Friday, 23 October 2020

Universal developing a BATTLESTAR GALACTICA movie unrelated to the new TV series

In a slightly confusing move, Universal is pressing ahead with a Battlestar Galactica movie project at the exact same time it is developing a new television series, via NBC's Peacock service.

Simon Kinberg - the writer of X-Men: Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix and X-Men: The Last Stand who inexplicably keeps getting work - has been hired to co-produce and write the film. Dylan Clark, who has helped mastermind the highly successful Planet of the Apes reboot series and is currently producing The Batman, will work with Kinberg on the project.

The new BSG film will be a ground-up reboot of the classic premise, which sees the humans of the Twelve Colonies suffer a brutal attack by the robotic Cylons and forced to flee into space in search of the mythical "Thirteenth Colony" of Earth.

The Peacock project is being produced by Sam Esmail and Michael Lesslie. Esmail originally planned a show that intersects with the TV version of the franchise produced by Ronald D. Moore in 2003-09, but since taking a back seat on the project, it sounds like Lesslie is also pursuing a reboot of the premise.

The idea of two versions of the same story being in production at the same time feels weird, but not completely unprecedented. There are no less than three adaptations of Resident Evil in pre-production, all set in different universes: a live-action, post-apocalyptic Netflix show; a live-action new film based on the first two video games; and an animated film taking place in the video game timeline. Paramount are also planning to relaunch their Star Trek film series with movies set in a different timeline to the TV shows currently underway at CBS All Access.

The BSG movie project is not guaranteed to move forwards. Universal have been developing a new film version of the franchise since the Moore TV show wrapped in 2009. Bryan Singer worked on the project for a couple of years (having previously been attached to a TV version pre-Moore), whilst writers Jack Paglen and Lisa Joy also took tilts at the script. France Lawrence was also attached to direct at one point, but has since dropped out. The problem is likely tied to the budget, with the premise requiring a hefty cost but the profile of the franchise (even the much-praised, multi-award-winning Ron Moore version still only has a cult following) meaning it's difficult to justify a large expense.

More news as it develops.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Disney+ greenlights WILLOW TV series

Disney+ and Lucasfilm have commissioned a season of television adventures for Willow Ufgood, the hero of the 1988 fantasy film Willow, produced by George Lucas and directed by Ron Howard.

The new series picks up thirty-odd years after the film, with Willow and his family having to face new challenges. Warwick Davis reprises his role as Willow from the film.

The 1988 movie saw Willow team up with a redoubtable swordsman, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), the treacherous daughter of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), to save a young child, Elora Danan, the prophecised future Empress of Tir Asleen. It's unclear if any other actors from the film will return, although revisiting Elora Danan as an adult seems a no-brainer for the plot. The film was a moderate box office success, but not enough to warrant a sequel at the time.

A trilogy of novels, the Chronicles of the Shadow War series, was published in the 1990s as a sequel of sorts to the film, written by X-Men writer Chris Claremont based on George Lucas's outline. The novel trilogy was controversial, as it killed off most of the film cast, renamed Willow and had very little to do with the film. It's assumed that the novels will be completely ignored by this new TV series.

The Willow TV series marks the first non-Star Wars project undertaken by Lucasfilm since its buy-out by Disney in 2013. The series will be co-written by Jonathan Kasdan (Solo) and Wendy Mericle (Arrow), who will also act as showrunners. Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) will direct the first episode and produce. Ron Howard will produce.

It's expected that the show will shoot in Wales in 2021 for a 2022 debut.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Shooting starts on the SANDMAN TV series

Neil Gaiman has reported that shooting has begun on Netflix's adaptation of his graphic novel series, Sandman.

Shooting began on Thursday 13 October, with the first scene being shot being a sequence set in 1918 where Dr. John Hathaway procures a book from the museum where he works and gives it to Roderick Burgess, the antagonist of the early part of the story.

Gaiman notes that with shooting underway, they should probably get around to announcing the cast (presumably because the longer shooting continues, the more likely it is that casting and set pictures will leak) and hopes to be able to do that shortly.

Sandman is expected to debut on Netflix in late 2021 or early 2022.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman sue DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS publishers for $10 million for breach of contract

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the famed authors of the Dragonlance Chronicles and many other series in that world, have sued Dungeons and Dragons publishers Wizards of the Coast for breach of contract after a new Dragonlance novel trilogy was abruptly cancelled after the first book had been completed.

The news that Wizards were planning a new Dragonlance trilogy is in itself a surprise, given that there has been an extreme dearth of D&D fiction over the last four years, with only three Forgotten Realms books by R.A. Salvatore being published in that time. There have been unsubstantiated rumours that Wizards are planning a relaunch of Dragonlance as a D&D campaign setting in 2021 or 2022, so relaunching the novel series at the same time would have been a good move, and an encouraging sign that Wizards might be reconsidering entering the novel space in a more substantial manner after they effectively cancelled their ongoing lines in 2016.

Weis and Hickman had completed the first novel in the trilogy, Dragons of Deceit, and were working on the second, Dragons of Fate, when Wizards of the Coast abruptly informed them that the trilogy would not be published and they were terminating the contract immediately. It sounds like there had been rumblings of problems before that, particularly when Nic Kelman had been assigned to edit the trilogy (replacing editors Weis and Hickman have previously agreed to work with). Kelman, the Head of Story and Entertainment at Wizards, has long been a controversial figure after publishing a book which was alleged to have "promoted misogyny and paedophilia".

From the complaint it sounds like Wizards of the Coast became concerned over "problematic" aspects of older D&D worldbuilding (such as always-evil races) and asked the authors to address these in rewrites, which they say they fully complied with. Wizards then terminated the book deal anyway. This is particularly bizarre given that Dragonlance, even in the 1980s and 1990s, had a progressive tone to its work, rehabilitating evil races from other settings into more honourable and nuanced civilisations (such as ogres) and featuring "good" members of traditionally evil races (such as goblins and draconians).

Weis and Hickman are two of the biggest-selling living fantasy authors and the second-most-popular authors of D&D fiction (only marginally behind Salvatore). A new trilogy from them, especially accompanying a Dragonlance relaunch, would have likely sold hundreds of thousands of copies and brought substantial revenues to both authors. For this reason, they are suing Wizards of the Coast for $10 million in lost income and damages.

Weis and Hickman were part of the editorial team at then-TSR which created the Dragonlance world of Krynn as a setting for Dungeons and Dragons adventures in 1983. They then co-wrote the Dragonlance Chronicles and Dragonlance Legends novel series between 1984 and 1986, the first six books which launched the setting to acclaim and which sold more than four million copies before the end of the decade. They returned to the setting several times in the 1990s and 2000s to pen more novels. Cumulatively, they have sold over 25 million books in total.

The setting has previously seen some controversy. In 2008 urban fantasy author Jim Butcher was approached by WotC to spearhead a full reboot of the entire Dragonlance saga, including rewriting the original trilogy as a five-book series. Butcher would only proceed with Weis and Hickman's blessing and, when that was not forthcoming, the project was abandoned.

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Out of Time, or Why is the "100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time" list so incoherent?

A publication has unveiled a list called “The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.” Predictably, it has been published to howls of complaints about the makeup of the list and what works are missing. Normally you could dismiss such a thing as hyperbole (what’s wrong with “100 Pretty Good Fantasy Books?”) and the leanings of a single writer or blog, but in this case it is Time Magazine – still an influential publication, especially in the United States – and the list was assembled by a panel of famous and well-known writers, at least several of whom are noted for their deep knowledge of the genre, so the spotty and confusing nature of the list feels particularly notable.

The panel was made up of Tomi Adeyemi, Cassandra Clare, Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, Marlon James, N.K. Jemisin, George R.R. Martin and Sabaa Tahir. Slightly oddly, every member of the panel had at least one book on the panel and several had more than one. Fourteen books – 14% of the “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time” – were written by people on the panel that nominated it, which is an extraordinary figure. Reportedly panel members did not nominate their own books, but instead seem to have nominated one another instead.

According to Time, the original nomination shortlist had 250 books on it and this was whittled down by Time’s editors based on key factors: originality, ambition, artistry, critical and popular reception, and “influence on the fantasy genre and literature more broadly.” Which is fine, but it does seem to remove the point of the panel in the first place, if Time’s editors chose to then edit the list by criteria that seem nebulous at best and self-contradictory at worst.

The resulting list certainly is not terrible, but it is strange and doesn’t seem to fulfil the remit indicated by the title. It has a very heavy recency bias: two of the books were published this year (one in August, about eight weeks ago), a further twenty-four since 2015 and fifty-one in total since the turn of the century. This recency bias – which by its nature omits vast swathes of acknowledged classics of decades or centuries of standing in preference to the newest, shiniest flavour-of-the-month – makes one wonder why the panel didn’t put together a list of “The 100 Greatest Works of Fantasy of the 21st Century (so far).” The list would immediately become vastly more credible, and indeed, would be enhanced with the addition of forty-nine more books from this century.

Even the recency bias feels somewhat inconsistent, with the absence of several high-profile recent fantasy novels which have enjoyed both immense critical and commercial success: Senlin Ascends (2013) by Josiah Bancroft, The Goblin Emperor (2014) by Katherine Addison, Under the Pendulum Sun (2017) by Jeanette Ng, Gideon the Ninth (2019) by Tamsyn Muir and anything by Kameron Hurley all feel like major omissions in any consideration of recent fantasy works.

The list also seems to lack any of kind of rules regarding what are even technically considered “novels.” The Lord of the Rings – planned, written and executed as one single novel and only published in three for cost and paper rationing reasons - is listed as three books, but The Once and Future King – a series of four previously independent novels, sometimes now available in omnibus – is listed as one. If The Lord of the Rings was also counted as one book, then that would have freed up two more slots for other books. There are also multiple entries for trilogies and series which feel like they could have been condensed into one, allowing the scope of the list to be widened to address the more egregious absences. The list also mostly avoids short story collections before randomly dropping a couple into the mix, which makes it feel like the criteria for the list was not strongly defined beforehand.

The list also has a baffling attitude to pre-modern works of the fantastic. Including The Arabian Nights and Le Morte D’Arthur makes one wonder why The Odyssey and The Iliad are missing, not to mention The Aeneid, The Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Beowulf feels like it should merit a mention, and perhaps the Finnish myth-cycle, The Kalevala. Gulliver’s Travels, a vital work of early fantasy, is notable by its absence, as are absolutely any works connected to Shakespeare. This part of the list feels very much like a sop to the fact that fantasy is an ancient genre and that a couple of pre-modern works should be slapped in to make it vaguely more credible before moving on to more recent material.

Even worse is the list completely side-stepping the foundational texts of much of modern fantasy: The Rose and the Ring, Phantastes, The Well of the World’s End, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, The Worm Ouroboros and Lud-in-the-Mist being completely ignored is remarkable. Two or three of them being skipped over might be expected, but all of them? The incoherence on whether short story collections count or not may also explain the absence of Robert E. Howard’s Conan and C.L. Moore’s Jiriel stories.

Probably the single biggest absence on the list is that of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, published in 1937. The absence of The Hobbit is baffling, and if The Lord of the Rings had been included as one book (as it should have been), then The Hobbit could have also been included and another place freed up for another writer. As it stands, the list is YA and children’s book heavy but the biggest and most influential children’s fantasy novel of all time is missing. The absence of The Silmarillion is less surprising, given it's (oft-overstated) reputation as a "difficult" work, but its absence in favour of decidedly more disposable, recent fare is interesting.

A major issue with any list of fantasy works is the propensity of the genre towards long series, often ones which cumulatively have a huge impact but singling out single novels is difficult or contentious. For this reason, most such lists will allow nominations for an entire series rather than individual titles, but this list does not permit that (well, apart from the Once and Future King quartet, for unspecified reasons). This leaves the list in an awkward position where several times it appears to imply a place for the entire series using the first novel as an example (The Eye of the World representing the entire 15-book Wheel of Time, despite the book being middling in the quality level of the series as a whole), but in others it randomly picks a book from somewhere else in the series (The Wee Free Men, a rather minor and very definitely nowhere near the best entry from the Discworld series), or picks out the by-consensus best book of the series (A Storm of Swords representing A Song of Ice and Fire rather than the first book, A Game of Thrones). Towards the end, the list seems to lose consistency altogether by picking out multiple books from very recent series which have not yet had a chance to withstand the test of time. With the exception of the two entries for N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (since all three won Hugo Awards and immense critical acclaim, there is some rationale for that), most of these feel bit over the top: R.F Kuang, Tomi Adeyemi, Ken Liu and Sabaa Tahir are all reasonable recent writers, but giving them two entries apiece feels like overkill when, say, established and important authors like Robin Hobb, Andrzej Sapkowski, Kate Elliott and Steven Erikson are missing from the list altogether.

Fantasy is of course a broad church, far broader than say “science fiction” or “detective novel,” with very elastic boundaries. The list goes for the broadest possible definition, meaning that epic fantasy, magic realism, children’s fantasy, modern YA, science fantasy, fairy stories and myths are conflated together. Even so, the list feels somewhat unrepresentative of the genre. The New Weird goes completely unmentioned (China Miéville or Steph Swainston are both notable by their absences), as does steampunk and, startlingly, urban fantasy: Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series feels like it should have appeared from a literary perspective, or Jim Butcher or Charlaine Harris if you wanted to go for something wither more commercial clout.

The list also leans very heavily towards children's fantasy and YA. Again, if the list was specifically meant to reward books in that mode, that would be fine but it does say it is for the best fantasy books of all time, not the best YA fantasy novels of all time. YA and children's fiction is overrepresented to such an extreme that it's possible that someone looking at this list would conclude that fantasy is a juvenile genre unworthy of serious literary consideration; the absence of fantasy and magic realism's literary heavyweights like Gene Wolfe, Mervyn Peake, Jorge Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, and Rushdie only getting on the list with a children's book, may reinforce this view. This is not to say that YA and children's fantasy should not be represented on the list - there are numerous classic works of fantasy that are YA or children's books in origin (and I previously noted the puzzling absence of The Hobbit) but the field on this list is overrepresented when other incredibly popular subgenres are wholly missing.

The list is clearly aiming for inclusion and fairer representation of non-white and non-male authors, which is great, but does brush against the elephant in the room. Much moreso even than science fiction, fantasy was very white and very male until comparatively recently: pre-1960 female fantasy authors are very thin on the ground, clearly a regrettable situation, but one that is a historical fact. The list seems to address this by simply minimising the importance all of early fantasy altogether, including those female authors who were influential and important (the aforementioned C.L. Moore, Hope Mirrlees of Lud-in-the-Mist fame, science fantasy author Leigh Brackett, Ruth Thompson and Rachel Cosgrove of the later Oz books and more), or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The list’s criteria for inclusion also do not extend to works not originally published in English. Only three of the books were not originally published in English and the list leaves out other influential and important non-English works. The Dutch De brief vor de koning (The Letter for the King) by Tonke Dragt is missing and the Polish Wiedźmin (Witcher) series by Andrzej Sapkowski doesn’t even rate a mention, despite both being recently brought to a wider English-speaking language by Netflix adaptations. Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story) by Michael Ende is also MIA.

The list also has a hesitant attitude towards controversy. The glaring absence of H.P. Lovecraft is likely down to his racist viewpoints despite the immense influence of his work over the modern genre, and I suspect Robert E. Howard’s absence might also be down to the perceived racism in his works (although Howard’s attitudes towards race were vastly more progressive than Lovecraft’s, or indeed most people of his time, and improved remarkably over his short lifetime) as well. The entry for The Eye of the World makes the interesting choice of accusing the author of sexism (the entry has a whole seems apologetic for including the book, making one wonder why they did) and even A Storm of Swords gets a non sequitur side-line where George R.R. Martin’s recent clumsy handling of the 2020 Hugo Awards is noted. However, the mention of controversy is seemingly limited to older authors: Cassandra Clare’s multiple brushes with plagiarism accusations and lawsuits are cheerfully ignored and Tomi Adeyemi’s online meltdown over an author with a similar book title to her own goes resolutely unmentioned.

When it comes to individual works that should have been mentioned but are not, there are too many to mention and of course the fact that 100 positions is far too few to accommodate any kind of broad overview of the genre. However, the absence of both Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, often cited and indeed voted the greatest SFF work of all time, is ridiculous, and the absence of any of Robin Hobb’s work which distils the sometimes-high ideals of fantasy down to the level of human experience is glaring. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell's baffling absence may make some consider if the list has, in fact, gone out of its way to be contrarian.

Ultimately the list can be seen as a form of clickbait to engender greater discussion of the genre, but it feels like Time deliberately misrepresented the list by calling it the “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.” They should have divided the list in three, publishing perhaps a pre-20th Century list, a 20th Century list and a 21st Century instalment, which is really the only way of doing such an enormous concept justice. As it stands, the list is too incoherent to be of much worth. If this was a Buzzfeed list aimed at new readers, it’d be one thing, but I generally expect better of Time.

  1. The Arabian Nights (c. 8th Century) 
  2. Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory (1485)
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
  4. Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)
  5. Five Children and It by E. Nesbit (1902)
  6. Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1907)
  7. Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers (1934)
  8. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
  9. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola (1952)
  10. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis (1952)
  11. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
  12. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola (1954)
  13. The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
  14. The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)
  15. A Hero Born by Jin Yong (1957)
  16. The Once & Future King by T.H. White (1958)
  17. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (1961)
  18. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)
  19. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
  20. The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Lainez (1965)
  21. Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey (1968)
  22. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)
  23. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
  24. The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (1970)
  25. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (1970)
  26. Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972)
  27. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)
  28. The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973)
  29. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975)
  30. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (1978)
  31. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979)
  32. The BFG by Roald Dahl (1982)
  33. Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (1983)
  34. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)
  35. Redwall by Brian Jacques (1986)
  36. Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (1987)
  37. The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones (1988)
  38. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (1990)
  39. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (1990)
  40. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (1990)
  41. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (1990)
  42. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
  43. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (Northern Lights)
  44. Neverwhere by Nail Gaiman (1996)
  45. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1997)
  46. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (1997)
  47. Brown Girl in the Ring by Naolo Hopkinson (1998)
  48. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)
  49. Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley (2000)
  50. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (2000)
  51. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001)
  52. The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (2003)
  53. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (2005)
  54. Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (2006)
  55. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
  56. City of Glass by Cassandra Clare (2009)
  57. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (2009)
  58. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (2010)
  59. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
  60. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (2011)
  61. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
  62. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)
  63. Angelfall by Susan Ee (2011)
  64. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (2013)
  65. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014)
  66. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)
  67. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (2015)
  68. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (2015)
  69. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (2015)
  70. Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older (2015)
  71. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (2015)
  72. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh (2015)
  73. Song of Blood & Stone by L. Penelope (2015)
  74. Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (2016)
  75. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2016)
  76. A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir (2016)
  77. The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu (2016)
  78. Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi (2017)
  79. The Blade Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang (2017)
  80. The Changeling by Victor Lavalle (2017)
  81. Jade City by Fonda Lee (2017)
  82. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (2017)
  83. Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Choskshi (2018)
  84. Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (2018)
  85. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)
  86. Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)
  87. Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri (2018)
  88. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (2018)
  89. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (2018)
  90. Witchmark by C.L. Polk (2018)
  91. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (2019)
  92. Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi (2019)
  93. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang (2019)
  94. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2019)
  95. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (2019)
  96. Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender (2019)
  97. Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter (2019)
  98. We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal (2019)
  99. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (2020)
  100. Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez (2020)

Friday, 16 October 2020

GAME OF THRONES spin-off show to be shot in England

House of the Dragon, the Game of Dragons spin-off prequel show, has revealed its new production base. The show will be using the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden, near London as its main base of operations.

Game of Thrones itself was based in the Titanic or Paint Hall Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland, although overseas shoots ranged from Iceland to Morocco (and even, briefly, Los Angeles). HBO announced in March that they would not be returning to the Paint Hall, which surprised a lot of commentators. House of the Dragon, set during the Dance of Dragons, a brutal civil war fought between different off-shoots of House Targaryen using dragons, utilises many of the same locations as Game of Thrones, including King's Landing, the Red Keep, Harrenhal and Dragonstone, the sets for which were located at the Paint Hall. However, these sets were mostly destroyed during the filming of Game of Thrones' finale, and those which survived had to be torn down to make room for the sets for the first spinoff pilot, The Longest Night, which never got past a pilot order.

In addition, location filming for those locations ranged widely, with Malta and the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia both standing in for the exteriors of King's Landing, whilst some scenes on Dragonstone were shot in Spain and others in Northern Ireland. With House of the Dragon also scouting overseas locations, it seems possible that those locations will be used again, with just the set location in the UK changing.

Leavesden is a solid choice with economic benefits, since the studio complex is owned by HBO's parent company Time Warner. Films shot at Leavesden include the Harry Potter series, Sleep Hollow, The Phantom Menace, GoldenEye, Kingsman, Inception, Justice League, Warner Brothers, Spider-Man: Far From Home and The Batman. The studio is also notably further south than the Paint Hall in Belfast with a more temperate climate and predictable weather.

Production of House of the Dragon is expected to start in January and run through the summer, to debut in early 2022. Casting is currently underway, with Paddy Considine recently cast as King Viserys I Targaryen.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The Emperor of the Elflands has been killed in an airship accident, along with his immediate sons and heirs. The imperial crown falls on his youngest son, Maia, who has lived in effective exile. Ignorant of the politics of the Elflands and the ways of the court, Maia has to learn whom he can trust and how to navigate the channels of government, all the while trying to find out who killed his father and brothers, and why.

Originally published in 2014, The Goblin Emperor was a moderate hit for its author, Sarah Monette. Monette had already published or co-published six novels under her own name, but chose to adopt a new pen name to differentiate this work.

The Goblin Emperor is a work heavy on political intrigue and courtly manners and light on action. The story takes place in a well-realised fantasy world, but is constrained almost entirely to the imperial court, with the reader hearing about goings on in faraway places only through reports, rumours and hearsay. Those looking for a traditional epic fantasy with lots of travelling, sword fights, awesome displays of magic and epic battles best look elsewhere, but those who are looking for a well-written, in-depth character study will find much here that is rewarding.

This is a novel of manners, where characters behave and comport themselves through strict protocols which sometimes make it hard to discern their true motivations. Maia's job is to sort through the restrictions of hierarchy to work out who is an ally, who is an enemy and who is an enemy posing as a friend, and who is a friend who feels it impolite to impose themselves on the emperor. It requires a deft hand at characterisation to make this work, but the author succeeds in making these characters rise through the layers of formality and work as fully-fleshed-out individuals.

The book makes much of language and terminology, a bit oddly for a book that also uses fairly generic terms like "elf" and "goblin," although these don't seem to be describing the traditional fantasy races but merely different ethnicities of humans, similar to the witches, goblins and demons of The Worm Ouroboros (who are actually just different types of human). There's a complex system of address, titles and styles which occasionally means the same character may be referred to in several different ways and even by different names. This doesn't happen too often and from context it's relatively easy to pick up on who's who, but it does occasionally briefly disrupt the flow of the story as you try to work out if this character is someone we've met before.

The downside to all of this is that the pace is "relaxed" and occasionally risks being "languid," with major plot movements slow to develop and having to occasionally bulldoze your way through a dozen pages of Maia musing on dining etiquette and what is the acceptable level of formalwear for the next event he has to attend. If you're looking for a fast-paced, exciting book, this is definitely not it.

The Goblin Emperor (****) is an intelligent, thoughtful and slow (sometimes a tad too slow) book, well-written and solidly-characterised with a strong background. The novel lacks a certain dynamism but makes up for it with the richness of the setting and characters. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD prequel announces cast

Director George Miller has announced the cast for Furiosa, his forthcoming prequel movie to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, Glass, The WitchPeaky Blinders) has been cast as the younger version of Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron in the original movie. The film explores Furiosa's backstory as a young woman before she comes into the employ of Immortan Joe.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is playing Dementus, whilst Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman, Watchmen) is playing Pretorian.

Miller spent some time working with Theron to see if there was a way of letting her continue as the character, including using de-aging technology, but concluded that the cost of doing so would be prohibitive. Theron has given the project her blessing.

Miller is shooting another project, Three Thousand Years of Longing, delayed due to the pandemic, whilst Hemsworth will be shooting Thor: Love and Thunder for the first few months of 2021, so production of Furiosa is not expected to begin until later in the year or in 2022. He has also been developing a sequel to Fury Road, called The Wasteland, but that seems to be a much further off project.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon by James Hibberd

Game of Thrones is the most successful show in the history of HBO, rising from humble beginnings in 2011 to become the biggest TV drama on the planet. In 2019 the show wrapped after eight seasons and 73 episodes to deliver one of the most negatively-received final seasons in recent memory. Journalist James Hibberd, who was allowed on set of the show every year from the second season onwards, has written a behind-the-scenes account of the commissioning, writing and making of the show, referring to hundreds of interviews he undertook whilst the show was on air and more undertaken since. Among the people he's spoken to are George R.R. Martin, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and vast numbers of the cast, from the smallest bit-part player to leading actors Kit Harington, Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke. This is the oft-contentious story of the making of the show that changed television.

TV companion books are a bit of a dying art these days, with the Internet and its plethora of fan blogs and wikis making them feel a bit redundant. Game of Thrones is so huge - and controversial - that it can overcome that problem and James Hibberd is well-placed to write such a companion volume given his access to the writers, the sets and the actors (via his work at Entertainment Weekly covering the show). He starts at the beginning, with George R.R. Martin starting writing the Song of Ice and Fire novel series in 1991, and proceeds through David Benioff and Dan Weiss picking up the books, wooing Martin to letting them and HBO have the rights, and their difficult struggle to get a pilot made, and the difficult process of admitting that they'd messed up the pilot and had to hope that HBO would give them a second chance. From there things proceed roughly chronologically until the end of the show.

The first thing that has to be noted is that this is not an "unauthorised" guide to the making of the show, but a HBO-approved product (complete with HBO-provided photographs). If you're expecting to find dirt and gossip, you're not going to find it here. Anything majorly contentious has been finely exercised from the text. Hibberd also doesn't add much in the way of authorial opinion, letting events stand for themselves and quoting other critics in determining if a plot twist or story turn was successful or not.

Despite this, the book's fact checking clearly left something to be desired. On the very first page of the book we're told that the Battle of the Bastards was filmed in October 2014; it was actually a year later (my friend, who was a weary extra on the set of Hardhome, noted that was when they were filming that battle). A few pages later we're told that George R.R. Martin started writing A Game of Thrones in 1993 but it was actually in 1991. A few other, similar errors crop up through the book and it does feel like a bit more attention to detail would not have gone amiss.

Once that hurdle is overcome, there is much to enjoy. Hibberd is a solid writer who knows how to handle and place quotes, and how to interview subjects, and to his credit he does avoid repeating a lot of stories and information that close watchers of the show have heard a thousand times already. Some of the familiar anecdotes do get trotted out yet again but there's a lot more information here that I hadn't ever heard before, such as director David Nutter almost dying in Iceland when his car crashed during a blizzard on a location scout and it if had rolled in a different direction, it would have plummeted off a sheer drop. Other stories are less dramatic but amusing: the weather in Iceland during Season 2 was so bad that scenes were often shot right outside the hotel the cast and crew were staying in, with constructive camera angles being used to hide that fact and actors having to perform in full view of all the guests in the dining room. During Season 1 they didn't have any security and David Benioff had to personally stand guard over Robert Baratheon's tent to stop curious bystanders from making off with props. And so forth.

These stories are amusing bits of trivia but somewhat inconsequential. Meatier are the controversies. The book doesn't shy away from many of these, spending a surprising amount of time debating the merits of Daenerys and Khal Drogo's relationship at the start of the show with the writers and actors, and the different ways they approached it in both the pilot and the reshoot with different actresses, and on the depiction of the Sansa-Ramsay-Theon relationship in Season 5. There's also a lot of open discussion about the weak Dorne storyline in Season 5 and how it didn't work and they had to scramble to try to fix it later on. Other controversies are completely ignored though, with a particularly criticised Cersei/Jaime scene in Season 4 getting no mention at all.

Even more interesting are the moments when people get a bit too honest. It's clear from the writing that some of the producers encouraged something of a "fratboy" relationship with other cast and crew, and sometimes pushed things too far, resulting in tense moments on set. The most honest and outspoken actor in the book is Liam Cunningham, who cuts through the normal Hollywood PR banter (which to be fair most of the cast try to avoid, but sometimes fall into it by rote) to deliver some real honesty on some of the conditions of shooting. His pointblank refusal to film some scenes because he felt they betrayed his character and made Davos less of a relatable figure is quite startling. He also stands up for Stephen Dillane, who played Stannis Baratheon and had made some dismissive comments of the show (Dillane didn't take part in the new interviews for the book), noting that Dillane always did good work, had a strong work ethic and a withering sense of humour that didn't always come across well in interviews.

The thing most people will be interested in is the reception to the finale. Benioff, Weiss and Martin don't really talk about it, but plenty of the actors, several HBO executives and Bryan Cogman do, and note how things may or may have not worked as well as they'd hoped. However, there is a bit of a disappointing PR answer that maybe the ending will be looked upon differently in another ten years.

Hibberd has certainly written an above-average TV companion book here, with plenty of interesting stories and funny moments of trivia, but it's one that also has some glaring holes. Ramin Djawadi's memorable score (the one thing almost uniformly praised about the series) goes almost completely unmentioned, the work of Elastic and Angus Wall on the memorable title sequence is also disregarded and the CG teams tasked with bringing the locations and creatures to life are also not quoted. It's good to see the writers and actors being self-deprecating and owning various problems and mistakes, but there's also a few moments when it feels like the book pulls its punches and doesn't delve deeper into behind the scenes issues. The book's real achievement may be in getting Benioff and Weiss to admit what many had suspected all along: they really wanted to be making movies all along, they always planned to prioritise big battles and effects over character and theme (Benioff's daft assertion that themes are only for eighth-grade book reports is mentioned several times) and that without Martin's books to rest on, they lost confidence in how to proceed and struggled more without source material.

Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon (***½) is readable and fun, packed with fresh anecdotes and interesting trivia about the making of Game of Thrones. In some areas it is insightful and revelatory, getting further into why certain baffling decisions were taken, but in others it leans back and goes out of its way to avoid criticism or controversy. It certainly doesn't trouble the quality of The Deep Space Nine Companion, which twenty years after release still represents the gold standard of a TV companion volume. But it's certainly worth reading if you're interesting in what happened behind the scenes on the biggest show of the decade. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

The Halfling's Gem by R.A. Salvatore

The Companions of the Hall have successfully located Mithril Hall, the ancestral home of Bruenor Battlehammer and his clansmen. Unfortunately, the quest was completed only at great cost: Bruenor was lost in combat with the shadow dragon Shimmergloom and the halfling Regis was captured by the assassin Artemis Entreri. Entreri is now taking his prisoner back to the great southern metropolis of Calimport, leaving Drizzt Do'Urden and Wulfgar with no choice but to pursue them, whilst Catti-brie organises the armies coming together to retake Mithril Hall. The pursuit is long and dangerous, and Drizzt must decide whether the recovery of his friend is true motivation, or the knowledge that Entreri is the first warrior to have ever matched him blade to blade, and how eagerly he seeks a rematch.

The Halfling's Gem (1990) wraps up R.A. Salvatore's first fantasy series, The Icewind Dale Trilogy. The Crystal Shard had introduced the world to the dark elven ranger Drizzt Do'Urden and his companions and Streams of Silver had given them an epic, Tolkienesque quest to undertake. This concluding book sees them divided and hot on the heels of one of their kidnapped fellows, a scenario ripe for pulp fantasy adventure, and that's what we get. Drizzt and company visit the grand cities of Waterdeep, Baldur's Gate, Memnon and Calimport; engage in all manner of hijinks on the high seas; and are then pitched into battle with a shadowy thieves' guild and its allies, a mixture of wizards, giants and wererats. It's mostly splendid fun.

By this third book, Salvatore has become a reasonable writer of straightforward action adventure and delivers an entertaining book in that mode. It does feel like he has larger aspirations to write an engaging travelogue of the Sword Coast (the west coast of the main Forgotten Realms continent of Faerun and the focus for many of the works in the setting), and in that respect falters; 320 pages isn't really enough time to do that and  both Waterdeep and Baldur's Gate get decidedly short shrift in this book. Calimport is more fully fleshed out, but it's questionable to what extent Salvatore consulted the source material: the city's distinction of being divided into many dozen drudachs or subdistricts, each walled off from its neighbours, is not mentioned at all. As a result the unique character and flavour of Calimport is lost (Salvatore is also smarter than to rely on Arabian stereotypes for the city or Calimshan as a whole, although one hapless Memnon merchant does start leaning in that direction).

Characterisation remains reasonable and Salvatore explores some interesting ideas, such as Drizzt using a magical mask to pass as a surface elf and avoid the racist appraisals of his character stemming from his skin colour alone, and facing a crisis of identity as a result. Drizzt also has to face his motives for dealing with Entreri, and whether these stem from a desire for revenge, a desire for a rematch with a worthy foe or a genuine desire to save his friend Regis. Wulfgar also gets a fish-out-of-water storyline as he finds himself trying to survive in civilised surrounds for prolonged periods for the first time, and we meet a few more characters who will become important in future volumes of the wider Legend of Drizzt series, such as Captain Deudermont and the crew of the Sea Sprite.

On the minus side, there isn't much. This very much remains an action-focused, fast food meal of a fantasy novel and is enjoyable on that level, but those looking for a deeper, richer experience best look elsewhere.

Otherwise, The Halfling's Gem (***½) wraps up this trilogy reasonably well. From this book readers can go back to experience Drizzt's backstory in The Dark Elf Trilogy or press on to find out what happens to the Companions of the Hall and Mithril Hall next in the Legacy of the Drow Quartet (I'd strongly recommend the former). The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

XCOM: Chimera Squad

2040. Five years ago, the XCOM resistance movement successfully defeated the alien Ethereals and liberated Earth from their control. However, the destruction of the Ethereals not only freed humanity, but also the dozen or so alien races under their control, who found themselves marooned on a strange world and having to coexist with their former enemies. This coexistence is controversial, but several cities have prospered with mixed human and alien populations. One such place is City 31, but when three criminal factions try to overthrow the new order, XCOM is called upon to deploy a police force to the city to help salvage the situation.

Chimera Squad is the latest game in the XCOM series, rebooted by Firaxis in 2012 to great success. Unlike its two predecessors - to which it is more of a spinoff than a direct sequel - Chimera Squad eschews a global perspective for the more focused setting of a single city. You're also not in command of XCOM any more, instead taking control of the Reclamation Agency of City 31. Reclamation is a subdivision of XCOM which deals with police operations in the aftermath of the War for Liberation (as depicted in XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen). Unfortunately, Reclamation is low in the priority list and doesn't have access to the high-end technology developed towards the end of that war, explaining why you start the game (once again) with machine guns and shotguns rather than plasma rifles and alloy cannons.

The game proceeds much as its forebears: you have a strategic map, this time of just the city rather than the planet, where you choose which operations to undertake. You can also research new equipment, purchase new stocks, train your soldiers or send them on secondary missions which generate more resources, such as money, intel or Elerium. You have to keep the city's panic level low, which can be achieved by completing missions and establishing police forces in each district and levelling them up.

Whilst the strategic side has less options than in previous games - there's no way of interrogating enemy soldiers, for example, and no fellow resistance forces to coordinate with - it still provides a pleasing degree of choice, with dire consequences possible if you make the wrong decision.

More controversial is the decision to limit your soldier roster. You choose four starting characters and as the campaign continues more troops trickle in from other XCOM assignments at your request. You can have up to eight agents on the team, four of whom can be deployed on a mission at a time (unlike prior games, there's no way of increasing the limit to six soldiers). The others can cool their heels at base or go on secondary missions, help speed up research or train to unlock new skills (or remove permanent injuries sustained in battle). The big difference is that these soldiers are all recruited from a set pool of eleven. You can't hire random new recruits any more. On the plus side this means all the soldiers get full voice acting with nice lines of dialogue resulting from which characters they are paired with. On the downside it means the attachment you get from shepherding characters through several missions in a row and growing their skills from scratch is lost, and you also don't have the customisation options any more to give them crazy haircuts or names. They are also irreplaceable: if they die, they die and it's game over rather than having to soldier on (particularly odd as there's more characters to recruit than there are slots on the team, so they could easily have had an option to slot in up to three replacements before saying it's game over).

Removing player choice from the game for relatively limited rewards - your soldiers' "banter" is decidedly non-revelatory and a bit hackneyed - is an odd experiment, but it does make the game more distinctive. Another questionable choice is limiting the roles available. Most of the XCOM 2 classes are represented (Terminal is a Specialist, Verge is a Psi Operative) but several are missing. Grenadiers not being around kind of makes sense - you don't want rockets blasting around an urban area with civilians present - but not having any Sharpshooters feels strange (police snipers are a thing), especially as one of your characters, Blueblood, is effectively a Sharpshooter locked into the pistol specialisation tree. Again, it feels like this franchise which celebrates player agency and choice has taken such choice away from the player and limited things.

This extends to the missions themselves, which are now played out in combat encounters rather than continuous maps. Each mission has between one and three encounters, and moving between encounters is accomplished by a "breach" sequence where you access the next encounter by smashing through windows, rappelling through skylights, booting down doors or occasionally just walking onto the battlefield. The audio barks don't change to the situation though, resulting in the occasionally non sequitur sight of one of your squadmembers screaming "BREACH! BREACH! BREACH!" before taking two steps forward and ducking behind a car. This does feel more limited than the continuous maps of the previous games and can get quite annoying, as previous encounter zones are inaccessible, sometimes resulting in your characters being bottlenecked at the entrance to the next zone and not being able to fall back to the previous room and take better cover, as the previous map is now greyed out and simply can't be accessed.

Once you get over these differences to the standard XCOM experience, much fun is to be had. The new mechanics, although sometimes irritating, do mean you spend most of your playtime making actual combat choices rather than slowly inching forwards into the fog of war in continuous overwatch. The breaches have a lot of options for when and how you enter the next encounter (like deciding to blast a hole through the wall with shaped charges to take the enemy by surprise or charging through a door into an enemy crossfire but which puts you closer to the toughest opponents). The result is much shorter, more focused combat experiences.

A big change to combat is that rather than having team turns - so all the XCOM agents go and then all the aliens go - the game instead uses interleaved turns, so one agent goes, then one enemy, then one ally and so on. This makes for a change in tactics as you start focusing on the enemy who is about to go next and can use abilities which adjust the timeline (moving characters around in it to your advantage and the enemy's detriment). This has a lot of good points, such as meaning that the enemy can't gang up all their fire on one exposed agent and kill him or her and there's nothing you can do about it, but again it does loose the ability to pick which agent is going next and having finer control over their actions. Broadly speaking, I thought this change was interesting for making combat a more varied experience, but there was no strong argument for it being better or worse than the alternative, just different.

Chimera Squad is probably not the way forwards for the franchise permanently, but it does offer a lot of variations on the standard XCOM formula which make it fun to play. It's short and focused - a single playthrough will last around 20 hours rather than the ~50 hours of an XCOM 2: War of the Chosen campaign - and the smaller scale works surprisingly well. The removal of choice from the player in favour of set characters, a preset squad roster and focused, short combat sequences is interesting, but I think would go down badly in a full XCOM 3, so hopefully if XCOM 3 is in development (and based on the cliffhanger endings to both XCOM 2 and Chimera Squad, that seems likely) they take on board the ideas that work (the breach mechanics to start a mission, but may not mid-mission, and maybe the interleaved turns as an option) and leave out the ones that do not.

Chimera Squad (****) is a tight, experimental and fun variation on the XCOM formula with some ideas that work well and others that are less successful, but fun in this spin-off context. It is available on PC only now.

Friday, 9 October 2020

CBS releases trailer for THE STAND

CBS has released the first trailer for its upcoming adaptation of Stephen King's novel The Stand.

The Stand is set in a United States where almost the entire population has been wiped out by a disease dubbed the "superflu" and the survivors are drawn to two charismatic figures with very different views of how the aftermath will pan out.

The ten-part mini-series will debut on CBS All Access in the USA on 17 December.

First trailer released for THE WATCH

BBC America has released the first trailer for its controversially "loose" adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.

BBC America also confirmed some additional casting for the show, with Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) playing the voice of Death and Matt Berry (The IT Crowd, Toast of London, What We Do in the Shadows) playing a magical talking sword called Wayne. Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones, Chernobyl) is playing the voice of Sergeant Detritus, with Paul Kaye (Game of Thrones, again) as Inigo Skimmer, the Duke of Stab.

The Watch starts airing on BBC America on 3 January 2021.

CYBERPUNK tabletop RPG launching alongside CYBERPUNK 2077 next month

Talsorian Games have confirmed that Cyberpunk Red, the latest edition of the long-running Cyberpunk tabletop RPG franchise, is to launch on 14 November, just ahead of the release of the Cyberpunk 2077 video game (set in the same universe) five days later. They also have a detailed breakdown of the game contents here.

The Cyberpunk RPG franchise began in 1988 with the release of the original Cyberpunk RPG, set in the year 2013 in the new metropolis of Night City, a custom-build technical megalopolis located in Morro Bay, California. It depicted high-end corporate warfare and espionage in a high-tech future (which is now, of course, an alternate past), with street hustlers and hackers working missions on the Net and in the real world on behalf of shadowy interests.

The RPG hit its stride with the release of the second edition, Cyberpunk 2020, in 1990, which became arguably the definitive version of the game and remained in print for fifteen years, spawning dozens of expansions, several novels and a stand-alone spin-off, Cybergeneration, aimed at younger players. The game also inspired the immensely popular collectible card game Netrunner as a spinoff (although the current edition of the game, Android: Netrunner, has used a different setting since 2012).

A third edition, Cyberpunk V3.0, was released in 2005 and saw the game move to a further-future transhuman setting, with major changes to the rules system that were received negatively.

Cyberpunk Red features a revamped (and better-received) rules system and advances the timeline of the tabletop game to the 2040s. The title - which was decided before CD Projekt Red optioned the franchise for a video game - comes from the skies over Night City, which have turned red after particulate matter thrown into the atmosphere during nuclear exchanges in the Fourth Corporate War.

Cyberpunk Red's digital edition will launch on 14 November. Its physical release - a chunky 456 page rulebook - will be on 19 November, the same day as the video game, although the publishers note that COVID-related delays are possible.

Cyberpunk ranks as one of the great, venerable tabletop RPGs, alongside the likes of Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Shadowrun and World of Darkness, and it's good to see it back in print and its world about to be introduced to vastly more people than ever before through CD Projekt Red's video game.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Amazon releases trailer and airdate for Season 5 of THE EXPANSE

Amazon has released the trailer for Season 5 of the hit SF show The Expanse, as well as confirming its release date: 16 December. In a change from previous seasons, The Expanse will be released on a weekly schedule following the success of Amazon experimenting with the format for the second season of another of its shows, The Boys.

Season 5 of The Expanse is based primarily on the fifth book in the novel series, Nemesis Games, although it appears it will also draw on the novella The Churn. After Season 4, which was primarily restricted to one colony planet, Season 5 will again be an epic space opera spanning the Solar system, focusing on the criminal activities of Marcos Inaros as he strikes a blow against Earth and Mars which he hopes will win him the support of all the Belters. As usual, the crew of the Rocinante are called in to help save the day, but this time run into problems when the crisis erupts when they are on shore leave and scattered across several worlds, and they have to fight their way back home.

Production of Season 5 of The Expanse was completed a few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic shut down TV and movie productions worldwide. However, controversy struck the show in June when actor Cas Anvar (who plays pilot Alex Kamal) was accused of improper conduct by multiple women. The production team and studio have been investigating these claims ever since, but have not yet announced how they will proceed. However, Anvar has been notably absent from the publicity for the show ever since.

The ninth and final Expanse book, Leviathan Falls, will be published in 2021.

Kate Mulgrew to reprise role of Captain Janeway on STAR TREK: PRODIGY

Kate Mulgrew is reprising her most famous role, as Captain Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager, for upcoming animated series Star Trek: Prodigy.

The new animated series - the second from the new Trek franchise, after Lower Decks - is aimed at a younger audience and will premiere on Nickelodeon, with a possible later appearance on CBS All Access. The series will be unusual in that it does not focus on a Starfleet crew, but instead a group of youngsters from various races who find themselves in control of a derelict Starfleet vessel. It's unclear how Janeway will interact with the new characters, or, indeed, what the timeframe for the series will be.

Star Trek: Prodigy is in production at the moment and expected to debut in 2021.

HERO QUEST crowdfunding campaign opens in the UK (and possibly Europe)

Hasbro's Hero Quest relaunch crowdfunding campaign has launched in the United Kingdom, thanks to a partnership with UK retailer Zavvi.

Hasbro unveiled their reboot of the game on 22 September with a crowdfunding campaign via their HasLab crowdfunding service. The game sailed past its target of $1 million within a few hours and is currently just short of $2 million. The success of the crowdfunding campaign means that the game will ship with two expansions, extra miniatures (including alternate-gender versions of all characters), more dice, one brand new character type and a whole new, second campaign from the original creator of the game.

Currently included in the "Heroic Tier" is:

  • The original board game, complete with 76 miniatures: 8 Heroes*, 1 Sir Ragnar, 1 Gargoyle, 1 Dread** Sorcerer, 4 Dread Warriors, 4 Skeletons, 2 Orcs, 2 Goblins, 2 Mummies, 2 Zombies & 3 Abominations***.
  • Furniture and scenery: 5 closed doors, 16 open doors, 1 tomb, 1 sorcerer's table, 1 rack, 1 weapons rack, 2 tables, 2 bookcases, 1 cupboard, 3 treasure chests, 1 fireplace, 1 throne, 1 alchemist's bench, 4 rats, 10 skulls.
  • Quest and Rule book, board (at a larger size than the original), dice, character sheets, cheat sheets and tokens.

The "Mythic Tier" comprises all of the Heroic Tier and in addition (so far):

  • The Return of the Witch Lord expansion, featuring 8 Skeletons, 4 Zombies, 4 Mummies, 1 Witch Lord and 1 Mentor figure; reinforced and iron doors and new Quest and Rule Books and tiles.
  • The Kellar's Keep expansion, featuring 3 Abominations, 6 Goblins and 8 Orcs; reinforced and iron doors, new Quest and Rule Book and tiles.
  • The new halfling Warlock hero class, available in male and female variants, by artist Shauna Nakasone.
  • 6 extra combat dice.
  • 2 extra Skeletons and 2 extra Goblins.
  • New Prophecy of Telor quest book by original Hero Quest creator Stephen Baker.

The total Mythic Tier package now therefore consists of 118 miniatures, 4 Quest books and 3 Rule books in total.

There are further bonuses which are waiting to be unlocked (for no extra charge), which no doubt the influx of new European orders should help with. The known extra unlocks so far comprise:

  • A new quest book, The Spirit Queen's Torment, by Teos Abadia.
  • A new Druid hero class, available in male and female variants, by artist Nikki Dawes.
  • A new quest book designed by actor and celebrity gamer Joe Manganiello.
  • A revised optional rules system.

There are a few weaknesses, though. Zavvi are offering the Mythic Tier only, not the standard Heroic one. Although Zavvi's small print insists that the campaign is open for European backers as well, some EU-based fans had noted that they haven't been able to get the system to accept their overseas addresses. There is also some exchange rate shenanigans: the Mythic Tier in the US crowdfunder is $150, which translates to £116.10 as of this morning, but the UK cost via Zavvi is £150, which feels a bit cheeky. That is, however, still cheaper than backing the US campaign and importing the game to the UK manually.

Some may also balk at the price for what is effectively a reprint of a 31-year-old game, albeit with all-new models, especially as some of the things fans have most requested, such as modernised rules, are not yet unlocked. The Mythic Tier is considerably more expensive than a copy of Gloomhaven which, although it has far fewer miniatures, certainly has more gameplay depth and much greater longevity.

Still, nostalgia is a powerful thing and I suspect the campaign will continue to do well. It runs until 6 November with delivery anticipated for late 2021.

* The 8 heroes comprise the Barbarian, Elf, Dwarf and Wizard in both male and female variants.
** For copyright reasons, "Dread" is the term that replaces "Chaos" from the original game.
*** Also for copyright reasons, "Abominations" replace the Fimir from the original game.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

RESIDENT EVIL reboot movie announces cast

The Resident Evil franchise is having a second stab at a live-action film franchise, with a new reboot film in pre-production.

The new film stars Kaya Scodelario (Skins) as Claire Redfield, Robbie Amell (The Flash) as Chris Redfield, Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and the Wasp) as Jill Valentine, Tom Hopper (Black Sails, Umbrella Academy) as Albert Wesker, Avan Jogia (Now Apocalypse) as Leon S. Kennedy and Neal McDonough (Captain America, Agent Carter) as William Birkin.

The film is directed by Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down, Darkhunters) and is designed to be a much more faithful adaptation of the video game series than the six-film movie series produced by Paul W.S. Anderson between 2002 and 2016 and stirring Milla Jovovich.

The Resident Evil video game series consists of 21 titles, although only seven are counted as part of the core series; the eighth main game in the series will be released next year. The games have sold more than 100 million copies, making them the biggest-selling series by Japanese video game giant Capcom.

The new film sounds like it is combining the storylines of the original Resident Evil (1996) and Resident Evil 2 (1998). In the former, a special police taskforce, STARS, investigates a strange series of murders which leads them to a mansion on the edge of Raccoon City. STARS agents Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine investigate the mansion, inadvertently discovering that the redoubtable Umbrella Corporation has created a pathogen, the T-virus, which transforms humans into zombie-like creatures, as well as more monstrous mutations. The sequel sees the T-virus spread to nearby Raccoon City, turning it into a nightmarish hellscape which police officer Leon S. Kennedy and student Claire Redfield (Chris's sister) must navigate in their attempt to find out what's going on. Resident Evil 2 was remade and re-released in 2019 to critical acclaim and massive commercial success.

The new film has zero connection to Netflix's live-action Resident Evil TV series, greenlit in August. Netflix's take follows twin sisters Jade and Billie Wesker in two timelines, one set during the events of the games and one set in a post-apocalyptic future when the virus has gone global and almost wiped out humanity (notably something that does not happen in the games).

If that's not confusing enough, Netflix and Capcom have also collaborated on a CG animated TV series starring Claire and Leon, Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness, which is already in production and due to air in 2021. It appears this series may take place in the video game continuity, but at this point who knows?

The film should start shooting imminently and is aiming for a late 2021 release date.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Paddy Considine cast as King Viserys Targaryen in HOUSE OF THE DRAGON

House of the Dragon, HBO's prequel spin-off from Game of Thrones, has its first confirmed castmember.

British actor Paddy Considine will be playing the key role of King Viserys Targaryen, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. At the start of the series - 170 years before the events of Game of Thrones begin - he is seated firmly on the Iron Throne, but his health is ailing and jackals are circling. Viserys has declared his eldest child and sole daughter, Rhaenyra, to be his legal heir and this has been acknowledged by all the lords of Westeros. But since that declaration, Viserys has remarried, to the formidable Lady Alicent of House Hightower, and had several more children. Alicent is intent that her son, Prince Aegon, will take the throne. The two factions at court - the "greens" and the "blacks" - begin recruiting powerful allies.

The political intrigue may sound familiar, but there is a key difference. At this time House Targaryen's dragons are still alive and well, with more than a dozen of them spread between the two factions. In the war to come, the two sides will find they have the ability to inflict far more destruction than in any war in history.

Considine is a familiar face on British television and in film, having played many key roles in films such as This is England, 24 Hour Party People, My Summer of Love, Hot Fuzz, The Bourne Ultimatum, The World's End and The Death of Stalin, as well as TV shows including Peaky Blinders, The Outsider and The Third Day. He has two BAFTA Awards to his name.

The character description for Viserys states that he is the heir of the hugely successful and beloved Old King, Jaehaerys I Targaryen, and is a kind and gentle man who finds that he may not have the temperament to be a powerful ruler. This suggests the show may feature extensive flashbacks over his entire reign.

More casting news is expected over the coming weeks, with key roles including Queen Alicent, Prince Aegon, Princess Rhaenyra, Lord Commander Criston Cole of the Kingsguard and Prince Daemon expected to be cast. The show is expected to debut on HBO in early 2022.

New DUNE film delayed ten months

In unsurprising news, the release of the new Dune movie from director Denis Villeneuve has been pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the length of the delay is surprising, the the film being delayed a full ten months until 1 October 2021.

The film had originally been due to arrive in mid-December, and the marketing hype had just started up with the first trailer and behind-the-scenes footage. However, the film's release date had been notably missing from all the build-up. As coronavirus cases began mounting up in Europe and the United States and release strategies for films like Tenet and Mulan gave disappointing returns, studios began delaying their films, often for the second or third time. No Time to Die, the 25th James Bond film, has been delayed until April next year, whilst the next Marvel movie, Black Widow, has fallen back to May.

The move has caused the British Cineworld chain and its US affiliate Regal Cinemas to shut down altogether, with the company expressing grave concerns about the long-term viability of the business. Some films, such as Bill and Ted Face the Music, have found success by switching to VOD services for their initial release, but that was always going to be an immense risk for the mega-budgeted Dune, especially since the film only adapts the first half of Frank Herbert's novel and the viability of a sequel is dependent on the film doing well. Warners and director Denis Villeneuve agreed that the film could only really debut on the big screen.

The delay of Dune will also likely have knock-on effects. Warner Brothers had delayed Wonder Woman 84 until Christmas Day, but that's also likely to fall back to a mid or late 2021 date. Meanwhile, Dune is now set to launch on the same day as its Warner's own The Batman, which will almost certainly have to move out of that slot as well.

Although the pandemic is having a huge impact on film releases, movie production is ramping up all over the world with the shooting of a number of films getting back underway, including Marvel films and the aforementioned The Batman. This could create a serious bottleneck issue with studios having too many big movies to release and not enough time to get them out the door. Already Marvel's plans to have storytelling synergy between their Disney+ TV shows and the next slate of films is being put at risk with the TV shows ready to roll but the films being constantly delayed.

Warners will be banking that by late 2021 the pandemic will be over or under control and a safe release strategy can be undertaken.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Fallout 4: Nuka-World

A radio broadcast brings the Sole Survivor of Vault 111 to Nuka-World, an old theme park located west of the Boston Commonwealth. The Survivor finds three raider gangs working together under the leadership of a brutal but lazy warlord; eliminating the warlord, they find themselves unexpectedly in charge of three large raider armies who want nothing more than to conquer the Commonwealth. The Survivor must also unlock the secrets of Nuka-World, and choose carefully how to handle their new charges.

Fallout 4 is, by itself, an enormous sprawling CRPG offering more than a hundred hours of content, divided between a complex, multi-sided storyline; exploration; combat; and even settlement-building. To expand the story and world, Bethesda released first Far Harbor and then Nuka-World to add new content to the game.

I must admit that I never got round to Nuka-World the first time around. It was released too long after my initial playthrough of Fallout 4 had left me a bit burned out on Bethesda CRPGs, so it sat on my to-play list until I felt motivated to replay Fallout 4 itself from the start.

Nuka-World, like Far Harbor, adds a large new area to the game which functions as something of a microcosm of the traditional Fallout 4 experience. You can explore this area at your own pace, picking up side-quests, meeting characters, navigating between different factions and following the main storyline. Setting the game in a theme park is a stroke of genius, as each, differently-themed zone of the park gives rise to different stories, puzzles and enemies, and allows the game to riff on Disneyland, Westworld, Jurassic Park and various other influences to entertaining effect.

The expansion is definitely a bit less engrossing than Far Harbor, though. Far Harbor Island was about the same size as the Nuka-World park, but the more interesting and varied terrain and all-enshrouding fog resulted in a much more interesting and atmospheric setting. Nuka-World itself is wide open and sits on a rather dull flat plane; you can see almost the entire park from many points on the map, resulting in less of a surprise as you explore. There's much less of a focus on settlements, as Nuka-World has only one settlement which only unlocks at the end of the story, unlike Far Harbor's four settlements which unlock much earlier on. This means that if you are collecting supplies for settlement building, you need to constantly travel all the way back to the Commonwealth to dump your supplies rather than a local workbench, which gets old quickly.

As an area to explore, the theme park is fun and there's some nice side-quests as you travel through the park. The expansion's biggest weakness is trying to follow the main story. This starts well and there is great comic potential as you end up inadvertently in command of three different raider gangs, each one made up of deranged lunatics, and have to navigate between them cautiously. The problem is that the main story assumes that you're playing an evil or at least amoral character and you're happy to send the raider gangs back into the Commonwealth to take over settlements, including ones you've already taken over on behalf of the Fallout 4 factions, which will pitch you into war with them. If you refuse to do this - because it doesn't make a lick of sense if you're playing a good character - then the story screeches to a halt and the only way to proceed is to trigger the quest that requires you to wipe out all three gangs (which is surprisingly tough; the game matches the raiders to your level and these can provide quite the challenge even for high-level characters). A more inventive approach would have been giving you the option to pitch the gangs against one another or bring in one or several of your Commonwealth-allied factions in to help eliminate them. The Minutemen seem particularly annoyed by the raiders but decidedly unwilling to help you eliminate them, which is odd.

This narrative disconnect is a bit of a shame, because there's a lot of fun to be hand in the expansion. Fighting alligator-deathclaw hybrids in a Jurassic Park-style setting is superb, and a Tarzan-inspired mission where you have to team up with a buff almost-naked guy and his adopted gorilla family to wipe out deathclaws is one of the funniest things in the franchise. A trip through a "world of tomorrow" exhibit promising to create space-borne vaults is entertaining and a solid side-quest carries you over the park looking for secrets to unlock the founder's own personal vault (with some amusing riffs on Walt Disney's life story). 

Fallout 4: Nuka-World (***½) gives you more Fallout 4, which for a lot of people will be enough. There's some fun to be had here and some fun quests and side-stories, but the main story doesn't seem to have been well-thought-through, resulting in a less compelling experience than it could have been. The expansion is available for Fallout 4 on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Star Wars: Squadrons

In the aftermath of the Battle of Endor, the Rebel Alliance has become the New Republic. But the new government is still gathering its strength and the Galactic Empire, fragmenting as it is, still has a vast fleet at its disposal. The Republic has a secret project it hopes will swing the conflict in its favour and assigns Vanguard Squadron to help secure it, but the Empire has learned of the project's existence. The legendary Titan Squadron is given a new mission: to locate the Republic's Project Starhawk and destroy it.

Back in February 1999 I eagerly queued up to buy X-Wing Alliance, the fourth game in Lawrence Holland and Totally Games' X-Wing series. If you'd told me than that it would take almost twenty-two years to get a follow-up I'd have flat-out disbelieved you. The X-Wing series had fantastic graphics (for the time), superb gameplay that matched accessibility with tactical depth and told pretty good stories in the Star Wars setting, and was going strength to strength. Unfortunately X-Wing Alliance's quality was not rewarded by strong sales. In fact, the entire space combat genre fell off a cliff that year, with Freespace 2 also bombing despite being arguably the greatest game ever made of that type.

When EA confirmed earlier this year they were making a spiritual successor to that series, under the name Star Wars: Squadrons, there was widespread scepticism. EA's highly promising 2013 development deal with Lucasfilm to deliver multiple Star Wars games had delivered exactly three major games, the so-so multiplayer shooters Battlefront and Battlefront II, which were fun but lacking much depth (Battlefront II did come with a very short single-player story campaign), and the very solid Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. With EA's reputation for filling their games with different ways of draining money from players, there was a fear Squadrons would end up disappointing.

Much to everyone's surprise, Squadrons is actually a very solid game. It consists of a single-player campaign and two multiplayer modes, with absolutely no microtransactions of any kind. The game has even launched at around half the price of a normal, new release in 2020. It does have some weaknesses, but it gets much closer to the highs of the X-Wing series than most people expected.

As with the X-Wing series, you follow a series of missions (fourteen plus a super-sized prologue, which the game counts as two different missions) which tell a story. Unlike the X-Wing games, there's a huge focus on your wingmen and squad mates, which both Vanguard and Titan squadrons having an interesting roster of new characters, each with their own backstory and personality. You can talk to your fellow pilots during mission briefings and on the hanger deck to get some more insight on the story and the objectives. There's no great shakes here - the game's writing is functional at best - but it's a nice touch and a solid growth from the older games where your team-mates had no development whatsoever. Unfortunately it also removes some tension from the game, as your squad-mates are all essential characters and can't die mid-mission. 

Once in the cockpit, the fun kicks in. You can pilot your fighter via mouse-and-keyboard, gamepad or joystick, with an array of UI aids that you can switch on or off depending on your skill level. You can also set the degree of the simulation and customise controls. The flight model is very solid, being mostly arcade-like but with the ability to shut down engines, glide and then boost in a different direction which can lead to some nifty manoeuvres. It's not a patch on, say, Elite: Dangerous' flight model but it's an improvement on the old X-Wing series. There's also greater control over your power systems, with shunting all power to engines charging up an afterburner-like boost, or shunting all power to shields allowing you to overcharge them. There's more options for equipment as well, such as a hull repair droid you can use to fix hull damage mid-mission (vital equipment for unshielded TIE fighters, in particular). There's far more customisation options then there ever was in the 1990s games, which adds a surprising amount of depth.

The game is definitely not the disposable arcade blaster some were fearing, although there are some concessions to less-hardcore modern games. The game is more forgiving about allowing your laser blasts to hit as long as your target is in the reticule and far more forgiving about damage. As well as the hull repair robot and the shields on Republic ships, calling for a resupply will also fix hull damage, and your support ship may repair you even if if you haven't called for aid if you take an unexpected pounding. There is a cooldown on the repair options, though, so you can't spam repair orders to get through tough situations.

The missions are surprisingly inventive, rarely pitting you into battles in open space devoid of features. Instead you find yourself fighting in a nebula which impacts on sensors, in an asteroid field, in the atmosphere of Yavin where diving too deep may fry your fighter, or in a massive scrapyard where you have to dodge debris and use ejected power cores as makeshift mines. The constant inventiveness at times strains credulity - a few more battles against a more traditional space background would have been nice - but certainly keeps the game interesting.

There is a draw back with the colourful backdrops, the impressive explosions and huge glowing laser blasts, that sometimes the noise of it overloads the UI and you loose track of where your targeting reticule is pointing or the status of your engine booster. This problem is accentuated by the fact you can't switch off the (impressive, it has to be said) 3D cockpits as in X-Wing Alliance, or go third-person as in all previous X-Wing games, which would help clear up the problem. Some of the feedback in the game is also a bit variable: missiles in particular feel poorly-rendered, looking like big fireballs your blast out of your ship rather than warheads.

Still, the flight model is mostly great and blasting enemy fighters out of the sky is impressive and fun. There have been concessions which occasionally make the game feel a bit arcadier than the old X-Wing games, but these are balanced out by even more options for customisability and controls.

The biggest issue with the game is value for money. If you enjoy playing singleplayer and multiplayer, the game is an easy recommendation. If you want the game for just singleplayer, it becomes more questionable. The 16-mission campaign will take you less than ten hours to complete (I finished it at 9.5 hours, but that includes leaving the game on for an hour whilst I had dinner and a fair degree of faffing around with my control setup, so 8 hours would easily be doable). You can also fly in the multiplayer mode against bots, which is a nice feature you don't see often any more, which can extend the playing time out quite a bit, but I doubt you'll get more than 15-20 hours out of the game for single player-only content. Multiplayer gamers with no interest in the story mode may also find the content the game ships with a bit on the weak side: there are only six maps and two multiplayer modes, and there's no more than 10 human players in a match (even when there's way more fighters present in a battle, with the rest being controlled by the AI).

The game has launched at half-price, which certainly makes up for this issue to a point, but without more free post-launch content, it's still questionable if the game is worth the price. However, it also does feel like this could be the launching platform for something bigger. If it does well, a sequel with a more elaborate campaign or an expansion which adds more ships (the B-wing and TIE Advanced/Defender feel like egregious absences) is a possibility.

Star Wars: Squadrons (***½) is a solid and respectful follow-up to the X-Wing series, even if it can't match those earlier games in terms of story and the length of the singleplayer campaign. It is often inventive and entertaining, with a great flight model and fun combat, but it's questionable if there's enough meat here to satisfy long-starved space combat fans, not when X-Wing Alliance is available cheaply from GoG with a huge number of mods available to spruce up the values. This could be the foundation to something more interesting down the line. The game is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.