Wednesday 27 February 2019

Amazon LORD OF THE RINGS maps hint at a new setting and a possible UNFINISHED TALES licence

Amazon has been drip-feeding a series of maps and tweets related to their upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel TV series, suggesting that they may have decided to take the show in a radically new direction and may have acquired the rights to Unfinished Tales along the way.

Most previous reports had suggested that Amazon's project would be set between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and would focus on the adventures of a young Aragorn. However, Amazon's maps suggest that the story could be set considerably earlier.

The first clue was on the second map released (after the first, blank one), which named the major regions of Middle-earth but left the Shire, Gondor, Arnor and Rohan off the map. Most tellingly, the map features "Calenardhon," the ancient name for the lands south and east of Fangorn that later became the kingdom of Rohan. The presence of "Calenardhon" immediately suggests a setting prior to the founding of Rohan in the year 2509 of the Third Age (518 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings proper begin). Although Calenardhon was the name of the north-westernmost province of Gondor before it was ceded to Rohan, the name was also a regional one; it's earliest chronological use in the canon is in the story "Aldarion and Erendis" in Unfinished Tales, which it is used as a regional name as early as the 8th century of the Second Age, long before the founding of Gondor.

The third map adds more names and further suggests a time period. In particular, the addition of the name Laurelindórenan is very interesting. This was the Sindarin name given to the elven kingdom later known as Lothlórien. The mode Laurelindórenan seems to have been the standard name used until around the time of the War of Sauron and the Elves, following the forging of the Rings of Power, when Galadriel and Celeborn took up leadership in Laurelindórenan and the name of the realm was changed, as a result of Galadriel's magical ring enhancing the natural beauty of the kingdom.

The other interesting addition is that of Ras Morthil. Ras Morthil is the southern-most major mountain on the cape of Andrast, a south-westerly offshoot of the White Mountains (the great mountain range dividing Rohan from Gondor). Ras Morthil and the mountains of Andrast were the original home of the Druédain or "Woses", a diminutive race of men who play a brief but key role in the events of The Lord of the Rings when they provide intelligent to the Rohirrim on how to bypass a flanking force Sauron had sent to delay them whilst his armies attacked Minas Tirith (the woses were cut from the film for time reasons). By the time of The Lord of the Rings the region has become known as Drúwaith Iaur, referring to the Druédain as extinct (erroneously), a name adopted in the Third Age but not present on this map.

These clues seem to suggest that the map was not created any later than the second millennium of the Second Age, by the end of which Laurelindórenan had become Lothlórien and the other names would all be extant. Earlier in the Second Age could also be possible, but the region of Enedwaith was heavily forested up until around the 8th and 9th century, when Númenórean logging started to destroy the forests. The forests were mostly gone by the time of the War of Sauron and the Elves (1693-1701 SA). The absence of the forests on the map suggest that either Amazon's mapmakers missed that detail of the map dates from late in this period.

A mural depicting Ost-in-Edhil, capital city of Eregion, by artist Alan Lee. This artwork was created for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and appears on a wall in Rivendell.

The logical conclusion, then, is that the "Young Aragorn" story has been dropped and the story will instead focus on one of the most interesting periods in the history of Middle-earth: the forging of the Rings of Power themselves.

This is good, given that the story of how the Rings were forged is itself epic and worthy. Sauron, in the guise of Annatar, an elven prince and master craftsmen, visits the great elven smiths of Eregion and corrupts them into forging the Rings of Power. Using their knowledge, Sauron then creates the One Ruling Ring. This perversion of the elves' craft triggers a great war which Sauron nearly wins, overrunning most of the elven kingdoms and driving them back to the sea, before Númenor enters the war on the elves' side. The story involves familiar Lord of the Rings characters such as Elrond, Galadriel, Celeborn, Gil-galad and Círdan, but also a lot of new characters. Of course, there are few better subjects for a Lord of the Rings prequel series than the Rings of Power themselves.

There are other possibilities, such as "Young Aragorn" still being the setting and the story will revolve around this map and backstory in some fashion. There's also the delicious possibility that the series will be an anthology one, with different settings and focuses each season, moving back and forth through Middle-earth's history.

Most intriguingly from all of this is one of rights. The Tolkien Estate is working closely with Amazon but, until now, had not confirmed or indicated if it had licensed the rights to any other Tolkien material, as Amazon's deal with New Line/Warner Brothers (itself licensed from Tolkien Enterprises twenty-four years ago) covers only The Lord of the Rings alone. Not even The Hobbit is included, as those rights are tied up with MGM and, after the fiasco of the Hobbit movie trilogy, it was decided not to involve MGM in this new project. However, the detailed account of the War of Sauron and the Elves and names Andrast and Ras Morthil are given only in Unfinished Tales, not The Lord of the Rings. To use those names, at all, Amazon must have reached a new licensing deal with the Tolkien Estate on pain of lawsuits. The previous Middle-earth movies had to go to some lengths not to use any material from Unfinished Tales or The Silmarillion, so the use of such names here is highly telling.

The truth of the matter should become clearer as Amazon continues to reveal more information.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Funcom pick up the rights to make three DUNE video games

With excitement building over the new Dune movie, a gaming company has belatedly remembered that the franchise has had great success in the video game arena and has moved to create a series of new games to tie in with the film.

Emperor: Battle for Dune (2001)

Funcom has picked up the rights from Legendary Entertainment to make three games. The first of these will be an open-world multiplayer game, which fits Funcom's existing modus operandi: their previous games developed include Conan Exiles, Anarchy Online and Secret World Legends.

Funcom have also developed a model focusing on single-player titles, having recently scored a reasonable hit with the tactical combat game Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. This opens the possibility that Funcom may develop one or two single player games alongside the MMO.

The Dune franchise has a long history in video games, starting with the excellent adventure/strategy hybrid Dune in 1992, which was swiftly followed by Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis, widely considered (possibly erroneously) to be the first real-time strategy game. The game was remade to great success as Dune 2000 (1998) and followed by a further sequel, Emperor: The Battle for Dune (2001). A further adventure game, Frank Herbert's Dune (also 2001), was not successful and remains the last officially-released Dune game, although fan mods for other games have been released since then.

The new Dune film will be out in late 2020, and I imagine Funcom hope to release at least one of these games around this time.

Monday 25 February 2019

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6

The world has been saved, but the cost was high. Willow Rosenberg, now a powerful witch, decides to fix the problem and succeeds, but sets in motion a chain of events that will, once again, threaten the world.

What happens when everything goes wrong at once?

This is a question that many people - perhaps almost all people - will face at some point in their lives, when not just one thing goes horrendously wrong but suddenly multiple problems crop up together. Work, relationships and family problems become insurmountable, leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms, addictions, exceptionally poor relationship choices and a failure to communicate effectively with friends.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer always worked most effectively as a metaphor, using demons to stand in for school bullies or a magical threat to the world as a stand in for academic stresses. In Season 6 the show still does that, but it also takes a surprisingly deep dive into real stresses and anxieties. Sure, the root causes of the stresses our characters encounter are supernatural - such as Buffy's PTSD after suffering horrendously in the Season 5 finale - but the ways they cope are remarkably ordinary. If Seasons 1-3 of Buffy were about the traumas of high school and Seasons 4-5 were about college life and starting to realise your own place in the world, Season 6 is about becoming an adult and suddenly having real responsibilities land on your lap, and the realisation that you are in control of your own life and should really try not to mess it up.

It's bold move for a show that previously mixed real life issues with metaphors, comedy and romance, and like most such bold moves it was (and remains, seventeen years on) very divisive among fans. People who tuned in to Buffy to see the Slayer kick ass, Xander make a funny quip and Giles get exasperated felt uncomfortable instead to see their characters having a miserable time of it and making one horrendous mistake after another.

This is exemplified by the annual external threat, the traditional "Big Bad," which in fact is pretty risible for most of the season: two very minor antagonists from previous seasons team up with a dude no-one remembers to take over Sunnydale. Their plans are mostly stupid and go wrong, and their actual threat value is somewhere around zero...right up until it isn't and then things go south very fast.

For most of the season, the show is more concerned with the long trip through the soul of Buffy Summers. Suffering severely after the events at the end of Season 5 and having to take care of her little sister and keep their house running, Buffy is also forced to quit college and get a horrible, soul-destroying job to keep the money coming in*. Buffy's problems are startlingly mundane and her reaction to them - internalising her stress, trying to keep a brave face on as everything comes crumbling down inside - is both natural and leads to horribly predictable coping mechanisms.

What's even worse is that our other characters are unable to help because they are also suffering their own problems: Xander and Anya have relationship issues, Willow's growing addiction to magic is causing problems, Spike doesn't know what his purpose is any more and even Dawn is making poor choices, whilst Giles is trying to work up the courage to leave Sunnydale for good. The Scooby Gang has become completely dysfunctional apart from the perennially unflappable Tara, who finds herself - not entirely comfortably - becoming the confidante of the group as they struggle to deal with their issues.

The path our heroes take to finally saving the day is a difficult one and eventually risks destroying the group altogether, but ultimately they succeed (and I feel confident saying that now, because you need some hope to get through these 22 episodes) in a manner that is appropriate, realistic and somewhat positive. It helps that the sixth season isn't completely a walk through nightmare city. There are some funny side-episodes and some brilliant individual scenes. The episode where Buffy goes full Groundhog Day (complete with Freaky Mummy Hand) is fantastic, as is another where Buffy gets turned invisible. The concluding three-episode arc of the season is very well-handled, finally giving our heroes a traditional battle to fight (kind of). The most infamous episode of the season, of course, is Once More With Feeling, the musical. I've always enjoyed the episode but also felt it was a tad overrated: some of the songs fail to land and the concluding Buffy/Spike song really doesn't work that well, which is problematic given how it's the moment the whole season revolves around. It's a hard episode to criticise too much, though, and it gave Whedon the experience he needed to make the much stronger musical special Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog six years later.

The season does handle its more challenging and realistic material well (especially since you can now blitz through it in a few hours, rather than over nine months), but there are a couple of problems. One is that Willow's "addiction = drugs" storyline is a bit too silly and on the nose, literally sending her into a 1960s-style trippy den of inequity at one point. It's at that point the subtext becomes not just text but an entire novel filled with the words "DO YOU GET IT YET?" Mercifully the show quickly gets a grip and moves on from that idea.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer's sixth and penultimate season (****½) is generally regarded as the darkest season of the show, which is definitely true. It's also the season that has aged the best since the show originally aired. It's the psychologically richest season of the show, the one which really gets under the characters' skin and explores them in a manner the show never managed before. I also suspect the twenty-somethings who were irked with the season's darkness because they were having a great time may be much more sympathetic to it as forty-somethings with baggage (cough). The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UKUSA).

* Exactly why the Watchers' Council aren't picking up the tab, given Buffy and Giles's reinstatement in Season 5, is curiously unexplained.

First HIS DARK MATERIALS teaser trailer

The BBC has released the first teaser trailer for His Dark Materials, the new TV adaptation of Philip Pullman's novel series of the same name.

Season 1 of His Dark Materials will air late this year on the BBC in the UK and on HBO in the USA. A second season has been greenlit and is already in pre-production.

The teaser trailer features Dafne Keen as Lyra, Ruth Wilson as Ms. Coulter, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel, Clarke Peters as the Master of Jordan College and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby. Notably absent are the daemons, although given we are still likely 7-8 months from transmission this is unsurprising as they may not have even been created yet.

Wednesday 20 February 2019

The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

The rebellion known as the Whirlwind has been defeated and now its last army is fleeing to the storied city of Y'Ghatan. The Malazan 14th Army, the Bonehunters, is in hot pursuit, keen to eradicate the last vestiges of rebellion on Seven Cities. But fate, the gods and the crafty general known as Leoman of the Flails have other ideas. Elsewhere, black ships from beyond the western oceans have set events are in motion that will engulf the greatest warriors in the world, Karsa Orlong of the Teblor and Icarium Lifestealer among them, and will see the Master of the Deck, Ganoes Paran, reluctantly take a direct hand in events.

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series is initially made up of three interlocking story arcs: events on Genabackis, events on Seven Cities and events on the continent of Lether. For the first five books these story arcs have been broadly kept separate, but the sixth volume is when they decisively collide with one another. To put it another way, if Malazan was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is the first Avengers movie where you get to see characters from all the previous sub-series meet up and rub shoulders with one another.

There is undeniably a visceral thrill to this, as it represents the shape of the over-arcing Malazan storyline starting to come into focus. We start getting a better idea of what the series overall is going to be about and where the final battles will take place, although much remains murky. The feeling that the series is - at last! - starting to coalesce into one coherent, cohesive narrative is satisfying.

That said, it is also not handled entirely well. Previous Malazan books have been relatively smooth and consistent in their tone. This book feels a lot more inconsistent, a side-effect of mashing together characters from rather different previous books and storylines. There's also a slight air of contrivance to the book. Characters meet up in unlikely coincidences and mysterious new allies show up having spent two years pre-preparing a ritual which will come in handy at a key moment. Characters portentously declare things to one another that will leave the reader baffled. At one point, apropos of Douglas Adams, the moon actually explodes for no immediately discernible reason (which gets an explanation later on that still feels rather random).

The book is also a bit on the over-full side. Some Malazan novels are overlong and have a lot of filler in them; others (particularly the first three) are super-lean and bursting out of the page limit with incident, character developments and intriguing themes. The Bonehunters instead feels like the plots of three separate novels have been pushed into it and the focus careens between them with the grace of a pinball machine. So much is going on that major events and characters are given very short shrift indeed (the incidental death of one major, long-standing character is disappointing). In particular, the rise of two previous confirmed villains into positions of supreme power and influence comes out of left field and is fundamentally unconvincing, even moreso on a reread.

But this is still a Malazan novel written by Steven Erikson, so that means we still get excellent and brutally tragic set-piece events, wonderful moments of prose and dialogue and some effectively powerful reflections of the human condition. At one point the book threatens to turn into a disaster novel, which would have been interesting (fantasy disaster novels are pretty thin on the ground), although the book then shoots off in a different direction. There's also a series of phenomenal action sequences paced through the book, with the Malazans and Whirlwind soldiers clashing in a burning city, a naval face-off between two mighty powers and, most impressively, a long-running battle through the streets of a major city as Kalam and the Claw finally settle their debts. There's a lot of good stuff in this book, it just doesn't necessarily hang together as well as it should.

The Bonehunters (***½) is one of the more divisive books in the series - I've seen people lament it as the worst book in the series (which I don't agree with) and praise it as the best (which I also don't agree with) - but it's also one of the most action-packed and is the one that brings the focus and ultimate point of the series into sharper relief, which is a good thing. In order to get there, an (even for this series) unlikely number of plot twists and coincidences have to take place, which makes the book feel more artificial than almost any other Malazan novel released to date. That said, it's written so well that you may not even care. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Amazon confirms first WHEEL OF TIME director

Amazon have announced that Uta Briesewitz will be directing the first two episodes of its Wheel of Time TV series.

The first two episodes, provisionally entitled Leavetaking and Shadow's Waiting, have been written by showrunner Rafe Judkins and Amanda Kate Shuman. It is believed that they will cover the first 300 pages or so of the first novel in the series, The Eye of the World.

Uta Briesewitz is a German cinematographer and director. Her TV resume is most impressive, including episodes of Orange is the New Black, The 100, Jessica Jones, Fear the Walking Dead, Iron Fist, The Defenders, The Deuce, Altered Carbon and Westworld. Her episode of Westworld, Season 2's Kiksuya, has attracted widespread critical acclaim and been cited as one of the best episodes of the series.

The first season starts shooting in September in and around Prague in the Czech Republic and is expected to air in Amazon in late 2020.

Monday 18 February 2019


In the biggest non-surprise story of the year so far, Netflix has decided to terminate their four-year collaboration with Marvel. They have now cancelled The Punisher just after the release of its second season and Jessica Jones ahead of the launch of its third. This follows the cancellation of Iron Fist, Luke Cage and Daredevil last year.

Marvel pinned the blame on Netflix, saying the streaming service had the final say on whether to renew the show or not. Netflix in turn have blamed Marvel for trying to change their contractual agreement (most notably by reducing their seasons from 13 to 10 episodes, as every single viewer urgently wanted). However, it's hard not to see the real reason here: in autumn this year Marvel's parent company will be launching the Disney+ streaming service with a number of new shows, including mini-series focusing on MCU characters Scarlet Witch, Vision, Loki, Winter Soldier and Falcon, not to mention multiple Star Wars shows and Disney's immense back catalogue of TV series and films. Netflix decided it was not worthwhile to effectively be promoting a rival service's characters for them.

Marvel's statement is interesting, however, confirming that they will be exploring these characters again in the future. Whether that is directly continuing these shows with the same casts - which they can do after a two-year break - or some kind of full reboot is unclear.

Counting the still-to-air Jessica Jones Season 3, the Marvel/Netflix collaboration has chalked up 13 seasons and 161 episodes in less than four years, which is quite impressive. Some of the seasons were exceptional (in particular the first season apiece of Daredevil and Jessica Jones), although others were not, and the big team-up in The Defenders fell a little flat. Given the sheer speed at which the shows were producing episodes, which saw some fans fall off the bandwagon, and the increasing variance in quality, the cancellation of the shows is perhaps not entirely the disaster it would have been a couple of years back. Still, Daredevil had gotten his mojo back in the third season and Iron Fist's second season was a great improvement over the first, so there are some regrets about seeing where these stories woudl have gone.

The final season of Jessica Jones and the Marvel/Netflix universe is expected to be released in the next couple of months.

Friday 15 February 2019

Amazon launches LORD OF THE RINGS website with a map

Amazon has launched a website and Twitter account for its upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel TV series.

The website so far only consists of a big, blank map of Middle-earth, one that presumably will get filled in with new information once the series starts. This map is notable for a curious feature: it extends further east than most previous maps, showing mountains and forests on the far edge of the lands of Rhûn. Whether this is an aesthetic choice or hints that the TV show might take us to this region remains unknown.

The Lord of the Rings TV series will reportedly explore a period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, focusing on the adventures of a young Aragorn, son of Arathorn, in the time period when he travelled into remote regions of Middle-earth. Production is expected to start at the end of this year for the show to debut in late 2020 or early 2021.

Edit: The eastward extension of the map actually comes from a movie tie-in map released in 2001 for The Fellowship of the Ring (see above), so may not be particularly relevant to this new map.

Jason Momoa in talks to join the DUNE casting rollercoaster

Jason Momoa is the latest actor jump on the Dune casting train.

Momoa, recently a big draw in Aquaman and of course his turn as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, is apparently in strong discussions over joining the cast as Duncan Idaho. This is a highly significant casting choice as Idaho - or myriad clones of him - is the only character to appear in every one of the original six canonical Dune novels. If the movie is a big hit and the entire series is adapted for film, Momoa could be playing this role for a long time.

If the talks are successful, Momoa will be joining a star-studded cast consisting of Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, Zendaya as Chani, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Dave Bautista as Rabban, Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam and Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides. The two-part film will be directed by Denis Villeneuve, who has directed the two finest SF movies this decade (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049).

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Amazon confirms GOOD OMENS release date and adds Benedict Cumberbatch to cast

Amazon have confirmed that Good Omens, a six-part mini-series based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, will be released worldwide on Amazon Prime on 31 May this year. The BBC, who co-produced the series will also show the series in November.

Amazon have also released the title sequence in full (see above) and confirmed that Benedict Cumberbatch has joined the cast, voicing an effects-driven version of the devil who shows up in the final episode.

The series was written and produced by Neil Gaiman, fulfilling a promise he made to Terry Pratchett before the latter's passing in 2015.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5

Things seem to be going well: Buffy and Willow are thriving at university, Buffy is enjoying a healthy relationship with an ordinary, living guy and Giles has found an exciting new job. A combination of family illness and the arrival of mysterious new threat in town soon leaves Buffy on the back foot and relying on her friends and family more than ever....even her little sister, Dawn.

The fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an interesting set of episodes. After the slightly mundane Season 4, the fifth season sets up a much more formidable villain in the shape of Glory, a hell-demon who was once a goddess, ruling an entire dimension of pain and suffering. Trapped in our world, she is plotting her return home, which would be fine if it the process wasn't going to destroy Earth along the way. Buffy and her friends conspire to stop the apocalypse. So far, so standard.

However, the season wrong-foots the audience and upends expectations almost straight away. The first episode sets up none other than Dracula himself as a nemesis for Buffy, to the point where the audience might be expecting him to be the season's big bad, but instead he turns out to be a bit of comic relief, one and done. Then we get our first real shock: Buffy has a 14-year-old sister, played with considerable charm by Michelle Trachtenberg. Of course, we know that Buffy doesn't have a sister but every character in the show reacts as if she's always been there. Unravelling this puzzle takes a few episodes, but so well does Trachtenberg fit in that you sometimes forget she hasn't been around all along.

The battle against Glory is fun, although perhaps a little too low-key: the threat recedes for several episodes in the back half of the season and the show struggles to explain why Glory - show to be effortlessly superior to Buffy in combat  - doesn't simply kill Buffy when it would be logical to do so.

The show balances the supernatural threat against a much more mundane one, a non-magical illness that strikes one of our regular characters. This is dealt with realistically and with grace, culminating in The Body, which is not only the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but one of the greatest episodes of television ever written, a searing and beautifully-acted deep dive into grief, shock and loss that is genuinely upsetting to watch. Unlike one of the other all-time great episodes of the series, like say Hush or Once More With Feeling, this one isn't going to be getting lots of repeat airings because it is quite raw to watch, but it may be the show and director Joss Whedon's finest hour.

Season 5 (****½, except The Body which is clearly *****) has some weaker moments and episodes that don't gel quite as well as they should, but overall it contains a strong arc, the best individual episode of the series and a striking, shocking ending. The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UKUSA).

Josh Brolin joins DUNE

Josh Brolin has joined the cast of Dune, makine one of the strongest-cast movies of recent times even better. Shooting is due to start in the next few weeks on the project, which will span two movies for a likely late 2020/early 2021 release.

Brolin is playing the role of Gurney Halleck, the Atreides swordmaster and tutor to protagonist Paul Atreides. Halleck was previously played by Patrick Stewart in David Lynch's Dune in 1984.

Brolin joins a star-studded cast consisting of Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, Zendaya as Chani, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Dave Bautista as Rabban, Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam and Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides. The film will be directed by Denis Villeneuve, who has directed the two finest SF movies this decade (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4

Sunnydale High has been destroyed, the world saved (again) and now Buffy and her friends have to face a brand new challenge: college. As Buffy tries to juggle slaying and studying, a mysterious team of crack demon-hunting soldiers arrives in Sunnydale, and an old enemy returns.

American high school dramas seem to inevitably reach that point where it's no longer possible to keep the kids in school any more and send them off to college, which can also be a shark-jumping moment as the old, successful paradigm is dropped and the show struggles to adapt to a new one. In the case of Buffy's fourth season, the show adapts to the new order with surprising grace. It helps that there's also a turnover of cast to keep things fresh. Angel and Cordelia left for their own spin-off show at the end of Season 3 and it's not long before Oz is also out of the picture. Cue new regular characters Riley Finn and Tara, with returning villains Spike and Anya promoted to regulars as well.

This freshness also extends to a more realistic take on the "moving on from high school" trope. Only Buffy and Willow make it to college, with Xander entering the world of full-time employment and Giles taking the year off, effectively.

This change and growth is a good thing, which the show mostly handles well in terms of characterisation. Unfortunately, it leads to a somewhat underwhelming main story arc. After the battles against the Master, Angelus and the Mayor, Season 4's main villain takes an inordinate amount of time to emerge. We're well past the halfway point of the season when the main threat becomes clear and even then it feels kind of underwhelming. The stand-alone episodes also struggle to pick up the slack, with several of the show's worst episodes since Season 1 (such as the remarkably poorly-conceived Beer Bad) falling in Season 4.

Still, this is Buffy and the show refuses to let itself get dragged down by a couple of weak spots. The dialogue sparkles even in weaker episodes, the actors are all comfortable in their roles and the increased production value results in better effects (although less said about Adam's prosthetics the better). The new additions to the cast are mostly solid (although Riley is a very bland character) and the season gives the cast chances to show off their other talents, such as Giles's guitar playing and singing. But the season's triumph is in giving us two bold, unusual and experimental episodes which rank among the show's finest.

Hush may be the show's finest hour, or at least the finest hour you can show people without a lot of other context (unlike The Body, Once More With Feeling and Conversations with Dead People). A bunch of demons show up in Sunnydale and steal everyone's voices, leaving the cast having to fight an enemy without the ability to speak. Given how much TV writing is conveyed by dialogue, making a speech-less episode work is a monumental challenge but one the cast pulls off brilliantly.

The other such episode is Restless, the season finale which takes place in a shared dream experience. "Dream episodes" are ten-a-penny in SF and fantasy franchises, but few capture the lucid surrealness of a dreaming experience as well as this one. It's a busy episode with some very clever writing which addresses everything which has happened in the season and also starts setting up Season 5 (which opens with one of the biggest whiplash moments of surprise of any TV show).

Season 4 (****, but ***** for Hush and Restless) is not the best season of Buffy and may in fact have the weakest overall story arc. But that is saved by the strong dialogue, characterisation and performances, and two of the best episodes the series ever produced. The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UKUSA).

Friday 8 February 2019

THE EXPANSE finally hits Amazon Prime

The Expanse has finally arrived on Amazon Prime worldwide, giving non-US viewers the first chance to see Season 3.

One unintended positive side-effect of the long (long) wait for Season 3 is that the wait for Season 4 should be comparatively brief. Shooting on Season 4 wrapped this week and there'll be several months of post-production before it hits Amazon, probably in the summer or autumn of this year.

In the meantime, you can catch up on the first three seasons of the show right now.

Monday 4 February 2019

FX greenlights Y: THE LAST MAN TV series

FX have formally greenlit a TV series based on the graphic novel series Y: The Last Man, co-created by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra.

FX have produced an internal pilot based on the comics and clearly decided it was good enough to move forward with a full first season, due to debut in 2020.

The TV series will just be called Y. Closely based on the graphic novels, it follows what happens when every male animal on the planet, including humans, drops dead without warning. The human race faces extinction...until it is discovered that one solitary man has survived. He becomes torn between different factions, some of whom want to kill him and others who want to use him to help repopulate the species.

The TV adaptation stars Diane Lane, Barry Keoghan, Lashana Lynch, Imogen Poots and Amber Tamblyn.

Friday 1 February 2019

Javier Bardem and Zendaya join DUNE

Javier Bardem is the latest addition to Denis Villeneuve's Dune, which is apparently casting every major actor of note on the planet at the moment.

Bardem will be playing the role of Stilgar, the Fremen tribal leader whom allies with Paul and his mother Jessica and provides aid to the Atreides family against the Harkonnens.

In additional casting news, actress Zendaya - who played MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming and its upcoming sequel, Far from Home - is in talks to play Chani, a Fremen warrior and love interest for Paul (who is to be played by Timothée Chalamet).

Production of Dune - which is expected to be a two-movie project - is expected to begin in a couple of months, with the movie likely for release in late 2020 or early 2021.