Tuesday, 15 June 2021

What we know about STARFIELD

Bethesda did a reveal of their upcoming CRPG Starfield on Sunday. With the game still almost eighteen months away, it was more of a prolonged teaser than a deep dive on the game's systems. Still, eager-eyed fans have been scouring the trailer (thanks to Reddit), an accompanying behind-the-scenes look at the game and various interviews done by the team over the last few days (mostly behind paywalls) and have assembled a surprising amount of information on the setting and background. A summary follows.

  • Release Date: 11 November 2022
  • Platforms: Xbox Series S/X, Xbox Game Pass via compatible devices, PC
  • Inon Zur (Fallout 3, Fallout 4, Fallout 76) providing the soundtrack.
  • Built using the new Creation Engine 2 (presumably an upgraded Creation Engine 1, which was used to make Skyrim and, modified further, Fallout 4 and Fallout 76).
  • The game is a "bit more hardcore of a roleplaying game" than Bethesda's last few games. The game brings back roleplaying systems they have not used in a while. In particular, your character's customisable background is a much bigger part of the game.
  • The game was inspired by the Traveller tabletop RPG (which Bethesda had the rights to in the 1990s, but didn't do anything with).
  • The game will feature big changes to the traditional Bethesda way of doing things (probably related to you having your own spacecraft) but will also lean hard into some of their normal approaches. The designers call the game "Skyrim in space."
  • The team did field research at Space X's headquarters and rocket factory. The art direction vibe was given as "NASApunk."
  • The game was directed to have a "more realistic" feel, with lower tech than other SF games. However, there are some conceits to space opera tropes such as sound and visible lasers in space.

The game is heavily based around your ship. It is unknown if this is the only ship you have or if you can buy/acquire others later on: 

  • The ship is called the Frontier and was either built by Nova Galactic, or it's a Nova Galactic-class vessel. Its registry is NG1350.
  • The ship is armed with two distinct cannon systems and a missile launcher.
  • The ship appears to have artificial gravity and an FTL drive, the GFLA (Graviton Field Loop Array), which is a fancy name for the theoretical Alcubierre Drive, a type of warp drive.
  • However, according to Todd Howard there are no FTL communications. So you can fly to other stars at FTL speeds, but you can't make a Zoom call across interstellar distances.
  • The ship has a big navigation table which shows gravitational waves propagating in space, suggesting the ship may harness these waves for travel and maybe artificial gravity.
  • The same table has around twenty star systems marked on it, though half the table is obscured. That may indicate 20-40 systems are visitable in the game, or only a few them can actually be reached.
  • Every switch, button, toggle and screen in the game was designed with a function. You won't be able to press every button yourself, but they have a purpose in mind.
  • The ship has a robot engineer/servant called Vasco. Obviously, the Internet already loves him.

The background lore appears to be as follows:

  • The game is set "a bit more" than 300 years in the future. A photograph in the trailer is date-stamped 2320, so it's possible the game will take place in 2321-30 or thereabouts.
  • The player-character works for Constellation, the "last" human organisation interested in interstellar exploration. This suggests that interstellar settlement and colonisation has either failed or the idea of exploration for its own sake has become unpopular.
  • The dominant government appears to the United Colonies. The United Colonies has two military wings, UC Vanguard and SysDef, presumably Systems Defence.
  • The Freestar Collective is mentioned. This may be part of the UC or a separate, external human government.
  • The Crimson Raiders and Crimson Fleet appears to be a loosely-organised coalition of pirates and bandits, possibly this game's equivalent to Fallout's raiders and Elder Scrolls' bandits as a low-level threat you'll encounter throughout the game. The Raiders seem to have been plaguing the Freestar Collective but have recently started appearing in UC space.
  • The United Colonies has an organisation or agency called MAST, the Military, Administrative and Scientific Triumvirate.
  • "Ranger" is a rank, probably in Constellation but possibly in MAST, Vanguard or SysDef.
  • Mentioned planets or star systems include Cheyenne, Sagan, Lunara and Narion.
  • A city or base called New Atlantis is located on the planet Jerrison in the Alpha Centauri star system (our nearest interstellar neighbour).
  • "Cydonia Security" is mentioned. Cydonia is a region on Mars, indicating that Mars has been colonised.
  • Various patches and emblems mention "the Livingstone Project," the "Ferrera 4 Expedition," the "New Discoveries Expedition," "The 10th Planet" and the "New Age Resolution."
  • A company called Chronomark makes watches (presumably smart watches) for use by Constellation. Chronomark was founded in 2188, seemingly confirming that Starfield does not take place in the Fallout universe (humanity is still living in the ruins of the atomic war in 2188 and is barely doing any better in 2287 in Fallout 4, only forty years before the events of Starfield) and is its own setting.
  • There are two real-life books in the ship: Sailing Alone Around the World (1900) by Joshua Slocum is about the first solo circumnavigation of the Earth (Slocum later vanished on another expedition in 1909). Omega: The Last Days of the World (1898) by Camille Flammarion is a disaster novel about the Earth being destroyed by cometary fragments. This may hint that Earth has been destroyed or too badly damaged in this future, forcing humanity to flee into space.
  • An unusual artifact/object has been discovered, which is being studied. The object may be some kind of FTL gateway, and might be the focus of the Livingstone Project. The object may be alien in origin.
  • Aliens will be in the game, but it sounds like they will not be playable, or commonplace, and the game's story may revolve around First Contact.

Bethesda will be gradually unveiling more info about the game ahead of its launch in November 2022.

Iain M. Banks's CULTURE universe to get two new companion volumes

Iain M. Banks's Culture universe is one of the most accomplished in all of science fiction and fantasy, and is now getting two companion volumes.

Iain Banks wrote copious notes for the setting, along with his own illustrations of spacecraft, people, places and hardware. Orbit Books, in collaboration with Banks's close friend and colleague Ken MacLeod, is to now present this material in two volumes. The first is entitled The Culture: The Drawings and will focus on Banks's illustrations. The second, presumably The Culture: The Notes, will be a companion guide to the series drawing on Banks's own background material and information for the setting.

The two new books replace what was originally one project, The Culture: Notes & Drawings, once it was realised the material was too large to fit comfortably into one book.

The Culture novels are Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1990), Use of Weapons (1991), Excession (1996), Inversions (1998), Look to Windward (2000), Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010) and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). Iain Banks passed away in 2013.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Star Trek: Insurrection

The United Federation of Planets is faring badly in its war with the Dominion and seeks to bolster its chances through an alliance with the Son'a, who require resources that are only available on a remote planet. The Federation agrees to help move the indigenous population so the Son'a can seize these resources. However, a malfunctioning Lt. Commander Data exposes the Federation presence, triggering an inadvertent first contact situation. Captain Picard and the USS Enterprise arrive to retrieve their errant officer and uncover a much more complex situation is unfolding, one that endangers the very morals of the Federation.

After the enormous success of First Contact, a darker action movie, Paramount decided that the next Star Trek movie should be lighter in tone. Michael Piller, renowned for writing many of the finest episodes of Trek, was called in to write a script that could serve as the "first-ever Star Trek date movie," a request that was...dubious at best. Paramount wanted a film that was closer in tone to The Voyage Home, with light comedy and a warmer feel, rooted in the character relationships.

What they ended up with was a two-hour episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not Yesterday's Enterprise or The Inner Light Next Generation, but one of those middling Season 5 episodes that is absolutely fine but you completely forget it exists until you bump into it on a full series rewatch, mildly enjoy whilst it's on and immediately forget about the second it's over.

The film starts off well with some solid humour as Picard and Worf (whose presence in the film despite being on Deep Space Nine as a regular character at the time, is briefly but effectively explained) have to gather up the errant Data by using Gilbert and Sullivan songs to distract him. The story then gets into a moral quandary as the Bak'u not only don't want to be removed, but might well die if they are moved. Since they are not native to the planet, the Prime Directive doesn't strictly apply, although basic morality does. However, the Son'a are also suffering from their own problems, which the planet holds the key to answering.

What could be a really thorny moral quandary is let down almost immediately by portraying the Son'a as repulsive in both appearance and morals, with their leader Ru'afo (a fine, scenery-chewing turn by F. Murray Abraham) being ruthless, amoral and prone to using violence as his solution to all problems. So the Enterprise crew siding with the Bak'u is pretty much a given from the start of the film. Also, the film suggests that the Enterprise crew are really going out on a limb by risking their careers to help the Bak'u, but it's more the case that the Starfleet Admiral helping the Son'a is going off the reservation by himself, so the "insurrection" of the title never really gets going.

As I said, the film is fine. It has some spectacular scenery, a few good set-pieces between the recovery of Data's shuttle and the space battle between the Enterprise-E and the Son'a in the nebula, and the supporting cast is all solid with none of them being spectacular. But the film bogs down with technobabble. The tension between the transporter inhibitor defences and the attacking Son'a drones is weak, at best, and the film never really adequately explains why the Federation are so keen to ally with the Son'a, who seem to be a small civilisation of limited use in the war with the Dominion (which gets several mentions at the start of the film and is then dropped immediately, which seems odd).

Star Trek: Insurrection (***) continues the curse of the odd-numbered Star Trek films by being, well, not terrible, but certainly inoffensive. Some reliably solid performances by Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and the rest of the cast fail to make up for a film that's simply blandly forgettable.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Obsidian Entertainment unveil THE OUTER WORLDS 2 with self-mocking trailer

Obsidian Entertainment have announced the existence of The Outer Worlds 2, a sequel to their well-received 2019 CRPG.

The trailer takes a mocking shot at hype-building announcement trailers that reveal very little about the game other than using stock concepts like "slow-motion action" and "main character silhouetted against the horizon," before doing exactly the same thing. Obsidian separately revealed that the game will be set in a new star system to the original game and will feature a brand-new cast of characters.

Unlike The Outer Worlds, which was released by Take Two Interactive who, among other things, insisted on an exclusivity period on the Epic Games Store, the sequel will be published by Microsoft (who acquired Obsidian two years ago) and should get a wider release on Steam and Xbox Game Pass. The game will also be console-exclusive to the Xbox Series X/S.

As well as The Outer Worlds 2, other teams at Obsidian are working on an Elder Scrolls-esque fantasy CRPG set in their Pillars of Eternity world, Avowed; diminutive crafting/survival game Grounded; and a mysterious new CRPG about which nothing is known.

Bethesda unveils more info and a release date for their upcoming CRPG STARFIELD

Bethesda and Microsoft have lifted the lid - at least a bit - on their new forthcoming CRPG, Starfield.

The game is notable for being Bethesda Game Studios' first new IP since the first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, in 1994 (they inherited Fallout from another company, Interplay), and their first game to be released since they were acquired by Microsoft last year.

Like their previous single-player games, Fallout 4 (2015) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), Starfield appears to be an open-world game giving the player the choice on where to go and what to do, to follow a central narrative or ignore it as they see fit, in favour of side-missions or exploration.

The game pits the player as an explorer, part of a group called Constellation, with a fully-customisable spacecraft and capable of flying between different planets.The video only showcased one wild, unkempt planet environment, but concept art suggested multiple planets, including a lush jungle world, subterranean caves, factories, a low-tech outpost, a settlement on stilts located in the ocean and a huge, technological-looking city. The game takes a somewhat low-tech approach but Bethesda claim to want to present a more optimistic view of the future, rooted in our shared humanity, compared to the more dystopian vision presented in Fallout.

The game utilises the "Creation Engine 2," a significant revamp of the technology used to power Skyrim, Fallout 4 and Fallout 76. The trailer was rendered in-engine, suggesting a hefty improvement to visual fidelity over their previous games and the ability to use ladders (a lack fans have mocked Bethesda over for years).

Starfield will be console-exclusive to Xbox Series X/S and will also release on PC via Steam and Xbox Game Pass. The title is scheduled for release on 11 November 2022.

Friday, 11 June 2021

The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson

More than a decade of peace has passed since the fall of the Crippled God. The Malazan Empire, once an ever-expanding nation, has secured its borders and set about bringing stability and order to its holdings. One of the furthest-flung of its outposts is Silver Lake, an isolated town in the far north of Genabackis, still reeling from the events of many years earlier, when three Teblor descended from the mountains and brought chaos with them.

The 2nd Company of the Malazan XIVth Legion - reduced to just three squads and eighteen soldiers - is bound for Silver Lake to reinforce the garrison there. To augment its strength, it has hired the very mercenary company they were recently fighting against, a practical measure that neither side likes very much. With redoubtable allies, the Malazans have to hold Silver Lake against an implacable foe. For the Teblor of the mountains, tiring of waiting for their Shattered God - Karsa Orlong - to return to them and motivated by a growing threat to the north, have made a decision to migrate south to seek out their reluctant deity. What else are a people to do, when their god is not willing?

Well, this was a surprise. Steven Erikson's work has been called many things but "concise" and "focused" are not among them. All of Erikson's twelve previous novels in the Malazan universe are sprawling, brick-thick volumes you could use to stun a yak. The God is Not Willing, at a relatively breezy 473 pages, is easily his shortest fantasy novel to date. Erikson's work has also been called (sometimes fairly, often not) "obtuse" and "confusing." The in media res opening to the first book in the setting, Gardens of the Moon, remains fiercely debated on Reddit and fantasy message boards to this day. The God is Not Willing is instead pretty streamlined and comprehensible. The word - whisper it - "accessible" may be applicable.

But if those terms are applicable, don't go thinking this is Erikson with the training wheels on, or restrained, or (grimace) going commercial. The God is Not Willing is packed with the philosophical musings and rich worldbuilding of his prior work, it is just paced here with discipline and vigor, and an undercurrent of Erikson's distinctly underrated humour. With the exception of the late, great Terry Pratchett and maybe Abercrombie in his more whimsical moments, Erikson may be one of the funniest writers in modern secondary world fantasy, something he usually keeps under check but here lets loose a little more. This is still a dramatic and sometimes tragic story, but it's also one balanced by the kind of comedic banter between soldiers-under-duress that we've seen before in earlier novels, but here taken up a notch.

The God is Not Willing is set ten years after the events of The Crippled God, in north Genabackis. The events of the opening of House of Chains have left an ugly scar on the town of Silver Lake, with ex-slaves and ex-slavers having to find new roles after the Malazan Empire outlawed slavery. Rast, the half-Teblor son of Karsa Orlong, has been exiled from his home by his mother. The town's depleted garrison is reinforced by the Malazan XIVth Legion's 2nd Company, with the slight problem that the company has been almost destroyed in an engagement with a mercenary company, with heavy losses on both sides. Fighting the mercenaries to a standstill, Captain Gruff hits on the splendid - or barking mad - idea of hiring the mercenaries to augment his depleted forces, which is slightly undercut by the two sides disliking one another. Elsewhere, the Teblor tribes of the mountains have discovered that the fading of Jaghut sorcery from the world is about to have cataclysmic consequences, spurring a mass migration into the lands of the south, and a potential showdown with their reluctant deity Karsa Orlong, also known as Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Novel.

And that's kind of it. The novel rotates between these three storylines with a laser-like focus, with Rast's growth from a confused and terrified youth into a character of moral courage, using his Karsa-like, single-minded and utterly unbendable determination as a force for good (or what passes for it) getting a lot of focus. So too do the Malazan marines holding Silver Lake. There's only eighteen of them left after the clash with Balk's mercenary company (who also get some attention, though it's more of a subplot), allowing Erikson to explore most of their characters in a lot of detail. It's the splendidly-written Stillwater who emerges as the best character in the novel, a lethal assassin-mage who has been trying to effectively trademark the idea (and ignoring the various assassin-mage organisations we've already seen in the previous novels, not least the Claw) and whose facility with the warren of Shadow is slightly complicated by her relationship with the Hounds of Shadow. Stillwater entertains because of her determined lack of interest in the normal ongoings of the Malazan world, and her metacommentary on what is happening is the source of much of the book's humour.

The book is relatively small in scale for most of its length, being concerned with very small groups of characters, until Erikson shifts things up a gear in the last hundred pages or so, when we suddenly pull back to a widescreen view of events and discover that things are about to go south very, very fast. Entire cultures and nations are caught up as Erikson finally delivers when he nearly did in The Bonehunters - a fantasy disaster novel! - and does so with spades.

I was very surprised at this book. A dozen novels, half a dozen novellas and thirty years into writing this series (and almost forty since he and Ian Esslemont created it for gaming purposes in 1982), with the previous two-published books being commercial disappointments, you could have forgiven Erikson for writing a crowd-pleasing war story or a thousand-page recap of Malazan's greatest hits. Instead, he delivers a determined, focused, well-paced and immensely rich novel of war, peace, hubris, consequence, sorcery and compassion. He even finds time to right some wrongs from earlier in the series: the somewhat brushed-over consequences of Karsa's odyssey of destruction in House of Chains are here laid bare in full, and the logical (if long-in-unfolding) consequences of events in the main series which were outside the scope of that story are explored in depth by one of Erikson's finest casts of characters yet.

The God is Not Willing (*****) is Steven Erikson bringing his A-game, turned up to 11, and delivering what is comfortably one of his three or four best novels to date. The book will be published in the UK on 1 July and on 9 November in the United States.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

New animated LORD OF THE RINGS movie, WAR OF THE ROHIRRIM, announced

In unexpected news, New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers Animation have announced they are working on a new, animated Lord of the Rings film called War of the Rohirrim.

Set roughly 250 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, the film will tell the story of Helm Hammerhand, a King of Rohan during a terrible war with the Dunlendings and an alliance of Easterlings and corsairs from the south. Helm is mentioned in the Lord of the Rings novels and movie trilogy as the warleader for whom the fortress of Helm's Deep is named.

New Line and Warner Brothers have fast-tracked the project after developing it in the background for some time. It is believed that they wish to take advantage of the impending renewed interest in all things Middle-earth when Amazon launches its Lord of the Rings prequel TV series set during the Second Age. Voice casting is already underway.

The project is not affiliated with Amazon, meaning it is currently intended for cinemas and possibly HBO Max rather than Amazon Prime Television. The project is also not making use of any of the new deals between the Tolkien Estate and Amazon, and will instead rely solely on information from the Lord of the Rings appendices.

Kenji Kamiyama, who created the animation for Netflix's Ultraman project, will direct. Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews, who wrote the well-received Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, are writing. Philippa Boyens, who co-wrote the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies, is consulting on the project, which will be very much in the visual style and continuity of the Peter Jackson movies.

This will be no less than the fourth animated Middle-earth movie, following on from The Hobbit (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978) and The Return of the King (1980).

With the film only just greenlit, it is unlikely to air before 2023 at the earliest.

Orbit confirm Daniel Abraham's new fantasy novel for early 2022 release

Orbit Books have confirmed that Daniel Abraham's new fantasy novel, Age of Ash, will be published in February 2022.

The new novel is the first in a trilogy, with the entire trilogy spanning a year in the life of one city. The cover blurb as as follows:

Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold.

This is Alys’s.

Alys is simply a petty thief from the slums of Longhill, but when her brother is murdered, she sets out to discover who killed him and why. But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives.

Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.

Abraham is the author of the excellent Long Price Quartet and Dagger and the Coin series, as the co-author (with Ty Franck, both writing as James S.A. Corey) of The Expanse, the final volume of which will be published this autumn.

Keira Knightley to star in ANCILLARY JUSTICE adaptation

In an interview with Harper's Bazaar, actress Keira Knightly has confirmed she will be starring in an adaptation of Ann Leckie's 2013 SF novel Ancillary Justice.

The novel focuses on Breq, the AI of a vast starship which has been destroyed. Breq's intelligence survives in one of its crew, an animated human corpse. Breq becomes an important player in the fate of the massive interstellar empire known as the Imperial Radch. The novel was well-received on release, spawning two (somewhat less-accomplished) sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, and winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Knightly notes that in preparation for her role she's reading books about dictators and conquest, suggesting she might be playing Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, rather than Breq herself, but that remains unconfirmed.

Reportedly, Ancillary Justice will start filming later this year.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Shooting on THE BOOK OF BOBA FETT wraps, production due to start shortly on THE MANDALORIAN Season 3

Star Ming-Na Wen has confirmed that Lucasfilm have completed production of The Book of Boba Fett, a spin-off TV series from The Mandalorian. Shooting began late last year on the surprise show - whose existence was only revealed in the season finale to The Mandalorian - which sees Ming-Na Wen reprise her role as Fennec Shand, alongside Temuera Morrison as the titular bounty-hunter.

The plan was to roll straight into shooting The Mandalorian Season 3, with star Pedro Pascal confirming this week that production has not yet begun, but presumably will shortly.

The Book of Boba Fett will air on Disney+ in December this year, with The Mandalorian Season 3 likely to follow in 2022. 

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Netflix confirms autumn launch date for COWBOY BEBOP

Netflix has confirmed they will be launching their live-action version of Cowboy Bebop this autumn, and also reconfirmed (after announcing it last year) that iconic Japanese musician Yoko Kanno will be working on the show. Kanno's work was an integral part of the original anime and it's good to hear she'll be on board for this new iteration.

The series, based on the hugely popular and iconic 1998 Japanese anime of the same name, had a protracted production schedule for its first season. The show had only just started shooting when star John Cho broke his foot, necessitating the suspension of filming for several months. Just as things were gearing up for the restart, the COVID pandemic struck. Fortunately, the show was filming in New Zealand, one of the countries to most successfully handle the pandemic, and was able to resume production in good order. Filming was completed in March.

The show stars John Cho as Spike, Daniele Pineda as Faye Valentine and Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black. The first season appears to consist of eight or nine episodes, which might explain why the character Ed has not been cast yet; that character only debuts in the ninth episode of the original series.

Monday, 7 June 2021

SHADOW AND BONE renewed for a second season at Netflix

Netflix has officially renewed Shadow and Bone for a second season.

The first season, based on Leigh Bardugo's Grishaverse series of novels, attracted over 55 million viewers to become one of Netflix's biggest successes this year. The show didn't quite match the success of fantasy label-mate The Witcher, whose first season attracted over 76 million viewers in 2019 and is back for a second season itself later this year, but was still a big hit (especially on a likely lower budget than the older show).

The second season will enter production later this year for a likely debut in late 2022.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Wertzone Classics: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Brother Brutha of the Church is a devout believer in the Great God Om, in whose name the Omnian Empire has scythed a bloody path of conquest across the continent. The only problem is that he is the only devout believer left of the Great God Om, which Om believes is the reason he has been incarnated and imprisoned in the body of a small tortoise. Still, with Brutha's help he hopes to reclaim his former place of glory. The only problem is that Brutha has no idea how to accomplish this, not in a theocratic empire where genuine faith is seen as a threat...

By the early common wisdom, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series was a series of amusing comic fantasies parodying other genre works and then facets of everyday life, like the movie business, law enforcement and shopping malls. More serious topics had started appearing in the series, but only as an underlying theme.

With Small Gods, published in 1992, Pratchett took the more serious ideas he'd been rummaging around with, put them up front and centre, remembered to bring a moderate number of laughs, and wrote arguably his masterpiece*.

At its core, Small Gods, from its first page to its last, is a lengthy, sustained and inordinately clever examination of religious fundamentalism and blind faith and their conflict with reason, argument and science. And you barely notice, because the story itself is extremely taut, well-told and brilliantly characterised with Pratchett's occasional bursts of silliness kept to a minimum in favour of flashes of wry and at times angry humour. Small Gods is a book that both argues for the importance of personal faith and piety and vehemently against people using their religious beliefs to impose fear, pain and death on others.

Small Gods has the veneer of being just a traditional Pratchett book: there's some jokes about men in togas arguing pointlessly about philosophy (in a world where it is difficult to ask, "Are the gods real?" when a lightning bolt will come flying through the window five seconds later with a label attached saying, "YES"), Death has a couple of cameo appearances and there is a running joke about tortoises being nice to eat. But you can tell the subject matter really got Pratchett riled up. His hatred of blind faith and the idea that setting fire to people is okay because an old book says so - even when, strictly speaking, it doesn't mention it - really comes through in this novel, but in measured tones. There's also a whole bunch of other things that clearly got Pratchett's goat up, with Flat Earthers (here cast as those believing the objectively flat Discworld is a sphere, because of irony) also having a hard time of it on the sharper end of Pratchett's wit.

Character-wise, Small Gods may be Pratchett's strongest novel. Being something of a prequel to the rest of the series, most of the cast does not recur elsewhere (Death and a very brief trans-temporal appearance by a certain simian book-collector aside), but Pratchett still has time to paint them in impressive detail. Vorbis may be one of the scariest antagonists in the whole series. Brutha is certainly one of its most interesting protagonists. Om's pragmatic, tortoise-meets-deity outlook on life is amusing. Even minor characters like Didactylos and would-be rebel leader Simony are well-rounded and given good rationales for what they do.

Almost as importantly, the ending does not suck. Pratchett had a patchy record with endings in the early going of the series, with his books sometimes ending okay and others being a bit of a let-down after a strong start and middle section. Small Gods, however, has a fantastic ending, starting with possibly the biggest belly-laugh out of all forty-one books in the series and proceeding from there. Intelligent but never preachy, philosophical but never boring, Small Gods (*****) is Terry Pratchett's masterpiece (okay, one of his masterpieces). It stakes a credible claim to being the strongest Discworld novel and maybe the best thing he ever wrote, and if I had to recommend just one Discworld novel for someone to read, it would be this one. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

*Although, a decade later, Night Watch would have serious words about that, and Nation a few years later.

I previously reviewed the novel here.

Friday, 4 June 2021

George R.R. Martin becomes a canonical Marvel character

In one of the odder bits of recent news, it turns out that Marvel are canonising George RR Martin as a character within the Marvel Comics universe. GRRM will show up along with a whole other batch of celebrities in the crossover "Hellfire Gala" event, which is spanning several X-Men titles this week.

Martin is a huge fan of Marvel Comics, and his very first published work was a letter to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four #20 (August 1963), written when he was fourteen years old. He later submitted other letters to more Marvel titles (including Avengers) and attended the very first Comic-Con in New York in 1964 along with some other fans he'd met through the letters pages of the comics. Martin has cited the influence of Marvel Comics on his work, including their greater focus on characterisation and the idea of bad guys turning good (specifically the character of Wonder Man) and good guys turning bad, and many characters not fitting into either spectrum.

GRRM has appeared as fictional versions of himself before - he cameoed in Z Nation as a zombie in 2015, taking advantage of undead immortality to continue work on his novels - but I suspect him being cemented in Marvel Comics history as a character in that universe will please him greatly.

The Hellfire Gala starts this week in Marauders #21, X-Force #20 and Hellions #12.

Sony acquires N.K. Jemisin's BROKEN EARTH trilogy after major bidding war

Sony Pictures has acquired screen rights to N.K. Jemisin's multi-award-winning Broken Earth trilogy after a fierce bidding war. Sony paid seven figures for the rights to the three books and will be adapting them as a movie series, to be distributed by subsidiary TriStar Pictures (TriStar has not, so far, worked in television). Jemisin will adapt the novels herself.

Each of the three books in the series - The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016) and The Stone Sky (2017) - won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, making Jemisin the first author to win Best Novel for three years in a row and for every instalment of a series.

The trilogy is set in a distant future Earth where several landmasses have combined into a massive supercontinent, called the Stillness, and some people have the apparently magical ability to use the powers of the earth to their own ends. A massive disaster threatens the stability of the world, leading Essun and her daughter Nassun on a mission to help save the planet by finding the long-lost moon.

The trilogy has sold over a million copies to date and propelled Jemisin to new levels of fame and success. 

The creators of XCOM are making what sounds very much like MARVEL TACTICS

A leak from the upcoming E3 video game convention has revealed that Take Two and their subsidiary Firaxis are developing a licensed Marvel turn-based tactics game. It sounds like some or most of the team behind the hugely popular XCOM relaunch series are working on the title.

There's been a bit of a fad for properties spinning off turn-based tactical games and whacking the name "Tactics" after the title. This started with the classic Final Fantasy Tactics (1997) and has recently seen entries like Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics (2017) and Gears Tactics (2020). However, the more recent iterations have been somewhat lacking in depth, often featuring passable combat but no strategic metagame to make things more interesting. If the XCOM team are working on this, I'd assume they'd be putting together a really good strategic layer as well. Hell, XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen with their Avenger totally-not-a-helicarrier and increasingly colourful, semi-superhero soldiers weren't far off being Marvel games already.

The last XCOM game, Chimera Squad (notably not made by the "main" XCOM team who were working on another project, possibly this Marvel game), experimented with stronger narrative elements and fully-voiced, pre-generated squad members who could not die in the traditional manner (instead being injured, with a full squad knock-out requiring a reload), which felt incongruous in an XCOM game but makes more sense as a dry run for a licensed game.

More news should come at E3, where Take Two will be unveiling their new projects on 14 June. As well as this Marvel game, reportedly they will confirm a Borderlands spin-off and a new project from the Mafia studio (but not a new game in that series). However, don't expect any news on Grand Theft Auto VI from Take Two's other studio Rockstar, as that game is still likely two to three years off.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Star Trek: First Contact

The Federation's most feared enemy, the implacable Borg, have returned to mount an assault on Earth. The crew of the USS Enterprise lead the fight against them, but the Borg surprise their opponents by employing time travel to try to wipe out humanity by preventing First Contact between humanity and an alien species. With little choice, Captain Picard and his crew have to follow the Borg back through time to defeat them.

With Star Trek: Generations having done the heavy lifting of transferring the mantle of the Star Trek movie franchise from Kirk's crew to Picard's, it was time for the Next Generation production team to cut loose. First Contact was planned, written and filmed with many of the restrictions from Generations gone: the film had a larger budget, did not have to incorporate any of the original crewmembers and was given greater freedom. Writers Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga decided to bring back the Borg, the uber-terror from The Next Generation, this time with enough money to do them justice. They also incorporated a time travel storyline from a suggestion by producer Rick Berman, and incorporated Patrick Stewart's request for more action and a more heroic role for Picard. Castmember and by-now veteran Star Trek director Jonathan Frakes was also asked to step into the big chair, his familiarity with the cast and the limitations of filming on what was still a low budget for a big SF effects film (the same year's Independence Day had twice the budget and was still proclaimed a low-budget SF movie for the time).

The result is, easily, the strongest of the four Star Trek films featuring the Next Generation crew, although it is far from flawless. Central to the plot are the twin pillars of Data's desire to become more human, which the Borg Queen perverts in an effort to force Date to help her overcome the ship's systems, and Picard's guilt over his former assimilation (leading to the deaths of over ten thousand Starfleet personnel) and resulting obsession with stopping the Borg, no matter the cost. The film operates on some familiar ground to The Wrath of Khan here, with Moby Dick references getting wheeled out for a second airing, though the spin that it's our protagonist who is fuelled by ill-advised vengeance rather than the villain keeps things feeling fresh. Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and Alice Krige (as the Born Queen) get the lion's share of the world in the film and are all excellent.

Other characters are less well-served. Riker, Troi and La Forge are shunted to Earth's surface in a comedic subplot where they try to convince Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) to make his famed first warp flight which triggers First Contact. This is very much a "TV episode" storyline and isn't very very fleshed out, despite a fine performance by Cromwell. It does feel like this story more exists to reduce Jonathan Frakes's screen time, freeing him up to direct elsewhere, and it takes out several other characters at the same time. It's also a bit odd that none of the characters in this subplot seem bothered about losing contact with the Enterprise for such a long period of time.

The main story on the Enterprise is stronger, with some pretty cool set-pieces (the zero-gee sequence with the crew and Borg fighting over the Enterprise-E's deflector dish is a great idea, though it does go on a bit too long) and a number of really great scenes, like a shoot-out with the Borg in a 1930s setting on the holodeck and the scenes of the Borg Queen "seducing" Data (figuratively and, slightly randomly, literally). There's also a grisly horror angle to the action and directing, with the Borg now able to assimilate crewmembers on the spot and a merging of biological and technological elements in a way that would make H.R. Giger break out in a cold sweat. Star Trek has, arguably, never been more of a horror piece than in this film.

The film is generally well-paced and doesn't outstay it's welcome. As a film taken purely on its own merits, it's a decent slice of entertainment and one of the better entries in the franchise. It was also the one that pretty much solidified the "even-numbered Star Trek films are always good!" meme). However, the film has problems when taken as a greater part of the Star Trek whole. It severely downgrades the threat level from the Borg. Multiple previous episodes of the TV show had established that the Borg were able to adapt to Starfleet weapons with contemptuous ease and their ships were now effectively immune to phasers and photon torpedoes. Yet in the opening space battle, ordinary Starfleet vessels pummel the first Borg ship with standard weapons until it explodes (making a bit of a mockery of the Battle of Wolf 359 in the process). The second is taken out by a desultory single volley of quantum torpedoes. Individual Borg drones are more dangerous with their new instant-assimilation ability and their familiar ability to adapt to incoming fire, but can also be killed in ordinary hand-to-hand combat without too much trouble. I get that the TV show had made the Borg effectively invulnerable and the choice was between never using the Borg again or downgrading them, but I can't help but feel that weakening them was the wrong move. Before First Contact, the Borg were an unstoppable force of destruction; afterwards, they are just ordinary Star Trek aliens, and their mythic power was forever lost, a feeling their subsequent over-use in Voyager did not alleviate.

Still, if that's the price we pay for a pretty good movie, so be it. First Contact (****) is a solid slice of Star Trek cinematic spectacle, Star Trek's finest nod at the horror genre and an entertaining SF action movie.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

New Guy Gavriel Kay novel gets title and release date

Guy Gavriel Kay's next novel will be called All the Seas of the World and will be published in May 2022.

The novel is set in "the world of A Brightness Long Ago," his previous novel. Most of Kay's fiction is set in that same world, starting with 1995's The Lions of Al-Rassan, but the announcement implies it may be set closer in time and space to Brightness, itself a prequel to 2016's Children of Earth and Sky.

The novel will be published by Berkley in the US, Penguin Canada and Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.

Monday, 31 May 2021

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

A fairy godmother with an important mission has passed on, leaving her wand and quest in the hands of the well-meaning but inexperienced Magrat Garlick. Magrat teams up with Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax to travel to the distant city of Genua to stop a fairy tale coming true, which seems a bit off until the witches meet the other fairy godmother and learn that "happy ever after" can be a curse as well as a blessing.

Witches Abroad is the twelfth Discworld novel and the second to focus on the coven of Lancre witches (also the third to feature Granny Weatherwax). With their native village of Lancre recovering from the events of Wyrd Sisters, Pratchett decides to send the witches off on a jobbing holiday. This results in a book of two halves: the first, where they travel across the Disc to Genua, and the second where they confront the "bad guy" in Genua itself. The first half is a splendid romp as the witches visit castles, villages and dwarf mines and meet wolves and vampires. Pratchett can be good at travelogues and this is one of his better ones, and the trail of inadvertent chaos two "little old ladies and a wet hen" leave across the continent is most amusing.

Events in Genua take a cleverer turn, where the witches encounter a mash-up of Baba Yaga, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella in the Disc's version of New Orleans, complete with voodoo magic, zombies, alligators and some amazingly good food. It sounds odd but it works surprisingly well, and breaking the story in two in an already-short novel (under 300 pages) means the story cracks on with impressive pace. There's balls and glass slippers and lots of gumbo as the pages fly by.

The book features some of Pratchett's better one-novel-only characters, like Mrs. Gogol, Baron Saturday and Lily, as well as the formidable Legba. We also get a larger focus on Nanny Ogg than in the previous witches novel, and a much larger role (so to speak) for Greebo, Nanny's debauchedly murderous cat. Also look out for the debut of Casanunda, master swordsman and the world's greatest stepladder-assisted lover and/or liar.

Witches Abroad (****) is a free-wheeling book that mashes together influences from wildly different sources and creates a highly entertaining novel out of the results. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

I previously reviewed the novel here.

Star Trek: Generations

Captain James T. Kirk attends the launch of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-B. An emergency situation arises and Kirk, as usual, helps save the day, but he is apparently killed in the process. Seventy-eight years later, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise 1701-D is put in a desperate situation when a fanatical scientist starts destroying entire star systems. Picard is going to need some help...

With the conclusion of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1994, a TV series that dwarfed the popularity and reach of its predecessors, Paramount was keen to move the show and its popular cast onto the big screen as soon as possible. Overriding the concerns of the production team, the film was immediately put into rotation to start shooting as soon as filming was completed on the TV show and to be on cinema screens before the end of the same year. It was a tall order, leaving the cast and crew exhausted from working on the TV show for seven years and then straight into a full-length feature film.

Some of this can be seen on screen. Star Trek: Generations (the first film in the series to drop the roman numerals) is a solid but unexceptional film, something of a surprise given it features Captains Kirk and Picard joining forces to take down a mutual threat, a charismatic villain played by Malcolm McDowell. There's some entertaining comedy beats and some very good characterisation, particularly of Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) as he gets used to his "emotion chip". Most of the castmembers get at least a brief chance to shine and, in the scene where the Enterprise-D's saucer section crash-lands on a planetary surface, one of the franchise's most memorable action and effects set-pieces.

The film relies a little too heavily on the TV show for setup. Villains Lursa and B'Etor have very little motivation and if you hadn't seen them already in the TV show, you'd have no idea why them showing up is a big deal. Similarly, Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) feels like a bit of a walking deus ex machina in the film and her character has no real arc.  The story also feels a bit overworked and overcomplicated, with too many moving pieces and a TV-like approach of pressing on regardless of if the plot makes sense  (Soren not being able to beam into the Nexus from a ship already feels a bit iffy, but the jump from that to blowing up entire stars to shift the Nexus's path feels extreme). The film's big ending being a fistfight between two middle-aged gentlemen and an older one on a big rock is also rather underwhelming. Destroying another Enterprise also feels a bit gratuitous, although it is at least done in an impressive manner.

Still, it's a long way from the worst entry in the Star Trek pantheon and it has fun moments. William Shatner takes a delight in hamming up every second he's on-screen, but for once this is more charming than annoying, due to his limited screen time (he has a brief appearance at the start of the film and then at the end, more of an extended camo than the promised film-length team-up). He and Stewart make for an entertaining team, even if the gulf in their respective acting abilities is more of a yawning chasm. Malcolm McDowell can do "charming but evil" in his sleep and the film packs a lot into its running time.

Star Trek: Generations (***½) isn't going to be winning any prizes for being a classic movie, but it is a solid and entertaining piece that does its job - passing the baton from one generation to another - efficiently.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

Games Workshop announces WARHAMMER streaming service, to be led by 11 new animated shows

Games Workshop has announced their own home streaming service, Warhammer+, which will be blasting its way onto people's desktops and Smart TVs in July.

The service will be the home of no less than eleven new, animated series set in the two main IPs Games Workshop owns: Warhamer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar.

The shows will include Astartes 2, Altar of Wrath, Interrogator, Blacktalon, Pariah Nexus, Angels of DeathHammer and Bolter, utilising a number of animation styles from 3D photorealism to 2D and anime-influenced styles. It won't include the Eisenhorn live-action TV series currently in development at Amazon.

Games Workshop launching their own streaming service feels ambitious (recalling that the vastly-better-known DC Comics were unable to get their own streaming service on the air) given the niche appeal, but they are promising additional benefits from being a subscriber, including possibly discounts and exclusive offers for the tabletop game. There's also some speculation that this move is to enable GW to start producing original content for later distribution via other, larger platforms once a deal can be reached.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

The Klingon moon Praxis has exploded, disrupting the Empire's energy production and polluting the atmosphere of the Klingon homeworld. The United Federation of Planets sees the catastrophe as an opportunity, offering assistance in repairing the damage in return for a lasting peace. The Klingon Chancellor travels to Earth to negotiate the treaty but is killed, his assassination pinned on Captain Kirk, a well-known enemy of the Klingon Empire. With Kirk and McCoy imprisoned, it falls to Captain Spock and the Enterprise crew to exonerate their comrades, rescue them and stop those who are determined to end the chances of peace forever.

With the release of Star Trek V in 1989, it was felt that the time of the original Star Trek crew had come to an end, and the next film would star the Next Generation crew. However, Paramount were not keen on waiting until The Next Generation finished before making a new movie in the franchise. Plans for a prequel film set at Starfleet Academy also failed to excite anyone. At the same time, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War was firing up the excitement of Leonard Nimoy and Wrath of Khan writer-director (and Voyage Home co-writer) Nicholas Meyer, who saw the opportunity for a great analogy with real-life events. The frugal Meyer's involvement worked for Paramount, who wanted to make the film for less money than the disastrous Final Frontier, and also for Nimoy, who had pondered directing but knew it would annoy co-star Shatner; Meyer was a neutral figure everyone respected and whose work on two previous movies had been lauded. The meme that "every odd-numbered Star Trek film is rubbish" had started gathering pace by this time as well, so the fact the next movie was an even-numbered one and Meyer had worked on the two previous even-numbered films was encouraging.

Star Trek VI is not a subtle film. The comparisons to contemporary politics are fairly obvious, with the destruction of Praxis being basically Chernobyl in space, and the Klingon-Federation peace talks are the end of the Cold War by any other name. However, the film does start building a genuine sense of mystery. When the Enterprise fires on the Klingon ship, despite its records showing a full set of torpedoes on board, it creates a paradox that Spock, Scotty, Chekov and Uhura have to work to unravel. This is great fun - Star Trek usually handles mysteries well, at least those that do not bog down in technobabble - and is preceded by some very powerful scenes employing actors of the calibre of David Warner and Christopher Plummer (an old friend of Shatner's, who's clearly having an absolute whale of a time) as they debate realpolitik and quote Shakespeare. There some startling scenes as Kirk has to confront his racism towards the Klingons, inspired by his constant struggles with them and their murder of his son (in The Search for Spock). Characterisation is strong and the actors do well with the material, Meyer again getting a great performance out of Shatner (though he seems more willing to let some hammier takes go through, possibly due to a lack of time and money) and Nimoy showing up with his A-game, having understandably lost the will to live during The Final Frontier.

The film also features George Takei's best performance as Sulu, as well as giving him much more to do as the Captain of the Excelsior. More disappointing is the absence of Saavik, who was originally supposed to be the traitor on the Enterprise. Kim Cattrall auditioned for the part and impressed Nimoy and Meyer, but was unimpressed to learn she would be the third actress to play the role and turned it down. The producers agreed to rewrites making her a new character, Valeris (Cattrall even named her). However, the script was not adjusted to fit a more Vulcan-like character, leaving Saavik's more emotional tendencies (a result of her supposed half-Romulan heritage, although that revelation had been cut out of The Wrath of Khan) in place with a supposedly purely-Vulcan character. Cattrall does as good a job as she can as Valeris, but the character is somewhat under-written as a result of the changes.

The sequences on Rura Penthe are also disappointing; the lack of budget results in unconvincing sets and iffy alien makeup, though Iman gives a good performance as Martia, and the sequence relies a lot on Shatner and DeForest Kelley's effortless banter to get through it.

The film has a rousing climax with a solid space battle, and it's good to see the constantly-hamstrung USS Excelsior finally cutting loose and showing what it is capable of. The fact that this time everyone knew they were making their last full picture together makes for a more final and emotional ending, enhanced by the fact that the film launched in Star Trek's 25th anniversary year and that Gene Roddenberry sadly passed away shortly before the premiere. 

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (****) is not as accomplished as either The Wrath of Khan or The Voyage Home, but comfortably emerges as the third-best Star Trek film, with some excellent characters and storylines and some great dialogue. Only a few clunky scenes and budget constraints hold it back from matching the earlier two Meyer films.

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in Ankh-Morpork, has died at the grand old age of 130. To his bemusement, Death does not show up to collect him and he is forced to return to life as a zombie. Across the Discworld, people are dying, only to find that they're not moving on. On a remote farm, a new worker shows up to start cutting the corn. Fortunately, he's a dab hand with the old scythe...

Terry Pratchett was, as is well-known by, something of a "gardener" when it came to writing. He started books with an idea and maybe a character and just kept writing until he bumped into something approximating a plot, often working backwards in edits to stitch the whole thing together cohesively. By the time he got to Reaper Man, the eleventh book in the Discworld series, he had this structure down pat and could write an entertaining yarn with his eyes closed. For whatever reason, though, Reaper Man, doesn't quite work as a cohesive novel in the same way as most of the rest.

In this case it seems that Pratchett had two separate ideas competing for attention, neither strong enough to propel an entire book, and decided to fuse them together. In the first storyline, something of a sequel to the earlier Mort, Death's growing affection for the lifeforms he has to cull has caused some controversy among the Auditors of Reality and Death is fired. He's given some time to put his affairs in order, but rather than do this he decides to live as a human for the last few days of his existence, taking up the role of Bill Door, handyman for hire, and going to work on a remote farm for Ms. Flitworth. This story is entertaining, well-characterised and even somewhat moving.

In the second storyline, strange artifacts are appearing all over Ankh-Morpork (nominally caused by the growing lifeforce left behind by people who can't move on from this plane of reality, though this connection feels strained), initially snowglobes and then shopping trolleys, culminating in the horrific appearance of the out-of-town shopping mall, a parasitical commercial tic which drains the life from the urban host. This isn't a bad idea, per se, and ties in with Pratchett's preferred scheme of finding a facet of human existence - movies, cops, opera, the press - and transferring it to Discworld to be poked around satirically. However, you can't quite shake the feeling that Pratchett's idea here is not fully-formed and may have been driven by an unpleasant parking experience at a shopping centre rather than a much stronger idea.

The result is arguably the most schizophrenic Discworld novel of them all, on one hand the splendid and enjoyable story of Death trying his hand at life, and on the other, the much more vague idea of the Unseen University wizarding faculty and an undead self-help group joining forces to taken down an, er, evil retail park.

Fortunately, the vagueness of the Ankh-Morpork storyline doesn't stop it from having some very funny lines and characters. The undead self-help group is great fun, populated by a traditional, Pratchettian cast of deranged-but-likeable characters, and the book delves deeper into the Unseen University faculty after their previous major appearance just one book earlier. The fact that the entire faculty survived that book into this one may cause hardened Discworld readers to pass out (the Archchancellor is the same one from the last book, which has never happened before) and enjoy the growth the characters show, or, in the case of the Bursar, the distinct decline in sanity. Unfortunately, the UU cast do have a tendency to reduce Pratchett to the most slapstick style of comedy, a style which he is not accomplished at, and later scenes of the wizards running around, being whisked off by self-steering shopping trolleys etc do become tiresome.

Still, Pratchett on an off day is still entertaining. Reaper Man (***) has some good laughs - Death trying to help out a cockerel with dyslexia, Poons mentoring a shy bogeyman - and the Death part of the novel is excellent. The rest just feels like it could have done with a few more rewrites. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Please note I previously reviewed the novel here.

Thursday, 27 May 2021

UNCHARTED 4 - and maybe the whole series - coming to PC

In eye-opening news, Sony has finally unlocked the cabinet holding the crown jewels and offered to sell them to PC players.

Sony revealed the plan to port Uncharted 4: A Thief's End to PC in a recent presentation. Sony confirmed that the PC releases of both Horizon: Zero Dawn and Days Gone have been very successful and they see more PC ports as a way of improving future revenue streams.

However, the Uncharted series is a bit of a different beast to the other two titles. Produced by Sony subsidiary Naughty Dog, the series is one of the biggest-selling PlayStation exclusives of all time, having sold just under 42 million copies of five games. The series comprises Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (2007), Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009), Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (2011), Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (2016) and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017). The series, which draws plot inspiration from the Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones franchises and gameplay ideas from Gears of War, follows treasure hunter Nathan Drake and a number of allies around the world as they get into various misadventures. 

Uncharted 4 is the biggest-selling PlayStation 4 exclusive of all time (and second-biggest-selling game overall, behind only Grand Theft Auto V), whilst Uncharted 3, 2 and 1 respectively rank as the third, fourth and ninth biggest-selling PlayStation 3 exclusives of all time. One of the series' few competitors is a fellow Naughty Dog series, The Last of Us, which has sold almost as many copies of just two titles.

Reports are conflicted whether just Uncharted 4 is crossing to PC, or if the earlier three games are coming over as well in a remastered form (which could then presumably also be offered for sale on PlayStation 5). Still, Sony making any Uncharted game available on another platform is a startling development, and encouraging to those holding out for games like Spider-Man and Bloodborne.

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Nimbus III: the "Planet of Galactic Peace," a world where the Klingons, Romulans and Federation have agreed to put aside their differences and work together to develop a society in tandem. The plan was a miserable failure, the planet reduced to a backwater, albeit the only backwater apart from Earth where representatives of all three powers can be found. When a terrorist group takes the ambassadors hostage, the USS Enterprise is ordered to mount a rescue mission.

They say if you stare too long, into the abyss, it will stare back into you. Watching Star Trek V: The Final Frontier makes the viewer acutely aware of the accuracy of that statement, except the abyss is William Shatner, believing he is a good director and very desperately hoping he can convince you he is as well.

The fifth mainline Star Trek feature film is something of an odd beast, to say the least. After Leonard Nimoy directed the third and fourth films, Shatner invoked a clause in his Paramount contract giving him the right to direct the next film in the series and have a say in its story. Paramount braced themselves for the experience and it was a heady one, with Shatner proposing a story where the crew of the Enterprise are forced to travel to a planet in search of God but instead discover the Devil pretending to be God, and are caught in a cosmic battle between good and evil. Aware they were under a contractual restraint, Paramount executives put the story into development, managing to convince Harve Bennett (producer on the second through fourth films) to return to help guide - or make filmable - the "ambitious" project. Bennett realised that Shatner had become fascinated by the idea of televangelists, particularly corrupt ones who conned people into giving them money by promising them a place in the promised land. Script rewrites with David Loughery developed the idea that there was no real God or the Devil in the story, and instead an imprisoned alien entity would pretend to be God to try to hitch a ride on the Enterprise out of its prison.

With this new story in place - one less likely to get the franchise blacklisted by Christians - and the cast signed up (Nimoy stoically agreeing to return as a professional courtesy to his colleague Shatner, but frantically encouraging rewrites behind the scenes) things were in a promising place for perhaps a watchable movie. But The Final Frontier immediately ran into a series of big problems: Paramount decided to rush-release the film to hit the summer 1989 market rather than wait until Christmas; additional rewrites designed to iron out the remaining script problems were halted by the 1988 Writer's Strike; and Industrial Light and Magic and most of the other big Hollywood effects companies were fully booked with projects like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II and Tim Burton's Batman. The only effects company available on short notice were, how shall we say, "not very good" and inexperienced, wasting a huge amount of the film's not-ungenerous budget (half again that of The Voyage Home) on test shots that went nowhere.

So, whilst Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a diabolical mess of a movie with awful visual effects, major script problems and leaden direction, it's unfair to blame all of this on the film's director and star. In fact, the film has a reasonable amount of merit to it. It's the only film in the franchise to follow the TV show's lead and focus extremely closely on the Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship, the emotional core of the original series. With Shatner clearly exhausted from pulling double duty as director, and Nimoy giving arguably the most phoned-in performance of his career (there are a few scenes where you can see Nimoy's soul vacating his body during some of his line readings), it falls on DeForest Kelley to emerge as the film's most valuable player. He adds charm and wit to the campfire scenes at the start of the movie, and the scene where he has to relive the death of his father might be McCoy's most challenging emotional scene in the entire franchise, and Kelley rises to the occasion tremendously. James Doohan and Nichelle Nichols have a fair bit to do, for once, and there's an intriguing hint that they're in a relationship, or might be headed that way, which is never really followed up on. Nichols also gets her infamous "fan dance" scene, which remains baffling (and where Uhura got the fans is never disclosed).

On the guest star front, the film lucks out with Laurence Luckinbill, a well-regarded stage actor who very rarely did film or television (Star Trek V is literally his last on-screen starring role). Luckinbill gives a spirited, enthusiastic performance as Sybok, the Vulcan who rejected logic to become a man of faith, very much the televangelist of Shatner's original inspiration. But he's not a lunatic or a fire-and-brimstone preacher, rather a man of charisma, intelligence and tremendous empathy who inspires trust. It's a really hard mix to nail successfully, but Luckinbill succeeds. Other castmembers are also very good, particularly David Warner, Charles Cooper and Cynthia Gouw as the ambassadors to Nimbus III, though they seem to have less screentime than was originally envisaged; Warner and Cooper were later invited back to the franchise, the latter also as a Klingon, possibly to make up for this. The other Klingon villains are a bit one-note, but they're not needed for much more than that.

So having an accomplished guest cast and some great scenes for the established regulars result in some pretty good moments in the film. Unfortunately, the problems elsewhere almost overwhelm the movie. The effects are terrible: back-projection (!) is used for some of the space scenes and other scenes that normally use greenscreen and this does not look very good, at all. Jerry Goldsmith returns for his first soundtrack in the franchise since Star Trek: The Motion Picture and seems to have gotten confused and just reused his score from that film with little in the way of new themes or development. It's the first time in the movie franchise so far that a soundtrack disappoints. The physical effects are also embarrassing. A physical fight between Kirk and a cat-alien on Nimbus III is Doctor Who-on-a-bad-day levels of cringe. The climactic battle on Sh Ka Ree sees Kirk call a photon torpedo - a device which at its lowest level is still basically a tactical nuke - down on his head and it causes almost no damage to the surrounding area. It's all deeply amateur hour, except there's Trek fan films which have more convincing production values.

But the key weaknesses of the film remain the script - even this much-improved one over the demented original story treatment - and Shatner's leaden direction. Although reportedly Shatner was a convivial director on set, even earning the respect of actors he'd annoyed over the years like Doohan and Takei, he doesn't have much sense of pacing or energy, and his shots are often rote. There's little sense of the invention or energy that both Meyer and Nimoy brought to the fore in the preceding three movies. In more than a few scenes, the lifeless takes make you horrifically wonder what the takes were like which weren't used. Mercifully, Paramount have declined Shatner's various offers of a Director's Cut, which is probably for the best.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (*½) is not a great movie, which is a shame because it does have potential. The idea of both individuals and an alien playing on people's faith to manipulate them has a lot of merit, and the character-based interplay between the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is the closest the movies ever get to the TV show. DeForest Kelley might give his franchise-best performance, making up for Shatner and Nimoy (both off their game). But the combination of Shatner's lifeless direction, the absolutely woeful visual effects, a phoned-in musical score and a weak script eventually provides the Enterprise crew with an enemy they cannot overcome.

Netflix announces additional castmembers for SANDMAN

Netflix began filming a TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novel series last October, and by now are probably not far off from finishing. They announced the main cast back in January and have now announced a number of additional castmembers.

The new castmembers are:
  • Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death
  • Mason Alexander Park as Desire
  • Donna Preston as Despair
  • Razane Jammal as Lyta Hall
  • Joely Richardson as Ethel Cripps
  • Niamh Walsh as Young Ethel Cripps
  • David Thewlis as John Dee
  • Kyro Ra as Rose Walker
  • Patton Oswalt as the voice of Matthew the Raven
  • Stephen Fry as Gilbert
  • Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine
  • Sandra James Young as Unity Kincaid
They join Tom Sturridge as Dream, Boyd Holbrook as the Corinthian, Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, Charles Dance as Roderick Burgess, Asim Chaudhry as Abel, Sanjeev Bhaskar as Cain and Vivienne Acheampong as Lucienne.

The Sandman is expected to debut on Netflix either in late 2021 or early 2022. The first season adapts the first two graphic novels in the series, Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll's House.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021


HBO has brought on some new talent to tackle the development of their Game of Thrones spin-off roster.

Princess Nymeria and Prince Mors Martell, artwork by Karla Ortiz

Amanda Segel is an experienced writer and producer from shows such as Without a Trace, The Good Wife, Nikita, Person of Interest, The Mist and Helstrom. HBO has tapped her to write and possibly produce/showrun Ten Thousand Ships, a Game of Thrones spin-off focusing on the historical character of Nymeria, Princess of Ny Sar. Nymeria and her people survived the destruction of their homelands along the River Rhoyne by ancient Valyria by embarking on thousands of ships and fleeing across the Summer Sea. After a lengthy voyage of many years, during which time her ships sought safety in Sothoryos, Naath and the Summer Islands, they finally arrived in Dorne in the south of Westeros, uniting that country into the southernmost of the Seven Kingdoms.

The project is one of several additional Game of Thrones spin-offs in development at HBO. Rome and Gotham showrunner Bruno Heller is developing Nine Voyages, a show about the great explorer Corlys Velaryon. HBO is also developing both Flea Bottom, set in the slums of King's Landing in an unknown historical period, and Dunk & Egg, an adaptation of a series of novellas George R.R. Martin has written or has in the planning stages. Neither of the latter projects has had a creative team attached as yet. HBO Max is also developing a potential Game of Thrones animated project.

Production is well underway on another prequel project, House of the Dragon, based on the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons. Shooting began several weeks ago in Cornwall, and production has since moved to Warner Brothers' studio facility in Leavesden, outside London. House of the Dragon is currently scheduled to debut in early 2022.

Wertzone Classics: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Having saved their comrade Captain Spock, the crew of the late starship Enterprise decide to return home to face court martial for their actions. However, an alien probe of tremendous power arrives in Earth orbit and drains the planet of energy, whilst sending out incomprehensible transmissions. Analysing the transmissions, Admiral Kirk and his crew determine that the probe is attempting to communicate with humpback whales, a species rendered extinct due to the actions of humans three hundred years earlier. With little choice, the crew decide to time travel to the late 20th Century to try to recover two whales to help them save humanity.

As a seven-year-old back in 1986, I remember reading reports about the new Star Trek movie in production. The story - that the crew would go back in time to save the humpback whale from extinction with a right-on environmental message, the Enterprise would not appear and the film would have a comedic tone - sounded second only to Spock's Brain in cringe-inducing awfulness, and I braced myself for a terrible movie.

Which just goes to show. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is, easily, the most breezily enjoyable popcorn flick in the entire Star Trek canon. In terms of raw dramatic power and thematic richness it can't hold a candle to The Wrath of Khan, but it doesn't even try. Instead it leans heavily on the warmth and comedic interplay of the crew, celebrating twenty years of working together in this film. Everyone is on top form, Leonard Nimoy delivers arguably his best work as both director and actor, William Shatner gets to deploy his formidably-weaponised wit and charm (somewhat missing from the three previous, more sombre films) and the other actors all get their time in the sun.

The film does feel a bit over-familiar in some aspects: the opening with an alien object of tremendous power approaching Earth is pretty much a replica of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (fortunately this probe only knocks ships out rather than scanning them to death), and the ships in the film are all suspiciously the same as the four extant Starfleet ship models (the Constitution, Miranda, Excelsior and Oberth classes, by this point). But this is all (well-handled) setup to the central gag of getting our characters to 20th Century Earth and seeing them try to cope in a "paranoid, primitive culture." The culture clash gags are amusing - even moreso now that we are so far removed from 1986 San Francisco that it appears to be a historical time period itself - with the crew struggling with concepts like money and public transport. Once the crew find their feet, the film becomes even more entertaining, with Dr. McCoy giving a dialysis patient a tablet that instantly regrows her kidney, Scotty and McCoy creating a self-repeating temporal paradox by giving the inventor of transparent aluminum the formula, Chekov getting into hot water for asking about "nuclear wessels" and Spock mind-melding with a whale. Rarely does a scene pass without a genuinely great, comedic line ("You are not seeing us at our best," "That much is certain").

There are some spotty plotting moments, including why they went back to 1986 to recover whales when their numbers were already depleted rather than, say, the middle of the 6th Century BC and just beaming them up, though I like the idea of Spock deciding to communicate with them and bring them on-board with the plan; they are sentient beings, after all (that said, one line suggests that Spock recreated the timejump parameters by memory from their last jump in the original TV series, in which they travelled back exactly 300 years, so that may have been the limitation here). The Klingon Bird-of-Prey also continues its somewhat elastic connection with any kind of scaled reality, dramatically shifting in size depending on the needs of the scene. But this isn't a film about nitpicking or pedantry. It's a feel-good adventure, especially after the heavy drama of the previous two flicks, and it works extremely well on that basis.

Particularly strong is the script, which is packed with delights. The original script wasn't working so producer Harve Bennett convinced Wrath of Khan co-writer and director Nicholas Meyer to return for a script polish-up, adding a lot of character and warmth to proceedings. The script also intelligently addresses the outstanding plot issues from the previous two films, with Kirk and his crew having to face the consequences of their actions. The claim that Star Trek II, III and IV form a trilogy is overstated - the three films merely acknowledge the previous films happened and there is some plot business from them that needs to be dealt with - but it's good to see continuity being handled well and logically.

The film also works well without a villain: The Motion Picture tried that but it didn't entirely work. Here it's handled much better. The superbly-realised and somewhat eerie probe is the closest thing we have to an antagonist and it's more of a force of nature than a character, though some may feel disappointed we don't learn more about its origins (the entertaining novel Probe does provide some interesting ideas about its origins, non-canon though it is). John Schuck - who later appears as Draal in Babylon 5 - makes a good but brief impression as the belligerent Klingon Ambassador to the Federation who is out for Kirk's blood, and he reprises that role in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (which can be seen as something of a stand-alone "sequel" to the "Genesis Trilogy," as limited as those connections are).

The film is also notable for its distillation of the Star Trek ethos: the probe is a potential threat, but not mindlessly belligerent. Violent solutions to the situation are rejected in favour of peaceful ones. The hunting of intelligent beings to death just for their meat is deemed by Spock to not be "logical." The short-sightedness of humanity against its long-term interests is repeatedly mentioned. Arguably the film's most interesting moment is also its most subtle: in his mind-meld, Spock asks the whale Gracie to help save humanity from the probe and she agrees, despite learning her species is destroyed just a few decades later by the actions of humanity, a subtle suggestion that the morality of whales is superior to that of humans.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (****½) is unalloyed fun from start to finish, hampered maybe by a few clunky lines of dialogue and one or two gags that don't land as well as most. Maybe not quite the best Star Trek film, but certainly the most watchable and the most fun, augmented by Leonard Rosenman's distinctive and unusual-for-Star Trek score and some great visual effects (the film's animatronic whale models are particularly impressive). One of the main legacies from the film was Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner's high salary demands, which made the viability of future films doubtful and spurred Paramount to commission a brand new television show with a new, cheaper cast. Star Trek: The Next Generation was announced just before the film launched, but the "classic" cast would still have two more appearances to come.