Monday 30 September 2019

Filming of Terry Pratchett's THE WATCH begins

Shooting has commenced on the BBC America TV series The Watch, "inspired by" Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels revolving around the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.

The new TV series will be a reinterpretation of the City Watch books (Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, Night Watch, Thud and Snuff), featuring some of the same characters but, in some cases, in dramatically different circumstances. The TV series will also not be directly adapting the books, instead creating original stories.

Fan reaction to the news has been mixed. Some of the casting, particularly Richard Dormer (Game of Thrones' Ser Beric) as Captain Sam Vimes, has been highly praised, but other casting decisions have been criticised, particularly the decision to turn the middle-aged and stout Lady Sybil into a young, Catwoman-like vigilante.\

The Watch is expected to air on BBC America in late 2020.

Netflix officially renew STRANGER THINGS for a fourth season

Netflix have officially confirmed that Stranger Things will return for a fourth season, although that's no surprise as they inadvertently confirmed it way back in July when they booked the studio space for filming.

The fourth season is part of a much bigger deal negotiated by Netflix with the show's creators, the Duffer Brothers, said to be worth at least $100 million. This deal will include exclusive development deals for new TV shows outside the Stranger Things universe as well as first-look rights at film ideas.

It is as yet unclear if the fourth season will be the final one, with the Duffer Brothers previously saying they felt that four seasons might be too short but five might be too long. There is also the possibility of a fourth season and then either a shortened fifth season or a film to wrap up the story. According to a short promo released by Netflix, more of the fourth season will be set outside the series' traditional setting of Hawkins, Indiana.

Production of Season 4 of Stranger Things is set to begin in October, with a likely air date around Halloween 2020.

Games Workshop and Marvel join forces to make WARHAMMER comics

Games Workshop and Marvel Comics have joined forces to produce a range of Warhammer comics.

Games Workshop and its publishing arm, the Black Library, have published Warhammer comics and graphic novels in the past (sometimes in collaboration with Titan), but Marvel's much greater worldwide distribution network and reach will give them access to a much larger market.

The official statement is a little terse, but it sounds like Marvel and GW will be publishing at least one Warhamer 40,000 title and another based on Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. The first comics are expected to arrive in late 2020.

Susanna Clarke's second novel to be published in 2020

The second novel by Susanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, will arrive in 2020, to be followed by a third book.

Clarke started her career with short fiction, garnering a small but dedicated fanbase that included Neil Gaiman. She started work on Jonathan Strange in 1993, at the same time she began work as an editor for cookbooks. The novel was finally released in 2004 and was an immediate bestseller, going on to sell in the region of five million copies which puts it neck-and-neck with Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind as a claimant to the title of the biggest-selling fantasy debut of the 21st Century (to date).

Clarke followed up the novel with a story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu (2006), and reported that she was working on a sequel to Jonathan Strange focusing on the character of John Childermass. Progress was slowed, however, by illness: Clarke is a long-term sufferer of CFS (sometimes called ME), which is one of the reasons the first novel took over a decade to be published.

Jonathan Strange was adapted as a well-received BBC mini-series in 2015.

The new novel is called Piranesi and seems to be an original novel, not related to the Jonathan Strange universe. The book focuses on the inhabitants of a vast, strange house and what happens when they uncover evidence of the world outside. The title seems to be a nod at the artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), whose strange, pre-Escher-esque images of haunted landscapes and buildings seems to be an inspiration for the novel.

Bloomberg have confirmed that Piranesi will be published in September 2020. A third novel, which may or may not be the Jonathan Strange sequel, will follow.

Sunday 29 September 2019

A History of Homeworld Part 1: The First Time

In the first of a new series celebrating the franchise's twentieth anniversary (and the impending arrival of Homeworld 3), I look at the background lore of the critically-acclaimed Homeworld series of video games.

The galaxy during the First Time.

The Rise of the Bentusi
Attend carefully, for the mysteries of the past hold many clues for the future and events to come. Wisdom can be gleaned from studying the ancients, their triumphs and their mistakes.

In the most ancient of days, the First Time, there arose the Bentusi, a race great in scientific knowledge and engineering prowess. They built great ships to explore the gulfs between the stars, and delighted in learning new knowledge and contacting new races. They were among the first of the modern races to travel from one star system to another, traversing the galaxy through advanced drives that propelled them at close to the speed of light.

But as they explored the galaxy, the Bentusi found the ruins of an even more ancient, stranger civilisation. Tens of thousands of years before the Bentusi reached the stars, another race had gotten there first. They had built an empire spanning thousands of systems, plumbed the very mysteries of hyperspace to exceed lightspeed and built megastructures that defied easy understanding or comprehension, even for the enlightened Bentusi. Their power had appeared supreme, commanding fleets of intelligent starships and constructing utterly vast space habitats thousands of kilometres in length.

These “Progenitors” were overthrown and destroyed almost overnight. The vast ruins at Karos and Tanis stand testament to the fact that they encountered something that could not be resisted, and they were destroyed or forced to flee the galaxy altogether. The Bentusi, unnerved, could find no evidence of whatever fate had befallen them.

The Great Harbour Ship of Bentus, the flagship of the Bentusi Fleet and the carrier of the First Hyperspace Core for millennia.

What they did find, hidden in a Progenitor derelict, was something remarkable. A hyperspace core of tremendous power, with the ability to allow extremely large starships to cross thousands of light-years in a single bound, to Far Jump. Despite their best efforts, the Bentusi could not replicate the Core. Markings on the derelict suggested that the core might be one of three, but the fate of the other two was unknown. Instead, the Bentusi designed and built the largest starship in their history, the Great Harbour Ship Bentus, and attached the First Core to it.

For millennia, the Bentusi presided over a galaxy at peace. They forged the Outer Rim Trade Routes, allowing dozens and then hundreds of spacefaring races to trade together in peaceful cooperation. The Bentusi identified promising races and gave them the gift of “normal” hyperdrives (derived from the technology of the First Core), allowing them to Short Jump across dozens of light-years at a time. As the centuries passed, the Bentusi became creatures of space, merging with their starships to become “Unbound,” not limited to a single world or system.

During this time many thousands of Progenitor ruins and artefacts were uncovered by numerous races. Progenitor records were almost non-existent, with no histories or detailed accounts left behind to explain their origins or their fate. But a few symbols were found that could be translated. These eventually gave rise to the myth of Sajuuk, the Great Maker, He Whose Hand Shapes What Is.

Chief among those races who were found and helped by the Bentusi were two humanoid species. One originated on a world close to the Galactic Core known as Hiigara. The other, relatively nearby, was located on a world called Taiidan. Both the Hiigarans and Taiidan were civilised and grew rich from trade, but both races also grew resentful of the Bentusi’s overwhelming power, and in particular their ability to Far Jump, leaving the “lesser races” standing still in comparison.

Hiigara, the homeworld of the Hiigaran people, as seen from space.

Sajuuk’s Wrath
Some five centuries after Hiigara and Taiidan became interstellar players, the galaxy was rocked by a series of military conflicts, which in turn spread more conflict and chaos across the stars. These conflicts revealed that even the Bentusi could not be everywhere at once, and by the time the Bentusi had restored peace (forcibly, in some cases), dozens of powerful confederations had formed, chief among them the Hiigaran and Taiidan empires. Acknowledging the new reality, the Bentusi proposed the founding of a Galactic Council as a forum for peaceful debate and discussion between the new powers. The Hiigarans and Taiidan eagerly agreed and were among the Council’s sixteen founding states.

The Hiigarans and Taiidan may have cooperated to reduce the power of the Bentusi, but they were also rivals. Their empires were approximately equal in power, with between forty and fifty major planetary systems each under their control. Their military technology was roughly matched and their empires located in a similar region of space, the Hiigarans claiming a wide swathe of the Shining Hinterlands around the Galactic Core and the Taiidan slightly further out, towards the Inner Rim. Border conflicts erupted, including several major enough to be called small wars. The Council stepped in each time to negotiate an end to the conflict, but the Hiigarans came to believe that they were being treated badly, with each resolution seeming to favour the Taiidan side. In particular, the imposition of a thirty light-year-wide “buffer zone” between Taiidan and Hiigaran space which encroached strongly into territories claimed by the Hiigaran Empire was seen as a move directly benefiting the Taiidan. The Taiidan were accused of using bribes or blackmail to coerce the Council into making decisions in their favour, a claim outright rejected by the Council. Decades of simmering resentment from the Hiigarans to the Council and to the Taiidan began.

During this period, the Hiigarans made a shattering discovery. In a derelict starship in a remote system, they located the Second Hyperspace Core of the Progenitors. Extracting it, they gained the same ability as the Bentusi, to Far Jump across thousands of light-years in an instant. Like the Bentusi, they had to design and build a special starship to use it. This they named Sajuuk’s Wrath, as the Hiigarans came to believe that Sajuuk himself had forged the Three Hyperspace Cores for a greater purpose.

The Hiigarans’ purpose was more straightforward: survival. Over the preceding decades, the Taiidan had grown more powerful, eclipsing the might of Hiigara. Their empire had grown larger and the Galactic Council continued to make judgements in favour of the Taiidan. The Hiigarans feared that they would be overwhelmed and annexed by the Taiidan gradually over time. To avert this fate, they put into motion an audacious plan.

Every Hiigaran military ship gathered in the skies above Hiigara. The Sajuuk’s Wrath activated its Far Jump capability, opening hyperspace portals to deep inside Taiidani space, far behind their defensive lines. The Hiigaran fleet passed through and annihilated everything in sight. The fleet then jumped to the next defensive strongpoint, destroying everything they could find, and then again. Their jumps were so vast that they outran the warnings that Taiidan tried to send back to their leaders. The first the Taiidani central government knew of the danger was when the Hiigaran fleet emerged out of hyperspace above their homeworld.

The Sajuuk’s Wrath led the armada in bombarding Taiidan from space, destroying its orbital defences and then targeting the surface. According to Hiigaran records, the fleet expertly and surgically targeted military installations and government facilities only, ignoring civilian targets. Taiidan records suggest a more general bombardment that killed millions. The government was annihilated and the Taiidan military decapitated in a single blow.

The Hiigaran fleet returned home approximately sixty-seven hours after departing on its mission. In that time, it had laid the Taiidan Empire low. In the following days, the Hiigarans mounted a widespread offensive along their frontier, retaking dozens of worlds lost or ceded to the Taiidan over the preceding centuries.

The Hiigarans believed that the Galactic Council would, as normal, dither and prevaricate in the face of overwhelming, resolute force, as the Council had often done in the face of Taiidan aggression. However, the Council saw the Hiigarans wielding the Second Core as an existential threat to the galaxy. They feared that the Hiigarans would conquer all of known space, and they issued them with an ultimatum: to surrender the Second Core, to withdraw from all conquered worlds and to stand down and scuttle the bulk of their fleet in the buffer zone between Hiigaran and Taiidan space.

The Hiigarans agreed, but only on the condition that they would surrender the Core to the Bentusi. This was deemed acceptable, but the gambit was a ruse. The Hiigarans launched a sneak attack on the Bentusi using the Sajuuk’s Wrath. They very nearly succeeded, with the first shot coming close to disabling the Bentus’s hyperdrive. But ultimately, they failed. Bentus used its Far Jump drive to summon a vast fleet of reinforcements and in short order the Hiigaran fleet was annihilated. The remnants fled back to Hiigara, the Bentusi in pursuit. The commander of the Sajuuk’s Wrath rejected the call to surrender and instead triggered the ship’s hyperdrive, making a jump directly into the gravity well of the Angel Moon, Hiigara’s largest satellite. The Wrath crashed into the surface of the moon, exploding impressively. The Wrath was gone and – apparently – the Second Core with it.

The Bentusi supported the claim that the Core had been destroyed, a claim in itself suspicious, as the Bentusi had wielded the power of the First Core for millennia. They knew (as we do now) that the Cores, as products of Progenitor technology, were nigh on indestructible and almost invulnerable to physical harm, and the Second Core had almost certainly survived. Yet they made no move to retrieve the Core, a decision which remains a topic of fierce debate.

The Hiigarans offered unconditional surrender. Their empire was dismantled, their conquered worlds liberated and their fleets scuttled. They were left with barely a token defensive flotilla. For the Bentusi, the war had sapped much of their morale and reserve. Sickened by the violence they had unleashed, they renounced their role as the galaxy’s peacekeepers. They remained on the Council but now dedicated themselves to peaceful trade and exploration only.

The Taiidan were not so merciful.

Looking towards the Galactic Core from the Outer Rim.

The Exiles
Admiral Riesstiu, the highest-ranking surviving member of the Taiidan Navy, had committed himself to the rebuilding of the Taiidan military. The homeworld had been decimated, but dozens of other planets survived with an enviable industrial output. Fleets around the edge of the Taiidan Empire, the forces the Hiigarans had jumped past to achieve total strategic surprised, remained intact. A vast armada was assembled. Riesstiu used advanced technology to extend his lifespan by first decades and then possibly centuries. Declaring himself the Emperor of Taiidan, he led the fleet on a war of retribution against Hiigara. Hiigara’s colonies were overrun and conquered in a matter of weeks. The Taiidan fleet closed in on the near-defenceless homeworld and stood poised to incinerate it from orbit when Riesstiu stayed his hand. The Galactic Council and the Bentusi had made a plea for mercy and Riesstiu was aware that the Taiidan’s moral superiority would be lost if they behaved even worse than the Hiigarans had. He announced that the Hiigaran population would be spared. Their planet would become the new throneworld of the Taiidan Empire and the Hiigarans would become slaves of the Taiidan.

The Hiigarans balked at this last point, preferring death to servitude. The Taiidan may have granted them their wish, but again the Council requested clemency. Keen to maintain his authority with the Council, Riesstiu agreed to instead send the surviving Hiigarans into exile on the very fringes of the galaxy. They would take no weapons with them and would leave all of their most advanced technology behind. A fleet of large bulk freighters was assembled, enough to carry millions of people across the galaxy, albeit in some discomfort and with only marginal capacity for food and water.

The Hiigaran people set out on their journey, which would be long, arduous and fraught with danger. Only capable of Short Jumps, the fleet took generations to reach its destination, spending vast amounts of time crawling at sublight whilst their antiquated jump drives recharged. Ships were lost due to malfunctions, mis-jumps and mutiny. Several vessels abandoned the fleet within the Great Nebula, a vast region of star formation on the Outer Rim, preferring to settle the hidden region of Kadesh rather than carry on to their designated destination. But eventually, several surviving ships made planetfall on a remote desert world on the outermost fringes of the galaxy, 35,000 light-years or more from Hiigara. The largest surviving ship became the nexus for a great city, “Khar-Toba” (the First City). The desert planet was named “Kharak,” and the Hiigarans adopted a new name for themselves, the “Kushan.” One of the mightiest empires in the history of the galaxy had been reduced to a handful of survivors in a single city on a barren world.

But they did have one advantage left to them. Before the flight, Hiigaran engineers had secretly landed on the Angel Moon and recovered the Second Core from where it had fallen years earlier. Powered down, it was secreted in the hold of the lead refugee ship and taken with them to Kharak.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.

Trailer for the BBC's WAR OF THE WORLDS released

The BBC has unveiled its trailer for its forthcoming mini-series based on H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds.

Unlike most adaptations, such as the classic 1953 film and the 2005 Tom Cruise vehicle, this new series hews much closer to Wells' novel and is set in the same time period as the book. Apart from the little-known (and terrible) Pendragon Pictures film (also released in 2005), very few adaptations have actually tried to adapt the book in the particulars of plot and setting, so it will be interesting to see how this attempt fares. Certainly the trailer looks impressive and the cast, including Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) and Rafe Spall (Hot Fuzz), is promising.

The mini-series is set to air in the UK this autumn.

Friday 27 September 2019

THE WITCHER likely to hit Netflix on 8 or 15 November

Netflix have still not set a release date for their TV series based on Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher novels, but there's a big clue that either 8 or 15 November is the most likely date.

Both Orbit in the United States and Gollancz in the UK are releasing new editions of the first Witcher book, The Last Wish, with artwork inspired by the TV show. The UK edition lands on Thursday 7 November and the US edition on Tuesday 12 November.

As Netflix mostly release their shows on Fridays, that makes either 8 or 15 November the most likely date to release the first season.

More news as we get it.

Thursday 26 September 2019

Head of Marvel Studios to develop a STAR WARS movie

Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios and creative directory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is to collaborate with the team at Lucasfilm on a new Star Wars movie.

The news is surprising because Feige has a pretty busy slate on his hands, with numerous films and TV shows in development in the MCU. However, Feige is also a huge Star Wars fan and with an opening in his schedule (presumably related to the Sony/Marvel Spider-Man break-up), it appears he wants to help out the Lucasfilm team with their slate of upcoming TV shows and films.

There's no word yet on the nature of the project, although at the moment it sounds like a single film and that it will be part of the "new era" of Star Wars films set to follow the release of The Rise of Skywalker in December, which will conclude the story of Rey, Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron and Finn that began with The Force Awakens in 2015. The film will also reportedly end the nine-part, "trilogy of trilogies" extending back to the release of the original Star Wars in 1977.

Disney's handling of the Star Wars franchise has had mixed results, with a well-received TV show (Rebels) and movie (The Force Awakens) followed by The Last Jedi, which had very mixed results, and the animated show Resistance, which has been cancelled after just two seasons and poor reviews. Of the spin-off films, Rogue One did very well but Solo became the first-ever Star Wars film to lose money at the box office, despite a positive critical reception.

These results have led to Lucasfilm delaying the release of the next Star Wars film (after Rise) to 2022. Former Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are developing a multi-film series, whilst The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson is committed to a trilogy of films. Both series are apparently set in a new period of time and a part of the galaxy distinct from previous worlds. Rumours persist that the new wave of Star Wars films - presumably including Feige's - will be set in the Knights of the Old Republic time period, but this remains unconfirmed.

The next Star Wars project to hit the screens will the franchise's first-ever live-action TV show, The Mandalorian, which will help launch the Disney+ streaming service on 12 November this year. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hits cinemas on 20 December.

The world's greatest space combat sim is available free

GoG are running a literal giveaway where you can pick up a copy of Freespace 2 for exactly nothing. The giveaway is running for the next two days.

The giveaway is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of Freespace 2 on 30 September 1999. Freespace 2 is, succinctly put, the greatest space combat game ever made, achieving some kind of towering apotheosis in the genre that caused it to effectively implode shortly afterwards. The slightly different space trader genre continued (via Freelancer, the X: Beyond the Frontier series and the recent Elite: Dangerous) but after a few noble efforts (Starlancer, Tachyon: Beyond the Fringe) the space combat genre spluttered out of existence. Attempts to resurrect it have had mixed results, with the first big challenger likely to be Squadron 42 (part of the wider Star Citizen project), which does not have a scheduled release date at present.

The game's strength is in its instinctive flight model, it's still-impressive graphics and its moody, atmospheric storyline, which pits humanity and an allied alien race against the enigmatic Shivans and a fifth column of human traitors. The game is a sequel to Conflict: Freespace - The Great War (1998) and its expansion, The Silent Threat (1998), both playable in the Freespace 2 engine via mods. The game's mod scene is phenomenal, updating the graphics, adding new campaigns and allowing players to play total conversion mods, including one set in the Battlestar Galactica universe.

For absolutely nothing, the game is well worth picking up.

WHEEL OF TIME showrunner shares first picture from the set

Wheel of Time showrunner Rafe Judkins has shared the first image from the Wheel of Time shooting location. Note: non-spoiler.

Disappointingly, the sheep actor and their past credentials have not yet been identified, although there was a brief Twitter storm of "goat or sheep?" before Judkins confirmed that the actor was in fact a sheep.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

Happy 20th anniversary to SPACED

Spaced, the greatest sitcom about science fiction and fantasy fans ("geeks," if you will), turns 20 years old today.

Created by Jessica Hynes, Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, Spaced is set in London and sees the twenty-something Tim Beasley (Pegg) and Daisy Steiner (Hynes) as flatmates who pretend they're a couple to secure an astonishingly reasonable London flat from their ex-rock groupie landlady Marsha (Julia Deakin). The other regular characters include Tim and Daisy's pretentious artist neighbour Brian (Mark Heap), Daisy's fashion-obsessed friend Twist (Katy Carmichael) and Tim's best friend Brian (Nick Frost), a disgraced member of the Territorial Army who was kicked out after commandeering a tank and trying to invade Paris before being distracted by EuroDisney and subsequently apprehended on Space Mountain. Recurring characters include Tim's sworn nemesis Dwayne Benzie (Peter Serafinowicz) and his comic shop owner boss, Bilbo (Bill Bailey), who at a key moment is forced to fire Tim for hurling over-the-top abuse at a young customer for trying to buy Jar-Jar Binks merchandise (Tim's subsequent boss then fires Tim when he discovers his dislike of Babylon 5).

The show's storylines revolved around the characters' interpersonal relationships, such as Brian and Twist's growing romance, and also around pop culture references. This included episodes inspired by everything from Resident Evil 2 to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to The Matrix to John Woo. However, the series maintained a strong comedic edge, mining the laughs from the characters and situations they found themselves in so even non-geeks could enjoy the show (the cast used Julia Deakin as their litmus for this, as the only geek reference she got was a Close Encounters of the Third Kind mashed potato gag). This also helped the show age gracefully, even though a number of shows and movies the series referenced have since fallen into obscurity.

Spaced only aired two seasons in 1999 and 2001, totalling fourteen episodes, but of course its impact was seismic. Hynes, Serafinowicz, Wright, Pegg and Frost reteamed for the movie Shaun of the Dead in 2004 (which by coincidence celebrates the 15th anniversary of its US release today) and the latter three then went on to make Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World's End (2013). Pegg also played Scotty in JJ Abrams' Star Trek movies and most recently appeared in Amazon's The Boys, whilst Frost recently had a regular role on Into the Badlands. Serafinowicz recently starred in Amazon's The Tick and Hynes had a starring role on Years and Years. Wright has also had a successful directing career with the critically-acclaimed movies Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver and the forthcoming Last Night in Soho. He has also worked as a writer on movies including The Adventures of Tintin and Ant-Man. The show also featured before-they-were-famous turns by British comics from David Walliams to Ricky Gervais.

Spaced remains the finest sitcom about pop culture, challenged only by Community (Dan Harmon had never seen Spaced, but after viewing it had to admit there must have been some kind of weird shared cultural osmosis). It never looked down or sneered at SFF fandom, instead promoting the idea of fans as creative and warm-hearted individuals. The show also still looks incredible, Wright's fast-cut editing and dynamic camera moves making it look like a film. Why more sitcoms (British or otherwise) have not taken their cue from this show remains a mystery.

So far, the creators are resisting the urge to create a new series (although acknowledging they have talked about it), instead preferring to leave these characters as we last saw them: happy, optimistic and ready for the future. If you haven't checked out Spaced, it's well worth catching up with now.

Monday 23 September 2019

Gratuitous Lists: Ten Shows That Should Be Rebooted

We live in the age of reboots. It feels like we can’t go a week or three without someone announcing a remake of a beloved, older property. From Ghostbusters (twice!) to Gremlins to Charmed to a third iteration of Battlestar Galactica, reboots are all the rage, many of them unnecessary or premature. 

But what about franchises that have been left fallow which should be rebooted, where a new version would be welcome because the original is very old, or because it was cancelled ahead of time, or because it never got enough recognition in its time? Here are ten shows which I think could rise again and be done interestingly.

Note that by the term reboot, I mean "a relaunch of an older franchise in a new form." This can be either a continuation of the original series but in a new viewer-friendly format – such as the 2005 Doctor Who and 2017 Star Trek “reboots,” and Sam Esmail’s recently-announced Battlestar relaunch – or a complete, from scratch remake of the original, such as Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica or the recent version of Charmed. Or even the rare franchise which attempts both (such as, arguably, J.J. Abrams’ 2009 take on Star Trek).

Space: Above and Beyond

Originally airing for just a single season in 1995-96, this space opera series focused on the Wildcards, the 58th Squadron of the United States Marine Corps Space Aviator Cavalry, as they engaged in warfare with the alien “Chigs.” Set in 2063, the series depicts a human race who is on the ropes, their extrasolar colonies destroyed and their fleets forced back to the Solar system. It also doesn’t help that humanity also has an ambiguous relationship with the Silicates, humanoid artificial intelligences who have rebelled against their creators, and “In Vitroes,” genetically-engineered humans grown in tanks to help fight both the Silicates and the Chigs.

Space: Above and Beyond wears its influences on its sleeves – particularly the Wing Commander video game series – and, it has to be said, left much to be desired in terms of writing, acting and worldbuilding, particularly the fact that the main characters are simultaneously both elite fighter pilots and experienced ground combat troops. But there are some very good ideas in the show, with the murky three-way relationship between the humans, Silicates and “tanks” providing some interesting drama and contrasted against the alien invaders. Coming from some of the same creative team as The X-Files, the show also started exploring murky conspiracies which added some interesting depth to the show just before it ended on a huge cliffhanger. You’re also not going to forget the appearance of David Duchovny as an android pool shark in a hurry.

Some may feel that the revamped Battlestar Galactica has rendered a Space: Above and Beyond reboot pointless, as that show had a far superior grip on the nuances of space fighter pilots and where the desperate premise gave a better grounding for the idea of the pilots as multi-purpose troops, but there’s something interesting of the purity of a show which focuses so much on humans versus aliens, but has some added complexity to spice things up.


This Channel 4 mini-series aired in 1998 to immense critical acclaim and limited viewing figures, but has enjoyed a cult audience to this very day for several reasons. One of them is that it provided the first major role for Idris Elba, who plays supporting character Vaughn. Another is that it took the slightly barmy premise – vampires are real and such a threat to society that a secret government taskforce has spend decades hunting them – and treated it with earnest seriousness. The result is something that feels closer to The X-Files or a spy thriller than a traditional horror series or Buffy, with fantastic writing and direction from Joe Ahearne.

The cast was exceptional, with a pre-Pirates of the Caribbean Jack Davenport and a pre-True Blood Stephen Moyer leading a spectacular roster also including Elba, Susannah Harker and the fantastic Philip Quast (as the morally ambiguous leader of the taskforce), and with the vampires treated more like a disease or force of nature than forces of handsome temptation…at least until the last two episodes, which do much to make the premise and the nature of the enemy more questionable. An attempted American reboot of the show in 2000 failed to go beyond a pilot, although it did introduce Elba to American casting producers and set the scene for his casting in The Wire two years later.

This feels particularly ripe for a reboot. We’ve had a whole string of slightly campy and funny vampire shows in the last decade or so, but nothing with the menacing energy and total conviction that Ultraviolet had, and it’d be interesting to see it go beyond the first season into the more apocalyptic tone the series seemed to be setting up at the end.


I mean, no list like this is going to be remotely complete without at least mentioning the great “missed opportunity” of 2000s space operas, Firefly. Joss Whedon’s much-admired (if thematically-challenged; why are we rooting for the Space Confederates again?) space western lasted only 14 episodes in 2002 before Fox managed to kill it through a combination of corporate politics and inept scheduling, but immense DVD sales saw it brought back as the moderately successful movie Serenity in 2005. Comics, a roleplaying game and a very successful board game have kept the name alive, with both Fox and several streaming services saying they’d be happy to consider a new iteration of the series.

Whedon himself is busy at HBO with a new project, The Nevers, and most of the cast is in demand elsewhere, so this is probably off the cards for a few more years, but it’d be interesting to revisit the ‘Verse. A remake seems unnecessary, given that the original cast was mostly pretty young when they made it (Jewel Staite and Summer Glau are still only in their 30s, Morena Baccarin only recently turned 40), so a relaunch sent 15-20 years after the events of Serenity with a presumably very different ‘Verse in play would be the way to go, perhaps a “getting the crew back together” story when a new threat arises. Moreso than a lot of the shows on this list, there's unfinished business here.

American Gothic

No, not the weak-arsed 2016 show, but the terrifying semi-supernatural drama which aired for one, memorable season in 1995-96. Created and written by Shaun Cassidy, produced by Sam Raimi and starring a frankly disturbing Gary Cole (keen to fight back against his “cuddly dude” image from Midnight Caller), who may or may not be the devil, or a servant of the same, American Gothic was a glorious mash-up of Southern Americana and Stephen King on steroids.

Cole played Sheriff Lucas Buck, the seemingly easy-going sheriff of Trinity, South Carolina who collects favours from the townsfolk in return for his help, and then collects in a brutal and often-unexpected fashion. As the season continues, the serialised story evolves into a war for the soul of Caleb Temple (Lucas Black), a young orphan boy with unusual powers. Buck tempts him towards evil, but reporter Gail Emory (Paige Turco) and Dr. Matt Crower (Jake Weber) try to keep him on the side of good. The townsfolk find themselves caught up in the struggle, which starts as a slow-burning, subtle struggle before becoming more apocalyptic as the season goes on.

Way ahead of its time, some of American Gothic’s Southern-drenched horror atmosphere resurfaced in HBO’s True Blood, although that show arguably overdid the camp and humour to negate much of the dramatic impact of the premise. If someone brought back American Gothic with just the right tone, this could be a huge hit.

Dark Skies

As The X-Files ground its way through the 1990s and it became increasingly clear that the writers were making stuff upon the fly with no pre-planning, fans began to wonder what would happen if it had been written by Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, famed for his mastery of foreshadowing and setting up plot points years ahead of time to make a much more cohesive storyline.

Dark Skies attempted to answer that question. Written by occasional Straczynski collaborator Bryce Zabel (along with Brent Friedman), the show had a pre-planned five-season arc that was going to unfold across decades. The first season spans almost a full ten years, from 1961 to 1969, and focuses on FBI agent John Loengard (Eric Close) and his wife Kimberly Sayers (Megan Ward) as they uncover evidence that the Roswell incident was real, and the beginning of a clandestine alien attack on Earth by the so-called “Greys.” Top-secret US agency Majestic-12 was formed to fight against the alien invaders, led by Frank Bach (a magnificent J.T. Walsh), but the long war has made the organisation ruthless and paranoid, trampling over civil rights and the Constitution.

As the season progressed, it pitted Loengard and Sayers against the aliens, their possessed human slaves and into an ambiguous relationship with Majestic-12, sometimes as allies and sometimes as enemies. Halfway through the season there was something of a rejig of the premise, with Kimberly being taken over the aliens and it being revealed that the Greys are just a front, with the real enemy being a parasitic species called the Ganglions, who have taken control of most of the Greys and use them as slaves. Towards the end of the season there was also an unexpected alliance formed between Majestic-12 and its Russian counterpart, with Juliet Stuart (a pre-Voyager Jeri Ryan) joining the team as a liaison, and the intriguing hint that the Cold War was actually just a feint created by the US and Soviet governments to believe that humanity was weaker than it really was.

The plan for future seasons was fascinating, with the second season expected to cover the period 1970-76, the third season 1977-86 and the fourth season in 1987-99, culminating with a full-scale Ganglion invasion. The fifth season, set in real-time (2000-01) would have depicted the fight back against the invaders. Obviously, these never happened.

With its rich period detail and a much greater sense of narrative direction than The X-Files, it’s a shame that the show was dismissed as just a knock-off. A remake of the same premise now would be extremely interesting.

Babylon 5
Speaking of Babylon 5, it’s entirely possible that J. Michael Straczynski’s own magnum opus, which aired five seasons from 1993 to 1998, could be due a reassessment. With its complex, rich five-year storyline and its cast of impressive, flawed protagonists, Babylon 5 certainly felt at least twenty years ahead of its time and was seriously underrated during its time on the air.

Some may argue that remaking Babylon 5 is redundant: the show completed its storyline (unlike most of the shows mentioned here) and aired 110 episodes, seven TV movies and half a season of a spin-off before wrapping up. B5 has also been influential on the current run of space operas, particularly The Expanse (Daniel Abraham has acknowledged his huge love of the show). But whilst that’s true, it’s also true that getting modern audiences to watch the original series is increasingly difficult. There’s no sign that Warner Brothers are interested in a HD remaster, and in many respects the show has not aged as well as it might have done. The first and last seasons are both very rough, and the guest cast could be particularly ropey. The original cast was, of course, fantastic but a sadly astonishing number have passed away very young, making a sequel series or continuation almost impossible to consider.

At its heart Babylon 5 was an epic space opera custom-designed for the small screen. A reboot handled in the right, respectful way (with Straczynski’s involvement and reusing the original cast in new roles where appropriate) could become the Game of Thrones of science fiction (and it’s worth nothing that George R.R. Martin was a huge fan of Babylon 5). Unfortunately, it sounds like Warner Brothers are not interested in the idea, at least for now.


Back in 1982, Studio Nue and Shōji Kawamori created a hugely influential animated show: Super Dimension Fortress Macross. The show depicted an alien spacecraft crash-landing on Earth in the South Pacific, alerting the planet (then on the cusp of a Third World War) of the existence of possibly hostile alien life. Humanity rebuilt the starship, the Super Dimensional Fortress (or SDF-1), but when they reactivated the hyperdrive, they gave away the ship’s position to the Zentraedi, who were searching for it. After a pitched battle, the SDF-1’s hyperdrive misfired, delivering it (and 70,000 refugees from a nearby island) to the orbit of Pluto. With the hyperdrive apparently burned out, the ship had to head back to Earth on normal rocket power, which took two years.

During this period the crew fought numerous battles with the Zentraedi, who wanted to capture the ship intact and thus were constantly fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. The story featured both soap-opera-ish developments among the humans of the SDF-1 and within the Zentraedi fleet, as well as epic battles and huge revelations about the nature of the fortress, humanity and the aliens. A final pitched battle sees Earth mostly destroyed and the surviving humans and Zentraedi forced to work together to survive in the aftermath.

In 1985 the series was bought by Harmony Gold in the USA, but they deemed it too short for syndication. It was combined with two other unrelated-but-similar-looking shows (Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada) to create a whole new show, Robotech. Drawing mostly on the Macross material for its backstory, Robotech expands the storyline to some thirty years after the original series, giving the Zentraedi a new master race (the Robotech Masters) and their own nemeses (the Invid) and exploring further conflicts with these two races. There was also an aborted spin-off, The Sentinels, depicting the original Macross characters taking the fight into space (and explaining their absence from the other series).

Macross itself also gained a large number of spin-off series in Japan, including the non-canonical Macross II, the prequel series Macross Zero and various sequels, including Macross Plus, Macross 7 and Macross Delta. Due to legal disputes between the Japanese companies and Harmony Gold, these latter series have not been released in the west. However, thanks to a new deal signed between the companies in 2019, there are plans to perhaps remedy this.

Both Macross and Robotech have their hardcore fans, and of course modern anime fans consider it sacrilege to rewrite and re-edit original Japanese material, so any reboot of the series would likely be contentious, whether it was a redoing of Macross or Robotech. But given Netflix’s success with relaunching Voltron and given the end of the long-running legal dispute between the US and Japanese creators, this project must be on their radar. With the much-mooted live-action version of Robotech apparently on the backburner (having gone through two directors in rapid succession), it might be time to see the SDF-1 and its crew back on the small screen again.


HBO’s epic retelling of the story of the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire to replace it was one of the most lavish TV shows ever made, with colossal sets, rich costuming and fantastic casting. It feels very much like a practice run for Game of Thrones, sharing a lot of DNA with the latter show in terms of brutal writing, graphic violence and, if anything, even more sex.

It was also short and curtailed. HBO aired two seasons in 2005 and 2007, but were left high and dry when the BBC bailed on cofunding a third season. HBO panicked at the show’s huge budget and dropped it, only to later recant after huge DVD sales and increased viewing figures through the second season’s run. By the time HBO felt ready to remount it, the moment had passed and the in-demand cast (including Kevin McKidd, James Purefoy and Polly Walker) had scattered to numerous other projects.

There are various options for a rebooting of the show. One idea might be to simply remake the original with a new cast (and perhaps a bit more fidelity to actual history, such as using Clodia rather than Atia and depicting the Battle of Philippi as the complex, multi-week campaign it really was), since the stories of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Mark Antony and Cleopatra are of course timeless.

A more interesting idea might be to pursue the notion that HBO themselves had five or six years ago which never took off. The original Rome was going to have a time-jump in the fourth season to the time of Jesus, with the descendants of Timon (Atia’s Jewish hatchet-man in the original show) playing a key role in events. However, after the show was cancelled HBO instead considered a fresh adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God, previously adapted as a prestige BBC mini-series in the 1970s. Using the Rome sets (most of which are still standing in Italy, although some were damaged by fire in 2007), the story could be rejigged as a Rome sequel, with many characters returning in their later years of life.


In 1970, Gerry Anderson was best-known as the creator of a series of puppet shows for kids with insanely elaborate production views: Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (among many others). UFO was his first live-action project, combining real actors with his trademark elaborate sets and visual effects, courtesy of the late, great Derek Meddings.

UFO remains an outlier among Anderson’s work. It was adult, strange, paranoid, dark, grim and occasionally barking mad. If Anderson’s other shows (excepting maybe Captain Scarlet) reflected the colourful, optimistic tone of the 1960s, UFO reflected the dark side, musing on drug abuse, the PTSD of war and the paranoia that comes from fighting a secret war against an alien infiltration force.

The premise is that Earth is under attack by alien forces. Under great secrecy, an international organisation named SHADO (Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation) is established to defend the planet. The defence network consists of Interceptors, space fighters launched from Earth’s moon; Skydiver, a sub-launched aerial combat craft; and rapid-response ground troops deployed from APCs. The series mostly follows operations from SHADO HQ (hidden under a film studio), where Colonel Straker (Ed Bishop) masterminds the fight against the aliens. Other characters include Colonel Foster (Michael Billington), SHADO’s newest recruit; Lt. Ellis (Gabrielle Drake), Moonbase commander; Colonel Freeman (George Sewell), SHADO’s second in command; Colonel Lake (Wanda Ventham), SHADO’s computer specialist; and Captain Carlin (Peter Gordeno), the principle Skydiver pilot.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, this may be because Julian Gollop “borrowed” elements of the premise for his 1993 video game UFO: Enemy Unknown (released as X-COM: UFO Defense in the US), which kick-started the X-COM video game franchise. This series was relaunched in 2012 with a new game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and continues today.

UFO was way ahead of its time in being dark, rather pitiless in how it killed off characters and rather realistic in how characters were promoted, reassigned or fired, with the cast moving around a lot in roles in a mere 26 episodes. As the show drew to a close, there were interesting revelations about the nature of the aliens and hints that some of the aliens wanted peace. A modern reboot of the show could be very interesting. 

Blake’s 7

At the top of almost every SF fan’s wishlist for a show to be rebooted is Blake’s 7. Created by Doctor Who writer (and creator of the Daleks) Terry Nation, the show ran for four seasons on the BBC in 1978-81. At its height it was – briefly – the biggest show on UK television, even defeating the super-popular soap opera Coronation Street in a ratings war (albeit for the series finale). This was remarkable given that Blake’s 7 was an unabashed, low-budget space opera, complete with wobbly plastic spaceships, even more wobbly sets and rudimentary visual effects.

What made Blake’s 7 work was its utter ruthlessness. The show started off with idealistic crusader Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) and amoral computer genius Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) joining forces after being imprisoned by the totalitarian Terran Federation, a blatantly evil version of Star Trek’s Federation (to the unsubtle extent of the Federation’s symbol being the Star Trek symbol turned all the way to the extreme right). Avon and Blake escape with a motley crew of criminals and chancers, find an advanced alien starship called the Liberator and then embark on a war of retribution against the Federation. So far, so Robin Hood.

However, the show had no truck with black and white hats and clearly-drawn lines of good and evil. Blake starts off as a hero, but becomes morally compromised as he becomes more and more willing to accept civilian casualties as “justified” in the battle to pull down the Federation. At a key moment in the series, he is asked if he can accept the hundreds of thousands and probably many millions of deaths that will result from destroying the Federation’s central control computer on Earth, disrupting food and water supplies. Blake says, rather quickly, yes, “because it’s the only way I’ll know I was right.” The moral lines become even more confused when a hostile alien race from Andromeda invades the Federation at the end of Season 2, forcing Blake into an alliance of convenience with his enemies to ensure that humanity is not just wiped out altogether.

In Season 3, Blake disappears and Avon takes control of the Liberator. Initially planning to use the ship for his own selfish ends, Avon constantly finds himself drawn into idealistic struggles and loses his own sense of identity, becoming a hero against his better instincts and loathing himself for it, as he knows he is a fraud. By Season 4, Avon is clearly suffering from paranoia and possibly a personality disorder as he can no longer determine his own motivations. The series ended with what is arguably still the most shocking finale of all time, as the entire regular cast is brutally gunned down by Federation troops, just before Avon – having just murdered a returned Blake after mistaking him for a traitor – makes a futile last stand of his own, leaving his fate ambiguous.

In truth, that finale was more of a happy accident. Another season was planned, which would open with the revelation that the crew had only been stunned and imprisoned, not killed, but the BBC decided to cancel the show on a high, leaving the bloodbath finale as the show’s last word.

Plans for a relaunch have abounded for years, including a Sky One project a few years ago that seemed to fundamentally misunderstand everything about the show and was fortunately abandoned in the planning stages. Many of the relaunch plans revolved around a “next generation” story where a band of new rebels arises, inspired by the legend of Blake and Avon. Paul Darrow would have returned, sometimes in a mentorship role to the new heroes and sometimes as an enemy, having ascended to high office within the Federation. However, the sad passing of Paul Darrow earlier this year seems to have put paid to such talk, making a full remake more likely.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.

Sunday 22 September 2019

A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

The fires of industry are smouldering. The Union, the great federation of kingdoms centred on the island of Midderland and the city of Adua, is industrialising and modernising at a frightening rate. Great factory districts, squealing with machinery, now sprawl for miles as they pump out vast quantities of goods. It's a brave new world, one in which the little person is at risk of being crushed. Seething discontent at joblessness and the new order threatens to erupt into outright rebellion. As the Union tries to strangle the nascent revolution in its crib, another crisis erupts in the North when the armies of Scale Ironhand invade the Protectorate, controlled by the Union's allies.

As war and revolution threaten the Union on every front, the fate of the Circle of the World falls upon a handful of unlikely figures: Savine dan Glokta, the daughter of the royal inquisitor and a shrewd investor; Crown Prince Orso, a wastrel and drunkard; Vick, a young woman in the Breakers, the would-be working class revolutionaries; Gunnar Broad, a military veteran trying to get his life back; Stour Nightfall, a Northern warrior with a ridiculous name and evil ambition; Rikke, daughter of the Dogman, blessed (or cursed) with the magic of foresight; and Leo dan Brock, the Young Lion, a brave and reckless warrior who cannot see the big picture.

It's been - somewhat startlingly - seven years since Joe Abercrombie last visited the world of his First Law saga with Red Country. Since then he's been moonlighting in YA (with the Shattered Sea trilogy in 2014-15) and short fiction (with the Sharp Ends collection in 2016), but his return to the First Law world with not just a novel, but a full trilogy (entitled The Age of Madness) is welcome news.

A Little Hatred is very much just what most readers are expecting from an Abercrombie novel. It's fast-paced, violent, lusty and intelligent. Not keen on resting on his laurels, the novel also sees Abercrombie moving into new territory with a lot of socio-economic musings. A Little Hatred is a novel about a world in turmoil, not just from war or religious schisms but from its own Industrial Revolution. This isn't totally new ground for fantasy, with Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels and China Mieville's Bas-Lag series both delving into industrial chaos, revolutions and modernisation, but it's still an under-explored idea for the genre.

The book is also concerned with the next generation, the children of great characters growing up in the shadow of their famed parents, whilst those parents face the truth that the great exploits of their youth haven't led to long-lasting peace and happiness. The North and the Union are still at each other's throats over the North's conquest of Angland and the Protectorate, whilst (in the wake of the events of Best Served Cold) the Union and Styria have fought three bloody wars to no satisfactory outcome. Even the collapse of the Gurkish Empire, removing a key threat to the Union's southern flank, has caused its own problems as hordes of refugees flee to Midderland, sparking a wave of racist xenophobia. A Little Hatred is about a world in change, not from the typical epic fantasy stand-bys of ravening monsters and evil sorcerers, but from the changing page of history itself.

Characterisation is a key strength of Abercrombie's and he gets to exercise that skill with aplomb here. Most of the protagonists are complicated people, with admirable and detestable traits, and it's to Abercrombie's credit that he makes them all interesting and compelling, even when you want to smack them for making dumb decisions. Focusing on new characters is a good idea, as it makes the book an easier entry point for new readers. The book is certainly improved if you've read the seven previous First Law books (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, Red Country and Sharp Ends), but they are not strictly necessary given that the novel does a good job of establishing the situation and characters.

The book is excellently paced. Abercrombie's never written huge doorstoppers, but some of his previous books have been quite big. At just over 400 pages in hardcover, A Little Hatred is focused, fast-paced and furious, taking in revolutions, battles, betrayals, stabbings, flights through the countryside and political intrigue at the highest levels, with a reasonably large cast. The pace never flags and leaves the reader eager for more.

If there are weaknesses, they are minor. The Union's industrial revolution is impressively vivid and impeccably-researched, but some may feel that it's also hugely unrealistic, given that in the First Law series the world was more like a 15th century late medieval/early renaissance setting. It jumping forwards about 300 years of technological development in less than 30 years feels a little like a contrivance so the author can have fan-favourite characters still showing up rather than dealing with a whole new generation. However, this bug is also something of a feature: as the novel ends, it becomes clear that this massive, rapid progress may be explained by other means, which opens more questions for the sequels.

As it stands, A Little Hatred (****½) is vintage Abercrombie, being smart, funny, brutal and compelling reading. It is available now in the UK and USA. The second book in the series, The Trouble with Peace, will be released in 2020.

Kate Elliott's BLACK WOLVES series dropped by publishers

In disappointing news, Orbit Books have dropped publication plans for the second and further books in the Black Wolves series by Kate Elliott.

The first book, Black Wolves, was a semi-sequel to Elliott's earlier Crossroads trilogy, set in the same world. The second book, Dead Empire, was half-finished and cover art already prepared when the publisher made the decision to drop the series.

The news is somewhat confusing, as Orbit in the UK and Commonwealth territories has been Elliott's publishers for over twenty years. They released the Crown of Stars, Crossroads and Spiritwalker series, all of which sold well for them. Assuming that the reason for dropping the new series was poor sales, you'd assume that they would give the series more of a chance to prove itself, given the author's form and the sad but inarguable fact that many modern fantasy readers are now waiting until series are complete before reading them.

You won't be seeing this in the shops any time soon.

Elliott is currently working on extricating the novels from the contract so they can be shopped elsewhere, although long-term fantasy fans will know this can be a laborious task, such as the case of Paul Kearney's Sea-Beggars series, where the original publishers Bantam dropped the series after two books some thirteen years ago and he still hasn't be able to free up the rights, despite his new publishers, Solaris, being keen to publish the concluding volume of the series.

Hopefully it won't take as long as that before we series this series concluded. Meanwhile, Elliott is working on a new SF series for Tor Books, The Sun Chronicles, which she has described as "Alexander the Great in space" with a female lead. The first book, The Unconquerable Sun, will be published in July 2020.

Updated Timeline and Map from Joe Abercrombie's FIRST LAW world

With Joe Abercrombie's first First Law book in eight years, A Little Hatred, in stores now, I thought it was worthwhile revisiting the setting for the books with a refreshed map and timeline.

The map shows all the lands that lie within the known Circle of the World. Midderland, the island in the centre, is the heart of the Union and the location of Adua, the capital city. Styria, the setting for Best Served Cold, is the island or subcontinent to the east. The North lies to the, er, north with the Orsrung Valley (the setting for The Heroes) located in the mountains and hills south of Carleon. The Far Country, the setting for Red Country, is located to the west of Midderland. Dagoska and the Gurkhal Empire are to the south.

For this map I added the city of Valbeck, a vital location in A Little Hatred. The city lies inland, north of the lands of Isher and somewhat north of Adua, although there's not a huge amount in it.

Also at the time of A Little Hatred, Styria has become a unified nation-state with its capital at Talins (to the disquiet of the Union), the Old Empire has been (somewhat) reunified and the Gurkish Empire has fallen to internal dissent and civil conflict, although for the purposes of clarity on the map it can still be said to exist. Dagoska is now more of an independent city-state, although it remains reliant on the Union for its economic status (as seen in the short story The Thread), so I have marked it as remaining part of the Union.

A map of the Circle of the World. Please click for a larger version.

The timeline of stories and books is as follows, with novels in bold and short stories in italics. These short stories can all be found in the new First Law collection Sharp Ends, which was published this week.

565 (summer): Made a Monster
566 (spring): A Beautiful Bastard
573 (autumn): Small Kindnesses
574 (autumn): The Fool Jobs
575 (summer): Skipping Town 
575 (spring-autumn): The Blade Itself
575-576 (autumn-spring): Before They Are Hanged
576 (spring): Hell
576 (summer): Two's Company
576-577 (summer to winter): Last Argument of Kings
579-80: Best Served Cold
580: Wrong Place, Wrong Time
584 (summer): Some Desperado 
584 (autumn): Yesterday, Near a Village Called Barden 
584: The Heroes
587 (autumn): Three's a Crowd
590 (summer): Freedom!
590: Red Country
592 (spring): Tough Times All Over
605: The Thread
605: A Little Hatred

Previous lists and Sharp Ends list "Made a Monster" as taking place in 570. This was an error, as noted by Joe Abercrombie, and the book has to take place around 565 to better fit the narrative references in the books themselves. A precise date for "The Thread" (the short story that accompanies some editions of A Little Hatred) is not given, but it appears to be relatively shortly before the events of the novel.

Note: this is an updated version of a post previously posted here.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.

RIP Aron Eisenberg

News sadly broke this morning that Star Trek actor Aron Eisenberg has passed away at the age of 50.

Eisenberg is best-known for playing the role of Nog in 44 episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the nephew of Ferengi bar-owner Quark. Nog was originally conceived as a recurring guest character, a foil and trouble-making partner for Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton). As the show progressed, the writers took delight in exploiting Eisenberg's excellent comedic timing and also his more dramatic side, turning Nog from comic relief into a more serious character. In Season 3 the character expressed a desire to join Starfleet Academy and was accepted (with Captain Sisko's recommendation. Despite Eisenberg's fears he might be written out of the show, he returned several times in Season 4 as part of a subplot about an attempted coup on Earth by Starfleet officers rendered paranoid by fear of the changelings. Nog was stationed back on DS9 in Season 5. The show's final two seasons he appeared more frequently (appearing in half the episodes of both seasons) as a bridge officer on the USS Defiant.

In the Season 7 episode, the DS9 writers broke an unofficial Star Trek rule that had been in place since the third season of The Next Generation, that each episode had to revolve around at least one (if not several) of the named, regular actors whose names were in the lead credits. In the episode It's Only a Paper Moon, Nog, having lost his leg in battle, retreats into a fantasy world on the holosuite a as a coping mechanism and has to be helped through the trauma by hologram Vic Fontaine (another recurring character played by veteran Hollywood star James Darren). The studio were highly dubious of letting an episode ride almost entirely on two recurring guest stars, but the producers did it anyway, resulting in one of the most critically-acclaimed episodes of the series. Eisenberg was praised for his performance in a difficult and very atypical Nog storyline.

Eisenberg continued to act on stage and on screen, and also worked as a stage director. He also returned to Star Trek in the role of Karden in one episode of Star Trek: Voyager. One of his loves was photography, which he made a living from and also exhibited his work several times. With renewed interest in Deep Space Nine in the 2010s, when the show had cemented its critical reputation as the finest Star Trek show, Eisenberg starred with Lofton and several other DS9 actors on the 7th Rule podcast. He also played a role in the DS9 documentary What We Left Behind.

Eisenberg was born with only one kidney, partially functioning, which was cited as a reason for his short height (Eisenberg was 5 feet tall). At the age of 15, he underwent a kidney transplant and at the age of 46 had a second transplant.

Eisenberg is survived by his wife and two children. He had a reputation as a kind man, always laughing and willing to talk to fans, and was popular with his co-stars. He will be missed.

Thursday 19 September 2019

SF&F Questions: Does human religion still exist at the time of Star Trek?

Star Trek is the most extensive live-action science fiction franchise of all time, spanning 762 episodes (as of July 2019) across seven distinct television series, along with thirteen theatrical movies and countless novels, video games and comics. The Star Trek timeline extends from the near future to more than a thousand years in our future.

In all of that time, Star Trek has somehow managed to sidestep the question of religion, specifically human religion. Alien religions are covered, sometimes in exacting depth, with multiple episodes focusing on the religious beliefs of races including the Bajorans and Klingons, and the ideological attitude and spirituality of the Vulcans. But the show tends to shirk away from answering questions such as whether humans still believe in God in the 23rd and 24th centuries.

Word of God
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, a committed atheist, secularist, optimist and humanist, was unequivocal on the matter: he believed that by the time of Star Trek (the 23rd and 24th centuries), human beings would have come to the realisation that religion was outdated superstition and would have embraced a philosophical and ideological point of view that rejected both religion and the pursuit of money as the motivating factors of the human race.

Of course, such a viewpoint was fairly radical for 1960s American television, and it seems that Roddenberry didn’t enforce this POV on his writers, who frequently adopted more traditional viewpoints, with characters affirming a belief in God at several points. Later Star Trek producers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore confirmed that Gene’s tenet on religion remained in full force on the 1990s Star Trek shows (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager). “On Roddenberry's future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.”

In addition, it appears that humanity has abandoned the use of the Anno Domini (After Christ) or Common Era calendar in favour of non-denominational Stardates instead. In fact, it took twenty-two years after the airing of the first episode of Star Trek for a current year to even be mentioned in this system (in The Next Generation’s The Neutral Zone, when the current year is identified as 2364 AD).

Evidence in The Original Series
In Balance of Terror it is revealed that the Enterprise has a non-denominational chapel on board where religious ceremonies can be held, including weddings and funerals. This suggests that human religious faith still exists and all beliefs are catered to on the ship.

However, in Who Mourns for Adonis? Kirk seemingly contradicts this by saying that polytheistic religious beliefs are considered outdated as “we find the one [god] quite sufficient.” This seems to suggest that Hinduism and any belief not centred around a single god (such as Buddhism) no longer exists. It also suggests that most humans still believe in a single god at this point in history.

In Space Seed, Lt. McGivers reports that Khan is of Indian descent and may be a Sikh, although when he wakes up, Khan does not identify himself with any religious belief. However, given that Khan originates from the late 20th Century, that doesn’t mean that the Sikh culture and faith is still extant in the 23rd Century.

In Bread and Circuses, Septimus asks the crew if they are “Children of the Sun,” to which McCoy replies, “If you’re speaking of worship of sorts, we represent many beliefs.”

In That Which Survives, navigator Lt. Rahda is shown wearing the bindi (a traditional Hindu symbol on her forehead), contradicting Who Mourns for Adonis?

Evidence in the movies
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a funeral is held for Spock after his death in the battle with Khan. The funeral is apparently non-religious, with no prayers offered, although Scotty does play the 1779 Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes. It should be noted that as a Vulcan (a half-Vulcan, but raised on the Vulcan homeworld as a full Vulcan), Spock would presumably not have requested any kind of human religious funeral anyway. Several characters also exclaim “My God!” at various points in the film, but Dr. McCoy also refers to the story of Genesis as “a myth.”

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, religious faith and fundamentalism is a key theme and it is even hinted that the hostile alien entity imprisoned at the centre of the galaxy may be the inspiration for numerous real-world religions (as Kirk memorably points out, “What does God want with a starship?”).

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Captain Sulu yells “My God!” upon seeing the shockwave from the Klingon moon Praxis approaching his ship, the Excelsior.

In Star Trek: Generations, Picard celebrates Christmas, although Christmas is of course considered a secular holiday by many.

Evidence in The Next Generation
In Who Watches the Watchers the crew of the Enterprise interfere with a preindustrial civilisation and inadvertently create a religion based around their activities, to Picard’s evident horror. He describes the age of religious belief as a primitive “setback.”

Several weddings take place in the series, most notably the marriage of Miles and Keiko O’Brien in Data’s Day, but these are non-denominational weddings. However, in the same episode Data notes that the Hindu Festival of Lights is currently ongoing and there will be celebrations of this on the Enterprise.

In Sub Rosa, Dr. Crusher’s grandmother is given a Catholic funeral.

Evidence in Deep Space Nine
In The Ship and The Sound of Her Voice, wakes take place. However, they are not overtly religious ceremonies.

In the episode Penumbra (taking place in AD 2375), Captain Kasidy Yates says that her mother would expect her to be married by a minister.

Evidence in Voyager
Commander Chakotay is of Native American descent and frequently mentions his spiritual beliefs.

Evidence in Enterprise
Taking place a hundred years before Kirk’s times, Enterprise features much more overt references to religion still existing. Dr. Phlox is a student of human religion and in Cold Front mentions taking mass in St. Peter’s Square and visiting a Buddhist monastery in Tibet.

Evidence in other materials
Various Star Trek books and comics make more overt references to religion still existing: A Small Matter of Faith focuses on the career of a Starfleet chaplain and Guises of the Mind features Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu believers in Starfleet. The video game Star Trek: 25th Anniversary features a group of religious separatists living on a breakaway colony, and Kirk can respond to their beliefs either respectfully or sardonically.

However, none of the Star Trek comics, video games or novels are canon, so these are not germane.

How could religion disappear in just 240 years?
Given that many of the world religions are thousands of years old, the idea that religion may disappear in just the next 240 years appears to be fanciful. Star Trek writer Ronald D. Moore notes that he considers it to be impossible, but could not overrule Gene Roddenberry’s rule.

One possibility is related to the fictional World War III. In Star Trek’s timeline, WWIII erupts in 2026 and rages until 2053, although there are apparently lulls and ceasefires during the conflict. The war involved both conventional military activity and nuclear strikes, which eliminated many of the world’s major cities. One reason San Francisco becomes apparently the biggest and most important city in North America in the Star Trek timeline is that many of the other major cities of the continent were destroyed. The death toll from WWIII is about 600 million.

It is possible that this war was so devastating that entire religions were wiped out, or driven underground or to the point of extinction and that the post-WWIII rebuilding process, especially after First Contact with the Vulcans in 2063, was undertaken specifically with the idea of uniting humanity under a single humanist banner.

It is also possible that the discovery of intelligent alien life resulted in a massive philosophical shift on Earth which contributed to the decline of religion.

So, has human religion disappeared by the time of Star Trek?
Based on multiple data points, it appears that religion continues to endure even by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine: Dr. Crusher’s grandmother is a Catholic, Captain Yates and her mother appear to be Christians of unknown denomination and a Hindu religious festival is observed on board the Enterprise-D. There are also Hindus serving in Starfleet at the time of The Original Series.

As a result, we can conclude that although religious worship among humans is much less widespread in the late 24th Century compared to now, it remains extant and people do continue to follow the major world religions, albeit in much smaller numbers than at present.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.