Thursday 30 December 2021

DOCTOR WHO companions appear to confirm departure from the show, leaving clean slate for return of Russell T. Davies

It's been known for a while that lead actor Jodie Whitaker and showrunner Chris Chibnall were leaving Doctor Who and former showrunner Russell T. Davies was returning. There was a bit of a question mark over whether incumbent companions Mandip Gill and John Bishop would also be leaving or continuing into Davies' second era, but that now seems to have been resolved. Bishop posted a Twitter video in September confirming he is wrapped on the show, and Mandip Gill has followed it up in Doctor Who Magazine's 2022 Yearbook (published today) by confirming she is not returning. The BBC has so far not confirmed the news.

The news was fully expected: unlike the classic series, the rebooted Doctor Who has tried to arrange a "clean sweep" of introducing a new Doctor and new companions simultaneously whenever a new showrunner takes over. This happened in both 2010, when Steven Moffat took over with Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor and in 2018 when Chris Chibnall took over the show with Whitaker as the Thirteenth Doctor. In addition, John Bishop is one of Britain's most famous, successful and in-demand comedians and TV presenters, so was unlikely to take a long-term career break to do Doctor Who.

It does mean that Mandip Gill will manage the feat of fully matching the tenure of the Doctor she started with, previously only achieved by Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, who was companion for the full length of the Ninth Doctor's tenure (albeit that was only a single season) and a full year beyond, alongside the Tenth Doctor. Gill's character, Yasmin "Yaz" Khan, debuted in the Thirteenth Doctor's first full story, The Woman Who Fell to Earth, in 2018, and will depart in her final episode, a special set to air around October 2022 which also sees the Thirteenth Doctor's regeneration into the Fourteenth. This will make Yaz the longest-running Doctor Who companion of all time in terms of tenure (serving over four years), although only around the ninth-longest-running in terms of screen time, just beating Amy and Rose, but not quite matching Clara among modern companions, and some way behind the likes of Jamie and Sarah Jane Smith among classic companions.

This will allow Russell T. Davies to start with a completely blank slate for his first episode (already written), which will serve as the show's 60th anniversary special and is already slated to air in the week of 23 November 2023. Davies's return is also accompanied by the news that production (but not ownership) of Doctor Who has been outsourced to the independent production company Bad Wolf Productions in a deal which will hopefully allow for a larger budget and more editorial independence from the BBC. Production of Russell T. Davies's (second) first season is expected to begin next year.

Tuesday 28 December 2021

The Wheel of Time: Season 1, Episodes 5-8

The Aes Sedai Moiraine and her Warder, Lan, have found four candidates who might be the Dragon Reborn, the prophesised reincarnation of a great hero who is destined to save the world, but in the process may break it one again. Separated into three groups, the candidates proceed to the Aes Sedai stronghold of Tar Valon, where they must negotiate tricky corridors of power. In the process they learn of a greater threat, and must brave a journey through the terrifying Ways to the frontier city of Fal Dara, where a confrontation between the Dragon Reborn and the Shadow awaits.

The first half of the first season adapting Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time novels to the screen was reasonably successful. A few baffling missteps aside, it improved episode-by-episode and made strong arguments for most ("Though not all," - Perrin Aybara's fridged new wife) of the changes necessitated by time and budgetary concerns.

The second half of the season, unfortunately, does not build on this success but becomes a lot more variable. Poorer adaptive choices are made, in some cases choices which dramatically slow down the narrative rather than speeding it up (surely the primary goal when you have less episodes than Game of Thrones to adapt a story almost three times bigger), and the show shows signs of hesitancy and uncertainty in how to handle its sprawling narrative. An even bigger problem emerges in how the show handles the abrupt (and still mysterious) departure of actor Barney Harris, who played Mat Cauthon, between the fifth and sixth episodes. His unexpected departure clearly left the writers and production team scrambling to accommodate it and they were only partially successful, with the transfer of some of Mat's story material to other characters being handled very awkwardly. 

Blood Calls Blood is a transitional episode, seeing the various sub-groups of characters reaching Tar Valon and regrouping. Perrin and Egwene are captured by Whitecloaks and tortured (in an attempt to force Egwene to channel, so she can be executed), Lan tries to console his friend Stepin after his Aes Sedai was killed by Logain, and Rand deals with Mat's odd behaviour whilst also making the acquaintance of Loial, an Ogier. The episode is a mixed bag, with Hammed Animashaun's superb performance as Loial being a highlight (and overcoming some variable makeup and prosthetics). The focus on a unique-for-the-TV-show side-character (Stepin) feels like an odd move, although it does set up the shattering grief that Warders feel on losing their Aes Sedai, which is reasonable foreshadowing. However, the episode feels a bit lopsided in pacing and could have been combined with elements from the subsequent episode.

The Flame of Tar Valon is stronger, mostly due to Sophie Okonedo's performance as Siuan Sanche. Okonedo and Rosamund Pike are two of Britain's greatest actresses of the moment, and seeing them spark off one another is a pleasure. The episode's slower pace allows for something of a refocus on the core characters of Rand, Nynaeve, Egwene, Mat and Perrin, though it's mostly done through Moiraine's eyes, and the episode arguably does more to establish Moiraine as a character than any before it. However, the episode ends abruptly, a result of Barney Harris's abrupt departure, and the reasons for the gang to take off for the Eye of the World feel more contrived than in the books (where at least it felt deliberately contrived). Still, this is the best episode of the back half of the season thanks to its focus and performances.

The Dark Along the Ways is misnamed as an episode, with only the first few minutes of the episode actually set in the Ways. The production team do their best with the resources they have, but the Ways fail to be as impressively eerie as in the books. Things improve once the team reach Fal Dara, a stunningly-realised location with some outstanding integration of CGI and location filming. The new castmembers introduced are very strong (particularly Kae Alexander as Min), and there's some excellent character work between Lan and Nynaeve. However a mid-episode descent into sub-Dawson's Creek teenage angst drama with some clunky scripting gives us the worst-written scene of the season. The episode recovers, and simultaneously gives us one of the best scenes of the season with its depiction of the iconic Blood Snow battle, where the Dragon Reborn is born on the slopes of Dragonmount and carried away to safety. Probably the most inconsistent episode of the season.

The season finale feels like it has been heavily compromised by the departure of Harris and the rewriting done to make the story work. Weirdly, Harris's story beats seem to have been transferred to Loial rather than Perrin, the far more logical choice, given Perrin otherwise has nothing to do other than standing around looking vaguely into space, which has been his characterisation for the second half of the season. Some elements of this episode work extremely well, particularly Josha Stradowski whose portrayal of Rand has really come into its own in the second half of the season. The decision to clean up the finale of The Eye of the World, which was vague and confusing in the novel, is a good one, but the storylines and cliffhangers that replace it end up being equally vague and confused. We do get a solid battle sequence as Trollocs attack Tarwin's Gap and some impressive effects as the makeshift circle of amateur channellers fend them off. The confrontation between Rand and the Shadow (personified in a dignified performance by Fares Fares, who banishes any memory of Billy Zane playing the same character) is also very well-handled. The epilogue where the Seanchan show up and immediately make an impression with their awesome (if random) display of the One Power is also striking. But the messy ending, some inexplicable changes to the backstory and the feeling that the show is making changes where they're not needed and not making changes where they are needed continue to make the series feel uneven.

Fortunately, Amazon's Wheel of Time has been enough of a hit out of the gate to likely mean it will get another couple of seasons to improve itself. The cast remains excellent and the visuals mostly impressive (though budgetary constraints feel a bit more obvious in the second season), but the pacing, characterisation, worldbuilding and dialogue in the second half of the season (***) remains too inconsistent. The Wheel of Time may eventually become Amazon's Game of Thrones, but it's not there yet. The season is available now on Amazon Prime Video.

The Wheel of Time: Season 1

  • 5. Blood Calls Blood ***
  • 6. The Flame of Tar Valon ****
  • 7. The Dark Along the Ways ***½
  • 8. The Eye of the World **½

Season 2 is approaching the end of production and should air on Amazon Prime Video in late 2022.

Sunday 26 December 2021

Doctor Who: Series 6 (Season 32)

The Doctor has narrowly averted the destruction of the entire universe and has found a clue to the identity of the mysterious enemies opposed to him: the Silence. His attempts to track down the Silence lead him to the shores of a remote lake in Utah and apparently his own death. He now has two centuries to find out what this enemy is, how to stop them and to embrace the inevitability of his own mortality.

Doctor Who's sixth series marks a series of unusual shifts in the format the show has employed since it returned in 2005. It aired in two parts, with a three-month gap between the seventh and eighth episodes, meaning that the production team decided to a big "mid-season cliffhanger" more comparable to the end--of-season finale in scope and scale. It also continued the story arc from the preceding season, rather than ending it and delving into a new mystery for this season. The season is much more heavily serialised than any season before it (in the reboot era, anyway) and, arguably, any season following (at least until the recent Series 13). This is both good, giving the show an epic scale and scope unlike anything we've seen before, and bad, since the serialised storyline is so convoluted that the emotional heart of the story often goes missing.

Things start off well with the 2010 Christmas Special, A Christmas Carol. The first Christmas Special produced under Moffat's tenure, it is charmingly written and splendidly acted by its two main guest stars, Michael Gambon and Katherine Jenkins. The episode has a nice fairy tale quality to it, which encourages you to ignore the rather blatant rewriting of the show's rules (well, guidelines) on time travel and the oddness of all the flying fish. A solid episode, even if it feels a bit rude in how it shunts Rory and Amy to one side so it can continue the tradition of having a one-off Christmas companion.

The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon form an effective, epic opening to the season. Doctor Who was at the zenith of its popularity in the United States at the time and the episodes feature significant location filming in the actual USA, which gives the story an widescreen, cinematic feel. There's some nice inversions of expectations - the Doctor turns out to be good friends with Richard Nixon, of all Presidents - and a superb guest starring turn by Mark Sheppard (and a nice cameo by his father, W. Morgan Sheppard, cleverly playing an older version of the same character). The two-parter doesn't quite hang together: the shock of seeing the Doctor killed is offset by the realisation that that happened to a version of the Doctor from 200 years in the future, meaning you assume he'll come up with some clever timey-wimey way of avoiding that fate, which turns out to be pretty much the case. It's also another story that borrows heavily from Paul Cornell's superb New Adventures novels - wherein a young child in a spacesuit apparently kills the Doctor, creating chaos - without Cornell getting any credit, which is weird. The Silence are also not quite as cool an enemy as Moffat seems to think they are (and they turn into another monster with a killer app feature that is rather easily defeated by two minutes of common sense). Fun, watchable but another story where Moffat's writing starts circling his own posterior, a risk of being sucked up into it at any second but just managing to steer clear.

Rather jarringly, the show then moves to depicting a series of stand-alone adventures. The Curse of the Black Spot should be fun - Doctor Who does pirates! - and Hugh Bonneville gives a superb guest performance, but obvious budget constraints drain the vitality from the story and Lily Cole has absolutely nothing worthwhile to do.

The Doctor's Wife marks the first script written by Neil Gaiman and it's a winner, working on the idea that the Doctor's TARDIS is inadvertently incarnated in the body of a young woman, allowing the Doctor to literally communicate with his ship for the first time ever. It's a fun idea and the sparkling dialogue between Idris (an outstanding performance by Suranne Jones) and the Doctor, and the exploration of their emotional connection, gives the episode tremendous weight. It is let down by taking too long to get to the moment when the Doctor realises who Idris is and then rather easily defeats what should have been a much more formidable enemy than normal, House (voiced by Michael Sheen), a consumer of dead TARDISes. Still, one of the season's two outstanding episodes.

The two parter of The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People is highly promising with an excellent cast (Life on Mars's Marshall Lancaster, At Home with the Braithwaites' Sarah Smart and Downton Abbey's Raquel Cassidy's Cleaves) and a fascinating premise, where doubles of people turn out to be as much people as the originals, but then doesn't do much with it. Like far too many 1970s episodes of Doctor Who, a great idea is introduced and then devolves into running around a lot of corridors whilst the ethical implications of the idea are somewhat confusedly explored. The ending indicates the true purpose of the story: to set up one of Moffat's "gotcha!" moments of playing a huge trick on the audience. It's a relatively good ending, to be fair, but the fact that the two-part story you've just watched is simply setup for a completely different story makes the two-parter feel underwhelming. Not to mention that there is no reason whatsoever for this to be a two-parter, it could have been a one-off episode easily.

Moffat's over-arcing season megastory gets revisited into the two-part mid-season epic. The first half is infinitely the superior of the two. A Good Man Goes to War features the Doctor assembling a hardcore rumble squad of some of his most skilled and infamous allies (at least from earlier in this season and the one before) to launch an attack on the aliens who've been secretly holding his companion prisoner for months. It's a fun episode with lots of great lines, some fascinating ideas (like the Headless Monks) and some phenomenal characters, particularly the first appearance of the Paternoster Gang (Vastra, Jenny and Strax) who steal every scene in their in. The last-minute plot reversal twist is exceptional and the whole thing moves fast.

Unfortunately, the show almost immediately resolves this twist in Let's Kill Hitler, a messy episode which tries to explain some very complicated ideas in 45 minutes whilst also throwing in the Third Reich, River Song and scores of Nazis. The very perfunctory resolution to Amy and Rory losing their child is unconvincing at best, and River Song's origin story ends up being convoluted past the point of being interesting.

Night Terrors starts getting back on track with the Doctor helping solve a young boy's nightmares with the help of Ashes to Ashes' Daniel Mays. A fun but slight story, followed up on by The Girl Who Waited. Karen Gillen gives an absolute acting masterclass, dual performance in an episode which I assume won her her role as Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by itself. The highlight of the season, with a strong emotional arc.

The God Complex is one of those "creepy hotel" stories that cash-strapped SF series do from time to time, and like Star Trek: The Next Generation's The Royale, it ends up being a bit tedious with a rubbish monster and a baffling callback to one of the worst Doctor Who stories of all time (The Horns of Nimon), despite some excellent guest performances.

Closing Time is a sequel to the previous season's The Lodger, but is perked up by James Corden giving a better performance and the Doctor's amusing partnership with baby Alfie, aka Lord Stormageddon. It's also one of the better Cyberman stories since the show's comeback in 2005, let down (and I admit this is a personal thing) by what is blatantly Cardiff standing in for my home town of Colchester (seriously, it's three hours away, couldn't they have done like a single afternoon's filming here or something).

The Wedding of River Song sets itself the task of wrapping up Steven Moffat's convoluted two-season-spanning arc, which it only half-achieves. Resolving the cliffhanger from the first episode is far more simplistic and obvious than expected, and the episode ends up feeling a bit of an anti-climax considering it's trying to pay off the last two seasons' worth of mysteries. However, there's fun to be had by seeing Ian McNeice as "Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill" and the Doctor trying to obscure his own history.

The sixth series of the resurrected Doctor Who (***½) is solid but overwrought, building up a major story arc that is resolved rather simplistically and neatly (though setting up the following season's storyline at the same time). There's some good episodes and some fine ideas, but also the feeling that maybe the show should stop being about its titular character and get back to the Doctor being someone who shows up and helps other people out in times of crisis, rather than orchestrating byzantine schemes across multiple timelines. The season is currently available in the UK via the BBC iPlayer and in the USA via HBO Max.

6X: A Christmas Carol ****
601: The Impossible Astronaut ***
602: Day of the Moon ***
603: The Curse of the Black Spot ***
604: The Doctor's Wife ****½
605: The Rebel Flesh ***
606: The Almost People ***
607: A Good Man Goes to War ****½
608: Let's Kill Hitler ***
609: Night Terrors ***½
610: The Girl Who Waited *****
611: The God Complex ***
612: Closing Time ***½
613: The Wedding of River Song ***½

Thursday 23 December 2021

Penguin Random House drops Michael Whelan artwork from future Tad Williams novels

In a bizarre move, Penguin Random House has decided to go with a different cover artist for future Tad Williams books, apparently being unwilling to stump up the money for further covers from acclaimed artist Michael Whelan.

Whelan is one of the highest-regarded artists working in science fiction and fantasy, and his critically-acclaimed cover art has adorned all of Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn books so far, as well as the first two volumes of the Last King of Osten Ard sequel series. Whelan has also created artwork for the likes of Brandon Sanderson, Melanie Rawn, Anne McCaffrey, C.S. Friedman, Robin Hobb, C.J. Cherryh and Tanith Lee, as well as Williams's Otherland quartet. When Darrell K. Sweet passed away whilst working on the final Wheel of Time novel cover, Whelan was the only choice to step in and replace him.

Whelan's artwork adorned The Witchwood Crown and Empire of Grass, but the remaining two books in the series, Into the Narrowdark and The Navigator's Children, will have new cover art from an as-yet unannounced artist.

The books are published by DAW Books, who are editorially independent but distributed by Penguin Random House, who also have a say in the company's financial affairs. Similar financial restrictions meant that DAW were forced to drop Michelle West's Essalieyan universe series in August. The author will now be completing that series with the help of her fans via Patreon. Seeing the same penny-pinching attitude applied to one of DAW's historically biggest-selling authors (Williams has sold over 17 million books) is quite strange.

Into the Narrowdark is currently scheduled for publication on 12 July 2022. The Navigator's Children is expected to follow in late 2022 or early 2023 (the two books were originally one volume but have been split in two for publication due to length).

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

The Discworld is preparing to celebrate the great festival of Hogswatch, when young children receive presents from the Hogfather. However, someone has marked the Hogfather's card and given the task to the Assassins' Guild of Ankh-Morpork to carry out. Bewildered at the idea of executing a mythical being, they give the task to their most creative and ruthless inhumer, Mr. Teatime. As the plan unfolds and the Hogfather goes missing, Death steps in to fill the void, commanding his granddaughter Susan to, under no circumstances, search for the missing Hogfather.

Hogfather is the twentieth Discworld novel and the Big Christmas Special of the series. Pratchett had occasionally mentioned the festival of Hogswatch in previous novel and with his Discworld novels usually being published at the end of the years and being an annual Christmas gift in some households, it was a reasonable move to actually write a novel about Christmas, or at least the Disc's typically idiosyncratic version thereof. Christmas therefore joins the various other topics - like films, rock music, crime, fundamentalist religion and Shakespeare - that Pratchett has covered over the series to date.

The novel also acts as the fourth novel to focus on the character of Death, and the second on his granddaughter of Susan Sto Helit (following Soul Music). Death's character has been explored pretty thoroughly in three previous books, so Pratchett splits the story here between Death and Susan, with more focus on Susan as she explores the mystery of why the Hogfather has disappeared and why someone would want to kill him. It's a sold spine for the book, and it's fun following the path of clues which eventually leads to the solution. Susan remains one of Pratchett's more underrated and capable protagonists, as he puts it, a "Goth Mary Poppins," so it is surprising she makes so few appearances (aside from this novel, she only appears in Soul Music and Thief of Time).

One of the biggest surprises about Hogfather is how dark it gets. Pratchett's reputation for comedy and laughter belies the fact that he can get quite venomous and biting when he wants to, and it's probably not a coincidence that his darkest novels - Small Gods, Night Watch and Nation - are among his very best. Hogfather doesn't go that far, but it does feature an unpleasant gang of criminals with rather unpleasant habits and tics. In Mr. Teatime it also features possibly Pratchett's most psychologically damaged and unhinged antagonists, someone who is not a nice guy and who isn't going to be won over by witty speech by the lead character. This gives the novel a surprising amount of bite for what is supposed to be the Discworld Christmas Special.

The book does falter a bit in its pacing. Once again, the presence of the Unseen University faculty slows things down to a drag. There are some nice gags here - Death communicating with the primitive AI, Hex, and the Senior Wrangler going on a date - but once again the Bursar's mental illness being played up for laughs and the other faculty going through their routines is something that was played out in Reaper Man, at the very least, and should have been retired by now.

Beyond that problem, Hogfather (****) is a very solid novel with some of Pratchett's most accomplished and unpleasant villains, which normally would be a good thing but I'm not sure it works within the context of a Christmas story. Great characters and a nicely knotty plot overcome pacing problems and some repetitive story beats to make for a rare Christmas fantasy novel that is worth reading. The book is available in the UK and USA now.

The book also has the distinct honour of being the first Discworld novel adapted for the screen in live-action (animated versions of Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music were produced a decade earlier). Sky produced a two-part TV adaptation of Hogfather in 2006, starring Ian Richardson as Death, Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as Susan Sto Helit and Marc Warren in a very memorable role as Mr. Teatime. 

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Russell T. Davies confirms his DOCTOR WHO comeback will be the 60th anniversary episode in November 2023

Russell T. Davies, the writer-producer who brought Doctor Who back from the abyss in 2005, has confirmed that he will be staging his big comeback to the show in just under two years.

Davies was the showrunner of Doctor Who for almost seven years, beginning work on the show in 2003 when BBC Drama commissioner Janet Tranter ordered its return, and his last episode aired on New Year's Day 2010. He was succeeded first by Steven Moffat, who ran the show from 2010 to the Christmas Special in 2017, and then Chris Chibnall, who has been charge since. Davis is credited with making Doctor Who one of the most popular drama shows on British television, enjoying ratings of over 12 million at its peak, figures not seen since the original show's heyday in the late 1970s. Doctor Who also became an international phenomenon under Davies's leadership, although its US profile did not peak until a couple of years into Moffat's run.

Davies has resisted returning to the main show, preferring to let his successors get on with their jobs, but did contribute scripts to spin-off shows Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, which both ended in 2011. Since then he has worked in original drama, particularly A Very English Scandal (2016), Years and Years (2019) and It's a Sin (2021), all of which been highly critically acclaimed. Davies got an Emmy nomination for A Very English Scandal and a Welsh BAFTA win for It's a Sin.

It was announced in September that Davies would return to Doctor Who after Chibnall and current star Jodie Whittaker both announced they would be leaving the show after a series of specials to air in 2022 (these recently wrapped filming). It was unclear if Davies would return with a full season first and then address the 60th anniversary event in November 2023, or handle the anniversary first and then a full season. It now sounds like the latter will be the case.

Work is starting on Davies' new era of the series, with auditioning for the role of the Fourteenth Doctor underway and the first production meetings having taken place. It is as yet unclear if Mandip Gill and John Bishop will be continuing their role as Yaz and Dan into the new era, although I suspect it's most likely there will be a soft reboot of the series with a whole new production team coming on board.

Davies's return is not the only huge shift for the series. For the first time ever, production of Doctor Who has been outsourced to an independent production company. Bad Wolf Productions, recently acquired by Sony Television (which is not expected to have an impact on production), will helm the show starting with the fourteenth season. Bad Wolf's deal over production and merchandising sounds like it could result in a steep budget hike for the notoriously cash-strapped show, which in recent years has dropped from 14 to 13 and then 10 episodes a season to save money, to the dismay of fans. The most recent season, produced amidst the COVID pandemic, was only able to produce six episodes.

Doctor Who's ratings have seen a marked decline since the Davies era, with recent seasons lucky to break 5 million viewers on initial broadcast. To some extent this is a natural progression for all British live-broadcast shows, with the BBC iPlayer and time-shifting adding a lot more views after they are counted. The show's profile has also declined, particularly abroad, with the days when the 50th anniversary special aired in cinemas all over the world feeling very long ago indeed. The BBC is banking big on Davies being able to restore the show to its former glories.

Doctor Who's next episode is Eve of the Daleks, which will air on New Year's Day. It will be followed by another special, possibly to air at Easter, and then a grand finale episode to air as part of the 100th birthday celebrations of the BBC, which falls on 18 October 2022, although the episode may air later, at Christmas or New Year.

It sounds like Davies' Doctor Who comeback will air the week of 23 November 2023, to celebrate the show's 60th anniversary, although the 23rd is a Thursday, so it's unclear if the episode will air then or on the following Saturday or Sunday. More news as we get it.

Sunday 19 December 2021

Doctor Who: Series 5 (Season 31)

The Doctor has regenerated, with his eleventh incarnation appearing to be younger, more energetic and more improvisational. An unplanned-crash landing in a young girl's back garden leads him to meeting his new companion, Amelia Pond, and a new series of adventures across time and space...including a renewed acquaintance with the mysterious River Song. But cracks through time and space have appeared, and the Doctor has a suspicion that he knows who is causing them...

In 2010 Doctor Who underwent the biggest change since the show had been relaunched five years earlier. Executive producer and head writer Russell T. Davies had departed, along with Tenth Doctor David Tennant. Davies recommended that Steven Moffat succeed him, a fan-cheering choice since Moffat's scripts for Davies had been among the best-received of the era, including Blink, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, The Girl in the Fireplace and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Moffat would eventually end up staying for seven years and six seasons, the longest run of any Doctor Who producer bar only John Nathan-Turner (who ran the final run of the original show, from 1981 to 1989).

For his first season in charge, Moffat decided to focus on the new companion as much as the new Doctor and created a storyline rooted in time travel, with the Doctor briefly meeting Amy as a young child before a TARDIS misfire means he doesn't meet her again for twelve years, massively affecting her entire life despite the time passing in minutes from his perspective. Moffat also decided to include a season-spanning arc element, much as Davies had done, in the form of mysterious cracks in space and time, radiating outwards from an event in the future. Each time a crack is discovered, the Doctor learns more about the event and towards the end of the season realises that he might be destined to be involved in the creation of the disturbance. Moffat's arc plot is noticeably more omnipresent and more developed than those during Davies' time, which felt more like Easter Eggs which were only properly explained in the season finale. Despite this element, each storyline still stands by itself.

The Eleventh Hour introduces the new Doctor, Amy, and the recurring character of Rory. The episode is fast-paced and a vehicle to show off the new Doctor's cleverness, overwhelming confidence and resolve. It doesn't entirely hang together but is entertaining. The most notable thing about the episode is the absolutely tiny role it gives Olivia Coleman, which felt odd in 2010 and would be unthinkable today.

The Beast Blow, starring Hotel Rwanda and The Wheel of Time's Sophie Okonedo, is a fine morality play with a nice line in creepiness and some enjoyable satire at the idea of the entirety of the United Kingdom being folded into a big spaceship and blasted into space. It's a bit disposable, though.

Victory of the Daleks is a bit of a misfire, wasting some exceptional casting (Ian McNeice as Winston Churchill and Bill Paterson as Professor Bracewell) and some fabulous imagery (Spitfires in space! WWII-themed Daleks!) on a rather contrived story about getting rid of the Davies-era Daleks and "regenerating" them into a new race of the creatures. Unfortunately, the new day-glow Daleks are distinctly underwhelming as a design and were soon phased out in favour of returning to the classic design, leaving the reason for the episode existing as pointless. Still, there's some fun ideas running around here, if not fully realised.

The Time of Angels and Flash and Stone are an effective two-parter, bringing back the Weeping Angels from Blink and being far more creative in how they are used. There's some very creepy imagery, an absolutely outstanding guest performance by a pre-Game of Thrones Iain Glen and some very clever storytelling ideas, which are vintage Moffat.

The Vampires of Venice falls a bit flat, with the promising idea of the Doctor vs. vampires on the streets of 16th Century Venice never really taking off. Some of the episode's ideas feel undercooked. There's some very nice location filming, although not in Venice (with Trogir, Croatia filling in).

Amy's Choice is a potential stone-cold classic, featuring the Doctor and his companions freezing on an inert TARDIS circling a cold star as they try to work out whether that is reality or an alternate one where Amy and Rory are happily married but fighting an invasion of aliens who turn elderly people into zombie-like monsters. Toby Jones gives a great performance, but the writing and pacing is uneven and the final revelation of the "Dream Lord's" identity is rather unconvincing.

The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood by Chris Chibnall form a two-parter which attempts to reintroduce the Silurians to the franchise. Originally debuting in the 1971 serial The Silurians, the titular race are the rightful original masters of Earth, intelligent reptiles who evolved from an offshoot of the dinosaurs before going into hibernation almost 300 million years ago. The original story gave a lot of thorny moral issues as the Doctor struggled on how to find a good outcome for both the Silurians and humanity and Chibnall touches base with that here, but the story never entirely takes off. Neve McIntosh, Robert Pugh and an underused Meera Syal give excellent guest performances but the story ends up feeling too thin to justify a two-part runtime.

Vincent and the Doctor is easily the highlight of the season, thanks to Tony Curran's absolutely barnstorming performance as Vincent van Gogh and a low-key cameo by Bill Nighy. The script by Love, Actually writer-director Richard Curtis is accomplished, and the finale where the Doctor shows Vincent how his work and life have gone on and inspired millions is one of the all-time great Doctor Who scenes. The monster is a little underwhelming and perhaps a tad unnecessary, although it is interesting.

The Lodger has potential as a comedy episode, with the Doctor having to live undercover as an ordinary human in a houseshare. Amusing scenes of the Doctor confusing an electric toothbrush for a sonic screwdriver and being surprisingly excellent at football (reflecting Matt Smith's own past as a youth footballer before a back injury saw him switch to acting) are let down by James Corden's indifferent guest performance.

The concluding two-partner ties together the cracks in time storyline in a manner that can best be described as "deranged." A melange of the Doctor's enemies, River Song, the Roman Empire, a super-prison called the Pandorica and the cracks through time combine into a storyline that features everything including not only the kitchen sink, but the kitchen sink's future self from seven minutes hence. The story sort of hangs together (if you squint a bit) but the failure to explain several story elements feels disappointing (these elements, eventually, get more of an explanation later on). However, this does mark the beginning of the period when Moffat's attempt to tell clever stories about time loops and temporally dislocated events severely risks disappearing up his own posterior.

The fifth series of the rebooted Doctor Who (****) features winning performances by Matt Smith and Karen Gillan and several outstanding episodes, but is let down by several storylines that are a bit too complex and convoluted for their own good. On the plus side there aren't any really awful installments and even the weaker episodes usually have some good ideas floating around. The season is currently available in the UK via BBC iPlayer and in the USA via HBO Max.

  • 501: The Eleventh Hour ***½
  • 502: The Beast Below ***½
  • 503: Victory of the Daleks ***
  • 504: The Time of the Angels ****½
  • 505: Flesh and Stone ****½
  • 506: The Vampires of Venice ***
  • 507: Amy's Choice ***½
  • 508: The Hungry Earth ***½
  • 509: Cold Blood ***½
  • 510: Vincent and the Doctor *****
  • 511: The Lodger ***½
  • 512: The Pandorica Opens ***½
  • 513: The Big Bang ***½

2021 Hugo Awards announced

The 2021 Hugo Awards have been announced at the World Science Fiction Convention, currently ongoing in Washington, DC.

  • Best Novel: Network Effect by Martha Wells
  • Best Novella: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
  • Best Novelette: Two Truths and a Lie by Sarah Pinsker
  • Best Short Story: "Metal Like Blood in the Dark" by T. Kingfisher
  • Best Series: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
  • Best Related Work: Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley
  • Best Graphics Story: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy, art by John Jennings
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: The Old Guard
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: The Good Place, Whenever You're Ready
  • Best Editor, Short Form: Ellen Datlow
  • Best Editor, Long Form: Diana M. Pho
  • Best Professional Artist: Rovina Cai
  • Best Semiprozine: FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction by DaVaun Sanders, Eboni Dunbar, Brandon O'Brien, Brent Lambert, L.D. Lewis and the FIYAH Team
  • Best Fanzine: nerds of a feather, flock together by Adri Joy, Joe Sherry, The G and Vance Kotrla
  • Best Fancast: The Coode Street Podcast by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe
  • Best Fan Writer: Elsa Sjunneson
  • Best Fan Artist: Sara Felix
  • Best Video Game: Hades
  • Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book: A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
  • Astounding Award for Best New Writer: Emily Tesh
The 2022 WorldCon will be held in Chicago, Illinois and the 2023 event will take place in Chengdu, China, where the Hugo Awards for those years will be announced.

Steven Erikson starts work on sequel to THE GOD IS NOT WILLING

Steven Erikson has confirmed that work is now underway on the second novel in the Witness trilogy. The first book, The God is Not Willing, was published in June to a strong critical reception. The sequel will be called No Life Forsaken.

The trilogy is set a decade or so after the events of the main Malazan Book of the Fallen series and follows events on the continent of Genabackis, revolving around the offspring of Karsa Orlong and his reputation as a walking god, as well as how the Malazan Empire's ongoing occupation of the continent is faring.

Erikson notes that he is working on multiple projects simultaneously: he is also writing Walk in Shadow, the concluding volume of the Kharkanas Trilogy, a prequel to the Malazan saga set hundreds of thousands of years earlier and revolving around the Tiste race.

With work only just getting underway on No Life Forsaken, I suspect we won't see it now until mid-to-late 2023 at the earliest. The next Malazan novel to be published will be The Jhistal by Ian Cameron Esslemont, the fourth book in the Path to Ascendancy series which will focus on the nascent Malazan Empire's invasion of the Falari subcontinent. That book is currently tentatively scheduled for Spring 2022.

Saturday 18 December 2021

WHEEL OF TIME become Amazon's most successful television series premiere to date

The Wheel of Time has become the most successful original series in the history of Prime Video.

The news, which had been circulating behind the scenes for a while, was let out via social media. Amazon had previously committed to merely saying that the show was their most successful Prime Original of 2021, outperforming shows like Invincible and Clarkson's Farm. However, the updated information paints an even broader picture of success, confirming that the show has outdone the launch and premieres of series including The Man in the High Castle, The Expanse, The Boys, Carnival Row, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Grand Tour.

The news will be a welcome one to Amazon Prime Video and Sony Television, who took something of a gamble on greenlighting the show with a budget of over $10 million per episode and filming on multiple locations across Europe, based on a series of fifteen novels that have sold around 90 million copies and have passionate fans around the world.

It also bodes well for Amazon's commitment to genre programming. Although The Expanse is wrapping up after three seasons on the streamer, Carnival Row is due to launch its second season next year and The Boys its third. More germanely, Amazon is also planning to launch its Lord of the Rings prequel series, about the Second Age of Middle-earth, on 2 September 2022. With a budget conservatively estimated at three times that of Wheel of Time (and possibly a lot more), there's a huge amount riding on that project. Wheel of Time getting more people watching Amazon Prime's video channel can only be a good thing for that project.

The Wheel of Time has already been renewed for a second season, which is now more than halfway through shooting in the Czech Republic, although contrary to some reports it has not yet been renewed for a third. With this news, that now seems inevitable. The final episode of the first season will drop this coming Friday.

China to host WorldCon 2023

For the first time ever, the World Science Fiction Convention is travelling to China. The city of Chengdu will host the ceremony in 2023, although not without controversy.

The Chinese SF fan community has been working on a bid for some years and announced their bid for 2023 several years ago. The more traditional Western SF community - WorldCon has been held exclusively in European or North American venues with the exception of Australia, New Zealand and Japan - was split over the idea, one faction feeling it was good to support SFF fans in China and create a more inclusive international SF community (and more convincingly put the "World" into "WorldCon,"), and another feeling that China should not be allowed to host a convention until its human rights record had improved considerably.

The WorldCon running this weekend - DisCon III, in Washington, DC - is where the decision on final site selection would be made. However, with Chinese supporting memberships for the WorldCon shooting up in preceding days and weeks, it saw a number of attempts to disallow ballots from being counted by changing the rules after the vote had been run. This attracting scathing opprobrium from SFF fandom commentators, who felt that whilst opposing Chinese human rights abuses and anti-democratic measures might be laudable, overturning WorldCon's own rules in the process and preventing a democratic vote by suppressing the numbers was not the right way to go about it.

Provisionally, these measures were in vain. China won the bid with 2,006 supporting votes compared to 807 for the other serious candidate, Winnipeg in Canada.

Barring further shenanigans, the 81st World Science Fiction Convention will be held in Chengdu, China from 23-29 August 2023. The convention's guests of honour will be Sergey Lukianenko, Robert Sawyer and Liu Cixin.

Friday 17 December 2021

New DRAGONLANCE novel confirmed for 2022

We've known it's been coming for a while, but not the final release date. Dragonlance authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman have confirmed their new novel in the setting, their first addition to the saga for thirteen years, will be published on 9 August 2022. Dragons of Deceit is the first volume of the Dragonlance Destinies Trilogy and the first Dragonlance novel of any kind since The Fate of Thorbardin by Douglas Niles in 2010.

Dragonlance is a setting for the Dungeons & Dragons table top roleplaying game. The setting was originally launched in 1984 with a series of D&D adventures and the first Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Unlike other D&D settings such as Greyhawk and the later Forgotten Realms, which were both designed around giving the players a world to have many adventures in, Dragonlance focused on a single huge saga. It was effectively D&D's take on The Lord of the Rings, chronicling the adventures of a band of disparate heroes in their efforts to defeat the dark goddess Takhisis. The Dragonlance Chronicles and Dragonlances Legends trilogies sold more than four million copies before the decade was done, making them among the biggest-selling epic fantasy novels of that decade.

The Dragonlance setting was fleshed out by many other authors and game designers, eventually encompassing 203 novels and dozens of game supplements. Weis & Hickman's novels in the setting eventually sold almost 35 million copies. Although the novels continued to sell very well, the game materials were more inconsistent in sales and drifted in and out of print. In 2003 Wizards of the Coast licensed the RPG setting to Margaret Weis's own RPG company, Sovereign Press, and Weis created a version of the setting compatible with D&D 3rd Edition that sold well for many years. In 2008, after the release of the divisive D&D 4th Edition, WotC terminated its contract with Sovereign and brought the game materials back in-house, but surprisingly decided to sit on them rather than use them for anything. There has been no official Dragonlance material released since the last novel in 2010. In fact, the only D&D-branded fiction released since 2018 has been a series of Drizzt Do'Urden novels by R.A. Salvatore and nothing else, leaving an immense amount of money on the table given the massive popularity of D&D at the moment.

Weis and Hickman began working on the new Dragonlance trilogy in 2019. However, editorial disagreements led to the trilogy being cancelled despite the first two books being completed and the first volume fully edited. Weis and Hickman sued Wizards of the Coast for $10 million and breach of contract. Two months later the lawsuit was withdrawn, with both parties claiming an amicable settlement had been reached.

The refreshingly old-skool book cover uses an intriguing new logo, claiming that this is "Classic Dragonlance." There has been no confirmation from WotC if there will be new gaming material for the current D&D 5th Edition to accompany the new book. Two further novels are expected to follow in 2023 and 2024.

Thursday 16 December 2021

Netflix's AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER adds more castmembers

Netflix's live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender has added a number of new castmembers.

Newcomer Elizabeth Yu has been cast as Azula, the princess of the Fire Nation. Azula is a master of lightning-bending. She is the ruthlessly ambitious younger sister of Prince Zuko (Dallas James Liu).

Maria Zhang (WorkInProgress) will play Suki. A skilled warrior and leader of a band of Kyoshi Warriors, elite female warriors following the ideals of the deceased Avatar, Kyoshi. Suki becomes a recurring ally of Team Avatar in their struggle against the Fire Nation. Tamlyn Tomita (Babylon 5, Star Trek: Picard) will play her mother, Yukari. Yvonne Chapman (Kung Fu, Family Law) will player Avatar Kyoshi herself, presumably in flashbacks and dream sequences (which is how she appears in the original animated series).

Casey Camp-Horinek (Reservation Dogs) is playing Gran-Gran, Katara and Sokka's grandmother and the matriarch of their village.

The already-announced cast includes Gordon Cormier as Aang, Kiawantiio as Katara, Ian Ousley as Sokka, Dallas Liu as Zuko, Daniel Dae Kim as Fire Lord Ozai, Paul Sun Hyung-Lee as Uncle Iroh, Lim Kay Siu as Gyatso and Ken Leung as Commander Zhao.

Production on Avatar: The Last Airbender is set to begin in the new few weeks, to debut on Netflix in late 2022 or (more likely) early 2023. Albert Kim is executive producing and showrunning.

Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale - The Final Chapter by Russell T. Davies & Benjamin Cook

In 2003, TV writer Russell T. Davies was hired by the BBC to resurrect their inert science fiction franchise Doctor Who. Many commentators said they were insane to resurrect the old show, infamous for its cheap monsters and wobbly sets. Hitting the airwaves in March 2005, Doctor Who became a smash hit, the biggest drama series on British screens for many years. It made its actors, particularly David Tennant, global stars. In 2010, after four seasons and a series of specials, Davies left the project, replaced by Steven Moffat. From early 2007 through late 2009, Davies conducted a lengthy email correspondence with Doctor Who fan writer Benjamin Cook, discussing the genesis of ideas and how to get them on screen in a practical manner. This book is the result of that correspondence, showing how the fourth season of the rebooted Doctor Who and its accompanying specials were conceived, written and filmed in unparalleled detail.

"How to" books on writing are ten-a-penny, most of them rubbish but the occasional great one (Stephen King's On Writing) slipping out. The Writer's Tale takes a fresh spin on the idea, with journalist Ben Cook and Doctor Who showrunner-producer-writer Russell T. Davies corresponding over two and a half years with Davies revealing how his ideas are born, gestate and generate hugely popular, award-winning television.

Reading 700 pages of someone else's emails might sound like torture, but Davies is an impossibly erudite, funny, smart guy and his thoughts on writing are a pleasure to read. It also helps that Davies is impossibly honest and open, to the point of it being painful. Davies acknowledges being a procrastinator who likes to spend months thinking about a story before typing a single word. When he does, it pours out relatively quickly (some of his Doctor Who scripts go from his brain onto the page in under a fortnight), but there's a lot of hair-raising moments when the production team need a completed script in just a few days that Davies is starting to write a fortnight later than he should have done. He always pulls it off in the end, but the amount of stress he causes to himself (and to Cook) in the process is genuinely hair-raising.

More interesting are the "roads not travelled," story ideas that go through many permutations and in some cases episode ideas that are thrown out because they're not working. Davies has to throw out two scripts which are not in the right place and instead write Midnight (which also has no budget, so has to be filmed on just one set) and Turn Left in a rush to replace them. There's also a fascinating early version of Planet of the Dead which features the Chelonians, the excellent tortoise-like aliens from the New Adventures novels, although that gets changed when Davies reluctantly concludes he can't send actors to the United Arab Emirates filming location dressed in layers of foam latex because they will probably expire. Other interesting elements are the extremely detailed work Davies puts into the creation of a new companion, Penny, which is eventually wasted because another producer convinces Catherine Tate to come back as Donna, or a more epic version of Torchwood: Children of Earth where Martha and Mickey have a starring role.

There is also a lot of prescient irony in the book for people familiar with the later history of the programme, or Davies' career. Davies gushes at extreme length over casting Peter Capaldi twice (in The Fires of Pompeii and the Children of Earth mini-series) but never connects up the idea that he'd make a great Doctor. Davies also anguishes at having to ransack his "dream show" idea of a future dystopian Britain to save the Turn Left script, but of course eleven years later he'd make that show with Years and Years anyway.

There's some interesting musings on canon, with Davies at one point saying he does not give a toss about it but then spending several emails musing on obscure points of lore with Cook. Davies also distracts himself to tears worrying about plot points that nobody ever notices (he confides to Cook that he almost had a heart attack because Jackie didn't notice the Doctor destroying her coffee table in a struggle with the Auton arm in Rose, his very first Doctor Who script, something he thought was implausible). Davies also notes that sometimes he likes to draw attention to similarities in scripts to make things appear to be part of a masterplan, when in reality two writers just had similar ideas too close together, such as Donna being the centrepice of her own alternate reality in both Forest of the Dead and Turn Left.

Davies leaves most of his real evisceration for the online hate groups constantly criticising him for introducing "the gay agenda" to the show, or targeting individual writers for harassment and threats if they think they don't deliver. Given how relatively restrained the online discourse was in 2007 compared to now, it'll be interesting to see Davies's thoughts when he returns to the show in 2023.

There's decidedly limited hot gossip, although allusions to John Barrowman's exuberant on-set behaviour take on a different tone when the reader realises they are referring to his tendency to expose himself on-set. Davies skilfully avoids any discussion of why Christopher Eccleston left the series, and there's mostly a lack of real controversy. There is a fair amount of what might appear to be unnecessary wafflage in the book, but some of it becomes really interesting, particularly early discussions of "Did you see Skins last night?" which ultimately turns into a lengthy discussion of what Skins gets right and wrong in character writing, and how and why it improves as it goes along.

Instead, there's a lot of fascinating trivia (Davies once spent an evening propping up a table in a bar with James Marsters from Buffy and Kylie Minogue!) and a lot of meaty, interesting musings on where stories and where characters come from, and how you can get them to do what you need when they have to also be true to themselves.

The now-rather-misnamed Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter (****) is as good a musing on how to write genre television as has ever been published. It's certainly lengthy, and has a tendency to wander off-topic, but as an over-the-shoulder look at the writing of a television show, it may be unprecedented and is always fascinating. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun: Aiko's Choice

The battle against the enigmatic warlord Kage-sama continues, but Mugen's elite band of operatives face a new threat when their hideout is raided and the band scattered. They seek to reunite and defeat their new enemy before resuming the fight.

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun was one of the very best games of 2016, a skillful resurrection of the long-defunct stealth tactics genre (best exemplified by the Commandos and Desperados series). A brilliant game, the same developers were hired to make the official Desperados III, an even stronger title. The developers have, slightly randomly, decided to make a stand-alone expansion for Shadow Tactics whilst working on a brand new game (though still in the same genre).

Aiko's Choice takes place just before the conclusion of Shadow Tactics and sees our familiar band of adventurers and their diverse skillsets broken up. The first mission is really about using Mugen, Aiko and Hayato to rescue Yuki, a rather amusing nod to the fact that many Shadow Tactics find the trap-laying, enemy-luring Yuki the most powerful (if not over-powered) character in the game. Relying on Aiko and Hayato, fragile stealth-ninjas, and Mugen, a huge tank of a warrior who isn't as useful in raw stealth situations, immediately presents a fiendish challenge. This becomes even more challenging when it turns out that the developers have learned a lot from making the original game and Desperados III and applied every one of those lessons to this game's formidable level design.

The map design of the two preceding games is among the best in the genre, if not gaming as a whole, and the maps here are a step up even from there. At first glimpse, some of the maps look completely impossible, with enemies standing in plain sight of one another in a way that taking them out without alerting every enemy on the map seems flat-out impossible. Eventually you will work out a way, locating a single enemy on patrol who goes out of sight of their fellows for a few seconds or finding a fiendish spot where you can lure enemies to their doom, and then the rest of the map will start unravelling beautifully.

There's only five missions here, two of which are brief interludes with only a few isolated options for how to get around. The other three maps are gigantic, with tons of options, side-objectives and opportunities for chaos. If you love the franchise and the genre, the sheer volume of enemies to dispatch, environmental objects to manipulate, traps to lay and sneakery to enjoy will feel like Christmas. Less agile players should feel free to turn down the difficulty to "Easy," as "Medium" in this game is brutally tough and the actual "Hard" mode is for masochists or the supremely talented only.

So the strength of the game remains in the formidable map design and the sheer delight you experience when you conquer an apparently insurmountable challenge. The characterisation of the team and the voice acting also remains strong. However, the game has a few limitations. The first is that this is literally just more Shadow Tactics, albeit with somewhat stronger map design. There's no new characters, enemy types or abilities. It uses the exact same engine and the exact same controls. The latter is particularly challenging if you got used to Desperados III's more aggressive playstyle and pause-planning mode. There is no way to pause and survey the battlefield in Aiko's Choice, and it can take quite a while to get used again to the more limited "shadow mode" in Shadow Tactics as compared to Desperados' more generous, forgiving planning options. As noted, this is a tougher, less forgiving game than its forebears, and some of the awkwardness of the original game, particularly when it comes to timing moves or maneuvering characters correctly, remains intact. It's rarely a huge problem, but the isolated event of the game getting confused as to whether you're moving a character along a wall or trying to get them to jump off onto a nearby rooftop continues to crop up.

Aiko's Choice (****½) is a fine expansion and add-one for one of the very best games of the last five years. It is very much an expansion, despite its stand-alone nature, and I'd recommend not even thinking about tackling it until you've completed the original game in full. Some of the controls and UI have not aged well, but for an impressive challenge and one of the best stealth franchises in existence, this remains an excellent game. Aiko's Choice is available now on PC and is in development for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Denis Villeneuve to adapt Arthur C. Clarke's RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA for the screen

Denis Villeneuve has lined up his first post-Dune duology project. Villeneuve will be tackling a film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's classic 1973 science fiction novel, Rendezvous with Rama.

Set in the year 2130, Rendezvous with Rama charts what happens when an apparently huge, rogue asteroid enters the Solar system. A probe flyby reveals that the object is in fact a geometrically perfect cylinder, fifty kilometres long, and clearly of alien origin. The spacecraft Endeavour is diverted to intercept the object, which is dubbed "Rama." Penetrating the interior of Rama, the explorers discover an entire alien world held within a cylindrical construct, apparently devoid of organic life...but that does not mean it isn't dangerous.

Rendezvous with Rama is Clarke's most acclaimed novel, even moreso than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rama won the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel, as well as the Locus, Seiun, Jupiter and BSFA Awards. The book features a fictional space agency mission to look for rogue asteroids, known as Spaceguard. In 1992 NASA created a real Project Spaceguard, inspired by the fictional one. Since 1992, the Spaceguard and related programmes has discovered tens of thousands of Earth-orbit-crossing asteroids and comets.

Clarke returned to the setting sixteen years later, co-writing with former NASA engineer Gentry Lee a sequel trilogy dubbed The Rama Cycle: Rama II (1989), The Garden of Rama (1991) and Rama Revealed (1993). Lee later wrote two more novels in the same universe, but not featuring a Rama spacecraft: Bright Messengers (1995) and Double Full Moon Night (1999). These novels were not as well-received as the original book. Clarke noted that he considered these sequels to constitute one "possible" continuation or sequel to the original story, not the definitive one.

The novel has previously been adapted as a 1996 video puzzle game (inspired by Myst) and a 2009 BBC Radio adaptation. Morgan Freeman is a huge fan of the novel and in the 1990s picked up the film rights. He developed the project for many years, bringing on David Fincher to direct. The Freeman-Fincher partnership to make the film endured into 2012 before Fincher departed. Freeman noted that finding a script and finance for the film was difficult, partially due to the high vfx requirements but a distinct lack of traditional action sequences. Villeneuve is the perfect director to tackle this project, having encountered and overcome a similar restriction with his 2016 movie Arrival.

Alcon Entertainment (who shoot The Expanse for Amazon) will produce and finance the film. They are looking for a studio distribution partner. Villeneuve will tackle the project once Dune: Part Two is released in late 2023.

Sunday 12 December 2021

RIP Anne Rice

News has broken that fantasy and horror author Anne Rice has passed away following complications from a stroke at the age of 80.

Anne Rice was born in New Orleans in 1941 and was of Irish Catholic descent. Her family moved to Texas after the death of her mother, and she also lived and worked in San Francisco and Berkley. She started writing as a teenager and studied literary criticism, but became disenchanted with dissecting fiction in favour of writing it.

In 1968 she wrote a supernatural short story featuring vampires. In 1973, whilst grieving the death of her daughter at the age of six, Rice reworked the story into a novel called Interview with the Vampire. The book was published in 1976, attracting immediate sales but a mixed critical reception. Rice did not proceed with an immediate sequel, instead writing historical fiction (The Feast of All Saints and Cry to Heaven) and erotic novels under pseudonyms. In 1985 she returned to her supernatural world with The Vampire Lestat (1985) and The Queen of the Damned (1988). This expanded into a series called The Vampire Chronicles, which eventually encompassed thirteen novels. The most recent, Blood Communion, was published in 2018.

Rice mixed in other books, writing a series about the life of Jesus Christ and another series called Songs of the Seraphim. Although raised as a Catholic, she moved away from religious faith in later life, but renewed her faith after a series of health scares between 1998 and 2004 and the death of her husband in 2002. She did not return to organised religion, criticising the Catholic Church for its stance on social issues, but reaffirmed her belief in God and Jesus, both in her public speeches and in her fiction.

Her personal and sales profile received an immense boost from the release of the film Interview with the Vampire in 1994, starring Tom Cruise, Kirsten Dunst and Brad Pitt. The film brought her work to a much wider, international readership and catapulted her books up the sales charts. As of 2012, her total lifetime book sales had reached 150 million, making her one of the biggest-selling authors in the SFF sphere of all time.

Rice was not above controversy. In 2004, she responded to poor reviews of her novel Blood Canticle by attacking negative reviewers on Amazon and demanding that Amazon remove all negative reviews of the book. She also expressed a vehement dislike of fanfiction, to the point of threatening fanfic writers using her characters with legal action, and in 2015 she launched an attack on "cancel culture." She even got into a public war of words with the founder of Popeye's Chicken, which ended with him adding menu items named after her. Rice also at various stages angrily refused to be edited, noting in a New York Times article that it was unnecessary because she self-edited as she went along.

Rice arguably did more than any other author to explode the genre of supernatural romance and supernatural fantasy into the mainstream.

Saturday 11 December 2021

Doctor Who: Series 4 (Season 30)

The Tenth Doctor is reunited with an old friend for a new series of adventures across time and space...but a series of battles take their toll and leave him alone, wandering aimlessly and increasingly over-confident in his own power.

In 2007, Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies and lead actor David Tennant jointly decided that they would leave the series they had helped become the biggest thing on British television. Rather than leave immediately after the upcoming season (Davies' fourth and Tennant's third), they decided to extend their stay through four feature-length episodes to air through 2009 and into early 2010. The result was the longest season of Doctor Who to air since 1969 in terms of minutes, and the longest-ever in terms of how much time it spanned (Christmas Day 2007 to New Year's Day 2010).

The greatly elongated season opened with the show's third Christmas episode, Voyage of the Damned. A pastiche of disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, the episode also riffs on Titanic (the spacecraft is literally a replica of the Titanic). The Doctor is effectively joined by a one-off companion, Astrid Peth, played by pop superstar Kylie Minogue, but also features a notable starring turn by then up-and-comer Russell Tovey as Midshipman Frame (Tovey would later work with Davies on his dystopian SF show, Years and Years). As with most of the Christmas specials, it's a fun romp which doesn't try to be anything else, and succeeds thanks to great guest performances and Tennant being on fine form. The main surprise is how low-key Minogue is in her guest role, and I'm not sure the show makes a strong argument for her being a long-term companion.

The fourth series itself kicks off with the Doctor being reunited with Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) from the second Christmas special, The Runaway Bride. The episode itself is a bit of disposable Doctor Who frippery - aliens use human fat to create a race of little creatures called the Adipose who do...well, not a lot really - but as a framing device to reunite the Doctor and Donna, it works well enough.

The Fires of Pompeii emerges as possibly the weakest episode of the season, which is a shame because its premise (the Doctor at Pompeii!) is very good. The show gamely tries to show Roman culture with life and colour, a bit like the HBO/BBC coproduction Rome, even using the same sets, but goes overboard with a lot of overacting from the guest performers. It is a fun episode for playing "spot the future Doctor Who star," as future companion Karen Gillan and future Doctor Peter Capaldi both play guest roles.

We then have a long run of "pretty solid but not spectacular" episodes: Planet of the Ood is a solid "base under siege" story with a nice twist and two-parter The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky is a fun 1970s throwback to the UNIT stories of that era, as well as reintroducing Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) to the mix. The Doctor's Daughter is a clever story but one that feels more Star Trek than Doctor Who. It works mainly due to a game performance from Georgia Moffett as Jenny (now David Tennant's wife), the titular Doctor's daughter, even if the failure of the show to follow up on the episode's cliffhanger ending remains a bit odd.

The Unicorn and the Wasp is an out-and-out comedy episode revolving around the Doctor joining forces with a young Agatha Christie to take down a giant alien wasp which can shapechange into human form. It's a barmy premise but some solid writing and Tennant's gleeful fanboying of Agatha Christie make it work.

The season makes a massive step-up in quality towards its end. Steven Moffat's two-parter Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead is outstanding, featuring a planet-sized library where the Doctor meets River Song, a future friend and ally who has already met him dozens of times but he has no idea who she is. Whilst Moffat would take this great idea and overuse it to the point of tedium in later seasons, here it remains a fresh and exciting idea. The two-parter only loses a little because the alien threat is a little too nebulous at times and the rules about how it moves around and kills people are quite vague.

Davies delivers what might be his single finest script for Doctor Who in Midnight. A taut, claustrophobic horror-thriller, it reminds me of Red Dwarf's Marooned and Breaking Bad's The Fly in being a taut character piece necessitated by budget overruns on other episodes. Staging all the action on a single set with a top-tier cast and some of Davies's best dialogue on the entire series, with a hugely ambiguous ending, it's the new incarnation of Doctor Who at its very best.

Turn Left, a "what if?" story which asks the question about what would have happened if Donna had never met the Doctor, is almost as good. It shows an alternate timeline of Season 4 with the Doctor's other allies having to step into the breach to save the day, but gradually being killed off because they're not quite as capable. Another last-minute script replacement, Davies had to steal from his own backlog of great ideas, this one about the collapse of a future Britain into a dystopian nightmare. Fortunately, he was able to rescue the premise for his 2019 mini-series, Years and Years. The episode here is extremely effective.

The two-part sort-of season finale, The Stolen Earth and Journey's End, is Doctor Who doing The Avengers four years before The Avengers. The Daleks steal the Earth and launch an invasion of the planet, forcing not just the Doctor and Donna but all of the friends and allies he has built up over the last three years to take a stand. Thus we get: Captain Jack, Gwen and Ianto from Torchwood, Sarah Jane Smith and Luke from The Sarah Jane Adventures, Martha, Mickey, Rose and even Rose's mum (and that's not even counting cameos from UNIT characters, Harriet Jones, K9 and the Judoon). On the Dalek side we also get the return of Dalek Caan, a new Supreme Dalek and even the return of the Daleks' creator, Davros. It's all ridiculously daft and comes across as the most ludicrous piece of Doctor Who fanfiction, but it's also put together with verve and enthusiasm. This is Doctor Who in its most hyper-budgeted panto mode, but it's so much fun you don't entirely care. The main fly in the ointment here is the somewhat weird way Donna is removed from the show and the even weirder way the Doctor is able to have his cake and eat it with regards to Rose.

The show changes gears heading into the next round of specials. The Next Doctor, the 2008 Christmas Special, is a splendid episode featuring an absolutely barn-storming performance by David Morrissey as a man who is imprinted with the memories of the Doctor, becoming a mid-19th Century swashbuckling gentleman scholar and adventurer version of the Time Lord. It's a brilliant performance enhanced when his character discovers his real past history. At the time the episode was annoying because it seemed to rule out Morrissey from becoming the Doctor for real, though subsequent casting has suggested that's not an impediment to that happening in the future. The somewhat brain-melting finale in which a 2,000-foot-tall Cyberman stomps on London (featuring some of the best vfx since the show's return) is really just the icing on the cake.

Things continue in "romp mode" for Planet of the Dead, the first-ever episode of Doctor Who to be produced in HD. Like Human Nature, this episode uses one of the Doctor Who New Adventures novels as its inspiration, in this case The Highest Science. Unfortunately, that book's splendid aliens, the Chelonians, are not used here (the production team planned to, before realising the actors would die in full body prosthetics in the location filming in the desert). The episode is a solid, silly adventure with a winning guest performance by Michelle Ryan as cat burglar Christina de Souza.

Things ramp up with The Waters of Mars, a crucial and perhaps underrated Doctor Who story in which the Doctor's inability to change "fixed points in time" pushes him to breaking point and causes a dangerous eruption of his ego. The guest cast is excellent, especially Rome's Lindsay Duncan as Captain Adelaide Brooke, and the episode handles its transition from standard Doctor Who romp into a really dark piece of characterisation (culminating in a suicide) extremely well.

The prolonged season finishes off with The End of Time, an epic two-part story in which the Doctor has to contend with a resurrected Master but the situation escalates to bring in the return of the Time Lords and the threatened destruction of time itself. The story suffers a little from the "threat creep" that the show has repeatedly endured over the years (and continues to suffer from today), but excellent performances from Tennant, John Simm, Timothy Dalton and Bernard Cribbins give the story a real heft. The prolonged epilogue, in which the Tenth Doctor says goodbye to all his companions, risks over-indulgence but the story just about manages to justify it, since Davies seems aware that Tennant will likely go down as one of the very best actors to play the Doctor and isn't going to skimp on milking that for all its worth.

The fourth series of the rebooted Doctor Who (****½) is mostly entertaining, with several outstanding episodes and at least one all-time classic. Tennant is on fire throughout, and I think made the wise choice to leave just as he'd done all he could with the character. However, it does feel a shame that Davies bailed out just as he really hit his stride as a Doctor Who writer. Fortunately, we'll soon have a second run of episodes by him and to see what extra skills his time away from the show has given him. The season is currently available in the UK via BBC iPlayer and in the USA via HBO Max.

  • 4X: Voyage of the Damned ****
  • 401: Partners in Crime ***½
  • 402: The Fires of Pompeii **½
  • 403: Planet of the Ood ***½
  • 404: The Sontaran Stratagem ***½
  • 405: The Poison Sky ***½
  • 406: The Doctor's Daughter ***½
  • 407: The Unicorn and the Wasp ***½
  • 408: Silence in the Library ****½
  • 409: Forest of the Dead ****½
  • 410: Midnight *****
  • 411: Turn Left ****½
  • 412: The Stolen Earth ****½
  • 413: Journey's End ****
  • 414: The Next Doctor ****½
  • 415: Planet of the Dead ****
  • 416: The Waters of Mars ****½
  • 417: The End of Time - Part 1 ****½
  • 418: The End of Time - Part 2 ****½

Paramount+ unveils teaser trailer for the HALO TV series

Streaming service Paramount+ has unveiled a teaser for its upcoming TV series based on the Halo video game franchise.

The trailer depicts several characters from the show, including Natasha McElhone as Dr. Catherine Halsey, creator of the Spartan-II programme; Yerin Ha as newcomer Quan Ah, Kate Kennedy as Spartan warrior Kai-125 (she is shown in and out of armour), Bokeem Woodbine as Spartan trainee Soren-066, Bentley Kalu as Spartan Vannak-134, Olive Grey as Commander Miranda Keyes, Natasha Culzac as Riz-028 and Casper Knopf as the young John-117, better known as Master Chief. The adult Master Chief will be played by Pablo Schreiber.

The teaser also hints at locations from the games, including the Covenant holy city/space station known as High Charity; the space settlement known as the Rubble (which previously appeared in the Halo novel The Cole Protocol); and futuristic cities and alien dig sites, possibly on Earth or the colony world of Reach, or another world altogether.

The Halo television series will reportedly take place within the video game and spin-off continuity (despite some scepticism about that), and appears to be primarily set before the events of Halo: Reach, during the Human-Covenant War. It is unclear if the story will be completely self-contained or will segue into an adaptation of the Halo video games (which chronologically start with Reach before moving into the original Halo: Combat Evolved), but I assume in a TV show called Halo, at some point they will show the actual titular Halos themselves.

Halo is set to debut on Paramount+ in the United States in early 2022.