Wednesday 27 October 2021

Amazon release new WHEEL OF TIME trailer

With only three (and a bit) weeks until transmission, Amazon has released a new trailer for its adaptation of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time novels.

The new trailer opens with Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) swearing the Three Oaths that all Aes Sedai sisters have to take upon completing their trailer: to speak no word that is not true, to not make a weapon which may be used by one person to kill another, and to never use the One Power as a weapon (the caveat that Aes Sedai may use the One Power in defence of their own lives or others' is omitted by the trailer, presumably for dramatic purposes). We see Moiraine in the White Tower, possibly a flashback to taking the Oaths.

We then see Moiraine, flanked by Alanna Mosvani (Priyanka Bose) and Liandrin Guirale (Kate Fleetwood), using the One Power to apparently imprison or question the captive false Dragon, Logain Ablar (Álvaro Morte). A Warder, Steppin (Peter Franzén), then reveals that in the Old Tongue, "Aes Sedai" means "Servants of All," meaning that the Aes Sedai serve the world. Moiraine then stands atop the White Tower, considering her mission, and tells her Warder, Lan (Daniel Henney) they must go to the Two Rivers, where the Old Blood still runs strong.

In the Two Rivers we see the Women's Circle walking through mountainous foothills; Egwene (Madeleine Madden) enduring her coming of age ceremony whilst Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) watches on; Egwene in a ruined building in Shadar Logoth; and Rand (Josha Stradowski) and Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) enjoying a drink with Mat (Barney Harris) outside the Winespring Inn.

We then see a Myrddraal or Fade arriving in the village; Lan leading the party into the ruins of Shadar Logoth via massive crack in the walls; Egwene and Rand in the ruined village; Perrin in his forge; Nynaeve dramatically flicking her braid in face of an unknown danger; Mat unsheathing his sword; Rand practising his bow in the courtyard of Fal Dara castle; Moiraine telling the Two Rivers youngsters that one of "the five"* of them will save the world; various scenes of travelling and looking dramatically over impressive vistas; scenes of the attack on the Two Rivers; Tam fighting the Trolloc book fans know as Narg; a sweeping camera shot of Fal Dara Keep and what might be the mountainous pass of Tarwin's Gap beyond (apparently massively compressed from the hundred-mile-long valley from the book); our heroes arriving in Fal Dara and meeting Lord Agelmar Jagad (whose actor has so far not been identified).

We also see Lord Captain Eamon Valda (Abdul Salis) drinking wine whilst apparently burning an Aes Sedai at the stake and taking her Great Serpent Ring as a symbol of victory; Lan and Moiraine partaking in a ceremony of apparent grief; Rand telling Egwene he can't lose her and Egwene promising he won't; three Whitecloak soldiers taking Egwene and Perrin captive; the gang gathering at a Waygate**; a Fade battling an unknown soldier; more scenes of combat during the Trolloc attack; Moiraine weaving Fire and Air to deliver a horrendous firestorm against attacking Trollocs; Logain apparently escaping his prison and (in an earlier scene) using the One Power to stop a Ghealdanin soldier from striking him (in a nice touch, the dagger has the three star sigil of Ghealdan on the hilt); Alanna channelling a massive amount of the Power to fend off an attack; and apparently a Trolloc attack on Fal Dara, with Shienaran soldiers defending the walls.

In an exciting scene, we get a brief flashback to the Battle of the Shining Walls, known as the Blood Snows, with Aiel fighting Westland soldiers at the feet of Dragonmount; Logain marching through a Ghealdanin town; Rand drawing his bow; and Moiraine intoning one of her famous sayings, the "Wheel weaves as Wheel wills." The trailer ends with Perrin asking if they will ever go home and Egwene saying no.

Epic music - apparently the final score by Lorne Balfe - then plays over the logo.

The first three episodes of the first season of The Wheel of Time drop on Amazon Prime on Friday 19 November, with five more episodes to follow at weekly intervals. Season 2 of The Wheel of Time is already in production.

* Interestingly this is a change from the version of the same scene which recently aired at MCM London, where Moiraine says "four."

** Alas, our apparent first glimpse of Loial (Hammed Animashaun) is denied by him being behind the other characters with his back turned.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

DUNE: PART TWO formally greenlit for October 2023 release

Warner Brothers have greenlit the sequel to Denis Villeneuve's film adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune.

The film - retitled Dune: Part One in the title card - adapts roughly the first half of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel. Part Two will cover the rest of the novel, focusing on the story of how Paul Atreides wins the trust and support of the Fremen to fight back against the vile Harkonnens and their allies, the Emperor and his Sardaukar terror troops.

Dune: Part One launched in overseas market more than a month ago before hitting the UK, USA and China at the end of last week. Ticket sales were above expectations, with the movie scoring over $223 million in worldwide ticket sales to date, with further income from HBO Max (where at least 1.9 million people watched the film in the United States). Given the scale of the COVID pandemic and how many people are still reluctant to watch films in the cinema, the movie's performance was deemed extremely impressive. The film also scored highly among critics.

Director Denis Villeneuve will return to direct the second part of the story, with the entire cast believed to be returning, or at least those whose characters were not killed off in the first half.

Warner Brothers has set a release date of 20 October 2023 and has agreed with Villeneuve that the film will launch exclusively in cinemas.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Netflix commissions LAST KINGDOM movie

Netflix have commissioned a two-hour Last Kingdom film to follow the fifth and final season of the TV series next year.

Seven Kings Must Die will act as a follow-up to the series, with Alexander Dreymon (Uhtred) and most of the cast expected to reprise their roles.

Netflix revealed last May that the show would end with the fifth season. The news caused consternation among fans, because under the show's scheme of adapting two novels of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Saga per season that would mean the show would only reach the tenth of thirteen books in the series. However, there was also speculation that Netflix were reluctant to commit to the massive time-skips that occur in the latter part of the series and leave Uhtred in his seventies by the time of the final novel (it should be noted that the series has already had thirty-something Dreymon playing Uhtred as a teenager in the first season and an early fifty-something in the fourth).

However the title Seven Kings Must Die may hint that the movie will indeed jump forwards to the closing storylines from the novels, which see the Seven Kingdoms of Britain (the Heptarchy) finally uniting under one single King of England, fulfilling the dream laid out by Alfred the Great in the opening episodes of the series.

Seven Kings Must Die starts shooting in early 2022 in Budapest, presumably for a 2023 release. Season 5 of The Last Kingdom is expected to drop on the streamer in the spring.

The Longest SFF Novels & Series of All Time (2021 update)

It's been almost five years since I first tackled this idea. Inspired by a Reddit thread, I decided to update the list with more up-to-date info.

Of course, mega-long novels are not published in the industry that often, so the individual novel list hasn't changed very much. The main change has been adjusting the positions of Brandon Sanderson's novels based on updated word counts and adding his latest volume, Rhythm of War, which was published since the original list was published.

The series list has been tweaked more thoroughly, as many series have had new additions since 2017 which have upped their overall word count.

These lists are not exhaustive and consistency of reporting these figures can be quite variable. I have opted for word counts as the most accurate way of estimating length, as page counts can vary immensely based on page margins and font sizes.

Longest Novels

1. Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest
667,000 words • 1845-47

This long novel was serialised in "penny dreadfuls" of the mid-19th Century and chronicles the adventures of Sir Francis Varney, a vampire. This book's genre credentials have been disputed (with the suggestion that Varney is actually a madman rather than a real vampire), but there seems to be a general acceptance that the book is a genuine work of the fantastic, and the longest SFF work ever published in one volume (which it was in 1847). The book was also influential on Bram Stoker's later Dracula (1897) and introduced many of the tropes of vampire fiction, including the "sympathetic vampire" protagonist.

2. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
645,000 words • 1957

Highly debatable as a genre work rather than a political novel, although the story is partially set against a dystopian background and genre historian John Clute identifies the novel as SF (plus it inspired the very SF Bioshock video game series and fantasy Sword of Truth series), so okay, we'll count it.

3. Jerusalem by Alan Moore
615,000 words • 2016

Alan Moore's prose magnum opus is a massive, dizzying and baffling journey into the surreal. It's so huge that it is also available in a two-volume edition in a nice slipcase.

4. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
545,000 words • 1996

Infinite Jest has primarily literary allusions, although the book's setting - a North American superstate consisting of a unified Canada, USA and Mexico - is a futuristic dystopia. The book could have even been bigger, with 250 manuscript pages trimmed for length by the publishers.

5. To Green Angel Tower by Tad Williams
520,000 words • 1993

The concluding volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is bigger than the first two novels in the series (The Dragonbone Chair and Stone of Farewell) combined. A titanic, shelf-destroying novel, it is only available in mass-market paperback in two volumes, subtitled Siege and Storm.

6. The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon
502,000 words • 2001

The fifth volume of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander historical romance series, spiced up by a time-spanning culture clash, is absolutely gigantic.

7. A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon
501,000 words • 2005

The sixth volume of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander historical romance series doesn't quite match its predecessor in size but it can still be used to stun a yak.

8. Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
500,000 words • 2000

Mary Gentle's novel is a dazzling mix of SF, historical drama, fantasy, alternate history and general bizarrity. The novel was published in one volume in the UK, but the American publishers released it as four in the USA.

9. The Stand by Stephen King
472,376 words • 1978

Stephen King's biggest novel in a single volume, notable for also foreshadowing The Dark Tower series. The above word count is for the expanded and revised edition.

10. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
470,000 words • 1954-55

This book needs no introduction. The most influential fantasy novel ever written, often incorrectly cited as the biggest genre novel of all time. Due to paper shortages after the Second World War, the book was released in three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King), inadvertently creating the classic fantasy trilogy at the same time. The novel has been available in its intended one-volume version since the 1960s.

11. The Naked God by Peter F. Hamilton
469,000 words • 1999

The biggest space opera novel ever published, even more remarkable because it was the concluding volume of an even bigger trilogy, The Night's Dawn.

12. Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson
455,891 words • 2020

The fourth and most recent Stormlight Archive novel continues Brandon Sanderson's relentless assault on bookshelf integrity everywhere.

13. Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
451,912 words • 2017

The third Stormlight Archive novel couldn't quite match the fourth for size. Remember when Sanderson told us the first novel (a now novella-feeling 380,000 words) would be the longest? Yeaaaah.

14. It by Stephen King
445,134 words  1986

Arguably, Stephen King's most famous single novel thanks to multiple TV and film adaptations.

15. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
422,000 words • 2000

George R.R. Martin started his Song of Ice and Fire series being somewhat concerned about the word count and went to great lengths to keep the first two books down to a friendly 300,000 words or so apiece, dropping chapters back into the next volume if necessary. However, with Martin planning a five year time-jump after this book, he had no choice but to write the story to its natural conclusion. The result was a book that pushed the UK publishers to the limits of what they could publish in one volume. The paperback version, in fact, was released in two volumes.

16. A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
420,000 words • 2011

The difficult-to-write fifth volume in A Song of Ice and Fire ended up being somewhat longer than A Storm of Swords, but Martin cut it down to slightly shorter in the final sweat and edit.

17. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
415,000 words • 1999

Neal Stephenson's first gigantic book, but not his last (although this remains his longest book) is an interesting romp through WWII history, cryptography and weirdness. A stand-alone, but it also acts as a thematic prequel (and actual sequel) to his later Baroque Cycle.

18. An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon
402,000 words • 2009

The seventh Outlander novel is huge, but feels quite modest compared to the longest books in the series mentioned above.

19. Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon
401,000 words • 1996

The fourth Outlander novel. Given the several books in the series that are just under 400,000 words, I can only assume that the author gets through a lot of keyboards.

= 20. The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
400,000 words • 2011

Patrick Rothfuss's sequel to The Name of the Wind is considerably larger. It remains to be seen (still) if the final volume of The Kingkiller ChronicleThe Doors of Stone, will be bigger still.

= 20. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
400,000 words • 2014

The second volume of The Stormlight Archive is lost its record-setting status as Sanderson's biggest novel and the biggest novel in the series to both of its following volumes. But it's still pretty big.

Below 400,000 words, the number of fantasy and SF novels in that size bracket shoots up massively. So rather than try to come up with an exhaustive list, here's some notable SFF novels with their word counts:
  • Lord of Chaos is the sixth and longest Wheel of Time novel, clocking in at 395,000 words, shading the fourth volume, The Shadow Rising, at 386,000.
  • Toll the Hounds is the eighth and longest Malazan Book of the Fallen novel, reaching 389,000 words.
  • Maia, by the late Richard Adams, is 379,130 words.
  • Magician, by Raymond E. Feist, is a relatively breezy 313,410 words (about 330,000 words in the 1992 extended edition). Which makes the decision to publish the novel in two volumes in the United States (as Apprentice and Master) all the weirder.
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is 309,000 words.
  • Temple of the Winds, the longest Sword of Truth novel, is a modest 307,520 words in length.
  • The Order of the Phoenix, the longest Harry Potter novel, is 257,045 words in length. That's over three times the length of the shortest novel in the series, The Philosopher's Stone
  • The Sword of Shannara, the novel that popularised and kickstarted the modern fantasy genre in 1977, is a relatively modest 228,160 words. It's also still Terry Brooks's biggest novel, by far; none of the other Shannara novels top 200,000 words and only three top 150,000 words.
  • SF is generally a lot shorter than fantasy, but the fact that Frank Herbert's seminal Dune is only 188,000 words - shorter than three of the Harry Potter books! - might be surprising.

The Longest SFF Series

This is a much more debatable list, since some series are more diffuse than others. The Riftwar books, for example, form nine distinct series, but also have narrative elements spanning all twenty-nine books in the series. The same is true of the Shannara series, whilst Discworld and Recluce consist more of stand-alone novels with some continuing elements. This list is therefore a bit more speculative, and is not exhaustive.
  • The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson (15 volumes): 4,360,000 words.
  • The Realm of the Elderlings by Robin Hobb (16 volumes): 4,071,000 words.
  • The Shannara Series by Terry Brooks (32 volumes, including the Word and the Void sequence): 4,070,030 words.
  • The Riftwar Cycle by Raymond E. Feist (29 volumes): 3,831,670 words.
  • Discworld by Terry Pratchett (41 volumes): approx. 3,800,000 words (not inc.luding the science books or companion guides).
  • The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson (10 volumes): 3,274,000 words (just under 6 million including all related works by Erikson and Ian Esslemont).
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (8 volumes, incomplete): 3,227,000 words (the next book in the series is published next month, so this will no doubt shoot up).
  • The Cosmere by Brandon Sanderson (12 novels/1 anthology, incomplete): 3,427,830 words.
  • The Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind (11 volumes): 2,761,170 words (3,643,650 including the sequels).
  • The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne & Todd McCaffrey: 2,700,200 words (1,577,000 by Anne alone)
  • The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (17 volumes incomplete): 2,200,000 words
  • The Wars of Light and Shadow by Janny Wurts (9 volumes, incomplete): 2,195,000 words.
  • The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson (10 volumes): 2,062,000 words.
  • The Shadows of the Apt by Adrian Tchaikovsky (10 volumes): 1,924,000 words.
  • The Belgariad/Malloreon by David & Leigh Eddings (12 volumes): 1,861,000 words.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (5 volumes, incomplete): 1,749,000 words; 2,160,000 words including Fire & Blood and A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.
  • The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson (4 volumes, incomplete): 1,731,000 words (part of the Cosmere mega-series).
  • Crown of Stars by Kate Elliott (7 volumes): 1,622,720 words.
  • Robots, Empire & Foundation by Isaac Asimov (14 novels, 2 short story collections): 1,548,000 words.
  • The Solar Cycle by Gene Wolfe (11 volumes): 1,368,000 words.
  • The Expanse by James S.A. Corey (8 volumes, incomplete): 1,334,000 words.
  • The Dark Tower by Stephen King (8 volumes): 1,256,000 words.
  • The Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton (3 volumes): 1,247,000 words.
  • Otherland by Tad Williams (4 volumes): 1,189,000 words.
  • The Second Apocalypse by R. Scott Bakker (7 volumes, possibly incomplete): 1,182,000 words.
  • Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams (3 volumes): 1,126,000 words (1,715,000 including The Heart of What Was Lost and The Last King of Osten Ard so far).
  • The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson (3 volumes): 1,125,000 words (1,540,000 including Cryptonomicon).
  • Temeraire by Naomi Novik (9 volumes): 1,100,000 words
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (7 volumes): 1,084,170 words (1,183,370 including The Cursed Child).
  • Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (6 volumes, incomplete): 1,077,560 words.
  • The Elenium/Tamuli by David Eddings (6 volumes): 1,006,000 words.
  • The Sword of Shadows by J.V. Jones (4 volumes, incomplete): 945,047 words.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert (6 volumes): 839,000 words.
  • The Gap Cycle by Stephen Donaldson (5 volumes): 815,000 words
  • The Acts of Caine by Matt Stover (4 volumes): 768,000 words.
  • The First Law by Joe Abercrombie (3 volumes): 618,000 words (1,216,000 including the stand-alone sequels; 1,788,300 including The Age of Madness).

Web Series

  • The Wandering Inn by pirateaba: 8,298,188 words (as of the first 8 volumes)
  • A Practical Guide to Evil by Erratic Errata: 2,150,000 words
  • Ward by John McCrae: 1,944,784 words
  • Worm by John McCrae: 1,680,000 words
  • Twig by John McCrae: 1,600,000 words

Why Page Counts Vary

It's remarkable what difference shifting a margin over by a few millimetres can make. One-volume editions of The Lord of the Rings, for example, can vary from 750 pages (for tiny-font editions on onion paper) to the better part of 2,000 (for large-print versions for readers with bad eyesight). Back in 2001 Pan Macmillan were able to squeeze thepaperback of The Naked God (469,000 words) into almost the exact same page count as its predecessor novel, The Reality Dysfunction (385,000 words) despite being significantly longer, just by manipulating font sizes and margins.

This is why page count is a poor guide to working out a novel's true length, and word count is more reliable indicator.

Word counts can also differ, depending on the programme used (most modern word counts come from the ebook editions) and how they count punctuation. Some counters will also include cast lists, footnotes and appendices, others will disregard them. The publishers may even give differing word counts because they did a count before the last edits were finalised, or they forgot that the new edition has more stuff in it.


SFF blogger Abalieno has been keeping tabs on book lengths over on Looping World for many years and some of these figures come directly from there. Excellent work from him there.

Novel Word Count doesn't seem to be as exhaustive as it was planned to be, but its Stephen King page is pretty good.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.

Saturday 23 October 2021

Mythic Quest: Season 1

Mythic Quest is one of the world's most popular massively multiplayer online roleplaying games, with a dedicated player base. However, its creators are dysfunctional and argumentative, with the desires of creative director Ian Grimm, lead engineer Poppy Li, head writer C.W. Longbottom (who won a Nebula Award in 1973) and head of monetisation Brad Bakshi frequently clashing. With a fickle fanbase to keep addicted (and paying), the company has to go all-out with the game's first major expansion, Raven's Banquet, to keep the game and the studio afloat.

You may be thinking that if there's one thing the world doesn't need more of, it's workplace comedies. But whilst workplace comedies are a dime a dozen, the well-executed, memorable workplace comedy is a rarity. The Office and Parks & Recreation are the standard-bearers for the field, and Mythic Quest surprisingly quickly measures up, if not exceeds those standards (since the first seasons for both shows, at least the US version of The Office, were spotty).

The show's writing talent is seasoned and honed from many years spent working on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, although Mythic Quest has a completely different tone and feel. The cast is also outstanding, with It's Always Sunny's Rob McElhenney leading the way as Ian (pronounced "eye-an") Grimm, the egotistical creative director who fails to realise he's subordinate to David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby, also from It's Always Sunny), the game's unassertive and ineffective executive producer to likes to overshare his cripplingly embarrassing life failures. Charlotte Nicdao (A gURLs wURLd) plays neurotic lead engineer Poppy, who wants to keep a purity of vision of the game as a place for creativity and artistry. This leads her into frequent conflicts with Brad, played by Danny Pudi (Community) playing completely against type as a profit-obsessed monster. Jessie Ennis plays newcomer Jo, David's new assistant who has distressingly psychopathic tendencies, with veteran Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) playing C.W. Longbottom, an old-skool science fiction writer about thirty years past his best but has experienced a career rejuvenation from working on the game. Rounding out the regular cast are Imani Hakim (Everybody Hates Chris) as Dana and veteran video game voice actress (and show writer) Ashly Burch as Rachel, the game testers with a simmering romantic attraction to each other who won't do anything about it (to the frustration of the rest of the office).

Mythic Quest makes good use of its formidable writing and acting talent to tell stories about and within the video game industry that feel timely and relevant. The issues of crunch and burnout are raised, and the industry's issues with diversity and representation form plot points in several episodes. The fact that the series is co-produced and has most of its ingame footage provided by Ubisoft, who've had a lot of their own issues in these areas recently, is somewhat ironic. The fundamental problems behind the scenes on video games where the artistic, technical and financial goals are not in alignment are also used to provide tension, and laughs.

For the most part, Mythic Quest's first season works well as a funny workplace comedy, using its subject matter to differentiate itself from other shows. However, for its fifth episode the show throws out a ball that is less curved than totally bent. A Dark Quiet Death is a 40-minute standalone film which starts in the early 1990s when action game designer Doc (Jake Johnson) and moody writer Bean (Cristin Milioti) meet and fall in love. They co-produce an artistic game based around the futility of life which becomes an unlikely smash hit. However, their financiers quickly put pressure on them to make sequels with increasingly greater levels of violence, guns and explosions, to Bean's growing resentment and anger. The episode breaks down and encapsulates the wider themes of the series into a stand-alone story almost entirely lacking in comedy in favour of drama and tragedy. It's a mini-masterpiece of an episode that stands not just above the rest of the season, but most other shows as well.

This decision to do "out-of-format" specials would be repeated at the end of the season when the COVID pandemic curtailed plans for an early start to Season 2. Instead, two specials were produced. The second, acting as a season-bridging interstitial, is fine but the first of these two specials is outstanding. Shot entirely on Zoom and in actors' houses, it's funny and a little tragic at the same time, and takes clever advantage of the format and keeping the characters apart to tell us more about them. Lots of shows did "quarantine specials," including some that had been off-air for years (like Parks & Recreation) and they were mostly fine, but Mythic Quest's is probably the best for how it uses the format to develop the ongoing storyline and character arcs. The end-of-episode Zoom gag is also outstanding.

The first season of Mythic Quest (****) is funny, well-acted, well-written and entertaining, whilst also using its format to explore the video game industry from several angles (including development, the interaction with streamers and player feedback). But it's the out-of-format specials in episodes 5 and 10 (both *****) which show a willing to experiment and tell unusual stories that are the real winners, a feat that the show will match in the second year.

The first season of Mythic Quest is streaming worldwide now on Apple TV+. A second season is also available, and the show as recently renewed for two more seasons, the first of which will air in 2022.

Thursday 21 October 2021

Dune: Part One

The year 10,191 of the Imperial Calendar. The power of the interstellar Imperium is based on the spice melange, which extends life, expands consciousness and, through the powers it grants the Navigators of the Spacing Guild, allows for interstellar travel and commerce. The spice is found only on one planet in known space: Arrakis, the desert world also called Dune. After eighty years of brutal occupation by House Harkonnen, the noble Atreides family has been tasked to take possession of Arrakis and mine the spice. Duke Leto Atreides seeks an alliance with the native Fremen to facilitate mining, but he is also aware that the Emperor fears his growing popularity and power. Meanwhile, Leto's son Paul is having unusual dreams and becoming aware that his very birth may have been orchestrated as part of a darker plot...

Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, having shifted some twenty million copies since its publication in 1965. Frank Herbert's novel is a strange beast for such a perennial bestseller, a cold and remote story of feuding houses, Byzantine politics and prescient visions swirling around a hallucinogenic substance which can shift the course of worlds. It lacks the warmth and heart of, say, The Lord of the Rings or even the comradeship and passions which break up the backstabbing and Machiavellian intrigue of Game of Thrones, but its intelligence and complexity have resonated strongly across the decades.

Denis Villeneuve has created the third version of Dune to hit the screens, following David Lynch's overstuffed 1984 film and John Harrison's painfully under-budgeted 2000 mini-series. Like those directors, he's run into the problem of Dune being too long for a single film and too short to turn into a TV series unless you also adapt adapt the increasingly obtuse and decreasingly popular sequels, which Harrison did with some success in 2003's Children of Dune mini-series. Villeneuve's solution is a gamble: breaking the film into two parts but only being able to shoot the first half, with the second contingent on the first part's success. A curious gamble by both director and the studio when the likes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Matrix sequels show the benefits in time and money of making the different parts in one go.

Dune: Part One (a distinction only found in the movie's title sequence and not on any of the marketing materials) takes advantage of its luxurious running time to build its world of feuding noble houses and a cynical take on the Hero's Journey, where the native Fremen of Arrakis have legends of the coming of a saviour and hero, unaware that they've been deliberately seeded into their culture in past centuries by the conniving Bene Gesserit sisterhood. This cynicism has put off casual audiences in the past even as it excites those bored of yet another retelling of yet another Frodo Skywalker who saves the world, and this film does a good job of balancing the comforting predictability of the story whilst also offering the view that such stories have become stale. Paul's visions grow increasingly apocalyptic as the film continues and he becomes more concerned that the future he is hurtling towards may be a nightmare, but one he is increasingly powerless to avert.

Villeneuve's previous movies, particularly his previous SF masterpieces Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, have stood him in good stead for delivering a film of thunderous visual power, where almost every single frame could be framed and hung on the wall as a work of art. But Dune risks over-indulgence. Villeneuve's past films have been tempered by the need to tell and conclude a story in a reasonable timeframe, whilst Dune is allowed to sprawl. Yes, Zendaya in white silk staring moodily across the desert is a cool image, but we probably could have done with a few less shots of that and maybe a few more moments expanding on characters like Thufir Hawat or Dr. Yueh, who in this film come across as under-developed. A particular delight of Lynch's Dune was Brad Dourif's eloquently batty Piter De Vries, but David Dastmalchian's take on the character is so anonymous he might as well have not even turned up (his sole saving grace being a brief side-quest that gives us a tantalising glimpse of the Imperial prison planet of Salusa Secundus).

The film also takes an odd counter-approach to Lynch's 1984 attempt. Lynch's movie was overstuffed, trying to ram too many characters into its run-time. Villeneuve strips the story almost bare here, with no sign of Emperor Shaddam IV, his daughter Irulan, his confidante Count Fenring, Baron Harkonnen's young nephew and heir apparent Feyd-Rautha, and no voice given to the Spacing Guild. Oddly, Villeneuve's greater run-time across two pictures would have allowed him to include and set up their stories much better, but instead they're MIA altogether and, apart from the Emperor, not even mentioned.

The score is haunting and powerful, even if, as with many Hans Zimmer scores, the sound mix feels off. Several key moments of dialogue are buried under the music and the sheer loudness of the soundtrack is something to behold. In almost forty years of going to the cinema, I've never left one with my ears ringing as much as after this one.

But there is much that Villeneuve does right. The imagery is fantastic and evocative. The actors who are here do career-best work, with Timothée Chalamet overcoming doubts about his casting to convince absolutely as Paul Atreides and Zendaya making the most of limited screen time as Chani. Javier Bardem's chilled-but-lethal vibe as Stilgar is also tremendously entertaining and might be the film's standout performance, and Rebecca Ferguson, Dave Bautista, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin all deliver excellent performances. There is no doubt whatsoever why so many hundreds of thousands of men and women would follow Oscar Isaac's magnificent beard into battle. Jason Momoa also overcomes fears of his bro-dude vibe not being a good fit for Duncan Idaho, with his Duncan becoming a charismatic and sympathetic character.

The vfx are outstanding, given time to breathe and not overwhelm the rest of the picture. The worms are more enigmatic, strange and lethal than prior depictions. The action sequences are, mostly, excellent (save some clumsy fight scenes which may leave the audience wondering if the reputation of the Sardaukar has been a bit oversold), and, finally, a book-accurate depiction of ornithopters will leave many Dune fans with massive smiles on their faces. The CGI kangaroo-mice are cool as hell.

Dune: Part One (****) is a qualified success, delivering an overwhelming cinematic spectacle that taps Frank Herbert's novel and strips away ancillary material that distracts from the core narrative. The atmosphere and tone are sumptuous, and the clearer stakes make the story easier to get a handle on. But secondary characters are under-developed and, in a few cases, not developed at all. The film also doesn't climax, instead just pausing (albeit on a fairly iconic image from the books). A fairer assessment of Villeneuve's project may hinge on its second half being made. In the meantime, Dune: Part One is on general release worldwide and is streaming now on HBO Max in the United States.

Wednesday 20 October 2021

PlayStation mega-franchise GOD OF WAR coming to PC

Sony have confirmed that one of their signature PlayStation franchises, God of War, is making the jump to the PC format, with the latest game in the series hitting PC as soon as January.

The God of War franchise began in 2005 with the eponymous debut game on PlayStation 2. It was followed by God of War II (2007), also on PlayStation 2, and God of War III (2010) on PlayStation 3. After a host of spin-off and mobile games, the second era of the franchise began in 2018 with a soft reboot/semi-sequel on PlayStation 4, also called God of War. The series follows a Spartan warrior named Kratos who becomes the tool and servant of the Greek god Ares, something he bitterly comes to regret. The original trilogy was set in the Greek period , whilst the second era is set in the Norse time period.

The franchise has sold over 50 million copies to date (20 million of those of the latest God of War alone) and has been highly critically acclaimed. The next game in the series, God of War: Ragnarok, is due for release in 2022, though I'd expect to wait a while for a PC version of that.

This is the latest in a slew of games that have been ported from PlayStation to PC, following on from the success of Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone, with Uncharted 4 also on its way. This is arguably the most significant such move so far, as the God of War franchise is seen as one of Sony's biggest and most exclusive series, arguably behind only the likes of Gran Turismo and The Last of Us.

The move has been necessitated by the growing cost of developing video games, with remuneration from a sole platform now being seen as more difficult to achieve than it was in the past. Porting exclusives to PC allows for a new revenue stream several years after the game's original release, whilst the time period involved (so far all the ported games have had to wait at least two years) still makes the argument for getting a PlayStation compelling. PC owners will be particularly happy, since all Xbox releases are now automatically coming out on PC as well, making the platform the only place where you can freely mix and match games from two of the three console giants (Nintendo are, so far, resistant to doing something similar).

God of War will launch on PC on 14 January 2022.

Ted Lasso: Season 1

Ted Lasso is an experienced American college football coach who is unexpectedly hired by the new owner of British football team FC Richmond, Rebecca Welton, to run the club after she inherits it from her ex-husband in a divorce settlement. Lasso's inexperience with football - or soccer - is initially a handicap, but his empathetic nature soon wins over most of the team and Rebecca. But Lasso's folksy advice and tactical instincts fail to win over star player Jamie Tartt, who eschews team play in favour of making himself the centre of attention, and sets about undermining Lasso's plans.

A bunch of cynical Brits are going through a tough time during their lives and careers. Many of them are in hard places, contemplating divorce, business failure or irrelevance. Suddenly, a folksy American shows up and via homespun wisdom, pithy sayings and the power of belief, these hard hearts are melted and all is well in the world.

Sounds horrible, doesn't it? Fortunately, Ted Lasso isn't that show, but it sounds so close to it that many potential viewers may have been put off (being on the smallest and newest of the global streaming services doesn't help either). Strong word of mouth and, now, eight Emmy Awards, may convince the doubters to tune in, because Ted Lasso is a show that threads the needle of being warm-hearted and positive without turning into a saccharine overdose, though it walks the line mighty fine.

The show is helped by a warm and winning central performance by Jason Sudeikis (Horrible Bosses) as the eponymous Lasso. Lasso would be an insufferable character if Sudeikis didn't imbue him with such wit and charm, not to mention playing the character's more troubled side. Lasso's relentless positivity and work ethic seems to have helped tank his own marriage, and his apparent inability to fix his own problems whilst having a good handle on everyone else's issues is causing him tension and anxiety, adding an interesting edge to the character.

The rest of the main cast is likewise excellent, particularly Hannah Waddingham (Game of Thrones) as quasi-antagonist Rebecca, Jeremy Swift (Downton Abbey) as Leslie and the spectacularly sweary Brett Goldstein (who also writes for the show) as former superstar player Roy Kent. Goldstein is arguably the breakout find of the show, notable for his Roy Keane-influenced hardman image clashing with a much softer side he tries to hide from people. Phil Dunster is just the right note of insufferable as the handsome and formidably talented Jamie Tartt, whose combative nature makes him a secondary antagonist for much of the season. Rounding out the main cast is Brendan Hunt as the taciturn Coach Beard; Nick Mohammed as Nate, a kitman turned sharp-tongued assistant coach; and Juno Temple as Jamie's girlfriend Keeley, whose initial, typical WAG image hides a much smarter, resourceful and tougher character. The show also has a formidable supporting cast, including the rest of the football team (featuring notable breakout performances by Toheeb Jimoh as Sam, Kola Bokinni as Isaac and Cristo Fernandez as Dani "Football is Life" Rojas) and the mighty Tony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as Rupert, Rebecca's ex-husband-turned-nemesis. Frankly any show which has Tony Head being an insufferable, rage-inducing prat is automatically worth watching in my book.

The show walks a very fine tightrope between Mister Rogers' Neighborhood-style folksy charm and a more cynical view of human nature. The show does lean heavily into feel-good stories which occasionally threaten to overload the audience's patience, but it shows remarkable judgement in knowing when it's going too "nice" and instead pulls back with some more cynical humour or deals the team a well-judged reversal of fortune. The team also has highs and lows through the season which feel surprisingly familiar for an English football team, with good spells suddenly ended when they come up against a far superior team. Ted Lasso is not by any means a realistic depiction of life in a Premier League team, but it does get the football right better than any show before it. Given football's status as the world's most popular sport, it's startling how few shows - drama or comedy - have really tried to engage with it previously, and there's a hint of annoying in British reviews of the series that it took an American creator (albeit with a partially British writing team) to finally crack it.

The first season of Ted Lasso (****½) cracks along with great pacing and just enough charm to overcome its cheesier moments, whilst hinting at greater character depth. Overrated? Somewhat. Some of the story turns are a bit implausible, even in the show's own warm-hearted reality, and some of the characters like Sam and Dani, despite outstanding performances, veer towards stereotypes. Jamie's abrupt mid-season departure also feels random, though it is explored a bit better in the second season. Overall, a solid, amusing show with a great cast. The series is available now on Apple TV+ worldwide.

Only Murders in the Building: Season 1

A fire alarm sounds in the Arconia apartment building in Manhattan. Three residents find themselves sharing a table at a nearby restaurant: semi-retired actor Charles-Haden Savage, Broadway director Oliver Putnam and Mabel Mora, a young woman renovating her aunt's apartment. The three bond over a shared fascination with true crime podcasts. When they discover that one of their neighbours was murdered during the fire alarm and the police seem undermotivated to investigate, they decide to look into it themselves...and host a podcast along the way.

A lot of TV shows, even in this modern age where it feels like everything has to be an instant hit, take a while to find their feet, usually stumbling through trial and error in early episodes until they find a consistent level of quality. The rarest of things in TV is a show that arrives absolutely fully-formed and is a compelling watch right out of the gate. Excepting mini-series like Watchmen, the last show to have achieved that feat may have been the fantastic first season of Fargo six years ago.

However, that may have now been matched by the first season of Only Murders in the Building, a perfectly-executed show which knows exactly what type of story it wants to tell and the tone it needs to hit to get there, and simply does it.

The show combines three outstanding leading talents: American comedy god Steve Martin, his frequent collaborator and 1980s legend Martin Short (I still feel that Innerspace is underrated), and singer and actress Selena Gomez. Martin plays against type as an insular, restrained actor who had a hit cop show in the early 1990s but has never been able to replicate its success, and has trouble opening up to other people. Short's Putnam is a flamboyant theatre director who struggles with dealing with everyday practicalities. Gomez's Mabel is a young woman with her whole life ahead of her who is nevertheless troubled by things that happened ten years earlier. Each character is both an observer of the murder mystery, with ideas on how to solve it, but also to some degree a participant; Mabel used to be friends with the victim, something she is reluctant to tell her new friends about; Putnam's long-term business associate agrees to bankroll their podcast but becomes a suspect; and one of Savage's new friends attracts the ire of the killer after helping the trio explore new ideas.

Each one of the ten episodes is structured like a podcast episode, complete with a dramatic voiceover explaining what's going on and what the stakes are. Typically each episode revolves around a new suspect and the trio find reasons to discount them or keep them under suspicion. This structure and each episode's brisk pacing (the episodes are only around 30 minutes long) makes for economical storytelling, without a wasted moment or filler.

The show also manages to balance a truly impressive cast. As well as the three superstar leads and Oscar-nominee Amy Ryan in a supporting role, the show features impressive turns from Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon (as himself), Jane Lynch, Nathan Lane, and, in a near-non-sequitur tangent which is nevertheless hilarious, Sting (as himself).

The show's success hinges on its old-fashioned comedy stylings, with occasional elements of farce and theatrical storytelling, melded with the way it employs modern technology, with consideration of the technical requirements needed to make a good podcast and the way character conversations often unfold through text messages. The show even feels confident enough to engage in some experimentation: the seventh episode, The Boy from 6B, unfolds almost completely without dialogue, in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Hush, except that Only Murders in the Building even more commits to the bit (the Buffy episode had dialogue at the start and end of the episode, but Only Murders only has a single audible word). The show ably mixes the old and the new to create something that feels consistently fresh.

A good murder mystery sets up the crime, explores the life of the victim and establishes a number of suspects who could be the killer. Feature films have to contend with limited time to do all of this before having to resolve the case, but a TV show has the luxury to breathe and spend a lot of time on set-up before revealing the solution, and wondering if the audience has gotten there ahead of them. Only Murders in the Building is a very good murder mystery, with some witty writing, smart plotting and outstanding performances, let down perhaps only by the cliffhanger ending leading into the (fortunately greenlit and shooting) second season.

The first season of Murders in the Building (*****) is available now on Hulu in the United States and on Disney+ in the rest of the world.

Tuesday 19 October 2021

THE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS goes out to publishers

J. Michael Straczynski has submitted the manuscript for his completed version of the late Harlan Ellison's anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, to a literary agency. The book is now being shopped to various publishers.

The follow-up to the award-winning Dangerous Visions (1969) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), the book has been in the planning stages since 1973, with Ellison regularly announcing target dates for completion and publication. At one point the book was said to number some 150 stories, requiring multiple volumes to come out. Ellison continued to regularly claim he was working on the book into the 1990s, and sometimes later still.

Following Ellison's death in June 2018, his friend and occasional collaborator literary executor J. Michael Straczynski began working to bring the book to publication. He pruned a lot of stories that had not held up, or whose return had been requested by their authors or their estates, and decided to add several new stories by contemporary authors to give the anthology a modern feel. The final word count of the anthology is a surprisingly modest 112,000.

The Last Dangerous Visions is being handled by the Janklow & Nesbit Agency, with rights to the earlier Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions included to complete a uniform edition. Contributors to the book include Edward Bryant, Stephen Robinette, Max Brooks, DM Rowles, Dan Simmons, Cecil Castelluci, Cory Doctorow, Stephen Deman, Patton Oswalt, Jonathan Fast, Howard Fast, Robert Sheckley, Adrian Tchaikovsky and James S.A. Corey.

In a post on his Facebook page, Straczynski also notes that other, very high-profile modern SFF authors had been offered to take part but had chosen not to do so.

Monday 18 October 2021

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Jevick of Tyom has grown up on an isolated island. He is given a tutor from the far-off empire of Olondria, who teaches him to read and fills his head with stories of that distant land. Circumstances lead Jevick to Bain, Olondria's cultured capital, where he fills his days with parties and books, but he is also haunted by an encounter with a dying girl from his own land. Soon civil war threatens the country and Jevick embarks on a journey to rid himself of his spiritual discomfort, unaware of the events that will be set in motion.

First published in 2013, A Stranger in Olondria is the debut novel by the poet Sofia Samatar. An unusual book, the novel is not a traditional epic or secondary world fantasy, despite a vividly composed world with well thought-out histories, customs and geography, but a tone and mood piece hinging on themes such as learning, regret, language and the essence of story.

The novel's writing reminded me in turn of Guy Gavriel Kay and Ursula K. Le Guin, but with a unique atmosphere that is the author's own. There are very occasional bursts of action (a brief brawl, a confused flight through the countryside) but the book reveals its story and intentions through dialogue, thoughts and smaller short stories which are inset through the narrative. Jevick's function is sometimes less that of a protagonist than a sounding board or sponge, soaking up other characters' stories. He does have his own character arc though: Jevick's status as an outsider to Olondria gives him a fresh perspective on the empire and its complex royal and religious politics, but also makes him a pawn in the game between the two sides, one of whom imprisons him for insanity and the other liberates him as a symbol of resistance.

The book is also a love letter to the idea of reading stories and collecting books, which will no doubt warm the hearts of almost all book readers. Jevick's early distrust of books, which do not exist on his home island and where people do not read, gives way to almost drowning in the stories and ideas he finds on the pages of his tutor's collection. Later in the book he embarks on teaching his own community to read, and sharing the joy that comes from his experiences with them.

The novel's quiet, thoughtful prose is erudite and at times beautiful. Characterisation is strong, I always had an excellent sense of Jevick's motivations and, through his eyes, those of the characters he meets. I did feel his initial relationship with Jissavet was a bit too slight given their later closeness, and the pacing is sometimes uneven. In particular, much of the last quarter or so of the book is given over to Jissavet's backstory which is intriguing and powerful, but feels almost like a self-contained novella within the book's larger narrative. Jevick's story feels somewhat rushed to a conclusion in the handful of pages left after Jissavet's story concludes. It may also be that Samatar is less successful than the likes of Le Guin and Kay in weaving beautiful prose and thoughtful themes around a central plot and advancing all well simultaneously.

For that, A Stranger in Olondria is (****½) is still an accomplished novel. More of a mood piece than a plot-driven book, it has a haunting quality that will stick with the reader long after it is finished. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The author has a further novel set in the same world, The Winged Histories.

Sunday 17 October 2021

Y: THE LAST MAN TV series dropped by FX

In a surprising move, FX has decided not to proceed with a second season of Y: The Last Man, its adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan's much-lauded comic book series. The decision is especially startling as it was taken when only seven of the ten episodes had aired in the United States, and six worldwide. Typically such decisions would only be taken or announced once the whole season was available, so as not to put people off watching the rest of the season.

Vaughan's Y: The Last Man comic book series, co-created and drawn by Pia Guerra, ran from 2002 to 2008 and was a marked early success in the post-apocalyptic comic genre (Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead debuted a year later). The comic posits a world where every single mammal with a Y chromosome (even sperm) has instantly dropped dead or become unviable, apart from two: the titular Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. The two find themselves at the mercy of the surviving female population, some of whom want to clone them, others who want to use their genetic material to create a cure, and a nihilistic cult which wants to kill him and end any hope of survival for the human race. The comic was applauded for its unpredictable story turns.

There were several attempts to bring the show to the screen before FX landed the rights in 2015. Development was repeatedly stymied by changes in personnel and disputes between the studio and various showrunners on the tone of the show. A pilot was filmed in 2018, which created a mixed reaction at the network. Eliza Clark finally landed the showrunner gig in 2019 and was able to steer the first season into production. However, the production period for the show then ran into problems and delays resulting from the COVID pandemic before finally concluding in July 2021, three years after shooting on the pilot began. The show began airing last month after a further change, a last-minute move from FX itself to American streaming service Hulu.

The show has received fairly mixed reviews, with a common consensus being that the opening episodes are too grim and humourless before the show is allowed to breathe in later episodes. Other criticisms include the writing for protagonist Yorick Brown, which makes him very unlikeable for large chunks of the season, and a scattergun narrative that careens between three storylines (Yorick on the move, his sister who has fallen in with a cult and his mother's precarious position as the President of the United States) with some severe pacing issues. Some critics also noted that the show's grimdark tone is not necessarily the best fit for the world in general right now, and that also some of the show's thunder and power has been stolen by several other post-apocalyptic shows, including The Walking Dead and its two spin-offs, as well as the recent mini-series version of The Stand. However, critical appreciation for the series has grown over the course of the season, with special praise reserved for Ashley Romans' powerful performance as Agent 355.

The actual reasons for the cancellation are unclear - FX has not commented so far - but it might be that the show's initial release has simply not delivered the required viewing figures on Hulu and, worldwide, Disney+. The delays have meant that the show is very expensive and it needed to be a massive hit right out of the gate.

For my part, the show started sluggishly but has picked up momentum over the course of the season and the story has become more interesting. Certainly the source material, if adapted well, has the potential to take the show on a wild ride which should avoid comparisons with other post-apocalyptic series.

Showrunner Eliza Clark has noted that they have the opportunity to take the project elsewhere, and it may be possible to save the show on another network or streaming service. The show has picked up a few high-profile fans, with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk revealing he's a fan on Twitter.

UPDATE: The Hollywood Reporter has the inside scoop on why the show was cancelled. There was a hard deadline of 15 October when FX had to decide to spend $3 million on renewing the cast contracts or not, and they decided they would not do that without a renewal decision. Since they did not have enough viewing figure data to make the call, they decided not to renew. It also sounds like FX may have become somewhat disillusioned with the project given its six-year gestation period and frequent changes of showrunner and actors.

However, FX are reportedly keen to help the show find a new home and it sounds like discussions are underway for Y: The Last Man to move to potentially HBO Max, which might be a better fit for it. This is unusual given that FX is part of the Disney family and the show could perhaps move somewhere else within its empire, but a sign of good faith that FX has in the production team. Given that the cast contracts have now been terminated and the cast could start getting other offers soon, such a transition would have to happen pretty quickly.

Tuesday 12 October 2021

SAGA comic series to resume in January 2022

The comic book series Saga is to resume in January 2022. The series, written by Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples, went on hiatus in 2018. The hiatus was originally meant to be for a year or so, but was extended by the COVID pandemic and the creators getting involved in other projects. However, Vaughn confirmed they were hard at work back on the series last year.

Saga began in 2012 and rapidly garnered both critical and commercial acclaim, becoming one of the biggest-selling comic book series of the decade in both monthly release and later collections (totalling more than 7 million sales). The series went on hiatus after issue #54, the planned exact halfway point of the entire story, on an absolutely massive cliffhanger.

The series begins with two soldiers from different sides in an interstellar war, Marko and Alana, meeting and falling in love. They have a child, Hazel, who might be a symbol of hope and peace, and for that reason people on both sides want her and her parents dead. Various bounty hunters are assigned to the task, which is made more complicated by both Marko and Alana's formidable skills and by the battery of weird and wonderful allies they build up whilst on the run.

Saga #55 will be a double-length, 44-page special and will hit shelves on 26 January.

Happy 42nd Birthday to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (novel)

Douglas Adams's novel, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, turns 42 today.

Published on 12 October 1979, the novel was based on Adams's radio series of the same name which had aired eighteen months earlier on the BBC. With the radio series a huge success, Adams was convinced to turn the series into a novel. Adams only adapted the first four parts of the radio series into the book, saving the rest for the sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (published a year later), although, as was his wont, Adams made major plot and character changes between the different versions of the story. The same held true of the excellent BBC mini-series (which aired in 1981), the video game (1984) and feature film (2005).

The novel sold extremely well, shifting 250,000 copies in its first three months on sale. Unusually for a British comedic SF novel, the book was a hit in the United States as well and sales of the novel passed a million in 1984. Total sales of the novel are now believed to be in the neighbourhood of 20 million. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the two biggest-selling individual SF novels* of all time, a position it has swapped fairly regularly with Dune in the last few years, although a recent boost in sales for Dune (driven by the new movie adaptation) have almost certainly moved it back into first place and Hitch-Hiker's into second.

As with most versions of the story, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy novel opens with Earth being demolished by the officious and callous Vogons to make room for a hyperspace by-pass. Ford Prefect, a field researcher for the eponymous book who has been conducting research on Earth for fifteen years, elects to rescue his best friend Arthur Dent from certain death and they flee into deep space. After an improbable meeting with Ford's semi-cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox (the part-time Galactic President who's now on the run after stealing a hyper-advanced starship for no rational reason), they find themselves caught up in a wild, ancient conspiracy involving god-like computers, dolphins, mice, an alien fjord-designer and, of course, the number 42, which holds the key to the secrets of life, the universe, and everything. Or it would, if anyone knew what the hell the question was.

Sadly, Douglas Adams passed away in 2001 at the far-too-young age of 49 and is not here to celebrate the milestone his famous novel has achieved. However, I am certain that, demolition of the Earth by bad poetry-reciting aliens allowing, the novel will still be going strong in another 42 years from now.

* Sales estimates of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy are complicated due to the fact that it is a very short novel, so for most of its existence it has been published in handy omnibus formats with various of its sequels; the biggest-selling edition of the book is believed to be a 1985 omnibus edition that packaged it with its three immediate sequels: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (1982) and So Long and Thanks For All the Fish (1984). After 1992, this was supplanted by a five-volume omnibus that added Mostly Harmless (1992), the final book in the series. In recent years, the series has seen new five-volume editions put on sale. However, Dune has a similar estimate problem due to the extreme popularity of a hardcover omnibus that contains the first three books in its series which has been in print since the late 1970s.

Monday 11 October 2021

Sony to acquire SFF-focused production company Bad Wolf

Sony Pictures Television is to acquire independent production company Bad Wolf, noted for its slate of SFF programming.

Bad Wolf was founded in 2015 by ex-BBC Drama head Jane Tranter and former Doctor Who producer Julie Gardner, and took its name from a story arc on Doctor Who. Headquartered in Cardiff, Wales, the company's first project was The Night Of for HBO and the BBC, which was a massive international success. A Discovery of Witches for Sky, based on the Deborah Harkness fantasy trilogy. They have since added Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials as a project for HBO and the BBC, and are currently shooting the third and concluding season. It is possible they might consider adapting the Book of Dust sequel/prequel project, and have incorporated elements from that trilogy in the existing TV series.

Bad Wolf will partner with the BBC in 2023 to produce the fourteenth season of the rebooted Doctor Who, and potentially further seasons beyond that. As well as Gardner being a former producer on the show, Jane Tranter was the person who formally commissioned the Doctor Who revival during her time at the BBC. Their former producing partner Russell T. Davies is returning to helm at least one season and the 60th anniversary celebrations, but may stay on beyond that.

Bad Wolf's other projects include Beddgelert, Industry and I Hate Suzie, the latter of which which will re-team the production company with former Doctor Who star Billie Piper. They are also developing a series based on Bernard Cornwell's acclaimed Warlord Chronicles trilogy, a more realistic take on the Arthurian legend.

Sony's acquisition of the company will give Sony a strong production partner based in the UK, which is rapidly becoming a boom location for shooting. Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon is currently shooting in the UK, and production of Netflix's The Witcher transferred to the UK from Eastern Europe for its second and subsequent seasons. Amazon is also in pre-production for Anansi Boys, Season 2 of Good Omens and Season 2 of its Lord of the Rings Second Age project, all rumoured to shoot in Scotland. Sony have reportedly committed to keeping Bad Wolf's headquarters in Cardiff and maintaining the UK as its primary production base.

Sony acquiring Bad Wolf does not mean they have acquired Doctor Who, of course. Bad Wolf are producing the show to-order for the BBC, which retains ownership, all related copyrights and trademarks. Bad Wolf will be producing the show on behalf of the BBC in a deal which the BBC can amend as required. However, it is likely that the deal gives Bad Wolf (and hence Sony) a slice of overseas profits, which may allow them to invest more heavily in the show; Doctor Who has famously been on a very tight (and stretched beyond breaking point) budget since the BBC effectively froze its production budgets after the financial crisis of 2008. 

Saturday 9 October 2021

The Orville: Season 1

2419. The Planetary Union is exploring the galaxy, but it has three thousand ships and not enough experienced captains. Despite some doubts over his fitness for command, the admiralty place Captain Ed Mercer in command of the mid-size exploration and scientific cruiser Orville. Mercer's idiosyncratic crew slowly gel and turn into an effective team as they take on various threats, including being trapped in two-dimensional space and repeated confrontations with the villainous Krill.

The Orville is something of an odd show. It's a very, very earnest retread of early Star Trek: The Next Generation, getting as physically close to that show as it can without being sued into oblivion by CBS/Paramount. Concepts, characters, worldbuilding elements, technology and even individual story and character arcs feel so close to Star Trek that at times it gets a bit bemusing, and the presence of former Star Trek writers (Brannon Braga), directors (Jonathan Frakes, James L. Conway, Robert Duncan McNeill) and actors (DS9's Penny Johnson Jerald as a regular, Voyager's Robert Picardo in a recurring role) makes it clear that showrunner Seth MacFarlane is less playing homage to Star Trek then pretty much just remaking it.

This makes The Orville often feel like Star Trek: The Next Generation circa Season 2, with earnest moralising, sticky ethical conundrums and character interplay that sometimes works very well and sometimes is pretty poor. The show has to overcome several key weaknesses, including creator-writer-producer-star Seth MacFarlane's limited range (he is the weakest link in the cast) and the decision to front-line the show's most morally complex, issue-led episode About a Girl and then make a major hash of it. After the first three episodes, viewers would be forgiven for checking out.

However, the show then begins a long improvement drive. The fourth episode, If the Stars Should Appear, features the Orville encountering a massive generation ship and getting into the kind of interesting, high-concept based stories that TNG would have excelled at if it had the budget. Majority Rule overcomes a key weakness of the show - many of these stories or at least premises have been tackled before on 700-ish episodes of Star Trek - with an enthusiastic cast and just the right dose of humour. New Dimensions, in which the ship visits a two-dimensional universe, is a particularly good example of how the show can tackle Star Trek ideas with modern production values at a point when the actual Star Trek shows seem more interesting in tackling epic, darker storylines which the franchise is arguably not well-suited for.

The cast gels together quite nicely, Adrianne Palicki delivering on the underused potential she showed on Agents of SHIELD, and Deep Space Nine veteran Penny Johnson Jerald brings all her experience of dealing with weird aliens into play. Halston Sage is more enthusiastic than skilled as Lt. Alara Kitan, but develops into a much stronger player over the course of the first season and gets an excellent showcase episode near the end of the season. J. Lee is severely underused as Lt. LaMarr, but does get a better, more interesting role towards the end of the season (in a bemusing retread - intended or not - of what happened to La Forge on TNG). The show's MVP emerges as Isaac, the ship's alien mechanoid science officer who considers all other species inferior; Mark Jackson embodies Isaac with a terrific vocal performance and the character overcomes cliches by not wanting to become human, although he is fascinated by biological organisms' chaotic behaviour. 

The show also makes good use of MacFarlane's industry connections to deliver a very high class of guest star, with a brief appearance by Liam Neeson and proper, full-length guest roles for Charlize Theron and Rob Lowe, who all do terrific work. Rob Lowe's performance as a sexually voracious alien in truly ridiculous makeup is particularly entertaining.

The first season of The Orville (***½) never entirely overcomes its problems with tonal dissonance, non-sequitur toilet humour exploding through the wall of a dramatic scene with real stakes, and MacFarlane's somewhat clunky performance. But, after an initial burst of poor writing, it evolves into a reliably entertaining series which feels very comfortable in its role as a Next Generation cover band. It is available to watch worldwide on Disney+, and on Hulu in the United States.

Amazon announces release date and trailer for final season of THE EXPANSE

Amazon have dropped a trailer for the sixth and final season of The Expanse, which will begin airing on 8 December this year.

The sixth season of The Expanse draws on the sixth novel, Babylon's Ashes, as source material and sees the crew of the Rocinante joining forces with various factions to try to bring down Marco Inaros, still basking in the glow of his successful terror attacks on Earth in the previous season.

The TV version of The Expanse is ending early, with the final three novels in the series going un-adapted. It appears that the plan is to turn Babylon's Ashes into a conclusion for this version of the series, with a view to adapting the final three novels (Persepolis Rising, Tiamat's Wrath, Leviathan Falls) in a different format later on. The last three novels are set thirty years after the rest with a significantly different plot focus, which might be easier to handle as a spin-off series or series of TV movies.

The final novel in the Expanse book series, Leviathan Falls, will be released on 30 November this year.