast of mistmatched characters living together on a spacecraft being established. From Blake's 7 to Farscape to Firefly to Colin Greenland's Tabitha Jute trilogy to Chris Wooding's Ketty Jay series, this remains a rich and engaging way of establishing character relationships and drama, and here is no different. What is slightly more unusual is the structure. There's relatively little in the way of space heroics or daring-do, with instead the focus being more on character exploration. Through successive episodes, we learn more about each of the characters on the ship: new clerk Rosemary, reptilian navigator Sissix, the medical officer/cook Doc Chef, the navigator Ohan, fun-loving engineers Kizzy and Jenks, buttoned-up algaeist Corbin, ship's AI Lovelace and Captain Ashby.

Despite it's moderate length (just over 400 pages), The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is therefore more of a themed anthology or mosaic novel, a collection of short stories focused on each character with their shared mission (to the titular angry planet) cohering the fragmented narratives into a whole. It's a successful structure, meaning we get to know the crew in great depth before they come together to confront a crisis at their destination.

It's also a refreshingly non-violent space opera. There are moments of jeopardy and danger, but Captain Ashby is a pacifist who doesn't carry weapons on his person or his ship, so they have to think their way out of each situation rather than opening up with guns blazing. It's a more old-skool form of space opera in that sense, with people out-thinking their opponents rather than nuking them.

On the negative side, the chill pace of the novel means the ending explodes almost out of nowhere, with the entire plot wrapped up in near-indecent haste. That's not necessarily a huge problem - the book is very literally all about the journey, not the destination - but the ending of the story does verge on the perfunctory, although the individual character arcs do have satisfying endings. Some may also find it odd that we spend an entire novel building up the characters only to promptly abandon them: the sequels A Closed and Common Orbit and Record of a Spaceborn Few pursue (mostly) different casts of characters in other parts of the galaxy. However, the Wayfarers series is ongoing and we may revisit these characters further down the road.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (****) is a highly entertaining space opera, with a laudable focus on rich characters and a refreshing desire to avoid the cliches of the subgenre. The book's relaxed pace and lack of tension may not be to everyone's liking, but it makes for a different and enjoyable focus to the book. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Rumour: Larian Studios developing BALDUR'S GATE III

Larian Studios are reportedly working on Baldur's Gate III. Rumoured last year, but quickly denied, the claim has resurfaced after an animated "III" appeared on Larian's website. Studying the logo's source file, multiple references to the Baldur's Gate name can be found, along with licencing information from Wizards of the Coast.

Developed by BioWare, Baldur's Gate (1998) used the Dungeons & Dragons rules and was set in the popular Forgotten Realms world. It was a huge smash hit on release, and was credited with restoring interest in the western RPG genre at a time when the genre's popularity was on the wane. The game was followed by both expansions and sequels: Tales of the Sword Coast (1999), Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) and Throne of Bhaal (2001). BioWare also developed Neverwinter Nights (2002), set in the same world, whilst Obsidian Entertainment later developed Neverwinter Nights II (2006). Beamdog later released "enhanced editions" of the two main games (with expansions) in 2012 and 2013, and a new "interquel" bridging the two games, Siege of Dragonspear, in 2016.

Larian Studios are best-known for developing the critically-acclaimed Divinity: Original Sin (2014) and Divinity: Original Sin II (2017), both fantasy RPGs viewed from an isometric, overhead view similar to Baldur's Gate. These games were strong on player freedom, reactivity and different combinations of characters, but relatively light on a compelling storyline. The "III" on Larian's website led some to believe that their next game would be Divinity: Original Sin III, but this now appears no to be the case.

A Larian-developed Baldur's Gate III would be highly intriguing, especially if it uses the Original Sin engine but with a stronger focus on story. It's also likely that this sequel will be more of a spiritual successor set in the current iteration of the Forgotten Realms setting (which set more than 100 years after the first two games and after the Realms have been through several apocalypses).

Of course, this may all be a smokescreen to make the reveal of a different game. We'll find out more at the E3 game conference on 11-14 June.

Netflix releases trailer for THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE

Netflix have released a trailer for their upcoming Dark Crystal prequel series, Age of Resistance.

The Dark Crystal was originally a movie released in 1982, a collaboration between Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The fantasy film was a modest box office success, but gained much greater popularity on video, becoming a cult hit. A sequel was proposed early on, The Power of the Dark Crystal, but many of the creatives involved were sidetracked onto other projects; Power eventually saw life as a graphic novel series in 2017.

Age of Resistance is instead a ten-part prequel to the film, delving deeper into the Gelfling and Skeksis cultures and expanding the world.

The series will be released worldwide on Netflix on 30 August.

Filming wraps on Season 1 of Netflix's THE WITCHER

Showrunner Lauren Hissrich has confirmed via Twitter that production of Season 1 of The Witcher has wrapped.

The show has been shooting since late last year in Hungary and Poland. The show is adapting Andrzej Sapkowski's original book series to the screen, with casting suggesting that the show will start off by adapting some elements of the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny before moving onto the novels themselves.

Netflix have confirmed that the eight-episode season will air in 2019, with the smart money being for a transmission time around November, given six months of post-production.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Game of Thrones: Season 8.5

So, the second half of Game of Thrones' final season. Those were very definitely three episodes of television.

Game of Thrones is a series that, at its best, was impeccably acted, beautifully atmospheric and boasting tremendous production value and a soundtrack to die for. At its worst, it was over-melodramatic, confused in theme, badly-written, lacking in direction and relied too much on CG and spectacle to overcome its weaknesses. A perennial problem with Thrones is that it could be both of these things in the same episode. This has been going on since at least the first season, which managed to cram two of the best scenes in the series - Cersei and Ned Stark's confrontation in the garden of the Red Keep, and the thwarting of Ned Stark's attempted "coup" - with one of the very worst - Littlefinger explaining his character motivation and objectives to two random prostitutes for absolutely no reason - into the same hour.

But as the show continued, the ratio of strong material to weak tilted more firmly towards the latter. It would be simplistic to say that the show was great whilst it followed George R.R. Martin's novels closely (as it did for the first four seasons) and awful when it moved away (in the latter four seasons), rather that the show suffered when it not longer had a clear direction. The producers' hesitancy in whether or not they were going to adapt storylines from the fourth and fifth novels in the series is a clear example of this, resulting in the dire mangling of both the Dorne and Iron Island storylines because of a failure to commit to them early on, as they instead half-heartedly nodded at them in Seasons 5 and 6 and then rapidly retreated from them, to the confusion of fans and actors alike. The show needed a firm plan for the final four seasons to map out character and story arcs, and its failure to do this (or to stick to any such plan if it existed) irrevocably weakened the lead-up to the finale.

The final two seasons of Game of Thrones have suffered from a related problem: rushing. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss chose to end Game of Thrones in just thirteen episodes in the final two seasons rather than the standard twenty. This part of the story is one that George R.R. Martin envisages taking (at least) two thousand-page novels totalling just under a million words; for comparison the first four seasons of the show covered about 2,300 pages totalling just over a million words. Even taking into account that the show has pulled out hundreds of characters and dozens of storylines, it was clear that this was going to be rushed. I just don't think anyone was expecting it to be this rushed. Some episodes in earlier seasons could be criticised for a slow pace and lack of story development as characters sat around talking to one another; but often those same episodes were praised for their dialogue, acting and for firmly establishing relationships and setting up important worldbuilding and story elements for later on. Game of Thrones was never as subtle in its storytelling and characterisation as HBO forebears such as The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire, but at its best it wasn't far off.

These final three episodes show the consequence of rushing your story and prioritising the plot resolution over characterisation. In this sense Game of Thrones makes the reverse mistake to Lost (another show with a problematic final season), which chose to focus on characters over plot and provided (mostly) satisfying character finales whilst providing only perfunctory story resolutions: after six seasons of setting up intricate mysteries, the show ended with...a fistfight on a clifftop and then the characters chilling out decades later in the afterlife? Game of Thrones goes in the opposite direction and provides all the big battles, last-minute betrayals and bittersweet moral dilemmas fans might have been hoping for, but to get there it has characters being either much stupider or much smarter than they usually are or going through torturous character development that really needs about two full seasons to unfold convincingly in about three scenes (or in Daenerys' case, mostly offscreen in the gap between the fourth and fifth episodes, which was a...bold choice).

Going into specifics, The Last of the Starks may not be the worst episode of the entire series, but it is cheerfully the dumbest, featuring a fleet of medieval-era ships equipped with advanced ground-to-air missile capabilities (including the ability to fire through or around solid matter) and cloaking devices. What should be a shocking and upsetting moment instead turns into a moment of outright, laugh-out-loud comedy, undoing the good work early on of a fun post-battle celebration scene.

The Bells, by contrast, may be the most visually impressive hour of television ever filmed. Both the CGI and the practical effects are overwhelmingly impressive, Ramin Djawadi's score elevates everything to the next level and Miguel Sapochnik's ground-level camera work as a city dies is frequently breathtaking. There are problems with logic (the high-tech AA wooden missile system from the previous episode is now apparently non-functional because reasons) and character, but the brute force of visual spectacle and atmosphere almost overwhelms it. This is television created through brute force shock and awe, with all subtlety and nuance pounded into rubble. It's undeniably impressive and, with better character work and build-up, it could have been one of the show's finest hours. Instead it has to settle for being an undeniably visceral experience that completely rewrites audience expectations for the level of production value television is capable of achieving.

The Iron Throne ends the series and has to satisfy eight years of audience expectations. How much it succeeds will vary tremendously by each viewer, but I found it to be a mixed bag. Some characters have note-perfect endings, others have reasonable endings but without a lot of good setup for them and others just end in an extremely random (verging on non sequitur, in the case of Bronn) place. It isn't the unmitigated disaster it's been described as in some places, but neither is it satisfying overall, nor hitting the bittersweet tone it's clearly aiming for. If anything, the ending for quite a few of the characters feels a bit too neat and happy, which is not something Game of Thrones should ever be accused of.

In the final analysis, these last three episodes again represent Game of Thrones at its very best and its very worst. Fantastic casting, acting, production value, effects, music and costumes let down by sloppy planning and extremely variable writing. But for better and worse, it is done and it has completely rewritten the rules of television as we know. The coming decade of television will be written and produced in Game of Thrones' shadow, and it will be interesting in an increasingly fragmented landscape if another show can come along and ever have the same kind of impact.

804: The Last of the Starks (*½)
805: The Bells (***½)
806: The Iron Throne (**½)

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Happy 35th Birthday to TRANSFORMERS

The mighty Transformers franchise turned 35 years young this month. The original Transformers toys and comic books hit shelves in May 1984 and began a run that has continued with only brief interruptions ever since.

Transformers began life at the 1983 Tokyo Toy Fair (held in June). Representatives from Hasbro in the United States were checking out what was hot in Japan and saw a big boom in transforming robots and mecha (human-piloted transformable vehicles). Takara was one of the most prolific toy companies in this space, working on two separate lines: Diaclone Car-Robots, which consisted of (very roughly) 1/60th scale recreations of contemporary cars and jet fighters which could transform into robots, and Micro-Change, which consisted of 1/1 scale mini-robots that could disguise themselves as household objects, such as tape decks, cassettes, a handgun, a camera, a microscope and deformed toy cars.

Hasbro purchased the licensing rights to both lines and brought them back to the USA to combine into one new toy range. The name Transformers came up early on (despite concerns that people might get confused with electrical transformers) and stuck, as did the taglines "More Than Meets the Eye" and "Robots in Disguise." Hasbro had benefited from a strong working relationship with Marvel Comics on their G.I. Joe relaunch a couple of years earlier and brought them on board to help develop a comic adaptation.

Hasbro also realised it might be better for actual writers to work on the franchise's premise and backstory. Senior editor Jim Shooter came up with the faction names (Autobots and Decepticons) and the idea that the Transformers were sentient alien robots from the mechanical planet Cybertron who had come to Earth in search of resources. Shooter then assigned Dennis "Denny" O'Neil, who'd had a hit run on Wonder Woman and Justice League of America for DC before moving to Marvel, to work on the property. O'Neil wasn't too keen on working on a "toy comic" and decided to move on, although he did come up with the name of Optimus Prime for the Autobot leader before quitting. A slightly desperate Shooter found a new collaborator in the form of Bob Budiansky, an artist-editor who'd wanted to branch into writing. Budiansky created the names and personalities for almost all of the other launch Transformers (starting with Megatron and Starscream) in a single weekend, before plotting out the first four-issue comic storyline in the next few days.

Battle Convoy from Takara's 1982 Diaclone Car-Robots line. With a slight redesign, he became Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots, in Hasbro's Transformers franchise.

With Budiansky's basic work in hand, work proceeded in tandem on both the comic and also a cartoon series, to be produced by Sunbow Studios (owned by Hasbro's advertising arm). Hasbro wanted a full-scale, multi-media launch consisting of the toys themselves (backed up by a huge TV ad campaign), the Marvel comic and the cartoon series, so that kids and their parents couldn't turn around without seeing the word Transformers somewhere.

Unfortunately, this multi-pronged approach meant a bit of a delay before all the pieces were ready, which allowed Tonka Toys to steal a march on Hasbro. Tonka had also been at the same toy fair and seen the explosion in popularity and quality of transforming robots. They teamed up with Takara's arch-rivals, Bandai, who were producing their own transforming robot range under the name Machine Robo. Tonka launched the range in the US and Europe under the name GoBots in late 1983, a full six months before Transformers got to market, and initially achieved a significant level of success.

Tonka's gazumping of the idea caused discontent at Hasbro but, having spent a fortune on the project, they decided to continue. Transformers launched with a blaze of publicity in May 1984 and was an immediate huge success. The launch was helped by the Transformers comic - a media form which GoBots had unwisely ignored - launching at the same time, getting the story out there as well as the toys. GoBots also had an accompanying animated series, but for various reasons this was delayed until September 1984, launching at the same time as Transformers' and immediately suffering from being apparently pitched at a younger audience. There was also the matter of the quality of the toys: GoBots were at a much smaller scale than the Transformers and although this made them significantly cheaper, they were also considerably lacking in build quality, not really withstanding the punishment of play from young children (whilst Transformers could take comparably greater damage and keep trucking). Bandai were also unable to provide Tonka with new product, whilst Takara were churning out designs by the dozen that Hasbro could pick up. After two years or so, Transformers comfortably outpaced GoBots, with the latter line being discontinued in 1987 after a failed attempt to relaunch it with the Rock Lords spin-off line.

The first release line of Autobots. From left to right: (back row) Sideswipe, Sunstreaker, Ratchet, Optimus Prime, Ironhide, Trailbreaker; (middle row) Bluestreak, Wheeljack, Jazz, Prowl, Hound, Mirage; (bottom row) Gears, Brawn, Bumblebee, Windcharger, Cliffjumper and Huffer.

The initial Transformers run - now referred to as "Generation One" - lasted a startling seven years, reaching its end only in 1991 after steadily dropping sales. The Transformers comic also run for this entire time period and was still selling over 100,000 copies a month (outclassing many Marvel original lines) when it was cancelled, to the annoyance of both fans and creators. After an aborted 1993 relaunch as Transformers: Generation Two (which was merely a revamp of the existing toys with a few new ones), a considerably more thorough rethink was required. This resulted in Transformers: Beast Wars, a toy, comic and TV line which ran from 1996 to 1998 and was a huge success. It was followed by Beast Machines (1999-2000) and then, in 2001 and 2002, a relaunch of the more familiar concept with the Transformers: Robots in Disguise line and new comics focusing on the Generation One characters from Dreamwave.

Between 2002 and 2007 Transformers underwent a resurgence in popularity, propelled by both nostalgia for the original run and also by a trilogy of successful toylines and animated series: Armada, Energon and Cyberton. Just as these were winding up, Paramount Pictures released the first-ever live-action Transformers movie in 2007. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Michael Bay, the movie was a smash hit financial success, despite a patchy critical reception. It was followed by no less than four sequels and a prequel: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Dark is the Moon (2011), Age of Extinction (2014), The Last Knight (2017) and Bumblebee (2018). Notably, only Bumblebee (the first film in the series not directed by Michael Bay) was well-received critically. Further movies are planned, although plans appear varied over where they will serve as a reboot of the series or a continuation of the "Bayverse".

The first release line of Decepticons. From left to right: (back row) Megatron, Soundwave; (middle row) Starscream, Thundercracker, Skywarp; (front row) Rumble, Frenzy (or vice versa), Buzzsaw, Ravage and Laserbeak.

In addition to the franchise's long history on screen, in print and on toy shelves, Netflix recently celebrated the franchise in their original series, The Toys That Made Us, which is well worth a look for insights into the origin of the phenomenon.

Netflix are also developing War for Cybertron, a fresh animated series which will serve as a prequel to the story so far and will, apparently, be the first Transformers project to be aimed primarily at the adult fans of the franchise. This is expected to debut in late 2020.

So Happy Birthday to the Robots in Disguise, and here's to the very strong possibility they will still be around in another 35 years.