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.

Monday 24 May 2021

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

The USS Enterprise has returned home following the battle with Khan. Captain Spock is dead and the Enterprise is to be decommissioned, with some of the crew transferred to the new, cutting-edge USS Excelsior. A Federation science team is dispatched to investigate the newly-formed Genesis Planet, whilst the Klingon Empire becomes keen to get its hands on the Federation's latest "weapon." On Earth, a series of revelations inspire Admiral Kirk to take drastic action to save his two greatest friends, but he must pay a heavy cost to do so.

After the over-indulgence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture almost sank the Star Trek franchise, it was the superbly (and cheaply!)-executed directness of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that saved it. The hands-down best Star Trek movie gave the property a new lease of life and re-energised actors who were conflicted on continuing to appear in it in the future, most notably Leonard Nimoy, who had agreed to do The Wrath of Khan partially because it gave him the chance for a great death scene. Ironically, the experience of making the film was so good that Nimoy leapt at the chance to return, especially when he was also given the chance to direct.

Producer-writer Harve Bennett had a feeling during the making of The Wrath of Khan that the franchise would continue, so added a series of lines and shots setting up a sequel over director Nicholas Meyer's objections. The final cut included these against Meyer's wishes, leading to him refusing to have anything to do with the sequel; he and Bennett later reconciled, Meyer acknowledging it had been a good choice in the long run, but he was not around for this film. The script for the third film pretty much wrote itself from that point on: Spock is dead, but had transferred his katra or spirit into Dr. McCoy's mind just before the end. His dead body was then shot onto the surface of the newly-formed Genesis Planet, but since the Genesis Wave can bring life from lifelessness, the result was that Spock's body was regenerated as well. All that was required was a way to reunite the two, which was provided by Sarek (Spock's father) telling Kirk what had happened. Jeopardy was added from two directions: the Federation's refusal to allow anyone except a science team to go to Genesis, forcing Kirk to disobey direct orders from Starfleet Command and even steal the Enterprise to accomplish his mission. The second threat is from the Klingons, who aren't about to let the Federation develop a weapon that can make, remake or destroy entire planets, which could potentially threaten the Empire.

It's a great storyline which builds intelligently on things established in both the previous film and the original TV series (the finale, on Vulcan, even references the classic episode Amok Time in its set design and appearance). It has the weakness of being predictable - even in 1984 the idea of bringing a dead character back to life for popularity reasons was cliche - which bugged Harve Bennet (a writer of integrity, of the old school) so much that he decided that Kirk had to pay three unexpected prices for the restoration of Spock: the loss of his ship, his career and his son. It's surprisingly brutal: the off-hand murder of David might only be bested by the death of Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation for sheer callousness. But it also fulfils a basic tenet of storytelling: your characters can't win something big without a correspondingly massive loss, and one of the reasons why The Wrath of Khan is a classic and The Search for Spock a very good film, and why the much later Into Darkness is such an emotionally hollow and narratively inept remake of the same storyline.

The Search for Spock is also a hugely iconographic film. It introduces a whole range of ships, designs and concepts that dramatically expanded the scope of the Star Trek universe. The Earth Spacedock is a still jaw-dropping design, a massive orbital station that utterly dwarfs the Enterprise. The USS Excelsior, the B-52 to the Enterprise's B-24 bomber, is one of the very finest starship designs ever made for the franchise, so much so that the later Enterprise-B would be of that class and the design would become the Federation default standard by The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. There's also the fabulous Klingon Bird-of-Prey warship, easily the most famous non-Federation design in the franchise. Even the design of the accessibility-challenged USS Grissom would go on to become a mainstay of future TV shows.

The vfx are more numerous and more sophisticated than The Wrath of Khan's and two sequences stand tall as among the very best in the franchise: the Enterprise spacejacking, probably the most tense "reversing the car out of the garage" scene in cinematic history (with James Horner's God-tier soundtrack lifting the sequence onto another level), and the later destruction of the same ship, which brought a lump to the throat of every Star Trek fan on the planet at the time, before they decided to do it every fourth film for "shock value."

There are, however, several weaknesses the movie has to overcome. Aside from the predictability of the plot, despite attempts to off-set it with greater losses elsewhere, there's the under-servicing of the villain. Christopher Lloyd gives a superb performance as the Klingon Captain Kruge, but he's not well-served by the script. He has several great moments, such as where he orders the death of his lover when he realises she's seen sensitive information and his stoic embrace of death in his final battle with Kirk, but he spends the rest of the time barking out rote threats. You get the impression that if he'd been given the kind of material given to Montalbán in the previous movie and later (in Star Trek VI) Christopher Plummer, he'd have delivered as equally killer a performance, but the lack of good material holds him back. Another weakness is Shatner returning to a more lacklustre performance. He's good in a few scenes (his unblinking and unwavering commitment to stealing the Enterprise, his joy at Spock recognising him in the film's closing moments), but otherwise Nimoy fails to get the same kind of nuanced and vulnerable performance as Meyer did in the prior movie.

The script overall feels a little lacking. There's some good lines and humour, particularly for McCoy (DeForest Kelley relishing a greater turn in the spotlight in Nimoy's absence), but the script lacks the epic scope of The Wrath of Khan. Although Bennett wrote both movies, Nicholas Meyer gave a huge spit and polish to the second film's script which added all of its character and thematic depth. Without his influence, Bennett's more bare-bones script (punched up a bit by Nimoy to add more humour) has less going on. It's not for want of trying though, and it's nice to see the supporting actors finally given more to do: George Takei's Sulu gets a solo action sequence, Nichelle Nichols's Uhura gets arguably her best scene in the franchise despite being absent from most of the film and James Doohan's Scotty gets a gleeful scene after sabotaging an opposing vessel.

Similarly, the film's themes feel a little undersold. Kirk takes preposterous risks to get Spock back, paying a heavy price in the process. Both Sarek and Spock are aghast at what Kirk has done to save Spock, but the film never really adequately gives Kirk time to process his losses and to ask the tough question of if it was worth it. Kirk tries to answer this in the movie's finale but it feels like it could have been explored in greater detail.

The film also suffers from budget issues. This is a more ambitious film than Wrath of Khan on not a much greater budget, and very obvious corners are cut. The Excelsior bridge feels more like it came off a contemporary episode of Doctor Who than a multi-million dollar movie. All of the outdoor scenes on the Genesis Planet are filmed on a set, which is effective in some scenes and all-too-obvious in others. The finale, where Kirk and Kruge's not-very-obviously-disguised stunt doubles awkwardly punch one another whilst the polystyrene set crumbles around them, recalls some of the less-accomplished moments of the original Star Trek series. Again, James Horner's score comes to rescue even in these weaker moments of the film.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (****) holds the distinction of being probably the most underrated film in the franchise. A whole raft of iconic moments, some fantastic ship designs, an outstanding musical score and a script that understands that if you're going to pull off something huge, you need to pay a massive price (something that only Avengers: Endgame seems to have understood out of contemporary epic SF movies) are undercut by budget issues, an under-utilised villain and a less-sophisticated script that its forebear, but this is still a fine slice of enjoyable Star Trek action.

Sunday 23 May 2021

Wertzone Classics: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The Genesis Device: a machine of capable of terraforming a lifeless body into a terrestrial planet within hours. But it also has the potential to be used as a terrible weapon. The USS Reliant is assigned to help the Genesis science team find a planet to test the device, but inadvertently stumbles across the exiled home of genetically-engineered tyrant Khan Noonian Singh and the crew of the sleeper ship SS Botany Bay. Khan seizes control of the Reliant and develops a plan with two objectives: the capture of the Genesis Device, and the death of the man who sent him into exile for fifteen years, Admiral James T. Kirk.

If there's a list of "what not to do" when you make a popcorn-selling, blockbuster film, Star Trek II breaks every rule on it. You shouldn't make a film in which the hero and villain never come face-to-face; you should never make a film where the plot is a sequel to a single episode of television which aired fifteen years earlier (certainly not in 1982, when you can't even buy that episode on VHS); you should not have a film completely lacking in any kind of romance plot; you should not have your villain in an inferior spacecraft to the good guys; and you probably shouldn't pepper the film with quotes from literature and ensure the script is full of thematic richness.

It's by breaking every one of those rules that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan became not only the finest Star Trek movie ever made (a position it retains with near-contemptuous ease forty years on), but a genuinely great science fiction movie, one of the very best of the 1980s which marks a place on the podium alongside the likes of Aliens, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Predator, The Empire Strikes Back. It certainly saved the Star Trek franchise after the over-indulgence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture nearly sank it, and set the scene for everything that followed, including two direct sequels and a plethora of spin-off TV shows.

The Wrath of Khan works on every single level. Franchise newcomers Harve Bennett (writing) and Nicholas Meyer (directing) brought both a fresh viewpoint but also respect for the property when coming aboard. Bennett watched every single episode of Star Trek ever made to come up with ideas for the story, whilst Meyer engaged the actors in long conversations about their characters and motivations. The actors, who were generally not tested by the material in The Motion Picture, are given much richer material here. There seems to be more dialogue in the opening half-hour of this film than there is the entirety of its forebear, and it's great stuff. Kirk is struggling with a full-blown midlife crisis, moving between self-pity and frustration, and the oft-mocked Shatner sells that extremely well. Shatner in fact gives a career-best performance in this movie and its sequel, with the scripts calling on him to plumb emotional depths he is rarely asked to do elsewhere. DeForest Kelley also delivers impressively as McCoy tries to help his friend whilst calling him on his BS. Leonard Nimoy gives a terrific performance as Spock, as you'd expect, but goes above and beyond the call of duty, especially in his scenes at the end of the film.

The rest of the crew are under-serviced as normal, but do at least get a few good scenes: James Doohan's Scotty has to deal with the death of a family member in service and Walter Koenig's Chekov gets a promotion to first officer of the USS Reliant and more involved in the story. Nichelle Nichols and George Takei get relatively short shrift (Sulu had more material where it's revealed he's been promoted to Captain and is going out on one last hurrah, but it was cut in production). Newcomer Kirstie Alley gets a lot more great material as Lt. Saavik and is a very fine addition to the crew, and it's a shame she did not return in subsequent films. Oddly, a line referencing the fact that Saavik is actually half-Romulan, half-Vulcan was cut from the movie (and not restored in any one of the half-dozen or so different cuts and edits of the movie released over the years), whilst a later joke by McCoy referring to this fact is left in, somewhat confusingly, but it's not a major issue.

Towering over the film, however, is Ricardo Montalbán, reprising his role as Khan from the 1967 TV episode Space Seed. Montalbán was nervous at reprising the role after such a long break, especially since he'd been playing the moral Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island for five years and was concerned about his image. However, it only took a single re-viewing of the original episode to find the character again. Montalbán is a magnetic, charismatic presence who dominates the film but never overwhelms it. Whether it's quoting Moby Dick or plotting his vengeance on Kirk, he's a formidable opponent and comfortably earns his reputation as Star Trek's greatest single villain, with his defeat coming as a result of his own hubris and inexperience at commanding a starship rather than some deus ex machina moment.

The film was famously produced for a tiny budget (barely a quarter that of The Motion Picture), restricting most of the action to the Enterprise bridge (which pulls double duty as the bridge of the Reliant) and other sets inherited from the original movie, and the Regula I space station. Fortunately, a positive studio reception to early footage saw the effects footage expanded, and the visual effects in the space battles between the Enterprise and Reliant remain outstanding four decades on. The battles are well-handled, depicting the two ships as lumbering battleships able to both dish out and withstand tremendous amounts of punishment, but every hit still hurts and can still kill people. The Enterprise is a larger, more powerful ship but the Reliant gets the drop on it in the first fight, making for an evenly-matched climactic battle in the Mutara Nebula (impressively depicted with gas and fluid tanks). The battle is also tremendously visceral, with decks collapsing and crewmen getting crushed, burned or subjected to lethal radiation in a manner that hadn't been seen previously on Trek (and led to the movie getting a hitherto unthinkable "15" certificate in the UK).

Arguably the most influential, important scene in the movie in terms of technical legacy is the still-impressive sequence depicting the Genesis Device terraforming a planet. Completely generated in a computer in 1981, it is one of the first 100% computer-generated scenes to ever appear in a movie (certainly one that wasn't a simple wireframe). The team behind it went on to other things; they later rebranded themselves under the name "Pixar."

Particularly worthy of mention is James Horner's score, which re-uses a few elements from his earlier movies (particularly Battle for the Planets) but mostly consists of new material. His new overture, used for flybys of the Enterprise and the main title theme, is an instant classic. Of course, what really got people talking when the movie was released was the jaw-dropping ending, which in the pre-Internet age had successfully been kept secret in a manner unlikely to be replicated today (and rumours about it had been deflected by the opening scene of the film, which misled audiences). It's still an emotionally powerful moment played by the actors in a convincing and almost poetic manner. In fact, despite the sometimes hokey dialogue as related above, the movie has a number of iconic lines and quotes (mostly from A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick) which help give the movie a thematically satisfying through-line. This is a movie about not just revenge, but age, finding your right place in the world and the fact that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or indeed, the one). There's also satisfying attention paid to not copping out on the story. The writers couldn't conceive of a way that Khan and Kirk could meet without Kirk being killed, so they simply don't meet. And whilst victory is eventually won, it is only at a hard, hard cost.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (*****) is a great movie about revenge, family, the road not travelled and aging. It's also a terrific action movie, but one where the action is not allowed to outweigh the characterisation. It's simply a classic science fiction movie and represents the standard that Star Trek would occasionally, at its very best, match (in episodes like The Best of Both Worlds, The Inner Light, The Visitor and In the Pale Moonlight), but never exceed.

A note on versions: Star Trek II has been reissued and re-released more than any other Star Trek film, and three distinct versions now exist. The original, 113-minute theatrical cut remains very fine and can be found on the 2009 Blu-Ray collected edition of the first ten films. An extended or "TV" cut, three minutes longer, adds a few scenes that were cut from the theatrical version of the film (such as Kirk's shuttle approaching the Enterprise and Kirk meeting Peter Preston in Engineering). The Director's Cut, overseen by Nicholas Meyer and released on DVD in 2002 and Blu-Ray in 2016 (as a digitally-remastered version which rebuilds the movie from scratch from the original film elements), is now definitive. It recuts several scenes to incorporate more dialogue and characterisation and confirms that Preston is Scotty's nephew. The Blu-Ray version did accidentally omit a scene where Kirk tells McCoy and Saavik that David is his son. This version of the film has also been listed several times for 4K release, which for some reason has never appeared.

Note: I previously reviewed the film here.

Saturday 22 May 2021

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Two and a half years have passed since the end of the infamous five-year mission of the USS Enterprise, under Captain James T. Kirk. Kirk has been promoted to Chief of Starfleet Operations, but he's going stir-crazy behind a desk. The Enterprise has been effectively rebuilt and refitted for a new mission under Captain Decker. A state of emergency is declared when an alien "cloud" of unknown origin and staggering size is detected heading for Earth, destroying three Klingon warships and a Starfleet listening post along the way. Kirk resumes command of the untested, new Enterprise on a mission to communicate with the alien intruder and discover its purpose.

Airing between 1966 and 1969, the original Star Trek series is best-remembered for its warm camaraderie between the crewmembers, its fast-paced action sequences and its light humour. When the franchise made its way onto the big screen ten years later (for the first of - so far - thirteen theatrical installments), the curious decision was made to almost entirely remove these elements in favour of elaborate special effects sequences, minimalistic dialogue and lengthy, weighty considerations of what it means to be human. Fans waiting for the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture feared it would be a too-fast-paced, action-heavy movie made under the influence of Star Wars, which had been released to great success two years earlier. Instead they found a film which tilted much more heavily towards the tone and style of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a stunningly simple narrative. A strange alien vessel, surrounded by a vast cloud, is heading towards Earth, vapourising everything in its path. An untested, upgraded version of the Enterprise is sent to intercept it. There's some mild character conflict as Admiral Kirk replaces Captain Decker in charge of the mission, to Decker's annoyance (given Kirk's lack of familiarity with the new ship), but this is quickly resolved. The Enterprise intercepts the alien ship, narrowly avoids destruction in an initial communication misunderstanding, then enters the ship, learns how to communicate with it properly, and resolves the situation. The end. Told with verve and economy, this story could have easily filled one or two forty-five minute episodes of television; unsurprising really, as The Motion Picture's script had been repurposed from a planned pilot episode for a new Star Trek TV show.

To pad out the film's length to two hours, the producers decided to resort to visual effects. Lots and lots of visual effects. Most of the film's first half-hour is dedicated to sweeping, grand flybys of Klingon warships, Federation starbases and the very best iteration of the Enterprise herself, who gets a majestic introduction as Admiral Kirk conducts a visual inspection by shuttlepod, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith's outrageously good soundtrack. Later in the film we get almost-as-long sequences as the Enterprise passes through the alien cloud, then over, behind and inside the giganormous spacecraft inside. These sequences have been criticised as being interminable, leading to the film's inevitable nickname as Star Trek: The Slow-Motion Picture, although in reality that is somewhat overblown. The effects sequences are certainly longer than any sane movie would get away with these days, but they are also visually stunning achievements, remarkable given they were shot in-camera using gas tanks, weird lighting setups, animation and intricately-detailed three-dimensional models, long before CGI was a thing.

The film is light on character work, but what there is, is well-handled. William Shatner plays Kirk as grumpy and obsessed, so desperate to get back control of the Enterprise that he inadvertently puts the ship in jeopardy because he doesn't know how its new systems work. There may also be early signs of the mid-life crisis more thoroughly explored in The Wrath of Khan here: Kirk seems to resent the younger, more handsome Captain Decker for taking over his job, and seems keen to get his friends back on the ship rather than the next generation of Starfleet's best and brightest. This is all fascinating stuff (and well-played by an unusually restrained William Shatner), but the movie resolves it all pretty quickly: after Decker's superior knowledge of the ship's weapon systems saves the day, Kirk agrees to work cooperatively with Decker and the whole character arc is put to bed immediately. Similarly, a storyline revolving around Spock having purged himself of his few remaining emotions to embrace a Vulcan philosophy of pure logic, resulting in him acting cold and alienating to his shipmates (Leonard Nimoy gives the best performance of the film, impressively given it mainly requires him to stare impassively at people), starts intriguingly and peters out long before the end.

Most of the rest of the crew get short shrift, with Chekov, Sulu, Uhura and Scotty reduced to their standard expositionary roles, though DeForest Kelly does great work as usual as Dr. McCoy, given a wider role here as the only person whom Kirk will listen to when he tells him he's being an ass. New players Persis Khambatta (as Ilia and later the alien probe) and Stephen Collins (as Decker) also give solid performances. To be honest, apart from the "big three" and the two guest stars, there's not a lot of opportunity in the film for great acting or dialogue scenes as the script doesn't call for it.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not - by absolutely no means - the best Star Trek movie or instalment, but also not the worst. It may be the weirdest, and arguably the most interesting. If Gene Roddenberry had complete, unfettered control of the franchise, you imagine that all of Star Trek would look like this: slow, talky and odd, with characters endlessly debating the morality of how to talk to aliens even when it appears that Earth is about to be imminently destroyed. That would have killed the franchise, but as a rare example of Roddenberry's unfiltered vision (outside of a few episodes of The Next Generation's first season), The Motion Picture is fascinating. The film builds up a genuine sense of hard SF existential dread as the Enterprise encounters something so utterly powerful and so far beyond the crew's comprehension that they are genuinely flummoxed by it (even Spock's gambit to communicate with it is an absolute desperate gamble). V'Ger is one of the most successful depictions of a "Big Dumb Object" (an inscrutable alien object, usually of stupendous size and unknown origin, like Arthur C. Clarke's Rama or Larry Niven's Ringworld) ever seen in a film, and seeing how Kirk and the crew can investigate a phenomenon they can't shoot at or (for most of the film) talk to is actually quite enjoyable.

But it's hard to discount the common complaints. There's long periods in this movie where not a lot is going on and, though Robert Wise is an excellent director, he's not Stanley Kubrick, and he can't quite make the longueurs work as quiet moments of art like Kubrick on form could. It's a cold film, with almost no sign of the franchise's trademark character banter and warmth (which would return, with interest, in the sequel). There's no villain or antagonist of any kind, which is a bold move but one it feels like Star Trek struggles with; three films later, The Voyage Home would do a more successful job of delivering a villain-less Star Trek movie.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (***) is vast in scope, gaining a sense of sheer epic scale that the franchise would rarely ever reach again. It's slow and simple, not really justifying even a standard two-hour running time. But the cast do good work with the material they are given, and the visual effects are still often breathtaking, more than forty years after the movie's release. The soundtrack to the movie is also absolutely outstanding and arguably the best its ever had. Most notably, The Motion Picture has a unique and weird atmosphere and tone that the franchise never had before and has never had since, but remains quite fascinating. Not the absolute disaster it's often dismissed as, but certainly not the franchise at its best, Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains an intriguing, unique oddball of a Star Trek movie.

A note on versions: Star Trek: The Motion Picture is available in two distinct editions. The Director's Cut, released on DVD in 2002, represents Robert Wise's preferred vision of the film. Many scenes are recut and some of the lengthier vfx sequences have been trimmed, whilst some cut scenes focusing on characterisation have been restored. Foundation Imaging also provided new vfx clarifying some confusing points in the original film. This version of the film is, unfortunately, no longer officially available, as the DVD was removed from sale and the original mastering work was all done in standard definition, and is not suitable for a high definition re-release. Rumours constantly state that Paramount are preparing a HD/4K rebuild of The Director's Cut for release in the near future, but nothing has come of this.

In the absence of this edition of the film, the definitive version remains the 2009 remastered Blu-Ray release (available both independently and as part of a box set with the other nine films featuring the original and Next Generation crews). This is a standard film re-scan and clean-up, but has been done extremely well, restoring some colour to the prints that had been lost over the years and resulting in a brighter, more enjoyable picture. However, this is also the original, long cut of the film complete with extremely long vfx sequences.

Friday 21 May 2021

Henry Cavill in talks to star in HIGHLANDER reboot

Henry Cavill, who seems determined to star in every TV show and upcoming movie simultaneously, is adding another project to his busy roster. He is currently in talks to play the lead in a reboot of the Highlander franchise, with John Wick director Chad Stahelski already attached.

The franchise started life with the 1986 cult classic movie Highlander, starring Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, a 400-year-old Immortal, one of a number of humans with the ability to live forever. Immortals increase their power, skill and strength by beheading other Immortals, with the idea that eventually there will only be one Immortal left wielding immense power.

Four additional Highlander films followed, with Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) particularly reviled for trying to retcon the origins of the Immortals as aliens. The additional films were not well-received, but a six-season TV spin-off, Highlander: The Series, ran between 1992 and 1998 and attracted critical acclaim and a cult following. The series featured Adrian Paul as Connor's relative Duncan MacLeod pursuing his own destiny.

It is assumed the new project will be a reboot, but it's unclear if Cavill will be playing Connor MacLeod or a new character. The project is envisaged as a movie with sequel potential, and also the possibility of a spin-off TV series to expand the mythology.

Cavill is currently starring in The Witcher for Netflix and recently agreed to reprise his role as Sherlock Holmes for the sequel to the successful Netflix movie Enola Holmes. Cavill is also being rumoured to be returning in his role as Superman in the DC movie universe, and is involved in a new Mass Effect project, although whether that's voicing a character in the upcoming fifth game in the series or working on the long-rumoured live-action adaptation is unclear.

Rebecca Ferguson cast in adaptation of Hugh Howey's WOOL at Apple TV

Rebecca Ferguson has been cast as a lead in the upcoming Apple+ TV adaptation of Hugh Howey's Silo series of post-apocalyptic novels.

Ferguson has starred in The White Queen, The Greatest Showman, Doctor Sleep and The Snowman. She also plays the role of Lady Jessica Atreides in Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Dune, due to hit cinemas (and maybe home streaming) in October.

Ferguson will play the role of Juliette, an engineer struggling to keep a giant silo operating. The silo is a refuge from the world outside, which has become uninhabitable.

The Silo series consists of Wool (2011-12), Shift (2012-13) and Dust (2013). The first two books were self-published as instalments via Amazon, and later assembled into cohesive novels. There are also accompanying short stories and a graphic novel adaptation. The series has been an international success, with Howey cited as an early success in the Amazon self-publishing programme.

Graham Yost, who has written for Band of Brothers, The Pacific and Sneaky Pete as well as creating Justified, will write and showrun the new series, which is expected to start filming later this year for a 2022 bow on Apple.

Wizards of the Coast tease a new TV series about Drizzt Do'Urden from the creator of JOHN WICK

After yesterday's confusion about the setting of the Dungeons & Dragons movie, which they've now confirmed is indeed the Forgotten Realms world, Wizards of the Coast have teased that another TV show they are developing may be about their signature character of Drizzt Do'Urden.

News broke in January that Hasbro's internal production company, eOne, are developing a Dungeons & Dragons project for television. This would be released alongside the new film and would start building a D&D TV and film "multiverse," similar to the Marvel and Star Wars universes. D&D, to be fair, is well-suited to such an approach, with the game featuring over a dozen worlds and many more other planes and dimensions in which stories, series and films can be told. The Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance medieval fantasy worlds are the best-known, but others include those of Dark Sun, RavenloftMystara, Greyhawk, Birthright and Eberron, with the Spelljammer setting (featuring space travel) and Planescape line (featuring interdimensional travel) linking them together.

Derek Kolstadt, who wrote or co-wrote the first three John Wick movies and also worked on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, has been tapped to write and potentially showrun the new series.

Today, Polygon learned direct from Wizards of the Coast that this series may revolve around the Forgotten Realms - and arguably D&D itself - signature character of Drizzt Do'Urden. Drizzt is a dark elf (or drow) ranger from the Underdark who fights evil as one of the "Companions of the Hall," alongside halfling thief Regis, human archer Cattie-brie, barbarian warrior Wulfgar and dwarven leader King Bruenor of Mithral Hall. Drizzt fled his evil, corrupt home city of Menzoberranzan as a youngster and is regarded as a traitor by his people, leading to conflict with the dwarven city of Mithral Hall and the human city of Silverymoon.

Drizzt first appeared in the 1988 novel The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore and has since appeared in more than thirty additional novels, charting his adventures across a time period of almost two hundred years (due to drow lifespans reaching or exceeding eight centuries, Drizzt is still considered a youngster). The Legend of Drizzt over-arcing series is the most popular line of Dungeons & Dragons novels ever published, selling more than 30 million copies (marginally more than Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance series) over more than thirty years, making Salvatore one of the biggest-selling living fantasy authors in the field of epic fantasy. The popularity of Drizzt is such that even when Wizards of the Coast decided to reduce the number of D&D novels being published in 2016, Drizzt books have remained in production; the only three D&D-branded novels published since 2017 feature Drizzt as the protagonist, and a new Drizzt-centric trilogy, The Way of the Drow, begins publication this year.

Although Drizzt is immensely popular - more novels featuring the character have been sold than actual D&D rulebooks - he is also regarded with disdain by some fans, some feeling the character has been over-exposed and is no longer as interesting as in his early books, and others resenting the number of "copycat" characters created by players over the years. Others also feel the Drizzt's popularity has overwhelmed that of the rest of the Forgotten Realms setting, with arguably more interesting characters sidelined or under-utilised to keep the focus on Drizzt.

Previous film and television adaptations of Drizzt have also foundered on the character's ethnicity. Dark elves are dark-skinned in a manner that does not really exist in the real world, but some have drawn as analogous to actual human ethnic groups. Salvatore's depiction of the drow as being universally evil aside from Drizzt, his father Zaknafein and the morally-dubious assassin Jarlaxle, has also been criticised, especially as other Forgotten Realms books and products have increasingly focused on the noble drow goddess Eilistraee and her followers, who seek to redeem the race and end the curse that prevents them from walking in sunlight. These issues, extending to how you depict and cast the dark elves, were regarded as problematic enough to make the idea of depicting them on screen a headache.

It sounds like Wizards may have overcome this problem. Recent artistic depictions of Drizzt and other dark elves have given a purple hue to their skin unlike anything in the real world, perhaps a mild retcon to make them less like real human ethnic groups. There may also have been a decision to lean into the themes of racism and colonialism that run through Salvatore's books, which even in the 1980s were regarded as unusual and forward-looking (it not tremendously sophisticated), in a more modern context.

Whatever the case, it does sound like a live-action depiction of Dungeons & Dragon's most popular - and divisive - character is on the cards. More news as it develops.

Dave Filoni promoted at Lucasfilm, exciting STAR WARS fans

Lucasfilm writer/producer Dave Filoni's profile on the company website was updated this week, confirming him in the title of "Executive Creative Director." This spurred a lot of excitement as fans and even some of Filoni's collaborators rushed to congratulate him.

Dave Filoni (centre) with Star Wars creator George Lucas (left) and fellow producer-writer Jon Favreau (right), on the set of The Mandalorian

The move actually isn't new, having taken place in the summer of 2020. Disney had simply not gotten round to updating its profiles until this week.

Still, the promotion does reflect that Filoni is now seen internally and externally as one of the company's most important assets when it comes to the Star Wars universe. President Kathleen Kennedy was closely involved in the development of the sequel trilogy (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker) and the first two spin-off movies (Rogue One and Solo) but has since taken a more oversight role as Lucasfilm's role has expanded to incorporate other properties; she is now also overseeing work on the Willow TV series and a fifth Indiana Jones movie as well as the battery of Star Wars projects currently being developed. The mixed reception to the Star Wars movies has been pinned on a lack of creative planning and oversight, with the different writers and directors (including those fired by the studio) allowed to pursue their own ideas rather than developing a cohesive through-line for all three films.

In contrast, Filoni (who was chosen and mentored by George Lucas to work on the franchise) is known for developing storylines and setting up plot points that might not come to fruition until years down the line. These skills made his two animated projects, The Clone Wars and Rebels, highly popular and acclaimed among fans whilst other Star Wars projects were attracting a more mixed reception. Filoni has since collaborated closely with Jon Favreau on a number of projects, including the live-action television series The Mandalorian (set to start shooting its third season shortly) and The Book of Boba Fett (in production now), as well as upcoming spin-off Ahsoka. Reportedly Filoni and Favreau have set up a big "event" story spanning all three shows which will culminate later on. This story will presumably revolve around perennially popular Star Wars villain Grand Admiral Thrawn, whose future return has been hinted in The Mandalorian.

Filoni's promotion, though it might not be quite as seismic as some have reported - he is not being put in sole charge of the Star Wars franchise and isn't quite "the Kevin Feige of Star Wars," at least not yet - will add confidence that Lucasfilm is righting the ship about the disappointment of The Rise of Skywalker by promoting people with a proven track record in knowing what they are doing.

The Book of Boba Fett is expected to air before the end of 2021, with Season 3 of The Mandalorian to follow in 2022. The next Star Wars theatrical release, Patty Jenkins' Rogue Squadron, is set for release on 22 December 2023.

Wizards of the Coast confirm FORGOTTEN REALMS setting for DUNGEONS & DRAGONS movie

Wizards of the Coast, the creators and publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, have finally confirmed that the in-production D&D movie will take place in the Forgotten Realms world, ending years of speculation.

The city of Neverwinter on the Sword Coast North, a rumoured location for the film. Art: Jedd Chevrier

A much earlier, long-superseded draft of the script was set in the Realms, specifically in the city of Waterdeep and the dungeon of Undermountain beneath it, but since then the film has passed through multiple writers, rewrites and directors, leading to some confusion over the film's setting. Yesterday a film synopsis leaked placing the action in the Realms, in and around the city of Neverwinter, but according to Screenrant this is an old synopsis which is no longer completely accurate.

WotC have now confirmed that the setting is indeed the Realms, but nothing specific beyond this. This will mark the first appearance of the Forgotten Realms - history's most popular and successful epic fantasy shared world setting - in a live-action adaptation. More than 290 novels have been published in the Forgotten Realms setting, with cumulative sales approaching 100 million, well over 30 million alone sold by R.A. Salvatore in his popular Legend of Drizzt series. Authors such as Paul Kemp, Ed Greenwood, Troy Denning, Elaine Cunningham and Erin Evans have sold many millions more novels in the setting.

Around fifty video and mobile games in the setting have also been released, including the highly popular Baldur's Gate, Dark Alliance, Icewind Dale and Eye of the Beholder series. Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, starring Drizzt Do'Urden and the Companions of the Hall, will be released next month, whilst the long, long-awaited Baldur's Gate III is aiming for release next year.

The Forgotten Realms world was created by Canadian author Ed Greenwood in 1968 as a setting for stories he was writing at school. He expanded the setting as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign world in 1976 and began writing D&D articles for Dragon Magazine in 1978, frequently mentioning characters and locations from his home setting. TSR, Inc., the publishers of D&D, bought the setting from Greenwood and brought it into print in 1987. It has never been out of print since, enjoying the distinction of being the only D&D campaign setting supported for every edition of the game and the setting most frequently used in D&D-branded adventures, novels and video games. With the release of D&D's 5th Edition in 2014, the world became the "default" setting for D&D, although recently Wizards (who bought TSR in 1997) have backed off a bit on that in favour of supporting gaming groups in creating their own worlds, or using other settings.

Alongside this news, Wizards of the Coast confirmed that 2020 was the most successful year in D&D's history with over 30% sales growth on the previous year. They confirmed plans in the coming months to bring back two "classic" and long-out-of-print campaign settings (one heavily rumoured to be Dragonlance, to accompany the release of the first new Dragonlance novels in over a decade by setting writers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman), as well as releasing a Forgotten Realms card set for the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game.

The D&D movie is currently shooting in the Titanic Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and stars Chris Pine, Hugh Grant, Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith and Regé-Jean Page. The film is currently scheduled for release on 3 March, 2023.