Thursday 31 March 2022

Gollancz and Tor nab rights to new Joe Abercrombie trilogy

Gollancz and Tor Books have acquired the UK and US rights respectively to Joe Abercrombie's next fantasy project. No release date has been set for the project, but given that Joe reported only being about half done with it at the end of last year, I imagine it'll be 2023 at least before we see the new material.

The new trilogy starts with a book called The Devils and marks a change for Abercrombie in that it is set in a fantasised version of the real world, rather than his First Law work which is sent entirely in a secondary world, or his Half a King trilogy which melds fantasy with a post-apocalyptic setting.

The new trilogy will apparently meld epic fantasy with the heist, crime and thriller genres. The synopsis follows:
“In a magic-riddled Europe under constant threat of elf invasion, the 10-year-old Pope occasionally needs services that cannot be performed by the righteous. And so, sealed deep beneath the catacombs, cathedrals and relic stalls of the Sacred City lies the secret Chapel of the Holy Expediency. For its highly disposable congregation – including a self-serving magician, a self-satisfied vampire, an oversexed werewolf, and a knight cursed with immortality – there is no mission that cannot be turned into a calamitous bloodbath.”

Wednesday 30 March 2022

ARCANE and YELLOWJACKETS star Ella Purnell joins the FALLOUT TV series

British actress Ella Purnell has joined the Fallout TV project at Amazon.

Purnell is definitely having a career moment. Last year she played Jackie on Showtime's breakout mega-hit Yellowjackets and voiced Powder (aka Jinx) on Netflix's Arcane. She also voices the character of Gwyn on the well-received Star Trek spin-off Prodigy. She also popped up in Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead last year.

Purnell's character is "upbeat and uncannily direct with an all-American can-do spirit," with a hint of danger in her intensity. Purnell is joining the already-cast Walton Goggins (Justified) who will be playing a Ghoul, a human made effectively immortal by radiation at the cost of their appearance.

The Fallout show is executive produced by the Westworld team of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and is currently in pre-production.

Fire and Blood Money: Why a lot is riding on HBO's HOUSE OF THE DRAGON

In August, HBO launches House of the Dragon. It's a prequel spin-off to the most successful TV show in the cable network's history and also a key moment for the network to see if the franchise has legs beyond the original series.

Game of Thrones - based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire - ran for eight seasons and 73 episodes, shot over a period of almost nine years. When it launched it was seen as a huge gamble for the cable giant, which had cut its teeth on prestigious dramas such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood. An out-and-out fantasy show, featuring dragons, magic and face-shifting assassins, was seen as an outlier. It wasn't entirely unprecedented - the gloriously trashy vampire drama True Blood had been a big hit since 2008 - but Thrones had a bigger budget and was a more challenging show to attract a mass audience.

As it turned out, HBO need not have been worried. The show broke records for HBO viewership, for DVD and Blu-Ray sales, for merchandising and for piracy. The books sold roughly 10 million copies a year every year the show was on air. It became the biggest water-cooler drama series since Lost, and arguably nothing has quite replaced it in the cultural conversation since it ended. It made stars of its castmembers and completely rewrote the rules on the level of production value viewers can now expect from their TV shows. It's arguably mainly down to Thrones that were are now seeing TV show budgets rising to over $15 million per episode, a figure unthinkable when it started (when Thrones's early episodes only cost $6 million per episode, and the average network US episode still cost $3 million or less).

And then it ended. And people had thoughts on how it ended. Lots of them.

Shows with controversial endings are nothing new. People still debate the merits (or the lack thereof) of the ending of shows like St. Elsewhere, The Prisoner, Lost and Battlestar Galactica many years and sometimes decades after they aired. But the visceral hatred of Game of Thrones's ending in some quarters was something else. It's now three years after the show ended, and the vehement dislike of the ending shows little sign of abating (at least online). The showrunner-writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been widely criticised for rushing the end to the series in a perceived haste to move on to other projects for Disney and Netflix, whilst George R.R. Martin has been criticised for not delivering the final two novels to the book series in time for them to be adapted properly.

Whether these criticisms are fair or not is immaterial to how widespread they are, and the passion of viewers on the subject has created a key problem for HBO.

Whilst the final season of the show was in production, HBO embarked on an ambitious project to create a Game of Thrones "expanded universe," effectively mining Martin's work to create numerous TV shows (both live-action and animated) in the same setting. Numerous creative talents were brought on board to develop multiple projects simultaneously; at one point HBO were simultaneously juggling six pitches set in widely-varying timeframes in the history of Westeros and Essos (since then they have started developing several more projects). A pilot based on one idea, the origin story of the White Walkers, was greenlit and was in pre-production a year before the final episode of the mothership even aired.

After Thrones's controversial ending, HBO recalibrated. They decided not to proceed to series with The Longest Night (as the spin-off was reportedly going to be called, or at least that was Martin's preferred title) despite having spent almost $30 million on the pilot and reshoots, and instead commissioned a new idea from producer Ryan Condal: House of the Dragon. This new series would tell the story of the Dance of the Dragons, a bloody civil war in House Targaryen which took place almost 170 years before the events of Game of Thrones and explained how and why most of the house's dragons were wiped out.

The pivot was interesting, as it seemed HBO was following the popular narrative that viewers had responded badly to the ending of the White Walker storyline in Game of Thrones but approved of the dragons and the more grounded story of civil war in Westeros, against a backdrop of complex feudal machinations. The new series, they believe, will play to Game of Thrones's strengths whilst omitting what could be seen as its largest weaknesses. They've also cleverly kept many of the other spin-off possibilities in development without directly committing to any of them: if House of the Dragon bombs, then HBO might well give up on developing the universe any further and move on to fresher pastures. No pressure, then.

Still, HBO might have reasons for confidence. Since Game of Thrones aired, many other shows have come along to lift its crown as the top fantasy series and have fallen short. Shadow and Bone was good but low-key, The Witcher managed to annoy fans of both the books and video games despite plaudits for Henry Cavill in the title role, and The Wheel of Time's large deviations from the source material almost from the off made it a hard sell to book fans (show-first viewers were much more receptive). If you want (mostly) quality, live-action fantasy, then HBO has good form.

House of the Dragon also has the leg-up in promo material. The short teaser and various promo shots have attracted some commentary based on costumes and character appearances, but nothing like the howling mobs generated by its near-competitor, Amazon's Lord of the Rings spin-off The Rings of Power. The Rings of Power has already dropped a trailer that has attracted heavy criticism for its over-use of fake-looking CGI, the presence of characters and races in places they never were in the books, and its massive compression of thousands of years of detailed history into a single generation (to avoid time skips). House of the Dragon's early reception, at least so far (and before a trailer), has been more positive. It helps that HBO has been restrained in its hype-building, and House of the Dragon will also launch almost two weeks before The Rings of Power.

On top of that, thanks to the pandemic, HBO has seen huge numbers of people who missed the Game of Thrones bus first time around catching up via HBO Max in the USA (and streaming services like NowTV in the UK), and HBO seems very happy with how the show has done in streamings. Online commentators like to say that nobody has watched or talked about Game of Thrones since its ending, but that doesn't seem to be quite the case.

House of the Dragon has a top cast, solid writers, Thrones's best director as co-showrunner, completed source material (Martin's "fake history" book Fire and Blood) and HBO's impeccable production values. There is no reason for the show not to be good and not be a hit. If it is, then I suspect HBO will be mining the Game of Thrones toybox for more ideas for many years to come. If it isn't, then HBO might decide its dalliance with epic fantasy is over, and move on to other ideas and genres, which would be a shame.

We'll start get an inkling of which way it's going to go when House of the Dragon launches on 21 August.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Prey (2017)

2035. The people of Earth are benefitting from the creation of "neuromods," implants that grant humans incredible abilities. Unbeknown to most on Earth, the source of the neuromods is an alien species known as the Typhon, who are held prisoner on the orbital space station Talos I. When the Typhon escape confinement and overrun the station, it is down to a small number of survivors to escape, and decide the ultimate fate of the dangerous - but beneficial - project.

Prey (2017) is a first-person immersive sim, and is wholly unrelated to Prey (2006), a first-person shooter. Neo-Prey is the creation of Arkane Studios, the same team behind the excellent Dishonored series and the recent time-looping action game Deathloop.

The game sees you take control of Morgan Wu (you can choose their gender), a scientist whose older brother and parents own and run the company that developed the neuromods. Because neuromod experiments cause partial amnesia, you start the game in a state of some confusion about what's going on. When it becomes clear that the Typhons have escaped and overrun the station, you appoint yourself the facility's fixer-in-chief and are soon pinballing around the station solving puzzles, repairing systems, sealing hull breaches and locating survivors of the outbreak.

Using an RPG-like progression system based around the acquisition of neuromods, which give you more impressive abilities, you can also grow in your capability of fending off the Typhon in combat, as well as employing stealth to try to avoid confrontations. Unlike Dishonored, you can't "ghost" through the game and sometimes combat is unavoidable. Fortunately, you can upgrade weapons to dramatically improve your abilities and neuromods give you abilities such as slowing down time to allow you to reach faster to events. You start the game as if you're made of glass and only wielding a wrench, and by the end of it you're a walking tank of armour and firepower.

Prey is something of a minimalist game: friendly characters are few and far between, and for large chunks of it you are making your way alone through unfriendly parts of the station, fending off Typhon and environmental hazards alike. In these parts of the game it becomes a survival sim, with you picking up everything that isn't nailed down to be recycled into raw materials, which can then be used to fabricate everything from medpacks to shotguns to tools. The station is, pleasingly, a nonlinear environment. As you explore it further, you open up new routes linking back to the central lobby, and over the course of a playthrough turn when starts off as a level-based, linear game into an open-world one, packed with shortcuts and new ways of getting around. If video games are based around the options they give the player, then Prey starts off tight and focused and then sprawls impressively.

The game is heavily inspired by earlier titles. System Shock 2 is the most obvious direct predecessor, which also saw the player dealing with hostile forces on a space station with tremendous freedom in how they went about tackling problems. BioShock and its sequels borrowed some of the same ideas, albeit in a much more linear manner. Alien Isolation is also a key reference point, with its terrorised space station and the player having to make their way back and forth solving problems whilst at the mercy of a hostile alien presence. Prey even borrows Isolation's xenomorph concept, with a powerful Typhon known as "the Nightmare" eventually stalking your every move across the station (although fortunately the Nightmare is easier to detect, avoid or even kill than Isolation's immortal xenomorph). Whilst acknowledging its influences, Prey is also careful not to be too derivative of them, with a spooky atmosphere, unreliable narration and occasional black humour that is more of its own thing.

The game does have flaws, mostly stemming from its ambitious design. Sometimes mission objectives and the reasons for you doing what you're doing are a little vague. The game also gives you tremendous tools but then limits how you can use them. Early on you can exit the station and, in a marvellous piece of design, the entire game is contained within that space, giving you another way of moving around (the game's zero-gee sections with you using your spacesuit to fly around with proper Newtonian physics are brilliant, it has to be said). However, the game has all the airlocks sealed, so there's no real benefit to doing that. Later on, once you've unlocked everything, you can zip around the outside of the station to get from place to place, but this is never faster than just walking around internally, so it ends up feeling a bit pointless.

Similarly the game does not do a good job of letting you know how to get the best out of your tools. Early game combat is chancy and frequently lethal, so discovering the one-two punch combo of the shotgun for close-up action and the Q-beam for long-range battle is essential to make progress fun and not frustrating. However, unlocking the potential of the Q-beam means knowing where to get the plans for its ammo (so you can make more of it yourself) and learning the skill to scavenge more loot from destroyed robots (otherwise Q-beam ammo is almost impossible to find by itself). I'd have saved a lot of time and frustrating reloads if that information had been a bit more clear up-front. Also, the Typhon are a fascinating enemy in concept, but also not the most visually interesting in practice. The basic "Mimic" model is a bit boring to fight (think of Half-Life's headcrabs, only almost impossible to see) and the larger creatures are mostly variations on "black slimy thing."

These problems are minor and soon subsumed by the game's absolutely brilliant design. The Talos I space station is every bit as impressive and towering an achievement in level and graphic design as BioShock's Rapture, Half-Life 2's City 17 or Alien Isolation's Sevastopol, and sometimes just wandering around and grooving on its chunky Syd Mead vibe is fun in itself. Combat starts off tense but by the end of the game has become thoroughly enjoyable, with you having a wide variety of tools on how to tackle the different problems ahead of you. The writing is restrained, minimalist but effective, and the finale is impressively epic. The spooky soundtrack is wonderfully understated as well.

Prey (****½) is a slow-burn and maybe a bit too obtuse in its opening minutes, but once it kicks into gear and once you get into its headspace, it becomes a classic of the immersive sim genre. The game is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

HOUSE OF THE DRAGON to hit the airwaves on 21 August

HBO have confirmed that their Game of Thrones prequel/spin-off series House of the Dragon will arrive on screens on 21 August this year.

They also released a number of publicity photographs for the upcoming show.

Olivia Cooke as Lady Alicent Hightower. The daughter of the King's Hand, Lord Otto Hightower of Oldtown, and an ambitious would-be player in the game of thrones.

Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon of Driftmark and Eve Best as his wife, Princess Rhaenys Velaryon. Rhaenys was once a potential heir to the Iron Throne but was passed over in favour of her cousin Viserys, something that still irks her. Lord Corlys, famed as the "Sea Snake," is the most accomplished sailor in the history of Westeros, having sailed to distant, enigmatic Asshai-by-the-Shadow, into the far north of Westeros and across the top of Essos. A proud and rich man whose wealth rivals or exceeds that of the Lannisters. Princess Rhaenys rides the mighty dragon known as Meleys, the Red Queen.

Fabien Frankel as Ser Criston Cole. A skilled swordsman from Blackhaven in the Dornish Marches, his rude birth precludes high status. His formidable talent for battle sees him set his sights on a lofty goal.

Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen. The younger brother of King Viserys, he is everything his brother is not: short-tempered, passionate, fiery and often uncaring of the consequences. He chafes at his brother's limitations and yearns to prove himself in battle. He rides the formidable dragon Caraxes.

Rhys Ifans as Lord Otto Hightower of Oldtown. The ruler of the continent's second-largest city and a rich, influential ruler in his own right, Lord Otto has risen to the rank of the King's Hand, ruling the Seven Kingdoms in the king's name. A proud and ambitious man who sees the potential for dispute in the succession, and wishes to take advantage of the situation for his own ends.

Emma D'Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. Once called "the Realm's delight," the only child of King Viserys expects to inherit the Iron Throne, despite vehement opposition by those who believe that only a man can rule Westeros. Rhaenyra's iron will and ambition is not used to opposition. Her dragon is called Syrax.

Paddy Considine as King Viserys I Targaryen. The fifth king of the Targaryen dynasty, who inherited the throne from his grandfather. Like his grandfather, he is amiable and dedicated to peace. Unlike his grandfather, he is not used to making hard decisions to ensure peace and prosperity into the future, and his gentle nature is arguably building up greater trouble for later on. A good man but, perhaps, not a good king. He once rode Balerion the Black Dread, the steed of Aegon the Conqueror, but after Balerion died he never took another mount.

Milly Alcock and Emily Carey as the young Rhaenyra and Alicent, childhood friends whose paths in adulthood take them in a very different direction.

Sonoya Mizuno as Mysaria, a dancer from Essos who rises from obscurity to become a trusted ally of Prince Daemon Targaryen.

House of the Dragon begins almost 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones. House Targaryen rules the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Peace and prosperity fill the realm, the result of the rule of the wise Old King Jaehaerys the Conciliator. His grandson and successor, Viserys I, is an amiable and pleasant king, but lacks his gift for hard politicking that kept the peace. The lack of a male heir encourages competition for the role of successor between the king's younger brother, the daring and dangerous Prince Daemon, and his daughter, Princess Rhaenyra. However, both their ambitions are endangered when the king takes a new, younger wife who soon gifts him with more children. Decades later, as the end of the king's reign approaches, the stage is set for a bloody in which all sides command the power of dragons.

In addition to the above, the series also stars Graham McTavish as Ser Harrold Westerling, Ryan Corr as Ser Harwin Strong, Jefferson Hall as Lord Jason Lannister and his twin brother Tyland, David Horovitch as Grand Maester Mellos, Matthew Needham as Larys Strong, Bill Paterson as Lord Lyman Beesbury, Gavin Spokes as Lord Lyonel Strong, Wil Johnson as Ser Vaemond Velaryon, John Macmillan (and Theo Nate as a child) as Ser Laenor Velaryon, Savannah Steyn as Lady Laena Velaryon, Ray Strachan as Arthur Velaryon, Bethany Antonia as Baela Targaryen and Phoebe Campbell as Rhaena Targaryen.

The show is executive produced and showrun by Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal, with George R.R. Martin executive producing and advising. The series is based on Martin's 2018 book Fire and Blood. Game of Thrones showrunner-writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were not involved in this project.

The release date has an interesting twist: it puts the 10-episode show on at the same time as Amazon Prime's Lord of the Rings prequel series, The Rings of Power, which launches on 2 September.

Saturday 26 March 2022

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

"Murderbot" has managed to escape from its last precarious situation and once again finds itself on its own, happy to amuse itself with TV shows whilst shuttling around the galaxy. A determination to find the reason for its original malfunction leads to a reluctant alliance with a powerful ship's AI and a bunch of youngsters who've gotten in over their heads.

Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries has become one of the most acclaimed SF novella series of recent years, telling the story of a combat "SecUnit" that becomes self-motivating and decides to leave behind its life of murder for one of comfort. However, it can't shake either a nagging sense of guilt and curiosity about its beginnings and it also can't quite stop itself from helping out humans from getting themselves into quite ridiculously dangerous situations.

Artificial Condition is less of a follow-up to the first novella, All Systems Red, and more of a direct continuation, following Murderbot as it tries to work out how it became self-aware in the first place and if its unusual situation poses a danger to humans. This takes Murderbot back to the station where its first breaking away from its programming took place.

This is all fun stuff, enlivened by Murderbot's sparky relationship with a starship AI called ART, which is so bored by repetitive flights that it decides to help out Murderbot by becoming its "man in the van." This relationship is the core of the novella and is fun, if a little repetitive. Once Murderbot reaches its destination it turns into more of a standard SF action thriller, as it helps out a bunch of kids who've managed to annoy precisely the wrong people. There's some focused action, some brief musings on "found family" (a theme of the first novella) and then off to the next story with barely a pause for breath.

As with All Systems Read, this is a fast, breezy ride delivered through some fun writing, some economical but effective characterisation and some nice action beats. It's also a bit over-reliant on knowledge of the first novella. This feels more like the second half of a (still very short) novel rather than a stand-alone novella in its own right, and it's also doing setup work for the next adventure (Rogue Protocol). That's all fine as long as you know what you're getting into, a series of serialised short novellas (each costing the same as a full-price novel) where the story continues from one installment to the next.

Artificial Condition (***½) is a short, fun, focused read and a solid new adventure for Murderbot. Readers on a budget may want to wait until an omnibus edition is available in their territory, however. It is available now in the US and on import in most other territories.

Friday 25 March 2022

Carnival Row: Season 1

Seven years ago, the Pact invaded Anoun, a kingdom of the fae on the eastern continent of Tiranoc. Anoun was backed by the Burgue, a powerful human city-state, and they fought together until defeat. Now the Burgue itself is home to a population of fae refugees and migrants, creating tensions in the city. Inspector Rycroft Philostrate of the Constabulary tries to keep a careful peace between the police and the fae inhabitants of Carnival Row, trying to solve crimes that threaten both communities. The advent of a new serial killer and the arrival in the city of an old lover create new dilemmas for Philo, as political intrigue threatens to unseat the Chancellor and unleash a bloody pogrom on the streets.

Carnival Row is a rare beast: a completely original, not-based-on-a-book fantasy series for television. Not only is it fantasy, but it's also a gunpowder/steampunk fantasy, drenched with Victoriana, gas lighting and trains. The show is the brainchild of Pacific Rim writer Travis Beacham and Star Trek producer-writer Rene Echevarria  and feels like it's been influenced by the likes of Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and the Dishonored series of video games (some similarities with the subsequent Netflix series Arcane may also be discerned).

The show pursues several different storylines across its eight-episode run. Its main focus is on Philo (Lord of the Rings' Orlando Bloom), a gruff and growly cop with a striking bowler hat who is trying to do what is right but is stymied by uncaring bosses, racist colleagues and indifferent friends. Philo is also a war veteran and harbours secrets from his childhood he is not keen on becoming well-known. His story contrasts with that of his former lover Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a fae who has been working as an agent for the underground railroad, helping the persecuted flee her occupied homeland across the ocean. Vignette reluctantly relocates to the Burgue when Anoun becomes too hot for her, but is enraged to discover that Philo has survived, when she believed he'd died. Their relationship forms one spine of the show but fortunately does not overwhelm it.

Another major plot follows that of indebted youngsters Imogen and Ezra Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant and Andrew Gower), who have inherited their father's fortune and house but not his prudence with finances. They end up living beyond their means and Ezra becomes indebted to loan sharks. However, Imogen spies an unconventional way out through a business alliance with new neighbour Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi), a wealthy faun who is treated with disdain by their social set even as they lust after his immense fortune. This storyline looks at competing ideas of wealth, status and perceived power and how they intersect with prejudice.

A further thread follows the political life of the city, with Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) pursuing a policy of appeasement and freedom with his chief rival, Ritter Longerbane (Ronan Vibert) being keener to enflame the racial tensions in the city and appeal to the prejudiced. This thread also draws in Absalom's wife, Piety (Indira Varma), and his son Jonah (Arty Froushan).

There's a lot going on in Carnival Row, which is a relief as we've too often seen shows which are eight or ten or twelve hours long with far less plot to support them. Carnival Row is something of a blunt instrument - the "racism is not good" message is fairly clear - but it tells its story and explores its themes of power and prejudice through a variety of storylines and characters, with enough going on to keep busy but not so much it overwhelms the viewer.

The show lives through its worldbuilding, which is impressive. The Burgue is created through a mixture of mostly-seamless CGI and location filming in Liberec and Prague, along with excellent set work. The city is not wholly original - think of a smaller New Crobuzon or a more fantastical Dunwall - but the execution of bringing it to life is excellent. The show is also not afraid to throw country names, factions and races into the mix to create a world that feels lived-in and complete (maps of the city and the world can be found online, but are not necessary), rather than thin and not existing beyond the confines of the screen.

The worldbuilding is exemplary and the storytelling is solid, although unoriginal. The show unironically borrows several plot twists straight out of the Star Wars playbook without much alteration, and its themes of power and racial tension are handled well, but not in any kind of revelatory way. The show is elevated by its performances, with Tamzin Merchant (who narrowly avoided being Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, and here showing she could have done a great job) having the toughest character arc as she evolves from prejudiced airhead to canny businesswoman, which she handles well. Erstwhile stars Orlando Bloom and Carla Delevingne deliver very solid, reliable performances, even if Bloom does feel he's channelling a mixture of Discworld's Sam Vimes crossed over through Tom Hardy's unhinged psycho-protagonist from Taboo (complete with epic hat and questionable growly voice), a curious choice which often works and sometimes does not. I did enjoy Delevingne's Irish-infused angry fairy spiel, even if her main story arc (working for fae rebels on the street) kind of spluttered out halfway through the season and she became more of a supporting player in her own story.

David Gyasi (Cloud Atlas, Interstellar, Containment) delivers arguably the best performance of the season as Agreus, a "puck" who has chosen to live more like a human, earning their money and forcing them to respect him in spite of themselves. The magisterial Jared Harris (Chernobyl, The Expanse, The Terror, Foundation) is of course utterly outstanding as always, as is Indira Varma (Rome, Game of Thrones) as his wife. The show also has its share of scene-stealing supporting characters, like Simon McBurney as Runyon, the master of a street theatre troupe of kobols; Karla Crome as Tourmaline, Vignette's long-suffering friend; and Alice Krige, the Borg Queen herself, as a prophetic witch. The show also makes a curious choice in violating the "Chekov's Werewolf" maxim, by putting a werewolf into play but then not using him in the finale.

Carnival Row's first season (****) marries exemplary performances, superb production values and an amazing sense of fantasy worldbuilding with a somewhat predictable plot. But if this is not the most surprising show in the world, it readily delivers solid storytelling and keeps up a great sense of pace. The show's best episode is its third, a near-contained flashback story to the war between the Pact and the Burgue, which hints at a future where the show breaks free of the constraints of the Burgue to tell a more global, epic story.

The first season is available now on Amazon Prime Television. A second season has been filmed and is due for release later this year.

Thursday 24 March 2022

Expeditions: Rome

Rome, c. 60 BC. The death of the patron of a prominent Roman family sees his heir take ship for Asia Minor, where they join the military campaign of Lucius Licinius Lucullus against Mithridates VI of Pontus. They learn the art of war, commanding both a legion and an elite group of speculatores, Roman troops and infiltrators assigned to deep penetration missions behind enemy lines to assassinate enemies, sabotage supply lines and gather intelligence. The quest for justice will take a long time, with decades unfolding and Rome waging war in Gaul and Egypt to secure its borders. The new legate will have important decisions to make which will change the history of Rome...and the world.

Expeditions: Rome is the third game in the loose-knit Expeditions series (after 2013's Conquistador and 2017's Viking), which mixes elements from roleplaying, tactical combat and strategy games into an interesting whole. The game sees you create your own character and then assemble a team of companion characters, in this instance called "praetorians." Praetorians come in two flavours: named, voiced characters who play a major role in the story, generating their own side-quests and having unique dialogue; and recruitable, optional characters who play no role in the story but fill out your ranks during some missions. Praetorians can also be assigned to different jobs in camp, such as working in the baths (improving morale), the blacksmith or replenishing your weapons. Some Praetorians can also be assigned as "Centurions," leading your legion in battle.

The game most consists of missions where you have to visit a location, engage in dialogue and often (though not always) combat. Combat unfolds in a manner very similar to the XCOM series, with turn-based fighting where your characters can move, take an action or use an item. As you win battles, you level characters up and can unlock additional abilities, such as heavier attacks, the ability to move through enemy spaces without triggering attacks of opportunity, or adding more damage types to attacks, like poison or bleeding. You can also adjust equipment throughout the game, either using new weaponry and armour looted from the enemy, building your own or upgrading old favourites to keep them viable right to the endgame. Characters can also engage in other skills such as healing, buffing allies or debuffing enemies.

Battles unfold like games of tightly-controlled chess. Positioning is hugely important, and a seemingly unwinnable fight can be brought under control with only modest changes in tactics and equipment. Knowing when to advance to bring your heavy infantry and when to hold back and pepper the enemy with arrows to draw them out can be crucial. At the game continues, the use of equipment becomes paramount: bandages can heal injured warriors, Greek fire can literally blow up parts of the map and pilums (Roman infantry spears) can allow melee characters a ranged attack before closing in.

Between RPG missions you can retreat to your legion camp to heal up, upgrade weapons and armour and plan your next moves. The second part of the game, which opens up after reaching Asia Minor, sees you conquering an entire region in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Total War. You take a settlement, where you can upgrade the facilities by taking over facilities in that region (quarries, mines, farms, lumber yards etc). When ready, you can send your legion to conquer another province. When your legion engages in battle, you only have loose control, and can assign different strategies to your troops and hope for the best. Ensuring your legion's manpower is maxed out and you keep upgrading your strategies between battles is a fairly reliable way to ensuring victory in each battle. You also have to defend against enemy counter-strikes. Once you've taken a settlement, you usually have to send your troops on a special mission to secure the province. Intriguingly, this is seen as "busywork" which your all-star A-team can't be bothered to deal with, so you have to assemble a rumble squad from your B-listers. This is the game's clever way of forcing you to have a good reserve of praetorians with varied skills rather than just relying on the same six dudes throughout the whole game. Your B-listers can also be killed permanently, making using them somewhat more hazardous then throwing your main gang into the fray each time.

The result is a compelling mix of strategy, tactics and RPG elements, including a focus on rhetoric (you are Romans, after all) to resolve some problems with politics, Greek-trained logic and diplomacy, not to mention good old-fashioned bribery. This is a pleasingly varied game that balances lots of different influences and ideas into a very solid whole.

The plot is solid but your companion characters are an enjoyable lot to spend time with. There's uncannily skilled bowman-assassin Calida, stoic legionary Caeso, fiery gladiator Bestia, venerable philosopher-fighter Syneros and Scythian warrior Deianeira, in addition your custom-created avatar character. Each companion has a different philosophy and viewpoint, often divided between favouring action, patience, stealth or diplomacy, and their insights into the crisis of the moment can be useful. Their combat skills are also excellent: Calida became my go-to companion for leading the B-team praetorians on side-missions, her formidable stealth skills and long-range death-dealing making her perfect for controlling the battlefield. Syneros's ability to use a heavy pike or staff to inflict damage across multiple spaces is also formidable.

The game takes a refreshingly relaxed attitude to history. Very early in the game you befriend and become a key ally of a famous Roman soldier. However, he dies in unexpected (and ahistorical) circumstances, leading to you filling his shows. It's then up to you how much history follows its original trajectory or if you can nudge it onto a better - or worse - course. There's also some very nice use of proper Latin pronunciation and interesting asides on Roman ranks, customs, laws and weapons. The game also throws a lot more curveballs at you if you play a female character, as Roman law, custom and society was very patriarchal.

The game does have a few problems, and the first is a distinct lack of explaining its finer systems. For example, I lucked onto a review early on that recommended putting a praetorian with the "Social" perk into the legion's bathhouse and keeping him there for the entire game, as this results in a slow but constant uptick in morale. Nothing in the game itself really tells you this, and it's probably the best way of building up morale for your troops (vital to minimise casualties in battle). Similarly, the game initially lowballs the importance of tactical items likes javelins, knives and Greek fire, despite having both loads of them and a Praetorian at camp constantly renewing them making an enormous difference to the game's difficulty.

The second issue probably won't be one for a lot of people: the game is on the long side. It consists of four acts, with the first three seeing you conquer Asia Minor, Egypt and Gaul in turn. Marching your troops across the map, fighting a big battle, then multiple missions to advance the story and secure each province is rewarding, but soon starts to get a little repetitive, and risks becoming filler. This is particularly notable during the Egyptian campaign, easily the biggest of the three (Gaul, in comparison, is refreshingly tight). The combat is excellent, being clever and rewarding, but it starts to wear a little thin, especially in the mid-going when you are levelling up skills and equipment comparatively slowly. There's also the feeling that some game systems are not quite as important as they should be: levelling strategems to improve your chances in battle was something I forgot to do until completing the Egyptian campaign, meaning I finished well over three-quarters of the game using just the strategies you get at the very start and not really suffering for it.

Expeditions: Rome (****) is a hugely enjoyable game with a great cast of characters, some very solid writing, a good-enough plot and brilliant tactical combat. The strategy metagame is light but enjoyable enough. At around 60 hours, the game does outstay it's welcome by a bit, but if you're after a historical RPG with turn-based combat and a lot of rich atmosphere, this is the game for you. The game is available on PC now.

Wednesday 23 March 2022

HARD WEST II announced for release this year

Underrated 2015 "weird west" tactics game Hard West is getting a sequel.

The sequel is being developed by Ice Code Games for publisher Good Shepherd Entertainment. Like the first game, it is a supernatural Western using turn-based combat reminiscent of the XCOM series. The sequel will apparently introduce ideas such as "active combat," using the turn-based battles to depict horse chases, stagecoach robberies and combat involving trains.

Original developers CreativeForge Games, who also created Phantom Doctrine and are now working on a StarGate game, Timekeepers, are involved as advisors and technical assistance.

The game is projected for release later this year.

Mythic Quest: Season 2

The first major expansion for Mythic Quest has been a huge success, but now the game studio's backers are keen for more content. Ian and Poppy are bereft of ideas, so brainstorm ideas, concepts and even titles for the new expansion, whilst also trying to keep the team's morale up as the competition gets fierce.

The first season of Mythic Quest was a solid success, a funny workplace comedy that used the field of video game development to tell amusing stories about human eccentricities. It did ascend to absolute greatness twice, with the episode A Dark Quiet Death telling a self-contained flashback story with a completely different tone to the rest of the season, and Quarantine using the COVID19 pandemic to tell a surprisingly powerful story about loss, loneliness and self-reliance.

The second season surprisingly repeats the feat. The "normal" episodes of the season once again focus on workplace foibles, character clashes and people struggling with relationships, job ambitions and family issues. The fact they are dealing with these problems whilst working at a video game company gives the show its own unique feel. There is greater character depth this time around, with stories such as the exasperated Ian mentoring game tester Rachel to find out what she really wants to do with her career, whilst Poppy and Ian's competing ideas for a second expansion are cleverly used to show their ongoing struggles with art versus commercial practicality. There's also a nice exploration of Poppy's character as she moves from a technical role to a leadership one, and struggles with that move.

Once again, the show throws an out-of-format curveball that ends up being brilliant, this time in the form of a two-parter. The first part, Backstory, is set entirely in the 1970s and sees the young Carl "C.W." Longbottom struggling to become a science fiction writer. The episode is another brilliantly-written stand-alone, with guest appearances by SF authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury (all played by actors, natch) and a somewhat maudlin ending. The second half, Peter, set in the present day, sees the older C.W. trying to reconnect with some of the people from that time period and making an awful job of it. Particularly admirable is the way the two-parter avoids the cliche of C.W. "growing and learning" or becoming a better person or confessing the rather horrendous secret he's been carrying around for so long. Instead the show has the confidence to let C.W.'s actions speak for themselves.

The season rounds off with an unexpected, but logically-set-up, finale. It surprisingly feels more like a series finale than a season cliffhanger, with almost every character in motion, being fired, getting a new role, being promoted, or even being arrested.

The second season of Mythic Quest (****½), like the first, is well-written, well-acted and does some very good character work, except all better than the first season. The out-of-format sixth and seventh episodes are once again even stronger (*****), delivering exceptional performances and real pathos. The second season of Mythic Quest is streaming worldwide now on Apple TV+. A third and fourth season have been commissioned.

Tuesday 22 March 2022

Star Trek: Lower Decks - Season 2

Ensign Brad Boimler has been promoted off the USS Cerritos to join the hyper-competent, super-efficient crew of the USS Titan under the infamous Captain William T. Riker. Meanwhile, the Cerritos crew find themselves once again tackling the bizarre, strange and often underwhelming threats that more important ships are too busy to deal with.

The first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks was a breath of fresh air, an animated comedy show that understands humour but also understands Star Trek, creating a comedic series within that universe which does not disrespect it. Through solid writing, nice characterisation and restrained fanservice, the show produced easily the best debut season of a Star Trek series since at least 1993 (if not 1966).

The second season continues in this vein. The writing is sharper and funnier, and the clever in-depth references to prior episodes come even thicker and faster. There are more long-running character and story arcs, although the show does a great job of making each episode stand alone even if you're not intimately familiar with the franchise. There's a nice line in experimentation this season as well, such as an episode extending the Lower Decks "format" to a Klingon and Vulcan ship.

There's also a good distribution of the stories this year. Boimler and Mariner still have lots to do, but it feels like Rutherford, Tendi and the bridge crew have more time in the sun as well, along with recurring characters.

The show's originality does perhaps flag a little at times. One episode sees the crew dealing with a constantly-duplicating alien, which feels a bit like a Rick & Morty episode (Rick & Morty and Lower Decks share some creative staff). A couple of gags perhaps don't land like they should. But these are relatively rare issues.

The second season of Star Trek: Lower Decks (****½) is funny but also good Star Trek,with heart, humour and some great character moments. The season is available now on Paramount+ in the USA and on Amazon Prime Television across much of the rest of the world.

Hugh Grant denies being the new DOCTOR WHO

British newspaper reports have been swirling for several days that British actor Hugh Grant has been cast as the next Doctor Who. Grant shot down the reports today, confirming he had not been cast.

Speculation as to the identity of the next Doctor Who has been rampant ever since Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker confirmed she would be leaving last July, alongside showrunner Chris Chibnall. Both have been in place since 2018, producing three seasons and three New Year specials between them. Two more specials are due to air this year, the first possibly around Easter and the second around October.

Russell T. Davies, who previously resurrected the show back in 2005 and was in charge until he departed at the start of 2010, is returning as showrunner. The show is also moving to being an independent production at Bad Wolf Studios, rather than an inhouse BBC production, which should allow for more efficient spending and planning of the series.

There has been plenty of speculation over who the new Doctor could be, with musician Olly Alexander and actors Lydia West, T'Nia Miller, Michael Sheen and Rhys Ifans mooted. One of the more prominent and enduring rumours is that David Tennant, who played the Tenth Doctor between 2005 and 2010, may return in some fashion. This would be either for the 60th Anniversary Special in November 2023, or as the Fourteenth Doctor, with his unexpected return driving the plot for several episodes before he is replaced by a more permanent Fifteenth Doctor.

Hugh Grant is most famous for his starring roles in the comedies Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), Bridge Jones's Diary (2001), About a Boy (2002) and Love Actually (2003). He also appeared in numerous costume dramas, such as The Remains of the Day (1993) and Sense and Sensibility (1995). Grant experienced a career lull in the late 2000s, but in the 2010s began rebuilding himself in against-type experimental roles, such as Cloud Atlas (2012). He returned to prominence with roles in Paddington 2 (2017), The Gentlemen (2019) and the TV series A Very English Scandal (2018) and The Undoing (2020).

At 61, Grant would be the oldest actor ever cast as the Doctor, six years older than William Hartnell and Peter Capaldi when they were cast (in 1963 and 2013 respectively). It is known that Davies envisages a tonal reset of the show upon his return, trying to recapture the "blockbuster" tone he brought to the property in 2005 but with a modern update. It does feel like casting an older Doctor might be against that, as compared to the likes of Tennant, Matt Smith and Christopher Eccleston, who were all younger and had something more of an action role. It's also unclear if Grant would want to interrupt his film career renaissance with an infamously punishing TV schedule that would lead him little time to pursue other projects.

The next series of Doctor Who is already deep in pre-production, with shooting expected to start in the near future, so presumably the new Doctor will be announced before then, as it'll be impossible to keep their identity secret once filming begins.

Monday 21 March 2022

CD Projekt confirms a new WITCHER game is in development

CD Projekt have teased a new Witcher video game project, with the byline "The Witcher: A New Saga Begins."

Not much else is known about the project - especially since CDPR's own website has crashed, possibly due to traffic - but it appears to be a new, full game in the series, following on from the 2015 release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, one of the most acclaimed CRPGs of all time.

Based on Andrzej Sapkowski's seven-book series (recently adapted for television by Netflix), the three Witcher games were released in 2007, 2011 and 2015 and have cumulatively sold over 50 million copies. The games act as a possible continuation of the novel series, featuring the further adventures of the Witcher, Geralt, his adopted daughter Ciri and the sorceresses Triss Merigold and Yennefer. The second expansion for The Witcher 3, Blood and Wine, released in 2016, acted as a conclusion and coda to the series.

The new game, possibly the start of a series, is not expected to focus on Geralt, and may allow players to create their own Witcher rather than forcing them to play a pre-generated character. The game also marks a major technical shift, with CDPR using Unreal Engine 5 as part of a "multi-year strategic partnership" with Epic Games, rather than continuing to develop their own propriety REDengine.

CDPR are continuing to refine, revise and develop Cyberpunk 2077, their SF CRPG which was released in a technically poor state in late 2020. Recent updates have improved the game and CDPR are working on several expansions to the game which they hope to release this year or in 2023.

No release date for the new Witcher project has been mooted, although CDPR did acknowledge the eight-year gap between announcing and releasing Cyberpunk 2077 was a huge mistake, and subsequent gaps between announcement and release will be shorter.

Saturday 19 March 2022

The Last Kingdom: Season 5

AD 917. Many years of peace have endured between the Saxons and Danes. However, the return of the vengeful Danish leader Brida, former lover and now sworn enemy of Uhtred, upsets the peace, as does the ambitions of King Edward of Wessex to finally unite all of England under his rule. Uhtred has to carefully manage politics and war as he seeks to restore the peace and find a safe haven for his family.

Over the course of five seasons, The Last Kingdom has secured its position as one of the most watchable, entertaining swords 'n' beards series on television. Adapting Bernard Cornwell's novel series of the same name, the show has used brisk pacing, an excellent cast and some epic battles (on a not-so-epic budget) to tell a story of stirring politics and war in 9th and 10th Century Britain.

The fifth season of The Last Kingdom is the last, adapting the ninth and tenth books in the series: Warriors of the Storm and The Flame Bearer. The final three books in the series have instead been replaced in the adaptation by a single TV movie, Seven Kings Must Die, to follow later this year or early next. The decision to end the series in a different way to the books makes a fair bit of sense. In the books, Uhtred is around 60 years old during the events of this season (the actor playing him is only 39) and in his seventies at the end of the series, so ending at this point is a reasonable decision, especially as the ending of the story here brings the entire series around in a satisfying full circle.

The season also integrates the plots of the two books together, so rather than a fairly obvious mid-season shift in gears, the story organically moves from one storyline to the other. In the first, various factions trigger an end to the Danish-Saxon peace, resulting in a renewed conflict which the major leaders don't really want. Uhtred is invaluable here as he free-wheels between the two camps, trying to maintain peace whilst finding those really responsible for the chaos. This evolves into a larger-scale story as King Edward takes advantage of an opportunity to take more power in England, giving Uhtred a window of opportunity to realise a lifelong dream.

The 10-episode season unfolds at a brisk pace, the cast is as strong as ever, and there's a melancholic air to proceedings as Uhtred tries to keep his family - now grown up, married or with commitments of their own - together in the face of their own wishes and the whims of history. The nicely nuanced characterisation of the previous season, which saw Aelswith move from an antagonist of Uhtred's to reluctant ally, continues and is improved upon here. The battles are also stronger than Season 4's, which were underwhelming.

There are weaknesses. Uhtred suffering a setback, getting annoyed and then winning an unlikely victory is a trope we've seen before. Adrian Schiller is a fine actor but making his Aethelhelm (the most obvious "enemy within" ever) the main antagonist of the second half of the series feels a bit drawn out. A forbidden romance between Edward and a noblewoman named Eadgifu (a fine Sonya Cassidy) starts strongly and then kind of stalls. Wihtgar (Ossian Perret) is an underwhelming secondary villain. The lack of ageing makeup for any of the actors in the series is also increasingly bizarre, reaching comical heights in scenes where Aelswith (28-year-old Elisa Butterworth) is in deep conversation with her daughter Aethelflaed (28-year-old Millie Brady) and granddaughter Aelfwynn (22-year-old Phia Saban). But from a production standpoint, I get why they wanted to minimise such things.

The fifth and final season of The Last Kingdom (****) is not perfect, but it delivers a rousing finale to an enjoyable run. The show is available to watch on Netflix now.

Next Esslemont MALAZAN novel gets a name change and delayed release date

The Ten Very Big Books Podcast has hosted an interview with Ian Cameron Esslemont, co-creator of the Malazan universe (with Steven Erikson). Esslemont confirms that his next Malazan novel, hitherto known as The Jhistal, is now called Forge of the High Mage.

In the Edelweiss Catalogue, the book's entry has been updated with the new title and a new release date: April 6, 2023. However, that date may just be a placeholder, with Esslemont saying in the interview that the book should be out "this year."

Last year, it was confirmed that Esslemont had sold over a million books and had been contracted for three more books in his Path to Ascendancy series - with Forge of the High Mage now serving as Book 4 - although it looks now like the release dates for all three were on the optimistic side of things.

Esslemont's colleague Steven Erikson is also writing two new Malazan novels: Walk in Shadow, the final book in The Kharkanas Trilogy, and No Life Forsaken, the second book in the Witness Trilogy.

Christopher Lloyd joins THE MANDALORIAN

Lucasfilm have cast legendary comedic actor Christopher Lloyd in the third season of The Mandalorian.

Lloyd is best-known for his co-starring role as Dr. Emmett Brown in the Back to the Future movie trilogy alongside Michael J. Fox (plus a cameo in A Million Ways to Die in the West), as well as his role on the sitcom Taxi (1978-83) and the films One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Clue (1985). He also starred as the villain in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and has recently co-starred in the move Nobody (2021).

The third season of The Mandalorian is currently shooting and is expected to air later this year. Lucasfilm will launch Obi-Wan Kenobi on 25 May and Rogue One spin-off Andor in the meantime.

Friday 18 March 2022

Star Trek: Discovery - Season 4

The USS Discovery has been upgraded and integrated into the Starfleet of the 32nd Century. As the crew continue trying to adjust to life a thousand years into their future, they also face a new threat: a vast storm of energy, capable of destroying entire star systems. The Discovery crew try to discover the source of the storm and how to communicate with those who created it...if that is even possible.

Star Trek: Discovery is the show that has, for three seasons solid, given with one hand and taken away with the other. Exemplary casting, some great ideas and some great effects are constantly undercut by murky writing, chunky exposition, most character development taking place offscreen, and people constantly busting into tears for no immediately discernible reason, before the story nosedives towards its end into incoherence.

Season 3 saw a small but sustained uptick in quality. Pleasingly, Season 4 continues with that upward trajectory. We are presented with a huge, "proper SF" mystery which Discovery and her crew have to tackle through scientific research and careful deliberation, as well as diplomacy when the scale of the problem becomes clear. The result is a break with the tendency of the first three seasons to resort to firing phasers and solving problems with explosions. There are still some action beats, but these are more restrained and more Star Trek-y, for lack of a better term, than previously. Early episodes dealing with the mysterious artefact and attempts to penetrate or disable it recall Star Trek: The Motion Picture's dealings with the alien cloud V'Ger.

The show makes better use of its ensemble cast. Prior seasons had been very firmly "the Michael Burnham Show" but this season brings other characters to the fore. Saru gets a new role and a potential relationship, Tilly gets a new job (better-suited to her than her role last season), Stamets and Culber have much less intense issues to deal with, and Booker gets his own storyline separate from Michael's. Even the lesser-known bridge crew get a few more scenes in the sun this season, and more of a sense of Discovery as a community which has often been achingly missing in prior episodes.

As the season unfolds, it develops several simultaneously-developing storylines. Diplomatic relations with United Earth and Vulcan form key parts of the story, with entire episodes dedicated to overcoming diplomatic hurdles without so much as a phaser in sight. It's like watching a stronger 1989 episode of TNG all over again. There's also the attempts to find and then make contact with the aliens, which tap into the spirit of 2016 movie Arrival, and a subplot revolving around new character Dr. Ruon Tarka (a splendid performance by The Expanse's Shawn Doyle) who becomes something of an antagonist, but an unusually fleshed-out one. Discovery has struggled more than most shows in making a story arc justify a full season, but here they succeed, dividing the season nicely into beats in the larger story.

Even making Michael Captain works much better than expected. As a constantly mutinous and insubordinate officer, her character never really made sense. As a more cooperative and instead "nontraditional" captain, recalling the off-kilter inventiveness of Captain Kirk, the character suddenly comes to life in a way she didn't in prior seasons. It also helps that she's now only whispering about a tenth of her lines rather than half of them.

Problems still remain: murky and unclear CGI, some rather unlikely coincidences and plot contrivances, the show suddenly making a big deal of characters you don't really know anything about because they've never had much development, and some occasional leaps in plot logic. But these are constrained and indeed minor compared to the previous seasons.

Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery (****) is easily the best season of the show to date, with an intriguing central storyline which unfolds in a compelling manner, with solid characterisation and a renewed dedication to Star Trek ideals that was lacking in the first few seasons. The show retains some of its earlier problems, but significantly moderated. It may have taken a long time, but Discovery is finally starting to realise its potential. The season is available now in the USA via Paramount+ and on various platforms in other countries.

Thursday 17 March 2022

Doctor Who: Series 11 (Season 37)

The newly-regenerated Thirteenth Doctor crashes to Earth and makes new friends, beginning a new series of adventures in time and space.

The eleventh series of the revitalised Doctor Who aired in 2018 and marked the second major refresh of the show's creative team since the new show started airing in 2005. Jodie Whittaker became the first actress to canonically play the role of the Doctor, new companions were introduced, a new TARDIS set was built, a new filming style was adopted and Chris Chibnall took over as showrunner and head writer.

Chibnall's appointment caused consternation among Who fans. His work on Doctor Who itself had been highly variable in the past and his stint showrunning Torchwood was not particularly successful (resulting in Cyberwoman, one of the very worst episodes in the entire Doctor Who canon to date). However, some hope was raised due to the immense success of his critically-acclaimed mainstream drama, Broadchurch, also starring Whittaker.

The season opens with The Woman Who Fell to Earth, a busy episode which has to introduce both Whittaker's fast-talking Doctor and no less than three companions: Mandip Gill as Yasmin Khan, Tosin Cole as Ryan and Bradley Walsh as Graham O'Brien. It also sets up a recurring villain and a bunch of new format ideas, including a more epic filming style and new composer. For such a busy episode it does okay: the villain is a little bit silly and overwrought, but Sharon Clarke is excellent as Grace and the new companions all have a lot of promise. The Ghost Monument continues in this vein, with spectacular location shooting in South Africa and great guest actor support from Susan Lynch, Shaun Dooley and an underused Art Malik propping up a solid story about robots and a scavenger hunt, with the Doctor's missing TARDIS as the prize.

Rosa is the season's most notable episode, with the Doctor and her companions travelling to 1955 Alabama and meeting Rosa Parks. With two of the Doctor's companions being people of colour, it's a wrought episode balancing commentary on racism and social issues with an SF story of its own. There are splendid performances (particularly Vinette Robinson as Rosa) and a ticking sense of dread that doesn't come from aliens for once. However, the villain is quite spectacularly underwhelming and his motivations don't really stand up to scrutiny. The episode also struggles with balancing historical information with telling a strong narrative, rather than elegantly combining the two. It's good to see Who tackling a sensitive bit of history with the noblest of intentions, but the execution is flawed.

Arachnids in the UK is the season nadir, with the Doctor and team fighting alien spiders in Sheffield. What could have been a goofy, Russell T. Davies-esque lark turns into a painful slog in its second half. The Tsuranga Conundrum is better, with a stacked cast who have gone on to greater things (like Ted Lasso's Brett Goldstein), but the monstrous alien is inexplicably cute and the visuals don't really fit the horrible things it does, leading to an inconsistent episode.

Demons of the Punjab is the season highlight. Like Rosa it's taking a real historical event and mining it for story ideas and pathos. Unlike Rosa, the Partition of India is a much bigger event with lots of spaces to tell stories in it. The cast is absolutely outstanding, and the episode mixes the historical events with the SF elements much more successfully. One complaint is that the aliens are a bit too close to Testimony (from Twice Upon a Time) in their motivations.

Kerblam! feels like a 2007 Russell T. Davies script that's been dusted down and put into production, which is both good (it has a very winning RTD sense of charming whimsy) and bad (TV production in general and Who in particular have moved on from 2007). The analogies to Amazon are so on-the-nose it's painful and the eventual resolution is pat, but it is better-paced than most stories this season and the guest cast is solid.

The Witchfinders tries to be a gritty historical story about hunting down witches in early 17th Century Lancashire. However, it is let down by Alan Cumming's ridiculously hammy performance and the story not being anywhere near strong enough to support the length of the episode. After a promising start it runs out of steam and never regains it.

It Takes You Away starts off as a classic, creepy "haunted house" story centred on a rich performance by Ellie Wallwork as Hanne, before metamorphosing into a dimension-hopping lark and ending up as a surprisingly powerful reflection on grief and loss, with Bradley Walsh delivering his best performance as Graham. The shifts in tone and setting help overcome the pacing problems much of the season has struggled with, and the episode has a great atmosphere. I must admit the ending, where Hanne goes off with her father rather than him being arrested for child abandonment and neglect, is a bit odd though.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is the season finale and easily the weakest finale since the show's return in 2005. The episode starts off a bit too reminiscent of The Ghost Monument and then brings back the underwhelming and very cheesy villain from The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Guest stars Phyllis Logan, Percelle Ascott and Mark Addy all do great work, but the episode ping-pongs between different ideas and never really settles down into a good rhythm. Still, some good vfx.

Christmas special Resolution sees the Thirteenth Doctor confronting the Daleks again, or in this case, just one Dalek. The episode channels Series 1's Dalek in how it depicts a single Dalek as a formidable foe and something to be feared (I guess their intelligence drops the more of them are in a room), with a great sense of escalating menace and good guest performances by Daniel Adegboyega and Charlotte Ritchie. I'm not in love with the idea of Daleks being able to survive outside their casings for so long, though, or their ability to use humans as puppets.

The eleventh series of Doctor Who (***) is a mixed bag, and possibly its weakest season since its return. The decision not to have an over-arcing story for the entire season is a good one, allowing each episode to focus on its main storyline, but this is hampered by several episodes having weak stories. Chibnall fails to strongly characterise the Thirteenth Doctor in a way that makes her stand out from her predecessors (beyond the obviously superficial) and the decision to have a regular cast of four, although a good one for filming practicalities (previous Doctors had complained about their absurd screen time resulting in serious exhaustion), also dilutes characterisation. Nobody is able to get good development because the episodes are too crammed. The actors are all great, but they're not the best-served by the scripts. There is also a recurring problem with pacing, with several episodes feeling repetitive, leaden and drawn-out over far too long a period.

Still, several solid episodes and the very impressive new filming style mean that the season is not a complete write-off. The season is available to watch on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on HBO Max in the USA.

11.1: The Woman Who Fell to Earth (***½)
11.2: The Ghost Monument (***½)
11.3: Rosa (***)
11.4: Arachnids in the UK (**)
11.5: The Tsuranga Conundrum (***)
11.6: Demons of the Punjab (****½)
11.7: Kerblam! (***)
11.8: The Witchfinders (**)
11.9: It Takes You Away (***½)
11.10: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (**½)
11X: Resolution (***)