Saturday 31 July 2021

Wertzone Classics: Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

California, 2032. Lauren Oya Olamina has founded a community, Acorn, in sheltered mountains near the coast. Acorn is a home, a haven and also the wellspring of an idea: Earthseed, a humanist philosophy that will, Lauren hopes, one day carry humanity to the stars. But the chaos-ravaged United States doesn't want humanist philosophies, it wants strong and determined action. When the battered population votes into power a populist demagogue who preaches fire and brimstone and puts the blames for the country's ills on outsiders, non-Christians, and anyone with strange ideas, Lauren finds her ideals and her resolve will be tested more than she thought possible.

Parable of the Talents is the sequel to Octavia E. Butler's classic 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower. That novel was a more immediate apocalyptic novel, focusing on the societal collapse of the United States not from any of the usual suspects (nuclear war, a pandemic, climate catastrophe) but simple overload, assaults on its foundations of democracy and decency from almost too many directions to counter. Like the Roman Empire, the United States falls not from a single root cause but foundational cracks levered by the tyrannical and by opportunists into fissures. That book saw Lauren gathering a fellow band of survivors and setting out from the chaotic morass of Los Angeles (thematically sinking into chaos and literally starting to sink into the sea) to find a safe haven elsewhere. So far, so standard, though Butler's raw, poetic prose puts it much more at The Road end of the literary post-apocalyptic spectrum than the Walking Dead one.

Parable of the Talents picks up several years later with a more nuanced and interesting idea: riding out the post-post apocalypse. The world may feel like it's ended, but it's still here, and new societies will emerge out of the ruins of the old. In this novel the tension is ratcheted up between new movements wanting to take advantage of the opportunity to break with the dogma of the past, and those who believe that only be wholeheartedly and fanatically embracing tents of the past can they restore order...with themselves in charge, of course.

The novel has no interest in to being the first novel retrodden. This is a longer, more sophisticated book with a lot more going on. As well as Lauren's story, we have POV sections from decades further in the future written by her daughter, and some asides written by other members of the Earthseed movement. These reflect back on Lauren's life and achievements, and Butler does a good job of balancing this character reflection without spoiling the end of the book. The novel also varies its pace. The post-apocalyptic survival tale of the first book is here replaced by a book about surviving in civilisation, or what passes for it, when it is subverted by brutal fanatics. Sequences where the Earthseed community is overrun by the new President's more fanatical followers read like one of Stephen King's better horror novels. Later sequences, as Lauren's ideas take hold and civilisation fights back against the brutality of the new regime to put into place a new order, feel more like a Kim Stanley Robinson book.

The Earthseed philosophy and debates over its validity take up a fair bit of space in the book, more than in the first when the idea was still nascent and not fully-formed, and leads to intriguing and never-more-timely debates about whether humanity trying to become a spaceborne civilisation is a good idea when there is so much to do here on Earth. The counter-arguments - the technological benefits to civilisation from the space race and the importance on giving humanity, as a collective, a goal to aim towards lest it fall into decadence and regress - are interesting, if not hugely original. What is surprising is that the novel's structure means that it is mostly concerned with the immediate events surrounding the capture of Acorn. The larger, even cosmic themes of the novel unfold more through the looking-back framing device and through Lauren's long-term view of the future, as well as an epilogue that skips forwards through the decades.

Parable of the Sower was a post-apocalyptic masterpiece of raw emotion, intelligence and beautiful writing. Parable of the Talents (*****) might be even better, a story about human nature from its most brutal and repressive to its most hopeful and uplifting, centred on three-dimensional, flawed characters and eerily prophetic in its depiction of the early 21st Century being a less certain time then when it was written. The author considered writing a third book, Parable of the Trickster, to complete a trilogy but ultimately decided that the second book rounded off the story well enough, which is true. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday 29 July 2021

Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall to depart DOCTOR WHO at the end of 2022

Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker and showrunner Chris Chibnall have announced their plans to depart the series at the end of 2022.

Both Whittaker and Chibnall joined the show in 2018, with Whittaker playing the Thirteenth Doctor (succeeding Peter Capaldi in the role) and Chibnall taking over the creative direction of the show from Steven Moffat, who had helmed the show since 2011. Whittaker is the first woman to play the role of the Doctor since the character's inception in 1963, whilst Chibnall is the third showrunner to helm the series since its return in 2005.

Whittaker's departure after the forthcoming thirteenth season (of the reboot) was widely anticipated; no actor has played the role of the Doctor for more than three seasons since Tom Baker departed the role after seven seasons in 1981. However, Chibnall's departure is more surprising; barring the one-off 1996 TV movie, no other showrunner has done less than five years in the role since Graham Williams (1977-80) and Philip Hinchcliffe (1975-77). Traditionally, most showrunners have since 1980 have stayed on for the run of at least two Doctors whilst Chibnall will have done just one.

Their tenure on the show has been something of a mixed bag. Whittaker's energetic performance has mostly been praised and her first full season in the role was something of a relief, with more of a focus on historical stories and comprehensible storylines with clear stakes and more logical resolutions than the preceding seasons, which often relied on hand-waved solutions and variably comprehensible plotting. The season was also notable for not having any kind of over-arcing storyline, for the first time since 2005. However, her first season failed to produce an outstanding, classic episode of note and there was criticism of the decision to give her three companions, making for an overcrowded TARDIS and there not being enough story to service four regular characters plus the guest star of any given week. 

These problems persisted into her second season in the role, but were also accompanied by some backsliding into the fast-paced but nonsensical plotting that characterised the worst of both the Davies and Moffat eras. Chibnall also put into motion a planned story arc that would retcon the Doctor's backstory and origins, a decision that would draw a very mixed response from hardcore fans and seemingly baffled more casual viewers, for whom one of the main draws of Doctor Who is much less of a reliance on long-running storylines and impenetrable background lore compared to other SFF franchises. Viewers would seem to agree, with ratings (particularly first-night ratings, although these have been in global decline as people switch en masse to streaming and timeshifting) slumping by almost 50% over the course of the two seasons (although, once the the initial bump caused by Whittaker's arrival is factored in, ratings remained somewhat comparable to Capaldi's run).

Although Chibnall's writing and plotting attracted a number of complaints, some commentators offered other explanations: Doctor Who is about to air its thirteenth season in sixteen years, a relatively high rate of output for the BBC and British television in general. "Franchise fatigue" was blamed for the Star Trek franchise flaming out in 2005 (ironically just as Doctor Who was returning after sixteen years off-air), after seventeen years of continuous production and it might be that Doctor Who has simply become over-familiar and safe, with kids no longer excited about the show as they were during the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant years.

Additionally, Doctor Who finds itself in a very different competitive landscape to when it relaunched in 2005. Back then, the BBC gave the show the budget to at least try to vaguely compete with procedural, network American series (Doctor Who reportedly was given a then-generous budget of around $1 million per episode, compared to the $2-3 million of an American network show like, say, Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek: Enterprise). Between 2005 and 2010 the show was given budget bumps to stay competitive, but it suffered budget cuts and freezes in the wake of the financial crisis. These have reportedly remained in place (especially as the amount of money the publicly-funded BBC spends comes under more scrutiny), which due to inflation means that the show has been effectively suffering continuous, annual budget cuts for the last decade.

These have resulted in the show taking increasingly obvious cost-cutting measures, including reducing the number of episodes per season and increasing the gaps between seasons to audience-infuriating levels. At the same time, the competition has started coming from streaming and premium cable, with shows like Star Trek: Discovery and The Witcher spending seven times the budget per-episode than Doctor Who. Amazon's even more expensive forthcoming Wheel of Time and Middle-earth shows could fund an entire season of Doctor Who for less than the cost of a single episode. Much like in 1989, when the BBC "rested" Doctor Who in the face of absurdly superior overseas fare, Doctor Who is looking increasingly threadbare compared to its contemporaries.

Officially, the BBC is saying that Doctor Who will continue and a new actor and showrunner will be announced in due course. Before then, the thirteenth season will air this autumn with six episodes (the lowest number in the show's history, due to COVID restrictions) forming one continuous storyline. Three TV specials will follow next year, airing on New Year's Day, around Easter and either at Christmas or New Year's Eve 2022, with the Fourteenth Doctor taking over at that point.

Wednesday 28 July 2021

Scott Lynch provides update on his writing process

Scott Lynch, the author of the long-percolating Gentleman Bastard series which began with The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006) has provided a substantial update on his current writing situation.

As is well-known, Lynch launched his career impressively with The Lies of Locke Lamora and its immediate sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies (2007). However, his proposed seven-book series seemed to stall after that point. The third book, The Republic of Thieves, was not published until 2013. The fourth book, The Thorn of Emberlain, has been hovering around the edge of completion for well over two years, since Lynch revealed he had completed a draft of the novel in early 2019. However, updates since then have been fleeting.

Lynch has faced a public battle with mental health issues, publicly speaking about delays caused by anxiety, bereavement and other problems in his life. A few years ago he noted that he was reasonably productive as far as writers go, but had crippling problems letting go of a work and sending the final version to the publishers.

In his update, Lynch confirms that this problem has left him in a situation similar to "Prince's vault," the analogy that the musical artist Prince completed entire albums and numerous, fairly expensive music videos and then shelved them in his vault for years and years on end, refusing to release them to the world (five years after his passing, the fate of much of that material remains unclear). Lynch confirms that in his "vault" are seven short stories, a novella, a novelette, a number of essays and even a whole novel (whether this is The Thorn of Emberlain is unclear, but one assumes so since he confirmed completion of that draft), which he wants to get out to the world.

To combat his anxiety issues, Lynch confirms he is now on anti-anxiety medication for the first time in his life and he hopes this will allow him to start releasing this material to the world. Obviously we wish him the very best and hope this helps him with his health issues, before any consideration of his writing career.

Friday 23 July 2021

Hans Zimmer previews DUNE soundtrack with two tracks

Two tracks from Hans Zimmer's soundtrack for the new Dune movie have been unveiled.

Zimmer is a fan of the original Dune novel and has wanted to work on a film adaptation for years, even foregoing his usual collaboration with Christopher Nolan to work on the movie, and clearly brought his A-game to bear on this project.

Dune will be released in cinemas and on HBO Max (in the United States and several other countries) on 22 October.

WHEEL OF TIME TV series gets official poster, November 2021 release date

Amazon have confirmed the long-held theory that their Wheel of Time TV series will hit screens in November thanks to the show's first official poster.

The poster shows Rosamund Pike as Moiraine Damodred, an Aes Sedai of the Blue Ajah, a wielder of the One Power. In this time and place, only women can safely wield the One Power. Any man who tries to wield it is doomed to go insane and die horribly, doing great damage to those around him. But prophecy states that a great threat is returning, and a man known as the Dragon Reborn is the only hope of the world to defeat this threat. But prophecy also states that the Dragon Reborn will shatter the world in the process. The Aes Sedai seek any sign of this man so they may guide and control him...and eliminate him should the need arise.

Production of the first season was paused twice by COVID restrictions in the Czech Republic, where it was filmed. Production wrapped earlier this year and, after only a brief pause, the cameras have started rolling on Season 2.

A full trailer is expected to arrive before the end of August.

Thursday 22 July 2021

Paul Ruskay unveils first tracks from the HOMEWORLD 3 soundtrack

For me, the most eagerly-awaited video game of 2022 is currently easily Homeworld 3, the long-awaited new game in the long-gestating space opera strategy series. One of the key ingredients in the series' success is the amazing soundtrack work by Paul Ruskay, whose music for Homeworld (1999), Homeworld 2 (2003), Homeworld Remastered (2015) and Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (2016) has always been spine-tingling.

Publishers Gearbox have released two tracks from the soundtrack to Homeworld 3 to what the appetite for the full game release.

Homeworld 3, developed by Blackbird Interactive (founded by the creators of the original Homeworld and Homeworld 2 when they were at Relic Entertainment), is currently due for release in late 2022. A mobile spin-off game is also currently in development.

Modiphius Entertainment are also releasing a tabletop roleplaying game based on the Homeworld universe this winter, and have just opened preorders on their website.

Warner Brothers unveils new DUNE trailer

Warner Brothers have dropped the second major trailer for Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's epic 1965 novel Dune.

The trailer opens with a description of the desert planet Arrakis by Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen girl with distinctive blue-in-blue eyes, one of the native humans. She goes on to explain how her planet is being ravaged by the Harkonnens, who use advanced weapons and airpower to keep the Fremen under their heel whilst they strip-mine the planet of the spice melange, the most valuable substance in the galaxy. We see atrocities being carried out by Glossu Rabban (Dave Bautista), the nephew of the Harkonnen Baron. Chani asks what is to become of her world.

On water-rich Caladan, young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the only heir of House Atreides, welcomes back his house's loyal retainer Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), a skilled warrior. He tells Duncan of dreams he's been having of a girl on Arrakis. Duncan tells him it only matters what happens when they are awake. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) announces that the Atreides have been asked by the Emperor of the Imperium to take control of Arrakis and bring the planet to order. He proclaims that House Atreides will never ignore a call for justice or help, and declares that they accept. Leto exchanges banter with his military advisor, Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) before the family departs for Arrakis. Gurney warns Paul not to underestimate the Harkonnens, whose capacity for cruelty and betrayal is legendary.

On Arrakis the Atreides settle in, though Doctor Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen) is curious about Paul, whom he thinks "sees too much." The action cuts to Giedi Prime, the Harkonnen homeworld, where Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) declares to his mentat Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian) that Dune, the colloquial name for Arrakis, belongs to him.

Scenes of battle and war follow as Paul declares that the Atreides are being picked off "one by one." We see both Atreides soldiers and Fremen armed with las-cannons engaging Harkonnen forces. We also see Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) confronting a giant sandworm in the deep desert. Paul and his father share a moment together. We see Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) in the desert, and Jessica agreeing to protect Paul with her life. We then see Jessica taking a Fremen chieftain, Stilgar (Javier Bardem) captive in battle. There is then a huge clash of Fremen and enemy troops in the desert, where we see that Paul now has the blue-in-blue eyes himself of a native of Arrakis. The trailer ends with Jessica declaring "it's time."

Dune will be released on 22 October in cinemas and on HBO Max.

Wednesday 21 July 2021

Amazon announces television adaptation of Neil Gaiman's ANANSI BOYS

Amazon has announced they are working on a television adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 2005 novel Anansi Boys and have already greenlit the novel to series. The book, set in the same world as his 2001 novel American Gods, revolves around the apparent death of Mr. Nancy, in reality the trickster god Anansi, and the confused discovery by one of his sons of his true heritage.

Production of the series will overlap with the second season of Good Omens, with Gaiman co-writing and co-producing both projects whilst continuing to work on Netflix's Sandman TV series. Gaiman is also a producer on Showtime's prospective Gormenghast TV series.

The new TV show will have no relationship with the American Gods TV series, which aired on Starz for three seasons before being cancelled. Neither Starz nor the production company Fremantle are involved in this new take, and Orlando Jones, who played the role of Anansi on American Gods before being controversially fired, will not reprise his role for the new series.

Writer, comedian and actor Sir Lenny Henry, who co-produced the 1996 TV series Neverwhere with Neil Gaiman and who inspired Gaiman to write the novel of Anansi Boys, will write and produce for American Gods, though it is not yet confirmed if he will star in the show. Henry also has a recurring role on Amazon's forthcoming Lord of the Rings prequel series.

Anansi Boys will also be written by Arvind Ethan David, Kara Smith and Racheal Ofori, whilst Hanelle M. Culpepper will direct the first episode. Jermain Julien and Azhur Saleem will also direct. The six-episode limited series will start shooting before the end of this year to air in late 2022 or early 2023.

Tuesday 20 July 2021

RUMOUR: Fansite reveals details about the LORD OF THE RINGS prequel TV series

Middle-earth fansite has posted a major reveal about Amazon's upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel series (which I've been informally calling The Second Age, but still doesn't have an official title). As with any rumour report, this should be treated with a grain of salt until official information is released but SPOILER ALERT.

According to TheOneRing's sources, the series has officially licensed material from the Tolkien Estate for J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion (1977) and Unfinished Tales (1980), posthumous publications which include the bulk of Tolkien's detailed notes and writings on the Second Age of Middle-earth's history. This is the first time the Tolkien Estate has licensed new material to film-makers; previous film versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings descend from a 1969 deal between Tolkien himself and an American producer.

The Tolkien Estate has three lore experts/Tolkien scholars assisting the project and are so far impressed at how things are going.

On the production side of things, scripts are only available digitally and (we know from other reports) are tailored to what scenes actors are in; most actors don't know the full story for the series since they only received scripts for their specific scenes. Presumably the regular actors might have a better idea of the overall story arc, or at least their part of it.

The first two episodes, which were shot months ahead of the rest of the production, have been produced as a stand-alone entry point to the series and franchise. This may (or may not be) fuel rumours that these two episodes will be released separately prior to the rest of the series as a stand-alone, feature-length production to whet the appetite ahead of the rest of the season. However, with only eight episodes in total in Season 1, it's unclear if Amazon would want to split an already short season rather than keeping a lot of discussion going on for longer.

The show has divided production between three units, each dedicated to one of the major races involved in the storyline: humans, elves and dwarves. This makes it sound like each race will have at least one POV in the ongoing storyline. There is also a specific "spoiler unit" which has shot fake scenes to throw off reporters.

Main unit shooting effectively wrapped in April 2021. We know from other sources that a formal wrap on Season 1 is not expected until 30 July, so it sounds like they're doing pickups, reshoots and plates at the moment. There are conflicting reports on when Season 2 will start shooting, some saying January 2022, others earlier.

Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time are being shot on opposite sides of the globe, but they are pooling some crew and experience: we know that Wayne Yip has directed episodes of both shows and that former Game of Thrones writer Bryan Cogman advised on both series before spooling up his own original project for Amazon.

The show is aiming for a "mid-2022" release date, rather than the early to spring 2022 date previously rumoured.

In terms of the story, it sounds like the show will indeed be delving into early-mid Second Age and will focus on the great elven smith of Celebrimbor as a key character. Celebrimbor (inadvertently) helps Sauron, disguised as a fair prince named Annatar, begin forging the Rings of Power before realising his mistakes. The wording is imprecise, but it sounds like either Sauron/Annatar will not appear in Season 1, or he will but his true identity will not be revealed. That also seemingly confirms that the forging of the One Ring will not take place in Season 1.

Nudity is reportedly present in the show in small amounts, but no sex. One reported scene is a flashback to the First Age showing how elves were captured, imprisoned in terrible conditions and then corrupted into becoming orcs, or their ancestors.

Elves will reportedly have shorter hair than in the chronologically later movies. It's unclear if this applies just to one subset of elves - the Noldor play a big role in the story when they are largely absent from the later time periods - or to all of them. It's also unclear if this applies to the characters who do have longer hair in the chronologically later films, like Elrond and Galadriel, who are expected to play a role in this series.

In probably the biggest spoiler from the report, the show will feature hobbits. In Tolkien's source material, hobbits are not really mentioned prior to the Third Age, with the events of the War of the Ring taking place some 5,000 years after the events of the TV series and the Shire only being founded 1,400 years or so earlier. However, the material also suggests that hobbits were present in Middle-earth earlier, living in other parts of the continent. The show will apparently feature one tribe of proto-hobbits, with Sir Lenny Henry's character being one of this group. However, since they're not getting the specific production unit treatment of the humans, elves and dwarves, it sounds like these hobbits will not play a key role in the narrative.

In a slightly confusing point, apparently the show cannot use the term "cave troll" due to licensing restrictions, and instead will use the term "ice troll." However, Amazon have licensed the existing screen rights for The Lord of the Rings from Warner Brothers/New Line, so it is unclear why they would not be able to use terminology from those films or the novels, especially given all the other terminology you assume they're going to be using/reusing (Nazgul, Sauron, Gondor etc).

Take this all with some caution at the moment, but the reports are broadly in line with previous reports and rumours, and confirm a huge production on a massive scale (albeit one that could probably do with some tighter safety restrictions).

More news when it becomes available.

Monday 19 July 2021

New BLADE movie gets director

The Marvel Cinematic Universe's take on Blade is moving forwards, having found its director.

Marvel announced the movie back in July 2019, adding it almost as an afterthought to a packed slate of TV shows and movies (which, thanks to COVID, has only just started hitting screens). Mahershala Ali had campaigned vigorously to play the character in the MCU, leveraging his Oscar win (which became two the following year) and hot profile to convince Kevin Feige to sign him up.

Wesley Snipes had previously played the character in Blade (1998), Blade 2 (2002) and Blade: Trinity (2004), as well as playing a satirical version of the character in the Season 1 finale of What We Do in the Shadows (in an episode directed by and co-starring MCU stalwart Taika Waititi) in 2019. Marvel regards the Blade trilogy fondly, considering it their first studio project and paving the way for Iron Man ten years later. Reportedly, Marvel had previously considered retaining the films in canon and having Snipes appear in the current MCU, but had ultimately decided not to go in that direction.

Development of the project was hit by the COVID pandemic but now seems on track, with screenwriter Stacy Osei-Kuffour (HBO's Watchmen) signed up earlier this year and now director Bassam Tariq (Mogul Mowgli) on board to helm the picture.

The film is likely to shoot in 2022 for a potential 2023 release date.

DUNE gets new posters as marketing ramps up

The new Dune movie has a raft of new posters, as Warner Brothers begin ramping up the marketing (again) ahead of the film's release.

Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is the third attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's sprawling 1965 novel for the screen. David Lynch directed a previous film version in 1984 to mixed success, whilst SyFy (then the Sci-Fi Channel) helmed an adaptation of the first three novels in the series in 2000 and 2003. Villeneuve's film adapts roughly the first half of the first novel.

The stacked cast includes Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat, Zendaya as Chani, David Dastmalchian as Piter De Vries, Chang Chen as Dr. Wellington Yueh, Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet-Kynes, Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho and Javider Bardem as Stilgar.

The film will gets its premiere on 3 September at the Venice Film Festival ahead of its general release in cinemas and HBO Max on 22 October. A new trailer is expected to be released in the next few days.

Shooting begins on Season 2 of THE WHEEL OF TIME

Production has begun on Season 2 of The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime's television series based on Robert Jordan's novel series of the same name, though Season 1 has not been broadcast yet. Season 2 was formally greenlit in April, although informally it was being worked on some time before that.

Season 1 was filmed between September 2019 and May 2021, with several lengthy breaks due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Season 2 is scheduled to shoot until February 2022, hopefully with no breaks this time due to COVID.

Filming will once again take place in the Czech Republic, at the newly-renamed Jordan Studios on the northern outskirts of Prague (which is 100% dedicated to this project and no others at the moment) and in locations around the country and other parts of Europe. The regular cast from Season 1 is expected to return, with the possible addition of several major new roles (it is heavily rumoured that casting has been underway for Elayne Trakand, amongst others).

Updated budget reports indicate that Season 1 may have spent over $11 million per episode and likely more than $12 million, which would push The Wheel of Time towards having almost twice the budget of Netflix fantasy series The Witcher (with $7 million per episode) and under half that of fellow Amazon fantasy series The Lord of the Rings (the most expensive TV show of all time), which is estimated at a floor budget of $29 million per episode and potentially a lot more. Some of the Wheel of Time budget may have been down to added costs from COVID. Season 2 we assume will have a similar, if not higher, budget, since restrictions and COVID precautions are still in place.

Season 1 of The Wheel of Time will air before the end of 2021 on Amazon Prime Television.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Imp y Celyn, a musician from a druidic society, arrives in Ankh-Morpork to seek his fortune. Unfortunately, the entry fees to the Musicians' Guild are unaffordable and playing without their sanction is a good way of finding out if you actually need functioning hands or not. Joining forces with Glod and Lias (a dwarf hornblower and a troll drummer), Imp finds a strange guitar in a back-alley shop and inadvertently introduces the Discworld to Music with Rocks In. But the music wants to live forever, which means killing its creator. For Susan, the young Duchess of Sto Helit and granddaughter of Death (it's a long story), filling in for her grandpa whilst he takes a break, this presents her a tough quandary in her first week on the job.

Soul Music, the sixteenth book of the Discworld series, interrupts Terry Pratchett's imperial run of form in the series by not being stupendously excellent (after the one-two-three punch of Small Gods, Lords and Ladies and Men at Arms), instead settling for merely being pretty good. Pratchett is retreading old ground here, bringing rock music to the Discworld for study and satire in the same way he earlier tackled shopping malls (Reaper Man) and movies (Moving Pictures).

It's a solid formula and competently executed, but it still makes for something of a formulaic novel. Even the major subplot, in which Death takes some time off and mayhem results (for the third time in a dozen books), feels like we're in familiar territory.

Fortunately, formulaic and competent Pratchett is still pretty good by any standards. It helps that the novel's effective protagonist, Susan, is one of Pratchett's better characters, a sensible young woman who goes through life flummoxed at the sheer stupidity of many of her fellows and constantly trying to work out how to make things work out for the best. Susan does recur in several later novels, though she doesn't quite break through to the top tier of Pratchett characters like Vimes or Granny Weatherwax. There's also a surprising hard edge to her backstory, which relies on foreknowledge of Mort and makes the events of that novel somewhat bittersweet in retrospect.

The novel is funny, packed with references to classic rock singers, albums, lyrics and even cover art (the cover art makes a nod at Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell), though I wonder how some of these references have aged in 2021. Will as many people get the Michael Jackson, Blues Brothers, Buddy Holly, Sex Pistols and Who references now as then? If you do, then the book becomes genuinely a laugh riot as it riffs on real rock and roll events and history (both outright and subtly), gently but affectionately poking fun at the absurdity of the genre.

Still, greatness eludes the novel because it is so similar to previous books, not helped by Archchancellor Ridcully walking around giving metacommentary on how similar the events are to previous books. It also feels a bit odd, given their heroism and effectiveness in the prior novel, that the City Watch (here cameoing outside their own series) are treated as incompetent and ineffective buffoons here.

Soul Music (****) is entertaining and readable, especially if you are a classic rock fan, but still can't help but feel a bit of a letdown after the supreme quality of the books leading up to it. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. An animated version of the novel, produced in 1997 by Cosgrove Hall, is available on YouTube. I previously reviewed the novel here.

Friday 16 July 2021

New Tad Williams novels get new titles and a possibly accelerated release schedule

As related previously, Tad Williams shocking failed to break with convention by writing the concluding volume of his new Last King of Osten Ard sequence as so long that it had to be split in two. Publication plans for these two volumes are now becoming clearer.

First up, the books will be given their own titles. The first volume - now Book III of The Last King of Osten Ard - will be called Into the Narrowdark. The second - now Book IV of the untrilogy - will retain the original title of The Navigator's Children.

The books also look like they might come out sooner than expected, with the publishers considering a spring 2022 release for the first volume and a late summer 2022 release for the second, just a few months later. Previously the publishers had been considering 22 October 2022 for the first volume and an early-to-mid-2023 release date for the second, so it appears they've shuffled things up, which is good news.

Ahead of those two volumes, a shorter novel in the same setting, Brothers of the Wind, will be published on 4  November this year.

HBO halts development on one GAME OF THRONES spin-off, starts two more

HBO has adjusted its development of the Game of Thrones spin-off roster of shows.

The company is currently shooting a new live-action show, House of the Dragon, a series about the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons set some 170 years before the original series, and has multiple new shows on the development roster. One show about Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake, and his infamous voyages around the known world is in active development with former Rome and Gotham showrunner Bruno Heller in charge. This show, with the working title Nine Voyages, may depend on if House of the Dragon itself gets off to a successful start.

A second show about Princess Nymeria and the flight of the Rhoynar across the Summer Sea after their homeland is destroyed by Valyrian is also in active development, with Person of Interest writer-producer Amanda Segel on board. This show, Ten Thousand Ships, which can be dubbed a "fantasy Battlestar Galactica," stands by itself and its fate may not be dependent on the fortunes of the other shows.

A third show was set in Flea Bottom, the poor quarter of King's Landing, and appears to have been a riff on a George R.R. Martin idea called "Spear Carriers," where major events in the history of the Seven Kingdoms would have been viewed from the POV of the ordinary smallfolk (or peasants) on the streets of the capital. This idea was kicked around between a few writers, but no showrunner was attached and the idea has now been dropped.

Another show, an animated series set in an unspecified time period, remains in active development and a second animated show is now under consideration. This new animated series would be set in the Golden Empire of Yi Ti, a distant nation many thousands of miles to the east of even Slaver's Bay, on the northern shores of the distant Jade Sea. Yi Ti is a nation vaguely based on ancient China, and has a colourful history of emperors, concubines, rumoured dragons and possible clashes with even more mysterious and bizarre cultures to the east. Yi Ti has only been mentioned in passing in the Song of Ice and Fire novels, but the companion volume The World of Ice and Fire gives more details on this mysterious land.

A third animated series is also in the earliest stages of development, but no further information is known.

House of the Dragon is now four months into shooting its first season in the UK, and is expected to debut on HBO and HBO Max in Spring 2022.

Wednesday 14 July 2021

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Season 1

The Avengers have saved the world, but at a heavy cost. In the aftermath of the "Blip," life is returning to normal and those who vanished from the world for five years are having to work hard to find their way back into life, including Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. Sam has been left the mantle of Captain America but has not felt worthy to accept it, and is conflicted when the US government asks another soldier to step up. Barnes is trying to atone for the evil he did as the super-assassin known as the Winter Soldier. When a new threat arises, Wilson and Barnes reluctantly team up to tackle it.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was originally slated as the first Disney+ original series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and actually created by the same team who worked on the movies, but COVID filming restrictions and rumoured extensive reshoots delayed it until after the debut of WandaVision. In the original plan you can see Falcon and Winter Soldier giving audiences a big, Marvel-style action spectacle before hitting them with the much weirder and more metafictional WandaVision, but circumstances reversed that order, which worked to WandaVision's benefit - a bolder, more original and stranger show than many were expecting - and unfortunately to Falcon and Winter Soldier's detriment.

That's not to say it's a terrible show. It's very competently written on a scene-by-scene basis and the cast are mostly excellent, from a returning Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan as the titular stars to the also-returning Daniel Bruhl and Emily VanCamp (both last seen in Captain America: Civil War as Baron Zemo and Sharon Carter). Wyatt Russell is splendidly annoying as the "new" Captain America, John Walker, and Erin Kellyman gives a measured, interesting performance as antagonist Karli Morgenthau.

The show's problems are mostly structural and its attempt to pack too much material into just six episodes. The series tries to be a societal commentary on Sam Wilson becoming the first black Captain America, despite his guilt when he learns what happened to other African-American members of the super-serum project after WWII, whilst exploring the psychological trauma Bucky is dealing with as a former HYDRA stooge and assassin. However, the show also tries to be a Rush Hour/48 Hours/Lethal Weapon-style buddy comedy, a villainous psychological study of both Zemo and Karli, a spy mystery about Sharon Carter and a commentary on immigration and borders. It's too much for the limited screentime and some of these plots are only dealt with briefly and not really mentioned again, like why Sam - a world-famous crime-fighting superhero who helped save the universe and is friends with people like the billionaire owner of Stark Industries - is now broke.

The series is on surer ground when the story focuses in on the two Avengers tackling enemy terrorists or dealing with off-brand WalMart Captain America's anger-management issues. The action sequences are generally quite good, and the visual effects outstanding, even if the opening set-piece of Sam taking down a helicopter sets a level the rest of the series can't really live up to (the expense of that sequence may explain why most of the other big action set-pieces happen at night).

What we're left with is a pretty solid story, but one which can lose focus for stretches of time in an attempt to tackle too many subplots and themes and ends up not really satisfyingly delivering on any them. Still, it does continue WandaVision's exploration of the Blip and how half the world's population vanishing for five years and then returning is a really huge deal rather than something to be brushed under the carpet and moved on from instantly.

Solid performances and outstanding action sequences make the one and only season of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier* (***½) worth watching, but an odd structure and rushed storytelling means it doesn't land as well as it should, and certainly not as engagingly as either of its sister shows in the first wave of MCU TV series, WandaVision and Loki. The show is available worldwide now on Disney+.

* A second season, should it materialise, would be made under the moniker Captain America and the Winter Soldier instead, apparently.

Next STAR TREK film lands WANDAVISION director, gets green light

Paramount's next Star Trek feature film has hooked WandaVision director Matt Shakman to helm the feature.

Paramount has spent five years playing musical chairs with writers, directors and even castmembers for the follow-up to 2016's Star Trek Beyond. Quentin Tarantino and Noah Hawley both developed scripts, J.J. Abrams signed on and off as producer several times and even the film's setting and cast changed several times, with Paramount considering everything from a film featuring a completely new crew and ship unrelated to any previous version of the franchise to a remake of the classic series episode A Piece of the Action to a straight-up sequel to the previous movies, with Chris Pine's Kirk returning.

Paramount have now greenlit a completely new project, with a script by Lindsey Beer and Geneva Robertson, with Shakman signed up after he guided WandaVision to a startling 23-Emmy nomination haul. It is still unclear if this new script will see the return of the Chris Pine-led "Kelvin" timeline but that should hopefully be clarified soon as casting announcements are made. Paramount wants to fast-track the movie with shooting to start no later than Spring 2022. The film, the fourteenth overall in the franchise, already has a pencilled-in release date of 9 July 2023. J.J. Abrams will return to produce.

Meanwhile, work on the next TV instalments of the franchise are continuing. Animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks and Prodigy are expected to drop over the summer, whilst Season 4 of Discovery is gearing up for an autumn launch, ahead of Picard's second season in early 2022 and Strange New Worlds' first season a few months later.

Tuesday 13 July 2021

Relic Entertainment announces COMPANY OF HEROES 3

Relic Entertainment have announced a third full game in their Company of Heroes real-time strategy series.

Company of Heroes 3 is the follow-up to the original Company of Heroes (2006), which focused on the campaign in Normandy, and Company of Heroes 2 (2013), which depicted events on the Eastern Front. This time the game focuses on the Mediterranean Theatre, with a campaign which takes in battles in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, with the Allies versus the German Wehrmacht. The theatre was selected after discussions between Relic and fans on their forums (presumably at the expense of the Pacific, which we can guess will form the basis of a future fourth game).

Unlike the previous games, which had a linear story-based campaign, Company of Heroes 3 has a dynamic, non-linear campaign which unfolds on a large campaign map, similar to the Total War series (both Relic and Total War developers Creative Assembly are owned by Sega). Players can deploy and move units on the campaign map and use things like naval support and air power to clear the way for the ground forces to advance. Standard real-time battles unfold when ground forces meet in combat. This mode was previewed in the previous Ardennes Assault expansion for Company of Heroes 2, but CoH3 develops the idea in a lot more depth.

The actual battles are now brighter and sunnier, taking place in the desert or on the Mediterranean shore, and there is more focus on detailed infantry combat. Units can fortify buildings as before but they can also breach and storm fortified buildings. Single-player mode has a new "tactical pause" feature which allows players to pause the game and issue orders, a familiar technique from other strategy games but a first for this series.

Allied players will now get rewards for minimising collateral damage to civilian buildings, such as gaining intel from grateful locals or recruiting partisans to add extra firepower to their units. Allied players will also be able to sortie American or British forces, or on some missions a mixture of the two.

Company of Heroes 3 will launch in late 2022, though players will be able to take part in a pre-alpha demo study starting today.

WHEEL OF TIME prequel movie trilogy in development

In surprising news, Radar Pictures have put a Wheel of Time prequel movie series into active development. Zack Stentz (Thor, X-Men: First Class) is writing a script based on the Age of Legends, a major formative event in the backstory to the novels. This project is (so far) unaffiliated with Amazon Prime Television's Wheel of Time TV series, based directly on the novels, and expected to debut in a few months.

Red Eagle Entertainment secured the screen rights to The Wheel of Time in 2004, in a deal with novelist Robert Jordan (who passed away in 2007). Red Eagle spent eleven years developing film and TV projects based on the novels with multiple partners, including Warner Brothers and later Chris Morgan (The Fast and the Furious franchise) at Universal Studios, to no avail. In 2014 Red Eagle teamed with the experienced Radar Pictures to develop a television pitch for Sony. This deal was deep in negotiation when Red Eagle's time limitation on the rights expired in 2015; to keep the rights they developed a self-funded short film called The Winter Dragon. This led to a brief legal case, after which Red Eagle and Radar Pictures retained the screen rights to the franchise. In 2016 the TV rights to the novels were sub-licensed to Sony. Sony partnered with Amazon in 2017 to bring the novels to television, with production beginning in 2019. It is this project, led by Rafe Judkins, which is expected to hit the screens in a few months and has just started shooting its second season.

However, Red Eagle and Radar have retained the ability to develop other parts of the franchise. A few years ago this would have been meaningless - the fifteen Wheel of Time novels (the fourteen main books and the New Spring prequel volume) are the main appeal, obviously - but we've seen an explosion of screen projects based on notes, outlines and thin or non-existent source material in recent times. Both Amazon Television's new Lord of the Rings TV series, set in the Second Age of Middle-earth's history, and Warner Brothers' War of the Rohirrim animated film are based on notes and outlines left behind by J.R.R. Tolkien rather than actual novels. HBO's House of the Dragon TV series is based on a couple of chapters in George R.R. Martin's "fake history" of Westeros and Essos, Fire and Blood, rather than a full novel (though they have the benefit of being able to call on Martin for advice), and several other spin-off projects in development are based on even less. Netflix has developed a Witcher animated film and a full prequel mini-series which they've had to create from scratch (though again they've been able to enlist novelist Andrzej Sapkowski as a consultant). Sony and Amazon are probably kicking themselves at not securing the full screen rights to the franchise at an earlier date.

The movie trilogy appears to be adapting the primary backstory event in the history of the novels: the War of the Shadow. The books depict the Age of Legends as a time of peace and prosperity with humanity using the One Power - a highly regimented form of sorcery - to create a utopia of equality and prosperity. However, an experiment into using the Power goes awry, letting a force of profound evil enter the world. Society gradually collapses over the course of a century, leading into a devastating global war which kills billions. Eventually, under the leadership of Lews Therin Telamon, the man nicknamed "The Dragon," humanity is victorious and seals the source of evil away again, but at the moment of triumph the male half of the One Power is corrupted, sending every male channeller (magic-user) insane on the instant, devastating the world in their madness. The female-led Aes Sedai emerge in the aftermath of this chaos to restore order to the world. The events of the Wheel of Time novel series take place some 3,400 years later, by which time humanity has managed to drag itself back to a semi-Renaissance level of technology and development, but the return of the "Dragon Reborn" (Lews Therin's reincarnation) and a renewed War of the Shadow looms large over the world.

Screenwriter Zack Stentz has some reasonable form, co-writing the screenplays to Thor and X-Men: First Class (both in 2011), as well as co-writing Agent Cody Banks and writing Netflix's Rim of the World. He has also written multiple episodes of Andromeda, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fringe, The Flash and Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous.

So far the project is only in development; Radar will have to find a major studio partner to provide the immense budget such as project would need, and that might only be viable once the TV show debuts and if it is a success.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

HOUSE OF THE DRAGON adds two new castmembers

Game of Thrones prequel/spin-off show House of the Dragon has added two new actresses.

Milly Alcock (Reckoning, The Gloaming, Fighting Season) and Emily Carey (Wonder Woman, Get Even) are playing younger versions of Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower, respectively. Emma D'Arcy and Olivia Cooke are playing the adult versions of the characters in the show.

This indicates that the show may have flashbacks, or will start in an earlier time period before moving to the "present day" of the story, during the build-up to the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons, when two branches of House Targaryen, both equipped with dragons, clash over the Iron Throne.

Filming of the series is continuing at the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden, near London. Recently, a large, red castle facade was seen being built, possibly to stand in for the Red Keep of King's Landing. The show has completed location filming in Cornwall and will move to location filming in Spain and Portugal in the near future. Production is expected to run into the autumn, ahead of a possible spring 2022 debut.

TIE FIGHTER gets a stunning fan-made remake

The iconic 1994 video game TIE Fighter has gotten a comprehensive remake from fans.

TIE Fighter: Total Conversion is a mod for X-Wing Alliance, the 1999 semi-sequel to TIE Fighter featuring a much better engine. The mod is a spinoff of the X-Wing Alliance Upgrade mod, which replaces all of the game's models and textures with much more modern equivalents whilst retaining the classic gameplay.

The game revamps all 13 campaigns from the original game and its two expansions, for a total of 104 missions. The game also features 41 "reimagined" missions, with many more ships (including the Super Star Destroyer Executor in some cases) added to the original missions to dramatically increase the size and scope of the battles. The mod also, impressively, supports VR.

To play the game, you'll need a copy of X-Wing: Alliance from GoG, a download and install of the X-Wing Alliance Upgrade mod, and a download and install of the TIE Fighter: Total Conversion mod, all of which are fairly self-explanatory.

Monday 5 July 2021

RIP Richard Donner

The news has broken that director Richard Donner - who created the first superhero mega-blockbuster with Superman, setting the scene for all that followed - has passed away at the age of 91.

Donner, a native of the Bronx in New York City, started his career in television as an actor. However, he decided his skills lay more behind the camera and became first an assistant director and then a full director of commercials and television, starting out in westerns such as Wanted: Dead or Alive and The Rifleman. In the 1960s he became a prolific TV director for shows like Get Smart, The Fugitive and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Arguably his best-known work in this time period was Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, an episode of The Twilight Zone starring William Shatner and which showcased his talent for building suspense on a tight budget.

He directed his first feature, X-15, in 1961 but his TV work kept him busy, and he only directed two more films that decade, Salt and Pepper (1968) and Lola (1969). His fourth film, the horror thriller The Omen (1976), was a surprise smash hit and made his name. Whilst debating what project to tackle next, he was contacted by Ilya and Alexander Salkind, who had bought the film rights to DC Comics' Superman character in 1973. They had developed an epic story spanning two movies and been through a long list of directors, including George Lucas, who had passed to make Star Wars, and Steven Spielberg, who was already committed to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Donner had been committed to making The Omen II, but the Salkinds changed his mind by offering him $1 million. The Salkinds delivered the script for the two movies, totalling 550 pages, which Donner considered to be more than twice as long as was feasible to fit into two two-hour films. A hasty rewrite cut the script down to something sane.

Donner spent eighteen months shooting Superman and about three-quarters of Superman II; budget concerns led the team to halting work on the second film and focusing on the first movie, which was released to critical acclaim and massive commercial success in 1978. Donner had a falling-out with the Salkinds during the publicity tour for the film and they decided not to invite him back for Superman II and instead asked producer Richard Lester to complete the film. Lester did so, offering Donner a co-director's credit which Donner angrily refused. The move was highly controversial, with multiple actors expressing anger over the situation (Donner had been a highly popular presence on set) and multiple crewmembers declining to return, either out of loyalty to Donner or because they found Lester impossible to work with (including mild-mannered composer John Williams).

Despite the controversy, Superman II was released to critical acclaim in 1980. In 2006, as part of the publicity drive for Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, Donner finally completed his Director's Cut of the film, using material moved into the first Superman film during production as well as material that had never seen the light of day before, as well as unused footage from the first film.

Donner's career initially appeared damaged by the controversy, as his next films Inside Moves (1980) and The Toy (1982) did not do well. However, he returned to prominence with a Steven Spielberg collaboration which became a huge cult hit, The Goonies (1985), and the cult fantasy film Ladyhawke (1985). His next monster smash hit was Lethal Weapon (1987). He returned for the sequels Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), 3 (1992) and 4 (1998). He also enjoyed success with Scrooged (1988) and Maverick (1994). He also served as a producer on Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000). His last film before retirement was the Bruce Willis action thriller 16 Blocks (2006).

Richard Donner was an old-school Hollywood director who managed the difficult transition to the behemothic blockbusters of the 1980s and 1990s. He enjoyed a lengthy career in television and film, working alongside many of Hollywood's greatest actors. Widely-praised by his acting colleagues for his integrity and affability on set, as well as his refusal to take nonsense from studio bureaucrats, he had an eye for detail, character, atmosphere and action, and was as adept at suspenseful horror as he was wide-scale action and character comedy. To this day, he can be said to have directed the two finest Superman movies ever made (despite the attempts of others). He will certainly be missed.

Saturday 3 July 2021

Star Trek: Nemesis

A coup has taken place on the Romulan homeworld, with the new ruler emerging from the ranks of the Reman underclass, a secondary race treated almost as slaves by the Romulans themselves. This curious chain of events attracts the attention of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who is dispatched by the Federation to respond to a peace initiative by the Reman leader, Shinzon. However, Shinzon has lured Picard into a trap for his own purposes.

Released in 2002, Nemesis was the tenth feature film in the Star Trek franchise and the fourth to feature the crew from Star Trek: The Next Generation. In some respects it should have been a big hit: it had a new creative team, with hot writer-of-the-moment John Logan penning a script to be directed by the promising Stuart Baird. Paramount hoped to replicate the creative refresh that took place before Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which also tapped franchise newcomers (writer-producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer in that case) to reinvigorate the series.

This move proved to be less successful when it comes to Nemesis. The film doesn't quite deserve the near-ludicrous critical kicking it's taken in the almost twenty years since release, though it is still a bitty and poorly-conceived movie that can't quite work out what it wants to be.

At its heart, the film seems to be trying to be a two-handed face-off between Patrick Stewart's Picard and Tom Hardy's Shinzon, who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be a clone of Picard. How the Romulans acquired Picard's DNA is never established. Hardy is, of course, now one of the biggest stars in the world thanks to multiple strong roles in numerous films and TV shows, but he was a virtual unknown when he made Nemesis and is a less confident performer, without the presence and gravitas required to go toe-to-toe with Stewart. However, he is not helped by the script, which even acknowledges that Shinzon taking so much time out from his plans to taunt Picard is ridiculous. His plans also seem somewhat vague, with it being unclear why he wants to attack Earth and how he was able to build such a huge, super-warship so easily.

The film also suffers from stodgy pacing. The film has - at least on paper - a reasonable build-up, with the discovery of the B4 android giving way to the political story with the Romulans, and a climactic, major space battle where the Enterprise-E shows what it can do in a fight. However, the middle of the film feels missing. Character-building scenes (including a subplot expanding on Troi's telepathic assault by Shinzon) were left on the cutting room floor in favour of dull set pieces like Picard running around on Shinzon's ship for no apparent reason. It's also less than clear why the vast and somewhat bigoted Romulan Empire, with a huge military and many worlds under its control, has allowed a human clone to take it over as a ruler.

All of that said, the film has some redeeming features. The early set-piece with Picard and Data getting into hijinks on a speedy buggy is random, but fun. Brent Spiner gives a good performance both as Data and the B4 android, and Patrick Stewart is also, as usual, outstanding. Marina Sirtis has a bit more to do as Counsellor Troi (who has not been well-served by these films so far), although again Gates McFadden might as well have not bothered showing up. There's some humorous exchanges that work well and Hardy, though inexperienced, gives a reasonably a promising performance. An unrecognisable Ron Perlman is also typically menacing as the Reman Viceroy, and it's good to finally see Jonathan Frakes' Commander Riker get his very long-delayed promotion to captain. The visual effects are pretty good and it's refreshing to see the Enterprise-E fighting an cloaked ship with more intelligent tactics (including just blanketing the area with phase fire to see where the cloaked ship is). There's also some great set pieces during the battles, such as the ramming scene.

Although these positive moments are welcome, they can't make up for the stodgy pacing, the floundering middle act and the pointlessness (admittedly more obvious in hindsight) of the B4 storyline. Nemesis had a hard time anyway, going up against The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets at the box office and with a four-year gap since the previous, underwhelming film in the franchise (not to mention Star Trek franchise fatigue, which was also impacting the Enterprise TV series), but these problems pretty much sank the film franchise until JJ Abrams came to the rescue seven years later.

Star Trek: Nemesis (**½) has some solid character beats and action scenes, but the film feels thematically and structurally unsound, with a villain who doesn't quite work and some really poor pacing. An underwhelming and forgettable entry to the franchise, and a disappointing bow-out for most of the TNG castmembers.

Thursday 1 July 2021

Noah Hawley confirms his ALIENS TV series will bring the xenomorph to Earth

Noah Hawley, the much-feted writer of Fargo and Legion, is working on an Aliens TV series for FX as his next project.

The writer had been working on a Star Trek movie for Paramount, but apparently Paramount shelved his idea because it had been revolving around new characters rather than established players. Shrugging, Hawley has swapped one classic SF universe for another, even finding time to pen a novel (Anthem, due in January 2022) inbetween.

He has confirmed that his Aliens project will bring the xenomorphs to Earth for the first time in the main series (they did appear on Earth in the non-canon, Aliens vs. Predator splinter timeline, and in comics and novels) and apparently the Weyland-Yutani Company is finally going to reap what it sows when the xenos run amok in their white collar heartland.

Hawley has confirmed that series regular Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) will not appear, saying he feels her story is complete, and the series will rely on brand new characters. He also confirmed that he wants to make a fifth and final season of Fargo that ties the whole series together and gives it a definitive conclusion, but that's a bit further off at the moment.

The Aliens TV series is currently planned to go into production in early 2022, probably to debut on screen in 2023.

Far Cry: New Dawn

Seventeen years ago, the world was devastated in an unexpected nuclear war. People are attempting to rebuild, but they are at the mercy of raiders and pirates. One remote community in Hope County, Montana are under siege by a group of thugs known as the Highwaymen. To survive, they call for support from a group determined to rebuild civilisation. Forming an alliance, they reluctantly conclude to stop the Highwaymen they need the help of a third faction...the surviving members of the cult known as Eden's Gate. An alliance of convenience needs to be formed to drive out the lawlessness, and put right what went wrong a long time ago.

Far Cry: New Dawn is the latest game in the Far Cry series (at least until the release of Far Cry 6 later this year) and is the third stand-alone expansion in the series. Ubisoft are determined to get the maximum worth of their development money from this series, so for the last three titles in the franchise they've re-used the previous game's map and set about creating new story from the same source material. Blood Dragon drew on Far Cry 3's map and design, though in a different genre, whilst Primal re-used Far Cry 4's map in a visit to the Stone Age of tens of thousands of years earlier. New Dawn similarly repurposes the map and many of the assets, flora and fauna of 2018's Far Cry 5, but this time in a direct sequel, if not a continuation, of the former game.

Far Cry 5 had a rough reception, with fans and critics praising its graphics, stealth and combat but criticising its bitty, poorly-characterised story, incomprehensible pacing decisions designed to make playing the game as obnoxious as possible and its utterly surreal, non-sequitur ending. Having played New Dawn at least some of the problems are now much clearer: Far Cry 5 is a narratively incomplete game that punts its proper finale off to this sequel, which oddly was not mentioned anywhere in the marketing on release and one feels it perhaps should have been.

New Dawn at least acknowledges some of the criticisms of its forebear. You'll be happy to know that at exactly no point in this game are you inexplicably kidnapped from a helicopter a thousand feet in the air, surrounded by allies, by the bad guys who then inexplicably let you live to murder all of them later on. If you don't want to follow the main story and just want to dick around in the open world shooting rabbits, you are free to do that with no penalty. The game, belatedly, understands that an open-world game means giving the player the choice to do what they want to do, when they want to, and backs off from ramming its narrative down your throat.

That said, the story is somewhat more coherent and interesting this time around, though not exactly original. You are called in to help build the town of Prosperity up and defend it from attack. You can upgrade its walls and services, such as a helipad, herb-growing garden and medical facilities. These not only make the town more defensible, but also impact on yourself: in a nice touch, upgrading Prosperity upgrades your own stats, so updating the medical facility means you enlarge your own health bar. At various points you can take on a main story objective to push the story forwards, although be warned that the storyline is quite short and pushing forwards with it too decisively will make the experience end relatively quickly.

The moment-to-moment gameplay is very similar to Far Cry 5. You'll be attacking outposts and capturing them for the resistance, seizing their supplies to improve your own war machine. In a nice touch, you can now abandon outposts and let them be re-taken by the enemy, so you can attack them again and get even more supplies (including the very rare ethanol, which is needed to upgrade Prosperity's facilities). Every time you do this, the outpost is refortified even more heavily than before, creating an escalating sense of challenge. There are also plenty of much smaller sites of interest you can investigate and ransack for supplies, often with some stories to discover along the way via notes and audio logs.

Although the game uses the Far Cry 5 map, it's a now a post-apocalyptic setting (with some surface similarities to the Fallout series). Some parts of the map are no longer accessible, having taken direct hits from nukes at the end of the first game and now covered in radiation, whilst the wildlife has been mildly mutated. Some areas are now flooded. The most striking change are flowers, which are now coloured purple and give the landscape a dramatically different look and feel, even though the topography is identical. Newer buildings have been erected in areas where in Far Cry 5 there was only grassland or forest, whilst older buildings from the previous game are now overgrown or partially collapsed. The new feel to the game is quite well-done, and exploration feels more rewarding.

Stealth and combat is still the cornerstone of the Far Cry experience and both are reasonably well-handled, with satisfying gunplay and the relative scarcity of supplies making some old tactics a bit harder to implement; there is no silenced sniper rifle in the first weapons tier, meaning it'll be a while before you get your hands on one, which encourages a change in tactics. NPC allies are also less overpowered than they were in Far Cry 5, meaning no more calling in tactical air strikes to wipe out an outpost before you wander in and take it over. However, I did encounter more problems with hitboxes in New Dawn than any prior game in the series; several times sniper bullets went straight through enemies without harming them, which is a very strange problem, one not present in earlier games in the series (including the near-identical Far Cry 5).

To pump out its otherwise short playing time, the game has the usual roster of activities (including hunting and combat challenges, a small number of treasure hunts, stealing enemy fuel tankers, freeing prisoners etc) enhanced by a new idea: Expeditions. These are short, focused missions taking place in completely new locations off the main map. These include objectives like assaulting a beached aircraft carrier captured by the enemy; salvaging the crashed International Space Station; and ejecting enemies from a flooded amusement park in Louisiana (which I was not aware was in comfortable helicopter range of Montana, but okay). These are fun missions, but surprisingly easy and with very few enemies to fight off. In fact, it's completely doable to just rush to the objective, then to the evac zone without even engaging the enemy (perhaps only to fend them off whilst waiting for the chopper to arrive). I discovered later on that this is because the missions are supposed to be repeated like the outposts, with each mission getting a lot harder each time. This way they get 21 Expeditions out of just 7 locations (the same as getting 30 outpost missions out of just 10 outpost locations). I kind of respect the idea - getting the most out of limited and expensive assets is sensible - but in practice it means that you're not seeing these locations at their best the first time you visit them, which doesn't give much reason to return. You can also satisfyingly finish the game by visiting each Expedition location only once and doing the Outpost cycle maybe twice at best.

Eventually, once you've upgraded Prosperity, retaken the outposts a couple of times and completed all the Expeditions, you can press on with the story. As with most Far Cry games, the writers have tried to create iconic villains, this time around a duo of dastardly sisters, Lou and Mickey. They're better adversaries than Far Cry 5's godawful Seed family but still not that particularly interesting. Even worse, the game brings back the aforementioned godawful Seed family in its closing chapters, which I could have done without. Still, at least New Dawn rounds off this most tedious of storylines for good.

New Dawn is not a long game - seeing everything of interest in the game will take you south of 25 hours - but it does pack a more condensed and focused version of the Far Cry experience into an accessible package. It's not as obnoxious as Far Cry 5, and its combat and core gameplay loop is fairly enjoyable. However, it is straining at the limitations of obvious budgetary and time limitations, forcing you to repeat mission tasks and locations rather than just giving you more mission and locations of interest. I'm also not a huge fan of the developers using New Dawn to fix problems from Far Cry 5 instead of fixing the mothership game itself, although I suppose this is better than the problems going resolutely unignored.

Far Cry: New Dawn (***½) is a solid, medium-sized entry to the series and provides a good few hours of enjoyable action gameplay. However, the format that the series has employed through no less than six games since Far Cry 3 is starting to creak from overfamiliarity, and it'll be interesting to see if the forthcoming Far Cry 6 can freshen things up at all. The game is available now on PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4.