Sunday 31 May 2020

Space Force: Season 1

The United States military has inaugurated its latest service arm: Space Force. Newly-promoted four-star General Mark Naird is appointed as Space Force's first commanding officer, operating out of a base in Colorado. Disappointed at not getting command of the Air Force, Naird nevertheless throws himself into his new role with gusto, determined to fulfil the US mandate to "put boots on the Moon" in the next four years.

Space Force comes with impeccable credentials and impeccable timing. It's the latest creation from American producer/writer Greg Daniels, a long-term writer from Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons who is also the co-creator of King of the Hill, The Office (USA) and Parks & Recreation. Daniels is teamed with his old collaborator Steve Carell, the star of The Office (and numerous films). The show also launches on the exact same weekend that, for the first time in a decade, American astronauts are launched back into space by an American spacecraft, a fortuitous bit of timing.

Space Force is, of course, rooted in the widely-derided decision to create a new branch of the US military dedicated to space supremacy. Once the slightly amusing name and Star Trek-esque insignia are out of the way, though, the idea has some merit, not least because other nations are pressing ahead with their own plans to militarise orbital space. The show gets the mockery of the basic concept out of the way in the first few minutes and then plays the job itself mostly straight, with the comedy arising from the characters and their workplace misadventures, not helped by increasingly impossible demands from the Twitter-obsessed POTUS (whose identity is pretty clear, but never formally identified in a clear case of hedging the writers' bets against the results of the November 2020 election).

Carell stars at General Naird, a competent US military office put in charge of a service about which he knows pretty much nothing. Naird is likeable, mostly efficient and a firm believer in the American Dream, and fortunately nowhere near as hyper-incompetent as Michael Scott. Carell plays him as a gruff, no-nonsense type with moments of humanity (such as a tendency to sing 1980s pop hits to relieve stress). The show is rooted in his dynamic with chief scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory, who is played with formidable skill by the legendary John Malkovich. Mallory is a typical scientist, with some comedy mined from his commitment to the use of space for peace until he is insulted by a Chinese rival, at which point he becomes unexpectedly more belligerent.

The rest of the ensemble is made up of Ben Schwartz (Parks & Rec's monstrous Jean-Ralphio) as "social media director" Tony, Tawny Newsome (Bajillion Dollar Propertie$) as astronaut Angela Ali, Jimmy O. Yang (Silicon Valley) as Dr. Chan  Kaifang (Mallory's number two) and Diana Silvers (Booksmart) as Naird's teenage daughter, Erin. It's a fine cast who rise to the occasion admirably, although viewers may be confused by what happened to Lisa Kudrow as Naird's wife Maggie, who is set up as a regular member of the cast and is immediately demoted to an occasional recurring character instead (in a subplot that is never really fleshed out). There's also a larger recurring cast who come and go through the episodes, led by Noah Emmerich (The Americans) as Naird's arch-rival General Grabaston, normally a Very Serious Actor who clearly relishes the chance to do something fun and runs with it with aplomb. Fans of comic legends Diedrich Bader and Patrick Warburton will also be happy to see them back on the screen, but perhaps bemused that they have so little to do. There is also a note of sadness in the cast, as the late Fred Willard makes his final screen appearance as Naird's father, playing an ailing old man but one whose comic timing and delivery are as sharp as ever.

The cast is top-notch, but not always best-served by the scripts. The show lurches from outstanding, genuinely amusing gags (a whole sequence with a space "chimpstronaut" in the second episode gets ever more preposterous and ever more funny) to moments that fall much flatter, such as the ongoing gag about the blatantly obvious Russian spy (which the show gives up on halfway through and abruptly vanishes). The tone is also variable, with Veep-style political lunacy mixed in with much broader toilet gags, and Office-like observational work humour. At one point the show goes quite dark when Naird's daughter is put in a genuinely sketchy situation, and at another the show has a surprisingly nuanced and progressive take on relationships which is interesting but feels a bit out of keeping with the rest of the series.

The other problem the show has - and this is a rare one these days - is that it is too short. At just ten 25-30 minute episodes, the pacing feels shot to hell, with the team going from barely being able to get into orbit to landing a lunar base on the surface of the Moon in just a few weeks. There are character interrelationships which feel promising from a characterisation and comedy perspective (particularly the odd-couple pairing of Chan and Angela, or the semi-romance between Erin and a base security guard, or the awkward opposites turning into a bromance arc of Naird and Mallory) which are simply not given time to breathe or develop naturally, and sometimes feel like they lurch forwards between episodes. With 20 or even 14 episodes, it feels like these storylines could have been advanced a bit more naturally.

Still, although the first season of Space Force (***½) is rarely outstanding, it's also rarely awful. It has tremendous production values, a surprisingly committed attitude to the science (the chimpstronaut sequences even briefly recall Gravity's discussion of orbital mechanics and space physics), an absolutely excellent cast and a steady, if not constant, stream of low-level laughs. It's certainly not disgracing itself when compared to the also-patchy first seasons of The Office and Parks & Recreation, and the foundation is in place for a stronger run later on. Space Force is available worldwide on Netflix now.

Thursday 28 May 2020

A legal dispute may have confirmed the ELDER SCROLLS VI subtitle

A legal tussle between Bethesda Softworks, their owners Zenimax Media and a small-press publisher may have inadvertently given away the subtitle of their next Elder Scrolls video game.

Bethesda filed a trademark claim for the name "Redfall" over a year ago, prompting a response from BookBreeze, the publisher of author Jay Falconer. Falconer had written a series of post-apocalyptic novels under the Redfall banner title.

After the threat of legal action, Zenimax and BookBreeze reached an out-of-court settlement (read: money exchanged hands) in May 2019 which appears to allow both Zenimax to use the title in the future and for BookBreeze to continue publishing books under that name.

The story has resurfaced in recent weeks due to a series of alleged leaks about The Elder Scrolls VI, most of which later turned out to be false. However, the "Redfall" title tussle is one of the view hard pieces of information we have about the game. Based on the very brief teaser released two years ago, it is widely expected that the game will take place in the provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell, the home of the Redguards, who loom large in Elder Scrolls lore. There is also the matter of a side-quest in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), which hints that a "red plague" is currently loose in High Rock and a character is headed back there (Bethesda had previously lined up Skyrim with repeated references to that province in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion back in 2006).

The Elder Scrolls VI: Redfall or Whatever will very likely not be released until the middle of the next decade, as Bethesda are still hard at work on their epic SF CRPG Starfield, as well as further expansions to online survival shooter Fallout 76.

Henry Cavill to resume his role as Superman

In a surprise move, Henry Cavill is in serious talks with Warner Brothers about resuming his role as Superman in the DC Movie Universe.

Cavill first played the role in the risible Man of Steel (2013), although Cavill himself was fine in the role, his role was just badly written and indifferently directed. He reappeared as the co-lead in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), alongside Ben Affleck's Batman, and then in a supporting role in Justice League (2017). Multiple discussions over a new Superman solo movie stalled and the fate of the DC Movie Universe was thrown into doubt after Affleck quit as Batman. However, with several more films in the setting doing extremely well (Wonder Woman, Shazam! and Joker, although the latter's place in the extended universe canon seems debatable), it appears that Warner Brothers have decided against a full reboot as yet and are keener to retain the services of one of their big hitters.

Cavill's growing stardom outside the role has also likely played a role. Cavill picked up great notices for his appearances in films such as Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018), as well as the TV series The Witcher. Cavill has also gained a lot of "geek-cred" for his social media appearances discussing his love of video games and painting Warhammer miniatures (to the point where a character based on Cavill is appearing in next month's Total War: Warhammer II update), which DC would like to tap into.

Apparently Warner Brothers are still cool on a new full solo Superman movie, instead envisaging Superman's role going forwards as a bit like the Hulk's in the MCU, as a solid supporting player. Indeed, Cavill was meant to appear in Shazam! in a brief cameo, but his appearance was pulled late in the day. It sounds like Warner Brothers are now keen to bring him back into the fold and see how he does, with a view to revisiting the solo movie option further down the road.

Pacific Rim: Uprising

2035. Ten years have passed since the destruction of the dimensional rift, through which an alien race was sending biological war machines - kaiju - to weaken humanity's defences. Although Earth appears to be safe for now, humanity has not rested on its laurels and has rebuilt the Jaeger programme, giant war mecha capable of taking the fight to the aliens. Jake Pentecost, the estranged son of the late Stacker Pentecost, is drafted back into the Jaeger programme to help teach a new generation of students, but moral is low when it is revealed that the the Pan-Pacific Defence Corps are developing a new generation of drone Jaegers that do not need human pilots. When a rogue Jaeger attacks a PPDC conference, Pentecost realises that the aliens are not the only enemy...

The original Pacific Rim is one of favourite movies of the last decade on the level of being a purely entertaining action flick. It didn't make a colossal amount of sense and the story was hardly deep, but Guillermo Del Toro made the "big robots fighting big monsters" story he'd always wanted and had a huge amount of fun in the process, making sure that viewers joined in with that fun.

Del Toro spent years trying to get the sequel made and, unfortunately, by the time the wheels were turning on it, he'd already moved on to other projects. Stepping into the breach - so to speak - was Steven S. DeKnight. DeKnight is hardly on the same level of reputation as Del Toro, but is also no slouch, having been a writer-producer-director on shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and the first season of Daredevil.

Unfortunately, the loss of Del Toro was only the first setback for the movie. It was quickly followed by the discovery that leading actor Charlie Hunnam was also going to be unavailable. With several of the other leads of the original Pacific Rim having been killed off in that movie, it left the sequel with a lot of storytelling void to fill. Still, the movie rallied by casting hot man-of-the-moment John Boyega (Finn in the Star Wars sequels) as the new lead and setting up a strong new story about the Jaegers becoming obsolete. The movie also undercuts expectations by leaning into a human-vs-human struggle based around Jaeger technology and kaiju bio-technology. This makes the movie feel a bit "smaller" than the first movie, with less of an omnipresent sense of dread and instead more of a mystery angle. I quite like it when a sequel goes cleverer rather than bigger for a sequel and was pleasantly surprised when Uprising took that route.

I was even more surprised when Pacific Rim: Uprising decided to also double down on characterisation compared to the first movie, which painted its characters with a fairly broad (to the point of transparent) brush. Uprising spends far more time setting up its characters and their motivations, particularly in the key subplot about a new team of cadets where all the characters are established in more detail compared to the first movie (where we didn't even learn the names of some of the Jaeger pilots). Again, no great shakes here (stereotypes and cliches abound), but the fact that I could tell which character was which and why they were doing what they were doing was an improvement over the original film.

Part of the problem with this approach is that it's perhaps a little wasted: Pacific Rim was a film about giant robots fighting giant monsters, not an in-depth character study, and it wasted no time in telling that story. Uprising's greater character focus proves to be structurally problematic, meaning we're 45 minutes into the movie - almost half its runtime - before the stakes and main storyline become clear. The second it does become clear, the movie slams the accelerator down and bombards the audience with a series of impressive set-pieces, including mecha-on-mecha battles in Sydney and in the Siberian wastes, and a truly impressive daylight slugfest rampaging through the streets of Tokyo before the movie ends at under the two hour mark (a clear twenty minutes shorter than the first movie). This makes the film feel a bit lopsided: the first half is a little too slow, the second half a bit too fast, especially when several plot twists (and the old plot twist that is itself then twisted five minutes later) undercut expectations superbly, but a little confusingly.

Still, Uprising ended up being far better than its mixed reception had led me to expect. Del Toro's defter hand on the directing tiller is missed, but DeKnight does reasonably well (even if he's a bit too in love with slow-mo action shots). I actually cared about the characters a bit more than in the first movie, although the somewhat brusque offing of some of the first movie's characters (on and off-screen) felt a bit off. In terms of plotting, the movie was surprisingly clever, adding meat to the fairly thin worldbuilding of the original and setting up a lot of plot directions the franchise can take in the future. The script had a fair few clunkers, sharing with the original an often inappropriate-feeling level of humour, but then this was never going to be an Academy Award-troubling film. The performances are all fine to good - John Boyega is clearly enjoying himself immensely - and the action sequences satisfyingly chunky.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (***½) is an enjoyable and fast-paced sequel to the original. Like the original, it's a B-movie with a huge budget and, on that level, delivers what it set out to do, and in some areas (like plotting and characterisation) is actually better than the first flick. Unlike the original, the pacing is not as strong and DeKnight, although perfectly solid, lacks Del Toro's directorial confidence, meaning the film occasionally flags a little when it should be ramping up and goes too manic during moments when it could do with slowing down. Still, a surprisingly decent sequel.

Pacific Rim: Uprising did not set the box office on fire on release and a third movie is unlikely at the moment, but the franchise is continuing with an animated Netflix show, due to air in late 2020.

Cover art for new Joe Abercrombie book revealed

The UK cover art for Joe Abercrombie's new novel has been unveiled.

The Trouble with Peace is the follow-up to last year's A Little Hatred and is them middle volume of the Age of Madness trilogy, itself a sequel to his earlier First Law series.

The cover summary:
Savine dan Glokta, once Adua’s most powerful investor, finds her judgement, fortune and reputation in tatters. But she still has all her ambitions, and no scruple will be permitted to stand in her way.
For heroes like Leo dan Brock and Stour Nightfall, only happy with swords drawn, peace is an ordeal to end as soon as possible. But grievances must be nursed, power seized and allies gathered first, while Rikke must master the power of the Long Eye . . . before it kills her.
The Breakers still lurk in the shadows, plotting to free the common man from his shackles, while noblemen bicker for their own advantage. Orso struggles to find a safe path through the maze of knives that is politics, only for his enemies, and his debts, to multiply.
The old ways are swept aside, and the old leaders with them, but those who would seize the reins of power will find no alliance, no friendship, and no peace, lasts forever.
The Trouble with Peace will be published on 15 September this year. It will be followed by The Beautiful Machine (although Joe is mulling a title change to The Wisdom of Crowds at the moment).in September 2021.

Saturday 23 May 2020

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Mahit Dzmare has been appointed as the new ambassador from Lsel Station to the homeworld of the vast Teixcalaanli Empire. The previous ambassador has gone silent under unusual circumstances and Mahit's job is to find out what happened to him and why he failed to return home for fifteen years prior and how he has maintained Lsel's independence. Mahit's mission is complicated by a malfunctioning implant containing the memories of her predecessor (fifteen years out of date) and by an internal web of politics within the Empire which threatens to undermine Lsel's position...whilst factions on Lsel itself are interfering with her work from afar.

A Memory Called Empire is the debut novel by Arkady Martine and the first part of a loosely-connected duology (a second book, A Desolation Called Peace, will be published in early 2021). It is a far-future, science fiction epic revolving around the Teixcalaanli, a civilisation that fuses cyberpunk technology (though with a proscription against brain implants) and Aztec and Mongol cultural influences.

As is always handy when introducing an alien new culture, our POV character is herself an outsider. Mahit hails from a much more practical, pragmatic society based inside a space station, a self-regulating habitat which is totally technology-dependent with no single points of failure. Every time someone dies, their memories and something of their personality are implanted in a successor, who gains access to their lifetime's knowledge and experience and can start building on it. As such every life is inherently important, as it contributes materially to the development of the culture and society as a whole. This is the inverse of Teixcalaanli, where brain implants are seen as anathema and the society is much more inherently conservative: with access to amazing technology which could be used to create entertainment, their primary cultural obsession remains poetry.

There's a lot of clever ideas floating around in A Memory Called Empire. The philosophical concept of identity and how it is built from memory and cultural influences is a key part of the text, but one this explored subtly and intelligently throughout. There is also a fair bit of worldbuilding of the Teixcalaanli and their homeworld, which is mostly achieved through plot developments and action. Infodumping is occasional but fortunately rare. Characterisation is strong, as Mahit expertly chooses which sides of herself (and her culture) to show to the Teixcalaanli, and is not above preying on their instinct that she is an uncultured barbarian from a society with nothing to offer.

A few people have drawn similarities in tone to Ann Leckie's 2013 debut, Ancillary Justice. I think there are a few such comparisons to be made, mainly down to the idea of a technology-driven identity crises, but A Memory Called Empire is also a stronger book, and in particular it does a much, much better job of laying pipework for a sequel whilst being a complete novel in itself (Ancillary Justice was very much a strong stand-alone somewhat undermined by two lacklustre and unnecessary sequels). I think comparisons to the work of Lois McMaster Bujold and to China Mieville's SF novel Embassytown can also be drawn, with regards to how identity, history and language are interrelated concepts which can define people as individuals and a culture.

If I did have one complaint it would be that the ending feels a little neat (I'm not sure if a symbolic gesture would be really enough to get a determined enemy commanding a vastly superior army to surrender) and abrupt, but Martine does enough good work here to make the semi-sequel an immediate buy.

A Memory Called Empire (****½) is a striking debut novel which muses on big questions and wraps them around a compelling story that is part identity crisis and part socio-political thriller. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 22 May 2020

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE given greenlight to resume filming in August

Production of The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age (not the final title) is set to resume in August after the New Zealand government approved precautions to put in place for the shoot.

Production of The Second Age had been underway at production facilities in Auckland for several weeks when it was halted in mid-March due to the global pandemic outbreak. The bulk of the first two episodes had been shot, and a five-month hiatus had been baked into the schedule after March anyway, so the production schedule for the show had not been as adversely affected as other projects.

New Zealand has had arguably the greatest success of any country in the world in containing and controlling the pandemic, putting in place a strict lockdown which has severely restricted the spread of the virus and keeping the number of deaths extremely low at just 21 (compared to 93,000 in the United States and 36,000 in the UK, both still growing). With very few cases reported in recent weeks, the country has undertaken a gradual easing of lockdown measures (with no reported spike in new cases).

Filming will be dependent on cast and crew flying in from overseas self-isolating for two weeks before beginning filming, with regular testing.

It is anticipated that the first two seasons of The Second Age will shoot back-to-back, totalling twenty episodes in total, with the first season expected to air on Amazon Prime in late 2021 or early 2022.

Production is also expected to resume imminently on James Cameron's Avatar movie series. Filming was well underway on Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 (which are shooting back-to-back in New Zealand) before the pandemic delayed things. Cameron and his team have continued working on the film's ambitious digital effects remotely. Avatar 2 is planned for release in December 2021 with Avatar 3 to follow in December 2023. Avatar 4 and Avatar 5 have also been greenlit with planned 2025 and 2027 release dates, but production on them has not yet begun.

Filming restrictions have also begun to ease in the Czech Republic, with Carnival Row set to resume filming it second season in the next few weeks and The Wheel of Time also set to resume shooting a bit further down the line (with the speculative possibility of wrapping up Season 1 being folded into the shooting of Season 2, which was expected to start in late 2020 anyway).

Thursday 21 May 2020

The Office (USA): The Complete Series

Scranton, Pennsylvania, 2005. A local PBS documentary crew start capturing the everyday lives of the workers at the local branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company as part of a series looking at ordinary working Americans. However, the office they choose is under the management of Michael Scott, a small man with big dreams, and increasingly befuddling behaviour of the employees leads to a documentary project that lasts much, much longer than anticipated.

If there is an immutable rule of reality, just as inarguable as the speed of light or that every other Star Trek film is tripe, it is that British sitcoms cannot be transferred to the American market. Fawlty Towers, Red Dwarf and Men Behaving Badly were all remade for a US audience and bombed, heavily. When NBC announced in 2005 that they were remaking Ricky Gervais's breakthrough vehicle, the mockumentary The Office, for the USA, the full (and perhaps slightly smug) expectation was that it would fall flat on its face.

Of course it didn't. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's sitcom was well-suited to the transition, since sitting in a boring office working hard for poor pay is probably the most relatable and universal experience of human existence for the past seventy-five years, as true in Scranton, Pennsylvania as it was in Slough, Berkshire. Furthermore, Gervais and Merchant's work was itself heavily inspired by the pioneering mockumentary work of Christopher Guest, particularly This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show. The final piece of the puzzle was that veteran American scriptwriter and producer Greg Daniels (The Simpsons) was a good fit for taking their vision to a US market, assembling a talented group of mostly young writers and producers to help him out (chief among them Michael Schur, who would go on to create or co-create three of the greatest comedies of the 2010s: Parks & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place).

The US version of The Office gets off to an awkward start, with a first season that feels far too close to the British version for comfort (even down to the pilot using the same script, just slightly tweaked). The dynamics of the office are also extremely familiar, with Steve Carell's Michael Scott being well-meaning but self-unaware and prone to gaffs, Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute being officious, pedantic and somewhat tedious, Jim (John Krasinski) being the perennial unlucky-in-love straight man and receptionist Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) feel unable to escape her underachieving relationship and disappointing career path. These are pretty much 1:1 matches for the British cast of characters.

Fortunately, the American writers show increased confidence over the short first season run and things quickly improve. A big difference to the British version is that the secondary and tertiary cast of the American show is much larger and the expanded episode count gives many of them multiple episodes to shine, which makes the feeling of everyone being in an office a lot more realistic, with even the only-intermittently-seen warehouse workers receiving some development (and, in the case of Crag Robinson's Darryl, eventual promotion to the main cast).

The show is anchored in Steve Carell's performance as Scott. At first glance Scott and Ricky Gervais's David Brent are clones, but a key difference soon emerges: Brent seemed to know, albeit deeply buried underneath his bluster, that he was a small and underachieving man. Scott is much more oblivious of his failings. However, whilst Brent was also not a particularly good manager or businessman (basically coasting on his subordinate salesmen's reasonably competent performance), Scott is shown to actually be a really good salesman when push comes to shove, and although his humour is often inappropriate for the workplace, he is generally good at helping (or rather, letting through inaction) his staff deal with their various problems. Keeping this tightrope performance going is difficult, but it's impressive how Scott keeps it up for seven whole seasons (that's what she said™).

The other cornerstone of the show is the slow-burning romance between Jim and Pam, which like Tim and Dawn's relationship in the British original, is centred in their friendship and mutual desire to play pranks on Dwight but gradually becomes more serious when Pam realises her current relationship is unsatisfying. The romance was so key to the British original that it wasn't really resolved until the series finale (and several attempts to revisit the show have foundered because of the dubious decision to focus on David Brent alone, not the rest of the cast), but fortunately (since it would have gotten maddening otherwise) the US version of The Office pushes the button on it by the end of Season 3 and then spends a six further seasons exploring the development of the romance, with marriage and kids following. This risks being twee, so it's a welcome surprise when the writers show the relationship has its ups and downs, with a realistic complication introduced in the final season when Jim gets the opportunity to follow the job of his dreams in Philadelphia but Pam is less willing to uproot their family. This ends up being one of the best explorations of a long-term romance in television history, avoiding the problems that a lot of shows have when the "will they/won't they" tension is resolved.

The other castmembers all get their time in the sun, but the show does have one major fly in its character roster: Andy Bernard, played by Ed Helms. Andy joins the cast in Season 3 as one of a "new intake" of workers from another branch which is absorbed into Scranton and is initially presented as hyper-competitive and unpleasant with an anger management problem. This appears to have been down to the original plan being to keep the character around in a short-term recurring role and then get rid of him, but Ed Helms' huge success in the Hangover movies caused a rethink. Andy went off to anger management therapy and came back a changed man, a relatively nice (if low-key) guy with a sideline in singing and playing banjo. In fact, he's a bit of a sap, and in a supporting character role that's vaguely amusing and sometimes sympathetic (even if his on-off again romance with receptionist Erin - Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's excellent Ellie Kemper - is astonishingly dull) that's absolutely fine. Unfortunately, in Season 8 it appears that Helms (or his agent) leveraged his movie profile to get him promoted to replace Steve Carell as the show's star, which is when the wheels of the series not so much come off as are ejected with terrifying explosive force and the directionless remnants are allowed to crash into the ground and explode. Fortunately, Helms was called in to make The Hangover 3 and is missing from more than half of the final season, allowing the show to regain most of its former quality.

The Office (USA) is an inconsistent show, sometimes maddeningly so. Its initially rocky first season, when it is too much in the shadow of the British original, soon expands into an "imperial period" of quality in Seasons 2-4 that can withstand comparison to the best seasons of any other show. There's then a three-season slow decline to the end of Season 7, during which time the show is still certainly watchable with some absolutely outstanding moments and individual episodes but also a lot of wheel-spinning, and then Season 8 is dreadful, despite the heroic efforts of recurring guest stars James Spader (who can be hilarious but his character has been teleported in from a completely different universe) and Catherine Tate, but there's a marked return to form in Season 9, culminating in a genuinely effecting final run of episodes and one of the best TV sitcom finales of all time.

The US version of The Office (***½) is, at 201 episodes, a daunting prospect to watch, especially compared to the UK version's slim and breezy 14 instalments. But it's mostly worth it, with genuinely funny (if often cringe-inducing) moments and strong characterisation helping the show transition from its early, more realistic feel to the decidedly implausible plot developments of its later seasons. The cast is exemplary and, at its best, this is a show that can withstand comparisons to the greatest of all sitcoms (especially episodes like Dinner Party, which comfortably outshines anything in the British original). However, it is also inconsistent in quality over the long run, and the disappointing run of episodes late in the show's life means that it will likely be outshone in history by the shorter, funnier and much more consistent Parks & Recreation and the conceptually much bolder The Good Place. The complete series is available to watch in the UK on Amazon Prime Video. In the US it is currently available on Netflix, but will leave the service imminently in favour of NBC's new streaming platform, Peacock.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Original DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN trilogy to get first UK audiobook release

Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series is to be released in audiobook format for the first time in the UK.

Gollancz will be releasing the original three books in the series - Dragonflight (1968), Dragonquest (1970) and The White Dragon (1978) - next month. Dragonflight and Dragonquest will be narrated by Sophie Aldred (Doctor Who) whilst The White Dragon will be read by Joe Jameson (Grantchester).

McCaffrey, who passed away in 2011, wrote, co-wrote or authorised some 29 books in the Pern series in total.

First look at CBS's unexpectedly topical adaptation of THE STAND

CBS may have found reality adhering rather uncomfortably close to fiction when their nine-part adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a global pandemic was forced to shut down due to...a global pandemic.

Whoopi Goldeberg as Mother Abigail, the enigmatic old lady who gathers the survivors together.

Fortunately, their take on The Stand was only four days from wrapping when the shutdown happened and they are hopeful that the work that still needed to be done can be picked up relatively quickly as soon as shooting restrictions are lifted.

Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo) and Rita Blakemoor (Heather Graham) trying to escape the carnage of a depopulated New York City.

CBS's version of the story differs from both the original 1978 novel and the 1994 mini-series starring Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald. The new version starts in media res, with the "Captain Trips" virus having already struck and wiped out 99% of the global population. In the United States, where the population has been reduced to just three million scattered across a vast continent, several communities have survivors have gathered, the most prominent in Boulder, Colorado. This community, which is trying to survive through cooperation and hard work, finds itself opposed by a much darker group holed up in Las Vegas, Nevada, where the darker excesses and urges of humanity have been given free reign by a mysterious, charismatic stranger named Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgard).

Owen Teague as Harold Lauder and Odessa Young as Frannie Goldsmith.

The new mini-series will focus on characters in both groups, relaying their backstory through extensive flashbacks that will inform the choices they make in the present.

Alexander Skarsgård as Randall Flagg.

The Stand, produced by Benjamin Cavell and Taylor Elmore (Justified) and directed by Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars, The New Mutants), will be released on CBS All Access in the United States in late 2020. It is assumed that either Netflix or Amazon Prime will pick up the international distribution rights, but this has not been confirmed yet.

Monday 18 May 2020

The Music of the Book

It has been standard for decades for films and TV shows to have soundtrack albums released. In the last twenty years or so this has extended to video games as well.

A less-tapped market is book soundtracks, although this seems self-evident: films, TV shows and video games have soundtracks as a matter of course, books do not. That makes the official (or semi-official, or even copyright-infringing) book soundtrack something a rarity in the field. But not completely unknown. Here's a few examples.

I Robot by The Alan Parsons Project (1977)

British rock band The Alan Parsons Project conceived of a soundtrack album based on Isaac Asimov's Robots series of science fiction novels and short story collections, particularly the first book, I, Robot, in the mid-1970s. Bandmember Eric Woolfson was particularly enthusiastic for the project and contacted Asimov himself, hoping to make it an official record. Asimov was keen on the idea, but noted that he had sold the media rights to a studio who was planning a big-budget feature film (which ultimately would not be released until 2004, with the most tenuous of connections to Asimov's book), so it could not be an official project but he gave his blessings for a "spiritual tribute" to the book.

For these reasons, the title was adjusted to I Robot (what a copyright difference a comma makes) and specific references to Asimov's universe and characters were omitted, with more general themes related to robots and artificial intelligence instead referenced.

The record did extremely well on release, perhaps helped by being released just days after the film Star Wars, which had re-awoken a hunger for science fiction material in the United States (and, later, in the UK).

Spotify link.

Apple Music link.

The King of Elfland's Daughter by Bob Johnson and Peter Knight (1977)

Founded in 1969, Steeleye Span are one of Britain's most successful folk rock bands, still touring today. In the 1970s, bandmembers Bob Johnson and Peter Knight hit on the idea of adapting the classic fantasy novel The King of Elfland's Daughter for music.

Released in 1924, Lord Dunsany's novel has been cited as one of the taproot texts of modern fantasy, featuring political intrigue, war and adventuring in a well-realised secondary world, all more than a decade before J.R.R. Tolkien released The Hobbit. More obscure today, it was much better-known in the 1970s.

Johnson and Knight worked on the album after leaving Steeleye Span, and combined original music with spoken word excerpts from the novel with a full voice cast. Sir Christopher Lee - inevitably a strong fan of the book - was cast as the King of Elfland and also the narrator.

The album was released in 1978 but did not attract a strong critical reception.

Spotify link.

Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds by Jeff Wayne (1978)

In the early 1970s, Jeff Wayne was best-known as David Essex's producer and arranger, but he felt his composing output had declined and he was no longer as creatively satisfied as he had been earlier in his career. His first project had been composing a score for his father Jerry Wayne's West End musical version of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1966), which had gotten him the gig working with Essex. He had also written advertising jingles and soundtracks.

Wayne disclosed his creative frustration to his father and they decided on a more elaborate version of the success they'd already had with A Tale of Two Cities. They read a number of well-known novels to find an appropriate story and they both felt that H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1897) was suitable. Wayne was inspired to expand the project into a full-on rock opera, and commissioned his stepmother Doreen to write a script whilst he worked on the score. Both were completed in early 1976, with recording sessions beginning that May. Wayne asked Essex to help and he readily agreed.

Wayne composed a completely original score with one exception: the "Forever Autumn" section kept reminding him of a Lego commercial he'd scored, which had turned into a very unexpected hit single in Japan. He re-contextualised the song for the opera. Otherwise all of the music was new. Wayne also realised he needed a strong voice for the narrator. He wrote a letter to Richard Burton, care of the theatre in New York where he was working, and was shocked to get a phone call from Burton's manager heartily approving of the idea and inviting him to fly to the States to record the narration. Burton, not always known to be the most diplomatic actor about the material he worked with, enjoyed the process and complimented Wayne on his dialogue. One possible problem was that Burton refused to have the music playing as he spoke, as he felt it was a distraction, so had to work with Wayne and David Essex on fitting the dialogue into the right spaces by instinct, which he nailed on repeated takes.

With the record complete, Wayne's publishers were baffled and nearly refused to release it, only relenting when Wayne produced a special cut of the album with the songs cut down to traditional single lengths. This allowed them to release two singles - "Forever Autumn" and "The Eve of the War" - to promote the record. CBS UK then got behind the project in a big way.

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds was released in June 1978 and was a surprise hit. To date it has sold more than 15 million copies, making it easily the biggest-selling record on this list, and has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in live tours and media sales.

Spotify link.

Apple Music link.

"The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" by Leonard Nimoy (1968)


The Songs of Distant Earth by Mike Oldfield (1994)

Mike Oldfield had shot to fame in the early 1970s with his classic Tubular Bells, but had struggled to produce a direct follow-up due to an increasingly sour relationship with Virgin Records. In 1991 he signed with Warner Music, who gave him complete creative freedom and he felt able to rework his original album into Tubular Bells II.

Oldfield discussed his next project with the record label chairman, Rob Dickins, a science fiction fan who was arguably one of the most influential and important figures in British music at the time. Dickins threw up some ideas, including for an album based on Arthur C. Clarke's 1984 novel The Songs of Distant Earth. Oldfield was familiar with Clarke's work but responded more to the title, which he considered evocative, than the novel itself, which he felt was "not one of his best."

Nevertheless, Oldfield flew to Sri Lanka to discuss the project with Clarke and found that Clarke was a fan of his work on the soundtrack to The Killing Fields. Clarke responded well to Oldfield's suggestions and gave Oldfield the creative freedom to open up the book and do some things differently. Oldfield found the recording process taxing, as he felt that his familiar instruments weren't "science fictiony" enough, so he relied more on keyboards and electronic music. At one point, he was so frustrated that he sat down and based out a theme in a few minutes in an absolute rage, and was later astonished that this worked as a process.

Also during recording, Oldfield played the adventure game Myst and was so impressed by it that he included a Myst-like series of puzzles on an enhanced CD-ROM version of the album.

The album was released in 1994 to a middling critical reception, although Clarke gave it his seal of approval.

Spotify link.

Apple Music link.

From the Discworld by Dave Greenslade (1994)

From the Discworld - slightly oddly officially called Terry Pratchett's From the Discworld, which may be creatively accurate but not physically - is a soundtrack album assembled by prog rocker Dave Greenslade and released in 1994. It was an official release created with the full approval of Sir Terry Pratchett.

Greenslade was a member for twenty years of British prog rock band Colosseum before embarking on an eclectic solo career that incorporated transmedia art projects (such as the epicly-titled Pentateuch of the Cosmogony). In the 1980s he switched to soundtracks, producing the music for BBC series including A Very Peculiar Practice, Kinsey, Tales of the Unexpected, Wipe Out, Bird of Prey and Gangsters.

Pratchett was a fan of Greenslade's music and Greenslade was a fan of Pratchett's books, and when they met in 1984 they became fast friends. Eight years later, Greenslade was moved to ask to produce music based on Pratchett's Discworld books and Pratchett agreed. Despite not having a huge amount of musical knowledge, Pratchett also made helpful suggestions, such as "This bit should sound like the opening of the Tory Party Conference," and "Can this bit sound grander? Can we add three more full organs?" Greenslade was also committed to making a soundtrack album, not an album of the songs from the books, so alas "The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered At All" did not make the cut. "A Wizard's Staff Has a Knob on the End" did make it in, because it had to, but Pratchett and Greenslade did reluctantly take a knife to an extended reprise that sadly made the subtle and delicate subtext a bit too obvious (or possibly it was a bit too long, but whatever).

The most ambitious track on the album was "Small Gods," which attempted to distil the entire novel (arguably Pratcett's finest and thematically richest) into five minutes. The song is especially notable for guest keyboards from a young Rhianna Pratchett.

The soundtrack was released in 1994 and did not set the charts on fire, although it did have a very long tail. A sequel soundtrack was discussed but never made it into the studio.

Additional Discworld music was produced by Mark Bandola and Rob Lord for the first two Discworld video games - Discworld (1995) and Discworld II: Missing, Presumed...? (1996) - whilst Paul Weir took over composing duties for Discworld Noir (1999). Paul Francis and David Hughes composed the music for Sky One's three Discworld TV serials: Hogfather (2007), The Colour of Magic (2008) and Going Postal (2010).

Spotify link.

A Soundtrack for The Wheel of Time by Robert Berry (2001)

The Wheel of Time got its own custom soundtrack album in 2001, although this was an outgrowth of an earlier project. In 1999 Legend Entertainment released the Wheel of Time video game, a well-made but somewhat incongruous first-person shooter based on Robert Jordan's fantasy series. Robert Berry and Leif Sorbye collaborated on music for the game and considered releasing it as a stand-alone album, but did not have enough material.

Robert Berry reconceived the project as a soundtrack based directly on the books and repurposed themes from the games and created new music for the project.

Berry had an impressive pedigree. As a guitarist, bassist, vocalist and producer he'd been active on the music scene since the 1970s, working with Hush, Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer and several other bands. He'd also worked on soundtracks and as a session player.

Unlike Pratchett, Jordan did not get involved in the creation of the Wheel of Time soundtrack album and had no contact with the composer.

Spotify link.

Apple Music link.

Geidi Primes by Grimes (2010)

Canadian singer-songwriter Claire Boucher - better known as Grimes - released her debut album in 2010. It was a concept album based on Frank Herbert's novel Dune, with the title being a (misspelt) reference to the Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime. Track titles drew inspiration from the book: "Caladan," "Sardaukar Levenbrech," "Zoal, Face Dancer," "Feyd Rautha Dark Heart," and "Shadout Mapes."

Grimes, at the time unknown, released the record in a low key manner, assuming it would disappear without a trace. Instead, it helped propel her towards superstardom, making her later regret some of the most obscure song title choices.

In 2019 Grimes' career came full circle with a return to SF ideas in her fifth studio album, Miss Anthropocene, including songs that will feature in the forthcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077 (due for release in September this year).

Kaladin by The Black Piper (2017)

Kaladin is a soundtrack album based on Brandon Sanderson's novel The Way of Kings (2010), the first in his Stormlight Archive series. The album was created by The Black Piper, a soundtrack collective led by Michael Banhmiller, a veteran of the movie soundtrack industry where he worked on films such as The Jungle Book, Independence Day: Resurgence, The BFG, La La Land and Jason Bourne. Eleven composers eventually ended up working on the project.

Spotify link.

Apple Music link.

There are quite a few others out there, from individual songs to full albums to entire subgenres (the Tolkien-inspired music scene could certainly fill an entire article by itself).

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Wertzone Classics: Lyonesse - Suldrun's Garden by Jack Vance

A time of myth and magic, after the fall of Rome but before the rise of Camelot. The Elder Isles, located in what people would later call the Bay of Biscay, are riven by political intrigue. King Casmir of Lyonesse desires to unite the ten kingdoms of the islands under his rule, but his ambitions are contested by the naval power of Troicinet and the neighbouring kingdom of Dahaut, whilst the implacable Ska prowl along the coasts. Casmir seeks to make a match for his daughter Suldrun to bring him advantage, but Suldrun is unconcerned with politics, instead preferring the solace of her favourite garden. When a young man is washed ashore and is rescued by Suldrun, the fate of the Elder Isles is abruptly changed.

Discussions of Jack Vance tend to focus on his Dying Earth quartet, published irregularly between 1950 and 1984, which had a permanent and transformative effect on the entire genre of the fantastic, influencing everything from Dungeons and Dragons to Dune to The Broken Earth Trilogy. Although a grand work, the Dying Earth series suffers from an inconsistency of tone and quality and, as an older one, parts of it have not aged as well as others.

The Lyonesse Trilogy (Suldrun's Garden, The Green Pearl and Madouc) is lesser-known but more accomplished, as its World Fantasy Award attests. The trilogy was written much later in Vance's career (begun in his late sixties, concluded when he was 75), when he was still at the height of his powers, and unlike his other major series (Dying Earth and The Demon Princes) he did not let decades elapse between volumes, resulting in a much more focused, consistent and coherent story.

The setting is a fictional, large archipelago of islands off the south-western coast of Britain. It is here that the storied Ys, Avallon, Hybras (or Hy-Brasil) or Lyonesse of Arthurian legend may be found, although the events of Arthur are still several generations off. Instead, the Elder Isles are riven by multiple conflicts. In the temporal world, the islands are divided between ten kingdoms, all threatened by the invading Ska and Celts. In the religious, the islands' native, pagan beliefs are threatened by encroaching Christian missionaries. And in the magical, the islands' magicians, fairies and non-human creatures find their powers waning against the onset of mundane humankind.

As with most of Vance's work, the tone can be humorous but also melancholic and sometimes tragic. Vance wrote the trilogy in the knowledge that he was losing his sight (and, indeed, by the concluding volume was legally registered as blind) and a subplot in which a protagonist is cursed with blindness cannot help but resonate more strongly with this knowledge. But this fear did not daunt Vance: Suldrun's Garden sparks with his wit (sometimes mordant) and impeccable storytelling skills. With its courtly intrigue and manners (arch-rivals who despise one another nevertheless do so with politeness) and its sometimes fairy story tone, the book occasionally recalls Tolkien, although the characters are decidedly less moral.

It's this mixture of epic fantasy, fairy tale and moral fable, with high and courtly intrigue blended with merciless warfare, that makes Lyonesse feel unique. The magicians of the Elder Isles are extremely powerful, but are controlled by an edict that means they cannot make open war on one another (as to do so would destroy the islands). As a result they tend to work through proxies and stay within the confines of their laws, which results in some amusing scenes where the magicians' duels are as much legal arguments as they are dramatic confrontations. This is accentuated by the book's use of fairies, here presented much in the Irish mode of being capricious, whimsical and utterly uncaring of the fate of mortals, resulting in extremely tense negotiations between humans and the elder race, which are prone to unforeseen circumstances.

Characterisation is strong, with Princess Suldrun of Lyonesse presented as our main protagonist for much of the first third of the book, confined to her garden first by her preference and then by the orders of her father. Vance's portrayal of female characters earlier in his career was lacking, but is much-improved here, with Suldrun and several other women given prominence in the text. Unfortunately, the book's 1980s-ness can be deduced by several sequences where sexual violence is threatened (or intimated to have occurred off-page) against the female characters, a tiresome trope which is not over-indulged in (Vance is certainly no Goodkind) but also wearisome by its presence.

Narratively more regrettable is the odd choice where, by having established the less traditional heroine Suldrun as our protagonist for a good hundred pages, she is thrust aside in favour of Prince Aillas of Troicinet, an intelligent and resourceful young man who is brave, good with a sword, cunning when his back against the wall, etc. Aillas is an amiable and enjoyable, if far more traditional, character, but having him effectively storm in and take over the book halfway through from the character whom the novel is named for feels inelegant.

Once you move beyond these problems, Suldrun's Garden (****½) earns its reputation. The prose and razor-sharp dialogue is a delight, the worldbuilding which mixes political intrigue with magical menace is impressive and the fast-moving storyline (which packs more plot movement and characterisation into 400 pages than some authors manage in 4,000) is compelling. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

A note on the text: the book is correctly entitled Suldrun's Garden, but on release it was often published under the title Lyonesse. This is corrected in more recent editions as Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden. It is important when choosing an edition to read that you don't confuse the single-volume edition of the novel with the various omnibus editions of the trilogy, which are often also published as Lyonesse. The reason for the discrepancy - which recurred in 2006 with Brandon Sanderson's The Final Empire, frequently published under the series title Mistborn instead - is unclear.

Friday 15 May 2020


Avatar: The Last Airbender - probably the greatest fantasy TV show of all time - has returned to Netflix.

Nickelodeon's animated series ran for three seasons and 61 episodes from 2005 to 2008. The show tells the story of a world where magic is divided between the four elements, with one spiritual paragon, the "Avatar," born into each generation who can master all four. After being frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years, Avatar Aang returns to find a world out of balance, with the ruthless Fire Nation engaged in a war of conquest against the other nations. Aang sets out to defeat the Fire Lord and restore balance to the world.

The series has been highly praised for its characterisation, worldbuilding and storytelling, as well as its intricate magic system and set-piece magical confrontations.

Avatar also spun off a sequel series, The Legend of Korra which ran for four shorter seasons and 52 episodes from 2012 to 2014.

Avatar: The Last Airbender left Netflix a few years ago in favour of a run on Amazon Prime Video, but Netflix has reacquired the rights as part of its deal with Nickelodeon which also includes a live-action remake of the series. This was in pre-production with filming due to start imminently when the coronavirus pandemic broke out.

The Legend of Korra, for the time being, is not included in the deal and remains on Amazon Prime Video in most territories.

CBS greenlights STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS, featuring Captain Pike

In fully-expected news, CBS has greenlit a new Star Trek television series. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, aka "the Captain Pike show," will focus on the adventures of the USS Enterprise under the command of Captain Christopher Pike.

Anson Mount, Ethan Peck and Rebecca Romijn will reprise their roles from Star Trek: Discovery's second season. Mount will return as Pike, Peck as Lt. Spock and Romijn as Number One. The series will be set shortly after the events of Discovery's second season, about eight years before the events of the original Star Trek series.

After the first season of Discovery attracted a mixed reception, the second season had a much stronger reaction due to the presence of Mount, who gave a charismatic performance as Pike. Peck was also praised for the difficult task of stepping into the shoes of both Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto as Spock and doing a good job.

Work on Strange New Worlds is already underway, but full production will of course have to wait on the end of the current coronavirus pandemic.

The series is no less than the fifth Star Trek project put into development by CBS All Access since the franchise's return to television in 2017. Strange New Worlds follows Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, Section 31 and an animated series aimed at younger viewers.

George Miller locks in a FURY ROAD prequel as his next project

After five years of writing scripts and getting into legal tussles with studios, George Miller has locked down a prequel to his 2015 movie Fury Road as his next project.

Miller is currently on hiatus from working on Three Thousand Years of Longing, his current movie, starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba. The movie was deep in pre-production and cameras were ready to roll on principle photography when the pandemic stopped abruptly stopped all work on the project. The plan is to resume production when circumstances allow.

In the meantime, Miller has pulled the trigger on writing his next Mad Max universe film. After the huge success of Fury Road, he put forwards two ideas: a direct sequel (presumably retaining Tom Hardy as Max) called The Wasteland and a prequel focusing on the character of Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. He's now decided to proceed with the Furiosa prequel.

In surprising news, though, Theron will not return. Miller wrote the script from an outline he'd prepared for Theron discussing Furiosa's backstory, which he later realised made for an excellent film outline. However, it required delving deep into Furiosa's past. Miller was hoping to use digital de-ageing technology to retain Theron in the role, but called time on that idea after watching The Irishman and declaring that the technology was not ready yet.

Miller seems quite anguished by that decision, and Theron has spent the day tweeting about her experience shooting the film and thanking Miller for his support, confirming the new film has her backing. Miller has apparently already begun outlining his choices for auditions, with Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split, Glass) being mentioned as a possibility.

Work on the film is expected to not get underway until next year, but of course all timelines at the moment are subject to change.

Thursday 14 May 2020

Bethesda updates STARFIELD website for the first time

Bethesda Game Studios have updated their website for their forthcoming new open-world RPG, Starfield, for the first time since launching it in 2018. The update merely consists of adding newly-acquired age certificates, but this is significant and may indicate that Bethesda are planning a bigger reveal of the game later this year.

Bethesda are best-known for their two ongoing, open-world RPG franchises: the Elder Scrolls (set in a fantasy world) and Fallout (set in a post-apocalyptic setting). Starfield is significant as the first new IP launched by Bethesda since releasing the first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, way back in 1994; they acquired the Fallout IP from Interplay, who had previously produced two main games and two spin-offs, in 2004.

Bethesda have been working on Starfield since the release of Fallout 4 in 2015, although they did divert some resources and a newly-acquired team to work on multiplayer shooter Fallout 76, which was released in 2018 and has recently seen a major new expansion released. Relatively little is known about Starfield apart from a very short video showing a space station floating in space. Leaks of varying degrees of reliability suggest that Starfield will be an open-world, space opera game consisting of a space station hub, spacecraft and several different regions on several planets the player can move between (possibly similar to Obsidian's recent SF CRPG The Outer Worlds, although Starfield is expected to be much larger). More fanciful leaks suggest that Starfield is set hundreds of years in the future of the Fallout setting, although this seems less likely.

The ESRB and PEGI-18 age certifications do not necessarily mean an imminent release, as Bethesda could have used early demos and builds rather that submitting the full, finished game for certification. That said, it's unusual for certification to take place more than a year or so before release, unless there are dramatic, last-minute delays.

Bethesda have hinted at announcements later this year to lay out their plans moving forwards. Bethesda's preferred release schedule is to fully unveil their game in the spring or summer and then release the game in the autumn, ahead of the Christmas rush: Fallout 4 was announced in June 2015 and released in November that year, whilst Fallout 76 was announced in May 2018 and released (at least in beta) in October that year. A surprise 2020 release for Starfield is therefore possible, although a 2021 release may be more realistic; even Bethesda might be wary of releasing a new game close to the release of CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077, another SF CRPG and widely anticipated to be the biggest game of the year, in September. Bethesda have ruled out any major new announcements in June, which suggests that if the game is to be fully unveiled, it will be much later in the year, making a 2021 release far more likely.

After Starfield, Bethesda's next project will be The Elder Scrolls VI, the eagerly-awaited sequel to their all-conquering 2011 game Skyrim. It is likely that that game will not follow until at least 4-5 years after Starfield.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

MAFIA, one of the best video games of all time, is getting a full remake this year

In highly surprisingly but welcome news, Take Two have confirmed that their classic 2002 video game Mafia has been completely remade for modern PCs and consoles and will be released in August. More modest upgrades of Mafia II and Mafia III are also being released.

Mafia (2002) was written off by many as a Grand Theft Auto clone on release, although it is only superficially similar. Set in 1930 in the fictional city of Lose Heaven, the game focuses on Tommy Angelo, a cab driver who inadvertently helps some gangsters get out of a sticky situation. They extend their gratitude and ask Tommy to work for them as a driver. Tommy is reluctant to get drawn into a life of crime, but as he is completely broke he feels he doesn't have much choice. He rises through the ranks of Dan Salieri's organisation, which is based on family, loyalty and respect...until that interferes with profits.

Mafia didn't reinvent the wheel story-wise even back in the day, but what it did do was use an advanced graphics engine (which left contemporaries like GTA: Vice City looking archaic in comparison) to create believable, 3D characters who could emote somewhat believably and use that to tell an intense story of family, love, betrayal and revenge. The game was not an open world title as such, instead progressing through a linear series of missions linked by impressive cut scenes. Once complete, a "Free Ride" option was triggered which allowed the player to explore the city at their leisure and engage in activities such as working as a taxi driver. The game was notable not just for its incredible (for the time) graphics and impressive writing and acting, but also it's very solid combat (based on the same developer's Hidden and Dangerous WWII games) and its impressive driving, which really got across the feeling of these older, heavier cars.

The game also featured something that we haven't really seen since in an open world game, namely a constantly-evolving environment. As the game progresses over a period of five years or so, old buildings are torn down and new ones are thrown up, and several new skyscrapers being construction. The cars also dramatically improve over the course of the game.

Mafia II (2010) was set in Empire Bay in 1945 and 1951 and told the story of a young war hero, Vito, who also gets drawn into a life of crime. The game tried hard not to repeat things from Mafia, with Vito remaining a low-life hoodlum throughout the game and being, how shall we say, considerably dumber than Tommy. The game had great combat and looked better graphically, but in almost every other way it was a huge letdown compared to the first game.

Mafia III (2016) was set in New Bordeaux in 1968 and focused on Lincoln Clay, an African-American Vietnam War vet who returns home and is promptly drawn into a gang war against the local mafia, forcing him to start his own criminal enterprise. Mafia III was praised for its setting, main character and the idea of being a mob boss, but criticised for its open world approach, which was negatively derivative of the likes of Grand Theft Auto V without being as accomplished. It was a solid game, and a big improvement on the forgettable second game, but got a bit lost in the sea of other GTA clones.

The new remasters are known as "Definitive Editions" and vary in the quality of their remastering from game to game: Mafia III doesn't seem to have been touched at all and will merely release with all of its DLC in one package. Mafia II's remaster is largely restricted to its graphics, which have seen a big upgrade since the game's original release ten years ago.

The real hard work was reserved for Mafia, unsurprisingly for an eighteen-year-old game. The game has been completely rebuilt from scratch in a new engine. The city layout, characters, storyline and missions seem to be the same, although it's unclear if the audio has been re-recorded from scratch or just upgraded. It's also unclear if the game's structure has been changed to a more traditional open world approach. These will likely be made clearer next week, when Take Two hosts a more thorough exploration of the package.

Mafia Definitive Edition will be released on 27 August 2020 on PC, X-Box One, PlayStation 4 and Google Stadia.

Mafia II Definitive Edition will be released on 19 May (yup, next week). All three games will be available in a package called Mafia Trilogy from August.