Tuesday 30 November 2021

Doctor Who: Series 1 (Season 27)

Earth, 2005. Rose Tyler is a normal 19-year-old Londoner, working, partying and still living at home with her mum. A mysterious stranger known as the Doctor whisks her off on adventures through time and space. Gradually, Rose learns of his origins as the last of his race, the once-mighty Time Lords of Gallifrey, and the Great Time War that destroyed his world. But their journeys through space and time are being followed, two words that appear almost everywhere they go, foreshadowing the great battle that is to come: Bad Wolf.

In 2005, TV writer and producer Russell T. Davies was faced with a daunting task: resurrecting and restoring to relevance the vintage British SF TV series Doctor Who. The show had aired across twenty-six seasons between 1963 and 1989 before being "rested" by the BBC due to declining ratings (the result of deliberately being put in a dead slot opposite the country's most popular TV show, Coronation Street). In the sixteen-year interregnum there had been several attempts to resurrect the show for TV and film, including a one-off 1996 TV movie as a co-production with the American Universal and Fox Studios. There'd also been enormous numbers of novels and audio dramas, with Davies himself making his Doctor Who debut by writing Damaged Goods, which saw the Doctor going undercover in a working-class housing estate to flush out an alien threat.

To bring back Doctor Who, Davies decided to make it a fast-moving, action-packed adventure series inspired by American shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but, also like Buffy, featuring serialised elements spanning the series, greater continuity, a larger cast of recurring characters and some quieter character moments. He also wanted to firmly reset Doctor Who as a show suitable for the entire family, feeling (as many critics had) that in the 1980s Doctor Who had become too focused on adults and long-term fans and was no longer entertaining to young children, who had felt that the show had become cheap and outdated compared to contemporary American shows. Davies also wanted to move the show on in terms of progression and representation, with a more balanced role for the companion, and more roles for characters of all colours and sexuality.

He did - eventually - succeed, but it is fair to say that it took most of the revival season to get there.

Airing on 26 March 2005, the episode Rose can be charitably described as a hyperactive live-action cartoon. It introduces Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper as his new companion Rose, both excellent performers but here performing in a story that has all the grace and subtlety of being hit in the face with a brick made of cow dung. Almost wholly lacking in logic or sense, the episode was a mess in 2005 and remains so today, and it's frankly remarkable it spawned a renewed series lasting thirteen seasons (and counting). The best thing about the episode is its enthusiasm, as well as its nostalgia-tugging by redeploying the memorable Autons from the Jon Pertwee serials Spearhead from Space (1970) and Terror of the Autons (1971). It got the job of resurrecting Doctor Who done, but rather unpleasantly, with gurning performances, a silly script and cheap effects.

Fortunately things improve immediately: The End of the World is an effective "base under siege" story of the kind that Doctor Who does so well, with the Doctor, Rose and assorted alien dignitaries stuck on a space station overseeing the final moments of the planet Earth, five billion years in the future. The Unquiet Dead, by resident Victorian expert Mark Gatiss, is an excellent horror story set in Victorian Cardiff, complete with Charles Dickens (a superb performance by Simon Callow). Other season highlights include The Long Game, with a cast-against-type Simon Pegg as an evil villain, and Boom Town, a surprisingly moving story which runs as a morality play with the Doctor and his companions being given the power of live and death over a villainous character and struggling with how to deal with that.

The season flags again with the Aliens of London/World War Three two-parter where the Earth is held to ransom by the Slitheen, a very silly race of farting aliens. Despite some effective set-up (including Big Ben being destroyed by an alien spacecraft crashing into the Thames) and some continuity-pleasing nods to the existence of UNIT, it's a story poorly afflicted by poor direction; it's notable that the director of this two-parter (and Rose), Keith Boak, never worked on the show again, and seems to have been criticised by Christopher Eccleston for how he ran the set.

The latter half of the season improves immensely. Dalek can be best described as Doctor Who's answer to Alien, employing a single Dalek to show the immense danger posed by just one of the Doctor's signature foes. Even better is Father's Day, by possibly the greatest living Doctor Who writer, Paul Cornell. Rose sets out to meet her father Pete, who died in 1987 when she was just a few months old, and inadvertently changing history for the worse. This is a five-star episode let down only by the poor execution (and inexplicable nature) of the monstrous Reapers.

The two-parter The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances marks the arrival of future showrunner Steven Moffat to the franchise. The serial slightly over-eggs the pudding (the creepy child saying "Are you my mummy?" starts off being uncanny and horrifying but gets rather old before the first episode is over) but is nevertheless effective, with superb guest performances, a great WWII period feeling and the debut of John Barrowman as fan-favourite Captain Jack Harkness.

The series finale is a tale of two halves, with Bad Wolf being amusing but now painfully dated with 2005 pop culture references which really don't mean anything any more. The cliffhanger is certainly impressive. The Parting of the Ways is far superior, a much more ambitious episode with impressive vfx and a real epic sense of danger as the Doctor takes on a Dalek battle fleet head-to-head, culminating in the first regeneration of the modern era.

The first season of the revived Doctor Who (***½) has gotten a reputation of being rough and ready over the years, some of it much-deserved, but much of it has aged surprisingly well (dated CGI and the unfathomable decision not to shoot the show in proper HD until 2009 aside). Dalek and Father's Day are among the finest episodes of the revival era of the series, and most of the rest of the season is at least watchable. It's only really Rose and the Slitheen two-parter which emerge as really poor. Ultimately Russell T. Davies achieves his goal of resurrecting the show with enthusiasm, verve and heart, and beginning the process of turning it into a phenomenon. The season is currently available in the UK via iPlayer and in the USA via HBO Max.

  • 101: Rose **
  • 102: The End of the World ***½
  • 103: The Unquiet Dead ****
  • 104: Aliens of London **½
  • 105: World War Three **½
  • 106: Dalek ****½
  • 107: The Long Game ***½
  • 108: Father's Day ****½
  • 109: The Empty Child ****
  • 110: The Doctor Dances ****
  • 111: Boom Town ****
  • 112: Bad Wolf ***
  • 113: The Parting of the Ways ****½

TALES OF DUNK & EGG TV series picks up writer

HBO has assigned a writer to its in-development Tales of Dunk & Egg TV project, a spin-off of the Game of Thrones franchise.

Steven Conrad is best-known for writing the films The Weather Man, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Wonder, as well as creating the TV series Patriot, Perpetual Grace, LTD and Ultra City Smiths. Conrad (under his Elephant Pictures production company banner) would work on the prospective series as writer, executive producer and presumably showrunner.

The Tales of Dunk & Egg is based on the Dunk & Egg series of novellas by George R.R. Martin. So far three have been published: The Hedge Knight (1998), The Sworn Sword (2002) and The Mystery Knight (2010), previously assembled and published as A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (2015). Martin has a fourth novella partially written, The She-Wolves of Winterfell (working title), and between nine and twelve stories planned in total.

Martin previously proposed a Dunk & Egg series to HBO, before changing his mind on the idea due to the novellas being incomplete and not wanting to be overtaken by HBO again, as happened with Game of Thrones itself. However, with work on the main Song of Ice and Fire series still incomplete, it appears that Martin has changed his mind again and may see a TV series as a way of expanding and completing the Dunk & Egg series in a shorter timeframe.

The Dunk & Egg stories, which begin ninety years before the start of A Song of Ice and Fire (and Game of Thrones), revolve around the misadventures of Ser Duncan the Tall, a lowly hedge knight who acquires a squire named Egg, who is more than he seems. Dunk and Egg travel the Seven Kingdoms and become embroiled in various scrapes, some low-key stories and other adventures with more important ramifications for the history of Westeros.

The project remains in the development phase and has not so far been greenlit by HBO. Another spin-off series, House of the Dragon, has almost completed shooting of its first season for a project Spring or Summer 2022 debut on HBO. HBO is developing several additional prequel and spin-off series but has so far not greenlit any more.

Friday 26 November 2021

Chris Wooding completes EMBER BLADE sequel

Chris Wooding has completed the follow-up to his 2018 fantasy novel, The Ember Blade. The Shadow Casket is the name of the second book and it's now with the publishers for a likely late 2022/early 2023 publication slot.

Wooding has spoken of delays to the sequel caused by his work on video game projects such as Assassin's Creed: Valhalla. In March he reported the novel was on temporary hold, indicating it might be a while before it could come out. It's therefore a bit of a surprise that it's now done and with the editors.

The Ember Blade was an accomplished "classic throwback" epic fantasy written with Wooding's customary verve and humour. I look forwards to the sequel, and finding out what the "secret project" he was working on, which briefly took precedence.

Amazon's LORD OF THE RINGS TV series chooses Bray Studios as its base of operations

Amazon's Lord of the Rings prequel television series has found its new home. After shooting the first season in Auckland in New Zealand, the second season sees the show basing itself at Bray Studios, Berkshire, just west of London.

The studio was built in 1951 by Hammer Film Productions, who were developing an old country manor estate overlooking the River Thames. The studio expanded rapidly, with Columbia coming on board in 1959 to co-develop the property. The studio was divided into different areas, with the BBC doing vfx work for Doctor Who in one area. In 2014 it was announced that the studio would close and be demolished, to be replaced by flats, in the face of fierce competition from Pinewood and Shepperton. However, although some redevelopment took place, the soundstages were saved and shooting resumed there in 2019, as other UK studio facilities had been maxed out and Bray was suddenly in demand once more.

Projects shot at Bray include the Quatermass movies, Space: 1999, a huge number of Hammer Horror movies, Poirot, Dracula, Ali G Indahouse and Terrahawks.

The UK and New Zealand were previously in fierce competition to host the Lord of the Rings project, with the UK presenting a convincing argument for basing shooting in Scotland. However, New Zealand won out due to better tax incentives and more impressive scenery. It was therefore a surprise when Amazon announced in August that the second season of the show would shoot in the UK instead. It was assumed that Scotland would again be the front-runner, although since the original presentation a whole host of projects have set up north of the border, including Amazon's own Good Omens (shooting at the moment) and Anansi Boys. Being based at Bray would still allow the production to shoot elsewhere in the UK, of course.

Additional shooting will also take place at Bovingdon Airfield. The former RAF base has frequently been used as a location for large-scale, outdoor shooting, appearing in projects such as The Prisoner and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Other fantasy shows are also eating up studio space in the UK: HBO's House of the Dragon has set up at the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden, whilst Netflix's The Witcher has taken over Arborfield Studios (not far from Bray).

Amazon's Lord of the Rings project is expected to debut on Amazon Prime Video on 2 September 2022. Production is about to begin on the second season.

The Wheel of Time: Season 1, Episodes 1-4

The peaceful tranquillity of the remote rural region known as the Two Rivers is abruptly shattered by the arrival of an Aes Sedai, a wielder of the One Power, named Moiraine. According to the Aes Sedai, the Dragon - the most powerful channeller who has ever lived - has been Reborn, and their return may herald the approach of the Last Battle against the Shadow. And the Dragon Reborn is one of four young people in the community. When Shadowspawn - Trollocs and Fades - attack the village and leave it in ruins, it appears that Moiraine was right. But three of the four candidates are men, and men who can channel the One Power are doomed to go insane and cause great death and destruction in the process...

It's taken almost thirty-two years since the first book was published, but Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time fantasy sequence has finally made it to the screen. There have been multiple aborted attempts involving strange paid-for adverts, Japanese animation studios and even a planned NBC show, but it's fallen to Sony and Amazon to bring the project to fruition. The lengthy production process has not helped, with filming repeatedly interrupted and delayed by the COVID pandemic. But it's here and the first four episodes - half of the first season - are now available.

The Wheel of Time is the latest big fantasy series to hit the screen but in some respects the most challenging. The novels consist of fourteen fairly massive tomes, with well over two thousand named characters (several hundred of which are semi-important to the narrative), set in a richly-detailed world with almost four thousand years of intricately-detailed history, accompanied by maps, a dictionary for a fictional language and a lengthy concordance of fictional names, terms and concepts. The books borrow heavily from various different religious and philosophical ideals, many of them not familiar to a western audience. There's an entire magic system with deeply-thought-out, complex rules. The sheer amount of information that needs to be transmitted to a newcomer is daunting.

The first episode, Leavetaking, makes the probably wise decision to not even try to frontload all this background in favour of focusing on the five key characters of Rand, Egwene, Mat, Nynaeve and Perrin, along with the newcomer Moiraine and her bodyguard, Lan. The episode spends 40 minutes or so in character and world-building, through scenes like Egwene going through a coming of age ceremony, Moiraine quizzing Nynaeve on her childhood, Rand struggling with what he wants from life, Mat trying to look after his sisters when his parents are wastrels and Perrin facing marital problems.

There are some pretty big changes from the novel here in an attempt to bring out internal character monologues and development into a visual shorthand. Giving Mat lame parents and turning him into a slightly darker character is controversial, but you can see where they are coming from. Giving Perrin a wife and having her die to provide him with character motivation is an egregious example of the fridging trope, and is easily the biggest mistake the show makes in its early going, especially because it leaves Perrin so shell-shocked and suffering from PTSD that the audience is unable to get a hand on the "real" Perrin's character.

The episode culminates in the Trolloc attack on Winternight, which is where Amazon's big bucks come into play. The Shadowspawn are realised mostly through superb prosthetic work (CGI long-shots of them in the distance are more variable) and the fight against them is mostly rendered in-camera with practical effects amidst all the swirling CGI. Seeing Moiraine cut loose with the One Power against the enemy is genuinely impressive, using fire, lightning, wind and earth in combination to lay waste to the Trolloc ranks.

The negatives are grating and, in some cases, inexplicable, but given the volume of information that has to be given to the audience and the amount of setup work that needs to be done whilst telling an interesting story, Wheel of Time's debut episode does work, if inelegantly.

Things improve in the second episode, Shadow's Waiting, where our heroes flee across the countryside to the ruined city of Shadar Logoth, having an awkward encounter with the Children of the Light along the way. Book fans may bemoan the loss of Baerlon and the delayed meeting with Min, but in its place we have more character development and exposition of the backstory, with Moiraine's horseback monologue about the fall of Manetheren being a well-acted highlight of the episode. The Shadar Logoth sequence is well-realised, with a genuinely creepy atmosphere, even if the "Breaking of the Fellowship" moment feels even more contrived than it is in the book.

The third episode, A Place of Safety starts to see the show firing on all cylinders. Rand and Mat's Nightmare Road Trip from The Eye of the World is partially condensed here (exemplified by them visiting the "Four Kings Inn" in Breen's Spring, whereas in the novel Four Kings and Breen's Spring are separate villages) but to great effect, with Izuka Hoyle's excellent performance as innkeeper Dana giving the episode an interesting spin. In the Wheel of Time novels, there is often a lack of convincing motivation given to those who follow the Shadow, but Dana provides very plausible reasons why a normal, sane person might do so. The episode also introduces Thom Merrilin, played with convincing gravitas by The Last Kingdom's Alexandre Willaume. TV Thom is younger and apparently a bit rougher around the edges than the book incarnation, but it's a great performance, hinting at the book character's colourful past. This episode is also where Zoe Robins steps into her own as Nynaeve, as she, Lan and Moiraine begin their three-way sparring.

The fourth episode, The Dragon Reborn, manages the not-inconsiderable feat of taking the largest liberties with the book, with Nynaeve, Lan and Moiraine encountering the Aes Sedai party taking the captive Logain to Tar Valon, whilst also being the truest to the book lore. How men and women channel, how shielding and linking work, what the Aes Sedai Ajahs are and how the Warder/Aes Sedai bond operates are all key parts of the episode, but rather than delivered through bald exposition, these concepts are exemplified through on-screen drama. The dramatically varying behaviour of different Aes Sedai is also shown. Subplots follow Nynaeve and Perrin with the Tuatha'an, a low-key storyline in the books here improved by the fabulous casting of Irish national treasure Maria Doyle Kennedy as Ila and promising up-and-comer Daryl McCormack as Aram, possibly the single most supremely punchable character in the books but here played with sympathy and charisma. The Tuatha'an's slightly iffy Irish traveller vibe from the books is also improved here in two sequences where Ila explains the Way of the Leaf in terms of its philosophical interaction with the ideology of the Wheel of Time. In fact, the show overall improves over the books in showing how the 100% knowledge of reincarnation as a fact of life impacts on everyday existence, with the philosophical belief in death and rebirth rendering traditional religion unnecessary in a way that Robert Jordan never really convinced with in the novels.

The Dragon Reborn culminates in the show's finest set-piece so far, with a large battle and inventive channelling of the One Power, including depicting ideas such as linking, shielding and gentling, which are hard concepts to get across without pages of expository text.

This steadily improving level of quality is quite impressive, and the show benefits from a superb musical score by Lorne Balfe (surprisingly low-key in the mix as it is), mostly effective CGI (some wonky Trolloc long-shots aside) and a battery of excellent performances by the mostly young and inexperienced cast, anchored by reliable stalwarts Rosamund Pike, Michael McElhatton and Daniel Henney.

Overall, the first half of the first season of The Wheel of Time (****) is a qualified success. A somewhat rough opening smooths out and the show grows in confidence and enjoyment as it carries on. Yes, in a perfect universe we'd have 30-episode seasons with each episode costing $40 million to tell the story of the novels in full, but given the time constraints the show has to work with, it's so far made reasonable choices (with that one glaring error of Perrin's backstory). Some clunky lines and uneven levels of exposition are balanced out by fine performances, great music and some fabulous location filming in the Czech Republic and Slovenia. So far, off to a promising start.

The Wheel of Time: Season 1
  1. Leavetaking ***
  2. Shadow's Waiting ***½
  3. A Place of Safety ****
  4. The Dragon Reborn ****½
Forthcoming episodes: Blood Calls Blood (3 December), The Flame of Tar Valon (10 December), The Dark Along the Ways (17 December), The Eye of the World (24 December).

Thursday 25 November 2021

Reservation Dogs: Season 1

Bear, Willie Jack, Cheese and Elora Danan (named for film Willow) are four youngsters frustrated with their life on a small reservation community in Oklahoma. In honour of their friend Daniel, who died a year previously, they plan to save up some money and escape to California. But their hopes are interrupted by a series of challenges, including the arrival of a new, rival gang; family issues; and Bear acquiring a somewhat incompetent spirit guide who tries to give him useful life advice.

Reservation Dogs is an off-kilter, low-fi comedy series created and showrun by Sterlin Harjo, with Taika Waititi attached as co-creator and producer. The show is noteworthy for being the first American scripted series to entirely be written (or co-written) and directed by an indigenous North American team, as is the majority of the cast (Waititi is notable as the only non-indigenous creative involved, and notes his job was using his name to get the show set up and then getting out of the way of everyone else). Set on a reservation in Oklahoma, the show attempts to show how people live in an isolated rural community, making the best of things or, in some cases, not.

The show centres on four key protagonists: Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear Smallhill (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), who plan to escape their small town existence by fair means or foul, whether that's selling dodgy meat products or robbing vans. At the end of the first episode the gang gain a name and identity, the "Rez Dogs," which fires them up in their mission. Several of the eight episodes involve the Rez Dogs getting into various scrapes in the closest the show gets to acquiring a traditional format. However, the series also eschews that to focus on each character at a time, as they each get a solo mission which explores their character and backstory in which the other members of the gang don't appear, or appear only briefly. Other episodes focus much more firmly on supporting castmembers, such as local cop Big, Willie Jack's father Leon, Elora's uncle Brownie, or Bear's mother who is anxiously trying to find a happier life for herself.

The show is also not afraid to change gears and tones. The show is ostensibly a comedy, but several episodes are more serious, dealing with more dramatic issues. One episode is even something of a tragedy. At least one episode conjures up a genuine horror movie vibe with some decidedly disturbing moments.

Where Reservation Dogs works is by making all of this work so absolutely effortlessly that it's genuine pleasure to watch. Each episode is exactly what it needs to be in tone and style. The direction is frequently original and fresh, the young cast is absolutely on point, the supporting cast is brilliant and the comedy moments are genuinely hilarious (especially Dallas Goldtooth's brilliantly incompetent spirit guide). The show's low-fi, laidback vibe and the way the action unfolds very slowly through long, lazy summer afternoons in the middle of nowhere gives it a chill feeling, but the short running time and tight focus means it's never boring.

In fact, although the subject matter and characters are completely different, Reservation Dogs recalls FX sister show Atlanta, which similarly uses off-kilter humour, drama, tragedy and horror to explore the lives of a small number of characters. That's a high bar to raise as a point of comparison, but Reservation Dogs rather handily meets it. 

The debut season of Reservation Dogs (*****) is brilliantly-executed television. At times strange and artistic, at others accessible and riotously funny, it mixes and matches styles, stories and tones with assured ease and a confidence that belies its status as a debut show. The show is available to watch on FX and Hulu in the United States and Disney+ in most of the rest of the world.

Wednesday 24 November 2021

Amazon developing a MASS EFFECT television series

Amazon Prime Television are developing a television series based on the popular science fiction video game series, Mass Effect.

The news came as Amazon celebrated the launch of their new Wheel of Time television series. The first three episodes, which dropped last Friday, have exceeded Amazon's launch expectations and become Amazon's highest-rated debut series of 2021, and one of their biggest of all time, in the same bracket as anti-superhero drama The Boys and the highly acclaimed comedy series The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel. A second season is already more than halfway through shooting and reports indicate that a third season has been at least "amberlit," with contingency planning underway before Amazon decides to pull the trigger on that order.

Mass Effect is a popular video game series consisting of a trilogy and a stand-alone sequel game, all developed by BioWare (also known for their Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age franchises). The trilogy - Mass Effect (2007), Mass Effect 2 (2010) and Mass Effect 3 (2012) - was released on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. A "Legendary Edition" of the three games was released this year on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, to some success and acclaim. Microsoft published the original game whilst the two sequels and subsequent re-releases were handled by Electronic Arts. Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017), which was supposed to start a new storyline set in a completely different galaxy, was not successful and EA and BioWare have since pivoted to make Mass Effect 5, which reportedly will lean harder on the original trilogy's characters and factions.

Set in the late 22nd Century, Mass Effect is set several decades after first contact between Earth and a community of alien civilisations who control most of the Milky Way. This community is represented by the Citadel Council, a sort-of United Nations in space who are based on the Citadel, a colossal city-space station which acts as a trade and diplomatic hub between the various species. Despite their newcomer status on the galactic scene, humans are petitioning hard for greater prestige and power on the Council, to the annoyance of alien races who've been waiting centuries for promotion to the higher ranks. Key to Earth's hopes is Shepard, a skilled human agent who has become the first of their species to join the Spectres, an elite special forces division which reports directly to the Council. Shepard's investigation of an attack by the cybernetic Geth leads them to uncover evidence of a massive threat to all life in the galaxy, and their attempts to convince other races of the threat before it arrives.

The trilogy was highly praised on release for its writing, characterisation and action, as well as the slowly-growing sense of dread that built until the third game turned fully apocalyptic. The trilogy was also acclaimed for the accumulating weight of meaty decisions the player could make, which could leave individual characters dead or alive, and even entire civilisations destroyed, hostile or allied. However, the ending of the third game was considered underwhelming on original release, resulting in enough of a fuss that the ending was revised in later patches. Despite this, the trilogy retained enough goodwill to make last year's "Legendary Edition" a reasonable success. To date, the franchise has sold almost 20 million copies across all formats.

Rumours of a movie or TV version have circulated for years, with different options on the table. It sounds like Amazon's current plan is the most serious yet. It is unclear if Amazon would directly adapt the trilogy to the screen or develop a new story in the same universe, but the trilogy's storytelling and character focus would make a direct transition more viable than it is for many other games. Amazon would have to make some interesting casting choices, including which gender of actor for Commander Shepard to pick (players could choose their gender in the trilogy, with different vocal performances from Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale).

It's worth noting that Witcher, Enola Holmes and Superman actor Henry Cavill was recently pictured with potential script pages for a Mass Effect project. A noted fan of the video game trilogy, it was assumed he had gotten a voiceover part for Mass Effect 5, but it might be he's also been put in mind for a role on the Amazon project, his other commitments allowing.

Amazon are also developing a Fallout TV series with the Westworld creative team. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts and BioWare are continuing to develop Mass Effect 5 for an estimated 2023-25 release window.

More news on this project if and when it develops,

Saturday 20 November 2021

Foundation: Season 1

More than twenty thousand years in the future, known space has been united under the rule of the Galactic Empire. The Empire has provided stability and peace for twelve millennia, the last four centuries of which have been under the rule of the Genetic Triumvirate of the Cleon Dynasty. The three emperors are enraged when respected mathematician Hari Seldon announces the discovery of psychohistory, a mathematical and statistical modelling which allows the prediction of future events. Seldon predicts nothing less than the collapse of the Empire, plunging humanity into a period of barbarism he expects to last thirty thousand years.

However, Seldon also offers a slither of hope: by creating a repository of knowledge and data, a Foundation for future reconstruction, the period of barbarism may be reduced to a single millennia. The three emperors, disturbed when Seldon's model successfully predicts a devastating terror attack on the capital world of Trantor, allow Seldon and his followers to settle on the remote world of Terminus to build the Foundation. Decades later, Seldon's followers are living a tough life on a brutal and unforgiving world when they find themselves drawn into a conflict with the neighbouring power of Anacreon, which desires nothing less than the annihilation of the Empire...and they want the Foundation's help, willingly or unwillingly, to achieve it.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation saga was, for many years, regarded as one of the untouchable taproot texts of 20th Century science fiction. Originally published as eight short stories and novellas in the 1940s, Asimov combined them with a new story in the early 1950s as three collected "fixup" novels, the infamous Foundation Trilogy. Its tale of plucky scientists and cunning engineers outwitting warlords and generals struck a chord, winning the trilogy a special Hugo Award for Best Series in 1964 (defeating J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings along the way). After resisting the notion for many years, Asimov was convinced to return to the universe in the 1980s, penning two further sequel novels. After getting hopelessly stuck after introducing a new idea from way off left-field in those books, he went back to write two prequel novels, the last of which was published just before his death in 1992. These later sequels and prequels did not add much to the appeal of the series, being more concerned with dragging most of Asimov's work into a single "future history" of humanity than in telling a good story.

The first problem facing anyone who wants to adapt the Foundation series is therefore Asimov's own lack of coherence and consistency with the original work. Asimov only ever covered the first half of the Foundation's existence, leaving the chronologically-final novel, Foundation and Earth, with a lot of unresolved story arcs. Asimov's novels are also primarily concerned about people sitting in rooms talking, or sometimes standing in rooms talking, or sometimes sitting on a spaceship talking. Action is brief, occasional and underwhelming, with major and epic events alluded to off-page. Asimov's cast is also predominantly male with female characters playing only minor roles until the last couple of books (and even then not doing very much, at least with their clothes on). Combined with the stories in the opening trilogy being largely disconnected from one another, with many decades falling between each one, with no continuing characters beyond Seldon's holographic image, it makes turning them into a TV show problematic.

David Goyer's attempt to tackle the problem starts promisingly, focusing on the minor side-character of Gaal Dornick who is promoted here into a leading player. Played with grace and skill by newcomer Lou Llobell, Dornick is a psychohistory sceptic and mathematical genius whom Seldon - a headlining turn by actor-of-the-moment Jared Harris - recruits to help keep his project alive when the Empire tries to tear it down. The first episode, which is the most faithful to the books whilst also featuring massive changes, sets up an intriguing universe and story with a lot of promise and some absolutely brain-melting visual imagery. The spacecraft and hardware (mostly rendered through models rather than CG) feel like a vintage 1980s SF cover come to life, whilst the collapse of the Starbridge is one of the most impressive vfx set pieces put on television. It also helps that our antagonist for the episode is Emperor Cleon, or rather the three clones of the Emperor Cleon, with Brother Day (Lee Pace) and Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann) debating executing Seldon or indulging him.

Despite the major changes to the source material, the episode works in setting up the universe and retaining viewer interest. However, things quickly become divisive after this point. The storyline abruptly jumps forward fifty years to Terminus, where Warden Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) takes over as the main character. Terminus is barely-habitable rock, superbly realised through atmospheric location filming in volcanic regions of the Canary Islands. However, the story of events on Terminus is thin, and when the Anacreons show up to snarl about honour and vengeance like budget Klingons, you can feel you're watching a less-successful mid-season filler episode of Star Trek from around 1994. Harvey does her best, but saddled with some ripe lines and a poor American accent, it makes her a decidedly less interesting protagonist. Dornick does show up again in a self-contained side-plot, but doesn't really have a lot to do. The Foundation storyline ends up being the weakest element in a TV show called Foundation, which is a bit of a problem.

Fortunately, a wholly-new story has been invented which takes us into the Genetic Dynasty, with Brothers Dusk, Day and the young Dawn (Cassian Bilton) trying to rule over an empire from which they are almost completely separated by class, security and location. This storyline, which also features excellent performances by Laura Birn as the Emperor's right-hand robot, Eto Demerzel and Amy Tyger as a gardener, Azura Odili, is quite interesting and asks big-picture SF questions about cloning, consciousness, power and ethics. Despite being invented out of wholecloth, it's frequently intriguing and becomes moreso when Brother Day departs for the moon known as the Maiden to win the support of the Luminist faith for his policies. On Maiden, the Emperor has to face unique personal challenges and a formidable political opponent, Zephyr Halima (an excellent performance by T'Nia Miller).

This storyline works because it hinges on Lee Pace's superb performance (albeit one that falls squarely within the centre of his range). Pace has become a reliable performer for intense, charismatic roles requiring a degree of intelligence (see also his Thranduil in the Hobbit trilogy, Joe MacMillan in Halt and Catch Fire and Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel). Pace quickly becomes the show's most vital player, given that Jared Harris's heavily-trailed role in the series was somewhat...overstated: Hari Seldon is a low-key presence, and doesn't appear in many episodes.

If the Genetic Dynasty and the internal politics of the Empire were the main draw of Foundation, the show would have ended up being pretty solid. However, Foundation goes off-track whenever it tries to actually tackle the storyline involving the Foundation, at which point it veers from its semi-successful goal of being "Game of Thrones in space" to being a very generic action story without many compelling characters. This leaves the show feeling unbalanced, verging on the schizophrenic. Gaal Dornick's story is also potentially intriguing, but far too static, with the story going out of its way to prevent the character from interacting with the other plotlines until the very end but not giving her much to do in the meantime that's worthwhile.

Foundation's first season (***) is very strangely structured and paced. The storylines involving Trantor, the Emperors, the Starbridge and the Maiden are all very solid, verging on the good, but everything on Terminus involving the Anacreons and the Foundations is tedious. The cast is mostly solid, with Lee Pace, Terrance Mann and Jared Harris (in his fleeting appearances) excelling and Lou Llobell giving a great performance, but some of them are much better-served by the material than others. A second season has been commissioned, and will reportedly adapt the much more dynamic storyline from Foundation and Empire about Imperial General Bel Riose militarily confronting the Foundation, which could make for a much stronger narrative. But in its first season, Foundation squanders a lot of its Trantor-set promise on a badly-thought out, generic action story that goes nowhere. The show needs much more consistency if it's to become must-see TV. Right now, it's more "meh, check it out if you're not doing anything else or need some really awesome new desktop backgrounds."

Foundation is available to watch on Apple TV+ worldwide.

Friday 19 November 2021

Sabine Wren cast for STAR WARS: AHSOKA

Lucasfilm and Disney have confirmed the casting of the live-action version of the character Sabine Wren for their upcoming TV series, Ahsoka. The character previously appeared in animation in Star Wars: Rebels.

The role will be played by Australian actress Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who previously appeared in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Hotel Mumbai and The Society. The character was previously voiced on Rebels by Tiya Sircar (The Good Place).

The character of Sabine Wren is a Mandalorian warrior who joins forces with the crew of the Ghost has they struggle to liberate the occupied planet of Lothal. During this conflict she joins the Rebel Alliance, continuing to work with the Ghost crew. As the conflict escalates, she also finds herself involved in the struggle for Mandalore's independence from the Empire. At the end of Rebels, she joins former Jedi apprentice Ahsoka Tano in tracking down their missing friend and ally, Ezra Bridger, who had disappeared into deep space along with Grand Admiral Thrawn.

The second season of The Mandalorian introduced the live-action versions of both Ahsoka (played by Rosario Dawson) and Mandalorian loyalist Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff, who also voiced the character in The Clone Wars and Rebels), or may or may not also recur in the new series. Ahsoka will apparently focus on Ahsoka's search for the missing Grand Admiral Thrawn, possibly as a way of tracking down Ezra. It makes sense that Sabine would join the mission. Ahsoka has also been confirmed to see the return of Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker, presumably in flashbacks.

Ahsoka is currently in pre-production and expected to start shooting in March for an early 2023 debut on Disney+.

COWBOY BEBOP casts Radical Ed

Netflix have confirmed the casting of the last main castmember from their live-action take on Cowboy Bebop. Newcomer Eden Perkins - so new they don't even have an IMDB page - will play the role in the apparently provisionally-commissioned second season, and debuts in the closing moments of the first season (which started streaming today).

The character of Edward Won Hau Pepelu Tivruski IV debuted a third of the way through the original anime and became a key member of the Bebop's crew, serving as a hacker and general free-roaming agent of chaos. The character was easily the most "traditional anime-like" of the characters, a cause of both the character's popularity and also fears that translating them to live action would be extremely difficult.

It's fair to say that the character's live action depiction is a choice which hopefully will be toned down in the potential second season, because it turns out what is endearing in animation might be "extremely annoying" in live action, even if the actor is highly skilled.

Cowboy Bebop started streaming today, worldwide on Netflix.

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Additional WHEEL OF TIME episode titles revealed

Amazon Prime have (possibly inadvertently) revealed the title of the seventh and penultimate episode of the first season of The Wheel of Time. The episode will be called The Dark Along the Ways.

Update: in another inadvertent slip (spotted by WotSeries), the season finale has now been confirmed to be called The Eye of the World, the same title as the first book in the series.

The current schedule for Season 1 is as follows:

  1. Leavetakings (19 November), written by Rafe Judkins, directed by Uta Briesewitz
  2. Shadow's Waiting (19 November), written by Amanda Kate Shuman, directed by Uta Briesewitz
  3. A Place of Safety (19 November), written by the Clarkson Twins, directed by Wayne Yip
  4. The Dragon Reborn (26 November), written by Dave Hill, directed by Wayne Yip
  5. Blood Calls Blood (3 December), written by Celine Song, directed by Salli Richardson Whitfield
  6. The Flame of Tar Valon (10 December), written by Justine Juel Gillmer, directed by Salli Richardson Whitfield
  7. The Dark Along the Ways (17 December), directed by Ciaran Donnelly
  8. The Eye of the World (24 December), directed by Ciaran Donnelly

Season 1 of the show draws almost entirely on the first novel in the series, The Eye of the World, for source material. Some characters from prequel novel New Spring also appear, and some characters from The Great Hunt appear early (such as Liandrin, Alanna and Siuan Sanche), whilst other characters from Book 1 have been delayed to Season 2 (most notably Elayne Trakand).

Some fans have been confused by the show's use of episode titles, which draw on book chapter titles. However, rather than using chapter titles from just the first novel in chronological order, the production is using chapters from all over the place, making some fans think the show is adapting way more material at a faster rate than it really is. For example, Leavetakings is a chapter title from Book 1 (Chapter 10), Book 2 (Chapter 9), Book 4 (Chapter 16) and Book 5 (Chapter 48), whilst Blood Calls Blood is Chapter 7 of Book 2, and A Taste of Solitude, the first episode of Season 2, comes form Chapter 18 of Book 6!

RUMOUR: Amazon's upcoming LORD OF THE RINGS TV series will focus on the late Second Age

Multiple rumours from both Redanian Intelligence and Fellowship of Fans have suggested that Amazon's upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel TV series will be focused on the end of the Second Age, contradicting earlier reports that the show will start earlier in the Age and deal with the forging of the One Ring.

According to both sources, the show will focus heavily on the character of Isildur, to be played by Rome actor Maxim Baldry. Reportedly the show will open during the reign of Tar-Palantir, a Numenorean king who is friend and ally to the elves of Middle-earth, striving to repair their relationship after a long period of strained relations. However, Tar-Palantir is an anomaly and there are dark forces gathering on the island of Numenor which seek to return to their policies of human supremacy and domination. It falls to Elendil (Lloyd Owen) and his son Isildur, as leaders of "the Faithful," to help the righteous and true people of Numenor evade the chaos that is coming.

Viewers of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy may briefly recall that Elendil and Isildur appear in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, played by Peter McKenzie and Harry Sinclair respectively.

News of the casting and apparent setting has come as a surprise, since the logical starting point for a Second Age-set Middle-earth show is much earlier, when Sauron the Dark Lord infiltrates the elves of Eregion in fair guise and corrupts their proud leader, Celebrimbor, into teaching him how to forge the Rings of Power, knowledge which Sauron then uses to forge the One Ring. This triggers a colossal war between the elves and Sauron, which would have ended in defeat had the men of the island empire of Numenor not landed in force to give aid to the elves. This story would have amply given rise to several seasons of content, as well as allowing a time jump to a later point in the history to tell the story of Elendil and Isildur.

Some have speculated that Isildur will be a framing character and there may be lengthy flashbacks to earlier time periods, but Fellowship of Fans has shot down this idea, claiming that whilst there will be LotR-style brief flashbacks to earlier periods (proven by the first publicity shot, which depicts the Two Trees of Light from the First Age), the bulk of the story will appear in-situ in the present.

The news does make sense of a reported new storyline, in which a tribe of Harfoot hobbits (led by a character played by Lenny Henry) appear out of the east to settle in the wild lands of western Middle-earth. This makes much more sense in the late Second Age, a millennia or so before they migrate to the Vale of Anduin (from whence they will colonise the Shire), rather than halfway through the Second Age.

The first season of the show is in post-production and will debut on Amazon Prime on 2 September 2022. Shooting of the second season is expected to begin after Christmas in the UK.

RUMOUR: WHEEL OF TIME casts GAME OF THRONES actor for Lord Barthanes in Season 2

The reliable Redanian Intelligence has provided a new casting scoop for Season 2 of Amazon's Wheel of Time.

They've scooped three new actors for Season 2. First up is British actor Will Tudor, best-known for playing Odi on Humans, Sebastian Verlac/Jonathan Morgenstern on Shadowhunters and Olyvar, right-hand-man to Littlefinger, on Game of Thrones for three seasons. According to the Intelligence, he will be playing Lord Barthanes Damodred, an important, influential and somewhat sinister nobleman. In the second Wheel of Time novel, Barthanes is something of a foil for Rand al'Thor and Mat Cauthon when their quest to recover two missing artefacts leads them to the capital city of the troubled nation of Cairhien. Barthanes is plotting against King Galldrian Riatin, with their two houses poised for civil war. Although the novels do not make much of the connection, Barthanes is a distant cousin of Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), a connection that may or may not appear in the TV show.

The second new player is Haruka Kuroda, a UK-based Japanese actor. Kuroda has recently appeared in Killing Eve, Claude and EastEnders, as well as providing voicework for the well-received video games Subnautica: Below Zero and Total War: Shogun 2. Kuroda will play the aunt of Min Farshaw (Kae Alexander), a friend and ally of Moiraine. In the novels, Min has three aunts who raised her in a mining village in the Mountains of Mist and taught her self-reliance and toughness. It is unclear if Kuroda is playing one of the three aunts or an amalgamation of the three. It's also unclear if she will appear in flashbacks or the present-day storyline.

The final actor cast is Natasha J. Murley, a relative newcomer with mostly theatre credits to her name. Murley's role has not been disclosed, though the potential roles from the second novel of The Wheel of Time, The Great Hunt (which is believed to provide at least most of the source material for the second season) are numerous. It'd be particularly interesting to see if Murley will play one of the Seanchan, as so far there has been no sighting of Seanchan castmembers for the second season, leading to some speculation if they are being held back for later, or may have even been cut altogether (which does some extremely unlikely).

Amazon's Wheel of Time TV series debuts this Friday. Season 2 is roughly halfway through filming, to debut in 2022.

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Paramount pulls STAR TREK: DISCOVERY from international Netflix days ahead of Season 4 premiere, will not air now until 2022

In a surprise move that will infuriate fans and customers, Paramount have terminated their licencing agreement with Netflix for Star Trek: Discovery with immediate effect. The series will depart all international markets on which it aired previously at midnight tonight (fifty minutes from this time of writing*), including the UK, Ireland and most mainland European countries.

The startling move comes because Paramount are planning to launch their streaming service Paramount+ internationally in the Spring, and they see their Star Trek original series as a key appeal for the service, as it is has become in the United States. This means it is likely that the series that currently air on Amazon Prime - Lower Decks and Picard - will also depart that platform in the coming months, depending on the timing of their contracts. The latest series, Star Trek: Prodigy, has not aired at all outside of the US and Canada (where Paramount/CBS has a long-standing deal with the CTV Sci-Fi Channel and Crave streaming service).

It is unclear what the fate will be of the Star Trek legacy series: The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise have all streamed on Netflix for the past five years under a high-price-tag deal between Netflix and CBS (prior to their reunification with Paramount). The smart money will be these shows also leaving once the Netflix contract expires.

In the UK, at least, Paramount+ will only be available through a Sky or NowTV subscription, which is already significantly more expensive than most streaming options. An extra premium would then be paid on top for the Paramount+ shows. Some estimates place the cheapest package to get access to the Paramount+ shows at £25 a month, more then twice the price of a monthly Netflix subscription and five times that of an Apple+ subscription. This will be a formidable barrier to entry compared to the current, excellent-value Netflix deal.

Pulling this move just three days ahead of the launch of Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery, which fans assumed they'd be able to watch on Friday as normal, is particularly galling, and I would not be surprised to see widespread piracy as a result.

* Update: as of 00:05, Discovery remains on Netflix UK, so it might be tomorrow it is pulled instead.

Live-action AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER casts Uncle Iroh, starts shooting

Netflix has confirmed the casting of one of the most eagerly-awaited roles in its Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action TV adaptation. In a fan-pleasing movie, the role will by played by Kim's Convenience star and The Mandalorian guest star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee.

Lee has been one of the most common fancasts for the role since the show was announced. Iroh, the former heir to the Fire Nation throne until the death of his son and his subsequent grief-induced trauma rendered him unfit and ripe for usurpation by his young brother, Ozai (Daniel Dae Kim), is a mentor and companion to his rash nephew, Zuko (Dallas Liu). Zuko, in exile for cowardice when the show starts, seeks to capture the newly-revived Avatar to bring glory to his nation and restore his honour in the eyes of his father. Ozai wants Zuko to be a ruthless, amoral killer like himself, but Iroh tries to teach his nephew the ways of actual honour, kindness and inspiring troops through bravery and empathy. Iroh and Zuko's methods of dealing with the Avatar are in disagreement for most of the series.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee rose to fame as the patriarch of the titular, convenience-store-owning family in Canadian comedy series Kim's Convenience, which ran for five seasons (2016-21). He also originated the role on the Canadian stage. Most of his work has been in on stage, but his success in Kim's Convenience has seen him break out into other roles. He has played guest roles on Dark Matter and Private Eyes, and played the role of New Republic Captain Carson Teva, an X-wing pilot, on two episodes of The Mandalorian. He was believed to be due to reprise the role in spin-off show Rangers of the New Republic, but that show was put on indefinite hold a few months ago, freeing him up for Avatar.

Veteran Singaporean actor Lim Kay Siu (Anna and the King, Night Watch) is playing Gyatso, a senior Air Nomad monk at the Southern Air Temple. Gyatso was the mentor, guardian and teacher of Avatar Aang (Gordon Cormier) before Aang was suspended in ice. Gyatso will, presumably as in the animated series, appear in flashbacks.

American actor Ken Leung has an impressive resume, having appeared in Rush Hour, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Vanilla Sky, X-Men: The Last Stand and multiple instalments of the Saw franchise, as Detective Sing. He also appeared in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (as Admiral Statura). In television he is best-known for playing the role of reluctant spiritualist con man Miles Straume on Lost, appearing in 45 episodes spanning the fourth through sixth seasons. His other TV roles have included The Blacklist, Industry, Inhumans, Zero Hour, The Good Wife, Person of Interest and The Sopranos.

Leung is playing Commander Zhao, an ambitious Fire Nation naval captain who learns of the Avatar's revival and plots to capture or kill him, sometimes working with and sometimes against Prince Zuko. Zhao is the primary antagonist of the first season of the original series.

From left to right (top row): Lindsey Liberatore (producer), Jet Wilkinson (director), JAbbar Raisani (director), Albert Kim (showrunner), Michael Goi (producer-director), Ian Ousley (Sokka), Dallas Liu (Zuko), Roseanne Ling (producer-director), Dan Lin (producer). Seated: Kiawentiio (Katara), Gordon Cormier (Aang).

Principal photography on the show began today, with Netflix releasing a group photo of the main cast and crew. Shooting is expected to run through the end of spring 2022, with the show to air in late 2022 or early 2023.

Tuesday 9 November 2021

RIP Dean Stockwell

The news has sadly broken that veteran Hollywood actor and SFF screen legend Dean Stockwell as passed away at the age of 85. Stockwell is best-known to SF fans for his recurring roles on TV shows Quantum Leap and Battlestar Galactica, as well as his memorable turn in David Lynch's Dune.

Stockwell was born in Los Angeles in 1936 and grew up in a showbiz family: his father was a singer and actor who played the voice of Prince Charming is Disney's film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Thanks to his father's connections, Dean Stockwell became a child star, making his first screen appearance at the age of nine in The Valley of Decision (1945). Stockwell went on to enjoy a successful career as a child actor, appearing in films like Home Sweet Homicide (1946) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). Stockwell enjoyed doing comedy, but found his most successful roles were in dramas, so found himself typecast as a "serious kid," which he did not enjoy after a while. Stockwell achieved arguably his greatest success in this period playing the title role in Kim (1950), alongside Errol Flynn.

Stockwell took some time out to focus on education and his interest in music before resuming his acting career in the late 1950s. He achieved some critical success, such as co-winning the 1959 Cannes Film Award for Best Actor alongside Orson Welles and Bradford Dillman for Compulsion. His first SF-related role came in A Quality of Mercy, a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone.

Stockwell continued to work regularly in film and television, becoming a reliable and talented character performer. However, he had not become a leading man or breakout star despite his immense resume and critical acclaim, something he found depressing. In 1983 he moved to New Mexico with his second wife and considered a new career in real estate to pay the bills. However, he was recruited first by Wim Wenders to star in Paris, Texas and then David Lynch in Dune, where the played the role of Dr. Yueh. The role is crucial in the book but somewhat underdeveloped; Lynch's film version arguably fleshes out the character more successfully, thanks to Stockwell's measured performance (the biggest weakness of Denis Villeneuve's 2021 take on Dune is that Dr. Yueh is not similarly developed). Stockwell credited the one-two punch of Paris, Texas and Dune as sparking a "third career."

Stockwell found himself in demand, appearing in a dozen movies in just three years, including another turn with Lynch in Blue Velvet (1986). In 1988 he achieved his sole Academy Award nomination, for Married to the Mob as Best Supporting Actor.

In 1989, at the age of 53, Stockwell finally landed the role that made him a household name when he was cast as Rear Admiral Albert "Al" Calavicci in Quantum Leap. Ostensibly the second lead, behind Scott Bakula's Dr. Sam Beckett, Stockwell stole the show with his exuberant performance, which finally (perhaps a bit late in the day) demolished the typecasting that he couldn't play funny. The role gave Stockwell a Golden Globe win and four Emmy Award nominations. Stockwell played the role across all five seasons of the show, and later re-teamed with Bakula for an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise and another episode of NCIS: New Orleans.

In 2006 he debuted on Battlestar Galactica, playing the role of preacher John Cavil in the Season 2 finale. Quickly revealed as a Cylon, the character was an immediate hit with both the writers and fans, and he returned as a recurring character through the third and fourth seasons, becoming the primary antagonist and villain of the series by its end. He also appeared in spin-off TV movie The Plan. After Galactica's conclusion in 2009, Stockwell returned to occasional TV and film appearances. His final role came in the film Entertainment (2015). The same year he suffered a stroke and chose to retire from acting, focusing instead on his art career which he had continued to pursue between screen roles.

Stockwell died on 7 November at his home in Taos, New Mexico, of natural causes. Collaborators and friends immediately voiced praise for his prolific career. A skilled and versatile performer across multiple genres, decades and mediums, he will absolutely be missed.

Monday 8 November 2021


Lucasfilm have announced a delay to their next theatrical Star Wars release, Rogue Squadron. The movie was scheduled for release on Christmas Day 2023 but the movie has now been put on indefinite hold due to scheduling issues with director Patty Jenkins.

Jenkins was hired to make the film in late 2020, with the plan being for the film to enter production in 2022. However, Jenkins' schedule has shifted with Warner Brothers greenlighting a third Wonder Woman film, with Jenkins returning to co-write and direct, despite the previous film in the series, Wonder Woman 1984, having a risible performance both critically and commercially. Jenkins has also committed to making Cleopatra, a remake of the 1963 epic, and may shoot that before Wonder Woman 3 and both before Rogue Squadron.

Rogue Squadron has not been officially cancelled and officially remains in development with Jenkins as director. However, it may not see the light now until 2025 or later.

Disney and Lucasfilm have adopted a wary attitude towards the future of the Star Wars franchise on film, following the commercially disappointing performances of Solo: A Star Wars Story (which became the first film in the franchise to lose money at the box office) and The Rise of Skywalker (which made less than half the money of The Force Awakens). Instead, they have pivoted the franchise hard towards television, where The Mandalorian has been a smash hit success for Disney+ and generated two spinoff series: The Book of Boba Fett (to air in December) and Ahsoka (in pre-production). Two other series are in post-production, namely Rogue One spinoff Andor and the long-gestating Obi-Wan Kenobi project starring Ewan McGregor. Both are expected to air in 2022. The streamer is also developing The Acolyte, set in a much earlier time period. A further series, Rangers of the New Republic, was in development for some time but was recently put on indefinite hold. That's not including the animated projects The Bad Batch, Visions and A Droid Story.

On film, aside from Rogue Squadron, Lucasfilm is also developing a Taika Waititi-directed film, although a schedule for that movie has not yet solidified: Waititi has an insanely full directorial slate, including Next Goal Wins (in post-production), Thor: Love and Thunder (in post-production), The Incal (just announced) and a live-action version of Akira, as well as numerous ongoing TV shows. Lucasfilm is also developing a trilogy of Star Wars films to be planned, written and possibly directed by Rian Johnson, but this project has been put on hold due to the huge success of Johnson's Knives Out franchise (and, cynics may say, the polarising reception to Johnson's 2017 movie, The Last Jedi). Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige is also developing a Star Wars project as producer, and Lucasfilm has reportedly held talks on a Knights of the Old Republic movie, possibly contingent on the success of the new video game version of that story now in production.

The future will hold a lot of Star Wars, but the question is how much of it will be in the cinema, where the franchise originated.

Saturday 6 November 2021

Daniel Dae Kim joins the live-action AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER project

Veteran actor Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii Five-O, Crusade) has joined Netflix's live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Kim will play Fire Lord Ozai, the ruler of the Fire Nation and the primary antagonist of the series.

It's a reunion between Kim and the franchise, as he previously voiced the character of General Fong in the original series (and a spin-off video game), and also voiced recurring character Hiroshi Sato on the sequel series, The Legend of Korra.

Kim is a good catch for the project, as the actor-producer-writer is a hot Hollywood property these days in television, having recently acted in or produced The Hot Zone: Anthrax, New Amsterdam, The Good Doctor and The Premise.

The previously-announced cast includes Gordon Cormier as Aang, Kiawentiio as Katar, Ian Ousley as Sokka and Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko, Fire Lord Ozai's son. Albert Kim is the showrunner and head writer, taking over from Avatar franchise creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, who quit the project in 2020 following creative differences with Netflix. Konietzko and DiMartino are now heading up Avatar Studios for Nickelodeon, which will produce new animated projects in the Avatar universe.

Kim's casting as a series regular hints that the adaptation will delve into the Fire Nation's politics and Zuko's complicated family earlier than in the animated series, where Ozai (voiced by Mark Hamill) did not appear until the end of Season 1. Fans are particularly keen to find out who is playing the role of Uncle Iroh, Ozai's brother and Zuko's uncle, who accompanies his nephew into exile.

Netflix's take on Avatar: The Last Airbender is expected to enter production imminently for a late 2022/early 2023 debut.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Warner Brothers picks up HYPERION movie with Bradley Cooper producing

Warner Brothers has put the Dan Simmons SF novel Hyperion into development as a feature film, with Bradley Cooper helming the project for his own production company as executive producer. So far, Cooper has not committed to starring in the project.

Originally published in 1989, Hyperion is an SF novel inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Set in the 28th Century with a war brewing between the Hegemony of Man and the Ousters, a nomadic race of humans living in arkships, seven individuals are summoned to the remote world of Hyperion. Hyperion is infamously home to the Shrike, a godlike entity who roams the planet, killing people for unknown reasons or hanging their still-living forms on a giant mechanical tree. The seven pilgrims each relate their story and interest in the Shrike on their journey. The story continues in The Fall of Hyperion (1990), Endymion (1996) and The Rise of Endymion (1997), though the latter two novels are generally considered inferior to the first two. 

Bradley Cooper has long been a fan of the novel, having planned to direct it himself in 2011 before developing it with SyFy as a mini-series in 2015. Cooper's commitment to the project in 2011, when he was best-known for the Hangover series of comedy films, felt somewhat random. However, since then he has expanded his repertoire by writing, directing and starring in the acclaimed remake of A Star is Born (2018) and producing Joker (2019), considerably enhancing his Hollywood credentials.

For their part, Warner Brothers might have been intrigued by the novel's blanket critical acclaim since release, its well-realised SF universe and its three sequels giving it serious franchise potential, whilst its unusual structure and artistic credibility might make it a fitting thematic follow-up to their Dune project with Denis Villeneuve (the second part of which was greenlit last week).

The film hasn't been fully greenlit yet, though, with Warner Brothers now searching for a director to bring the project to the screen; intriguingly, Cooper hasn't chosen it as the follow-up to A Star is Born, perhaps preferring someone with greater vfx experience.

Tuesday 2 November 2021

Russell T. Davies made DOCTOR WHO becoming an independent production a condition of his return

In a startling piece published by The Times (paywall), it has been reported that Russell T. Davies made his return to Doctor Who conditional on the show becoming an independent production (via Bad Wolf Productions), allowing him complete creative control with no interference from the BBC.

Russell T. Davies and fellow Doctor Who producer and now-Bad Wolf executive Julie Gardner in 2017.

Since its inception in 1963, Doctor Who has been produced inhouse at the BBC: first at the BBC drama department from 1963 to 1989, then a one-off co-production with Universal Studios in 1996 and most recently (2005-2022) at BBC Wales. This has allowed the BBC close control and oversight over the making of the show. However, this arrangement has had drawbacks, particularly related to how the show is funded and how it is remunerated. As a BBC production, the show cannot benefit from the immense amount of profit it generates from book, media and merchandising sales, with profits from those endeavours instead going back into the general BBC budget. As a result, Doctor Who and other big BBC shows, like Top Gear and various David Attenborough documentaries, are often said to subsidise other, less popular and more niche BBC shows and services as part of the broadcaster's public service remit.

This has become more problematic since 2010, when Doctor Who's budget was effectively frozen in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In real terms, Doctor Who has seen an inflation-driven budget cut for almost every year since then (with an exception for the 50th anniversary in 2013). To accommodate these cuts, the show has slashed production from 13 episodes (plus a special) to 10 episodes every year, and to six episodes this year (though this was also driven by restrictions and limitations resulting from the COVID pandemic). However, it is clear that the show is no longer able to keep pace with American SFF shows. When the revived Doctor Who started in 2005, it was able to comfortably go toe-to-toe with contemporary American network shows like Star Trek: Enterprise and Stargate Atlantis, but today, when its competitors are the likes of Foundation and The Expanse, it has clearly been left behind.

Outsourcing production to an independent company means a revamping of the way the show is funded, allowing Bad Wolf to bring in more investment, as well as striking a deal to allow the production to benefit more from profits generated from the show. This combination will hopefully allow the show to gain production value and once again look like a modern genre TV series. With The Times reporting that the BBC is giving up some $40 million in profits which could be put back into the show instead as an independent production, the show's budget could perhaps as much as quadruple under the new regime.

A happy by-product of this is that, although the BBC still have some say in the series via their contract (so certainly don't expect graphic violence or sex or anything unsuitable for the show's timeslot), they will not have day-to-day oversight of the series. Davies will have complete creative control and freedom to do what he wants with the series. As related in his book The Writer's Tale, Davies found his work on the series was sometimes compromised by having to adhere to the BBC's vision and guidelines, and as the show became a massive hit more and more people at the BBC wanted to get involved with it, creating a sometimes stressful working environment. It sounds like this new arrangement will mean that will no longer be a concern and he can make the show he wants to without being as beholden to BBC corporate politics. Davies will likely also be relishing the opportunity to work once again with Julie Gardner - his former Doctor Who co-producer - and Jane Tranter, the former head of BBC Drama who greenlit Doctor Who's return in 2003. And of course, the very name "Bad Wolf" came from Doctor Who in the first place.

The current production paradigm will remain in place for this year and next, however, with Chris Chibnall and BBC Wales overseeing both the current 13th series and a series of three specials to air in 2022. Russell T. Davies' second stint on Doctor Who will commence in 2023.

Monday 1 November 2021

First trailer for STAR WARS: THE BOOK OF BOBA FETT released

Lucasfilm and Disney have unveiled the first trailer for their upcoming Star Wars TV series, The Book of Boba Fett.

A spin-off of The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett picks up after the end of Season 2 of that show. Famed bounty hunter Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison) and associate Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen) have taken over the criminal empire of the late Jabba the Hutt on Tatooine, but understandably face resistance from Jabba's other allies and enemies, who want a piece of his estate for themselves.

Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni are producing the show alongside the currently-shooting third season of The Mandalorian and a second, in-pre-production live action series called Ahsoka. Some of the heavy lifting on The Book of Boba Fett is being handled by veteran writer-director Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Spy Kids, Alita: Battle Angel), who previously directed some episodes of The Mandalorian.

The Book of Boba Fett is scheduled to premiere on 29 December this year. It is unclear how many episodes will be in the series, but it is not likely to be more than the eight per season of The Mandalorian. It will be followed by the six-episode Obi-Wan Kenobi mini-series (which recently wrapped shooting) in early 2022.