Tuesday 31 December 2019

THE WITCHER becomes the second-biggest Netflix show of the year, drives game sales

Netflix's The Witcher is a bona fide smash hit. The streaming service has confirmed that The Witcher was one of their biggest hits of the year, only being decisively beaten worldwide by Season 3 of Stranger Things. The impressions the show made are also way in advance of other streaming services, including Disney+'s The Mandalorian.

The Witcher was seen as a somewhat risky move for Netflix. Following the success of Game of Thrones, Netflix had made the decision to move decisively into the live-action fantasy TV space, developing not just The Witcher but also a fresh version of C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia and a live-action reboot of cult animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Rival streamer Amazon picked up the much-better known Wheel of Time book series and the ubiquitous Lord of the Rings IP, which seemed like much surer bets. The Witcher books, which had only been available in English since 2007, had sold a relatively modest number of copies in comparison.

However, a video game trilogy by CD Projekt Red based on the books had sold a lot better, shifting 30 million copies since 2007 (20 million alone of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, released in 2015). Although the TV show is not based on the games, and due to various licencing issues could not use any material from them, it benefited from star Henry Cavill being a huge fan of the games and from some cross-over talent, such as sharing some actors in common and also a CG effects team.

The Witcher's success put it ahead of Martin Scorsese's film The Irishman and big TV shows including The Umbrella Academy and, startlingly, The Crown. Netflix's huge and monstrously expensive (at a reported $12 million per episode) prestige show about the life of Queen Elizabeth II launched its third season this autumn but surprisingly failed to make the Top Ten Netflix dramas in either the UK or USA.

In the UK, The Witcher was in fact the biggest and most popular drama series of the year, pushing Stranger Things down to third place (behind Ricky Gervais vehicle After Life, a much bigger hit in the UK than the US).

The success of the TV show seems to have resulted in a big push in game sales, with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt shooting up the Steam Charts and scoring its biggest-ever number of concurrent players, larger even than when the game launched in 2015. The success was not only pushed by the success of the TV series, but also by the game hitting the top spot in numerous "Best Games of the Decade" lists.

It's not yet been confirmed if book sales are also up, but given the success elsewhere this seems highly likely. The first book in the series, The Last Wish, has recently been reprinted with tie-in art for the TV series.

The Witcher - hopefully with a nice budget hike - has already been renewed for a second season which starts shooting in February for a likely early 2021 debut.

Wertzone Classics: Saga - Compendium One by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Alana and Marko were born on different sides of the devastating war between Landfall and its satellite, Wreath. The war rages across the galaxy, consuming world after world, with no official contact between the two sides. But Alana and Marko have, somehow, become lovers and had a child, Hazel, showing that more than just coexistence is possible. This has made them the most dangerous, wanted fugitives in the galaxy and dozens of skilled hunters and assassins are on their tail.

Saga is the story of a girl named Hazel, who is born and grows up under decidedly unusual circumstances. This small-scale story is a window into a much larger and more epic...well, saga. It takes in androids (here depicted as humanoids with televisions for heads), assassins, lie-detecting cats, sex, magic, guns, wooden spaceships, drugs, superheroes and cyclopses. There's so much going on in Saga that it's impossible to convey its sheer scope succinctly.

The comic book's writer is Brian K. Vaughan, late of Y: The Last Man, Paper Girls and his work in television (on Lost and Under the Dome) and its artist is Fiona Staples (also responsible for a recent Archie relaunch). Both had reasonable careers before Saga, but it does feel like this is the project that both had been waiting for, something to take both their careers to the next level. Vaughan's writing is relaxed and confident (some of the misjudgements in tone that plagued early Y are here absent) and Staples' artwork is brimming with character and colour. The combination of the two is potent, resulting in a gripping and page-turning experience.

Saga is a family saga first and foremost, as we see Hazel being raised by her parents: Marko, a pacifist who keeps being forced back into violence and Alana, a rebel without a cause who has suddenly found one (and then two). The cast expands slowly, bringing in Marko's parents, a ghost-turned-baby-sitter, two reporters, a trashy romance author and a lot more besides. The story also follows the lives of several antagonists, most notably the bounty hunter known as the Will (and his companion, the meme-generating Lying Cat) and the noble, mildly psychotic android nobleman, Prince Robot IV. Over the course of these 54 issues the story twists and turns unexpectedly, all narrated with aplomb by the now grown-up Hazel.

This flashback device means that we know Hazel lives to see the end of the story, but everyone else is at risk. And really at risk. The series shows a George R.R. Martin Plus level of willingness to kill off established characters and bring in new ones at the drop of a hat. No-one is safe, which becomes increasingly clear as the series continues and long-running mainstays are dispatched, sometimes very unceremoniously indeed.

Whilst the story has a good line in carnage, it also has a great deal of heart. The series dwells a lot on the idea of family, not just biological but also accumulated, the lifelong friends we make along the way and those recurring people who keep showing up unexpectedly. Saga's grand science fantasy, war-torn backdrop is a compelling part of the experience, but the more interesting theme the series explores is that all of us - every single one - are the protagonist of our own personal saga, and how we live our lives determines how our roles will be seen by others: hero, villain, morally ambiguous bounty-hunter or bit-part extra.

Saga (*****) is a love story, a war story, a tragedy, a comedy, sometimes a vivid fever dream, often a touching story of family and childhood. It's an adult story about life, loss, literature and lovesickness. It's about the appreciation of fine boardgames and finer friends. It's certainly one of the best slices of science fiction and fantasy produced in this rapidly closing decade. Compendium One is available now in the UK and USA.

Note: Compendium One is meant to gather the entire first half of Saga into one (relatively) easy-to-read collection. The first 54 issues of the comic book are collected here, totalling 1,328 pages. Saga had previously been available as six-issue collections and larger hardcover volumes (each combining three collections), but this marks a good opportunity to jump aboard the Saga hype train if you haven't been sold on it so far. Compendium One is obviously huge though, and as a paperback-only release (for now) it puts a bit of a strain on the binding, which I can't see surviving too many rereads, especially if you're transporting it around. On that basis, the hardcover volumes which collect eighteen issues at a time (into still-chunky 400-page volumes) may be a better choice. It's also worth noting that Saga went on extended hiatus after issue 54 was released in mid-2018 and isn't due back until some time in 2020. From that point, it'll likely be another seven years until the series ends and another year or two beyond that before we get Compendium Two. More impatient readers might prefer to follow the volume format to get to the end of the story faster.

Halt and Catch Fire: Season 1

May, 1983. Ex-IBM sales executive Joe MacMillan joins Cardiff Electric, a software development company based in Austin, Texas. MacMillan has a remarkable ambition, to develop a PC that is a direct competitor to IBM. He recruits hardware engineer Gordon Clark and BIOS programmer Cameron Howe to help in the project, which soon involves cloning IBM's software (risking legal action in the process) and developing sophisticated and expensive new technology which threatens to bankrupt the business. But Joe's ambition will not be thwarted by costs or practicalities.

Halt and Catch Fire is almost certainly the most underrated drama series of the 2010s. Airing to small audiences on AMC, it completed its four season run by dint of being relatively cheap to make and to the critical kudos it picked up during its run, from 2014 to 2017. In the years since it went off the air, the show has picked up a lot more critical retrorespect but still hasn't quite permeated the audience consciousness even in the same way as, say, The Americans or Atlanta.

The show's relatively dull-sounding premise doesn't really help it. This is a period piece about the early (ish) days of the computer business, which doesn't really sound like the most exciting basis for an ongoing TV show. The cast is perhaps a bit more interesting. Lee Pace, hot off the press of playing Thranduil in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy and Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy and poised for a big Hollywood movie career, signed up to Halt and Catch Fire after working on those projects, a sign of his regard for the scripts. Mackenzie Davis was less well-known before working on the show, but it certainly helped her career develop, with roles in Blade Runner 2049, Terminator: Dark Fate and arguably Black Mirror's most popular episode, San Junipero, all following.

The first season of Halt and Catch Fire starts off feeling a bit more like Mad Men but in the 1980s with more computers and less advertising, with Pace's smooth advertising exec Joe MacMillan coming across like Don Draper with added bisexuality. The show rapidly moves away from that, instead leaning into more of a slightly offbeat tone that gets more pronounced and more interesting through the show's run, becoming a bit more of an 8-bit Mr. Robot. It never goes as full intense-weird as that show though, remaining grounded throughout its run. It's this tone of being a traditional drama but with one tone in the oddball, accessible but occasionally weird, that makes the show interesting.

The performances of the four leads make the show work. Joe is smooth, slicked back and confident, but masks a more troubled family background and issues with commitment. Pace finds additional layers of the character which make him more relatable although not always sympathetic: Joe is a seriously damaged human being and it's to both the writers and Pace's credit that they avoid slipping into cliche. Scoot McNairy provides an able foil in the role of Gordon, a more hands-on practical engineer and family man who lacks Joe's big picture vision as he is more of a details guy. Kerry Bishé provides excellent support as Gordon's wife Donna (the two re-teaming as a husband-and-wife couple from the movie Argo), whose character rapidly expands from that of supporting character to co-lead. The show flirts with traditional relationship drama when delving into their marriage but expertly finds new ways of exploring the oldest of relationship ideas in the show. The central quartet is rounded out by Mackenzie Davis's Cameron, a loose cannon genius programmer with commitment and addiction issues who at first might make the viewer wince due to being a walking bag of tropes, but rapidly becomes a far more interesting character thanks again to the writers and Davis finding extra depths in the role.

At just ten episodes, the first season moves relatively quickly and presents our protagonists with fresh challenges every week. The stakes feel kind of low overall - at no point in the series is anyone's life in danger, for example - but the financial implications for the company and the people who work there are ramped up and the show makes it clear that the livelihoods of hundreds of people are on the line.

Events come together and it feels like the ending might be a little too neat, probably a result of renewal not being seen as certain (or even likely, for such a niche premise). But fortunately Halt and Catch Fire did gets its later seasons, which number among some of the finest of the decade. This first season (****) is a slow burner but rewards the patient viewer. It is available to watch now on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA.

Disenchantment: Season 1.5 (Part 2)

Dreamland is in a perilous state, with the population turned to stone by the machinations of the returned Queen Dagmer. Bean, oblivious to her mother's true nature, has travelled with her to Maru where she meets the rest of her family but also learns some of the truth of what is going on. It is up to Bean to rescue her friends, save Dreamland and defeat her evil mother.

The first season of Disenchantment was a bit of a disappointment: Matt Groening bringing his trademark art style to bear on fantasy but failing to equal his earlier works (The Simpsons and Futurama) in the laughter stakes. Towards the end of Season 1, Groening and his writing team hit upon a different formula, one of mixing tragedy, comedy and pathos to achieve a better result. Fortunately, this upswing in quality continues through the second part of the first season (why this couldn't just be Season 2, I don't know).

This second batch of ten episodes initially focuses on resolving the Season 1.0 cliffhanger, with Bean learning the true nature of her family very quickly and escaping back home, where she has to undo the damage wrought by her mother. This includes a trip into Hell to rescue Elfo and an alliance with the elves to save the townspeople, in return for the elves being allowed to live in Dreamland's capital (or, more accurately, in a newly-established ghetto in the capital). All of this gives this batch of episodes more focus and narrative energy than the opening half of the season.

By taking a more serious tack - this batch of episodes riffs off issues like colonisation, interracial families, mid-life crises and racism - Disenchantment oddly finds its own niche. This also helps the show, perhaps counter-intuitively, become funnier. Whilst it was rare for the first half of the season to do more than elicit the odd wry smile, the second half did trigger a fair few full laughs. I believe I even guffawed once.

The writing and characterisation is better in this second batch of episodes, although still not as good as it could be. Disenchantment's animated fantasy label-mate at Netflix, The Dragon Prince, is sharper, more dramatic and funnier (despite not being as overtly a comedy) and Disenchantment is never in any danger of matching it.

Season 1, Part 2 (seriously Netflix, sort it out) of Disenchantment (***½) is an improvement over the first season and is certainly on the right course to becoming a much better show, but for the moment it remains at best a diversion in a landscape filled with much stronger shows. Hopefully the improvement will continue through future seasons. The season is available to watch on Netflix now.

The Vietnam War (Ken Burns)

The Vietnam War was fought between 1955 and 1975. Millions of civilians and military personnel were killed and the war caused massive political upheaval in the United States, which had committed troops to the conflict but then found itself in a quagmire it could not extract itself from. The war ended with an American withdrawal followed by the Communist North overrunning the entire country. It was a crushing defeat for the United States, one which it still hasn't entirely recovered from, and one that continues to cause massive controversy.

This documentary series attempts to tell the full story of the war and also establish context for the conflict. The opening episode goes back a full century to tell the story of the French colonial occupation of the country, followed by its occupation by Japan during the Second World War. Hồ Chí Minh, a revolutionary leader who had spent time in the USA, petitioned the United States government (then pursuing the decolonisation of the former colonial empires of Britain and France) to recognise Vietnam's independence but was horrified when France was allowed to reassert control of the colony. This triggered a brutal war of independence lasting some eight years and ending with the country being petitioned pending fresh elections. With it being clear that the now-communist North Vietnam would win such elections (given the North's greater population), the United States and other international partners prevaricated over the elections, leading to furious dissidents in the south, united as the Viet Cong, to launch an armed rebellion, supported by the North. Much to its own discontent, the United States found itself being gradually drawn into the conflict, finally deploying armed combat forces in large numbers in 1965.

Once it had entered the war, however, the United States seemed completely powerless to win it. The strategic conclusion in Washington, D.C. was that any American invasion of North Vietnam and attack on the capital, Hanoi, would have triggered a military response by China and perhaps Russia, paralleling what had happened in Korea. However, the two Communist superpowers had secretly written off North Vietnam and told the government they were on their own, bar only supplies of weapons and material. This misanalysis led the United States into fighting a defensive war, trying to exhaust the will of the North Vietnamese to fight the conflict through a war of attrition, whilst using air power to inflict devastating damage on the North Vietnamese economy. The problem was that the North, with a larger population and widespread support in the South, simply had far more troops to lose in a war of attrition. The terrain also favoured a low-tech guerrilla war of hidden movement and surprise attacks, which did not favour the combined-arms, war of movement typically favoured by American forces. Whenever such setpiece battles were fought, the United States usually won with overwhelming force, but such battles became increasingly rare as the conflict raged on. The air campaign was also largely ineffective, the bombing being too imprecise on the low-tech North's economy to cause much damage, only widespread civilian casualties which galvanised opposition to the conflict. Political pressure and controversy at home and abroad eventually became so overwhelming that President Nixon was forced to wind the conflict down and withdraw American forces.

Ken Burns' documentary series explores the war from numerous angles, including, for the first time, interviewing large numbers of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong veterans of the conflict. There's also a huge number of interviews with American and South Vietnamese veterans and international observers of the conflict. It's this focus on still-living witnesses that differentiates the project from Burns' preceding projects, most notably The Civil War and The War (about WWII), which relied primarily on written accounts and the perspective of modern historians. There's less - perhaps far too far less - of a wider historical perspective. There's also the curious and much-criticised decision to not interview leading figures in the conflict. Burns declined to interview Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State during the latter part of the war, and also then-current political figures such as John Kerry and John McCain, who were notable participants in the conflict (Kerry for his anti-war rhetoric upon his return from the conflict and McCain for spending five and a half years as a POW).

Instead, the focus of The Vietnam War is on vignettes, from which it attempts to weave together a tapestry showing the larger scale of the conflict. Much of this material is extremely powerful, with soldiers on both sides recalling their comrades who perished in a brutal and dehumanising conflict which at times seemed to be going on forever to no point. The dividing nature of the war in the United States, which saw societal upheaval, riots and deaths resulting from police responses that caused major damage to the fabric of society far removed from the front lines, is also vividly recounted, accompanied by contemporary news footage. Other issues, such as civil rights, are also brought into play.

However, this bottom-up approach, whilst devastatingly effective at depicting the day-to-day course of the conflict, is less useful in assessing the war as a whole. We're told early on that the USA rejected plans for an invasion of North Vietnam based on the assessment that China and Russia would intervene on the North's side, but the idea is never revisited. With China and Russia falling out with one another in the same time period and North Vietnam having its own issues with China (as they had their own border dispute going on, and Hanoi was resisting having its revolution being influenced by Beijing), it would appear that there were windows where a US attack on the North might have been successful, but the discussion never comes up. More eyebrow-raising is the decision to completely ignore the contributions of America's allies: New Zealand, Thailand, Australia and South Korea collectively sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the war and these rate barely a mention in the documentary.

The Vietnam War (***½), over seventeen hours of documentary material airing in ten parts, is a curiously lopsided beast. For its recounting of the war in the day-to-day moments as experience by the people on the ground, it is powerful, emotional and moving. But for a greater strategic overview of the conflict and the wider politics and economies involved, the documentary has very little to say. The result is a documentary that is extremely watchable (if often tragic) but doesn't seem to make more of a point other than "war is hell." It is, and it's important to watch series like these to see how a whole series of at-the-time reasonable decisions can result in unreasonable, horrendous outcomes which kill millions, but it does feel like only part of the story has been told here. The documentary is available to watch on Netflix.

The Legend of Korra - Book IV: Balance

Three years have passed since Avatar Korra defeated Zaheer and the Red Lotus, but in the process sustained terrible injuries to both her body and spirit. The world has moved on in the interim, with a general named Kuvira having united much of the Earth Kingdom which fell into civil war upon the death of the previous Earth Queen. When the new Earth King claims his throne, Kuvira rejects him and declares herself the ruler of a new Earth Empire...with its sights firmly set on Republic City.

The third season of The Legend of Korra was a welcome return to form after the disappointing and messy second. It did end with an extremely brutal confrontation between the Red Lotus and Korra, one which it felt like couldn't be brushed under the carpet so her heroes could immediately get into fresh adventures, and it's therefore a relief that Season 4 devotes its opening episodes to showing the passing of time, confirming that Korra has been struggling to recover from her experiences and that the world hasn't been sitting around waiting for the Avatar to return.

Season 4's drama centres firmly on Kuvira, the "Great Uniter" who has restored peace to the Earth Kingdom have years of internal conflict brought about when the Red Lotus killed the Earth Queen in Season 3. Kuvira is understandably annoyed at having to hand power over to the Queen's nephew, a vain and arrogant fop, purely on the grounds of his bloodline and, apparently supported by most of the Earth Kingdom's population, declares herself its new ruler. The show could have presented an more interesting moral dilemma by showing Kuvira as trying to be a more responsible ruler only to fall into the traps of authoritarianism and despotism more gradually, but the opening episode confirms that she is prepared to use brutal techniques in the pursuit of her own personal power, so this kind of nuance is lost. Going in the opposite direction does mean that it's less plausible that she would be supported by Bolin and Varrick, who spend several episodes in her camp before recognising her true colours.

The show also demonstrates how the good guys have become a much more capable force even in Korra's absence: Asami has rescued her company and developed lots of exciting new technology and gadgets and the new Airbenders have become a strong factor in restoring balance to the world. Their efficiency makes Korra feel even more redundant, leading to her going AWOL and joining the underground pro-bending cage fight scene. Early episodes feature Korra feeling sorry for herself before pulling herself together to confront the new threat, but the show is surprisingly realistic in addressing Korra's PTSD and show that the recovery process is long, gruelling and prone to reversals even after positive steps are taken.

The final season of Korra only features 12 episodes - a 13th is a flashback episode mandated by a hefty budget cut late in development - and perhaps doesn't quite have enough time to do these ideas justice. The return appearance of Avatar fan favourite Toph (and her first meeting with her spiritual descendant in the new series, a now-older Meelo) is very welcome and the further development of new magical forms like lavabending is cool, but it feels like the season is trying to do a bit more than it can pull off in the time available, especially when an utterly gigantic war-mecha rather out of keeping with anything we've seen previously in the show turns up without any warning.

Still, if the final season of The Legend of Korra does try to do much, it at least keeps the show busy and moving at a very fast clip. As it stands, the final season is highly entertaining but also features a surprisingly mature look at adult issues like stress, breakdowns and recovery. Action-packed and well-written, the final season of The Legend of Korra (****) ends the show and the entire franchise (at least for now) in fine form. The season is available now as part of the complete series box set (UKUSA) and on Amazon Prime worldwide.

Friday 27 December 2019

Disney's future STAR WARS plans again uncertain

Disney are going into the new decade with a very big and unexpected headache regarding Star Wars. In 2012 Disney purchased Lucasfilm and all its properties (including Star Wars and Indiana Jones) and subsidiaries (including Industrial Light & Magic) from George Lucas for a cool $4 billion. They have since made some solid bank, going into profit on the deal. However, the recent performance of the Star Wars franchise has caused some frantic rethinking of how to handle the property moving forwards.

The first films released under the new regime were extremely successful: The Force Awakens (2015) grossed over $2 billion worldwide, whilst Rogue One (2016), a side-project which Disney were expecting not to top $1 billion, instead made a respectable $1.05 billion at the global box office.

The first signs of problems came with the release of The Last Jedi (2017). The film had a rapturous critical pre-release period, but the post-release response was much more mixed. The film topped out at $1.3 billion, still securing a healthy profit but the $700 million drop from The Force Awakens was a nasty surprise for Disney who'd been projecting a more modest drop and a final gross of $1.5-1.7 billion, more in line with the drop between their first two Avengers films.

Worse was to come with the second Star Wars spin-off movie, Solo (2018). A change of director and extensive reshoots on the film pushed its budget well above $300 million. Lucasfilm, who at one point were hoping to release two to three Star Wars films a year to match Marvel's performance, also refused to listen to theatre chain requests to hold the film back until a December release and insisted on a May release. The result was a box office bomb: Solo grossed $394 million worldwide when it needed well north of $800 million to just break even. The film will eventually make a profit from streaming and media sales, but it's going to take years.

Disney's response was swift. Several additional Star Wars spin-off movies were outright cancelled (such as one about Boba Fett) or moved to television (the long-gestating Obi-Wan Kenobi standalone). It was also decided to bench the franchise for three years, with the next Star Wars movie not expected until December 2022. Disney also tapped Game of Thrones showruiners David Benioff and Dan Weiss to write and direct that movie - expected to be the first in a series in a new (at least to cinema) part of the Star Wars universe (possibly related to Laeta Kalogridis' Knights of the Old Republic script) - following their success at HBO. Last Jedi director Rian Johnson was also attached to write and potentially direct a new trilogy, but after The Last Jedi's performance Johnson's new project appears to have been sidelined whilst Lucasfilm reconsidered (Johnson was also due to direct his own stand-alone movie, the successful and well-received Knives Out).

A (potentially ill-advised) $200 million payday from Netflix led Benioff and Weis (still smarting from the poor reception to the ending of Game of Thrones) to quit Star Wars in October, abruptly leaving Disney without a film for release in three years' time. This has left Disney's future plans in tatters and they are now reconsidering their options.

At the same time, The Rise of Skywalker has launched to a further disappointing set of financial results. Eight days into release, The Rise of Skywalker is batting far below The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. It is doing much better than Solo (thankfully) and tracking ever so slightly higher than Rogue One. Assuming the same kind of long tail holds up, The Rise of Skywalker should take home around $1-1.1 billion at the end of its run, a comfortable profit (the break-even point for the film is estimated at $825 million). A sharp drop-off in performance could reduce that significantly, and at much below $900 million Disney will be left with some very big, awkward questions to consider going forwards.

At the moment, the only Star Wars movie officially still in development is the first in Rian Johnson's trilogy, which appears to have originally been scheduled for 2023. Whether this will remain the case or be moved up to the 2022 slot is unclear. This would be tight if Johnson indeed (as he is apparently considering) does another smaller-scale film before returning to the Galaxy Far Far Away. Disney will have to start pulling triggers soon if it does want to get a Star Wars movie on screen for 2022, and will now be asking how much money they want to invest in it.

All of that said, Star Wars does seem to be doing well in the first stage of a hard pivot towards television. The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars show, has been a critical and commercial success on Disney+ and helped drive the new streaming service's boisterous launch in the United States (it arrives in Europe, including the UK, in the spring). A second season of The Mandalorian is already in production and two further Star Wars TV shows are in development, one focusing on the morally dubious Rebel intelligence agent Cassian Andor from Rogue One and the re-tooled Obi-Wan project, with Ewan McGregor already on board.

With Star Wars no longer annihilating the box office as it used to, the future for George Lucas's franchise may be on the small screen rather than the large.

Note: a modern tentpole AAA movie needs to make approximately 300% of its production budget to break even, once marketing, advertising and third-party costs are factored in.

Wednesday 25 December 2019

THE WHEEL OF TIME TV series round-up

With Amazon’s The Wheel of Time TV series deep in production on its first season, I thought it might be worthwhile to confirm the state of play on the adaptation at this current stage.

From left to right: Barney Harris (Mat), Madeleine Madden (Egwene), Zoe Robins (Nynaeve), Marcus Rutherford (Perrin), Rosamund Pike (Moiraine), Josha Stradowski (Rand) and Daniel Henney (Lan).

The Wheel of Time TV series is (naturally) based on the fourteen-volume novel series written by Robert Jordan (and completed by Brandon Sanderson, who wrote the last three volumes from Jordan’s notes) and published between 1990 and 2013.

The series is being shot and filmed by Sony Television for Amazon. Sony acquired the Wheel of Time TV series rights in 2016 and entered into an agreement with Amazon to make the series the following year.

So far, a first season of eight episodes has been commissioned (based on agency information) and is currently 15 weeks into production (although production is on hiatus this week and next for the holidays). The shooting of Season 1 began on 16 September 2019 and is expected to end in May 2020.

A second season has not officially been greenlit, but given Amazon’s recent tendency to renew shows early and the news that the writers’ room is already working on Season 2 scripts, a second season renewal seems inevitable.

Season 1 will adapt The Eye of the World and potentially parts of The Great Hunt, but this is not confirmed. Season 1 will also feature new and expanded storylines not in the book, most notably the story of the false Dragon Logain.

An airdate for Season 1 has not yet been confirmed, but recent information from licensees and agency information suggests that Amazon want to get the show on air before the end of 2020. Although tight, this seems doable; for comparison, Netflix’s The Witcher finished shooting on 31 May 2019 and was on air on 20 December the same year.

The production is based in Prague, with location filming in the Czech Republic and Slovenia having already taken place. The Great Soča Gorge in Slovenia reportedly is standing in for part of the Two Rivers and Vojkovice in the Czech Republic is apparently going to be the site of the Taren Ferry river crossing. Additional filming has taken place at St. Wenceslas Church in Vysluni, Czech Republic (some have speculated for Shadar Logoth, but this is unconfirmed). 

The budget for Season 1 is unknown, but given the slightly greater shoot length, larger cast and larger visual effects requirements it is likely to be more than The Witcher (which had around $7 million per episode) but probably not as great as Lord of the Rings: The Second Age (which is estimated at between $10 and $15 million per episode).

Showrunner/head writer Rafe Judkins (right) with Brandon Sanderson.

The showrunner, creator and head writer on the series is Rafe Judkins, who previously worked as a writer, script editor and producer on series including Chuck, Hemlock Grove and Agents of SHIELD. Judkins is a lifelong Wheel of Time fan.

The other writers on Season 1 are Amanda Kate Shuman (The Blacklist, Berlin Station), Paul & Michael Clarkson aka the Clarkson Twins (The Feed, His Dark Materials), Dave Hill (Game of Thrones), Justine Juel Gillmer (Into the Badlands, The 100) and Celine Song (playwright).

DirectorsUta Briesewitz (Stranger Things, Westworld, Jessica Jones) is directing the first two episodes and possibly the third. She is also an executive producer on the project.

Wayne Yip (Doctor Who, Into the Badlands, Preacher) is directing at least one episode.

Salli Richardson-Whitefield (Punisher, Doom Patrol, American Gods) is directing at least one episode.

Kelly Valentine Hendry (Gangs of London, Harlots, The Last Kingdom, Broadchurch) is the casting director on the show.

Mark Risk (Dredd, The Watch, Black Mirror, Outlander) is a storyboard artist.

Joshua Lee (The Fifth Element, Prometheus, seven of the Star Wars movies and all of the Harry Potter saga) is handling the animatronics and model design for the show.

Nick Dudman (Carnival Row, Penny Dreadful, the Harry Potter series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Willow, Legend, Krull, Return of the Jedi) is handling makeup effects and prosthetics for the show.

Isis Mussenden (The Chronicles of Narnia film series, The Wolverine, Masters of Sex) is reportedly the costume designer on the series.
David Buckley (Papillon, The Good Wife, The Good Fight) is reportedly the main composer for the series. You can listen to samples of his work here.
Miroslav Prechechtel (Carnival Row, Knightfall, Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Romanoffs) is reportedly working on special effects for the series.
Jakub Chilczuk (Curfew, Black Mirror) and Karen E. Goulekas (The First, Lifeline, Roots, Looper, Spider-Man, Godzilla) are working on visual effects for the series.

Sonja Field (Turn Up Charlie, Game of Thrones: The Long Night) is reported to be a dialect coach on the series.
Valyrian Steel will be producing replica weapons, jewellery and angreal from the series.

David Luther (His Dark Materials, Black Sails) is a director of photography. David “Moxy” Moxness (Whiskey Cavalier, Fringe, Smallville) is also a director of photography on the series.

Matt Platts-Mills (The Alienist, Taboo) is an editor on at least episodes 1-3.

Ted Field, Nina Heyns, Marigo Kehoe, Darren Lemke, Rick Selvage, Mike Weber and Lauren Selig are listed as producers on the project.

Harriet McDougal, the head of the Robert Jordan Estate/Bandersnatch Group, the editor of the book series and Robert Jordan’s widow, is consulting producer on the project. Larry Mondragoran of Red Eagle Entertainment is also a producer on the project. Red Eagle has no direct involvement in filming.

Brandon Sanderson, who co-wrote the last three books in the Wheel of Time novel series (from Robert Jordan’s notes), is a consulting producer and occasional creative consultant on the series. Wheel of Time uberfan Sarah Nakamura is also a creative consultant on the show.

The Episodes
The known working titles for the episodes are as follows:

101: Leavetakings, written by Rafe Judkins
102: Shadow’s Waiting, written by Amanda Kate Shuman
103: A Place of Safety, written by the Clarkson Twins
104: The Dragon Reborn, written by Dave Hill
105: unknown
106: The Flame of Tar Valon, written by Justine Juel Gillmer
107: unknown
108: unknown, probably to be written by Rafe Judkins

There will be goats.

So far, 22 actors have been announced or leaked for Season 1, but this is not the full cast. Actors marked* are probably in the show (usually through their casting agents putting the credit in their online bios and then removing them, presumably at Amazon's request) but Amazon has not formally confirmed them as yet.

Moiraine Damodred - Rosamund Pike
Rand al'Thor - Josha Stradowski
Egwene al'Vere - Madeleine Madden
Perrin Aybara - Marcus Rutherford
Mat Cauthon - Barney Harris
Nynaeve al'Meara - Zoe Robins
Lan Mandragoran - Daniel Henney
Tam al'Thor - Michael McElhatton
Logain Ablar - Alvaro Morte
Loial - Hammed Animashaun
Thom Merrilin - Alexandre Willaume
Padan Fain - Johann Myers
Eamon Valda - Abdul Salis*
Master Hightower - Pearce Quigley*
Alanna Mosvani - Priyanka Bose
Maksim - Taylor Napier
Ihvon - Emmanuel Imani
Abell Cauthon - Christopher Sciueref*
Natti Cauthon - Juliet Howland*
Eldrin Cauthon - Lilibet Biutanaseva*
Bode Cauthon - Litiana Biutanaseva*
Laila Aybara - Helena Westerman*
Narg/Trollocs - Roman Dvorak*
unknown - Naana Agyei Ampadu, Daryl McCormack, Lolita Chakrabarti*

In the case of some characters who do not appear until later books (notably Alanna and her Warders and Eamon Valda), it is believed these characters will appear in the expanded Logain storyline, which will reportedly see him captured on-screen rather than off-page as in the book. The character of "Laila Aybara" does not appear in the books, but Perrin notes that he once had a girlfriend called Laila that he could have married, leading to speculation that the writers may be considering a major change to Perrin's backstory. However, this casting has not yet been confirmed by Amazon.

Assuming that Season 1 covers all of The Eye of the World, roles yet to be confirmed could possibly include Cenn Buie, Geofram Bornhald, Dain Bornhald, Mordeth, Jaret Byar, Min Farshaw, Elyas Machera, Bayle Domon, Floran Gelb, Aram, Raen, Ila, Morgase Trakand, Elayne Trakand, Gawyn Trakand, Galadedrid Damodred, Gareth Bryne, Elaida do Avriny a'Roihan, Basel Gill, Lamgwin Dor, Ingtar Shinowa and Agelmar Jagad, among many, many others.

More news as we get it.

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. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Monday 23 December 2019

WHEEL OF TIME TV series adds more Aes Sedai & Warders

Amazon has added three new castmembers to its Wheel of Time TV series.

Alanna Mosvani is an Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah. She is a member of the same organisation as Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), a society of women wielding the One Power, a form of sorcery. Only women can wield the Power safely, since the male form of the Power was cursed three and a half thousand years ago. As a Green, rather than Moiraine's politically-motivated Blue Ajah, Alanna holds herself ready to use the Power in battle against the minions of the Dark One.

Alanna is to be played by Indian actress Priyanka Bose. She has a long career in Indian film and television, along with the Italian movie Gangor and British drama The Good Karma Hospital. She also appeared in the highly-acclaimed 2016 movie Lion.

Maksim and Ihvon are Alanna's two Warders, as Green Ajah members can have more than one Warder due to the physical danger they put themselves in (all other Ajahs only have one, apart from the Red who have none).

Maksim is to be played by Taylor Napier, a veteran of short films and the TV movie Saving Hope.

Ihvon is to be played by Emmanuel Imani. Imani has appeared in TV shows including Black Earth Rising, Doctors and Cobra.

The addition of Alanna and her two Warders is an interesting move, as these characters do not debut in the book series until the second volume, The Great Hunt. This further suggests that Season 1 will move past the end of the first novel and will incorporate some Book 2 material, or it will have material set in Tar Valon that was off-screen in the book.

Saturday 21 December 2019

The Witcher: Season 1

The Northern Kingdoms are braced for war. The great southern empire of Nilfgaard is on the advance, plotting to annex more territory. The north is divided. The fate of the continent may depend on three individuals: Ciri, a princess and heir to a fallen nation; Yennefer, a sorceress who is not sure what it is she wants; and Geralt, a witcher, a hunter of monsters who has learned that the worst monsters walk on two legs, wear clothes and pretend to be just.

It may be difficult to think now, but when HBO launched Game of Thrones in 2011 it was taking a massive gamble, one may critics thought was doomed to fail. It turned out that HBO's call was the right one, delivering the biggest watercooler show and the most globally successful drama series of the decade, and making fantasy cool again overnight.

Other networks wanted in on the action and have been snapping up fantasy novel series all over the shop, and the early failures (like MTV's poor Chronicles of Shannara) don't seem to have taken the wind out of their sails. Amazon has Lord of the Rings: The Second Age and The Wheel of Time both in production, the BBC and HBO's His Dark Materials is already airing and Netflix is going all-in on the fantasy genre. It has a live-action reboot of Avatar: The Last Airbender in pre-production and a new take on The Chronicles of Narnia in the planning stages. But before those arrive, it has rolled the dice hard on The Witcher.

The Witcher is a cult European fantasy success story which shifted a couple of million copies in its native Poland and other parts of eastern Europe in the 1990s, but went global thanks to a trilogy of well-received video games from CD Projekt Red. The games have now sold over 30 million copies (outselling the books 6-to-1) and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is now being cited by many critics as the greatest video game of the decade.

Netflix's show is based firmly on the distinctly cheaper-to-licence books, specifically the first two (the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny) but also drawing on some story elements in the first two novels proper, Blood of Elves and Time of Contempt. Those looking for a linear, chronological adaptation of the books best look elsewhere. Showrunner and head writer Lauren Hissrich has taken the stories from the early books and blended them together to turn an episodic story which gradually becomes more serialised into a single, big-picture epic from the off. This structural decision winds up being the show's biggest mistake, creating a story which is often unnecessarily confusing and which muddles both characterisation and stakes.

Effectively, The Witcher uses the same timeline structure as Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, having one story (Yennefer's) unfolding over thirty years, another (Geralt's) over fifteen and another (Ciri's) over a few weeks. Whilst Nolan actually told the audience what was going on, there is no indication in the show that we are viewing three disconnected narratives, at least not until the fourth episode when Geralt finally reaches Ciri's homeland and instead of finding it in flames and under enemy occupation, he's instead meeting a younger version of Ciri's grandmother. Once you understand that, the show makes a bit more sense but this doesn't solve the relating problem that Ciri's story is simply too thin for the amount of screentime it gets.

The teenage Ciri is in almost every episode, a result of casting Freya Allan as a series regular, which is baffling because she doesn't need to be. Ciri's entire Season 1 arc is her escaping a bloody battle, running through some woods, getting captured a couple of times, escaping and eventually finding a temporary safe refuge. This entire storyline could have been told in one episode. Spreading it over eight means both a lot of wheel-spinning in her story and constant interruptions in both Geralt's and Yennefer's stories, which are generally a lot more interesting.

The other main negative is the quality of the effects. The effects for creatures, such as the striga and kikimores, are generally excellent and impressive. A terrible dragon in one episode, which looks like a PS3-era video game, is the exception. Environmental effects, magic and especially the depiction of a big battle sequence in the first episode are absolutely woeful, with a lot of painfully obvious greenscreen. Although The Witcher's budget is reasonably solid (at $7 million per episode, adjusted for inflation, it's roughly comparable to the first two seasons of Game of Thrones), it's clear it was insufficient to do the things asked of it. Better that the show hadn't bothered and left those scenes offscreen (as they are in the books) and spent the money elsewhere, such as the prosthetics for the elves and dwarves which are also not great (the dwarves more or less get away with it, but the elves look like under-prepared and under-budgeted cosplayers).

Another problem, although this varies by episode, is the running time. Several of the episodes are 60 minutes long but run out of story at around the 35-40 minute mark, meaning a lot of spare time that's taken up by filler (usually another episode from Ciri's story) or redundant dialogue. The freedom of not having a set running time is great when an episode badly needs a bit more time to do its story justice, but it can backfire when the opposite is the case.

Fortunately, and this saves the show, the performances are very solid, with Cavill splendidly gruff as Geralt but bringing out the (often well-concealed) wit and charm of the character when required. Anya Chalotra may be the stand-out revelation of the cast, having to play considerably older than her years to reflect Yennefer's world-weariness and cynicism. Freya Allan is also very good as the young Ciri, whose world been shattered by harsh events and she needs to adapt to a rapidly changing situation without being prepared for it.

Of the recurring cast, Jodhi May is exceptional as Queen Calanthe, whom she plays like King Robert Baratheon in his prime. MyAnna Buring is also very good as Tissaia (a minor character from the books who is given a much larger role here as Yennefer's mentor) and Emma Appleton is memorable as Renfri, who is only really present in the first episode but shows up in flashback as a framing device for Geralt's acceptance of his destiny. The performances throughout are pretty strong. Joey Batey's performance as Jaskier (aka Dandelion) is also pretty good, especially as they lean on the actor's real-life singing and musician skills, but I can see him annoying some people. That's half the point of the character but may grate with some viewers. Overall both characterisation and performances are good, enough to overcome some decidedly ripe dialogue at times.

Disregarding the unnecessary timeline structure, the story arcs are also reasonably compelling. Yennefer's is by far the best. Depicting her backstory on-screen is a splendid choice and we see her growth into the person she is in a way that sells the character very well. Geralt's development is more subtle but also more nuanced, as we witness his initially aimless, self-reliant drifting turning more into an acknowledgement he needs other people around him and then his adoption of finding Ciri as his goal.

The fight sequences (at least those not involving CGI) are also very impressive and the soundtrack is superb, so those departments can rest easy knowing they've done a superb job.

The result is...okay. The first season of The Witcher (***½) is fine. It's not great but it's not awful either. An unnecessarily puzzling timeline structure, some ripe dialogue and some dodgy effects make the series feel cheaper and less professional than it really should, but some great performances and effective character arcs bring the show back to the level of watchability, and a few good laughs and a great score improve a little over that. The second season certainly promises to be a lot better. Season 1 of The Witcher - which is more the 2007 original video game than the 2015 exceptional one - is on Netflix now and Season 2 starts shooting in February for a 2021 debut.

The Sabbat Worlds Crusade by Dan Abnett

On the 266th day of the 755th year of the 41st millennium, the Imperium of Man launched a full-scale invasion of the Sabbat Worlds: one hundred and sixty star systems with a combined a population of 17 trillion souls. Over the preceding two centuries, the region had fallen prey to the depredations of Chaos cultists and other followers of the Ruinous Powers. Over the course of the next thirty-seven years, the Sabbat Worlds Crusade would cost billions of lives but deliver trillions from the grip of the archenemy, through a combination of bold strategic ingenuity and desperate fighting on the ground, in the air and in space. A small but important role would be played by one company of the Imperial Guard in particular: the Tanith 1st, popularly known as "Gaunt's Ghosts." This is the story of the war on a grand scale.

For the past twenty years, Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts series has been one of the most popular (and almost certainly the best) military SF series in the world. Its mix of effective characterisation and impressive military action has been highly compelling, effectively replicating the appeal of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels but in the future, and in the Cthulhu-meets-Aliens milieu of the Warhammer 40,000 space fantasy setting. The Sabbat Worlds Crusade is the sub-setting for these books, effectively a corner of the wider 40K setting which Abnett has made his own, depicting a vast war on a mind-boggling scale.

Despite the detail and attention poured into that war, it has remained firmly in the background. Abnett has instead correctly focused on the events and characters up-front in the novels, making them compelling reads with the background material interesting but not essential to enjoying each book in turn. Over the years the background has gotten fleshed out, via two short story anthologies and a previous companion book published when the series was barely half its current length. This book is a reprinting of the previous companion volume but on a much grander scale, with all-new material on the latter half of the war bringing the story up to date as of the fifteen book in the series (Anarch).

The first thing to note is that this book is a thing of beauty. It is hefty, published on high-quality paper and features a colossal amount of high-quality artwork from the talented art department at Games Workshop. Some of the artwork is reprinted from previous book covers, but a lot of it is new, most notably a handsome (if somewhat stylised) fold-out map of the entire Sabbat Worlds region. The book also features a ribbon book mark and the pages are edged in gold, making it a handsome volume for your shelf without completely destroying your wallet.

The text is mostly a linear account of the war, opening with the causes of the conflict and the deep-seated historical background before focusing on the politicking of Warmaster Slaydo to get the war approved and underway. The opening stages of the war to the decisive battle at Balhaut are recounted in detail, before Slaydo's death and the rise of the far more mercurial and temperamental Warmaster Macaroth to replace him, which coincides with the rise of Ibram Gaunt and the Tanith First and Only, as recounted in the novels. The book then continues to outline the course of the war, through events readers of the main novel series will be familiar with and other battles that have never been mentioned in the books.

Something I was very impressed by is that Abnett doesn't fall into the common companion volume trap of making the book a redundant retelling of the events of the books. This is the very thing that Raymond E. Feist did in his Riftwar companion book, Midkemia: The Chronicles of Pug, neglecting previously unknown lore in favour of telling the reader a story they'd already read and making the entire project redundant. You've already read the novels, you don't need to read a summary of them again. Abnett instead focuses on other theatres of conflict and other battles, mentioning the Ghosts only in passing when their activities have a discernible impact on the overall course of the war, which is surprisingly limited. That's not to say the Ghosts are ignored though. Sidebars and chapters on weapons, vehicles and kit feature the Ghosts prominently, many of whom get their first official artistic depictions in this volume.

The writing is pretty solid, although your investment in it will depend on your enjoyment of detailed military accounts of completely fictional campaigns. There clearly isn't much character work going on here, Abnett relying on the reader's familiarity with the novels and a few sidebars fleshing out commanding figures in the campaign. There is some interesting stuff for future books though, with one account of a major aerial dogfight feeling like setup for Interceptor City (the much-delayed sequel to Double Eagle, Abnett's Battle of Britain-aping dogfight novel), and the final chapter setting up the next and final phase of the Crusade, the battles that will no doubt feature in the final arc of the Gaunt's Ghosts series, although that's still a few years off.

Amongst companion books, The Sabbat Worlds Crusade (****½) is very decent. It gives the reader lots of new information and puts the events they are familiar with in a new context. It provides setup for future books and features a lot of fantastic artwork. The production value of the book is exceptional and it certainly makes for a very impressive gift for a fan of the novels. Negatives are pretty minor: you're not going to get much out of this if you haven't read the novels (natch) and some may bemoan the lack of a further level of detail (like full orders of battle, although these can be found in the entries on the crusade in the various 40K wikis) or summaries of the novels (again, these can be found online). Some may also question the wisdom of publishing this volume now rather than when the series is fully complete, especially since only four to six novels appear to remain in Abnett's plan for the series.

The book is available now from the Black Library.

Friday 20 December 2019

The Witcher Franchise Familiariser (updated)

In the last ten years, the Witcher series has grown from a relatively obscure (to English-speaking audiences) Polish fantasy series to a major franchise, driven by three highly successful video games and an English translation of the original books. A Netflix TV series is now on air. But what if you haven’t yet sampled the series and want to find out what’s going on? Time for a franchise familiariser course.

Five of the primary characters of The Witcher saga, from left to right: Yennefer, Ciri, Geralt, Vesemir and Triss.

The Basics

The Witcher is a series of short stories, novels and videos games set in a land known only as “The Continent”. The Continent is divided between the Northern Kingdoms, which are the primary setting for both the books and games, and the massive Empire of Nilfgaard to the south. Nilfgaard invades the Northern Kingdoms three times in an attempt to annex them, and these wars form the backdrop for many of the stories in the series.

The titular “Witcher” is a reference to Geralt of Rivia, the primary protagonist and viewpoint character of the series. However, the books move away from Geralt as the only major character and introduce other characters of equal or arguably greater importance, such as the sorceress Yennefer and Geralt’s sort-of apprentice, Ciri.

The books were written by Andrzej Sapkowski (1948-present). These comprise two collections of short stories, a five-novel series (often known The Witcher Saga) and a stand-alone prequel novel. Sapkowski has mooted returning to the world for additional books and stories.

The video games were created by Polish developer CD Projekt Red. To date, three games have been developed and released, along with some additional spin-offs. A fourth game (which will be set in the same world but not carry on the previous storyline from the game) is tentatively planned. Sapkowski advised on the games, but did not write the storyline, which was instead written by a team of writers (Marcin Blacha is the only writer credited with working on all three games).

Netflix's Witcher TV series hit screens on 20 December 2019. It is co-written and produced by West Wing, Daredevil and Defenders writer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, with Jarek Sawko and Tomek Baginski (who worked on the video games) as producers. The TV show stars Henry Cavill as Geralt, Anya Chalotra as Yennefer and Freya Allan as Ciri. The show has been renewed for a second season, expected to air in 2021.

The Canon

The Witcher canon is a slightly complicated beast due to the fact that the franchise originated as a book series written by one author, but it was the video game trilogy which boosted it into a world-famous series. The video games take the books as canon, and frequently refer to events in the novels, but Sapkowski does not accept the video games as canon himself (although he has written nothing – so far – to contradict the games). For the purposes of this guide, we will assume that the novels and video games form one canon for now.

The TV series primarily adapts the books and not the games, but occasionally has homages to events in the games.

The Witcher Short Stories by Andrzej Sapkowski (in chronological order)

The Last Wish (1993)
  • The Voice of Reason
  • The Witcher
  • A Grain of Truth
  • The Lesser Evil
  • A Question of Price
  • The Edge of the World
  • The Last Wish

Sword of Destiny (1992)
  • The Bounds of Reason
  • A Shard of Ice
  • Eternal Flame
  • A Little Sacrifice
  • The Sword of Destiny
  • Something More

Note: The Last Wish was a reprint of an earlier short story collection called The Witcher (1990), which included all of the stories in that collection plus several new ones. However, although The Last Wish supersedes The Witcher in the canon, it omits the short story “The Road With No Return” (featuring Geralt’s mother and set before his birth).

The Witcher Saga by Andrzej Sapkowski
  1. Blood of Elves (1994)
  2. Time of Contempt (1995)
  3. Baptism of Fire (1996)
  4. The Tower of Swallows (1997)
  5. Lady of the Lake (1999)

The Witcher Stand-Alone Novels by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • Season of Storms (2013)

The Witcher video game series by CD Projekt Red
  1. The Witcher (2007)
  2. The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings (2011)
  3. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (2015)
    • The Witcher III: Hearts of Stone (2015)
    • The Witcher III: Blood and Wine (2016)

A simplified map of the Northern Kingdoms from the first Witcher video game.


According to myth, over two and a half thousand years ago, the world was the domain of the elder races, elves and dwarves. An event known as the “Conjunction of the Spheres” took place, during which time the world intersected with one and possibly two other worlds through an astral alignment. Portals opened which allowed the inhabitants of these worlds to cross over, including (allegedly) humans and various creatures and monsters. This event also introduced magic to the world, and the creation of the first mages (among the various races) as being who cold harness magic.

In the year 760 after the Resurrection (what exactly the Resurrection is remains unclear), humans crossed the Yaruga and Pontar rivers into what are now called the Northern Kingdoms in force. They initially settled along the coastlands before moving inland, displacing some of the native elven tribes. Other humans, particularly magic-users, aligned with the elves to learn their ways of magic. 

However, as the human settlements expanded from villages to towns to small cities, so the elves found themselves rapidly outnumbered by the rapidly-growing human nations. The elves found themselves forced to assimilate – where they often faced racial prejudice and suspicion – or flee. Some elves later banded together with renegade dwarves and other nonhumans (most notably halflings) to found the Scoia’tael or “Squirrels”, a guerrilla force that resists human encroachment on their lands with violence.

Two centuries later, the mages Alzur and Cosimo Malaspina founded the witchers. Witchers are trained in the art of monster-slaying, which requires them to gain superhuman and supernatural abilities. These are bestowed upon them through the consumption of potions and alchemical substances known as mutagens. Witchers are formidable warriors, far outstripping most human, elven or dwarven opponents due to superior reactions, faster healing abilities and uncanny reflexes. As well as physical combat, they are trained in the art of identifying supernatural monsters and how to kill, neutralise or banish them. They also gain a significantly expanded lifespan, but are rendered infertile in the process. The witchers were founded due to the large number of monsters still living in the Northern Kingdoms, and soon found themselves in regular employment as they made the lands safe for human settlement.

In 1239 the southern kingdom of Nilfgaard annexed Ebbing, a nation to the north. Although still far to the south of the Northern Kingdoms, this event alerted the north to the growing threat of Nilfgaard. Over the next several decades, as the small kingdoms and cities to the north of Ebbing fell, the threat of Nilfgaard became clearer.

Shortly after this time, the witcher Geralt of Rivia became known to the world at large. Geralt was noted for his skill, intelligence and combat abilities, all of which outclassed that of the witchers in general. In particular, Geralt was noted for his skills in avoiding unnecessary bloodshed: he made his name in particular by saving the daughter of King Foltest of Temaria, who had been transformed by a curse into a striga. Geralt defeated the striga and restored the princess to normal. The Witcher short stories relate various adventures which see Geralt’s rise to fame (or infamy).

Some years later, Geralt became involved in the events precipitated by Nilfgaard’s invasion of the Northern Kingdoms. Geralt’s acquaintance with a young girl named Ciri, whom he had trained in witcher combat techniques, proved instrumental in halting the stopping the war and bringing about peace (as related in the five Witcher Saga novels). During this period Geralt met and fell in love with the sorceress Yennefer, befriended the dwarf Zoltan and the bard Dandelion and became involved in the affairs of kings. Two years after the end of the war, Geralt (who had gone missing in the meantime) reappeared at the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen suffering from amnesia, unable to recall what had happened after his “death” (this marks the beginning of the Witcher video games).


The setting for the Witcher saga is a single, large landmass known only as “The Continent”. The Continent is divided into several regions by the vast Korath Desert in the middle of the landmass. The Northern Kingdoms lie to the north-west of the desert, the Nilfgaard Empire to the south-west, Hakland to the north-east and Zerrikania to the south-east.

The Northern Kingdoms are the primary setting for the action in the story. The kingdoms are (at the outset of the saga):
  • Temeria, ruled by King Foltest from Vizima.
  • Redania, ruled by King Radovid V from Trelogor.
  • Cintra, ruled by Queen Calanthe and King Eist Tuirseach from Cintra City.
  • Kaedwen, ruled by King Henselt from Ard Carraigh.
  • Aedirn, ruled by King Demavend III from Vengerberg.
  • Kovir, more properly Kovir and Poviss, ruled by King Tankred Thyssen from Pont Vanis and Lan Exeter.
  • Lyria and Rivia, ruled by Queen Meve from Rivia and Lyria.
  • Skellige, or the Skellige Isles, ruled by Jarl Eist Tuirseach from An Skellig (and Cintra City).

Other significant locations include Kaer Morhen, the witcher stronghold, located in north-eastern Kaedwen; and the free city of Novigrad, located close to Redania and Temaria.

The Nilfgaard Empire plays a major role in the story, although its capital of Nilfgaard, the City of the Golden Tower, is located a good two thousand miles or so to the south of the Northern Kingdoms.

Provinces of the Nilfgaardian Empire include EtoliaGemmera¸ GesoMetinnaEbbingVicovaroYmlacMag TurgaNazair and Toussaint. Only Toussaint is visited in the saga, in the Blood and Wine expansion for The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.

A spectacular fan map of the entire explored Continent from DwarfChieftain on DeviantArt.


Magic is used liberally in the Witcher saga, by both mages and sorceresses (or, less kindly, “witches”), as well as Geralt himself who has access to minor magical powers (known as "signs"). However, the attitudes to magic radically shift from kingdom to kingdom. Temeria employs mages as advisors but is distrustful of unsponsored magic-users wandering the countryside. Redania is fiercely anti-mage and burns sorcerers at the stake. Nilfgaard strictly regulates them and forces them to the serve the Emperor’s will.


Geralt’s day job – when he isn’t getting involved in high-level politics and deciding the fate of nations – is hunting down monsters roaming the countryside. Monsters, for the most part, are animalistic and cannot be reasoned with, but in some cases they can be banished rather than killed. Some monsters are actually humans transmogrified by a curse: in some cases they can be cured, in others not. Monsters include alghouls, basilisks, bruxa, cockatrices, drowners, echinops, ghoul, kikimores, noonwraiths, strigas and wyverns.

Other entities of interest include godlings, intelligent and mischievous (but not evil) child-like spirits, and creatures such as the Crones, three powerful creatures inhabiting the swamps of Velen. These beings are intelligent and capable of speech and bargaining, but they are also capricious. These kinds of entities are ones that even Geralt would hesitate to engage in battle, but in many cases it is unnecessary as they bound by strict rules governing their interaction with mortals.

More troublesome are spectres, ghosts and otherworldly beings who are unnatural to this world but still intelligent and reasonable beings. Geralt can dispel or banish such entities. The most troublesome and dangerous of these creatures is the army known as the Wild Hunt, who are constantly on the lookout for beings of true power to recruit into their ranks.

Conception and Development

Andrzej Sapkowski was born in Łódź, Poland, in 1948 when it was still under Soviet occupation. He studied economics and worked as a senior sales representative for a foreign trade company. He was a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, particularly the Chronicles of Amber series by Roger Zelazny. He later became a translator of science fiction. He wrote his first short story, “The Witcher”, which introduced the character Geralt of Rivia, for Fantastyka magazine in 1986. The story was popular and led to a number of sequels, which were assembled as a short story collection, The Witcher, in 1990. This was followed by a second collection, which also worked as a prelude to the longer novel series Sapkowski was planning, called Sword of Destiny (1992). In 1993 Sapkowski reworked The Witcher with some new stories and re-released it under its definitive title, The Last Wish. The first Witcher novel proper, Blood of Elves, was published in 1994 and was followed by four sequels.

After writing a series of historical novels, Sapkowski returned to the Witcher universe for a prequel novel, Season of Storms, in 2013. He has since confirmed that he has plans to write more books in the setting.

By 2007 the Witcher books had sold over 2 million copies and was extremely popular in Poland, Ukraine and Russia, with additional sales in France and Spain (among others). Although these sales were very modest compared to the big British and American fantasy authors, they were unprecedented for a European author writing in a language that was not English.

In 2001 a 13-part Witcher television series aired in Poland. It was a critical and commercial failure.

In 2007 CD Projekt released The Witcher, a PC video game based on the books (the opening cinematic adapts the short story “The Witcher”). Based on the Aurora Engine developed by BioWare for their 2002 game Neverwinter NightsThe Witcher was a surprise success: the game launched with severe bugs (including one that resulted in cripplingly long load times) and a mixed critical reception. CD Projekt quickly fixed these problems and issued an upgraded version of the game, known as The Witcher: Enhanced Edition a few months later. The company was forced to cancel a planned, ambitious console version of the game due to problems with the company handling the port.

In 2008 CD Projekt also launched GoG.com (originally Good Old Games), a service dedicated to resurrecting old games and releasing them in new editions compatible with modern game systems. 

This earned them a lot of goodwill from gamers. In 2011 CD Projekt released The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings, a much more successful game than its forebear due to its great technical achievements and console editions. In early 2015 they released The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, a massive open-world roleplaying game which attracted immediate and widespread critical acclaim. In the nearly-three-years since release, The Witcher III has been acclaimed as one of the greatest video games of all time. As of 2019, the Witcher video games have sold over 30 million copies, considerably more than the Dragon Age series, and rapidly closing in on The Elder Scrolls games (which have sold approximately 40 million).

In 2017 it was announced that Netflix had optioned the television rights for a new Witcher series. The new series has been made for an English-speaking audience and will involve both Sapkowski and several of the creative minds behind the video games as advisors. The series debuted in December 2019.

Further Reading

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