Monday 31 January 2022

The battle for the future of video gaming heats up with Sony set to acquire Bungie

Sony has announced plans to buy Bungie, Inc., the video game developer which created the Halo series and now develops the Destiny series. The move is part of an escalating series of buy-outs as Microsoft and Sony compete to get the most exclusive titles on their consoles, the Xbox and PlayStation respectively.

Bungie was founded in 1991 and developed a series of successful video game franchises in the 1990s, including early first-person shooter series Marathon and strategy series Myth, as well as third-person action game Oni. In the late 1990s they began development of a highly ambitious, cutting-edge first-person shooter for PC called Halo. Microsoft thought the project was so promising that they bought Bungie in 2000 and repurposed Halo as a launch title and "killer app" for their new Xbox video game console. Bungie worked on the Halo series for the next several years, developing Halo 2 (2004) and Halo 3 (2007), both massive-sellers.

Bungie announced a split from Microsoft in late 2007, with Microsoft retaining the Halo IP. Bungie developed two additional Halo games for Microsoft after the split, constituting Halo 3: ODST (2009) and Halo: Reach (2010). Bungie pivoted to a new video game franchise they were developing, which resulted in the multiplayer-focused Destiny (2014) and Destiny 2 (2017). Both were immensely successful.

The acquisition will not impact on the ongoing release cycle for Destiny 2, with future expansions and new content being available on Xbox, PC and PlayStation. However, it is possible that Destiny 3, if it is ever made, will be a PlayStation-exclusive, as will any new IP to emerge from the studio. It also makes a possible future re-collaboration between Bungie and Microsoft on the Halo franchise unlikely, if not impossible. Sony will also be leveraging their muscle in the television and film production space to develop Destiny tie-in projects. Sony have also expressed admiration for the back-end networking technology used by Bungie in the Destiny games, which they may wish to incorporate into other Sony franchises.

This deal has been in the offing for months, and it is unlikely that it was a direct response to Microsoft's recent acquisition of Activision-Blizzard, instead more likely being inspired by Microsoft's acquisition of Zenimax Media and their Bethesda-branded studios in 2020 for $7.5 billion.

Microsoft's recent buying spree has seen them gain control of massive console-shifting franchises including Call of Duty, DiabloThe Elder Scrolls, and Fallout, as well as the well-respected Doom, Wolfenstein, StarCraft, WarCraft, Overwatch, Guitar Hero, Skylanders and Crash Bandicoot series.

Sony potentially getting the keys to future new Bungie IPs is small fry in comparison, but it might be a sign of Sony gearing up to buy other companies. If Sony wants to go toe-to-toe with Microsoft's acquisitions, an obvious target will be Take Two Interactive, the publisher and, via their Rockstar family of studios, developers of the giga-hit Grand Theft Auto series. Take Two is probably at the upper level of realistic targets, given that Sony's financial resources are somewhat more limited than Microsoft's, and Sony making the in-development Grand Theft Auto VI a PlayStation exclusive would draw in a lot of wavering fans who might be tempted to jump ship to Xbox (Grand Theft Auto V is the biggest-selling video game of the last decade). Of course, it might be that Microsoft are already targeting Take Two. Take Two themselves recently acquired mobile games giant Zynga for $12 billion, possibly a sign that they will not be interested in takeover offers, or possibly to bolster their price for any such offers.

It'll be interesting to see what the next move in the space will be.

Blogging Roundup: 1 October 2021 to 31 January 2022

The Wertzone





Sunday 30 January 2022

HALO TV show to launch on 24 March

The long-gestating Halo television series now has a launch date. The show will drop on Paramount+ in the United States (and other territories where Paramount+ is available) on 24 March. The plan for territories outside the United States where Paramount+ is unavailable is unclear.

The trailer sets up the premise of the show, which is similar but not quite identical to the video games. The premise sees the now-multi-planetary United Nations at war with the Covenant, an alliance of several hostile alien races united by a common religion. The Covenant are somewhat technologically superior to humanity and are dedicated to the human race's destruction on ideological grounds. Key to the battle are the Spartans, powerful warriors clad in state-of-the-art armour. The protagonist is Master Chief Petty Office John-117, mostly known as "Master Chief," a legendary soldier even among the Spartans, as he learns that the fate of the war with the Covenant depends on finding an unknown alien artefact known in the records of a dead race as "Halo."

The series also features a number of other Spartan soldiers, a group of scientists monitoring the progress of the Spartans, and a powerful AI known as "Cortana."

The Halo video game series began in 2001 with Halo: Combat Evolved, becoming arguably the signature series of the Microsoft Xbox series of video game consoles. It has since expanded to six games in the main series (divided into two sub-series), a prequel and an interquel, and a number of spin-offs, including the Halo Wars strategy series. There are also novels, graphic novel and both live-action and animated shorts (as well as the tangentially-related Red vs. Blue online comedy series). The most recent game in the series, Halo Infinite, was released at the end of last year. To date, the series has sold over 81 million copies.

The Halo TV series retells some of the stories from the games, but in a modified form, most notably to be more of an ensemble piece whilst the games focus much more on Master Chief alone as the protagonist. According to the writers, the TV show takes place in the "Silver Timeline," a distinct (but similar) continuity from the video games. 

The TV show stars Pablo Schreiber as Master, with Jen Taylor reprising her role from the video games as Cortana. The series also stars Natascha McElhone as Dr. Halsey, Shabana Azmi as Admiral Parangosky, Olive Grey as Miranda Keyes, Rafael Fernandez as Jacob Keyes, Bokeem Woodbine as Soren-066, Kate Kennedy as Kai-125, Natasha Culzac as Riz-028 and Bentley Kalu as Vannak-134.

Wednesday 26 January 2022

Wertzone Classics: Age of Empires II Definitive Edition

Remasters have become a good way for a publisher to make a fast buck. Take an old game, do the bare minimum of work necessary to get it working on modern hardware, throw in some old expansions and away you go. Back in 2013, Microsoft did that with Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, releasing a "HD Edition" which was serviceable but no more. Unhappy with the remake, Forgotten Empires Studios got permission from Microsoft to continue developing new content for the game in the form of new expansions and updates. Three expansions later, Microsoft gave Forgotten Empires the green light to undertake a much more comprehensive remake of the original game.

The result is Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, one of the most comprehensive and impressive remakes of a video game ever released. The game fully retains the original look and feel, but the graphics have been sharpened up to a hugely impressive degree. An intuitive UI has been implemented, allowing for villagers to re-seed farms automatically (rather than waiting for you to tell them to do it) and for units to undertake queued-up tasks. AI has been sharpened up, with a more impressive, reactive enemy on campaigns and in skirmish games.

At the core, though, the game is the same as before. Like the original Age of Empires, the sequel takes you through a period of history, this time starting after the fall of Rome and extending to the Renaissance. In this thousand-year period, you take control of a civilisation and guide it to victory. This can be done in skirmish, multiplayer or various story-driven campaigns. Those used to the intricate storytelling and even characterisation of RTS campaigns in games like StarCraft II or Homeworld will find these campaigns to be somewhat stand-offish, with less focus on hero units and more of a focus on how to achieve objectives corresponding to historical events. However, there is a linking narrator between each mission of each campaign, which adds some nice historical flavour.

On each map you start with a Town Centre and can build villagers, who are your basic resource-gathering units. Resources are divided between four types: food, wood, gold and stone. As with the original game, a nice twist is that resources can be gained from multiple sources: for food you can send villagers hunting, you can search the map for herd animals to send back to base for slaughter, you can find berry bushes, you can build farms or you can send out fishing boats. Gold can be found in mines or gained by trading with an allied power. However, an immediate, monumental improvement over the original game is that you can now build a Market which can exchange one type of resource for another. Relying too much on this can be problematic (a resource's value drops the more you sell it, and another's increases the more you buy it), but it immediately solves the problem of losing a battle because you've run out of resources, which was frustrating in the original game.

The other big chance from Age of Empires is the addition of formations. Your military units will now automatically organise themselves in blocks with heavy infantry in front, archers behind and cavalry at the rear (ready to sweep out and flank the enemy). This a vast improvement on the original game, where units just hurled themselves into battle randomly in a disorganised fashion. It's still a long way from Total War - and units have an odd tendency to drop out of formation the second combat starts - but it's a big improvement for the franchise.

The gameplay loop of a slow buildup followed by huge amounts of carnage is extremely compelling, and arguably better-handled then any other game of its type. A lot of this is down to the robust way the game has of handling defence, allowing you build fortified walls to seal off areas of the map, forcing enemies into chokepoints and otherwise controlling the battlefield. Constructing the perfect defensive fortification with guard towers, cannon emplacements, fortresses and defensive artillery positioned just right is an unmatched pleasure. With the more comprehensive new UI (allowing you to queue villager construction phases) and better AI, meaning both enemy and allied players are less likely to get stuck on scenery or take weird routes to their destinations, the game's controls are now smooth and easy to parse, and it is almost gleefully fun to watch your cities and defensive redoubts take shape before your eyes. And, of course, immensely frustrating if the enemy AI or a rival player gets the upper hand and burns your achievements to the ground.

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition may also redefine the meaning of the phrase "generous content." The package contains:
  • All of the campaigns in the original Age of Empires II: Age of Kings release from 1999, including five campaigns totalling 31 missions. Between singleplayer and multiplayer, thirteen distinct civilisations are available to play.
  • All of the campaigns in the original Age of Empires II: The Conquerors expansion, including three campaigns totalling 18 missions. Five new civilisations are added.
  • All of the campaigns in the expansions to Age of Empires II: HD Edition. These total three expansions (The Forgotten, The African Kingdoms and Rise of the Rajas) containing thirteen campaigns and 66 (!) missions. Thirteen new civilisations are added.
  • Definitive Edition also contains its own expansion, The Last Khans, and a new campaign for the Forgotten expansion. The new material constitutes four campaigns and 21 missions, as well as adding four new civilisations.
  • The game also has a "Historical Battles" campaign with one-off missions from a variety of campaigns. There are 16 missions in this mode, including some for civilisations which don't have a full campaign. 
  • For those keeping score, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition thus ships with 27 campaigns totalling 152 missions, and 35 civilisations.
  • However! Since release, the creators have released two new expansions: Lords of the West and Dawn of the Dukes. These expansions have added a further six campaigns, 33 missions and four new civilisations. So with the expansions, the game now totals 33 campaigns, 185 missions and 39 civilisations.

For this review I decided to complete every single-player campaign mission in the game, which took a massive 231 hours. I also sampled the multiplayer and skirmish modes, and some of the co-op campaign features. Let there be no doubt that Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition offers more bang for your buck then any other real-time strategy game ever released. It's a monumental package that will keep you playing for months.

It's hard to really think of any negatives here. Most maps have several times as much gold than stone, which feels strange and probably a result of balance issues, where building a line of castles bristling with archers right into the enemy base was a viable tactic in the original release. The many newer maps having less stone makes this less viable and increasing the production cost of castles would have been a controversial alternative choice, but it still seems odd. There's also the old problem of the "aggro areas" around units feeling not particularly generous, sometimes leaving units being slaughtered whilst the rest of your huge army stands idly by a few feet away, not getting involved. Improve AI has made that less of an issue than it was in the original game, though.

Those extremely minor niggles aside, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition (*****) now stands as a towering achievement for the traditional real-time strategy game. It's well-judged quality of life improvements elevate it past the mildly disappointing StarCraft Remastered of four years ago to become the definitive 2D RTS game. It is available now on PC via Steam and PC GamePass.

Tuesday 25 January 2022

Three new STAR WARS video games announced, including what sounds like STAR WARS: XCOM

Electronic Arts and Respawn Entertainment have confirmed they are working on three brand-new Star Wars video games.

First up is Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order 2, a sequel to the 2019 "Metroidvania"-alike which saw a young Padawan survive the Jedi Purge and attempt to lay the groundwork for the rebirth of the Jedi Order in the years between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. The game was extremely well-received, so a sequel is a no-brainer, and indeed, its existence was an open secret in the industry. It's believed that Respawn have already been working on the game for more than two years, so hopefully it won't be too long before it appears.

Second up is a new first-person shooter in the Star Wars universe. A lot of fans of the old Dark Forces/Jedi Knight FPS series were disappointed that Fallen Order did not lean more into that game's mix-and-match approach of allowing you to use blasters and lightsabres as you wished. It sounds like this new game will take care of the less Force-using side of the Star Wars universe. Respawn are masters of the FPS genre, having previously worked on the Titanfall series (and its popular spinoff, Apex Legends). Many of their developers were previously at Infinity Ward, where they made some of the better Call of Duty games. So this sounds like a particularly well-made match.

Third, and most intriguingly, is a strategy game that will be developed between Respawn and new studio Bit Reactor. Bit Reactor were founded just a few days ago by ex-Firaxis developers, including numerous veterans of both the XCOM and Civilization franchises, with a mission statement that they would be focusing on turn-based, cinematic experiences. That very much sounds to me like their game will be XCOM: Star Wars (or a close analogue of), which is a mouthwatering prospect, especially if they implement a proper strategy layer. This game sounds like it only literally just got off the ground, so don't expect it in the near future.

Alongside the Knights of the Old Republic Remake game currently in development at EA's Aspyr Studios, that brings the total number of Star Wars titles known to be in development to four.

The news has taken some in the gaming press by surprise, since Lucasfilm terminated their exclusivity deal with EA last year in favour of collaborating with a wider variety of studios. Ubisoft and Massive Games are making an open-world action game set in the Star Wars universe, whilst Quantic Dream is developing Star Wars: Eclipse, a story-focused game in the new High Republic time-period. A new Star Wars Lego game is also in development. The feeling was that maybe EA would focus less on Star Wars going forwards. However, their two Battlefront games and Fallen Order had sold almost 40 million copies between them, making them among EA's biggest recent successes.

Sadly missing from the announcements is any sequel or expansion for the splendid Star Wars: Squadrons. The game apparently did well (especially for a lower-budgeted game) but developers EA Motive had been put to work on a non-Star Wars project.

Monday 24 January 2022

Yellowjackets: Season 1

Four women deal with the shared trauma of an event that destroyed their lives. In 1996, as members of a New Jersey female high school soccer team, they were in a plane crash in a remote part of Canada. Left to fend for themselves for nineteen months with sixteen fellow survivors, horrific events took place, the details of which remain unclear. Twenty-five years later, they reunite when they discover that someone is trying to learn the truth of what happened, and is even willing to resort to murder and blackmail to achieve it.

Yellowjackets is two TV series wrapped in one. It is a survival-horror story about the twenty survivors of a plane crash and the struggles as they waited more than a year and a half for rescue. It is also the story of the dysfunctional relationship between four of those survivors a quarter of a century later, as they navigate their own complicated lives and the attempts by an unknown adversary to dredge up the past for their own benefits. If you wanted to find a buzz-phrase, it's basically if Lost and Desperate Housewives were the same show.

The dual structure and the inter-cutting between the two timelines (with roughly a 50-50 split between the two) gives the show an immediate sense of identity and mystery. We know that four of the survivors of the plane crash made it home and we are told that some of the others survived as well, but not who or how many. This gives the flashbacks a sense of tension because almost anyone can die or be seriously injured. There's also a real sense of interlinking between the two stories: what happened to people in their late teens can still have a drastic impact on them as apparently mature adults in their early forties even without a traumatic plane crash, the horrors of surviving starvation and wild animals, and years of being minor celebrities with morbid people constantly asking them what happened.

The show also makes absolutely no bones that the survival story is going to get extremely bleak. Lost fudged its premise a little bit by giving the survivors of Oceanic 815 plentiful food and water and only stranding them for ninety days before being rescued (kind of); Yellowjackets gives no such easy assurances to the stranded survivors and apparently more time passes in Yellowjackets' first season than in Lost's first three. One of the survivors, Taissa, has gone into politics and one of her opponents' most constant attack lines is that she and the other survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive, which they fervently deny, but the flashbacks suggest this might not be entirely true. The shadow of nascent horror lurks over every minute of the show, particularly in the flashback story.

The secret of Yellowjackets' success, without which the show would not be viable, is the casting. In almost every case, the show does a tremendous job in casting the right actress for both the younger and older version of the character. Helped by excellent wig work, Sammi Hanratty and Christina Ricci nail the two versions of Misty Quigley (the team's equipment manager and free-roaming agent of random chaos) so perfectly it's hard to believe they're not the same person and they've not just filmed the two sides of her story 20+ years apart. Sophie Nélisse and Melanie Lynskey are almost as perfect as Shauna (a former sidekick to a homecoming queen who finds her niche in the woods, and now is an apparently quiet housewife), as are Jasmin Savoy Brown and Tawny Cypress as Taissa Turner (the team's most hardcore and dedicated member, now running for State Senate). Sophie Thatcher and Juliette Lewis, playing Natalie Scatorccio (a troubled teen turned troubled adult), are probably the least physically well-matched of the four, but nail the character's attitude perfectly. Of course, casting the four older versions of the characters with well-known teen actresses from the 1990s is another masterstroke.

The rest of the cast is also excellent, particularly high-ish profile actors Ella Purnell (Arcane) as Jackie Taylor and Courtney Eaton (Mad Max: Fury Road) as Lottie Matthews, two prominent members of the soccer team and the survivors. Their apparent absence in the 2021 storyline makes viewers fear the worst for them, so it's an interesting twist when some of the other survivors do show up or are revealed in dialogue to have survived.

Despite the sprawling nature of the cast and the story, the show keeps a tight rein on its pacing and scope. By using the four main characters in both time periods as our POVs and containing its first season in just ten episodes (Lost's first season had a mind-boggling twenty-five episodes, to compare), the show tells a big story with an admirable sense of focus. Surprisingly, the present-day story is as compelling as the story of survival, involving by itself political intrigue, blackmail, scandal and murder, which is where the Desperate Housewives-on-steroids comparison comes into play. In the wrong hands Yellowjackets could be miserable and grim, but the writers also bring compassion and humour (albeit sometimes very dark) into the mix, alleviating some of the darker moments of the series.

The story in both timelines builds through the season and the finale acts as a gamechanger, rewriting the rules of the game and upending what we thought we knew about the characters.

One of the most striking debut seasons of recent years, Yellowjackets (****½) is William Golding's Lord of the Flies where we ask what happens when the survivors get home, and find that their experiences in the wild have followed and defined them for the rest of their lives? The first season is available to watch on Showtime in the United States and on NowTV in the UK. A second season will air later in 2022.

Sunday 23 January 2022

RUMOUR: David Tennant returning for DOCTOR WHO's 60th anniversary

Multiple Doctor Who fan sites of differing levels of credibility are citing rumours that David Tennant will return for the 60th anniversary special in 2023. This special will also mark the return of former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies for a second stint in charge of the franchise.

The reports seem to be divided on whether Tennant is returning as the Tenth Doctor in a multi-Doctor special - as he did in 2013 for the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor - or if he is returning as the Doctor, with the Fourteenth Doctor sharing a face with his Tenth incarnation. The idea of the Doctor being able to "return" to using old appearances was floated in The Day of the Doctor, with Tom Baker taking up the role of "The Curator," a far-future incarnation of the Doctor who has chosen to reuse the Fourth Doctor's face.

Although the idea seems somewhat fanciful, and may be possibly sparked by the idea of Davies reassembling a "dream team" of former Doctor Who personnel to work on the next series, including Phil Collinson, Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, it's not completely insane. Davies has confirmed that his first episode will be the 60th anniversary special, which presumably will have to introduce the Fourteenth Doctor whilst also celebrating the show's history, which may be irreconcilable requirements. By having the Thirteenth Doctor "degenerate" into a previous incarnation, or a new incarnation that looks the same, this minimises the amount of introductory work needed whilst also possibly introducing a mystery that could form the backbone of the 60th special.

The reports do seem to agree that Tennant's return, if it's happening, will be brief, limited to potentially the 60th anniversary special alone and maybe a few subsequent episodes, with a full-time, brand-new Fifteenth Doctor due to pick up the reigns thereafter.

It may also be that a "degeneration" into a prior incarnation allows Davies to pay homage to the show's history without engaging in a full multi-Doctor special. Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston and Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi have seemingly ruled themselves out of returning, and it's questionable if Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker would return immediately in her very next episode. That only leaves Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith, who has always said he'd be happy to return to the role if required.

As usual, take with a grain of salt until the news is formally confirmed. With filming due to start on the next batch of episodes in the spring, it'll be hard to keep news of who is returning under wraps for long.

Doctor Who: Series 10 (Season 36)

The Doctor has a new mission: to guard a mysterious vault located under a university. He is aided in this quest by Nardole, River Song's friend and ally. The Doctor befriends university worker Bill Potts and decides to recruit her as his new companion, so he can "sneak off" and undertake adventures in time and space, to Nardole's displeasure. But when Earth is attacked by an invading alien force, the Doctor realises that the only salvation might be the very danger which lies within the vault...

The tenth series of Doctor Who since its return in 2005 marks the end of Peter Capaldi's run as the Twelfth Doctor and also the departure of Steven Moffat as showrunner, who'd helmed the show since its fifth series. For this last season, the grumpiness of the Twelfth Doctor was somewhat scaled back in favour of a (relatively) friendlier figure, and was given a mentor-student relationship with his new companion Bill after the more intense and familial relationship with Clara.

Things kick off with Christmas special (and the only episode to air in 2016) The Return of Doctor Mysterio, a splendid superhero pastiche in which the Doctor inadvertently gives young Grant Gordon amazing powers after he accidently ingests some alien technology. The Doctor encourages Grant to use his newfound powers for good, occasionally checking in on him over the years. The Doctor, Grant and journalist Lucy Fletcher then become embroiled in a conspiracy by the mysterious Harmony Shoal corporation to conquer the world. A total romp of an episode with winning performances by guest stars Justin Chatwin and Charity Wakefield, the episode's breezy pace and lighter tone (after the intensity of Series 8 and 9) comes as something of a relief.

The season itself kicks off with The Pilot, which sets up the season arc with the Doctor guarding a mysterious vault and meeting new companion Bill. Season-openers which also serve as companion introductions and arc-openers tend to be a bit messy, with the alien threat of the week disposed off rather summarily so the episode can focus on introductions. The Pilot is better than a lot of episodes in its vein, thanks to strong performances from Pearl Mackie as Bill and guest star Stephanie Hyam as Heather, and the episode also sets up another plot point that becomes important in the finale, so its more satisfying than most.

Smile is a bit Doctor Who-by-numbers, with robot servitors on a colony planet rebelling against their masters, but it has some good energy and a couple of fun twists. Thin Ice, set in 1814 London during last of the Great Frost Fairs, is likewise standard but watchable with some enjoyable guest stars and period detail.

Knock Knock is a Doctor Who haunted house story, with Bill and some friends moving into surprisingly cheap new house with a friendly landlord (an outstanding performance by the legendary David Suchet) just before Shenanigans ensure. The story is tense, the disposable side-characters well-characterised in a short space of time and Suchet's delightful performance elevates the whole thing about the norm.

Oxygen is the season's "base under siege" story, using the same fairly obvious sets as previous stories Under the Lake, Before the Flood and Sleep No More. There's some fun ideas here, like smart spacesuits going rogue and a company so cheapskate it charges its employees for the oxygen they use, but the episode's best and most unsettling idea is the Doctor going blind as a result of oxygen starvation and exposure to space. Otherwise it's fairly disposable.

The next three episodes constitute a three-part arc, consisting of Extremis, The Pyramid at the End of the World and The Lie of the Land, in which alien "monks" invade Earth but can only do so if they are invited willingly. Extremis sets up the situation and has the Doctor recruited by the Vatican to read an ancient text that has sent everyone else mad. There's some terrific imagery (a confused TARDIS-transported Pope emerging from Bill's bedroom, to the consternation of her girlfriend), some fun lines and a winning performance by Peter Capaldi as he pretends not to be blind. The Pyramid at the End of the World ups the ante as the Doctor has to join forces with the world's major governments and militaries to avert the alien invasion and try to stop a disaster before it happens. There's some great performances and tension in this episode, with the Doctor's own hubris eventually defeating him.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the setup is let down by a poor finale. It feels that The Lie of the Land should have been a two-parter with much greater exploration of a life on the monk-ruled planet. Instead, it's a fairly knockabout adventure with a rushed finale. The high point is the regular restoration of Selena Gomez as Missy to the recurring cast and her outstanding performance.

Empress of Mars marks the departure (so far) of regular Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss from the series, and it's a pretty great adventure, taking the Doctor and Bill to Mars in the 19th Century where an Ice Warrior has brought a detachment of British soldiers to the planet to help him rescue his slumbering Ice Queen. Seeing the Ice Warriors on their homeworld of Mars (for the first time on-screen) is fun and the incongruity of Victorian soldiers in space - possibly drawing on the imagery of the Space: 1889 roleplaying game - is great. If there is a weakness, it's that the Ice Queen is not a well-written adversary.

The Eaters of Light marks a bit of history by being written by Rona Munro, who also penned the very last story from the classic run of the series in 1989, Survival, making her remarkably the only writer to have penned both incarnations of the programme. It's a fairly solid story featuring the Doctor and Bill investigating the fate of the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army, and the interesting idea of the Doctor using the TARDIS translation system to overcome cultural differences between warring factions who can't even understand one another. The ending is a little underwhelming though.

World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls forms a two-part story and is quite a powerful one. The Doctor has seemingly rehabilitated Missy and sends on her on an adventure to monitor her performance. This leads to a colony ship trapped in the gravity field of a black hole, where time is running differently on each deck. There's some terrific imagery and Pearl Mackie delivers her best performance as Bill Potts. There's also the superb idea of Missy's move towards being "good" being countered by meeting her past incarnation as the Master (a returning John Simm) who acts as the devil on her shoulder, drawing her back towards the dark side. Throw in the very early Cybermen and the setup for a war story between them and a beleaguered group of survivors, and it makes for a decent, busy story that justifies its length. One weakness of the story is that the manner of Bill's departure - apparently dying but being rescued through a time-wimey loophole and then goes off to have more adventures in time and space with a superpowered female friend - is virtually identical to how Clara departed the previous season, and feels redundant.

Peter Capaldi departs in Twice Upon a Time, where he is reunited with the First Doctor (David Bradley, replacing the late William Hartnell and Richard Hurndall) as they both struggle with their impending regenerations. There's some great ideas here - glass people, the return of Dalek Rusty, Mark Gatiss playing the Brigadier's father - but some over-indulgence and a questionable portrayal of the First Doctor as unrepentantly sexist (far more than was really the case). But overall it's a reasonable goodbye to Capaldi and, indeed, the entire Moffat era of the show.

The tenth series of Doctor Who (****) since its return is a very strong run of episodes, although lacking an all-time classic installment. Capaldi anchors the season with his superb performance, and Pearl Mackie makes for a very likable companion. It is a consistently very solid season, a quality that becomes more variable in the seasons that follow. The season is available to watch on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on HBO Max in the USA.
  • 10X: The Return of Doctor Mysterio ****½
  • 10.1: The Pilot ****
  • 10.2: Smile ***½
  • 10.3: Thin Ice ***½
  • 10.4: Knock Knock ****
  • 10.5: Oxygen ***
  • 10.6: Extremis ****½
  • 10.7: The Pyramid at the End of the World ****½
  • 10.8: The Lie of the Land ***½
  • 10.9: Empress of Mars ***½
  • 10.10: The Eaters of Light ***½
  • 10.11: World Enough and Time ****½
  • 10.12: The Doctor Falls ****½
  • 10.13: Twice Upon a Time ****

Thursday 20 January 2022

Work on the second Russell T. Davies era of DOCTOR WHO begins

It sounds like production (or at least pre-production) has already begun on the next era of Doctor Who. Russell T. Davies is returning to helm the show for a second stint, after his initial run in 2005-10.

The news was unearthed on Twitter, where the updated CVs of Vicki Delow and Phil Collinson were spotted by eagle-eyed fans, both listing the new series as now officially in production. Collinson's job is significant as he was previously an important producer on the first three-and-a-half seasons under Davies' tenure in 2005-08. Delow is a newcomer to the franchise, though.

Davies has already written several episodes for Series 14 - which will be the 40th season overall of the series and the 50th of the franchise - including the opening episode, which will serve as the show's 60th anniversary special. It is expected to air in the week of 23 November 2023, with the rest of the season to follow.

There are still two episodes from Series 13 to air, an Easter special called Legend of the Sea Devils and a special to air in October to celebrate the BBC's Centenary anniversary. That episode will write out the current cast and see the regeneration of Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker. The actor who will play the Fourteenth Doctor has apparently not been confirmed yet, but is expected to be announced in the coming weeks, since it will be hard to keep the identity secret once actual filming begins (expected in the Spring).

Series 14 will also be the first produced as a co-production between the BBC and an external production company, Bad Wolf Productions. Bad Wolf is named after a story arc in Russell T. Davies's first season of the show back in 2005 and is headed by former BBC Head of Drama Jane Tranter, who commissioned Doctor Who's return, and former Doctor Who producer Julie Gardner.

Wednesday 19 January 2022

LORD OF THE RINGS prequel TV series finally gets a name: THE RINGS OF POWER

Amazon Prime's extremely expensive Lord of the Rings prequel TV series has a title. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will launch later this year and will cover events in the Second Age of Middle-earth's history, more than 3,000 years before the events of the novels and existing films.

The title is a little unwieldy - the popular fan alternate choices of The Second Age or The Last Alliance are catchier - and somewhat redundant, but at least it's a relief to be able to give the thing a proper name at last.

The Rings of Power is set in the latter part of the Second Age, when the mighty island empire of Numenor became the most powerful nation in the world and even the Dark Lord Sauron, wielding the power of the One Ring, was unable to match it. It sounds like the show may feature significant flashbacks to earlier in the Age, when the elven-smith Celebrimbor was tricked by Sauron into forging the Rings of Power, by which means Sauron gained influence over the races of men and dwarves before forging the One Ring himself.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will launch worldwide on Amazon on 2 September 2022.


Paramount have renewed the remaining two of their three live-action Star Trek shows. Discovery will be returning for a fifth season, whilst Strange New Worlds has had a second season confirmed before its first season even debuts. Animated show Lower Decks will also be returning for a fourth season. Picard was renewed for a third season back in September and production is already underway. 

All three shows have also had their launch dates confirmed: the final batch of episodes from Discovery's fourth season will start airing on 10 February, whilst Picard's second season will launch on 3 March. Strange New Worlds will then debut on 5 May. In addition, animated show Lower Decks is expected to return with its third season in the summer, with CG-animated show Prodigy already working on a second season, expected to debut late this year or early next.

Paramount+, the rebranded version of CBS All Access, has enjoyed significant success with its streaming service, last year reporting they were two years ahead of schedule with their expected customer base. Much of the service's success has been pinned on Star Trek, with the streamer inking a $160 million deal to keep Star Trek showrunner Alex Kurtzman on board until the end of 2026. The only other long-term success on the network is The Good Fight. However, the streamer is diversifying with a larger slate of drama and comedy projects, with the mega-budgeted Halo TV series due to launch in the coming months, as well as a Frasier sequel series in late 2022 or 2023.

The streamer is also making the bold choice to go international. Paramount+ will be launching overseas versions of its content in several dozen countries starting in the Spring, in some areas in conjunction with local streaming services. Controversially with the fanbase, Paramount has started pulling its Star Trek content from Netflix and Amazon Prime ahead of the move.

The multiple renewals also mean that Star Trek is catching up on Doctor Who in terms of the number of seasons confirmed in a franchise. Doctor Who has aired 39 seasons since its its inception in 1963, with a 40th already confirmed for 2023, as well as four seasons of spinoff show Torchwood, one of Class and five of The Sarah Jane Adventures, for a total of 50 seasons. These renewals will put Star Trek on 46 seasons.

Some rumours are stating that the third season of Picard will be last one, due to Sir Patrick Stewart's age (Stewart turns 82 in July), and once it ends it will be replaced by one of two new Star Trek series in development behind the scenes, a long-gestating series about Section 31 starring Michelle Yeoh, and a series focusing on the Next Generation fan-favourite character of Worf. No official confirmation of this has been given.