Thursday 30 September 2021

For All Mankind: Season 2

1983. NASA is running away with the Space Race. It has a permanently-manned lunar outpost, Jamestown, and an entire fleet of space shuttles to service installations in orbit. It is already developing a second-generation, nuclear-powered shuttle called Pathfinder and has its eyes set firmly on Mars. However, mixed support in Congress threatens to derail its Martian ambitions and escalating tensions with the Soviet Union, including armed confrontations over contested lithium mining sites on the moon, put the safety of the entire world in doubt. The astronauts of NASA and their families find themselves on the front line of what could be the start of World War III, or the beginning of a new, peaceful age of cooperation.

For All Mankind's journey through an alternate history of the 20th and 21st centuries continues in the second of seven planned seasons (a third has already wrapped filming and should air in 2022). A ten-year time jump between seasons brings us almost to a Utopian view of the 1980s, where technology is more advanced than it really was thanks to the advances of America's hyper-charged space programme. Electric cars are becoming commonplace, the Columbia-class space shuttle has already been in service for years, and a combination of extremely lucrative patents and the heartfelt support of President Reagan means NASA has funds and resources it couldn't even dream of in reality. It's a giddy view of the Space Race which masks deeper problems.

As in reality, the growing gulf in technology and capability between the rapidly-advancing United States and the stagnating Soviet Union is creating renewed, dangerous tensions on Earth, in orbit and on the moon. The US military is getting more and more involved with the space programme, advocating putting weapons on shuttles and on the moon, and using the "high ground" of orbital space to overcome the USSR's ability to launch a nuclear first strike or respond in kind to one. Like Battlestar Galactica before it, For All Mankind dips into an interesting place where the military, ethical, scientific and political ramifications of events overlap, throwing up thorny dilemmas where each perspective makes valid points so it's hard to entirely come down on one side or another. For All Mankind also introduces more Russian characters and has the USA making some horrendous misjudgements, meaning the Soviet perspective is also more readily understood.

As with the first year, For All Mankind roots the fascination of its alternate history (where John Lennon survived his assassination attempt, but Pope John Paul II did not) in compelling character arcs. Our primary POV characters are once again the Baldwin family, astronaut Ed now working as the head of the astronaut programme at NASA and his wife Karen having taken over the Outpost, the old astronaut drinking ground which has now become a tourist trap. Recovering from their death of their son Shane in the first season, they have adopted a Vietnamese orphan, Kelly. During the season Ed makes the decision to return to space and Kelly decides to apply to join the US Navy and find her birth parents, all decisions which stress out Karen, leading her to make some questionable choices.

A second major story arc follows the ongoing issues of the family Stevens. Gordo has left front-line space service after his mini-breakdown in Season 1, and now works as a public speaker and in the back office. An opportunity to return to Jamestown forces him to confront his demons. His now ex-wife Tracy has become the public face of the space programme, to the consternation of fellow astronauts who think she's putting more effort into appearing on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show than on her actual job. Their sons have taken dramatically differing career paths, one living at home with his father and the other joining the US military.

Further storylines follow retiring astronaut Ellen, who takes over as a senior administrator at NASA and quickly wins the admiration and wholehearted political support of President Reagan and the Republican Party, to her consternation as a closeted lesbian. However, she also believes her growing political profile will help get NASA and humanity to Mars. Margo continues in her role as a senior NASA figure, but her loneliness leads her to making some potentially dangerous decisions. Subplots follow Aleida, the young girl dreaming of the stars in the first season, as she joins NASA as an engineer; Molly Cobb's health after she ill-advisedly sustains a massive dose of radiation during a solar storm; and a Russian cosmonaut trying to defect to the United States via their moonbase.

The second season is more serialised than the first, which at times felt almost like an anthology series as it spanned four years and various topics including the recruitment of female astronauts, the intersection of civil rights and the space programme, and the psychological impact of space travel. The second season is instead focused around a pivotal period of a few months. This is good in that the season feels more of a piece and more epic, but it also strains the show's ability to give everyone a compelling story arc. In particular, Karen feels a little lost in the mix and Aleida's thread starts and stops a lot, in contrast to the much meatier and more satisfying storyline for the Stevens, Ed and the crew of Jamestown.

The series also feels like it's lost its scientific credentials, or at least strained them. In real life, the space shuttle could not fly to the moon and certainly couldn't land after returning (the shuttle would not survive re-entry at the speeds reached on lunar return mission). Given there's only a couple of shots of the shuttle flying to the moon and other spacecraft are available (including upgraded Apollos and the spectacular Sea Dragon seen in the Season 1 finale and throughout Season 2), it's odd why they insist on depicting it as a lunar return vehicle.

Season 2 also deals with the realities of characters ageing by...not bothering to depict them. The characters were already older than the actors playing them by some years in Season 1, so extending that by another decade in Season 2 with no effort to make up the actors is sometimes distractingly weird (with a 35-year-old actress playing a 53-year old character supposedly having an affair with a 20-ish-year-old played by an actor in his mid-twenties, making that storyline not land at all the way it was supposed to). It's only a few cases of child actors being swapped out for newcomers where it feels that any time has passed at all. I'm assuming that for Season 3, which picks up twelve years after the end of Season 2, they'll have no choice but to age up the characters more convincingly.

Season 2 also has a bit of a mid-season dip into melodrama. Kelly looking for her birth parents, the Stevens' marriage woes and Karen's business and personal decisions aren't bad storylines per se, but they feel a bit too soap-opera-ish and divorced from the big-picture storylines elsewhere, in contrast to say Ellen's personal storyline which dovetails superbly into the grander political picture.

Still, if things dip a little in the middle, they pick up momentum towards the end. The final two episodes form a season finale as outrageously good as any other show's in the last decade, packed with human drama, heroism and political brinksmanship, although we could have maybe done without the BSG trope of allies aiming handguns at one another whilst making speeches, and everyone being just fine with that five minutes later. The finale transitions us, via a surprisingly well-judged use of Nirvana, into the 1990s and another shift in geopolitical fortunes which should give us a very interesting third season.

For All Mankind's (****½) second season starts well, dips in the middle, but roars back strong at the end with an outstanding run of episodes that make the wait for Season 3 feel very interminable indeed. The season is available now worldwide on Apple TV.

Monday 27 September 2021

BABYLON 5 reboot in development with J. Michael Straczynski in charge

It's been rumoured and discussed many times over the years, but something is now officially happening: a Babylon 5 reboot is in the planning stages with original creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski attached.

The new project is being helmed by the CW, although reportedly the show will retain a similar sensibility to the original and will not skew younger, as a lot of their content does. The show will open with Earthforce officer John Sheridan being assigned to Babylon 5, a massive space station serving as a diplomatic exchange and trade hub. Simultaneously with his arrival, an exploratory Earth mission inadvertently triggers a conflict with a more advanced alien civilisation, threatening humanity and several other races.

So far, this is only a development announcement and the show has not yet been greenlit to series or a pilot stage. It is unclear if any of Babylon 5's other creative forces are involved, such as fellow executive producer John Copeland, composer Christopher Franke or the visual effects team, or if any of the actors from the original series such as Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Patricia Tallman, Peter Jurasik or Bill Mumy may return in new roles.

A reboot was considered the more likely form for the show to take, due to the deaths of so many original series actors (including Michael O'Hare, Jerry Doyle, Richard Biggs, Mira Furlan, Andreas Katsulas and Stephen Furst) making a sequel series unlikely. The original show is also considered a cult success without the familiarity of, say, a Star Trek or Star Wars, making a reboot of the original story more viable.

The original incarnation of Babylon 5 debuted in 1993 with a TV movie called The Gathering. Five seasons followed, totalling 110 episodes (with Straczynski writing 93 episodes in total), along with four TV movies and a spin-off series, Crusade, which ran for one season. Straczynski later penned a potential pilot for a second spin-off, Legends of the Rangers, and a straight-to-DVD movie in 2007 called Babylon 5: The Lost Tales. Warner Brothers expressed an interest in developing more content, but Straczynski bailed out of the project due to a lack of budget and interest in developing a spin-off feature film he'd penned. The franchise also extended to tabletop roleplaying games, miniatures wargames and a line of novels.

Babylon 5 won two Hugo Awards during its time on air and attracted immense acclaim for its heavily serialised, pre-planned story arc at a time when most TV shows were still episodic. Babylon 5's structure and storytelling ambitions inspired other writers, including Damon Lindelof, Joss Whedon and the Wachowskis, whilst Ronald D. Moore consulted with Straczynski during the development of his take on Battlestar Galactica. Babylon 5's epic story and meticulous worldbuilding drew on sources such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury and British SFF shows Blake's 7The Prisoner and Doctor Who for inspiration, as well as the original Star Trek (Straczynski tapped a number of writers from the original Star Trek to work on the show in its first season). The show also won numerous awards for its cutting-edge (for the time) digital effects, which paved the way for CGI dominate the TV visual effects industry.

Warner Brothers recently released a high definition remaster of the original series on streaming services worldwide. Although the live action footage looks vastly superior, the CGI is variably upscaled.

Straczynski's star has risen since Babylon 5, with him penning multiple successful comic books, developing the story for the 2011 Thor movie (as well as cameoing in the film), being nominated for an Oscar for his script for the 2008 movie Changeling and co-writing the Netflix series Sense8 with the Wachowskis. Straczynski recently released a well-received autobiography, Becoming Superman, and a new novel called Together We Will Go. He also recently completed the editing of his friend Harlan Ellison's fifty-year-gestating short story anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, which is expected for publication next year.

This is a promising development, although fans will likely be concerned that the CW is developing the property rather than HBO or HBO Max, which could perhaps give the series the resources and exposure it deserves. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

Sunday 26 September 2021

For All Mankind: Season 1

June, 1969. The world watches with bated breath as the first manned mission to the moon touches down. The mission is a success, and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov makes his name in history as the first human to successfully land on another astronomical body. American President Nixon is utterly furious and extols NASA to greater lengths to catch up to the Soviet Union and overtake it. When the Soviets land a woman on the moon, NASA is forced to dust off the Mercury 13 proposal to send female astronauts into space. When the Soviets begin prospecting for water, the organisation is told to go one better and land the first-ever permanantly-manned base on the surface.

For All Mankind is a counterfactual or alt-history SF story, taking as the point of divergence the premature death of Sergei Korolev in 1966. Korolev was a prime mover in the Soviet space programme and helped push the USSR into putting the first satellite and the first man in space, ahead of the Americans. His death and the resulting infighting to succeed him delayed Soviet plans for their own lunar programme. With him surviving in this alternate timeline, the USA and USSR remain locked in the space programme for many more years, trading "firsts" as they seek to outdo one another.

The idea of an alternate history is intriguing, but the show - spearheaded by Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran Ronald D. Moore - recognises that that is not enough by itself. The story needs to be rooted in its characters and their lives. The story pursues several story arcs across the first season to this end. In one, Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) strives to overcome his inability to keep his mouth shut and his lack of confidence in being a father to win the manned moonflight mission he craves. His friend and colleague Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) enjoys the rock star elements of being a hotshot test pilot and astronaut a little too much, to the despair of his wife Tracy (Sarah Jones), herself a skilled pilot. Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) is trying to become a NASA flight controller, but is held back by her lack of political acumen and her close association with Saturn V designer Wernher Von Braun (Colm Feore), whose brilliance has helped America get into space but whose Nazi affiliations during WWII continue to undermine public confidence.

Subplots follow the formation of a new training programme for female astronauts, including Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger), Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) and Ellen Wilson (Jodi Baldfour), along with Tracy Stevens. Spanning as it does the late 1960s and early 1970s, the show touches base with the civil rights movement, with Danielle serving as the first African-American trainee astronaut, and lesbian Ellen trying to keep the details of her love life a secret.

The show is exacting in its commitment to real science and technology of the period, including some very clever ideas such as repurposing Skylab into a lunar base module when the President decides they need a moonbase yesterday. The early missions, using the actual Apollo technology of the day, are recreated in impressive detail, with some intriguing variances from the norm: Apollo 11 has such a rough landing (Neil Armstrong picking a different and more difficult landing spot than he did in reality) that later missions are checked over in greater detail, leading to Apollo 13 flying without a hitch. The show's absolute high point in terms of visual effects is the landing of Apollo 15 at the edge of Shackleton Crater in the fifth episode, which is just a jaw-dropping moment.

The first half of the season spans two years and takes in a lot of plot points and ideas, making the most of its long episodes (several top an hour) to tell almost self-contained stories about training, politics and the scientific challenges of space travel, not to mention the danger. In a clever move, although actors play key real NASA figures such as Von Braun and Armstrong, all the footage of politicians use real archival footage, sometimes slightly tweaked with effects, with sound-alike actors giving an air of authenticity to proceedings. This is particularly impressive when Ted Kennedy (who in this timeline misses a certain party because of Senate hearings on the greatly expanded space programme and thus avoids the major scandal that derailed his career) becomes President, since obviously there's no archival footage of him as President to use, so the vfx crew get pretty creative in how they sell that.

The second half of the season focuses onto a period of several months and kicks off with a major catastrophe which destroys a relief mission to the moon, leaving three astronauts stranded at their base without hope of relief in the near future. They struggle to deal with being stuck in close confines with one another, with mental health problems being compounded by evidence that a rival Soviet base is up to no good. This story becomes more epic, with family crises back on Earth and a second relief mission which also runs into trouble, in an Apollo 13-on-steroids kind of way, which requires some ingenious solutions. The shift in gears sees the show come into its own, and become a triumph of modern science fiction screen storytelling.

For All Mankind's first season (****½) is a success, with some outstanding writing, acting and extremely impressive effects (the odd ropy explosion here and there excepted). The show's alternate history is sold so convincingly that it's easy to forget that this never happened, and in real life we may be lucky to get back to the moon this decade, sixty years on. But the show does feel like a vindication of science fiction. The premise is similar to Stephen Baxter's novel Voyage, whilst a lot of it feels like it draws on Arthur C. Clarke's assertion that the Vietnam War would have paid for everything he and Stanley Kubrick depicted on screen in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Vietnam still happens, but ends much earlier in the show's timeline). It's a show that feels simultaneously nostalgic but forwards-thinking, and it always compelling to watch. The show is available worldwide now on Apple+.

The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

King Orso has won an unlikely military victory over a rebel army led by the popular Leo dan Brock. Leo is badly wounded, his life spared only by the king's mercy (and love for Leo's wife, Savine dan Glokta). But Midderland, the heart of the Union, is in open rebellion. Revolutionary fervour has swept the island and the Great Change is underway. Fortunes rise and fall rapidly and the fate of nations will be decided by the wisdom of the crowds.

The Wisdom of Crowds concludes the Age of Madness trilogy, Joe Abercrombie's latest work in his First Law world. This trilogy has been a remarkable success, Abercrombie doing what he does best - cynical humour, bone-crunching action and enjoyably knotty plotting - and adding a dash of satirical intrigue.

The Wisdom of Crowds goes full revolution on us, and anyone who's never studied the history of the French and Russian revolutions will be aware of how difficult it is to comprehend why a superficially well-ordered, law-abiding society will suddenly collapse into anarchy. Abercrombie used the first two novels in the series to lay the groundwork for the civil strife within the Union, which the victories in the first two novels only vaguely papered over, and here it explodes with full force. We get to see kangaroo courts, horrific crimes being justified by "the will of the people," and the walking-through-broken-glass maneuverings required by those who worked with the old order but are too useful for the new one to throw away. It's an unusual place for fantasy to go, but it mostly works well, even if the misery inflicted on specific characters and the Union in general feels like it might be a bit over-egged in the mid-running of the book.

The situation in the Union is broken up by a major subplot in the North, where Rikke has taken the throne in Carleon but her rule is shaky. Enemies are marching on the city, and Rikke's inability to charm and win people over sees her losing her allies just when she needs them. The North may feel like the most cyclical part of the First Law world - we've seen battles and conflicts up there repeatedly in the original trilogy, The Heroes and in this new trilogy - but Abercrombie is still able to make the politics and conflicts interesting, even if certain plot twists can be seen from a mile off.

As usual, Abercrombie's work is rooted in characterisation. The Age of Madness has probably his most complex and nuanced cast of characters to date, with it being possible to both hate and admire the likes of Savine, Leo and Orso, often in the same chapter. They are desperately flawed people who are trying to do what they feel is right, sometimes getting it right and sometimes making an apocalyptic excrement-sandwich of it, and are never less than interesting. This works better for some characters than others: the big three and Vic are very-well handled, but Broad's character development feels a bit limited and even somewhat contrived, as if he's a plot point a little too obviously being set up to do one particular thing in the finale. In addition, the character of Judge altogether lacks the rich depth we expect of Abercrombie antagonists, and comes across as just a psycho for the sake of it, which is disappointing.

The ending of the book is outstanding, though, being as gloriously messy as ever, with winners and losers and those winners and losers not necessarily being the ones you expect. There are some terrific reveals and terrifying reversals, and a lot of plot guns that have been set up over not just this trilogy but the preceding stand-alone novels being fired in a satisfying manner. The only big downside from the ending is that there is a bit too much setup work being down for more books in the First Law world (and, indeed, Abercrombie has indicated another trilogy is likely, possibly with more stand-alones first). We even get a last-chapter prophecy which feels like a trailer for what comes next. With Abercrombie off to a fresh world for his next project, The Devils, it may be a while before we get back to this world.

Reading like the demented literary love-child of Terry Pratchett and David Gemmell, The Wisdom of Crowds (****½) rounds off this trilogy in style. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday 25 September 2021

THE WITCHER renewed for a third season

Netflix have renewed The Witcher for a third season, ahead of the second season dropping in December. The franchise will also be getting a second animated movie and a spin-off aimed at younger viewers.

The Witcher's first season was a huge success when it landed on Netflix in 2019. Production of the second season was repeatedly delayed due to the ongoing COVID19 pandemic, but wrapped several months ago. An animated spin-off movie, Nightmare of the Wolf, did well when it was released on Netflix last month.

Season 3 of The Witcher will shoot in 2022 for a likely 2023 premiere. Season 2 will debut on 17 December. A live-action spin-off series, Blood Origin, is currently shooting with Netflix.

Netflix releases the title sequence for COWBOY BEBOP

Netflix have unveiled the title sequence and music for their live-action version of the anime Cowboy Bebop.

The title sequence is very closely based on the anime's original, and uses a fresh arrangement of the classic theme tune "Tank!" Original composer Yoko Kanno oversaw the new version of the theme and will be providing new music for the series itself.

Cowboy Bebop drops its first season on Netflix on 19 November.

Netflix releases first teaser for THE SANDMAN

Netflix has released its first teaser trailer for its adaptation of Neil Gaiman's seminal comic book series, The Sandman.

The teaser comes from the very start of the story, and sees Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) attempting to capture and contain Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), but failing and instead imprisoning her brother, Dream (Tom Sturridge), whom is none too pleased about this turn of events.

Netflix has not yet set a release date for The Sandman, although it is believed they are eyeing an early 2022 release.

Friday 24 September 2021

HOUSE OF THE DRAGON announces more castmembers

HBO has announced more castmembers for its Game of Thrones spin-off prequel series House of the Dragon.

The big news is official confirmation that Scottish actor Graham McTavish has joined the cast as Ser Harrold Westerling of the Kingsguard. McTavish will be familiar to genre audience from roles in Outlander and the Hobbit trilogy, though old-skool SF fans will recognise him from the eighth season of Red Dwarf way back in the day.

An amusing bit of casting is that Jefferson Hall, who briefly played Ser Hugh of the Vale in Season 1 of Game of Thrones, has been cast twice in House of the Dragon. He will be playing Lord Jason Lannister of Casterly Rock and his twin brother Tyland Lannister. Meanwhile, David Horovitch will be playing Grand Maester Mellos, the king's trusted advisor.

Gavin Spokes has been cast as Lord Lyonel Strong, Lord of Harrenhal and Master of Laws on the King's small council. Ryan Corr will be playing his eldest son, Ser Harwin "Breakbones" Strong, whilst Matthew Needham will be playing his younger son, Larys Strong. The Strongs are a powerful and influential family at King Viserys' court.

The newcomers are joining already-announced castmembers Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen, Olivia Cooke as Lady Alicent Hightower, Emma D'Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen, Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon, Rhys Ifans as Ser Otto Hightower, Eve Best as Princess Rhaenys Velaryon, Fabien Frankel as Ser Criston Cole and Sonoya Izuno as Mysaria.

House of the Dragon begins almost 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, with the Targaryens as the undisputed rulers of the Seven Kingdoms. King Viserys Targaryen has ruled peacefully and well for many years, training his young daughter Rhaenyra to succeed him. However, a late second marriage and the arrival of more children muddles the line of succession, as does the reckless behaviour of the king's brother, Prince Daemon. Despite the king's best efforts, the threat of civil war seems to a time when House Targaryen and its allies control no less than seventeen dragons.

House of the Dragon is currently shooting in the UK and is expected to wrap before the end of the year, to debut in the spring or early summer of 2022.

Russell T. Davies returns to guide DOCTOR WHO through its 60th anniversary

In a surprise announcement, it's been confirmed that writer-producer Russell T. Davies is returning to Doctor Who in its 60th anniversary year, and possibly for an extended stay afterwards. He will be helming at least one full season of the show.

Davies previously executive produced and showran the franchise from 2005 to 2010, overseeing the reigns of both Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, the most popular Doctor since the show's return. Davies will also be responsible for choosing the actor likely to play the fourteenth incarnation of the time traveller.

Davies will take over the reigns in 2023. Outgoing producer Chris Chibnall has overseen a curtailed six-part thirteenth season (of the reboot), which was cut from ten episodes due to the ongoing COVID19 pandemic. This season is expected to start airing in November or December this year. Chibnall and incumbent Doctor Jodie Whittaker will return for three specials to air through 2022, with the Doctor expected to regenerate in an extended episode to air at Christmas or New Year's next year. Davies will then take over after that point.

It's unclear if there will be a fourteenth season of the show in 2023, with the 60th anniversary special to air as part of it in November, or a special followed by a full season in 2024.

In potentially more interesting news, from a longer-term perspective, Davies' reign will be run in conjunction with the aptly-named Bad Wolf Productions, an independent production company set up by former Doctor Who producer Julie Gardner and former BBC Controller of Drama Commissioning Jane Tranter, who made the final call in 2003 to bring Doctor Who back from the dead with Davies in creative control. This will mark the first time - aside from the one-off 1996 TV special, produced in conjunction with Fox - that Doctor Who will be produced with a non-BBC production partner. The move may help the show overcome the severe (and worsening) budget problems it has endured as an inhouse BBC production. The show recently moved from the BBC Drama Department to BBC Studios to help alleviate these issues and a coproduction with Bad Wolf may help further.

Bad Wolf recently produced His Dark Materials (a third and final season is currently shooting) alongside the BBC and HBO, and A Discovery of Witches with Sky. It's possible that Bad Wolf could team with an American partner like HBO or BBC America to give Doctor Who a further cash infusion to help it compete in the international marketplace.

Davies himself returns to the show on the crest of a critical wave, having scored two of the most critically-acclaimed British dramas of recent years with near-future dystopian drama Years and Years and period drama It's a Sin. Davies' re-appointment has been seen by some as an attempt to right the ship, with Doctor Who having slipped in relevancy in recent years, with variable ratings and critical acclaim, despite the generally positive reception to Jodie Whittaker in the role of the first female Doctor. Chris Chibnall's writing has come in for heavier criticism.

Other showrunners had been considered, with the high popular American SFF producer J. Michael Straczynski having thrown his hat in the ring. However, the decision to return to Davies is likely to be seen as a confidence-boosting measure and to win back fans who had drifted away in recent years (ratings have been on a gradual downward spiral since Matt Smith's second season in the role, almost ten years ago), as well as re-ignite interest in the USA, where the show's cult profile has dipped in recent years.

The news will come as a relief to many Doctor Who fans, but may disappoint those who were looking for a completely new, fresh voice to take over and guide the show towards the future, not the past.

Thursday 23 September 2021

Ian C. Esslemont sells a million books, outlines his next three MALAZAN novels

Ian Cameron Esslemont, the co-creator of the Malazan universe with Steven Erikson, is enjoying his own level of success. According to his UK publishers, Transworld, he has passed one million books sold, and according to the Edelweiss Catalogue, he has three new Path to Ascendancy novels under contract.

The sale sheets for the next three Path to Ascendancy books - following on from Dancer's Lament, Deadhouse Landing and Kellanved's Reach - are as follows:

Book 4: The Jhistal

This volume develops and details the Malazan expansion into the Falari Peninsula region. Kellanved and Dancer, impatient with the slow and methodical consolidation of the continent of Quon Tali, are up to no good and embroil the Malazan forces in an uprising against the ruling Theocracy of Falar.

These priests have maintained power over all the many islands through the threat of their terror-weapon: the dread 'Jhistal'...

Here readers will discover just what this weapon is, meet a younger Mallick Rel and find out just how the Malazans took the region into their grip. 

ETA: 17 March 2022 (subject to change)

Book 5: tbc

Here we will be documenting and following the emerging Malazan Empire's first landings and foothold in the region of the Seven Cities. Central to this account will be the monumental and notorious attack on the Holy City of Aren.

The emergence of Dassem Ultor, his rising influence and popularity among the military of the empire - together with Surly's growing wariness of it - is all suggestive of his death before the walls of Y'ghatan.

Another path of this story will follow Kellanved and Dancer's exploration of Shadow and beyond, and further steps towards the former's ascension as Shadowthrone. 

ETA: 3 November 2022 (subject to change)

Book 6: tbc

Kellanved and Dancer and company have become ever more powerful and elevated, and are now distant players as we dig down to follow Bridgeburners themselves: Whiskeyjack, Fiddler, Hedge, Trotts, Mallet and others. Yes, the gang's all here and readers will relish being in their company once more!

Battles and encounters in Mott Woods and Black Dog Forest abound and all of this leads readers up to to the point at which this extraordinary multi-faceted, multi-layered epic fantasy saga first began: Gardens of the Moon.

ETA: 9 November 2023 (subject to change)

In addition to the Path to Ascendancy books, Esslemont is also the author of the six-volume Malazan Empire sequence: Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, Stonewielder, Orb Sceptre Throne, Blood and Bone and Assail. He is the co-creator of the universe explored by his friend Steven Erikson in his ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence, the Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novella sequence, The Kharkanas Trilogy and The Witness Trilogy. Steven Erikson has sold over 3.5 million books since his first fantasy novel, Gardens of the Moon, was published in 1999.

Thanks to Jussi at the forum for spotting these figures in the wild.

Tuesday 21 September 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

A thousand years ago, the warlord Xu Wenwu discovered the mystical Ten Rings and gained tremendous powers, including immortality. Wenwu has guided world affairs from behind the scenes ever since, becoming wealthy and powerful. However in 1996 he met and fell in love with a skilled female warrior, Ying Li, guardian of the hidden village of Ta Lo. They had two children. More than twenty years later, after Ying Li's death, Shang-Chi and his sister are summoned back to their father for an important task: rescuing their mother's spirit.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks the proper start of the fourth phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Black Widow being more of an epilogue to the first three). New heroes are arising to deal with a series of threats to a world which is still recovering from the trauma of losing and regaining half its population. Twenty-five movies into a franchise, you could forgive the MCU for slowing down and smelling the roses, but Shang-Chi has no interest in conforming to cliche. Instead, it acts as a breath of fresh air in telling a complete story in its own right as well as hinting at grander things to come.

The film focuses on Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, Awkwafina as his best friend Katy and Meng'er Zhang as Shang-Chi's estranged sister, Xu Xialing. Early scenes have a buddy movie feeling, with Awkwafina stealing every single scene with her impressive comic timing and everywoman WTF responses to the general insanity that goes down, but Liu holds his own thanks to a combination of natural charisma, impressive athletic skills and his own comic timing, honed over five seasons of the TV show Kim's Convenience (seemingly alluded to in a scene where he's mistaken for being Korean).

Hong Kong legend Tony Leung plays Xu Wenwu, who is contemptuous of both the nickname "The Mandarin" (feeling bemused at being referred to as an orange) and the terrorists who used his name to inspire terror across America. Leung achieves an impressive feat by making Wenwu both understandable and sympathetic, despite his undoubted crimes, and giving him a credible motivation revolving around the death of his wife Ying Li (an outstanding Fala Chen, given the small number of scenes she's in). Ben Kingsley also reprises his role as Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3, where he impersonated the Mandarin, and although it feels like he's basically shown up to apologise for that film, he also has some great character moments showing how prison actually worked in reforming him into a more positive person.

The film's signature attraction are the phenomenal action scenes. We've seen a lot of action in the MCU but not quite like this, with a pitch-note perfect combination of visceral, in-camera martial arts performed by actors and stuntmen at the top of their game (the opening bus fight is a masterclass in mixing tight hand-to-hand combat and more fantastical effects-driven carnage), and just the right dusting of CGI to complement but not overwhelm the action, at least until the inevitable Big Marvel Conclusion. Even that works better than most of the films, with the elaborate CGI being tactically deployed in imaginative and genuinely impressive ways. There's some particularly excellent creature work in the finale which feels impressive in its scale and mythic power.

The film is not perfect. Stepping back, the story of a semi-hidden society of more-advanced-than-they-look people who rally for an epic final battle does perhaps enjoy a few closer beats with Black Panther than was strictly necessary, and the mystical hidden city in a remote part of Asia is a trope we've seen several times in this franchise already (in both Doctor Strange and the underwhelming Iron Fist series on Netflix). However, these issues feel relatively minor.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (****½) gets the MCU back on track after the disappointing Black Widow. It has easily the best action and hand-to-hand combat scenes in the entire franchise to date, some excellent comic moments and one of the best, most human villains in the franchise. Great performances, well-handled action and impressive CGI make for an enjoyable blockbuster experience. The film is on general worldwide release now and will hit Disney+ in November.

Black Widow

In 1995, two Russian undercover agents in Ohio steal military secrets from SHIELD and escape to Cuba. The agents' two adopted children, Natasha and Yelena, are taken to the Red Room to train as Black Widows, elite agents. Twenty-one years later, Natasha and Yelena meet again when they discover that their former boss is trying to eliminate them. They have to reunite their family to take on an old enemy.

Black Widow is a bit of an oddball movie. It feels like a bit of an apologetic afterthought, Disney and Marvel giving Scarlett Johansson her own movie after a solid decade of playing great support to Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers in general. However, the movie also feels a little undercooked in terms of ideas and characterisation, whilst overcooked in terms of effects.

The film picks up after Captain America: Civil War and seems to be trying to achieve the same kind of grounded realism as the prior instalment in that sub-series, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This makes sense, as Natasha/Black Widow is one of the least-overpowered heroes in the franchise, being solely reliant on her wits, intelligence and firearms skills. These are formidable, but the movie keeps putting her in slightly ridiculous situations where she's fighting off supersoldiers or running through exploding buildings. Things that would feel perfectly acceptable in a higher-powered Avengers movie feel off here, like Marvel are wasting one of their best assets who works best when the stakes and scope are a bit more focused and less grandiose.

The film is not helped by one of the weakest villains in the franchise: Ray Winstone is a phenomenal actor, capable of comedy and dramatic intensity, but is wasted here with poor writing and motivations, and forcing him to speak with a truly terrible accent. Most of the other actors do better, although you do wonder why there's barely any Russian actors in a film where most of the cast is Russian or from the former Soviet bloc. Rachel Weisz and David Harbour both provide solid support, but it's Florence Pugh who emerges as the movie's MVP with a terrific performance, melding comedy, pathos and tragedy, with a great handling of action. If Pugh has been positioned to inherit Scarlett Johansson's mantle, the film does a pretty good job of that handover.

In other areas the film is only adequate, with a few good action setpieces (Black Widow versus Taskmaster on the bridge), some decent ones (the prison breakout) and some pretty awful ones, drowned in iffy CGI (the grand finale). It's good to see what Natasha and Clint finally did in Budapest, even if it's let down a little by Jeremy Renner not appearing on-screen, and the ending does absolve Natasha of a lot of the guilt she's been carrying around for the whole franchise. I can see why they wanted to do that to the character ahead of her fate in Endgame, but it does sand off the rough, morally ambiguous edges to one of the MCU's most (hitherto) morally compromised and interesting figures.

Black Widow (***) is sold but a little uninspired. It feels a bit too late in the day, and does not service Scarlett Johansson as well as she deserves. However, if the film is not great, it's also not offensively awful and emerges as worth watching for Florence Pugh's scene-and-movie-stealing performance. The film is available via Disney+ worldwide now.

WHEEL OF TIME recasts lead actor for second season

Amazon's Wheel of Time television adaptation has recast one of the major roles for its second season. Barney Harris has left the role of Mat Cauthon and has been replaced by Irish actor Dónal Finn.

Harris had completed shooting of the eight-episode first season, which shot over an extended period of twenty months due to repeated delays during the COVID pandemic. Shooting began on Season 2 earlier this year after only a short break.

The reasons for the recasting are unknown at this time, although other shows have been adversely affected by COVID delays to shooting causing scheduling conflicts with other projects that otherwise would not have taken place.

Although unusual, the situation is not unprecedented: Aml Ameen shot the entire first season of Sense8 for Netflix, but had a falling-out with showrunner Lana Wachowski at the table-read for the second season and was replaced at short notice for Season 2 by Toby Onwumere. Game of Thrones recast the role of Daario Naharis from Ed Skrein, who played him in Season 3, to Michiel Huisman who played him in Seasons 4-6. The role of Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain, was also repeatedly recast with three actors ultimately playing the role.

Like Harris, Finn is a newcomer who has only been active in the business for a couple of years, having graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in 2018. He had a small role in the second episode of The Witcher as Nettly (the peasant who hires Geralt to deal with a devil), and has also appeared in the stage play Albion, the film How to Build a Girl, the short film Love Have I Known and the TV shows SAS: Rogue Heroes and Cursed.

The first season of The Wheel of Time will debut on Amazon Prime on 19 November. Season 2 is expected to air in late 2022.

Monday 20 September 2021

Watch_Dogs: Legion

International hacker collectivist DedSec has been blamed for a series of terrorist bombings that have ripped through London, killing hundreds. The British government has called on private security company Albion to replace the Metropolitan Police and stop further attacks, but the capital is now a morass of security checkpoints, heavily-armed guards with no accountability and constant drone surveillance. DedSec is regrouping with a new mission: to clear its name and expose those responsible for the bombings. But it needs new recruits...

Watch_Dogs: Legion is the third game in the Watch Underscore Dogs series from Ubisoft. The series has, to date, made an entertaining fist of its premise, which is basically being a Tesco own-brand version of Grand Theft Auto with worse driving, combat and storytelling, but the entertaining ability to hack the world around you. This gives the player some control over the environment, allowing you to remotely open gates, take over turrets, seize control of drones and wrestle control over passing cars and send them flying into a river, if you want.

Legion is the third game in the series and introduces a potentially very interesting and powerful idea: the game does not have a set cast of major characters as such. Instead, it allows DedSec to recruit literally any passing character off the street. Using the traditional Watch_Dogs device of scanning each passer-by's mobile phone, you can quickly discover their political leanings, sports team affiliations and medical or criminal history, working out if they'd be a good recruit for DedSec or not. Sometimes the recruitment systems is as easy as asking, "Wanna join DedSec, bruv?" and sometimes it triggers a mission where you have to do them a favour, like rescuing a family member who's being intimidated by thugs or deleting evidence about their criminal behaviour from a server. The only constants are Sabine, the sole survivor of the original London DedSec cell from before the bombings, and Bagley, a powerful AI that has been subverted to DedSec's cause and serves as your omnipresent "man in a van" assistant.

This initially sounds amazing, and for the first hour or so of the game it was as I had to undertake a series of missions with an elderly pensioner, which lent things a rather different vibe to the usual well-trained, young protagonists who feature in video games. After a while I'd built up a small team of what felt like everyday people, but I found myself defaulting to Myrtle, a late-twenties Irish construction worker who could legitimately enter many of the city's no-go security areas thanks to her job ID, and was impressive in hand-to-hand combat thanks to an unfeasibly massive wrench that was her signature weapon. Most impressively, she could at any time summon a cargo drone which she could use to get around the city and reach the tops of buildings, which a non-drone-equipped operative might have to go through a laborious infiltration mission to achieve. Myrtle became my default protagonist as I set about liberating London's boroughs early on, a surprisingly easy task which you can knock out in a couple of hours and unlocks a whole set of new, more powerful recruits. I did find myself swapping in Rosalind, a spy with a silenced armour-piercing pistol and a mildly ridiculous car with a built-in missile launcher and cloaking device, for missions that required heavy combat. When she got arrested on a mission, I instead deployed Ayodele, a formidable ex-hitman with a varied weapons arsenal. However, even Myrtle remained a viable character through to the endgame.

This signature feature of the game therefore ended up being both impressive but then undercooked: you'll probably find yourself defaulting to a small pool of 3-4 hyper-capable characters and ignoring everyone else. The game does offer up an ironman mode, so if a character dies, they die for good (and Legion's save game system is pretty much limited to saving on shutdown, so there's no easy way to do over missions if things go south), but it's easy to replace even hardcore combat agents with 1:1 replacements even if they fall on a mission. The game is also rather straightforward even on the hardest difficulty, so that's not a major obstacle.

Combat and stealth are functional rather than attractive. As usual for the series, setting traps and luring bad guys into them is a great way of thinning out the ranks from afar before you engage personally; many missions actually allow you to complete them by just using your spiderbot, a remote access drone which can merrily scurry through tiny vents to reach areas humans can't reach. The spiderbot is ridiculously capable, and after you've upgraded it, it can switch on a short-burn cloaking device and knock out enemies with an electrical discharge. I'd estimate I completed around 50% of the missions in the game using the spiderbot alone whilst the operator sat well outside of the mission area, almost impervious to detection. The game does try to make things a bit more challenging than Watch_Dogs 2 by only giving you a spiderbot and not an aerial drone as well, but there's so many passing aerial drones you can take over at any second, this really ends up not being a limitation at all.

However, the lengthy time spent carefully infiltrating enemy locations or hacking your way steadily to victory with a low body count feels a bit redundant when you can often shoot your way to victory in a fifth of the time. The first two games in the series encouraged you not to murder every security guard and police offer in sight, pointing out these were often ordinary people doing their day job. However, in Legion almost all areas are defended by either Albion security guards - whom you see punching pensioners on the street and arresting innocent people for no reason on a regular basis - or by the enforcers of Clan Kelly, a criminal gang engaged in people trafficking, slavery, gun-running and drug-dealing. This removes a lot of the moral nuance of the earlier games and gives you the green light to wade into areas with all guns blazing, especially as your characters in this game are hardier than Marcus in Watch_Dogs 2.

Legion's portrayal of London is excellent. The city itself is well-depicted, with major landmarks all present and correct but also many individual buildings, pubs and even flower stands. There is some compression - where there are five parallel residential streets in a row in reality, there might be one here, and Liverpool Street Station is bizarrely missing when the surrounding tube stations are correctly present - but overall Legion effortlessly becomes the single finest realisation of London in a video game to date.

More of a mixed bag is voice acting and writing. Not having a central protagonist or even a cast of protagonists is a major handicap. Procedurally-generated missions where you have to save one of your recruits who's been kidnapped have your character awkwardly saying, "We have to save our friend!" rather than their name, which sounds okay once but not five or six times through a mission. It's hard to see how this could be overcome, with apparently tens of thousands of name combinations and around twenty different voice actors with several versions of the script for each mission and cut scene, but it does add an artificial air to proceedings. The acting is mostly fine from the actual named, recurring characters, but many of the protagonists feel off, with extremely generic lines delivered in ways that don't always make sense. It turns out having an effectively infinite pool of characters with potentially infinite personalities makes voicing and writing for them in a reasonable timeframe impossible.

The game is pretty solid, but it does feel a little wanting in content compared to Watch_Dogs 2. That game gave you an absolutely massive list of optional activities to take part in, including car, kart and drone racing, and Uber-driving. None of these are present in Legion. Watch_Dogs 2 also had a more interactable environment, allowing you to blow up gas mains under the street to deter pursuit, change traffic lights to create chaos and frame people, even police and security, so they get carted off by the law and thin out enemy ranks before you engage them. None of this is present in Legion, either. Watch_Dogs 2 also had a fairly well-developed mobile phone you could interact with, playing with apps and watching news channels. Mobiles are still in Legion but are extremely limited in their use.

Watch_Dogs: Legion (***½) is a mixed bag, but ultimately enjoyable and worth playing, especially for its excellent depiction of London. The significantly reduced amount of content compared to its immediate forebear is disappointing, and the "play anyone" idea is an absolutely brilliant one which falters somewhat in the execution, but this kind of experimentation in the AAA space is rare and should be applauded, even if ultimately it doesn't entirely deliver on its promise. The game is available now.

Sunday 19 September 2021

Howard Shore & Bear McCreary in talks to join LORD OF THE RINGS prequel series as composers

Deadline has broken a story that will have many people cheering: Howard Shore, who scored all six of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth movies, is in talks to join the Amazon Lord of the Rings prequel series set in the Second Age as composer.

Fellowship of Fans has backed up the story and gone further to say that Shore actually signed on several months ago and is already working on the project. They also claim that Bear McCreary will also work on the show's music. McCreary is best known for his work on the 2003 version of Battlestar Galactica, as well as The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD, Outlander and the God of War video game series. McCreary's involvement has so far not been backed up by any other sources.

Shore joining the project will be well-received news by fans. Shore's work on the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy remains outstanding, netting him four Oscar nominations and three wins: Best Original Score for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King, and Best Song for "Into the West." He received a fifth nomination for his score to the movie Hugo. His other film work includes The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Philadelphia and Seven.

Amazon recently wrapped filming on the first season of the series, which will premiere on Amazon Prime on 2 September 2022. A second season is in pre-production and is due to start shooting in January.

Wertzone Classics: Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

There has been a murder in Ankh-Morpork, which at first glance is not unusual. But the nature of the murder intrigues Commander Sam Vimes and Captain Carrot of the City Watch. Their investigation of the case, aided by new forensics expert Cheery Longbottom, exposes an ambition that could plunge the whole city into chaos. Once again, Sam Vimes and his officers are the thin blue line between order and chaos in a city where it's hard to see where the one ends and the other begins at the best of times.

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel and the third to focus on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, following the excellent Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms. Once again, the City Watch must rally to solve crimes and stop a threat to the safety of the city, through a combination of Commander Vimes's cynicism, Carrot's good-natured optimism, Colon's stoic experience, Detritus's massively impractical siege weaponry, Angua's nasal intuition and, er, whatever it is Corporal Nobbs does. The Watch is here reinforced by new arrival Cheery Longbottom, a dwarf forensics expert with something approaching a secret.

You might expect the novel to be predictable - the City Watch sub-series is, at least in potential, Pratchett's most procedural sequence of books - but as usual Pratchett takes some delight in wrong-footing expectations. This is still a funny book, as Colon's close encounter with a psychotic lunatic of diminutive size and then a very angry bull can attest, but there's more of a serious side to it as well. Existential debates on the rights of sentient beings when no one can agree if they're sentient form a key part of the story as well, as Pratchett introduces the Discworld's golems, here used almost as robot slave labour until it turns out that they can think and feel, after a fashion, which raises thorny ethical questions.

The book is also marvellously, intricately constructed. Some other Discworld books feel like Pratchett has aimed an Idea Cannon at a wall, blasted out whatever came to mind and then assembled the resulting narrative morass into something resembling a coherent plot. That worked extremely well for some novels and not as well in others, but Feet of Clay definitely feels more pre-planned and structured. There are more distinct character arcs, not just for Vimes but for Carrot and Angua's relationship, new recruit Cheery whose quiet confidence over gender expression rapidly sparks a cultural revolution among the city's dwarfs, and even for series stalwarts and standbys Nobby and Colon. The former gets drawn into what feels like a Game of Thrones subplot, whilst Colon - distressingly several weeks from retirement - has a solo mini-adventure that he was not expecting.

There's even foreshadowing at work here, as Vimes visits his childhood neighbourhood and we get the feeling of unspoken secrets about his background. These will, eventually, give rise to one of Pratchett's great masterpieces in Night Watch, but that's still quite a few books off.

Feet of Clay (*****) is one of the best Discworld novels, if not quite at the absolute-best tier of Small Gods and Night Watch. It's well-constructed, naturally funny whilst supporting more serious ideas, and as marvellously characterised as Pratchett at his best. It deepens the worldbuilding of Ankh-Morpork, the Greatest Fantasy City of All Time™, and sets the stage for intriguing developments to come. The novel is Pratchett at his best: erudite, thoughtful and smart, creating a work where fantasy, satire and detective elements meet perfectly. The book is available in the UK and USA.

Friday 17 September 2021

MECHWARRIOR 5 to get surprise second expansion next week

In a surprising move, Piranha Games have announced a second expansion to MechWarrior 5, their real-time mech simulator in the BattleTech universe.

There is supposed to be a video here. If you can't see it, go to the bottom of the screen and click "switch to web version."

The original game dropped in December 2019 as an Epic Store exclusive on PC. In May 2021 it launched on Steam, GoG and the Xbox console range, alongside a first expansion called Heroes of the Inner Sphere. This relaunch, helped by almost a year and a half of bug-crunching and revisions, seems to have given the game a new lease of life.

The second expansion, Legend of the Kestrel Lancers, is set during the Fourth Succession War, a major event in the history of the BattleTech universe. This war, lasting from 3028 to 3030, sees the Federated Suns and Lyran Commonwealth join forces to launch a massive surprise attack on their mutual enemies, the Capellan Confederation, Draconis Combine and Free Worlds League, after an attempted assassination attempt of the Federated Suns' leader. In the fiction - explored in the Warrior Trilogy by Michael A. Stackpole - this war becomes a major turning point in the history of the BattleTech universe, paving the way for the union of the Federated Suns and Lyran Commonwealth into a superpower.

The expansion will allow your mercenary company to join forces with the Kestrel Lancers, a veteran unit in the Federated Suns military, in a new story campaign. The expansion also adds multiple new biomes, including jungles, deserts and a new megacity style of map, with completely destructible buildings. Melee combat has been added (yes, you can now punch other giant robots in the face, or nearest comparable feature), and in the single-player campaign you can now hot-switch between the four 'Mechs in your lance rather than just being stuck in one. There will also be UI improvements.

Legend of the Kestrel Lancers launches on 23 September, or less than a week from today.

Thursday 9 September 2021

Paramount releases details for STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS

In addition to a lot of other Star Trek news, Paramount have released more information on their upcoming new series, Strange New Worlds.

In addition to returning castmembers Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike, Rebecca Romijn as Number One and Ethan Peck as Spock, the series will star Celia Rose Gooding as Cadet Uhura, Jess Bush as Nurse Christine Chapel and Babs Olusanmokun as Dr. M'Benga, all of whom appeared previously on the original Star Trek series (with different actors, obviously). Additional actors include Bruce Horak as an Andorian named Hemmer, Melissa Navia as Lt. Erica Ortegas and Christina Chong as La'an Noonien-Singh.

Strange New Worlds is set on the USS Enterprise (OG Constitution-class, or at least the mildly-reimagined version which debuted in Discovery) some time after the events of Discovery's second season and some years before the events of the original Star Trek. According to both cast and crew, Strange New Worlds will be much more episodic than other modern Star Trek shows, focusing more on the original mission of exploring new worlds and getting into new adventures every week.

Strange New Worlds is expected to debut on Paramount+ in early-to-mid 2022.


Aspyr Media are working on a full remake of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, arguably the greatest and best-regarded Star Wars video game of all time*.

Knights of the Old Republic, developed by BioWare in association with LucasArts, was released in 2003. Set roughly 4,000 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, the game tells the story of a war being fought between the Galactic Republic and its Jedi defenders against a Sith army and fleet led by Darth Malak. The player takes on the role of a character of their own creation who is roped into helping rescue a Jedi Knight named Bastila Shan from the city-planet Taris. As the game continues, the player acquires a large array of allies, such as the murderous and meme-generating assassin droid HK-47, and learns a shocking secret about themselves. Events culminate in a final battle between the Republic and the Sith Empire.

The game was immensely successful on release, generating both critical acclaim and high sales. It was followed by two sequels: the more ambitious but more divisive sequel, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (2004) from Obsidian Entertainment; and MMORPG The Old Republic (2011) by BioWare themselves. Although set in an original universe, the later Mass Effect trilogy (2007-12) draws on some structural ideas from Knights of the Old Republic.

It is unclear how thorough a remake this will be, since no gameplay footage has been shown. The "remake" title and the age of the game and engine suggest that it'd have to be a much more thorough reworking of the game from scratch, possibly in a new engine, rather than the "retexture-and-polish" style of remakes like the Mass Effect Legendary Edition.

Knights of the Old Republic Remake is "early" in development and no release date has yet been set. So far, it has only been announced for PlayStation 5.

* Arguments for TIE Fighter, Republic Commando and Jedi Outcast can be heard at a later date.

Warner Brothers drops enigmatic trailer for THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS

As promised a couple of days back, Warner Brothers have dropped the trailer for The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in the Matrix franchises and the first new film entry to the series since 2003's The Matrix Revolutions.

The trailer opens with Neil Patrick Harris, apparently playing a psychiatrist, seeing his patient Thomas Anderson, played once again by Keanu Reeves. Reeves apparently has no memory of his life as Neo aka "The One." The setting is no longer The City, the ambiguous mega-metropolis of the original film trilogy, but a more realistic San Francisco, coated in warm, distinctly un-Matrixy colours. Thomas reports strange dreams, seeing the city in lines of code, and flashes of images (some new, some from the original movies), including one of himself blinded, being operated on by machines. Thomas meets a stranger in a cafe (Carrie Ann Moss), is seen quaffing blue pills like they are candy, is intrigued by flocks of birds in the sky and by a copy of Alice in Wonderland. He also sees images of himself as an old man. Eventually he flushes the blue pills down a sink, and accepts a red pill offered by a man strangely familiar yet completely different (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

Anderson is approached by a young woman (Jessica Henwick) who offers to show him the truth and calls him "Neo." She guides him through a door that acts as a shortcut to another part of the world, where he meets Trinity, this time her body apparently riven by lines of green code. The strange man spars with Anderson in a familiar dojo, angering him until he unleashes a blast of power.  We then see the world outside the Matrix, with the Machines still harvesting humans in immense vertical battery piles and a hovership hiding in the ruins of an old city. Trinity and Anderson meet on a rooftop in San Francisco, whilst the young woman fights Agents. She guides several other characters through a portal from what appears to be a cinema onto a speeding train, chased by rocket launcher-wielding enemies. We see Trinity apparently awakening from the Matrix, the strange man finding reality becoming liquid, a lot more fighting scenes and Anderson stopping hundreds of bullets in mid-air. Anderson is then told by another stranger (Jonathan Groff) that it's very exciting to go back to the start, "back to the Matrix."

The Matrix Resurrections hits cinemas and, in the United States, HBO Max on 22 December.

Paramount announce launch dates for new seasons of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, PICARD and PRODIGY

Paramount have announced the launch dates for their next raft of Star Trek series.

In addition to Season 2 of Lower Decks, currently airing on Paramount+ in the USA and Amazon worldwide, the first season of Star Trek: Prodigy debuts on 28 October.

The new series, the first Star Trek show to be completely 3D CG-rendered, returns to the Delta Quadrant for the first time since the conclusion of Star Trek: Voyager in 2001. The series, set five years after the end of Voyager, features an all-alien, non-Starfleet cast of characters who stumble across the USS Protostar, an experimental Starfleet vessel despatched to the Delta Quadrant. The vessel is abandoned for reasons unknown, until it is found by a group of young aliens. The ship comes equipped with an Emergency Training Hologram, based on Admiral Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew reprising her role from Voyager), who helps them get to grips with piloting the vessel.

Prodigy is swiftly followed by Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery, which will debut on 18 November, marking the first time since 1999 that two Star Trek series will air new episodes simultaneously (when the seventh and final season of Deep Space Nine overlapped with the fifth season of Star Trek: Voyager). The new season of Discovery sees the crew adjusting to life in the 32nd Century as they help the Federation and the Milky Way galaxy rebuild after the cataclysmic event known as the Burn, only to encounter a new anomaly which could threaten everything.

Finally, the second season of Star Trek: Picard will debut in February 2022. In the new season, a returning Q (an also-returning John de Lancie) apparently changes time into a dystopian nightmare, as part of a test for Picard. Picard and his colleagues utilise knowledge from a captive Borg Queen (Anna Wersching) to time travel back to the 21st Century and repair the damage done by Q.

Picard has been renewed for a third season, alongside rumours this may be the final season since Sir Patrick Stewart turns 82 next year and Paramount+ is developing several more shows with a view to one of them replacing Picard once it runs its course.

Tuesday 7 September 2021

Warner Brothers drop teasers for THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS

Warner Brothers has started the marketing cycle for their upcoming fourth Matrix movie, The Matrix Resurrections.

They've revamped the OG 1999 Matrix website, What is the Matrix?, and it now offers you a choice of red and blue pills. The pills take you to different teaser clips where a voice creepily identifies what time it is for you.

The Matrix Resurrections seemingly picks up twenty-odd years after the events of The Matrix Revolutions, which ended in a truce between the human rebels and the machine AIs after they joined forces to defeat Agent Smith, but something strange has clearly happened in the interim. Old characters are back, but with new names and limited or no memory of what happened to them the first time around. Some characters also seem to be back in new bodies, or with new faces. Early previews have hinted at a much stranger (and probably even more divisive) film than the soulless cash-in many were expecting.

A full trailer is expected on Thursday. The film itself will be released on 22 December this year in cinemas and, in the United States, on HBO Max.

The film sees the return of Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Lambert Wilson, Daniel Bernhardt and Jada Pinkett Smith from the original trilogy, with new casting additions including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Neil Patrick Harris, Jessica Yu Li Henwick, Toby Onwumere, Max Riemelt and Christina Ricci. The film is directed by Lana Wachowski (who co-directed the original trilogy) and co-written by Lana Wachowski with David Mitchell (yes, that one) and Aleksandar Hemon.

Monday 6 September 2021

RIP Michael K. Williams

In shocking news, actor Michael K. Williams has passed away at the far too-young age of 54. The actor was found at his home earlier today. No cause of death has yet been ascertained.

Born in 1966 in New York City, Michael Kenneth Williams trained as a dancer and went on tour with artists such as Madonna and George Michael. His acting skill was recognised by no less than Tupac Shakur and he was cast in the 1996 film Bullet, which marked the start of his acting career. Williams found his casting somewhat stereotyped due to the recognisable scar he had on his forehead, the result of a barfight in his twenties. As a result he was often cast as villains or "heavies."

In 2002 Williams auditioned for a new HBO TV series called The Wire. He impressed showrunner David Simon with a single audition and was cast in the role of Omar Little, a Robin Hood-like figure who robs criminals and drug dealers and distributes money to his community. The role was loosely based on real Baltimore "stick up" figures such as Donnie Andrews. Omar was a "third side" in the show, someone who sometimes worked alongside the cops but sometimes pursued his own agenda that was at odds with them.

The character became a cult favourite in the first season, but exploded in profile in the second after a courtroom scene where Omar justifies his morality whilst serving as the witness in a criminal case. The character was applauded for both being a hardman with a moral code and also a gay man in a notoriously homophobic environment. Williams was nominated twice for an NAACP Image Award for his portrayal of Omar, and in 2008 a pre-election Barack Obama noted that Omar was his favourite character on the show, though not one whose every action he'd approve of. Williams continued to portray the character until the end of the final season in 2008.

The Wire gave Williams tremendous opportunities and he went on to appear in films such as Gone Baby Gone, Life During Wartime and a brief but high-profile appearance in The Road. He had another big role in 12 Years a Slave, and solid supporting turns in Assassin's Creed, Ghostbusters (2016) and The Gambler.

However, Williams became a much sought-after television actor. He had recurring roles on Alias and Six Degrees and a hilarious recurring role as Dr. Kane on Community, among a vast number of guest star roles. It was HBO where he continued to make his home, though, appearing as Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire, Freddy Knight in The Night Of and Montrose Freeman in Lovecraft Country. Each one of these performances attracted critical acclaim and award nominations. From 2016 to 2018 he starred in the well-received Hap and Leonard alongside James Purefoy.

Williams recently completed work on several films, including 892 alongside James Boyega and Surrounded with Letitia Wright, which will now be posthumous releases. Williams is survived by one son.

An actor of impressive range, intensity and charisma, Michael K. Williams will be missed.

Thursday 2 September 2021

HIS DARK MATERIALS composer Lorne Balfe to score THE WHEEL OF TIME

Wheel of Time showrunner Rafe Judkins has confirmed that Lorne Balfe will score The Wheel of Time. Balfe is best known for his excellent work on His Dark Materials, particularly the impressive main title theme:

Balfe's other credits include the Mission: Impossible franchise, Black Widow, The Tomorrow War, Pennyworth, Bad Boys For Life, Pacific Rim: Uprising, The Crown, and various video games including the Assassin's Creed and Skylanders franchises.

None of Balfe's work was used in today's trailer. However, a snipped of his score was used on the previous logo reveal teaser.

There's a good interview here with Balfe where he discusses his work on His Dark Materials.