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.

Friday 24 May 2019

Taika Waititi to direct AKIRA for release in 2021

Warner Brothers have confirmed that Taika Waititi will be directing the long, long-awaited live action version of Akira. The film also has a release date: 21 May 2021.

According to Waititi, he wants to go back to the original manga series (published today as six graphic novels) rather than the 1988 anime film, which truncated the story considerably. This suggests that the film will only be adapting the first part of the story, not all of it. Waititi also wants to return the film to the setting of Neo-Tokyo with Asian actors, whilst previous live-action proposals have moved the film to America or Europe. It is unclear if this is still the plan, but hopefully so.

The 1988 film played a huge role in expanding the influence and popularity of anime in the West, building on the previous success of Voltron and Macross (in its heavily and controversially-adapted guise as Robotech) and kickstarting a huge explosion in the popularity of Japanese animation in Europe and the United States. That said, although the film is rightfully praised for its still-stunning and beautiful visuals, its storytelling (condensing some 2,530 pages of the manga into two hours of screen time) could be very rushed and confused.

Leonardo DiCaprio, a long-term fan of the original movie, is producing the new film.

The news means that Marvel's hopes for Waititi to return to direct a Thor 4 in the relatively near future have been thwarted, putting that potential project off until late 2022 at the earliest.

Thursday 23 May 2019

STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC movie in development at Lucasfilm

Buzzfeed has scooped the news that Lucasfilm are developing a script based on the critically-acclaimed and massive-selling 2003 video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, developed by BioWare.

Screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Altered Carbon, er, Terminator: Genisys) is reportedly developing a film trilogy based on the game and has almost completed the script for the first film in the series.

Set over 4,000 years before the events of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the game tells the story of an amnesiac Jedi who awakens on a starship above the planet Taris that is under attack by Darth Malak's forces. The galaxy at this time is engaged in a civil war between open Jedi forces, led by the Jedi Council, and Sith forces under Darth Malak, former apprentice to the slain Darth Revan. The Republic is weak and divided between the two factions and a strong neutral faction.

The game sees the protagonist (named by the player) gaining a large number of powerful friends and allies, including Republic pilot Carth Onasi, Wookie warrior Zaalbar, Jedi Knight Bastila Shan, Mandalorian warrior Cancerous Ordo, psychopathic droid HK-47 and warrior Juhani (the first-ever canonically gay character to appear in Star Wars) following a trail of clues that leads to Darth Malak's true objective, a powerful weapon known as the Star Forge.

It is unclear if the new project plans to adapt the game - a single playthrough of which can last for well over 20 hours - as three movies, or if it will be to adapt the game as one movie with possible sequels based on Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (2004) and The Old Republic (2011).

It is also unclear if Kalogridis is developing the film as the one to be produced and directed by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for release in 2022, or for Rian Johnson's trilogy project, or as a speculative script unrelated to the above (possibly for Disney+?). It should be noted that Lucasfilm have been adamant that the post-Rise of Skywalker movies will take place in a completely different part of the Star Wars canon in both time and place, which this would certainly qualify for.

If the rumour is true, Laeta Kalogridis will become the first woman to write for a Star Wars film since Leigh Brackett wrote the first draft of the script for The Empire Strikes Back in the late 1970s.

Knights of the Old Republic is comfortably one of the most popular Star Wars stories and projects of all time, often ranking high on lists of the most popular instalments of the Star Wars franchise. BioWare have frequently discussed making a Knights of the Old Republic III, the last time as recently as completing work on Mass Effect 4 and moving that team over to Anthem, but reportedly their publisher Electronic Arts are sceptical of the appeal of a single-player focused RPG with no microtransactions or multiplayer element.

Lucasfilm have neither confirmed nor denied the story as yet.

CBS releases first trailer for STAR TREK: PICARD

CBS has released the first teaser trailer for Star Trek: Picard. And immediately withdrawn it. They have released a nice poster though:

The story follows a retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) eighteen years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis and fifteen years after he led a huge rescue mission with unforeseen consequences that led to Picard quitting Starfleet. Even Starfleet are uncertain why he did this. Since then Picard has been apparently working at his family vineyard in France (last seen in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Family). Circumstances bring Picard back into the Starfleet fold.

According to some reports, the rescue mission was an attempt by the Federation to help the people of the Romulan Empire due to the obliteration of the Romulan homeworld (as noted in the events of the 2009 movie Star Trek), the first time the events of the alternate "Abramsverse" or "Kelvin Timeline" have had a major impact on the Prime Timeline of the core Star Trek universe.

In a particularly geeky detail, this suggests that the official Star Trek timeline will have to be rewritten; the current timeline has the events of Star Trek: Nemesis taking place in 2379 whilst the destruction of Romulus is listed as occurring in 2387. The plot summary suggests that only three years elapse between the two events, presumably putting the destruction of Romulus in 2382 and setting this new series in 2400, bringing Star Trek into the 25th Century (or almost, depending on how you measure it).

Star Trek: Picard started shooting last month and will consist of 10 episodes, at least two of which will be directed by Stewart's old running-mate Jonathan Frakes. The Pulitzer and Hugo Award-winning author Michael Chabon is working on the series as a producer and writer.

The series is expected to debut on CBS All Access in the United States in late 2019.

In surprising news, the series will air on Amazon Prime worldwide, rather than Netflix (who currently air Star Trek: Discovery).

UPDATE: CBS have apparently removed the trailer they themselves put on YouTube. Curious.

Scott Lynch completes THE THORN OF EMBERLAIN

Scott Lynch has confirmed that he has completed and delivered the manuscript for The Thorn of Emberlain, the fourth book in his Gentleman Bastard series.

The series began with The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006) and continued with Red Seas Over Red Skies (2007) and The Republic of Thieves (2013). The latter two books in the series have been delayed as Scott has had significant health issues.

Three more books are planned for the series: The Ministry of Necessity, The Mage and the Master Spy (title subject to change) and Inherit the Night.

With the manuscript complete, there will now be revisions, rewrites and edits before the book can be published. Due to this, I suspect we will not see the book before 2020. This is still great news, and Lynch gets bragging rights for being the first of the "Unholy Trifecta" of long-delayed fantasy novels (along with Patrick Rothfuss's Doors of Stone and George R.R. Martin's The Winds of Winter) to get to print.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

BBC options Michael Moorcock's HISTORY OF THE RUNESTAFF for television

This actually happened back in March, but I missed it at the time. The BBC has optioned Michael Moorcock's History of the Runestaff fantasy series for television.

The four-volume series consists of the novels The Jewel in the Skull (1967), The Mad God's Amulet (1968), The Sword of the Dawn (1968) and The Runestaff (1969). Set in a far future version of Europe, the story follows the adventures of German resistance fighter Dorian Hawkmoon as he seeks to destroy the Great Empire of Granbretan (a fascistic version of Britain), which is trying to conquer the continent.

The four-novel series was later expanded by The Chronicles of Castle Brass, a sequel trilogy. Moorcock also tied the sequence into his much larger Eternal Champion meta-saga, with Hawkmooon as another aspect of the Eternal Champion figure.

Steve Thompson, who has written for Sherlock and Doctor Who, is spearheading the project for BBC Studios.

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Sharon Carter and Helmut Zemo join THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER

Marvel has expanded the cast and crew for its Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which is in pre-production. They have also confirmed that the series will be six episodes long and will air in August 2020.

Emily VanCamp is reprising her role as Sharon Carter, which she previously played in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War. The niece of Peggy Carter (Hayley Attwell), she was introduced as a SHIELD agent who later transferred to the CIA. She became a possible love interest for Captain America in Civil War, although this plot thread was abandoned as a result of the events of The Avengers: Endgame.

Daniel Bruhl is reprising his rule as Helmut Zemo from Civil War. A Sokovian citizen infuriated by the destruction of his nation at the hands of the Avengers (as seen in Age of Ultron), Zemo conducted a campaign to discredit and ultimately destroy the team, resulting in its splintering into two factions. Zemo was captured at the end of Civil War, but noted that by splitting the Avengers his plan had succeeded (making him, arguably, the only Marvel villain whose evil scheme actually worked).

Kari Skogland (The Walking Dead, The Handmaid's Tale) will direct all six episodes. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan are also reprising their title roles as Falcon and the Winter Soldier from the movies.

The casting suggests that the mini-series will tie up loose ends from the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and pave the way for future film developments.

Bryan Cogman joining Amazon's LORD OF THE RINGS project

The One Ring has broken a story that Bryan Cogman, a writer-producer on HBO's Game of Thrones, has taken over Amazon's Lord of the Rings project as showrunner and writer, although Variety is reporting that his role may be more modest.

The news is backed up by a blog post from George R.R. Martin, who confirmed yesterday that Cogman was working on the project, and by Amazon confirming that they had hired Cogman to work on multiple projects for them several months ago. Cogman was also recently spotted consulting with Rafe Judkins, the showrunner of Amazon's Wheel of Time TV series, suggesting that he will also be involved in advising on other projects.

JD Payne and Patrick McKay had previously been announced as the showrunners for the project but some fans had speculated on their hiring, as their experience was restricted to writing the first drafts of Star Trek: Beyond and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Payne and McKay seem to have spearheaded a major change in the project, which was originally mooted as an "adventures of young Aragorn" story, but will now be a more grandiose epic following the forging of the Rings of Power in the Second Age. Payne and McKay remain attached to the project as writers, but now working with Cogman. It's unclear if they are acting as co-showrunners together.

Bryan Cogman is noted as the "third head of the dragon" on Game of Thrones, keeping and maintaining the lore and ensuring the fidelity of the series to George R.R. Martin's novels. He wrote 11 episodes of the series, including several of the most critically-lauded in the show's history (and this season's sole episode to be met with blanket acclaim, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms). He has been widely cited as the best writer to work on the series, particularly by those who wanted the story to hew closer to the novels.

Cogman's hiring will dramatically increase faith that Amazon's Lord of the Rings show will be faithful to the tone of Tolkien's novels. Production of the series is expected to begin in August in Scotland.

Update: Variety has confirmed that Cogman has joined Lord of the Rings but has so far only listed his role as "consultant." Oddly, Amazon have not commented firmly on the situation despite conflicting reports in the press.

It should be noted that with production of the first season slate to begin in just three months the bulk of the writing for the season should be complete, which suggests that Cogman may be getting a consulting credit for Season 1 and won't formally step up to a senior producing role until Season 2.

Further Update: The Amazon executive who orchestrated the deal with New Line Cinema and the Tolkien Estate - the largest in television history - has left the company after an internal realignment. Sharon Tal Yguado was responsible for the deal, which involved $250 million upfront for the rights (a demand flatly rejected by HBO, who refused to bid, whilst Netflix only offered $100 million) and a firm commitment of at least $100 million per season for a five-season package. The deal has been described as foolhardy by many Hollywood commentators and critics, especially as it also contained a punishing schedule where the show had to start filming within two years (which expires in November 2019) or the rights reverted. Yguado hired Payne and McKay, who are regarded as strong up-and-comers in Hollywood but have never run a show before.

Whether this has a bearing on Cogman being brought in is unclear, but it appears that there is a major realignment going on regarding the project at Amazon Studios.

Calgar's Siege by Paul Kearney

Marneus Augustus Calgar is the Chapter Master of the Ultramarines, one of the most respected, feared and legendary warriors in the Imperium of Man. Fifty years after the defeat of Hive Fleet Behemoth, the domain of Ultramar is still beset by enemies but is held secure by the Imperium's forces, secure enough for Calgar to embark on a goodwill tour of the remote, outlying colony of Zalidar. But Calgar's arrival coincides with that of a full-scale ork invasion force. Calgar's transport is shot down and he and a bare handful of Space Marines have to make a hazardous journey to where the capital, Zalathras, withstands siege.

Paul Kearney is one of the single finest writers working in the SFF field today, adept at telling modern fables with a light touch (such as A Different Kingdom and The Wolf in the Attic) and epic stories of war and redemption (such as The Macht Trilogy and The Monarchies of God). Alas, he is also one of the perennially underread, despite the near-blanket critical acclaim that has accompanied his career to date.

Calgar's Siege is Kearney's second Warhammer 40,000 novel, although the first published. The first, Umbra Sumus, was put on hold due to a copyright dispute between Games Workshop and Sherrilyn Kenyon over the use of the name "Dark Hunters" for a Space Marine Chapter and still hasn't appeared.

Calgar's Siege, fortunately, has made to print and has been worth the wait (also, no foreknowledge of the WH40K setting is required). The marriage of Kearney's formidable skills at storytelling, characterisation and battle scenes (Kearney is, hands down, modern SFF's best writer at combat scenes) with the over-the-top, technicolour, occasionally crazed Warhammer 40,000 setting is one made in heaven. Kearney brings the setting to vivid life as we follow the defence of the hive city of Zalathras against an onslaught of orks.

The action switches between several groups of characters, including the beleaguered planetary administrator struggling to stay on top of the conflict from his tower to the rogue trader Morcault and his crew on the starship Mayfly, who first get wind of the impending invasion and then fly air support and transport during the siege. But the focus is firmly on Marneus Calgar, one of the most legendary characters in the modern 40K canon, as he leads a small number of Space Marines into battle. One of the fun things about the book is seeing Calgar, who can usually summon armies in the hundreds of thousands and vast space armadas in the blink of an eye, deal with just being a common grunt on the ground during a particularly gruelling war in jungle terrain.

Kearney is at home here, mixing up battle scenes with quieter character moments and orchestrating the entire battle with a fine conductor's hand. He is able to craft distinct characters from each Space Marine and many of the ordinary humans defending the planet and give each one a reasonable arc.

There are some minor issues. Kearney's skills at characterisation tend towards moral ambiguity and doubt: heroes who are often heroes because of their flaws and how they overcome them. There isn't much moral ambiguity in Space Marines, who are righteous, determined and genetically engineered towards supreme confidence, although Kearney does nevertheless succeed in making them distinct characters. The ordinary human characters are more conflicted and more interesting as a result. This is more a feature (or bug) of the setting than Kearney's writing and he manages to overcome it well.

More traditional a problem for Kearney, a writer who has never outstayed his welcome, is that the story sometimes feels a bit too streamlined, and more scenes of how the conflict is affecting ordinary citizens may have been welcome to establish the background setting more firmly.

Ultimately, Calgar's Siege (****) is Paul Kearney doing what he does best, crafting intricate stories of compelling characters surviving in the midst of war, chaos and adversity. It's not his best book, nor the best WH40K novel, but it is a strong SFF war novel. It is the first in a trilogy, followed by Calgar's Fury (2017) and the forthcoming Calgar's Reckoning. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday 20 May 2019

Gratuitous Lists: Top Ten SFF Pilots

Five years ago, I talked about the best SFF finales, the shows that stuck their landings with good, rousing endings. Even rarer than a good ending is a good pilot, a great first episode that hooks you into a show for the duration. Many shows take a good 3-4 episodes to bed in and start getting good, so shows which are on fire from the first episode are rarer, and more valuable to networks.

Here is a list of ten of the best show-openers (in no particular order). Note that I have used "pilot" to mean "the first episode of the series" rather than the technical definition (a premiere episode filmed separately to the rest of the series, not always for public consumption).

Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series
Aired 8-9 December 2003

Ronald D. Moore worked on the Star Trek franchise over a decade, starting on The Next Generation in 1989 and rounding off the final season of Deep Space Nine in 1999, co-writing two movies along the way. In 2000 he joined the writing team of Star Trek: Voyager in its sixth season, but quickly found his goals for the series being thwarted. He wanted to see Voyager, trapped far from home on the other side of the galaxy, taking damage and staying damaged from episode to episode. He wanted to see more consistent characterisation, the morals of Starfleet being tested in extreme circumstances. Instead the other writers and producers wanted to hit the reset button at the end of every week.

Three years later, Moore was approached by the Sci-Fi Network (now SyFy) with an intriguing offer. They'd picked up the rights to 1978 space opera Battlestar Galactica and were developing a remake project. A previous reboot attempt, with X-Men producers Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto, had foundered in the wake of 9/11 and SyFy were now looking for a fresh take. Moore agreed to take on the project on the understanding that he wanted to make it a more gritty and adult show. Although he'd enjoyed the original show, he felt the premise had been under-valued. The destruction of twelve planets and the deaths of billions of people would have left a staggering mental scar on the survivors, not to mention raising extreme ethical concerns of how the military and civilian authorities worked together in such circumstances, not to mention the collective PTSD of having tens of thousands of people trapped in spacecraft with dwindling supplies for months or years on end.

The result was a mini-series, aired on SyFy and then NBC in 2003, which served as a backdoor pilot for a series proper. And it'd be fair to say that Moore and his team knocked it out of the park. The second the mini-series opens it feels different. Director Michael Rymer created a shaky, immediate style of shooting that put the viewer in the heart of the action. Composer Richard Gibbs used a drums-heavy sound to create a very different, military-feeling soundtrack. The actors, a mix of newcomers like Jamie Bamber and Katee Sackhoff and industry veterans like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, are uniformly excellent. The visual effects by CG studio Zoic are (still) amazing. Over the course of a generous three hours, the mini-series builds the world of the Twelve Colonies and then tears it down, leaving the bewildered survivors to try to escape and build a new life for themselves.

It's not the series at its best - the first episode of Season 1 and thus the next episode after this, 33, may hold that honour - but it does set up the show well and leave you wanting to watch more.

Blake's 7: The Way Back
Aired 2 January 1978

In the late 1970s, veteran TV writer Terry Nation was called in to a meeting at the BBC to discuss creating a new show. A respected writer with a huge amount of experience in the industry, he was still best-known for creating the Daleks for Doctor Who fifteen years earlier, and the BBC were hoping to tap that magic again. Nation had several ideas for crime dramas and other ideas, but the executives he was talking to seemed underwhelmed. Improvising on the spot, Nation suggested a dystopian space opera, with a band of malcontents and criminals reluctantly joining forces to escape a tyrannical government. He left with a commission to write a pilot.

Blake's 7 was developed as a conscious riposte to the relentless optimism of Star Trek; the symbol of the despotic Terran Federation is that of Star Trek's Federation but turned to the extreme right. Nation decided he didn't want to write a children's show, and instead wrote an adult, tough and at times brutal pilot script in which engineer Roj Blake is taken to a clandestine meeting of rebels against the government and learns that he was once a respected military leader, captured by the Federation and mind-wiped to be turned into a model citizen. Blake is horrified and suffers a mild mental breakdown as his real memories come flooding back. His new associates are killed in a massacre and Blake finds himself on trial on trumped-up charges of child molestation. His lawyers discover the truth and embark on a quest to clear Blake's name...with invariably fatal results. Only at the end of the episode does Blake meet some of his other soon-to-be fellow shipmates (Jenna and Vila; Avon doesn't appear until the second episode), as he is carried away from Earth on a transport, vowing to return to destroy the government.

The Way Back is uncompromising and quite astonishingly cynical, landing in tone somewhere between Nineteen Eighty-FourThe Prisoner and a waking nightmare, and light-years from the cowboy theatrics of the then recently-released movie Star Wars. It has money problems - Blake's 7 was commissioned as a replacement for contemporary crime drama Softly Softly: Task Force and given the exact same budget! - but these are mostly overcome by cunning use of industrial wastelands and locations as sets and some quite excellent model work. What remains overwhelmingly impressive is the bleak atmosphere and superb acting, particularly from Gareth Thomas as Blake. Not just a great pilot episode, this is one of the best episodes of the entire series.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child
Aired 23 November 1963

The day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the BBC started broadcasting a very unusual drama series. Commissioned as a stopgap between the Saturday sports coverage and an evening pop music show, Doctor Who was a show that combined elements of historical drama, science fiction and educational show. Its long list of creators (Sydney Newman, Anthony Coburn, C.E. Webber, Donald Wilson, Verity Lambert and David Whittaker all played a role in development) shows it was a tough concept to translate to screen, but eventually they succeeded and filmed a pilot episode.

Unfortunately, the pilot episode was a failure. The direction was off, the actors fluffed their lines several times and bits of the set broke off during filming. Unusually (because of the considerable expense), the BBC took the step of mounting a full re-shoot of the pilot, along with a partial rewrite of the script to make the characters more relatable. This time, the team hit it out of the park, crafting a remarkable 25-minute science fiction mystery series that would ultimately launch a franchise that would run for fifty-six years (and counting).

An Unearthly Child sees Coal Hill School teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright becoming concerned about the welfare of one of their students, Susan Foreman, who is quite astonishingly bright and intelligent about somethings (like science and maths) but astoundingly ignorant about others. They are bewildered to discover that she lives with her grandfather in what appears to be a junkyard. Her grandfather, who answers only to the title "Doctor," tries to escape their attention by taking refuge in a police telephone box, but the teachers follow him inside only to discover it is in fact a camouflaged space/time machine, a TARDIS. Shenanigans ensure in which they also learn that both the Doctor and Susan are aliens, exiles from another world, before the TARDIS malfunctions and carries them away from Earth, beginning an adventure that will last a long, long time.

The first episode of Doctor Who has many of the ingredients of later episodes, including a mystery and dramatic revelations, but this time they're about the Doctor himself. This was the first time people had encountered the character, or the TARDIS, and in many cases the very idea of time travel. With some impressive sets (by 1963 BBC standards), good writing and an off-beat atmosphere, not to mention a superlative performance by William Hartnell (the Doctor), which is somewhere between stern and outright threatening, An Unearthly Child sets the scene for all that has followed since.

The Expanse: Dulcinea
Aired 23 November 2015

Bringing James S.A. Corey's series of space opera novels to the screen was always going to be a big challenge, but it's one that the team at Alcon Entertainment rose to with a relish. Dulcinea introduces the setting of the 23rd Century Solar system as vividly as Ron Moore introduced the world of the Twelve Colonies in Battlestar Galactica a dozen years earlier. The attention to detail is amazing, from the lighter gravity in the asteroid settlements to the way the crewmembers of ships not under thrust have to float in zero-g. More important are the actors, with Thomas Jane as a world-weary detective and Steven Strait as the idealistic would-be hero who puts his life (and those of others) on the line to do what he considers to be right.

The result is a vivid and immediately-impactful vision of the future, and a show that starts already in fifth gear and only accelerates from there. Stunning visuals (the effects team on the show deserve all the plaudits for their clear, detailed style, and to be frank the guys creating the murky, often barely-discernible CG on Star Trek: Discovery could learn a lot from them), some excellent music and some terrific directing (the opening imagery of Julie Mao on her terror-stricken ship is now iconic) help propel the story onwards.

The Expanse is the best space opera show since - and possibly including - Battlestar Galactica and this first episode is an important part of the reason why. Remember the Cant!

Firefly: Serenity
Aired 20 December 2002

Serenity was the first episode of Firefly to be written and shot, but it was not the first to be broadcast: Fox felt the episode was low on action and pace, so they ordered Joss Whedon to create a punchier opening (resulting in The Train Job) and moved this premiere to later in the run. Of course, as this episode was the one that established what the hell was going on and introduced the characters and premise, this didn't do much but leave viewers extremely confused and switching off in their droves, leading a few weeks later to the show's cancellation.

This was a huge shame (understatement) as Serenity - not to be confused with the movie of the same name - is a splendid pilot, the best Joss Whedon has ever written. It sets up both the world and the worldview of its characters, introduces a relatively large cast and establishes a significant mystery that will run across the season. It also has to tell rollicking good story in its own right, which it does with enviable skill.

Whilst it's hard to pinpoint one reason why Firefly failed, taking it's excellent opening two hours and burying them at the end of the first season probably had a key role to play.

Lost: Pilot
Aired 22 September 2004

Costing almost $15 million, the pilot episode to Lost is still the most expensive TV pilot ever filmed. To sell the crash-landing of Oceanic Flight 815 on a remote island in the South Pacific, ABC shipped a broken-up Lockheed L-1011 to Hawaii, scattered bits of it along a beach and then, after several weeks of shooting, had to carefully remove it again. It was absurdly indulgent, but every second of the expense ends up on screen, resulting in a scene of chaos, explosions and people trying to save one another that grabbed the audience and didn't let up.

J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof's script is intriguing, setting up no less than fourteen regular characters (and several more recurring) and establishing almost all of them with some interesting character work before later episodes would do the heavy lifting of fleshing them all out via flashbacks. Excellent acting and fantastic location shooting in Hawaii added up to that rarest of things, a network TV show that looked as expensive as premium cable.

Lost's pilot shows the value of starting your show with a bang, grabbing the audience's attention, and then not letting it go.

Mr. Robot:
Aired 24 June 2015

Mr. Robot began life as a movie script by Sam Ismail which he developed for some time before realising that the story was too big and the characters bursting past the page count, demanding more material. Ismail reframed the two-hour movie as a ten-hour season of television, with the pilot expanding from the first thirty pages of the script.

Mr. Robot's pilot is remarkable, an intense drama blending psychology, hacking, cyberthriller and drama. Rami Malek is perfectly cast as Eliot Alderson, a man suffering from depression and loneliness who relates to people by hacking them online, even his therapist. In doing so he finds out secrets about them that they don't even know, and is able to influence their lives without them ever knowing.

Mr. Robot's pilot also has unusual rewatch value. You can watch it on the surface as the technothriller it comes across as, but after watching Season 1 you can go back with fresh information and see all the events again in a different light. A remarkable opening episode to a very unique-feeling series.

Red Dwarf: The End
Aired 15 February 1988

"Everybody's dead, Dave." The very first episode of Red Dwarf sets up a very strong premise, with Dave Lister, the lowest-ranking crewmember on the five-mile-long mining ship Red Dwarf (because the service robots have a better union than the human maintenance crew), being sentenced to spend the rest of the mission in temporal stasis after smuggling an unquarantined cat on board. This proves unexpectedly helpful when the crew is wiped out by a lethal radiation leak. Holly, the ship's AI (IQ 6,000, "the same as 12,000 traffic wardens"), steers the ship into deep space and waits for the radiation to die down to a safe background level...which takes 3 million years.

Emerging from stasis, Lister discovers his only company is the now-senile Holly, a humanoid lifeform who descended from his pregnant cat and a holographic recreation of Lister's commanding office, the painfully officious and unpleasant Arnold J. Rimmer.

It's a great premise which gets the show off to a good start (arguably the second episode, Future Echoes, is also required viewing as it sets up how the show can move beyond its limited premise), showcases the amazing cast and features some good gags. A 31-year (and counting) journey started here.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Emissary
Aired 3 January 1993

Deep Space Nine is almost certainly the finest Star Trek television series for myriad reasons, from its greater levels of serialisation to its intricate character arcs to its refusal to push the reset button at the end of each episode, but one that is oft-overlooked is the fact that it has the best opening episode in the entire franchise.

The Cage was so esoteric and weird that it put the broadcasters off and nearly killed the original Star Trek, before it came back with the (somewhat) stronger and mostly-recast second pilot Where No Man Has Gone Before; the broadcasters were still unconvinced and ended up dropping in a random early Season 1 episode to kick things off instead. Star Trek: The Next Generation's Encounter at Farpoint was intriguing but clumsily-written, with the characters pale shadows of their later, more fleshed-out incarnations. Voyager's Caretaker was only okay, and Enterprise's Broken Bow started off well by promising a more low-tech approach to Star Trek that it had pretty much broken by the end of the pilot. Discovery took arguably three whole episodes to even finish off setting up its basic premise.

Emissary, though, is a much more successful episode. It opens with a literal bang, with producer Michael Piller finally apologising to fans for having to wimp out on showing the Battle of Wolf 359 from The Next Generation's Borg epic The Best of Both Worlds three years earlier (due to cost). An epic flashback depicts the desperate struggle as the Borg cut through a Starfleet armada of forty starships with contemptuous ease, Commander Ben Sisko losing his wife in the process.

The rest of the episode is fascinating. The Cardassians have withdraw their occupation force from the planet Bajor after forty years of brutal conquest, leaving massive religious and social upheavals in their wake. The Federation has stepped in to help the transition and run an orbiting Cardassian space station, but to the surprise of the Starfleet personnel, they find a hostile reception among those Bajorans who fear they've swapped one oppressor for another. It's all rather messy and a big departure from The Next Generation, where everyone is so civilised and reasonable and solves problems over cups of (Earl Grey, hot) tea and sessions with the ship's counsellor. The fact that the main cast includes a significant number of both Starfleet and non-Starfleet personnel (a first and, to date, last for the franchise) allows for more character and cultural conflict than we'd previously seen on Trek, and fuelled seven full (and mostly excellent) seasons of stories.

The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye
Aired 31 October 2010

The Walking Dead has become such a divisive and polarising show, that it's easy to forget how well-received the first episode (and most of the first season) was. Directed by Frank Darabont (that's Mr. Shawshank Redemption to you and me), the opening episode is a masterclass in slowly building tension and character interplay, particularly the exchanges between Rick and Morgan (so effective that Morgan would return to the series years later by popular fan demand).

The visuals are striking throughout, particularly the closing images of Rick riding a horse into an eerily deserted Atlanta, only to be attacked by a vast horde of walkers and forced to take refuge in a tank. It's rare to see a pilot given this level of production value, scripting and direction, and a genuine pleasure to watch.

Of course, Darabont would be forced off The Walking Dead in -contentious circumstances a year later (with litigation still continuing today), and The Walking Dead would go through so many showrunners, writing staffs and contortions of premise that the show today barely resembles how it started, but this opener remains excellent and compelling viewing.

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Friday 17 May 2019

New HIS DARK MATERIALS trailer reveals the daemons

The BBC and HBO have dropped a new teaser trailer for His Dark Materials, their TV adaptation of the Philip Pullman trilogy of the same name.

The new trailer shows off the daemons (animal familiars) of the main characters for the first time. It also confirms that the armoured bears will appear in Season 1. With the show planned to adapt the three books over five seasons, it was unclear if the bears would be included in the first season.

The trailer also shows scenes that appear only at the very end of the first novel in the series, Northern Lights (retitled The Golden Compass in the USA for no readily apparent reason), suggesting that perhaps they have rethought the five-season strategy and might be considering a shorter run.

His Dark Materials has already been renewed for a second season, which is expected to enter production soon. Season 1 is expected to start airing in October or November this year.

Amazon cancels THE TICK

In frankly horrible news, Amazon has cancelled the fantastic The Tick after two seasons.

Amazon have not provided a reason for not proceeding with the series. Creator Ben Edlund has confirmed that he will try to find a home for the series elsewhere, but the initial signs do not look promising.

Across its two seasons, The Tick was funny, oddly moving and brilliantly written and acted, particularly by the immortal Peter Serafinowicz as the title character. It's a real shame we will not be seeing more of the show.

It's also unusual, because Amazon have prioritised finding commercial and critical successes in their quest to rival Netflix. The Tick's two seasons have scored hugely well with critics, including a 100% critic rating for the second season on Rotten Tomatoes. However, Amazon did not publicise the release of the second season well, sneaking it out with relatively little fanfare, which may have impacted on the reception (the same problem Netflix had with Season 2 of Sense8, in which case many viewers didn't know that the second season had been released until the show was cancelled).

Thursday 16 May 2019

Halo Wars: Definitive Edition

The year 2531. The United Nations Space Command and the alien Covenant are engaged in a war for control of vital resources. The UNSC starship Spirit of Fire investigates Covenant activity on the planet Harvest and uncovers evidence of a plot by the Covenant which could imperil all of humanity. The Spirit of Fire has to pursue a Covenant taskforce into deep space and attempt to thwart their plans without backup.

The Halo series began life as a real-time strategy game for Mac, before transitioning into a first-person shooter for PC before finally arriving on the original X-Box in 2001, the first shooter since GoldenEye to really work with a console controller. The series became a huge success, selling millions of copies of the original game and its sequels Halo 2 (2005) and Halo 3 (2007), and a spin-off, Halo 3: ODST (2009). In a sign of things becoming full circle, Microsoft decided to expand the franchise to other genres and commissioned a real-time strategy spin-off, Halo Wars, which was eventually released on the X-Box 360 in 2009. In 2016, the game was finally ported to PC as a "Definitive Edition," which is the version I have reviewed here.

Halo Wars gained praise on release as the first real-time strategy game made to really work on console. An intuitive interface allows players to build units, expand their bases, select forces and advance across the battlefield from a standard controller. Some standard RTS controls and ideas had to abandoned or simplified for the experience, but the transition was surprisingly successful.

As with most RTS games, Halo Wars opens with you having control of a single base. This can be upgraded with modules, such as supply depots (which generate supply, the game's sole resource), power stations (which generate power, which determines what upgrades and advanced units you can build), barracks, vehicle construction stations and aircraft construction stations. You can also add turrets to bases to help defend them. In an interesting twist, even a fully-upgraded base can't hold all of the structures you need, forcing you to expand early and explore the map to find areas where you can set up secondary bases.

The resource gathering is a particularly nice touch. Rather than send out a harvester of some kind to mine a resource, you simply generate supply points. The more supply depots you have, the more supply you generate, but of course you only have a limited number of expansion modules, so if you build lots of supply pads you may find yourself unable to build a vehicle factory or a barracks. This encourages early-game expansion and exploration. The supply mechanic isn't new, originating as it did in the Command and Conquer: Generals expansion Zero Hour many years earlier, but Halo Wars makes it really work as part of the mechanics.

You can build an extensive army consisting of infantry, aircraft, tanks, anti-air batteries and other units. The elite Spartan super-soldiers can't be built (at least in campaign mode) but can join the fray as special elite units for certain missions.

For a supposedly "cut-down" RTS, Halo Wars surprisingly enjoyable even for an experienced PC strategy gamer. The unit variety isn't the most extensive, but the focus on a smaller roster helps streamline the game and make it more enjoyable. It also allows for battles to be fought faster and more furiously, rather than you agonising of which of several very slightly different units to build.

The campaign is enjoyable, with a fairly straightforward SF story. As the game is set twenty years before the original Halo: Combat Evolved, no prior knowledge of the franchise is needed, making it a perfect jumping-on point ahead of the release of the upcoming Halo Master Chief Collection on PC (which will bring Halo: Reach, Halo: ODST, Halo 3 and Halo 4 to PC for the first time, alongside upgraded versions of the original Halo and Halo 2).

The game does have several problems, however. The game doesn't use many "standard" RTS controls, instead forcibly mapping camera controls to WASD and not allowing you to reassign them. This means many standard RTS controls - A for attack-move, S for stop - are not available in the game. The game is also on the short side: I polished off all 15 campaign missions in about 11 hours. The game feels like it really needs a Covenant campaign to make the game a more worthwhile single-player experience, and indeed the story feels a bit opaque at times, like we were supposed to be getting more information about the Covenant version of events but at some point this was cut.

The other problem is that the game can't help but feel a little familiar, particularly in missions fighting the organic Flood where you have to destroy their living technology. This feels very reminiscent of fighting both the Zerg in StarCraft and the Tyranids in Dawn of War.

Still, given it is now available at a very reasonable price, Halo Wars (****) succeeds as a short, focused and fun real-time strategy game which doesn't make too many concessions to its console origins. It's available now on Steam.

Atlanta: Season 2

Earn is continuing to manage his cousin Alfred, whose career as rapper "Paper Boi" is blowing up. Alfred is unhappy with Earn's management style, whilst Earn feels that Alfred isn't taking advantage of social media and other opportunities to boost his profile. Meanwhile, it's "Robbin' Season" in Atlanta, the pre-Christmas crime spree, which results in a lot of weird stuff going down.

The first season of Atlanta was a mash-up of comedy, hard-hitting drama and bizarre psychological study. It cemented Donald Glover's (formerly of Community) position as a hot up-and-comer. After that season aired, Glover's music career (as Childish Gambino, of "This is America" fame) went stratospheric and he starred as a young Lando in the Star Wars movie Solo. Other castmembers also went big, with Lakeith Stanfield nailing a major role in Get Out and Zazie Beetz starring in Deadpool 2.

On that basis, it's perhaps a surprise we got a second season of Atlanta so soon, but Glover prioritised it and managed to create something even stranger, sadder, funnier and more heartwarming than the first season.

If Season 1 of Atlanta was a surrealist tone poem, Season 2 is a full-blown odyssey of the strange and the grotesque. It moves through a dense period of several weeks in which a lot of stuff goes down for the characters, so much that rather than try to cover events chronologically it instead splits the events between characters. This means we get few episodes where all the major characters appear, with instead most episodes focusing on a single character or group of characters. This results in an intense focus which at times feels claustrophobic, but this is appropriate for the stories that are being told.

Atlanta remains hilarious, with comic highlights including Darius and Earn trying to defuse a confrontation between Earn's insane uncle and the police, involving an alligator. A later episode sees Earn and Van defusing their relationship problems with a game of table tennis at a German party. Barbershop sees Alfred going for a simple haircut, but gets dragged into an increasingly hilarious road trip with his eccentric barber, whilst in Champagne Papi Van and her friends attend an offbeat house party where they hope to meet Drake. In North of the Border Earn, Darius and Alfred travel to a college campus to take part in a publicity event, but things go sideways and they end up taking refuge at a very uncomfortable frat boy initiation ceremony.

The season also goes dark, very dark. It feels like the shadow of the movie Get Out lies heavy on this season and Glover leans into it, delivering in Teddy Perkins possibly the freakiest 35 minutes of television of 2018. Woods is also a dark and depressing episode, but one that ends on a bizarrely redemptive note.

The season ends by coming almost full circle, as major events in the opening episode come to fruition (including one of the most literal uses of the Chekhov's Gun trope you'll ever see) and leaves things in an interesting place for the third season (which isn't expected to air until 2020).

The second season of Atlanta (*****) improves on the first to become a study in tension and tragicomedy, and has an infusion of horror running through it which is both incongruous and compelling. It remains one of the most unique and distinctive shows on air.

Wednesday 15 May 2019

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Two children have immense and varying gifts. Patricia is a nascent witch, can talk to animals and has a special bond with nature. Laurence is an engineering and scientific genius who has built a semi-functional AI and a two-second time machine. As children they are both dismissed as freaks, which draws them closer together. They are separated in their teenage years but fate draws them back together as adults, in a world slipping into despair from political, technological and scientific challenges.

All the Birds in the Sky is the second novel by Charlie Jane Anders, a noted writer and critic best-known for co-founding SFF website io9 (for which, full disclosure, I have written the occasional piece). It's a novel rich in character and variety which develops two protagonists and has them engage in two distinct narrative threads (one science fiction, the other fantasy) which merge as the novel progresses.

It's a novel which wears many hats, from coming-of-age-against-adversity YA adventure (the opening chapters), to adult relationship drama to science fiction disaster novel to a lyrical fantasy fable. Anders' strength as a novelist is moving between these subgenres with impressive ease, flipping from the YA setting to the apocalyptic SF one on a dime but never losing the book's momentum. The book has a lot of humour and drama in it (along with a topping of tragedy) and it handles these shifts in tone with skill.

Core to the book's success is the characterisation of its two leads, the rigorous and logical Laurence and the more instinctive and spontaneous Patricia. The two characters gain strength from leaning on and learning from one another's differences, and overcoming their challenges by working together. Disastrous moments in the novel come from them not trusting one another or working as cross-purposes instead of pooling resources. It's a book that, above all else, focuses on the idea of empathy and understanding, and facing down challenges through cooperation rather than division.

There are some undercooked moments. I would have liked to have known more about the Order of Assassins that crops up several times in the novel, and some late-book revelations about how much the scientists and magicians know about each other come out of nowhere, but otherwise this is a very fine and appropriate novel for our times.

All the Birds in the Sky (****½) comes across as a fusion of Neil Gaiman (on a very good day), Diana Wynn Jones and Robert Holdstock, but with a twinkling flair to the prose that is all Charlie Jane's. It is available now in the UK and USA.