Saturday 30 November 2019

Chaosium Inc to adapt RIVERS OF LONDON as a roleplaying game

Chaosium Inc., best-known as the creators of the classic Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, has licensed Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London urban fantasy series for a new pen-and-paper RPG.

The game will use Chaosium's own rules set, customised to reflect the magic used in the books.

The game is at an early stage of development, so I'd be surprised if we saw it this side of 2021. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are also developing a TV series based on the books.

The Rivers of London series so far spans Rivers of London (2011), Moon Over Soho (2011), Whispers Under Ground (2012), Broken Homes (2013), Foxglove Summer (2014), The Hanging Tree (2016) and Lies Sleeping (2018), as well as related novellas and graphic novels.

RED ALERT: SPACE FLEET WARFARE on a massive discount in the UK and US

The absolutely superb - but very expensive - board game Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare currently has a huge discount going on at both its UK and US stores.

In the UK, Red Alert normally goes for £100 but is currently discounted to £40. In the US the game normally retails at $130, but is currently discounted to $52. The game's numerous small expansions are also discounted very generously.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Franchise Familiariser

Netflix are producing a live-action television series based on an earlier animated show called Avatar: The Last Airbender. Alongside The Witcher and The Chronicles of Narnia, Netflix are betting on Avatar being the next big fantasy epic on TV. But what if you are unfamiliar with the series and its premise? Time for a Franchise Familiariser course!

The main cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender: from left to right, Sokka, Toph, Aang, Katara and Zuko, with Appa in the background.

The Basics

Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated fantasy television series set in a fictional world where both magic and politics are divided by the four elements: Water, Air, Earth and Fire. Four distinct ethnic-political groupings have emerged: the two Water Tribes (one at each pole), the Air Nomads (who dwell in and around four great mountainous Air Temples), the enormous Earth Kingdom and the technologically-advanced Fire Nation.

Magic-users in this world are called “benders” because they can bend the elements to their will. Almost all benders only use one element each and this will be determined by their bloodline and where they are born (firebenders don’t appear in the Water Tribes and Earthbenders are never born in the Fire Nation, for example). The sole exception is the Avatar, one person in the whole world who can use all four elements simultaneously. The Avatar is both a very powerful individual but also serves as a bridge between the Spirit World and the material world. The Avatar is also reincarnated at the moment of death, transferring from one kingdom to the next.

Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a medieval-ish world which is starting to develop into a more steampunk kind of setting. It depicts the reappearance of the long-missing Avatar and how he and his friends and allies overcome the threat of the power-hungry Fire Lord.

The Legend of Korra is a sequel series to Avatar, set seventy years later. It depicts the adventures of the next Avatar when she arrives in Republic City, a teeming metropolis which has grown up in a world without war, and what happens once chaos and imbalance threaten the world once again.

Avatar was made for children, but the generally high quality of the writing, the depth in which the themes are explored and the impressive animation have seen it gain a huge adult, global fanbase as well. The Legend of Korra deals with more adult themes than its forebear.

The six (so far) canonical graphic novels which take place after Avatar: The Last Airbender and set up the events of The Legend of Korra.

The Canon

The Avatar: The Last Airbender canon consists of two television series and a long-running series of comics and graphic novels.

Any rumours of a live-action Avatar movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan in 2009 are illusory, and should not be pursued.

The canon consists of:

Television Series
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08): 61 episodes released over three seasons, subtitled Water, Earth and Fire.

The Legend of Korra (2012-14): 52 episodes released over four seasons, subtitled Air, Spirits, Change and Balance.

Graphic Novels 
Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Lost Adventures (2011): a collection of one-off and short-run comics previously published between 2005 and 2011. 

The Promise (2012): This and the following graphic novels form a direct sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, picking up immediately after the events of the TV series.

The Search (2013)

The Rift (2014)

Smoke & Shadow (2015-16)

North and South (2016-17)

Imbalance (2018-19)

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Team Avatar Tales (2020): a second collection of one-off and short-run comics previously published between 2013 and 2015.

The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars (2017-18): a direct sequel to The Legend of Korra.

The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire (2019-20)

Video Games
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2007): an action game from THQ

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Burning Earth (2007)

Avatar: The Last Airbender – Into the Inferno (2008)

The Legend of Korra (2014): a beat ‘em up by PlatinumGames.

The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins (2014): a strategy game for the 3DS.

The Backstory
For centuries the Four Nations have lived together in peace, harmony and balance. The balance was upset approximately one century ago by Fire Lord Sozin, who used the appearance of a comet which could bolster the power of firebending to wage war on the other nations. The Fire Nation conquered part of the Earth Kingdom, using it as a base to launch further attacks and raids on the main continent, and also wiped out the Air Nomads as part of an attempt to kill the Avatar when he was just a child, ending the line forever. The Avatar, a 12-year-old boy named Aang, disappeared and it was presumed the Fire Nation had succeeded. However, the Fire Lords knew they had failed and over the coming years sent many agents and assassins to search for the Avatar.

No new Avatar appeared in the interim and the world lost hope. The Fire Nation spent three generations waging war on the rest of the world, seizing and colonising vast stretches of the Earth Kingdom and dragging the Water Tribes into the war as well. The war bogged down under Fire Lord Azulon, who seemed content with a long stalemate, but Azulon’s brutal and more dynamic successor, Ozai, has prosecuted the war with much greater vigour since becoming Fire Lord.

The series begins when two young members of the Southern Water Tribe, the waterbender Katara and her brother Sokka, find Avatar Aang frozen in an iceberg. They thaw him out and he realises he has to save the world. Matters gain urgency when it is revealed that Sozin’s Comet is returning in just under a year and, on the day it passes closest to the world, Fire Lord Ozai will use its power to destroy the last resistance to his rule. The Avatar, who usually spends years mastering each element in turn, has only months to master water, earth and fire before facing his destiny.

Avatar: The Last Airbender
The original animated series tells the story of Aang and his quest to defeat the Fire Lord. The story is broken up into three seasons or “books.”

In Book I: Water, Aang learns waterbending from Katara, but she is also still a novice and they decide to travel across the entire hemisphere to the larger and more powerful Northern Water Tribe to find a teacher. They undertake the journey on Aang’s flying sky-bison, Appa, who was frozen along with him in the ice. They are joined on their journey by Sokka, Katara’s non-bending brother, and a flying monkey-lemur named Momo. They are pursued relentlessly by Prince Zuko, the Fire Lord’s son whom he exiled for cowardice, who seeks to regain his honour by capturing the Avatar. Zuko is advised by his wise, tea-loving uncle, Iroh, but rarely takes the advice he is given.

In Book II: Earth, Aang seeks out an earthbending teach and finds one in Toph, a young blind girl whose visual impairment seems to have enhanced her ability to sense the earth. As Aang gains knowledge of earthbending, he is struck by personal tragedy when his oldest friend, Appa, is kidnapped. The gang travels to the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se with a bold plan to defeat the Fire Lord during a solar eclipse, but find trouble at the pinnacle of Earth Kingdom power. Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh are forced to become desperate refugees after betraying the Fire Lord, and Zuko’s sister Azula, a master of lightning-bending, is sent to arrest him and destroy the Avatar.

In Book III: Fire, Aang and the gang travel to the Fire Nation. As their allies prepare to invade the Fire Nation capital, Aang and the team go undercover and learn how the Fire Lord has been abusing his own people. The friends and allies Aang has recruited over the years amass for the final battle, and Zuko is forced to choose his loyalties for the last time.

The Legend of Korra
The sequel series tells the story of Aang’s successor as the Avatar, Korra of the Southern Water Tribe. Unlike Avatar, which tells one story over three seasons, Korra depicts four separate struggles which take place in sequence.

In Book I: Air, the new Avatar, Korra, masters waterbending, earthbending and firebending but is unable to master airbending, since almost every airbender in the world was wiped out during the Hundred Year War. Frustrated, she runs away to Republic City and recruits the aid of Master Tenzin, Aang’s son, in learning airbending. Republic City is then thrown into chaos by Amon, the leader of the “Equalist” movement which plots the destruction of all benders and has gained the power to remove a bender’s powers.

In Book II: Spirits, Korra has to intervene in a growing dispute between the two Water Tribes, with the Northern Tribe (long the more numerous and powerful) threatening to “unify” the two by force. A series of events see a permanent change in the connection between the Material and Spiritual Worlds.

In Book III: Change, the world is recovering from an event which has seen the Spirit World merge with the Material. This has included the forced return of airbending to the world en masse, with the ability manifesting in tens of thousands. A criminal, Zaheer, becomes an airbender and plots to use his new power to conquer the world.

In Book IV: Balance, Korra’s powers are put to the test when civil war erupts in the Earth Kingdom. A new, brutalist “Earth Empire” arises on a populist wave to replace the Kingdom and plots to conquer Republic City.

The world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Click for a larger version and check out more maps over on my Atlas of Ice and Fire blog.


The setting for both Avatar and Korra is a single planet located in the Material World. The Spirit World, the source of magic, spirits and possibly souls, is also explored in some detail.

The Avatar world is spherical but only one hemisphere has been explored; the other is believed to be almost entirely covered in water. The major nations include:

The Earth Kingdom: the largest and most populous nation, but the one with the lowest percentage of benders in the population. The Earth Kingdom occupies the main continent and several immediately adjacent smaller islands and subcontinents, although several of these in the far north-west have been conquered by the Fire Nation. The Earth Kingdom is ruled from Ba Sing Se, the largest city in the world, by the reclusive Earth King.

The Fire Nation: the most technologically-advanced nation in the world, the Fire Nation occupies a very large island or small continent in the ocean to the west of the Earth Kingdom, and also spreads along an extensive island chain to the east. The Fire Nation occupies several holdings along the coast of the Earth Kingdom, the most significant being colonies in the far north-west, some of which have existed for a century.

The Northern Water Tribe: located at the small northern polar continent, the Northern Water Tribe is relatively large and numerous, and far more technologically advanced than their southern kin. The Northern Tribe has largely sat out the war, defended by its capital’s enormous walls and the climate which the Fire Nation finds difficult to operate in.

The Southern Water Tribe: located at the even smaller southern polar continent, the Southern Water Tribe is more nomadic and primitive than their northern cousins. Despite this, their bravery is unquestioned and over the course of the war they have sent countless warriors to help support the Earth Kingdom against the Fire Nation.

The Air Nomads: the Air Nomads occupied four large Air Temples located in the four corners of the world. However, they were the victims of a multi-pronged sneak-attack ordered by Fire Lord Sozin, who was determined to destroy the Avatar in one fell swoop. All four temples were sacked and every last airbender apparently killed. Although the Air Nomads are considered extinct, some members of the other nations still honour them and their spiritual ways.

The United Republic of Nations: a new nation established some years after the events of Avatar. It was formed out of the former Fire Nation colonies in the north-western Earth Kingdom and became a nation where members from all of the other kingdoms could come and live in peace. Its capital, Republic City, rapidly became one of the largest and most advanced cities in the world. The United Republic and Republic City are the primary settings for The Legend of Korra

Korra bending fire and water.


Magic – known as “bending” in the Avatar world – is the manipulation of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Benders can only manipulate one element apiece and the ability appears to be somewhat genetic: the child of two benders is far more likely to be able to bend him or herself. The ability to bend is somewhat random, however and can skip several generations; Katara’s brother, mother, father and grandmother are all non-benders.

If benders of different disciplines marry, their children may be of either discipline as well. For example, the brothers Mako and Bolin are the sons of a firebender and earthbender, and Mako is a firebender whilst Bolin is an earthbender.

Waterbenders can manipulate water. They can freeze it, turn it into cloud or turn it into a razor-sharp weapon. They can push water back to create bubbles of air underwater. As the series continues, waterbenders discover two other forms of bending: healing is using the spiritual form of waterbending to repair tissue damage and injury, and bloodbending is the manipulation of water content in the human body and blood. This can turn people into puppets, or cause blood to congeal or flow in unnatural and dangerous ways. Bloodbending is considered extremely dangerous and is outlawed. Fortunately, very few waterbenders have the skill to become bloodbenders.

Earthbenders can manipulate the power of the earth itself. They can turn earth to mud, encase themselves in rock armour, cause rocks to erupt out of the ground and can kick or throw rocks with tremendous force. Toph, arguably the greatest earthbender to have ever lived, also developed a new form of the art called metalbending, using the earth content in metal to manipulate it. Metalbending is difficult as it requires a supreme effort of will to master. Lavabending is another sub-skill.

Firebenders can manipulate the raw element of fire. They can shoot fire out of their fingers, feet and mouths and can manipulate natural sources of fire. Particularly skilled firebenders can also become lightningbenders, although this is extremely difficult (and dangerous) to pull off correctly.

Airbenders can manipulate air and the wind. They can fly, create devastating hurricanes and create shields of air. Sky bisons are natural airbenders.

The Avatar is the one being in the world who can manipulate all four elements. The Avatar gains their power from the Spirit World and they can enter “the Avatar State”, which their power grows exponentially (although this also makes them vulnerable to being killed permanently). The Avatar line has continued unbroken for over ten thousand years; when one Avatar dies, his or her soul is transferred to the new one immediately, with the soul moving between earthbenders (like Kyoshi), firebenders (Roku), airbenders (Aang) and waterbenders (Korra) in that order repeatedly.

The main cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Top row from left: Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Appa. Bottom row from left: Momo, Suki, Ozai, Iroh, Azula.

Notable Characters of Avatar: The Last Airbender
Aang is the Avatar, an airbender raised at the Southern Air Temple. At the age of 12 he ran away from home with his flying sky-bison Appa, was caught in a storm near the southern continent and forced to freeze himself in an iceberg to survive. One hundred years later, he is thawed out by Katara and Sokka. Learning of the Hundred Year War, he vows to help end the war for good. Aang is kind-hearted, generous and moral, but also occasionally impatient and impetuous.

Katara is a 14-year-old waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. Katara is compassionate, patient and kind, but has limits which trigger her frustration and anger (limits that her brother Sokka inevitably tests on a daily basis). With her father gone to war, her mother passed away and her grandmother elderly, Katara had to act as a surrogate mother to the youngsters in her tribe.

Sokka is a 15-year-old warrior of the Southern Water Tribe. His father went to war three years ago and left Sokka behind to protect the village. Despite his youth and his awful sense of humour, Sokka is a surprisingly capable warrior with both the sword and boomerang, although he often finds himself out of his depth with “bending stuff.” As time passes, Sokka shows a surprising affinity for science, technology and military strategy.

Toph is a 12-year-old earthbender from the Earth Kingdom. Born blind, she learned how to earthbend from badgermoles, particularly their ability to sense more deeply to make up for their visual blindness. Toph is an earthbending prodigy and possibly the greatest earthbender in history, which makes her a worthy teacher to Aang. Toph is also matter-of-fact, self-reliant sometimes to the point of isolation and believes in extremely harsh training techniques. She is also the inventor of metalbending.

Appa is a huge flying sky bison and Aang’s oldest friend. He is a friendly (if sometimes grouchy) creature and serves as Team Avatar’s main mode of transportation. He is an airbender in his own right with various powers at his command. Despite being mostly friendly, Appa is not above using his intimidating size to scare off would-be enemies.

Momo is a flying monkey-lemur who joins Team Avatar at the Southern Air Temple. Momo is a cunning and wily creature, which sometimes leads people to think he’s rather smarter than he actually is.

Zuko is a 16-year-old firebender from the Fire Nation. He is also the son of Fire Lord Ozai. Zuko is intelligent and shows a keen interest in military strategy, including the conservation of lives and resources; a challenge to a senior general who planned a war of attrition saw Zuko attract the wrath of his father, who challenged him to single combat. When Zuko refused, Ozai burned Zuko’s face and exiled him from the Fire Nation. Despite this abuse, Zuko continues to respect his father and sees capturing the Avatar as a way of returning home.

Iroh is Zuko’s uncle and Fire Lord Ozai’s older brother. Iroh was once a great general, the Dragon of the West, and the original heir to Fire Lord Azulon, but the death of his son Lu Ten in battle saw Iroh become a broken man. The mantle of Fire Lord instead passed to Ozai. Iroh has since rallied and now pursues a more relaxed, spiritual path as Zuko’s mentor and advisor. He worries for Zuko, whom he treats as a surrogate son, but Zuko rarely heeds his measured advice. Iroh’s friendly, peaceful nature sometimes causes people to severely underestimate him, particularly his formidable (but rarely-deployed) firebending powers.

Azula is a 14-year-old firebender. She is the younger sister of Zuko and, since Zuko’s disgrace, has been regarded by her father as his heir. Azula is cruel, lacks empathy and is capable of tremendous manipulation of both friends and enemies. She has mastered lightningbending, an extremely advanced and dangerous form of firebending. Azula is often accompanied by two friends and allies, Mai, a master of knife combat, and Ty Lee, an acrobat and martial artist specialising in paralysing attacks. Azula’s overwhelming confidence is her weakness: she does not cope well when her carefully-laid-out stratagems collapse.

Ozai is the Fire Lord, supreme ruler of the Fire Nation, younger brother to Iroh and father to Zuko and Azula. He is ruthless, amoral, cunning, utterly without remorse and dedicated to his own power. He is the main antagonist of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Suki is one of the Kyoshi Warriors, a martial arts sect dedicated to the teachings of Avatar Kyoshi. She meets Aang early in his adventures and becomes a firm friend and ally, as well as sharing a romantic interest in Sokka. Suki and her warriors rejoin Team Avatar several times during their adventures and prove honourable friends.

Jet is the leader of a band of Earth Kingdom freedom fighters dedicated to destroying the Fire Nation. Initially friendly and apparently honourable, it is revealed that Jet has become increasingly cynical about the war and is now prepared to sacrifice innocents if it serves “the greater good.” He acts as both an ally and an antagonist to Team Avatar.

The main cast of The Legend of Korra. Top row from left: Korra, Mako, Bolin. Bottom row from left: Asami, Tenzin, Lin.

Notable Characters of The Legend of Korra
Korra is a 17-year-old from the Southern Water Tribe. She is the Avatar after Aang and, unlike Aang, was identified as the Avatar at a very young age when she spontaneously manifested the ability to bend water, earth and fire simultaneously. She learned from master teachers (including an elderly Katara) but failed to master airbending until she moved to Republic City to learn from Tenzin, Aang’s son. Korra is a prodigy of bending and fighting, but struggles with the spiritual side of being the Avatar, and is extremely impatient. She also tends to dwell on defeats and setbacks more than is healthy.

Mako is an 18-year-old firebender from mixed heritage. He is also a lightningbender. He is a member of the probending sports team, the Fire Ferrets, alongside his brother. Mako has a strong sense of justice and is a bit of a romantic, although occasionally tends to brood.

Bolin is Mako’s 16-year-old brother, an earthbender and, it is later revealed, a lavabender. He is also a member of the Fire Ferrets. Bolin is much more outgoing, lively and fun than his brother, but has a tendency to get himself in trouble.

Tenzin is the 51-year-old son of Avatar Aang and Katara. He is a formidable airbender, but he is also serious and sometimes stuffy. He is married to the nonbender Pema and has three children: Jinora, Ikki and Meelo, all benders. Pema is pregnant with their fourth child, whom she desperately hopes is not a bender.

Asami Sato is the 18-year-old daughter of Hirosh Sato, the inventor of the Satomobile (automobile) and the head of Future Industries. Sato cannot bend, but she is a trained and accomplished engineer, pilot and driver. Her father’s company sponsors Bolin and Mako’s probending team.

Lin Beifong is the 50-year-old chief of Republic City’s police. She is also an expert earthbender and metalbender. She is the daughter of the earthbending prodigy Toph Beifong. She is somewhat humourless, but she always tries to do what is right.

Avatar: The Last Airbender co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.

Conception & Development
Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino were American animators with a shared pedigree working on shows like Family Guy, Mission Hill and King of the Hill. In 2001 they decided to collaborate on a new project together and started brainstorming ideas. Konietzko had drawn a sketch of a balding older man and then regressed him to a child; DiMartino had been watching a documentary about exploring Antarctica. They hit on the idea of using elemental magic, with the bald kid being an “air guy” helped by some “water people” at the South Pole, with “fire people” as the bad guys.

Despite the vagueness of the concept, they pitched the idea to Nickelodeon just two weeks later and got a series order. They spent most of 2002 on development before starting active production of the series in 2003. It got its debut via a trailer and teaser reel at the 2004 Comic-Con before premiering on 21 February 2005.

As the series developed, Konietzko and DiMartino hit on the idea of taking the traditional Western epic fantasy template, specifically how it is applied in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and recasting it through the lens of Japanese anime, Hong Kong action and kung fu cinema, yoga and Eastern philosophy in general. This led to the show’s art style – which is influenced by anime despite being American in origin – and the decision to base the four ethnic groups in the show on Asia (plus the Inuit nations), with no Western analogues at all.

The Fire Nation was primarily influenced by Japan, although the creators were aware that they did not want to present the idea of Japan as the “bad guys.” They instead incorporated other Asian influences (such as Chinese clothing and architecture) for the Fire Nation and made it clear that although Ozai, Azula and other senior Fire Nation figures are evil or corrupt, the people of the Fire Nation themselves are the same mixture as any other group in the world. The Earth Kingdom was also based on Chinese influences, particularly the Great Wall for the massive defences around Ba Sing Se and the Forbidden City in Beijing for the Earth King’s palace. The Air Nomads incorporated Buddhist and Tibetan influences, whilst the Water Tribes were based on both the Inuit of Canada and Greenland and the Sirenik of far eastern Siberia.

The show’s emphasis on Buddhist philosophy and Eastern martial arts allowed the creators to incorporate action but also avoid killing; in Avatar’s 61-episode run, only eight people are ever shown to definitively die (although some off-screen fatalities are likely to have happened).

Other influences included the Studio Ghibli films of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly the influence of spirits (inspired by Spirited Away) and the idea of a living creature as a main "vehicle", with Appa inspired by the Catbus of My Neighbour Totoro.

Although DiMartino and Konietzko created the show and served as executive producers, they left much of the day-to-day direction of the show to Aaron Ehasz, who developed some of the fine detail of the world and how it worked. Dave Filoni also proved instrumental in the development of the show’s look and style in the first season, before he left to work on Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars CG show.

The original plan was for the show to last for three seasons and DiMartino and Konietzko developed a fairly detailed bible and story arc, with characters such as Toph and Azula always on the drawing board. However, the original plan for Toph was a tough adult male character who’d have trouble fitting into the group. It was Ehasz who changed the idea to a young blind girl, a notion which was enthusiastically adopted.

In 2007 the show was optioned as a live-action film project and DiMartino and Konietzko took time out to work on that project with director M. Night Shyamalan. During this period Nickelodeon requested a pitch for a fourth season, so Ehasz developed a storyline focusing on Aang dealing with the aftermath of the discovery of “energybending” in the series finale, the search for Zuko’s mother and a redemption arc for Azula. However, after further consideration it was decided this might be anticlimactic after the final showdown with the Fire Lord and the original plan to end the show after Season 3 was left in place.

The show was a huge international hit, garnering an enthusiastic fanbase of both children and adults, including Serena Williams, who got so heavily into the show that she ended up tweeting about a possible contradiction in the lore.

With the live-action film an unmitigated failure, DiMartino and Konietzko worked with Nickelodeon on a sequel concept, which became The Legend of Korra. The show was originally conceived as a one-off mini-series for the 2012 season, but when Nickelodeon renewed the show for several seasons, it left the team scrambling to come up with new material (explaining the rushed and disappointing second season, before the far superior final two seasons). Ehasz was not available to work on the series, having moved to Riot Studios to work on video games. Ehasz later founded his own animation company, Wonderstorm, and joined forces with Netflix to produce a new fantasy animated series, The Dragon Prince.

In late 2018 it was announced that Netflix would be producing a live-action reboot of the entire Avatar: The Last Airbender series, with DiMartino and Konietzko attached to write and produce the series. The show is expected to start shooting in February 2020 to debut in early 2021. The future for the Avatarverse looks bright, at least for now.

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Monstrous Development: The Controversy of BBC America's THE WATCH

BBC America are currently shooting the first season of The Watch, a new fantasy TV show based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, specifically the “City Watch” sub-series which begins with Guards! Guards!

This is not the first time the Discworld has been depicted on-screen. In the 1990s it was adapted as three video games (Discworld, Discworld II and Discworld Noir) and two animated series from Cosgrove Hall, Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music. In the 2000s four of the books were adapted by Sky One in the UK as live-action dramas: Hogfather, The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic and Going Postal. The quality of these projects was “variable,” ranging from okay to disappointing.

The Watch is different. It has a far higher budget and it’s an ongoing show meant to last for multiple seasons. It aims to bring the city of Ankh-Morpork to life in detail and with a large cast of characters. What it is not planning to do, however, is adapt the books.

Instead, The Watch is “loosely inspired by” the novels and will instead create and tell original stories involving characters based on – to varying degrees of fealty – Pratchett’s characters, but not actually meant to be them. Based on the information we have so far, the storyline borrows elements from Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms and Night Watch, but will craft an original story by mixing and matching elements from those books together.

Fans are, it has to be said, baffled and increasingly angry over the direction the adaptation is taking.

This is not new ground for BBC America. In 2016 and 2017 they aired a two-season adaptation of the Douglas Adams novel series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. This was likewise “inspired by” the books, not a direct adaptation. However, in this case the “loose inspiration” idea made more sense. Dirk Gently has been adapted to the screen and to radio several times previously, so a direct adaptation was not really necessary and may have indeed been redundant. In addition, the show was being shot and made in the United States, so an all-new story set in the States (whilst keeping Dirk as a slightly mad Englishman) made casting a lot easier. The first episode even includes a namecheck of the events of the first novel, positing the TV show as a sequel to the books, although Dirk in the show is a much younger character and has a different backstory to Dirk in the books, but this is not an outrageous change.

Of course, that show got away with it because Dirk Gently is relatively obscure, only consists of two very short novels, has a small cast of characters (of whom only Dirk appears in the show) and is relatively thin on backstory, lore and worldbuilding.

Discworld, on the other hand, is one of the biggest-selling fantasy series of all time, with over 90 million books sold worldwide. It has an ardently passionate fanbase who have been waiting for an ongoing Discworld TV series for almost forty years, and its worldbuilding, backstory and cast of characters is utterly immense. Whilst Dirk Gently needed bulking out to work as a TV show, Discworld very definitely does not.

The Books

The City Watch prominently feature in eight of Pratchett’s forty-one Discworld novels: Guards! Guards! (1989), Men at Arms (1993), Feet of Clay (1996), Jingo (1997), The Fifth Elephant (1999), Night Watch (2002), Thud! (2005) and Snuff (2011). Watch characters also play prominent roles in several of the other novels set in Ankh-Morpork, including Moving Pictures (1990) and Raising Steam (2013), as well as Monstrous Regiment (2003).

The City Watch of Ankh-Morpork are something of a joke, lacking real power and mostly just keeping themselves to themselves. Its commanding officer, Captain Sam Vimes, is a drunk who just tries to have a quiet life. The Watch are invigorated by the arrival of Carrot Ironfoundersson, a human raised by dwarfs who may also the long-missing, uncrowned king of Ankh-Morpork (something that interests him not at all). Carrot’s straightforward approach to dealing with crime – such as trying to arrest the head of the Thieves’ Guild – bemuses Vimes but also reminds him that his job has serious responsibilities. When a crazed religious cult unleashes a dragon on the city, it falls to Vimes, his motley crew of constables and a new ally, Sybil Ramkin, an expert on dragons, to save the city. When he succeeds, he is rewarded with more responsibility by Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork.

Over the subsequent books, the Ankh-Morpork police force becomes a huge force for good in the city, stamping out crime, eliminating threats to the Patrician and ensuring order (to what degree this was unintended or part of a long-gestating masterplan by the infamously devious Patrician is open to question). Every time a threat arises, Vimes and his team are able to defeat it, if not without great cost. The City Watch becomes larger and more diverse, inducting vampires, zombies and trolls into its ranks, and helps the city become the thriving, semi-Victorian steampunk metropolis it is by the final few books in the series.

The TV Show
The information we have from the TV show is incomplete so far, but it does have several significant changes from the books.

The first is that many of the later recruits to the Watch are present from Day One: in fact, Cheery the dwarf and Angua the werewolf are already in the Watch when Carrot arrives. Angua is assigned to mentor Carrot and show him the ropes, which is a change from the books (where the reverse is true).

There’s also a curious line that “crime has been legalised,” which is not quite accurate. The Thieves’ Guild is licensed but has to operate within strict rules or face punishment. Freelance thieves and criminals remain illegal, so there’s still plenty for the Watch to do. This may have been a simplification of the plot in the books for a TV audience, or a sign of a major change to the worldbuilding.

In the biggest and arguably the most outrageous change, it’s been revealed that Lady Sybil Ramkin is no longer a formidable, somewhat rotund woman in early middle age, but now a younger, athletic “vigilante,” which has sparked some comparisons with Batman. Lady Sybil in the books is impressive as a character who operates within society rules but is also able to achieve results. She is also a rare example of a fantasy heroine who is middle-aged, not stunning attractive but still brave, capable and resourceful. Turning her into Batman in order to further "empower" the character feels derivative and lazy.

In a similar note, Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Dibbler, a street informant usually found selling dubious meat products to crowds watching whatever chaos is unfolding, has now been recast as some kind of intelligence agent with an army of freelance spies and thugs at his command, sort of like a working-class Varys from Game of Thrones. This is the absolute inverse of the repugnant character from the books.

Another concern is the publicity line confirming that the TV series will not be directly adapting any of the books but instead being inspired by them to create an original storyline. With the greatest of respect, this is always an act of stunning hubris by TV scriptwriters. The main writer of The Watch, Simon Allen, does not have a particularly distinguished CV, having written episodes of the BBC’s indifferent Musketeers show and light, disposable fare like New Tricks. I think it’s fair to say that he is not a good a writer as Sir Terry Pratchett, one of the greatest fantasists and satirists of all time. Thinking you can improve on Pratchett is extremely unwise.

It’s frustrating because the casting has, so far, been interesting. Richard Dormer (Ser Beric from Game of Thrones) as Sam Vimes is superb casting, and the formidably talented Anna Chancellor as a gender-swapped Patrician Vetinari is a fantastic notion, one I think Pratchett would have approved of. Some fans have expressed disdain for gender-swapping or race-changing characters, but given Pratchett's own views on the subject (and Ankh-Morpork's bustling cosmopolitanism) I suspect he would not have given a flying toss about any of those kind of changes.

The changes to the themes, characters, storylines and the very morality of the Discworld books are much more concerning, and I suspect would have set alarm bells blaring for the author.

Why buy the rights and then not adapt the books?
This is the question I suspect a lot of people are asking right now. Peter Jackson didn’t option The Lord of the Rings and turn it into a movie where Frodo Baggins is a ninja and Aragorn rides a Harley Davidson (no matter how interesting that might have been). Even Benioff and Weiss didn’t option Game of Thrones and turn it into a relationship drama about Ned and Cat’s marriage, and before the HBO show Martin’s novels were – especially compared to Pratchett – relatively obscure. Benioff and Weiss of course ran into trouble when they ran out of source material and had to create original material of their own, but that wasn't entirely in their control (although they should have still done a better job and not severely rushed the last two seasons, to be clear).

It feels like there isn’t an answer to the question that really makes sense. Simply adapting Guards! Guards! and maybe Men at Arms as the first season, maybe with some stand-alone new episodes thrown into the mix, is a fantastic idea. You can do some interesting casting if you want – seriously, Chancellor should kill it as Vetinari – but taking some of the strong, interesting female characters Pratchett created and turning them into clichés is pointless and insulting.

Even worse, the rumblings of discontent by Discworld fans is something you really don’t want to happen. Just as Game of Thrones did everything right (at least in the early production phase) and won a lot of support from book fans who spread word-of-mouth about the TV show and helped turn it into the biggest thing in television, The Watch is actively annoying and angering the millions of Pratchett fans who wanted a more faithful adaptation, and there are far, far more of them then there were fans of Martin before the show launched. This is something that could actively backfire in BBC America’s face when the show launches late next year.

Could it be that The Watch ends up being a pretty good piece of television? Maybe. But if writer Simon Allen wanted to create an original fantasy police TV show, he should have gone and created his own one. Optioning Terry Pratchett's fantastic novels and then refusing to use the stories in them the way the author intended is baffling and disrespectful.

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Thursday 28 November 2019

Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Search by Gene Yang & Team Gurihiru

With political tensions between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom eased for now, Fire Lord Zuko embarks on the most important quest of his life: to find the truth of what happened to his mother. Unfortunately, the only two people who can help him in his quest are his insane sister Azula and his deposed father, Ozai. Zuko reluctantly has to trust them if he is to learn the truth.

The first Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novel, The Promise, was an unexpectedly weighty story about colonialism and imperialism, whilst also incorporating the fun characterisation from the TV show. The Search has even greater promise, as Zuko's burning desire to find out what happened to his mother is the most prominent story left dangling from the TV show.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work anywhere near as well. Partly this is down to the much smaller cast of characters (even characters in the book keep mentioning how much they miss Toph) and also the decision to incorporate Azula into the main team. Redeeming Azula is not a bad idea - it was even Avatar head writer Aaron Ehasz's main idea for a potential fourth season of the show - but the book doesn't really try to do that. Instead Azula is just crazy-whacky with some lightning control issues, a schtick which gets old way too fast.

The Promise also justified its 200+ page length with multiple subplots and character arcs, even for minor recurring roles. The Search, which is the same length, does try to do the same thing by incorporating a lengthy flashback story, but there isn't enough meat on the bones. It turns out the story of what happened to Zuko's mother is fairly straightforward (with an excellent callback to one of Aang's earlier adventures) so the mystery doesn't quite justify the length of the story.

That doesn't mean there isn't some fun in seeing the characters develop and the team go out on another adventure. There's some good writing (Gene Yang has a good ear for the voices of the characters from the TV series) and Team Gurihiru's artwork is pretty good, but the story is definitely a bit thinner this time around. The Search (***½) is available now in the UK and USA.

Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Northern Kingdoms continue to skirmish with the armies of Nilfgaard along the Yaruga. Rumours have reached Geralt, the witcher, that his ward Ciri has been kidnapped by the Emperor of Nilfgaard, who plans to marry her against her will. Geralt, reluctantly, joins forces with a band of heroes and companions to rescue her.

Baptism of Fire is the third novel (and fifth book) in The Witcher saga by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, following on from Blood of Elves and Time of Contempt. The previous books established the basic plot: the Empire of Nilfgaard is warring with the Northern Kingdoms and absolutely everyone wants to get their hands on Ciri, the princess of fallen Cintra. For some, Ciri is a political prize, through whom one can claim the vacant throne of that kingdom. Others are more interested in her formidable magical skills. For her former mentors, the witcher Geralt and sorceress Yennefer, they just want to protect her from those who would abuse her for their own ends.

The Witcher books have always been a bit oddly structured - starting with two short story collections before segueing into novels which have felt more like parts of books and not whole ones - and Baptism of Fire continues that trend. From the plot synopsis, you might be expecting a grand adventure in which Geralt traverses half the Continent to rescue Ciri. That doesn't even remotely come close to happening. Instead, Geralt doesn't seem to get more than fifty miles from where he started off, accumulating a bunch of companions along the way. The book then becomes much more interested in exploring these characters and their various personality quirks then in moving the main plot forwards. We do get brief cutaways to Yennefer, Ciri and the political machinations between the kingdoms and the wizards, but mostly the action focuses on Team Geralt.

This has the makings of an entertaining storyline. Geralt's companions include the redoubtable bard Dandelion (aka Jaskier), the nobleman Regis who is more than he seems, the dwarven mercenary Zoltan Chivay, Nilfgaardian turncoat Cahir and the skilled archer Milva. Their adventures include helping refugees, trying to feed themselves and dealing with superstitious peasants eager to burn strangers as suspected vampires. The characterisation of the party is fun and Sapkowski writes some witty banter between the group.

After a while, though, it becomes clear this story isn't really going anywhere fast. Our cutaways to Yennefer and the newly-founded Lodge of Sorceresses, or to various political groups scattered around the Continent, mostly give Sapkowski an excuse to drop huge info-dumps on the political situation. For an author who wrote such skilled, focused short fiction in the first two books in the series, Sapkowski is much less assured at novel-length narratives and becomes embodiment of "tell, don't show." Sapkowski does make some cutting points about the morality of war and how innocents pay the price for the decisions of kings and so on, but by this point these are fairly stock tropes.

As a serialised chunk of a longer narrative, Baptism of Fire (***) is fine. As a novel in its own right, the book doesn't really work, with inconsistent pacing and a reluctance to push forward the main storyline with any urgency or tension. Very solid characterisation and some fun dialogue do keep things ticking over though. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday 25 November 2019

Classic Amiga game developers Bitmap Brothers bought out by Rebellion Studios

Rebellion Studios have bought the Bitmap Brothers, a stylish British video games development company who released a string of cult hits on the Commodore Amiga platform in the 1980s and 1990s.

For gamers of a certain generation,it's impossible to see this and not hear the crowd vendor screaming "ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM!"

Their early games Xenon and Speedball (both 1988) won them some acclaim, but it was their respective sequels that really took the Bitmaps into the mainstream. The Bitmaps were also famous for their constant invention and shifting between genres. Xenon and Xenon II: Megablast (1989) were shoot 'em ups, whilst Speedball and Speedball II: Brutal Deluxe (1990) were futuristic sports games. Cadaver (1990) was an isometric RPG. Gods (1991) and Magic Pockets (1991) were stylish platformers, whilst The Chaos Engine (1993) was a revamped version of the classic Gauntlet, a four-player action game. The Chaos Engine 2 (1996) was the last game from their "classic area."

With the Amiga platform sadly dying in the late 1990s, the Bitmaps moved into PC gaming with the real-time strategy game Z (1996). It was a moderate success, but the sequel, Z: Steel Soldiers (2001) did not fare well. With funding drying up, the Bitmaps moved to ports and updated versions of the older games for mobile, PC and other platforms, with mixed results.

Rebellion's purchase means that the Bitmap Brothers will have significant funding for the first time in almost two decades. They are already planning remasters of their older, classic games and also sequels which, for the first time, will be given the budget they deserve.

Although it's questionable if the Bitmaps can recapture their 1990s heyday, it's good to see one of the best development companies of the decade rescued.

Sunday 24 November 2019

She Saved the World...a Lot: A BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER Retrospective

Originally airing between 1997 and 2003 (and loosely based on a 1992 movie), Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of the most popular genre TV shows of the 1990s. Created and produced by Joss Whedon, the show spawned a larger franchise – the “Buffyverse” – which came to incorporate novels, video and board games and a canonical, eleven-year comic series which continued the story from the TV show. It also spawned a spin-off show, Angel, which ran from 1999 to 2004. Almost every book, TV show and movie featuring supernatural creatures in a modern setting published since 1997, from The Dresden Files to Sookie Stackhouse (itself adapted to TV as True Blood) to the Twilight series, lives in Buffy’s shadow.

Buffy started as a joke: Joss Whedon getting annoyed at yet another helpless young woman going down the wrong alley or trusting the wrong guy and getting killed by a (usually male) monster or serial killer. Working as a scriptwriter on the mega-hit sitcom Roseanne gave the very young Whedon some pull in Hollywood, so he wrote a spec script which started with the same scene, but this time the young woman defeats the monster and kills it in hand-to-hand combat. The resulting movie made some noise on release for its casting of the then-hot Luke Perry (from Beverly Hills 90210) and Kristy Swanson (seen as a potential up-and-comer) in the title role, and did okay at the box office. Whedon was unhappy with the final film, which had dramatically cut his script, removed most of the best lines and exorcised the final set-piece battle in which the school gym is spectacularly blown up. He was also extremely unhappy with Donald Sutherland’s performance and felt his vision for the film had been butchered, turned more into a comedy than the comedy-horror hybrid he’d envisaged. He moved on, becoming a script doctor working on films such as Twister, Speed and Toy Story, and tried to forget about the experience.

Unexpectedly, 20th Century Fox didn’t forget about it. The movie had performed perfunctorily at the box office but picked up a long tail on home video and rental, making a pleasing amount of money and working as a kitsch cult favourite, although not enough to justify a film sequel. Along with the film’s producers they worked on the idea of turning the film into an ongoing TV series instead and invited Joss back to write for the show and run it. Whedon agreed, surprising many in the business as he turned his back on the lucrative world of movies for TV, where he had much greater creative control instead. Whedon’s last film script at this time was the first draft of Alien: Resurrection, which was also butchered by the director and in rewrites, causing him to later remake the same idea (of a disparate crew of reluctant allies working on a transport ship in the future) as a TV show…but that’s another story.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was produced by Fox but aired on the WB network, where it picked up very strong audience figures for the young channel. The show was a near-instant success, propelling its young and photogenic cast onto the covers of magazines worldwide. More startlingly, it attracted a degree of critical acclaim. After a few ropy opening episodes, the Season 1 finale and then most of Season 2 saw a huge uptick in the show’s critical reception, as Whedon took the show in unexpectedly dark directions.

The doomed relatonship between Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Angel (David Boreanaz) provided the main dramatic thrust for the first three seasons of the show.

The show’s premise is broadly similar to the movie’s (which, confusingly, in the show canon is referenced only in the form of Whedon’s original script, not the final product). Into every generation is born a Slayer, one teenage girl in all the world who has the strength, speed and stamina to fight against the vampires, demons and other forces of darkness. When one Slayer dies another is called. An organisation known as the Watchers’ Council identifies potential Slayers before they are called and helps train and prepare them for the role, but in the case of Buffy Summers they completely miss the signs. Buffy thus has to train and learn how to be a Slayer at the same time as dealing with ordinary teenage concerns: dating, studying and family trauma (her parents have recently divorced).

For the show, Buffy relocates to Sunnydale, California, a fictional town which just happens to be built on top of the Hellmouth, a portal leading to a myriad of unpleasant hell dimensions. The Hellmouth has been relatively quiet for seventy years (although there’s still more supernatural activity than normal there) but has recently become more active due to the presence of the Master, a vampire lord who has been imprisoned nearby. As the Master’s prison weakens, so the Hellmouth gets more active and more weird stuff starts happening.

Buffy is aided in her task of guarding the Hellmouth by a new Watcher, Rupert Giles, and two friends who discover Buffy’s secret in her first week in her new high school: Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg. This foursome forms the core of the “Scooby Gang.” Over the course of the seven seasons, there are numerous additions to and departures from the Gang, but this core group remains (mostly) constant. The presence of the Hellmouth helps the writers explain why Buffy is constantly coming up against weird creatures in the same location, the show lacking the budget to have her constantly on the road travelling to trouble spots (as is suggested is the normal life of a Slayer); the WB’s later supernatural, demon-hunting series (now on the CW), Supernatural, actually employs this idea instead.

The show’s initial focus is on action, with Buffy fighting a new “monster of the week” each episode, including crazed Inca mummies, a giant praying mantis (probably the nadir of the show’s episodes) and – apparently – a serial-killing sentient puppet. However, she also has a recurring problem in the form of the Master’s plan to break free and open the Hellmouth, thus ending the world (or flooding it with demons). The show also gives Buffy a potential love interest, Angel, a “reformed” vampire who has had his soul restored by a gypsy curse. The twelve-episode first season culminates in a final battle where the Master is defeated.

Although the later seasons are much longer (22 episodes apiece), the first season establishes the show’s basic format: a threat – the “Big Bad” – is established in the opening episodes, which at first is in the background and vague and then grows more powerful, usually becoming prominent by mid-season, where there is usually a twist or reversal which ups the stakes and drives the back half of the season. Buffy also has personal challenges to face at the same time, involving romance, her academic career or her family life. With some variations, each season of the show broadly follows this arc, with occasional moderate changes in format driven by events such as Buffy and her friends graduating from high school to college at the end of Season 3. Whedon chose this format over the “one big story unfolding across the entire series” approach favoured by one of his favourite shows, Babylon 5, because it gave greater closure to each season (making it less problematic if the show was unexpectedly cancelled). However, he later acknowledged this was somewhat contrived – a new threat showing up in September that was normally defeated by May, with there being no threat at all over the summer – and seeded in more long-running story arcs into the later seasons, whilst also including a series-long, ongoing threat in the spin-off show Angel (that of evil law firm Wolfram & Hart).

Spike (James Marsters) was an early-series villain who returned later on as a friend and ally.

The reasons for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s commercial and popular success were obvious: the young and photogenic cast and the stories mixing action, drama, soap opera elements and romance. The reasons for its critical success were initially less clear; contemporary young dramas such as Charmed, Roswell and Dawson’s Creek seemed to be somewhat more risibly received by adult critics whilst Buffy was wowing them as early as the end of Season 1. The reasons for this are numerous. The first is that Buffy is the rare show that completely masters tonal variation, a hallmark of Joss Whedon’s work (who also does the same thing in Angel, Firefly and the two Avengers movies he worked on). Buffy is an intense teenage character drama one minute, an all-out action show the next and then a comedy. During and after Season 4 it also developed a nice line in unexpected experimentation, with one episode taking place almost completely without dialogue and another being a musical filled with original songs referencing and pushing forwards the plot.

The second is that the show has pretty good dialogue. Whedon – 32 when the first season aired – knew he wasn’t “down with the kids” so developed his own language cadence and lexicon for the show which both felt real (the weird teenager in-references and jokes feel genuine) but weren’t based on real contemporary slang, also preventing the show from dating. More cleverly, he was also able to make Giles sound like a genuine English guy (thanks to Whedon spending three years in the UK as a teenager) and developed more elaborate and flowery dialogue for the vampire characters who had lived for centuries.

The third is that Buffy is self-aware, and usually the first to poke fun at itself. Its premise and even the name of the show are batty and weird, and it leans into it. The fact that all vampires seem to inexplicably learn kickboxing in the time between dying and raising from the grave is noted, and Buffy’s tendency to give wonderfully uplifting speeches but which then can get a bit repetitive becomes a recurring gag in the final season. Giles’s tendency to get immediately knocked out by whatever threat has arisen is also noted, with the other characters starting to worry he’ll “wake up in a coma.” For those who think metacommentary in a TV show is a new thing, watching twenty-three-year-old episodes where characters mock the dramatic angst and doomed tragedy of the Angel/Buffy relationship can be amusing.

The fourth reason is that Buffy is a metaphor, and a successful one. The show uses the vampires, werewolves and supernatural creatures as reflections and stand-ins for the traumas of life, at first applied to teenagers and later to life in general. An unpopular girl is so fed up at being ignored and lonely that she literally fades out of view and becomes completely invisible. The most popular girl in the year, Cordelia, is constantly being complimented and having sycophants hang on her every word, but is lonely and unhappy until joining Buffy’s crew gives her a sense of purpose and fulfilment (despite Buffy’s group being considered weird rejects and outcasts at school) because they are actually achieving something. In Season 2, Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, inadvertently breaking his curse and turning him back into a vicious, amoral killer, a nod at the “nice guys” who turn into arseholes the second they get what they want from the girl. More controversially, numerous young, lonely and male students are shown dabbling with various dark arts to kill or hurt their fellow students, often after being rejected by female crushes. One even pulls out a gun in school, although this is to kill himself rather than his classmates, but this was so problematic in the wake of the Columbine massacre that the episode was delayed by several months.

The metaphors are usually reasonably elegant, but occasionally get preachy: Willow’s addiction to using magic in Season 6 is a worthwhile storyline, but is clumsily presented, with Willow visiting “magic dens” where people get off on doing spells like they’re 1960s acid-trippers. This wasn’t so much “on the nose” as “snapping the nose clean off.” Faith’s third season descent into being a “bad girl” is also pretty clichéd, saved only by Eliza Dushku’s performance and her later redemptive arc on Angel (which then feeds back into Buffy’s final season).

The relationship between Tara (Amber Benson) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) was extremely popular with viewers, and the resolution to it remains controversial.

As Buffy went on it matured, and the audience matured with it. The final three seasons (the sixth, in particular) are sometimes criticised for going “too dark,” with Buffy embarking on an inappropriate, creepy and mutually destructive relationship with the vampire Spike (who, unlike Angel, doesn’t have a soul) and several popular supporting characters being killed off. In the case of Buffy’s mother, this felt necessary to drive a new wave of storylines about Buffy’s independence and making her stand alone, but in the case of the extremely popular Tara it felt less justified and more gratuitous (and problematic, with Tara being a then-rare example of a lesbian character in a happy relationship). 

The addition of Buffy’s “sister” (actually a magical construct) Dawn to the show also upset some fans, who felt it added an element of soap opera to the show and also contributed to the ever-expanding cast, which added some story variety but also dissipated the tight focus on the core foursome. Whedon certainly seemed to have issues jettisoning actors he’d befriended once their main contribution to the story was done, having the likes of Oz, Anya and even Spike hanging around for maybe a season too long apiece as he tried to work out what to do with them. The final season, which has about a dozen new recurring characters (between multiple villains, new allies and the “potential Slayers” Buffy takes under her wing) showing up, is particularly guilty of this. Another element which has aged poorly is Xander’s borderline sexism towards girls in the first season which thankfully improves dramatically in the second.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t perfect, but it’s one of those shows where the imperfections make it more interesting. It’s a show that tried to wear several hats simultaneously – action, comedy, romance, horror – and actually succeeded in doing so. It could be funny, scary and thought-provoking, and occasionally (in the case of the harrowing Season 5 episode The Body, comfortably one of the best episodes of television ever made) genuinely tear-jerking. It was also a show way ahead of its time in many respects, with the series doing metacommentary, genre savviness and social commentary arguably better than most shows attempting the same today.

Buffy has aged like a fine wine (apart from some of the dodgier effects and a half-arsed HD remaster which should be avoided like the plague) and is still richly compelling and entertaining television, the forerunner of so many modern shows, books and movies which have never quite managed to hit all the same notes simultaneously. If you’ve never seen it, I recommend giving it a whirl, and if it’s been a while since you last visited Sunnydale, you might be surprised at how welcoming the Hellmouth can be on a return trip.

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.

A History of Homeworld Part 8: The Vaygr War

In this series celebrating the franchise's twentieth anniversary (and the recent announcement of Homeworld 3), I look at the background lore of the critically-acclaimed Homeworld series of video games.

After the return of the Exiles to Hiigara, they began the task of building a new civilisation. During the course of the reconstruction and re-inhabiting of Hiigara, they found historical records stretching back some six thousand years, giving them access to a history they had previously lost all knowledge of. They learned of the First Time, the first strike of the Hiigarans on the Taiidan homeworld and more.

Contained within these records was the secret of the Three Hyperspace Cores, and the knowledge that the First Core had been found by the Bentusi and the Second by the Hiigarans’ ancestors, used to power their warship Sajuuk’s Wrath. After that ship’s destruction, the Second Core was recovered, hidden on the lead evacuation ship to Kharak and lost under the ruins of the First City of Khar-Toba for three thousand years. Then it was recovered and powered the Mothership on its way to reclaim the homeworld.

By the time this knowledge was found, some forty years had passed since the Landfall. The Second Core had been extracted from the Mothership – still in orbit around Hiigara as a shipyard, although its efficacy was falling behind that of the new custom-built generation of orbital yards – and there was now some debate about what to do with it.

The decision fell on Karan S’Jet, who had neurally bonded with the Mothership during the journey from Kharak to Hiigara and at one key point had been blasted with a backwash of energy from the Core. Since that day forwards, she had not aged, nor had her intelligence declined. She lived in isolated seclusion, but at key moments the New Daiamid called on her wisdom. Karan’s decision was that the Core should be publicly displayed in the capital at Asaam Kiith’sid, to remind people of their past, but it should not be used again save in the utmost need. This decision – which the Galactic Council was relieved to hear – was honoured.

Makaan, warlord of the Vaygr Reaches.

Decades passed. The Exiles’ population grew, passing 300 million (the same as on Kharak before the Genocide). A new Hiigaran federation took shape, several worlds being colonised and adding their economic and industrial might to that of Hiigara itself. The peace that had endured since the rumoured Beast War continued.

But then rumours arose of a new threat arising in the Eastern Fringes of the galaxy. The Vaygr, a nomadic race of warriors and pirates, had unified with several former Taiidani Imperial factions to form a new fleet, a fleet that now struck worlds with overwhelming force. For several months the Vaygr rampage continued unabated through the Eastern Fringes. Worlds fell to their advance, industrial centres were converted to churning out more warships for their fleet and those Vaygr clans which remained independent were soon subjugated. Hiigaran agents ascertained that the Vaygr leader was a warlord known as Makaan, a charismatic, intelligent and arrogant warlord with a formidable strategic vision. Makaan also referred to himself under a new title: “Sajuuk-Khar.” The Chosen of Sajuuk, who would fulfil the vision of reuniting the Three.

Analysing the speed of Makaan’s advance confirmed what this had hinted at: Makaan had found the Third Core, sparking the long-prophecised End Time.

Only the fact that the Vaygr fleet was not yet large enough to challenge Hiigara directly spared the Exiles. They put into operation an emergency contingency plan: Hiigara’s fleets were pulled back to defend the homeworld. The Second Core was restored to the Mothership and then Far Jumped to the Great Derelict at Tanis, where the Hiigarans had established a secret shipyard and redoubt. There the Mothership would be reconditioned and rebuilt into a larger, more powerful vessel, one whose power plant could operate the Second Core at maximum efficiency. This ship would become known as the Pride of Hiigara. And Karan S’jet would once again command it.

The Pride of Hiigara in orbit around Hiigara's Angel Moon.

The War
The Vaygr learned of the Pride’s construction and struck with overwhelming, total force. They overran Hiigaran outposts right across the Inner Rim and their fleets converged on Hiigara. A secondary fleet attacked Tanis, destroying it, but not before the Pride was able to jump clear. The Pride returned to Hiigara and rendezvoused with Captain Soban, who was escorting the crew of the Pride to join the flagship. They fought off an attempted Vaygr interception and left, with Soban setting out to locate Makaan’s flagship and the Pride to rendezvous with a mobile shipyard.

Its forces bolstered by the shipyard, the Pride received intelligence from the Bentusi directing them to the Gehenna Asteroid Field. There the Pride discovered the Oracle, a Progenitor device constructed tens of thousands of years earlier. The Oracle interacted with the Second Core, transporting the Pride to the Karos Graveyard, now revealed to be the remains of a colossal Progenitor starship. The Pride, no longer under Fleet Command’s control, moved through the Graveyard towards what used to be the Progenitor ship’s engineering section, where a powerful Dreadnought-class vessel was located. The Oracle reactivated the Dreadnought, but in the process inadvertently triggered an attack by a Keeper, a Progenitor security vessel. The Keeper was neutralised and the Dreadnought recovered.

An attack on a Vaygr staging area proved that the Dreadnought’s systems were not yet fully online. Captain Soban’s recon fleet arrived and confirmed the location of Makaan’s headquarters at Balcora Gate, but Soban was captured before he could transmit the coordinates. The Pride pursued but was intercepted by a fleet of Keepers, which threatened to overwhelm its fleet. The Great Harbor Ship of Bentus directly intervened and self-destructed to obliterate the Keepers once and for all. The Pride recovered the First Core from the ruins and proceeded to space station Thaddis Sabbah, where they rescued Captain Soban and learned of the location of Balcora Gate, an immense Progenitor hyperspace gateway located close to the black hole cluster at the very centre of the galaxy. Beyond the gate lay a tremendous Progenitor starship of unparalleled power: the Sajuuk itself.

At Balcora a final great battle took place and Makaan was defeated, but not before revealing he had activated an ancient Progenitor doomsday weapon, consisting of three planet-killer platforms which even now were approaching Hiigara. The Three Cores were united and Sajuuk was activated. Karan S’jet transferred to the Sajuuk and jumped in one bound to Hiigara. The planet-killer platforms were intercepted and destroyed before a single one of their weapons could be fired at Hiigara.

The remaining Vaygr forces, deprived of the power of the Third Core, fled. The war was over.

The Age of S’jet
The combination of the Three Cores on the Sajuuk and the integration of Karan S’jet into their energies resulted in a great transformation in galactic affairs. Karan and her ship traversed the galaxy and found the greatest secret left behind by the Progenitors: the Eye of Aarran, a hyperspace gateway rivalling Balcora. But this gateway was linked to hundreds of others, great free-standing structures simply left hidden in open space. The Great Hyperspace Network was reactivated by the power of the Three Cores, allowing every race in the galaxy to Far Jump. New trade routes opened, new paths of pilgrimage and exchanges of knowledge began, and a new golden age began.

The Age of S’jet began. Under Karan’s guidance and the Hiigarans’ leadership, the galaxy would take a step forward towards everlasting peace and tranquillity…until the day that a third great conflict would come to pass.

But that is a story that is still to be told.

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