Saturday, 7 December 2019

The Legend of Korra - Book II: Spirits

Korra, the new Avatar, has saved Republic City from the evil Amon. A new problem arises when dark spirits start attacking ships belonging to the Southern Water Tribe and Unalaq, the leader of the Northern Water Tribe, declares that the south has lost its spiritual identity. When the Northern Tribe annexes the south, Korra is placed in a difficult situation.

The three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender constitute one of the finest epic fantasy narratives of all time, and the first season of The Legend of Korra was a fine spin-off which went in a different direction with story and atmosphere whilst remaining part of the same world. The second season of Korra delves into more familiar Avatar material, such as the Water Tribes, the Spirit World and the Great Library, as well as establishing more backstory and lore. It's also, unfortunately, a messy and unfocused season which gets very silly at times.

Things start promisingly with the split in the Water Tribes risking civil war, with Korra's parents caught up in the conflict. This gives us recognisable stakes and an emotional connection to the storyline. However, Unalaq is too obviously a villain and Korra's decision to trust him even after he invades the Southern Tribe is implausible. It also doesn't help that in character and even design, Unalaq almost confusingly resembles the similar character of Tarrlok from Season 1.

The story then shifts from a political struggle to more of a spiritual one, as we learn that the Avatar was created by the merging of the a human with a "spirit of light" ten thousand years ago, and Unalaq plans to release a corresponding "spirit of dark" from its prison and become a "dark Avatar." There's some potential in this storyline but it's not really realised very well. A flashback episode to the creation of the first Avatar is well-realised, with a different art style to the rest of the series, but there are major lore contradictions to the established backstory (remarkable enough that even Avatar uber-fan and occasional voice actor Serena Williams complained about it). The visual design of the two spirits - as sort of flapping things that look like flags or something - is also fairly risible. At the end of the season there's a huge battle between the two Avatars which I think is trying to be a homage to Japanese anime tropes but instead looks ridiculous. The ending also doesn't really make much sense (given that the spirit of light is reborn out of the darkness five minutes after its apprent defeat, it's unclear how defeating the spirit of dark doesn't cause the same thing to happen to it).

There's also the odd decision to make the inhabitants of the Spirit World look like fluffy cuddly Pokemon and have them flip from being good or evil based on who's in the vicinity, which again feels out of keeping with Avatar, which established the spirits as being much more vague and mysterious. This season over-explains the Spirit World to the point where it loses any ambiguity and thus becomes less interesting.

Elsewhere things are better. Bolin has an amusing relationship with the psychopathic Eska (magnificently voiced by Aubrey Plaza) and new character Varrick, an eccentric billionaire industrialist, is entertaining. Tenzin's children get more to do, particularly Jinora, and the introduction of Tenzin's siblings Bumi and Kya allows the writers to explore some interesting family drama and dynamics. Something Korra does very well is show that our heroes from Avatar continued to have interesting lives after defeating the Fire Lord, sometimes with major downs and reversals, but ultimately coming through. In the middle of an otherwise weak season, it is a reminder that there are more interesting stories in this world that could be explored.

The second season of The Legend of Korra (***) is watchable with some solid character development and good subplots, but in terms of structurally and pacing it's a mess, and the main story is confusing, contradictory and grandiose but without much depth. Easily the weakest season of the Avatar/Korra franchise, things thankfully improve markedly in the following season. The season is available now as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA) and on Amazon Prime worldwide.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Four new castmembers for THE WHEEL OF TIME: Thom, Logain, Fain & Loial

Amazon have confirmed the casting of four more major characters for their Wheel of Time TV series, currently in production.

Thom Merrilin is a gleeman, or travelling bard, story-teller and information-broker. He travels between villages sharing news of import in the world, and becomes a key mentor to the young people from the Two Rivers, who have barely left their home villages before. 

Thom will be played by Alexandre Willaume, a Danish actor best-known for playing Kjartan, one of the main antagonists in the first two seasons of The Last Kingdom. He has also appeared in Home Fire (2015), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) and the latest Tomb Raider (2018).

Padan Fain is a peddler, a merchant who travels the worlds buying and selling goods between small villages. Like gleemen, he also picks up on news and information from afar.

Fain will be played by Johann Myers, who rose to fame playing Sonny in the acclaimed British drama State of Play (2003). He has since appeared in dramas including Criminal Justice, Luther, Black Mirror (in the acclaimed episode The National Anthem) and Silent Witness.

Logain Ablar is an ambitious and prideful man who discovered at a young age that he could channel the One Power. In the world of the Wheel, this means madness and death for a man. He has raised the standard of the Dragon Reborn, claiming to be the chosen one who will save the world from destruction, and gathered an army to his name. When the story opens, his forces are on the move and a coalition of other nations led by the Aes Sedai (female channellers of the One Power) are mobilising to face him.

Logain will be played by Alvaro Morte. A Spanish actor, Morte has appeared in TV series including The Head, Money Heist, The Pier and Love in Difficult Times.

Loial is an Ogier, a non-human race of giant but learned, gentle and wise artists and builders. The Ogier are famed for their knowledge and artistry, but are sometimes underestimated; when roused to anger, they are a formidable foe. Ogier live in harmony with nature and are rarely seen outside of big cities and their homes, the stedding.

Loial will be played – presumably with numerous prosthetics and/or CG enhancement – by Hammed Animashaun. Animashaun has appeared frequently on stage and in TV shows including Pls Like, Black Mirror and Flowers.

The casting news will come as a relief to Wheel of Time fans who were starting to fear that Thom and Loial had been cut from the series due to a lack of early casting news. However, it is likely that these actors will be recurring for Season 1 rather than regular castmembers, explaining the relatively late announcement.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

RIP D.C. Fontana

Sadly, news has broken today that science fiction screenwriting legend Dorothy "D.C." Fontana has passed away at the age of 80.

Fontana was born in 1939 in New Jersey. In 1960, at the age of just 21, she sold her first script for television, for the Western The Tall Man. This led to other opportunities to work on other shows, such as The Lieutenant, which had been created by Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry encouraged Fontana's career, as she was one of very few women scriptwriters in the television industry. Her early scripts had been published as Dorothy C. Fontana, but she adopted the gender-neutral name "D.C. Fontana" after suspecting some scripts had been returned unread because of her name.

After The Lieutenant was cancelled, Roddenberry began developing his space opera series, Star Trek, and invited Fontana to work on the project. Fontana wrote the teleplay for Charlie X (based on Roddenberry's outline) and Tomorrow is Yesterday, as performing script editor tasks on This Side of Paradise. Her work on the latter impressed Roddenberry enough that he promoted her to full-time script editor on the series.

Fontana wrote or co-wrote episodes including Journey to Babel, Friday's Child and, most contentiously, The City on the Edge of Forever. She rewrote Ellison's initial draft (to Ellison's displeasure) but Roddenberry then made further changes. The final screen version became arguably Star Trek's most critically acclaimed episode.

Fontana left as script editor at the end of Season 2, but returned in Season 3 with several freelance scripts, including The Enterprise Incident and That Which Survives. Fontana's writing won praise from Leonard Nimoy, who felt that she understood Vulcan characters much better than most writers and also credited her with including female characters who weren't just love interests.

Fontana continued to work in television on shows such as Then Came Bronson, The Fantastic Journey, Logan's Run, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Streets of San Francisco and The Waltons. In 1987 she re-teamed with Roddenberry to work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where she became a producer and co-wrote the pilot episode, Encounter at Farpoint. Partway through the first season, she quit in a dispute over credits and the work she was putting into the show in other areas which she wasn't being paid for.

Fontana did return to Star Trek with Deep Space Nine, where she co-wrote the episode Dax which explored and set up some of the ideas for the Trill species that recurred through the show's lifespan. She also created the storyline for the Star Trek video games Secret of Vulcan Fury, Star Trek: Legacy and Star Trek: Tactical Assault. She also worked on the fan series Star Trek: New Voyages.

In 1994 Fontana began working on Babylon 5, alongside fellow Star Trek alum David Gerrold. Fontana worked closely with creator J. Michael Straczynski and developed the early script The War Prayer. After getting more of a feel for the characters, she asked to pitch a story idea rather than developing one of Straczynski's loglines in the series bible. Straczynski was sceptical but allowed her to do so, but loved her idea so much he commissioned it on the spot. This led to Legacies, not only one of the best-regarded episodes of the first season but one that catalysed a number of major plot movements in later episodes, despite not being in Straczynski's original plan for the series. Fontana also wrote the episode A Distant Star for Season 2.

Following her Babylon 5 experience, she worked on ReBoot, Earth: Final Conflict and Beast Wars: Transformers.

Fontana passed away on 2 December 2019. A formidable writing talent, she helped blaze a trail for women scriptwriters in Hollywood television and established many key parts of the Star Trek mythos. Highly respected and regarded in her field, she will be missed.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Blogging Roundup: 27 October to 30 November 2019

The Wertzone
Chaosium Inc to adapt RIVERS OF LONDON as a roleplaying game
RED ALERT: SPACE FLEET WARFARE on a massive discount in the UK and US
Classic Amiga game developers Bitmap Brothers bought out by Rebellion Studios
Season 2 of THE WITCHER to start shooting in February
VIKINGS to get sequel spin-off series on Netflix
Fourth STAR TREK reboot movie to be directed by FARGO showrunner
Valve to release third full HALF-LIFE game in March 2020 (but not the one you want)
Netflix announces episode titles for THE WITCHER: Season 1
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE renewed for a second season
More cast announced for Terry Pratchett's THE WATCH TV series
AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER live-action remake to start shooting in February
Tor Books bringing John M. Ford's books back into print
New actor announced for WHEEL OF TIME TV series
THE WITCHER renewed for second season at Netflix
The BBC's new WAR OF THE WORLDS adaptation gets an airdate
Mark Lawrence's BROKEN EMPIRE trilogy optioned for TV
Disney+ to hit the UK on 31 March
Joss Whedon's HBO show THE NEVERS won't air until 2021
Anthony Ryan's BLOOD SONG optioned for television
THE DRAGON PRINCE gets Season 3 trailer and release date
THE WITCHER gets trailer and official release date
HBO upgrade second GAME OF THRONES spin-off to full series order, gets title
GAME OF THRONES: THE DANCE OF DRAGONS gets official pilot order at HBO
David Benioff & D.B. Weiss part ways with STAR WARS
GAME OF THRONES spin-off THE LONG NIGHT cancelled at HBO
THE WITCHER likely to hit Netflix on 17 December (almost right!)


Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Search by Gene Yang and Team Gurihiru
Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski
Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Promise by Gene Yang and Team Gurihiru
The Outer Worlds
The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli & Alicia Zaloga
Into the Badlands: Season 3
Pokemon: Detective Pikachu
Salvation Lost by Peter F. Hamilton
Archer: Seasons 7-10
Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski
Disenchantment: Season 1
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski


SF&F Questions: Will we ever see HALF-LIFE 3?
Franchise Familiariser: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Monstrous Development: The Controversy of BBC America's THE WATCH
She Saved the World...a Lot: A BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER Retrospective
A History of Homeworld Part 8: The Vaygr War
A History of Homeworld Part 7: The Beast War
Happy 56th Anniversary to DOCTOR WHO
Franchise Familiariser: Warhammer 40,000
Where to Start? - Guy Gavriel Kay (updated)
The Power and the Glory: A ROME Retrospective
The WHEEL OF TIME video game turns 20 years old!
A History of Homeworld Part 6: The Reconstruction
A History of Homeworld Part 5: The Homeworld War
A History of Homeworld Part 4: The Guidestone

Atlas of Ice and Fire

SF&F Questions: Will We Ever See HALF-LIFE 3?

The Basics
The Half-Life series of video games is one of the most influential, critically-acclaimed and biggest-selling in history. More than 30 million copies of the two core games in the series have been sold, and many millions more of the various expansions, DLC and the popular Portal series of spin-off games. However, the core storyline begun in the original Half-Life (1998) stalled in Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007), which ended on a massive cliffhanger. In the twelve years (and counting) to date, that cliffhanger has not been resolved.

Concept art for Half-Life 2: Episode Three from around 2008.

The Story So Far
Ex-Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington set up Valve Corporation in 1996. They began development of their first video games, an all-out, first-person action title called Quiver and a moody, story-driven science fiction epic entitled Prospero. After a few months in development they realised they didn't have enough manpower to develop both games, so combined them into a new title: Half-Life.

Released in late 1998, Half-Life was almost immediately acclaimed the greatest video game ever made (at least on PC) and sold millions of copies. Expansions followed, Opposing Force in 1999 (which launched the career of Gearbox Software) and Blue Shift in 2000. Valve and their fans in the modding scene developed a number of spin-offs from the engine, including the popular multiplayer games Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, before beginning work on a full sequel.

When Half-Life 2 was released in November 2004, it was not only also immediately acclaimed the greatest PC game ever made, it was also hugely controversial for requiring online activation and validation on Valve's propriety online store, called "Steam." A lot of people were furious with Valve for this move, but the overwhelming critical acclaim given to the game saw them give in and join the services. Half-Life 2 also sold millions of copies, as did its expansions Episode One (2006) and Episode Two (2007) and a related spin-off game, Portal (2007).

Half-Life 2: Episode Two ended on a massive cliffhanger, with a major character dead and the fate of the rest of the characters in severe jeopardy. Valve assured fans they were working on Episode Three. However, several years passed in which little news was released. In the meantime Valve continued making well-regarded games, including Team Fortress 2 (2007), Left 4 Dead (2008), Left 4 Dead 2 (2009), Portal 2 (2011) and Dota 2 (2013).

Also during this time period Steam went through a massive explosion of popularity, becoming the default online PC games portal and making Valve billions of dollars in pure profit. As of this year, there are more than 90 million regular Steam customers and over one billion accounts in existence.

The Half-Life franchise's main protagonists, Gordon Freeman (left) and Alyx Vance (right).

So what happened to Half-Life 3?
Shortly after the release of Half-Life 2 in 2004, Valve confirmed it was working on three "episodes," each one of which would be about one-third the length of Half-Life 2. The idea was that the episodes would form a full sequel to Half-Life 2, and delivering them incrementally would mean that fans would not have to endure another six-year wait such as that which fell between the first two games. Episode One and Episode Two duly followed (split by an eighteen-month gap) in 2006 and 2007, with Episode Three estimated for arrival in mid-2009.

Valve's public statements about the episode were brief and not particularly useful, although they confirmed that the game would pick up on story elements left dangling from Episode Two, particularly the revelation that Dr. Mossman had discovered a key to defeating the Combine on board an old freighter lost in the Arctic, the Borealis. In 2011 the game Portal 2 featured some tie-ins to Episode Three, including the player discovering the drydock the Borealis was launched from. There were also some hints that Episode Three might unite the Half-Life and Portal franchises in some fashion.

By 2012 the Internet had officially grown bored of the wait and a huge number of memes about the missing game had been amassed. Valve boss Gabe Newell made a brief (if coded) comment that the game was in development but said little else about it. Over the following four years there was again little sign of life in the franchise, except a few comments and apparently internal T-shirts at Valve which suggested that Half-Life 2: Episode Three was dead and the story would only continue in a full Half-Life 3 itself.

In 2016, Marc Laidlaw, the main writer on all of the Half-Life games, quit Valve unexpectedly. A year later, he revealed the working outline of Episode Three and how the story would have unfolded (it would have ended on another cliffhanger, if of a lesser magnitude). It was also confirmed around this time that Valve had not seriously been working on Half-Life 3 or Episode Three for many years. This battery of news, following the news that other Half-Life alumni had quit Valve over the years, seemed to confirm to the Internet that Half-Life was finally dead.

Until this week, when Valve unexpectedly announced a full-length, brand-new Half-Life game which wasn't a sequel to Episode Two. Instead, Half-Life: Alyx is an "interquel" set between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, and will be a VR exclusive. It's the latest, unexpected twist in a story that constantly defies explanation.

A pre-release screenshot for Half-Life: Alyx, a new VR game.

So why on Earth has Valve never just made Half-Life 3?
This is the hundred million dollar question. On the surface, Half-Life 3 would have been a licence to print money. The franchise has sold tens of millions of copies and made hundreds of millions of dollars in profit (maybe more). They had momentum from making Half-Life 2 and the two episodes and a team in place ready to roll on.

The reasons why Valve lost that momentum now seem more obvious in retrospect. Steam was a much bigger, much wilder success than anyone ever expected. Valve take home around $4 billion in profit a year from just running a games store, which rather handily eliminates any question over their financial security. Valve are currently the most profitable-per-employee company in the United States and have rejected offers to be bought out by both Electronic Arts and Microsoft, each offer allegedly northwards of $20 billion.

In addition, Valve seemed to struggle with the idea of a central mechanic to hook Half-Life 3 around. Half-Life was built around the all-encompassing idea of a realistic 3D environment; Half-Life 2 was built around physics and the ability to manipulate everything in the world via the Gravity Gun. What new tech Valve could use to direct Half-Life 3 seems to have been something they struggled with for some time; the "Episodes" format even seems to have been a way for them to try to get around that by not requiring a new mechanic for the smaller games, but that didn't work out either.

There's also the risk of diminishing returns and impossible expectations: Half-Life and Half-Life 2 were both deemed the greatest game of all time on release, but by the time of Episode Two's release, the critical acclaim had ebbed away somewhat and the expansion got only middling reviews, with most of the acclaim going on its contemporary spin-off release instead, Portal. One of the reasons for pulling Episode Three is likely that the Source Engine technology it was relying on was going to be too old hat in 2009 (when it was originally due for release) and Valve didn't want to overhaul the engine to the extent required to make it more of a cutting-edge release (although they eventually did for Portal 2 two years later). This inspired the move from Episode Three to Half-Life 3, but the project never seemed to get off the ground, probably due to this issue over not having a central new mechanic. Valve seem to have developed a perfectionist streak and the determination that Half-Life 3 could not be released unless it was guaranteed to re-make the wheel again, which is a huge (and likely impossible) task to set yourself.

The other issue with not making Half-Life 3 is one of age. This year Half-Life turned 21 years old. Half-Life 2 celebrated its 15th anniversary a fortnight ago. An entire generation of gamers has grown up who are completely unfamiliar with the franchise, which is a problem for Valve.

Another pre-release screenshot for Half-Life: Alyx, due for release in March 2020.

Does Half-Life: Alyx put Half-Life 3 back in play?
In a word, yes. Half-Life: Alyx appears to be a gimmick, another attempt to push VR technology on a sceptical gaming audience. But it should be remembered that in order to make Alyx, Valve have had to completely revamp their engine technology and their art. As the game is set in City 17, it will feature new, HD and 4K assets and textures of locations we have already seen in previous games, as well as new lighting technology, better water and so on.

These are all elements that can be fed back into not just a Half-Life 3 but also a Half-Life 2 Remastered. Remasters are all the rage and Half-Life 2 has benefited from minor tech upgrades over the years, but it hasn't had the full remaster treatment yet. With the technology developed for Alyx, it should be relatively simple for Valve to completely remaster Half-Life 2 and its two expansions, all ready for re-release on the next generation of PC and console hardware. And of course, if you can do that then you're most of the way to building expectations for a Half-Life 3.

We saw this recently when Gearbox Software acquired the Homeworld licence, released Homeworld Remastered and then a stand-alone prequel game, Deserts of Kharak, and then based on their success have started work on Homeworld 3. And that franchise was (and remains) very obscure compared to Half-Life.


Valve have not so far made a Half-Life 3 due to a combination of having total financial security from their Steam service instead; not having found a central technology or mechanic to hook the game around; declining interest in the franchise as it gets older; and utterly unachievable expectations set by the fanbase which only get worse with every year.

However, Valve creating and releasing Half-Life: Alyx suggests that they have overcome some of these objections and also developed technology and assets that could be used to make Half-Life 3. This doesn't mean it'll happen, but it puts the idea back in play as a serious possibility for the first time in many years. Of course, if Alyx is an unexpected success it does raise the possibility that Half-Life 3 itself may a VR game. And that would be an interesting situation to watch unfold.

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