Friday 31 January 2020

Early DUNE footage gets a positive reception

The first footage from Denis Villeneuve's Dune has been screened at a film festival in Paris and the reception has been largely positive.

The film only wrapped shooting a couple of months ago and the crew are now deep in post-production on the film, with elaborate effects sequences needing to be added. The footage seen in Paris was mostly missing effects footage and only had a temp score, but viewers drew a comparison between the material and the early screenings of Lord of the Rings material back in 2001. Attendees also got their first glimpse of the new Dune logo (not shown here as it's being taken down at a rate of knots).

Villeneuve's movie only adapts the first half of the first book, with a sequel dependent on the success of the film.

Dune will be released on 18 December this year.

Friday 24 January 2020

New DUNGEONS & DRAGONS movie script completed

The latest writers for the Dungeons & Dragons movie have confirmed that their script for the film is complete. Jonathan Goldstein and John Daley have worked together on several comedies (including Horrible Bosses and Game Night) but also co-wrote the well-received Spider-Man: Homecoming for Disney.

The current D&D movie project has had a torturous development period. The project was bogged down in a legal action with the previous holders of the film rights (who developed the terrible 2000 movie and its two direct-to-DVD sequels) for several years, and since then has gone through a succession of writers and directors. At one point Hasbro and Paramount firmly committed to a release date of 23 July 2021, but it's unclear if that's still the plan. If so, the film will have to get before cameras pretty quickly.

A previous draft of the film was set in the Forgotten Realms world and would involve Waterdeep, the Yawning Portal Inn and the vast dungeon of Undermountain, but it's unclear if the new draft still shares that setting.

Rumour: new STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC game in development

Fansite Cinelinx, which broke the news about the Star Wars Obi-Wan TV show last year, has reported that a new Knights of the Old Republic title is in development at Electronic Arts.

The original Knights of the Old Republic was developed by BioWare and released by Lucasfilm in 2003 and is fondly remembered as one of the greatest Star Wars video games of all time. Its sequel, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, the first game from Obsidian Entertainment, is almost as acclaimed but was released in a notoriously buggy state. In 2011 BioWare and Electronic Arts released The Old Republic, a massively multiplayer RPG which also served as a sequel-of-sorts to the earlier two games.

BioWare has apparently been keen to make a proper Knights of the Old Republic III for some years and discussed the project several times with parent company EA after they acquired the Star Wars licence. Reportedly some prototyping work was done in 2015 but was then put on ice whilst the company focused on Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem.

Cinelinx's report is interesting, as it suggests that the game currently being developed is a reboot of the Knights of the Old Republic game, part-remake and part-sequel, that would bring it into the new canon of the Disney era. The approach is similar to that of the recent God of War reboot game.

This news comes as Lucasfilm is apparently working on "Project Luminous," a multimedia "event" which will apparently encompass video games and comic books launching in 2021, with a design to feeding into the next set of live-action films. These will reportedly be set 400 years before the events of The Phantom Menace in an era called the "High Republic." These reports baffled some fans, who wondered if they'd dropped a zero and were in fact referring to the Old Republic era of 4,000 years earlier, the same time period as Knights of the Old Republic. Another possibility is that the Old Republic era is being retconned to taking place much more recently. This is given credence by reports in 2019 that the showrunner of Altered Carbon was writing a move script inspired by Knights of the Old Republic.

What is interesting is that there is no mention of BioWare being involved in the new project. BioWare are still actively developing Anthem after a less-than-stellar launch, are also developing a fourth Dragon Age game and reportedly are now in pre-production on a fifth Mass Effect game. Electronic Arts developing a new Old Republic game but giving it to another of their studios would seem unlikely and rather disrespectful to BioWare, but given the limited bandwidth at BioWare it would seem the only conclusion if this game is indeed to be released in the next two years or so.

More news as it develops.

BABYLON 5 to leave Amazon Prime next week

Babylon 5, one of the greatest SF shows of all time, is leaving its current streaming home on Amazon next week.

Babylon 5 has not had a regular streaming home, being bounced from service to service for several years. It landed on Amazon Prime in June 2018, but after eighteen months it will leave the service on 31 January. Where it will land next is unclear, but it's long-term home will likely be Warner Media's new streaming platform, HBO Max, which is due to launch in May this year.

If you haven't checked out Babylon 5 yet, it may be too late to do so unless you can cram 110 episodes into seven days. The show remains available on DVD.

Fan-favourite cast in THE WHEEL OF TIME TV series

The latest Wheel of Time casting news has confirmed that a fan-favourite character has been cast in the series, but with a change in gender.

Bela, the Lil' Sebastian of Randland, will be played in the show by Archie, a notably non-female horse. This particular slice of casting news has already sent shockwaves through the Wheel of Time fandom, with literally ones of people remarking on it (albeit mainly with "So?" and "Can you tell?"). Bela is probably the only character that the entire fanbase can agree is awesome, so the casting news will likely engender further almost-controversy in the coming weeks.

Obi-Wan Kenobi TV series on hold at Disney+

In surprising news, Lucasfilm have delayed production on its second Star Wars TV series. This series would see Ewan McGregor return as Obi-Wan Kenobi in a series set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.

The series started out as a movie, but after the failure of Solo it was retooled as a TV series. Hossein Amini was slated to write with Deborah Chow directing. The show was gearing up for pre-production, with set construction and location scouting expected to begin imminently. However, the crew have been put on indefinite hold after Lucasfilm decided to request complete rewrites.

According to Collider, two out of six scripts had been fully written, but Lucasfilm were not happy with them. Reportedly there were concerns that the main premise, which would have seen Obi-Wan watching over a young Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, may have been a bit over-familiar given The Mandalorian's recent storyline about a lone warrior watching over an infant whose life might be in danger. There may also have been concerns about treading on the toes of the CG series Star Wars: Rebels, which used Obi-Wan on Tatooine for several storylines in its last season.

Reportedly the scripts are now being refocused with a new writer (Amini is reportedly out), potentially with an idea about Obi-Wan having to leave Tatooine and go off-world on a solo mission. There is plenty of scope for this in the lore (as the idea that Obi-Wan just hung out in a hut on Tatooine for twenty years always felt a bit unlikely). What is clear is that Lucasfilm are very keen to give McGregor a solid outing as Obi-Wan and are hoping to reschedule production to begin in the summer. There is also some talk of the episode order being reduced to four.

The news follows reports that the Disney+ series focusing on Rogue One's Cassian Andor was also being reworked, with Rogue One co-writer Tony Gilroy (who is also credited with saving the film through reshoots) coming on board to lend writing support and direct several episodes.

The news adds to the general sense of chaos and a loss of direction at Lucasfilm. Rise of the Skywalker is approaching the end of its theatrical run having failed to match Rogue One at the box office and falling a billion dollars short of The Force Awakens' performance just four years ago. The next stage of the movie saga is also in doubt after David Benioff and D.B. Weiss quit.

Meanwhile, in good news shooting is already well underway on Season 2 of The Mandalorian, which is expected to air at the end of the year.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Whoopi Goldberg returning to STAR TREK as Guinan

Whoopi Goldberg is returning to her role of Guinan in Star Trek.

Patrick Stewart made the offer, authorised by his fellow producers, live on TV whilst appearing on Goldberg's talk show, The View, and Goldberg accepted.

Goldberg portrayed the role of enigmatic alien Guinan in a recurring role on Star Trek: The Next Generation between the second and sixth seasons of that show. She served as the bartender and owner of the Ten-Forward bar on the Enterprise. She also appeared in the film Star Trek: Generations (1994) in a major role and in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) in a minor one. Guinan is a very long-lived alien, a member of a species called the El-Aurians who are also known as "listeners." They have an unusual relationship with the universe and with time itself. At one point Guinan apparently holds off the supposedly infinite power of Q (in the episode Q Who?), whilst in another she is able to perceive a major shift in the timeline when no-one else can (Yesterday's Enterprise).

Goldberg took time out of her burgeoning movie career to appear on Star Trek, because of her lifelong love of the franchise. Movie stars (especially Oscar nominees and winners) appearing on weekly TV was extremely unusual in the 1980s and 1990s and Goldberg's presence increased interest in the series, although her appearances were intermittent (eventually totalling 29 out of The Next Generation's 178 episodes).

Guinan will return in Season 2 of Star Trek: Picard, which is expected to shoot later this year for airing in 2021. Season 1 will begin airing on CBS All Access in the United States tomorrow and on Amazon Prime in the rest of the world on Friday.

WARLORD CHRONICLES TV series goes into active development at Epix

American cable network Epix has teamed with Bad Wolf Productions, the company behind His Dark Materials, to develop The Warlord Chronicles novel series by Last Kingdom creator Bernard Cornwell for television.

The Warlord Chronicles consists of three novels: The Winter King (1995), Enemy of God (1996) and Excalibur (1997). The Warlord Chronicles are a "realistic" take on the legend of King Arthur, set during the 5th and 6th Centuries in a Britain riven by religious and political turmoil. The Roman Empire has collapsed, but some of the Roman settlers and armies remain. The native Britons are trying to re-establish themselves, but the first waves of Saxons are starting to invade from the east. Roman religious cults and the newly-arrived religion of Christianity are struggling against the native pagan druids and other old faiths. It's a time of great danger, enhanced when King Uther Pendragon of Dumnonia dies and the protection of his infant son and heir Mordred falls to Uther's bastard child Arthur. Unable to ever become king, Arthur instead takes on the mantle of Warlord. Arthur's stewardship sees Dumnonia - rendered "Camelot" by later chroniclers - become a great power but it is sore-pressed by both internal and external pressures. The story is also notable for being told from the point of view of Derfel Cadarn, a very junior member of Arthur's circle, rather than from one of the better-known characters of the legend. The whole story is being related in exacting detail by Cadarn to some monks. To his horror, they start "sexing up" the stories with magic swords and ladies in lakes, forming the legend as we currently know it.

The Warlord Chronicles is often cited as Bernard Cornwell's strongest work, and the most successful version of the Arthurian legend of recent decades.

Epix is a relatively obscure American cable network, although it his scored some hits with the likes of Godfather of Harlem, Perpetual Grace LTD and Pennyworth. Their plan is to adapt the series under the title The Winter King. So far the project is only in development and has not yet been given a pilot order.

Bad Wolf optioned The Warlord Chronicles in 2015, but has delayed work on the show whilst they were getting The Night ofA Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials underway.

Maria Doyle Kennedy and other actors join THE WHEEL OF TIME

Irish actress and singer Maria Doyle Kennedy is one of a slew of new castmembers announced for Amazon Prime's Wheel of Time project.

Maria Doyle Kennedy is the best-known of the new intake. She began her career as a musician in the 1980s, touring with the Hothouse Flowers and the Black Velvet Band before beginning both a solo career and an acting career in the 1990s. Her first appearance was in cult Irish music film The Commitments. A recurring roles on the original UK Queer as Folk followed. She had a breakthrough in American projects when appearing as Catherine of Aragon in Showtime's The Tudors, after which she appeared in Dexter and Downton Abbey. Between 2013 and 2017 she co-starred in Orphan Black as lead character Sarah's adopted mother, Siobhan. Subsequent roles have included Sing Street, Jupiter Ascending and Outlander.

Kennedy's role in Wheel of Time has not been disclosed, although she's been my personal pick as Elaida since I saw The Tudors. She'd also make a strong Verin, or Siuan if they wanted to age up that role relative to Moiraine. Another possibility is Cadsuane, since Season 1 will apparently feature the storyline where Logain is captured (where Cadsuane reportedly plays a role) and also possible flashbacks to New Spring.

Katy Fleetwood is best-known as a stage actress. Her television work includes Foyle's War, Hustle, Harlots and Victoria, and her film appearances include The Force Awakens and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I. She is confirmed to be playing the role of Liandrin, an Aes Sedai of the Red Ajah, dedicated to capturing and "gentling" (cutting off from the One Power) male channellers.

Jennifer Cheon Garcia is a Canadian-Korean actress whose resume includes roles on Arrow, The Flash, Fringe, Star Trek Beyond, Lucifer, The 100 and Van Helsing. Her role on WoT is undisclosed, but appears to be an Aes Sedai.

Daryl McCormack's casting was previously leaked, but is now confirmed. He is best-known for Vikings and Peaky Blinders. His role is also undisclosed.

Clare Perkins is a British actress who has recently appeared in The Crown and Young Wallander. She is playing Kerene Nagashi. This is one of the most intriguing casting announcements, as Kerene is one of the Aes Sedai agents dispatched to search for the Dragon Reborn in the prequel novel New Spring. She actually does not appear in the main narrative at all. This suggests that there may be flashbacks to the events of New Spring in the first season.

There is also an additional rumoured casting (via Narg of the Daily Trolloc):

Kate Franz is a young actress with only one significant TV credit to her name, on The Blacklist. This is significant because several Wheel of Time alums, most notably writer Amanda Kate Shuman, worked on that show. Franz notes on an Instagram post that she'll be on set in January, but it's unclear if that's to work or just to visit her colleagues. "On set" suggests the former. From her looks, many fans have already suggesting she could be playing Elayne Trakand, although at 29 she is somewhat older than either the character or the actors playing her contemporaries. It's probably not a huge issue though.

More news as we get it.

Sunday 19 January 2020

Wertzone Classics: Two Point Hospital

If there was a question about who was the greatest video game developer of the 1990s, a clear leading answer would be Bullfrog. From 1989's Populous through 1999's Dungeon Keeper II, Bullfrog delivered a seemingly never-ending string of hits, built around strong mechanics, universal themes and stripped-back interfaces. Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Theme Hospital, Powermonger, Dungeon Keeper and Theme Park were all genre-redefining classics.

With such a body of work behind them, it's surprising that neither Bullfrog themselves nor their successor company, Lionhead, made much of an attempt to keep their legacy going. Lionhead instead got bogged down making MOR action-RPGs (the Fable series) and indulging founder Peter Molyneux's increasingly bizarre ego trips, and their great stable of games was left to rot...until recently, when other ex-Bullfrog staffers started resurrecting their old games as "spiritual sequels." First up was Satellite Reign, a highly enjoyable remake of Syndicate, and now Two Point Studios have joined forces with Sega to resurrect Theme Hospital.

Two Point Hospital is so close to being Theme Hospital 2018 that it's really just missing the official IP. You start off as the administrator of a fairly straightforward, basic hospital and it's up to you to get the place running properly by making sure you build the right treatment rooms and hire the right specialists to deal with the local common diseases. As the game continues, you move to new areas in Two Point County with different requirements, such as hospitals in freezing cold regions where the main struggle is keeping everything nice and warm, and ones on tropical islands which have the opposite problem. There's a hospital that's been built in a haunted old castle (yes, really) and others in run-down areas with (shudder) socialised healthcare where you can't fleece the hospital visitors for cash on the spot. Oddly, this ends up being one of the more straightforward scenarios.

Each hospital requires careful balancing between budgetary needs, answering patient requirements and keeping staff happy. Force your workers to stay on long shifts and provide poor facilities for them and their motivation and efficiency will drop. Keep your patients standing around for hours with no food or toilets and expect to see them storming out or - in extreme cases - dropping dead on the spot (and possibly returning as a ghost to haunt the corridors).

Fortunately the game avoids the potential downer of dealing with real medical issues by adopting a lighter tone. The diseases are all invented, comic creations. One disease turns patients into 8-bit masses of pixels and has to given "more resolution" to return to normal. Another turns patients into giant dogs. Another replaces patients' heads with lightbulbs. The increasingly surreal illnesses and the offbeat ways of treating them keeps the game feeling fresh as it progresses, all accompanied by amusing, detailed animations which reward zooming right into a room to see what's going on (most of the game is played zoomed way out as you rush around the hospital putting out fires, sometimes literally).

The game's comic tone belies the fiendishness of its difficulty curve. The game is relatively forgiving and you only need to achieve a couple of modest objectives per scenario to unlock the next one, but if you want to max out each mission it requires a lot of tactical thinking and understanding the game's systems thoroughly. It's a game which you can play relatively casually but also rewards those who want a much more gruelling challenge.

Since release, the game has also been constantly updated with new maps, scenarios, diseases and challenges, making for a decidedly massive game for this kind of management sim. I have 60 hours in the game and there's still more I need to do and see.

Two Point Hospital (*****) takes a game from the 1990s and updates it for modern audiences with better visuals and a streamlined interface, but loses absolutely none of the wit, humour, intelligence and challenge. A compelling and rich management game which constantly entertains, it is available now on Steam. Console versions are also available.

The Dragon Prince: Season 3

The Five Kingdoms are on the brink of war with the elven kingdom of Xadia, a situation expertly brought to pass by the Machiavellian Chancellor Viren. Prince Ezran has returned to Katolis to bring about peace whilst his brother Callum returns the Dragon Prince to Xadia and eases the tensions, but he finds his fellow kings and nobles in no mood to listen to him. Meanwhile, Callum and Rayla discover they have to negotiate a series of fresh dangers as they try to reach the heart of Xadia, where the Dragon Queen lies in a dangerous slumber.

The Dragon Prince is a highly imaginative, entertaining animated fantasy show from some of the same team who made Avatar: The Last Airbender. The first two seasons were solid, entertaining and fun and Season 3 continues in that vein. If you like your fantasy relatively fast-paced, but with great character development, this is the show for you.

Season 3 of The Dragon Prince mixes together of political intrigue with more traditional action-adventure storylines, building all the while to an epic conclusion. Although The Dragon Prince is not finished - it will run for seven seasons in total - it has now reached the end of its first major story arc, with two more, two-season arcs to follow. The result is a faster-paced show than previously, which has good points (especially when compared to the relatively little ground that Season 2 covered) and bad ones.

The first big negative is that the decision to have Ezran return to Katolis to claim the throne feels a bit redundant. If this had been a four-season arc, having Ezran return home for a full season would have made sense, but in this case he's barely back before he's setting out on a new adventure. It feels like just keeping him with Rayla and Callum would have worked better for pacing, and avoided a horribly contrived sequence when a massive army covers all of the ground that it took Rayla and Callum weeks to cross in just a few days (a particularly awkward bit of worldbuilding the show tries to paper over and fails).

The second negative is that Viren spends more than half the season locked up in a dungeon. It's probably not a massive spoiler to say that he leaves the dungeon and causes more mischief later on, but by delaying that moment it leaves an awful lot of story to pack into just a few short episodes, and it doesn't really work (turning Viren into a bit of a chump for his new elf friend Aaravos is also questionable). There's also the questionable decision to completely drop and ignore the suggestion from the first two seasons that King Harrow is actually still alive.

On the plus side, there's plenty of excellent character development for Soren and Amaya, who both have more to do than in the previous seasons, and our journey through Xadia results in some highly enjoyable set pieces, such as the crossing of the Midnight Desert, and a lot more building up of the backstory and lore, such as finally getting to see the confrontation between King Harrow and the Dragon King.

Season 3 of The Dragon Prince (****) overcomes some iffy pacing problems to deliver another enjoyable slice of adventure fantasy. The series is available now on Netflix.

Halt and Catch Fire: Season 2

Mid-1985. After releasing two models of the Cardiff Giant computer, Cardiff Electric is sold off and Gordon Clark gets a big payday. Joe MacMillan gets nothing. Rather than being annoyed by this, Joe moves on with his life and joins his new girlfriend's father's oil company. Donna and Cameron have started a software business, Mutiny, specialising in online gaming. The gang are inadvertently reunited when Joe hits on the idea of using the oil company's mainframe to set up network servers for online computing, and stress-tests it with Mutiny's service. What seems to be an equitable arrangement for all involved is then tested when the oil company CEO realises how much money could be made from this new field.

Halt and Catch Fire may be the longest-running example of the "mundane drama," a type of drama where everyday, relatively standard situations are turned into gripping stories where the stakes feel much higher than they really are (HBO's Show Me a Hero, about housing zoning disputes in 1980s Yonkers, may be the ultimate example of how to take something that sounds dull as dishwater and turns it into sheer brilliance). The 1980s period setting and the stories revolving around the creation of the foundation of the computer systems and networks we all use today do give added relevance to the premise.

The first season of Halt and Catch Fire was solid, but suffered a little from being not sure what direction to take with the tone. The show sometimes played things straight and sometimes went a bit weird, veering towards being an "8-bit Mr. Robot" without fully committing to that level of strangeness. Season 2 lands exactly where it wants to be, more offbeat and stylised than the first season but without going as fully strange as Mr. Robot and remaining fully accessible.

Season 2 instead, refreshingly, focuses on a contrite Joe as he tries to make amends for the things he did to his supposed friends in the first season and ends up helping them out...only to have the decisions taken out of his hands by his decidedly money-grubbing boss, Jacob (James Cromwell making you wonder why we haven't seen him playing more villains in his career). Joe's attempts to try to make things right inevitably lead to more disasters. This makes the viewer more sympathetic to Joe than in the first season, when most of the problems resulted from his own arrogance, and Lee Pace carries off the shift in character marvellously.

The rest of the cast does sterling work, especially Kerry Bishe and Mackenzie Davies as their software business runs into rocky waters and they try to negotiate the needs of a business with Cameron's desire to to stay true to her punk socialist roots. Scoot McNairy as Gordon does feel a little isolated from the rest of the cast, as the writers didn't want to have everyone involved in the same storyline, so Gordon gets to go off and do some soul-searching and self-discovery which is good for the character but also the only moments in which the show threatens to be anything less than brilliant in this run.

Events intensify as the season continues and more things go wrong than you could possibly imagine, until the series gets its first outstanding moment of awesome (set to a particularly accomplished Joy Division cover) and the plotting and character arcs come together in a fusion of storytelling that is magnificent to behold.

Halt and Catch Fire's second season (*****) is compelling, brilliantly-written and acted television. It does leave the question about where the series can go next, with the answer feeling perhaps a little contrived, but the series has certainly earned the viewer's trust in seeing if it can pull it off. The series is available to watch now on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA.

Saturday 18 January 2020

Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey

The Solar system has been plunged into chaos. A third of the Martian fleet has defected to a new cause, an OPA breakaway faction has committed the greatest terrorist attack in human history and the new colony worlds beyond the gateways are engulfed in strife. It once again falls on the shoulders of Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to help end the crisis.

Babylon's Ashes is the sixth novel (of nine) in The Expanse series, but is really the second half of the preceding novel, Nemesis Games, which took the Expanse universe we'd all grown to know and tossed it through a blender. Ashes picks up the wreckage from that book and tries to restore some sense of normalcy to the setting.

The book is huge in scope. In fact, it's the broadest in scale of the series to date, with numerous POV characters in multiple factions, including picking up on various one-off POVs who appeared in earlier novels. Seeing characters like Prax and Anna show up again several volumes after their own storylines apparently ended and lend a hand (or take a view) on what's going on is quite good fun.

However, since Babylon's Ashes is pretty much exactly the same length as the other books in the series, this enlarged scope does mean we get a lot less time with other characters. In fact, the book's pace feels a bit accelerated, as we pin-pong back and forth between a large cast. Having more characters in a standard-sized book means that we spend less time with each character, and the resulting story arcs are much choppier.

It also doesn't help that there is a repetition of structure and plot here. We've seen Jim Holden and the team getting into hijinks with the Nauvoo aka Behemoth aka Medina Station and the "slow zone" previously whilst various other factions shoot at one another and here we are, doing it again.

The Expanse is, at its best, a thrillingly executed political thriller in space, with normally enjoyable adventure elements added. At its worst, the series' workmanlike prose and tight focus can leave it feeling repetitive and a bit MOR as these kind of space operas go. Nemesis Games was probably the best book in the series because it gave readers a "Red Wedding" level of shock, something which overthrew the apple carts and put our heroes on the back foot with a genuinely thrilling sense that anything could happen. Babylon's Ashes wastes that promise by lowballing the damage done from the disaster in the previous novel (the characters are now completely removed from the carnage so it's only related through statistics and people looking glumly at reports on screens), eliminating the over-arcing threat easily with a convenient mcguffin and then establishing a new status quo with almost indecent haste.

That's not to say that Babylon's Ashes is a bad book. Even at its weakest, The Expanse is competent. But there is the prevailing feeling here that the books feel like a first draft with the (decidedly superior) TV adaptation coming in afterwards and rearranging the character and plot elements into something considerably more compelling.

Babylon's Ashes (***) is readable and interesting, but after Nemesis Games it feels decidedly underwhelming, occasionally bordering on the lacklustre. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Season 2 of THE WITCHER moves filming to the UK, builds entire town

Season 2 of The Witcher is moving its filming base from Hungary to the United Kingdom.

Season 1 of The Witcher was based in Belgrade, with location filming in both Hungary and Poland, the home of the author of the novels, Andrzej Sapkowski. However, the production has shifted to the UK for the second season which shoots next month. Season 2 will be based at the newly-built Arborfield Studios near London with location filming across the country, including Scotland.

The reason for the move is likely linked to the much more established film and post-production base in the UK, the wider pool of English-speaking actors and the fact that much of the cast is already based here (including Henry Cavill, who lives in London), as well as the UK government's generous tax breaks for filming.

An entire medieval town is also being built near Arborfield, likely to stand in for several different locations in the books (probably including Gors Velen and Oxenfurt, potentially Novigrad as well).

Although production being based in the UK means that opportunities for location filming in Eastern Europe will be more limited, there will still be some scope for it, especially given the production team's keenness to ensure that Poland is still represented in the project.

Season 2 of The Witcher begins shooting on 17 February and is expected for around five to five and a half months, with an estimated wrap date of late July or early August. Based on the post-production turn-around of Season 1, that means the earliest Season 2 can air is March or (more likely) April 2021.

Friday 17 January 2020

Terry Pratchett's daughter and writing assistant throw shade at THE WATCH TV series

The first publicity photographs from The Watch, a BBC America series "loosely inspired" by Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, were released this morning and in just a few hours have prompted a massive backlash from fans of the series. Beloved characters and settings have been changed for no immediately discernible reason, resulting in a storm of protest from readers.

In an amusingly-timed move, Terry Pratchett's daughter (and respected video game writer) Rhianna Pratchett and his former assistant and partner in Narrativia Productions, Rob Wilkins, both tweeted a link to a 2004 interview with Ursula Le Guin, where she eviscerated the Sci-Fi Channel's appalling mini-series based on her Earthsea novels which changed the source material for no reason.

Unfortunately, with production drawing to a close on the eight-part series, it's far too late for BBC America to change course and produce a more faithful adaptation of the books. As a result, it's likely that fans will now have to wait even longer for a decent version to appear in the future.

Another WHEEL OF TIME episode title and director confirmed

We now have a new Wheel of Time episode title.

The fifth episode of the first season will be called Blood Calls Blood, written by Celine Song and directed by Salli Richardson Whitfield. The photograph comes from the third table read block (each table read accounts for two episodes of the season).

Actress Priyanka Bose, who is playing the Aes Sedai Alanna, revealed the story via her Instagram Stories account. This of course confirms that Alanna will be in either the fifth or sixth episode of the season (or both).

The title is from the "dark prophecy" that appears at the start of The Great Hunt, the second novel in the series. This may hint at that the fifth episode will reach the start of The Great Hunt, but much more likely is that the title is being used early. The fifth and sixth episodes are believed to focus on a new storyline in which we follow the Aes Sedai and armies opposed to the false Dragon Logain and see him being captured, an event which happens off-page in The Eye of the World, the first novel in the series.

The full list of episodes so far is as follows:

101: Leavetakings, written by Rafe Judkins, directed by Uta Briesewitz
102: Shadow’s Waiting, written by Amanda Kate Shuman, directed by Uta Briesewitz
103: A Place of Safety, written by the Clarkson Twins
104: The Dragon Reborn, written by Dave Hill
105: Blood Calls Blood, written by Celine Song, directed by Salli Richardson Whitfield
106: The Flame of Tar Valon, written by Justine Juel Gillmer
107: unknown
108: unknown, probably written by Rafe Judkins

As usual, more news when we get it.

BBC America release first publicity images for Terry Pratchett's THE WATCH

BBC America has released the first publicity images for Terry Pratchett's The Watch and, well, yikes.

In this first image, Sybil Ramkin (Lara Rossi) appears to have either set someone on fire or are watching them on fire, plummeting through a hole in an Ankh-Morpork street. If you're thinking, "This never happens in the books," and "Why is a middle-aged, stout woman now a smoking hot vigilante?" you are not alone.

In this second image, we meet Constable Angua (Marama Corlett) and Constable Carrot (Adam Hugill) of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, although they seem to have lost their armour. Carrot at least looks spot on, if a few years older than the character.

In this image, Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer) and Angua (Marama Corlett) visit an Ankh-Morpork market. This image is the clearest example of a major shift in the setting aesthetic. Whilst the books are set in a late medieval/early Renaissance-level city slowly transitioning into a steampunk one (albeit over the course of forty books), the series looks set to open in a full Victoriana environment, with no traditional armour and the Watch characters wearing lanyards in lieu of a uniform.

This image shows Carcer Dun (Sam Adewunmi) up to no good. His guards appear to have parachuted in from a mid-franchise Final Fantasy video game, but okay.

Angua (Marama Corlett) and Constable Cheery (Jo Eaton-Kent), the latter of whom doesn't appear to have a beard. Or be a dwarf.

The TV show has attracted negative coverage for its decision to only be "loosely inspired" by the books and instead pursue their own path with regards to casting, writing and setting. These images are not likely to improve this.

Thursday 16 January 2020

Taika Waititi in talks with Disney to helm STAR WARS movie

Lucasfilm and Disney have opened discussions with director Taika Waititi on helming a Star Wars film.

Disney already has a productive relationship with Waititi, who is credited with achieving a major franchise turn-around after directing Thor: Ragnarok (2017), not to mention playing the role of Korg in both Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame. Waititi has also directed an episode of the well-received TV series Star Wars: The Mandalorian and voiced a droid character, so has already dipped his toes in the Star Wars universe.

Waititi, who presumably never sleeps, is also an executive producer on the comedy TV series What We Do in the Shadows and is basking in the glow of success of his latest movie, Jojo Rabbit. He's also just finished directing another small-scale movie, Next Goal Wins, and is in pre-production on Thor: Love and Thunder, which is expected to start filming in the summer for release on 5 November 2021. Waititi may fit in some more TV work before then as well.

As a proven and fan-popular pair of hands, Waititi is a good choice to helm a Star Wars movie. It's unclear if this would be the Kevin Feige-produced stand-alone film which is currently in development at Lucasfilm, although this would make sense given Waititi and Feige's strong collaborative bond. There's also the Rian Johnson-helmed trilogy still in development at Lucasfilm, although Johnson reportedly would be directing at least the first film in that series himself.

If Waititi does sign on, it likely means the end of his Akira live-action project. Waititi had put the project in active development and successfully developed a script which restored the Neo-Tokyo setting and predominantly Japanese cast (the previous draft had been set in New York instead), but it sounds like the studio was having cold feet and Waititi bailed to make the new Thor movie. If Waititi rolls from that into Star Wars, thus puts Akira off until sometime in the middle of the decade at best.

Whatever the case, Lucasfilm need to get a move on if they want to release a new Star Wars movie in 2022. Originally that was going to be the David Benioff/D.B. Weiss-developed film, but their departure for Netflix has left a production gap which Lucasfilm are anxious to fill.

HORIZON: ZERO DAWN earmarked for PC release, signifying major release strategy shift from Sony

In a surprising move, it appears that the critically-acclaimed PlayStation 4 video game Horizon: Zero Dawn is heading for PC. It marks the first time that a Sony-owned and developed video game will being ported to the PC platform.

Sony has previously paid independent developers for exclusivity periods on their games, but once those periods expire, they are free to port those games elsewhere. This is what led to Quantic Dreams' Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls and Detroit: Beyond Human being released on PC last year and why Death Stranding will be released later in 2020 after its exclusivity period on PS4 ends.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is different in that it was originally released in 2017 from Guerrilla Games, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sony. The game being ported to PC would mark a strategic shift from Sony who have previously locked exclusives down to their consoles to encourage unit sales, but it would be similar to Microsoft who have effectively ended the X-Box exclusivity idea entirely, with all X-Box games now planned for PC release. That makes more sense as Microsoft have skin in the game (Microsoft obviously develop the dominant PC operating system, Windows 10).

Although significant, the move is not entirely without precedent. Sony have made their PlayStation Now service available on PC, which already allows PC players to stream PS3 and PS4 exclusives to their machines, albeit with no improved graphics and only being able to use PlayStation controllers. Allowing their exclusives to be natively ported to PC could of course be seen as an evolution of this service, especially if such games are only exclusively available through PlayStation Now.

It's possible that Horizon: Zero Dawn is a test pilot for the idea. By the time it reaches PC, it will nearly be four years old and it being revamped and updated for PC would also allow it to be re-released for the next-generation PlayStation 5 console. Whether this means other PS exclusives, such as The Last of Us and its forthcoming sequel, will follow remains to be seen.

HBO delaying decision on third season of HIS DARK MATERIALS

HBO has decided to wait a little longer before pulling the trigger on Season 3 of His Dark Materials.

The BBC produced the first season with some international production partners before HBO snapped up the overseas distribution rights and became co-producers. This allowed Season 2 to be commissioned and put in front of cameras months before Season 1 aired. The current reports are that Season 2 should wrap filming in the next few weeks, allowing it to air later this year.

The theory was that HBO and the BBC would be able to analyse the performance of Season 1 and then make a fast decision on Season 3 so they could start shooting it this year. The performance would also factor into the decision whether the story would conclude with a third season or extend into a fourth (the producers have already indicated that they would prefer to split the events of Book 3, The Amber Spyglass, over two seasons). That decision needs to be made ASAP so the writers can get the required number of scripts ready ahead of shooting.

The performance, however, is a little vague. After all repeats and streamings were accounted for, His Dark Materials averaged 5 million viewers for HBO. Compared to most HBO shows, this is a reasonable showing, if way behind Game of Thrones. The show did better in the UK, where the first episode debuted to over 7 million first-run viewers before dropping back to a still-respectable 4 million by the final episode (not accounting for time-shifting, streaming and downloads).

Both HBO and the BBC are also pleased by the show hitting the "family viewing" demographic, normally something HBO doesn't aim for, especially since the BBC's other family viewing genre heavyweight, Doctor Who, has had a fairly mixed reception with its new season.

On that basis it sounds like the scales are tipped towards renewal, but HBO and the BBC are going to take some more time to think about their options. In theory they could wait to see the performance of Season 2 before making a final decision, although this would delay production until well into 2021 and the airing of a third season until 2022, which might cause issues with the ageing of the young castmembers.

RIP Christopher Tolkien

Christopher Tolkien, the third son and literary heir of J.R.R. Tolkien, has sadly passed away at the age of 95.

Born in 1924, Christopher was the youngest of J.R.R. Tolkien's three sons (he is survived by a younger sister, Priscilla, born in 1929) and the most like his father in character and interests. J.R.R. Tolkien had already begun writing stories about Middle-earth in 1917, but it was his decision to write a children's book set in the same world - The Hobbit - around 1929-30 which attracted the interest of his children. Christopher was particularly taken by the story, keen to hear how it ended and helping his father type up the manuscript when it was accepted for publication in 1937.

It was Christopher whom his father confided in during the writing of The Lord of the Rings. In 1944 Christopher joined the RAF and was sent to South Africa for his flight training. His father had been struggling with the huge book but Christopher's absence inspired him to write the sequence which became the second part of The Two Towers, charting Frodo and Sam's journey to Mordor. He wrote up each chapter and sent it (with notes and annotations) to Christopher as a serial to help him pass the time between training operations.

With the end of WWII and his return to the UK, Christopher studied English Literature at Trinity College, Oxford, and joined the Inklings literary group, of which his father had been a founding member. In the 1950s, Christopher acted as an informal editor and map-maker on The Lord of the Rings, producing the maps of Middle-earth and the Shire that accompanied the novels (at one point staying away for twenty-four hours solid to hit a production deadline). He continued to act as his father's advisor and confidante during the extremely long gestation of The Silmarillion. In the late 1960s, when J.R.R. Tolkien realised he might not live long enough to complete the book, he granted Christopher permission to complete the book for publication.

After J.R.R. Tolkien passed away in 1973, Christopher set about preparing The Silmarillion for publication. Assisted by future fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay, Christopher combined several of his father's manuscripts into a working outline which then formed the basis of The Silmarillion as published in 1977. During this process Christopher collected a number of other manuscripts, essays, short stories and notes written by his father about Middle-earth that were not part of The Silmarillion proper. Christopher edited and released these in 1980 as Unfinished Tales, the fourth and final of the canonical Middle-earth texts.

Despite the monumental achievement of assembling and understanding J.R.R. Tolkien's often-contradictory and confusing morass of drafts, partially-completed manuscripts and half-scribbled maps into working texts, Christopher continued to second-guess and worry about his editorial decisions. In the interest of maximum transparency, he decided to make all of his father's Middle-earth material publicly available so that other Tolkien scholars could look through the manuscripts and see if they came to different conclusions. This resulted in the massive, twelve-part History of Middle-earth series, which assembled every single one of J.R.R. Tolkien's extant writings on Middle-earth with extensive analysis and commentary (including four volumes dedicated almost entirely to the writing of The Lord of the Rings). The series was published between 1983 and 1996.

Christopher Tolkien was sceptical over the value of film, television and video game adaptations of his father's work. As his father had sold the TV, film and media rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1969, Christopher was unable to prevent such projects from moving forwards, but as the head of the Tolkien Estate he barred other Estate members from approving of or supporting these endeavours. When his son Simon travelled to New Zealand and visited the set of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, Christopher disowned him and the two did not speak for many years, although they eventually reconciled.

Christopher also refused to sell the film or TV rights to The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, despite interest from production companies. In the wake of Jackson's movies, Christopher did release "selected cuts" from Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth as three approachable, commercial editions for the more casual reader: The Children of Hurin (2007), Beren & Luthien (2017) and The Fall of Gondolin (2018).

Christopher Tolkien resigned as chair of the Tolkien Estate in August 2017. Shortly afterwards, Amazon and the Tolkien Estate reached a new agreement for the production of a new TV series set roughly 5,000 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age is currently in production in New Zealand for possible release in 2021 or 2022.

Christopher Tolkien spent the latter decades of his life living in France. In 2016 he was awarded the Bodley Medal for his services to literature. He is survived by his second wife, Baille, three children (Simon, Adam and Rachel) and two grandchildren.

Christopher Tolkien is arguably the most important editor of fantasy fiction of the last century. Without his father's trust, it is entirely possible that The Silmarillion and the other writings of his father would never have been published, and a vast swathe of background material about Middle-earth would have been effectively lost forever. Christopher is to be commended for his restraint in only editing and publishing work actually written by his father, when he could have cashed in by writing Middle-earth fiction of his own.

What the future holds for the Tolkien legacy is now uncertain, and with the Amazon TV series we may be seeing a more commercial future unfolding, but Christopher's work in furthering his father's legacy is almost beyond reproach, and he will be missed.

CYBERPUNK 2077 delayed five months

Cyberpunk 2077, comfortably the single most eagerly-awaited video game of 2020, has slipped five months from its original release date.

The huge, open-world CRPG, based on Mike Pondsmith's classic 1980s tabletop game Cyberpunk 2020, has engendered massive pre-release coverage after recruiting man-of-the-moment Keanu Reeves to star in the game as cult character Johnny Silverhand. The developers, CD Projekt Red, are riding high at the moment as their previous game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, has seen a huge boost in sales after the success of the Netflix TV series.

Reeves announced the game's original release date (16 April 2020) last year. Since then, CDPR has been working on polishing the game into a release-ready state. However, the company had also vowed to avoid the punishing crunch that marked the release of The Witcher 3 and led to several key developers leaving the company after the game came out.

The new release date is 17 September 2020, which CDPR is more hopeful of hitting.

Amazon passes on THE DARK TOWER TV series

Amazon has decided to pass on Sony's Dark Tower TV series, based on the Stephen King novels, which the streamer had been developing with former Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara.

Work on the show began in 2016 when Sony shopped a package consisting of a feature film series adapting the books and a TV prequel focusing on the younger days of protagonist Roland. The TV series would be based primarily on the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, as well as developing other episodes from Roland's backstory only alluded to in the books.

The Dark Tower movie, released in 2017 and starring Idris Elba as Roland, ended up bombing at the box office. Sony distanced the TV series from the film, instead proposing it still start with Roland's younger days but then move forward and adapt the books directly in later seasons. Under this new scheme, Amazon greenlit and filmed a pilot last year, with Sam Strike as Roland and Jasper Pääkkönen as Marten, an alias of the villainous Man in Black.

Amazon has sat on the pilot for several months whilst debating the merits of proceeding with the series. The decision to drop the project seems to have been based on multiple factors: the quality of the pilot, the confusing and complex nature of the source material (which spans multiple worlds, dimensions and timeframes) and the fact that Amazon is already working on two other major, budget-busting fantasy properties: The Wheel of Time and The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age.

Sony are now shopping the project to other networks and streaming services to see if anyone will bite. King is hot at the moment giving the success of the IT duology of movies, but The Dark Tower is definitely a challenging project to get right.

Tuesday 14 January 2020

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE confirms additional castmembers

Amazon have confirmed some of the castmembers for their upcoming Middle-earth TV series, The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age (not the final title).

Amazon confirmed the previously-leaked casting news of Robert Aramayo, Morfydd Clark, Ema Horvath, Markella Kavenagh and Joseph Mawle and added several new names to the list: Owain Arthur, Nazanin Boniadi, Tom Budge, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Tyroe Muhafidin, Sophia Nomvete, Megan Richards, Dylan Smith, Charlie Vickers and Daniel Weyman. The streamer has not yet confirmed the roles these actors will be playing, although it has been widely reported that Clark will be playing a younger version of Galadriel, the character played by Cate Blanchett in the films.

Curiously, Maxim Baldry was not among the actors confirmed by Amazon, suggesting that either he will not be in the series after all, or his deal has not yet been concluded.

The show has already officially entered production, with sets under construction in Auckland, New Zealand, locations being scouted and some early filming (probably for background plates) already accomplished to fulfil a contractual requirement to get the project into production before the end of November 2019 or lose the show rights back to the Tolkien Estate (who are collaborating on the partner along with New Line and Amazon). Table reads will take place this month and full filming is set to begin next month. Production will continue for around two months, and then break for around four months whilst the production crew complete preparatory work on two seasons (currently rumoured to run to ten episodes each), which will then shoot back-to-back.

Season 1 is expected to air in mid-to-late 2021.

Monday 13 January 2020

STAR TREK: PICARD renewed for second season

Star Trek: Picard has been renewed for a second season before the first season even airs.

The series sees Sir Patrick Stewart return to his signature role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) and four feature films. The show has picked up a lot  of positive buzz and executive producer Alex Kurtzman has already met with Stewart to discuss a second season.

The long-term future of the series depends on the willingness of Stewart to carry on, as he turns 80 years old this year. Stewart notes he was convinced to return because he wanted to give the character a better send-off than the disappointing Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) and felt he had unfinished business in the Star Trek universe.

Star Trek: Picard debuts on 23 January on CBS All Access in the United States and worldwide the next day on Amazon Prime.

Saturday 11 January 2020

Amazon developing EVENT HORIZON TV series

Cult SF horror movie Event Horizon is being rebooted as a TV series for Amazon.

Paramount Television has teamed with the streamer to adapt the original movie into a new format. The film, starring Sam Neill, Joely Richardson and Laurence Fishburne, was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and released in 1997. Anderson was not keen on the original cut, which was rushed out to replace James Cameron's Titanic in the schedule when the latter had to be delayed by several months due to post-production requirements. However, the graphic horror did not find a receptive audience in the cinema and bombed at the box office.

Despite its poor box office, the film performed incredibly well on VHS rental and in sales and became a cult hit, to the point that Paramount asked Anderson to make a director's cut. However, the original film footage of the extra material was lost. A VHS copy of the material was eventually recovered, but was not of sufficient quality to be reintegrated into the movie.

Event Horizon is unusual in being an SF horror movie in which the horror is supernatural in origin rather than alien (like Alien) or of human origin (such as Sunshine).

Adam Winter is developing the TV project. His directed the recent Blair Witch reboot and the live-action Death Note, which both had lukewarm receptions, but also the better-received The Guest and You're Next. The project has not been formally greenlit yet.

Friday 10 January 2020

Netflix show turns THE WITCHER novels and games into bestsellers

Better late than never. Twenty-seven years after it was first published, The Last Wish, the first book in The Witcher series, has hit the New York Times Bestseller list, landing at #4. Blood of Elves, the third book, has landed at #12. Sword of Destiny, the second, has joined the two books on the Amazon bestseller lists as well.

In fact, the books have sold so well that it appears that Orbit Books, the US publisher of the series, may have run out of physical copies as well.

This isn't the first time the success of a visual adaptation has driven fantasy book sales. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings sold over 50 million additional copies in the first few years after Peter Jackson's movie trilogy hit screens (and many more since then), whilst the titanic success of Game of Thrones on HBO resulted in around 80 million additional sales of the Song of Ice and Fire novel series (and bringing total sales close to 100 million).

There are also reports of a massive boom in sales of the three Witcher video games, with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt enjoying a particularly large spike in sales. According to the publishers, CD Projekt, the game now has more people playing it than when it was released just under five years ago. CD Projekt will be launching their next game, the hugely anticipated SF RPG Cyberpunk 2077, in April and will be hoping some of their new Witcher fans will check that game out as well.

Meanwhile, showrunner Lauren Hissrich is back on set in Budapest ahead of the shooting of Season 2 of The Witcher, which is expected to start in early February and air around March 2021.

Wednesday 8 January 2020


After the success of my round-up post on Amazon's Wheel of Time show last month, I thought it might be worthwhile to do another one bringing everyone up to date on what's going on with Amazon's other huge fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age.

The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age - which may not be its final title - is a TV series set in J.R.R. Tolkien's signature fantasy setting of Middle-earth. It is a prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and draws on material in Tolkien's other writings, most notably The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales.

The series is being made by Amazon Studios, with New Line Cinema and their parent company Warner Brothers involved as producers.

The show is officially in production. A small amount of shooting was apparently undertaken in November 2019 to hit a development deadline (without which Amazon would have lost the rights). Full production is expected start next month in Auckland, New Zealand and run for two months. This will be followed by a pause as the studio prepares further scripts and material for the second season, after which production is expected to run for at least the rest of the year and likely into 2021, during which time most or all of two seasons will be produced.

According to comments from creative consultant Tom Shippey, Amazon are planning to shoot twenty episodes in total during the initial production bloc, which will likely consist of two ten-episode seasons.

The first season is likely to air in late 2021, with the second season to follow in 2022.

Development of the project began in August 2017 when Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien's son and literary executor since 1973, resigned from the board of the Tolkien Estate. Christopher had long been opposed to authorising any TV or film adaptation of Tolkien's other Middle-earth material; the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movie trilogies were made only because J.R.R. Tolkien had sold the film rights way back in 1969, before his passing. The other members of the Tolkien Estate, including two of Christopher's own sons (one of whom had worked on the Jackson movies) and his younger sister Priscilla (who had advised on Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated film), were much more open to further collaborations with film-makers. In addition, the Tolkien Estate had several times had to take legal action to recover licence fees not paid properly from the films. With them being more closely involved in the new series, they could avoid this problem.

The Tolkien Estate themselves seems to have initiated discussions on the project, teaming with New Line Cinema (the subsidiary of Warner Brothers had had owned the Lord of the Rings movie rights since the late 1990s) to put together a package. This package appears to have consisted of certain time-limited rights to Unfinished Tales and some material from The Silmarillion (but not The Silmarillion as a whole, which the Estate considers to be a real goldmine for a future, much bigger collaboration). This deal was then shopped to at least three companies: HBO, Netflix and Amazon. HBO rejected the idea out of hand, as they remained committed to their Game of Thrones fantasy franchise. Netflix balked at the $250 million asking price for just the rights, reportedly counter-offering $100 million. When this was turned down, they decided not to proceed any further. However, Amazon, who had recently been ordered by Jeff Bezos to find "their Game of Thrones" was receptive and paid the fee up-front.

Amazon and the Tolkien Estate appear to have entered into a prolonged period of negotiation with the full deal not concluded until May 2018, although it was announced earlier (possibly to prevent any other companies from trying to jump on board and gazump Amazon, although this appears to have been unlikely).

It should be noted that the Tolkien Estate and New Line did not enter into any kind of agreement with MGM, who continue to own the film and TV rights to The Hobbit. New Line and MGM's collaboration on Peter Jackson's Hobbit movie trilogy had been tempestuous and reportedly the main reason for that trilogy's contentious filming and reception (including the decision to extend the adaptation from two standard-length films to three very long movies). Whether MGM was invited to the party and declined, or whether the Estate and New Line decided to simply not go there in the first place, is unclear. With the storyline of The Hobbit not expected to play any role in the new series, it may have been deemed unnecessary.

Content & Story
The content of the show remained a mystery for a long time, with rumours of a "Young Aragorn" series set between the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies circulating (mainly from The One, a fansite that had made its name through its exhausting coverage of Jackson's original trilogy but has had a much spottier record with covering this new series). This appears to have been based on the "interquel" movie idea proposed by Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro in the early 2010s, when to address MGM's demands for a trilogy they suggested a two-film adaptation of The Hobbit and a new movie focusing on Legolas, Aragorn and Gollum set between the two series. Significant development work was done on this idea before it was dropped. This led some fans to conclude that this existing material would make a starting point for the series.

This initial idea, which was not well-received by fans, was soon replaced by a much more promising one. The series would instead be set in the Second Age of Tolkien's legendarium, the time when the One Ring was forged, when Sauron first made war upon elves and men and when the world was dominated by the mighty island-empire of Numenor in the uttermost west. This idea also seems to have gained traction from the enormous success of Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, a 2014 video game which featured extensive flashbacks to this time period.

Despite almost a year passing since the confirmed Second Age setting, Amazon have not yet firmly confirmed the precise setting and background. The most likely starting place for the story would be circa the year 1600 of the Second Age, when Sauron, disguised as an elven prince named Annatar, makes alliance with Celebrimbor, Lord of Eregion, and works with him to create the Rings of Power. This leads Sauron to create the One Ruling Ring and unleashing his armies on the elves. The elves are almost defeated, but an alliance with Numenor swings the balance in the other direction. Sauron then resolves to destroy Numenor, helping first corrupt it and then tricking its rulers into bringing about their own downfall. This leads, many centuries later, into the War of the Last Alliance as seen in the opening to The Fellowship of the Ring.

To do this story justice, the TV show would have to be an anthology of sorts, leaping forward perhaps years or decades between episodes and centuries between seasons. The immortal elven characters, such as Elrond and Galadriel, could appear throughout the show's run, but the human cast will likely have to change on a regular basis.

The new series appears to be using artwork, ideas and material which first appeared in Unfinished Tales (1980), marking the first time the Tolkien Estate has allowed post-Lord of the Rings material to be adapted.

Budget & Rights
Amazon have already paid $250 million for the rights to make the series and have pledged a budget of no less than $10 million per episode and up to $15 million per episode. They have also provisionally agreed to a five-year run for the series (and have already renewed the show for a second season). This doesn't mean that the show will run five seasons regardless, even if it is a massive bomb, only that this is the current plan. If five ten-episode seasons are made at the maximum budget, then combined with the initial rights payment this will give a round figure of $1 billion, or almost twice what HBO paid to make eight seasons of Game of Thrones. This would comfortably make The Second Age the most expensive ongoing TV show ever made.

Because Warner Brothers and New Line are involved, the project has inherited their screen rights to The Lord of the Rings and its appendices in full, which is likely why the project has so far borne the title "The Lord of the Rings" despite being set long before that book. The use of the map of Numenor - a copyrighted part of Unfinished Tales - on promotional material seems to confirm that the Tolkien Estate has also provided rights to that book. As well as the map, Unfinished Tales contains a detailed history of the Second Age and several short stories set during that time period, as well as extensive information about the goings-on of characters such as Galadriel and Elrond. One unknown is whether the Tolkien Estate has provided rights to The Silmarillion, as one large section of that book ("The Akallabeth") focuses on the Downfall of Numenor and the arising of the more familiar kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor from its ashes. It would be hard to tell the story of the Second Age in full without access to that material.

Intriguingly, composer Brian Ralston recently posted some music from an audition for the role of composer which was rejected. This music includes nods to lyrics from The Lost Road, part of the History of Middle-earth series, which suggests that the deal may include material from those books as well.

The show's title has not been officially confirmed, with Amazon referring to it only as The Lord of the Rings or "the Lord of the Rings TV series". This is likely due to rights issues, confirming it is a spin-off from the existing TV licencing deal, and not related to the Hobbit movies.

The final title will likely be something along the lines of The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age or The Rings of Power, or something along those lines.

The Creative Team
The showrunners of the series are Patrick McKay and John D. Payne. Payne & McKay have built up some interest in Hollywood based on the quality of their early scripts, although their only produced script of note is that for the film Star Trek Beyond (2016), which was heavily revised prior to shooting. Notably, McKay and Payne had no showrunning or production experience before landing this job, which some has felt is an odd choice for what should be the most in-demand job in Hollywood.

The other writers include Jason Cahill (NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, Fringe, Halt & Catch Fire), Justin Doble (Stranger Things, Fringe, Into the Badlands), Stephany Folsom (Toy Story 4), Gennifer Hutchison (Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad), Glenise Mullins (Mine, Gray) and Helen Shang (13 Reasons Why, Hannibal).

The show's creative writing consultant is Bryan Cogman, who wrote many of the best-received episodes of Game of Thrones. The other consultants are Tom Shippey, a respected Tolkien scholar for many decades (best-known for The Road to Middle-earth), and John Howe, one of the most respected Tolkien artists. Howe previously worked on the Jackson movies as a concept artist and art consultant.

The only confirmed director at the moment is J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls, The Ophanage, Penny Dreadful, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), who will direct the first two episodes of the series. Mathew Dunne and David Waters are currently reported to be assistant directors.

The other confirmed production team members are as follows:

  • Production Designer: Rick Henrichs
  • Art Direction: John Dexter
  • Costumer Designer: Kate Hawley
  • Production Manager: Jared Connon
  • Concept Art: Igor Knezevic
  • Storyboard Art: Kur van der Basch
  • Visual Effects: Dane Allan Smith, Jason Smith, The Third Floor (company)

Many more key creatives are yet to be announced, including the musical side of things. It is also unclear if Weta Workshop/Digital are going to be involved in any capacity. Peter Jackson has reportedly talked to the new team and wished them well, but declined to be involved in an official capacity.

Markella Kavenagh, reportedly playing the female lead of the new series.

The Cast
To date, almost all of the casting announcements for the show have come through secondary sources (such as agents and casting companies) with Amazon declining to confirm or deny anything. Many of these actors have also reportedly auditioned using codenames or fake names in the scripts to preserve secrecy, meaning we don't even know if this is who they'll really be playing. Still, the names announced so far are as follows:

  • Robert Aramayo (Game of Thrones) as Beldor, the male lead
  • Markella Kavenagh (The Cry, Romper Stomper) as Tyra, the female lead
  • Morfydd Clark (His Dark Materials) as Galadriel, a younger version of the character played by Cate Blanchett
  • Joseph Mawle (Game of ThronesRipper) as Oren, a villain
  • Maxim Baldry (Years and Years, Rome)
  • Ema Horvath (Like.Share.Follow)

For now, this is all the information we have on the project. Hopefully Amazon will release some more information once full production begins in a few weeks.

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.