Friday 29 April 2022

ROBOTECH movie gets new director, renewed momentum

The live-action movie adaptation of the Robotech animated series sounds like it's getting back on track again, with a new director lined up to helm the project. Rhys Thomas, who recently helmed the Hawkeye TV show for Disney+, is now in line to take on the project.

Robotech aired in the United States in 1985, having been assembled from three unrelated Japanese anime series (Macross, Southern Cross and Mospeada) to tell a new story unfolding across three different generations. The first, and most popular, chapter tells the story of an alien spacecraft (the Superdimensional Fortress or SDF-1) crash-landing on Earth in 1999. Its arrival galvanises humanity to work together to unlock the potential of the alien technology and rebuild it to defend the planet, in case its creators came looking for it. Ten years later that happens when the alien Zentraedi attack the planet in an attempt to retake the spacecraft. In an attempt to avoid destruction, the vessel accidentally hyperjumps to the orbit of Pluto, burning out the hyperdrive in the process, and has to make its way back to Earth under normal engine power over two years. The jump also maroons 50,000 civilians in the ship's hold, resulting in tensions between the civilian administration and the military commanders. Eventually the crew of the SDF-1 defeat the Zentraedi with the help of a fifth column of alien sympathisers. In the subsequent series, other aliens arrive on Earth in search of the missing spacecraft, only to get embroiled in further conflicts.

Robotech was hugely popular in the mid-1980s and, alongside the earlier Voltron, arguably helped create the market for anime in the United States which exploded in subsequent years. However, attempts to continue the story with sequel series have proven unsuccessful. Later anime fans were also unhappy with the editing of three separate series into a new story, instead preferring to watch the original versions. Most contentiously, Harmony Gold, the American distributors and creators of the show, blocked the release of the numerous Macross sequel and prequel series in the USA for fear of diluting the Robotech brand. Recently, however, this hurdle was apparently overcome and plans are now underway to bring the full Macross franchise to an American release.

A live-action film project has been grinding forwards since 2007, when Tobey Mcguire was involved as a producer and actor, with Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan working on a script. In 2013 Nic Mathieu was in line to direct. In 2015 the project was refreshed with Sony picking up the rights, before recruiting The Fast and the Furious director James Wan to direct. In 2018 he was replaced by IT director Andy Muschietti but the project then seemed to run aground on legal issues over the rights to the project.

In 2019 Tatsunoko Productions, the Japanese rights-holders of the three original anime series, and Harmony Gold, reached a new agreement related to distribution and production. One of the primary reasons for the deal was to clear the way for a live-action film to boost the profile of the source material, so it's unsurprising that the film project is now back on track. The reason for the three-year delay is, of course, the pandemic which derailed so many projects. Last year Harmony Gold and the animation studios who created the original series reached a new deal to re-release both Robotech and the original Japanese versions of the series for fresh audiences.

The current version of the project has a script by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (Iron Man, Uncharted) and is being produced by Mark Canton and Gianni Nunnari. Sony are still on board to produce. It'll be interesting to see if this iteration of the project moves forwards after so many disappointments in the past.

Gilmore Girls: The Complete Series

Stars Hollow, Connecticut, 2000. Lorelai Gilmore had her daughter Rory at 16 and, overcoming family opprobrium, has succeeded as the manager of a popular inn. Rory herself is now turning 16 and, anxious to give her opportunities she missed out on, Lorelai arranges for her to join a prestigious private school. With funding an issue, she reluctantly asks her rich parents for help. They agree, with the condition that Lorelai and Rory join them for dinner every Friday night. Although this helps the family heal from their problems, it also introduces new issues...and opportunities.

A while back I was in need of a new show to watch that was, in my words, "fluffy and not heavy." After some persuasion, I decided to give Gilmore Girls a go.

Gilmore Girls is a drama-comedy series which ran for seven seasons and 153 episodes from 2000 to 2007 (with a short-lived revival in 2016, which I'll cover separately). The show was created and showrun by Amy Sherman-Palladino, more recently responsible for the hugely successful The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon.  The show is primarily focused on three generations of the Gilmore family: single mother Lorelai (Lauren Graham), her teenage daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel), and her rich parents Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Richard (Edward Herrmann). The show expands over its run to become an ensemble piece, mainly drawing on the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut and populating it with a large number of colourful, larger-than-life characters.

Over its run the show concerns itself with three storylines. The main through-line is Rory's growth from a 16-year-old schoolgirl to a 22-year-old college graduate looking for her first job. The second is Lorelai becoming a businesswoman and entrepreneur despite various setbacks. The love lives of both characters receive a lot of attention, with both of them going through multiple partners, marriage proposals and love triangles in search of finding a lasting relationship. The third is the fractious relationship between the two younger Gilmores and Lorelai's parents, who are rich and generous but also snobbish, controlling and sometimes judgemental. Lorelai gave birth at 16 and, overwhelmed by her parents' shame and judgement, moved out and made a new life and family for herself in Stars Hollow, where she flourished. Much of the show's length is dominated by their slow-burning rapprochement despite them constantly relitigating past wrongs.

That description makes the show sound far heavier than it is. For most of its run, Gilmore Girls is much lighter than that. The show's killer app is its witty, quick-fire, fast-paced dialogue, a Sherman-Palladino trademark. The show laces laconic humour with cultural references which will still raise a chuckle amongst older viewers, though younger ones may be lost by the volume of references to movies from the 1950s and 1960s. The show's writing style is oddly reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sherman-Palladino, like Joss Whedon, cut her teeth on Roseanne), to the point that it sometimes feels like Buffy if you cut out all the supernatural stuff and focused on the school, college and relationship dramas. Oddly, that still works and makes for an entertaining show (albeit one with far less kickboxing vampires).

Witty dialogue only carries you so far, with the show living and dying on its longer-running storylines. These tend to be somewhat soapy, but are helped by the producers tending to group storylines within seasons, with one arc per season before setting up a new paradigm the following season. The seasons lasting 22 episodes each (21 for the first season) means each arc gets a fair amount of development and exploration before moving on. For the first few seasons, the show is extremely adept at fleshing out the characters and developing them and their situations to make for surprisingly compelling viewing.

It helps that the show avoids the mistake of treating its protagonists as saints. Lorelai and Rory are both flawed people and bring some of their mistakes on themselves, which they they have to learn from to improve. Lorelai's cutting humour is entertaining, but she struggles to keep it under control at times and offends people when it's used inappropriately. Both characters can also be flighty in their relationships, constantly reluctant to shut down one possibility to commit to another. Rory is also, in her own words, "spoilt" (especially after reuniting with her grandparents, who dote on her), and some of her problems stem from being protected from the full consequences of her actions. A controversial mid-series storyline where Rory has an affair with a married man is not well-handled, although it's not helped by the other actor involved getting another job, leaving the storyline unresolved. A well-explored idea is the juxtaposition between Lorelai, who had to achieve everything herself and succeeded, and Rory, who has much more support but sometimes struggles to work out what it is that she wants.

The two protagonists are well-developed and well-written and make for engaging enough leads (although arguably Rory does become the more grating of the two, especially in the penultimate season), but they are supported by a huge cast of excellent, entertaining supporting characters. Most important are Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann as Emily and Richard Gilmore, who are both excellent. Melissa McCarthy has a pre-stardom role as Lorelai's best friend and super-chef Sookie St. James, whilst Rory's best friend Lane (Keiko Agena) evolves from a sheltered Christian girl with a side-passion for rock music into a drummer in a band. Luke Danes (Scott Patterson) is the show's frequent voice of reason amidst all the insanity erupting around him, although Michel Gerard (Yanic Truesdale), Lorelai's snobbish co-worker, has a lot of comic potential which is unrealised. Liza Weil as Paris Geller is probably the show's most underrated player, evolving from Rory's sworn nemesis at school into a frenemy and then a trusted ally, if a rather idiosyncratic one.

The show also features a number of excellent turns from before-they-were-famous actors: Jared Padalecki (Supernatural) has a long-running role as Rory's first boyfriend Dean (a name more ironic in retrospect), whilst Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes, This is Us) plays Luke's nephew Jess. Sean Gunn (the Guardians of the Galaxy movies) has the best role, that of hapless town everyman and scene-stealer Kirk, who is forever changing jobs and engaging in bizarre money-making schemes.

The show's other strength is its depiction of its fictional small town setting. Stars Hollow is idyllic but increasingly bizarre, partaking of increasingly odd festivals and holidays. The town soon becomes as iconic to the show as Springfield is to The Simpsons, Sunnydale is to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pawnee is to Parks & Recreation. It is completely unrealistic - the town is tiny but can afford to throw huge and insane events at the drop of a hat - but it helps add to the It's a Wonderful Life vibe of an idealised Americana that the show is going for.

Where the show falters is its length. Although seven seasons is the standard length for a long-running US TV show, most of them have maybe a bit more stuff going on than Gilmore Girls. It does feel like the show has exhausted most of its story possibilities by the midpoint of Season 5, with Rory at university, Lorelai and her ideal boyfriend hooked up and most people's lives going pretty well. The show makes the mistake at this point of coming up with more and more contrived reasons to upset the applecart. Rory and Lorelai spend part of Season 6 not speaking, destroying the central relationship of the show for no real good reason, and then the show pulls the "hitherto unknown child" card on a character like it's a soap opera in its sixteenth year. Season 6 ends awfully, not helped by Sherman-Palladino quitting due to workload. Season 7 has the other writers performing emergency surgery to rescue things and the show does end quite well (albeit with a reduction in witty dialogue), but clearly not according to the original plan. That plan - for better or worse - was eventually executed in the follow-up mini-series, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, which will be covered elsewhere.

The show also falters at other moments: Milo Ventimiglia is a great actor but Jess is written far too negatively in his early appearances and becomes a more likeable, relatable character only after he leaves the show as a regular (he does recur very intermittently in later seasons and in the revival). A storyline in Season 5 about the town selectman election is very abruptly abandoned with no resolution. Arguably Lane Kim's issues with her mother are resolved a little too easily. Those problems are at least fairly minor and can be overlooked in the long run.

Gilmore Girls (****) is, for most of its length, a witty and funny show with satisfying character arcs, which benefits from making the characters more complex and deeper than they may first appear. The show delves into ideals of family and relationships in a quite entertaining manner. Like most shows lasting for over 150 episodes, it does sometimes struggle to maintain the quality and there are big swings in the story in the penultimate season which are irritating, but it does pull it together for an effective conclusion. The show is available to watch worldwide on Netflix now.

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

Thursday 28 April 2022

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

An island has appeared in the Circle Sea, roughly halfway between Ankh-Morpork and the great empire of Klatch. This of course makes it Strategically Important, with both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch eager to use force to back their claim. One problem: Ankh-Morpork has no army (standing or otherwise), no money to hire mercenaries and no equipment to use (because they've sold it all to Klatch). For Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and now a reluctant noble with the right to lead a company of men (and misc.), this is just the first problem he has to overcome. But not to worry, it'll all be over by Hogswatch.

Terry Pratchett brought many subjects under the microscope of his forensic satire during his long career. Small Gods, possibly his single finest novel, angrily but intelligently dissected the evils of religious fundamentalism and how it perverts faith into a force of destruction. Seeing Pratchett bring that same kind of analysis to war - the "last refuge of the incompetent" as Isaac Asimov said - is an interesting prospect.

Unfortunately, Pratchett isn't quite able to marshal the same level of eloquent, witty rage in this novel, the twenty-first in the Discworld series. This is mainly down to the book's structure. For the first two-thirds, it proceeds as a City Watch procedural in much the same vein as its three excellent predecessors, Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms and Feet of Clay. Whilst the war drums are beating, a crime takes place in Ankh-Morpork and Vimes and his officers hit the streets, following a trail to solve the crime but also hopefully stave off the war. However, in the latter third of the novel it turns into a road trip to the front, which is where the narrative starts wobbling.

There are some nice ideas in this latter part of the novel - the Patrician, Nobbs and Colon making for the most unlikely buddy team-up ever - but it does feel disjointed, like a Rincewind novel has crashed and merged into a City Watch novel towards the end. This isn't helped by some potentially amusing one-page gags (Nobbs going undercover in a harem as a woman) getting drawn out past their natural lifespan to the point of tedium. It also doesn't help that, for once, other people are ahead of Vimes and he ends up being very reactive to events through the book, only regaining his equilibrium when the book is pretty much over.

I suspect part of the problem is that once he'd hit on the "Discworld goes to war," theme, Pratchett didn't really have anywhere to take the idea. War is bad, sure, but that's pretty much obvious, and of course the situation is often more nuanced than that: defending yourself from an aggressor is a necessity. Pratchett is specifically calling out pointless wars over strategic spits of land that don't remotely justify the blood spilled, and once that point is (eloquently) made, he doesn't have a huge amount more to say, resulting in the book becoming a succession of knockabout, madcap scenes. Some are funny and work well, some not so much.

Jingo (***½) is two-thirds of a great Discworld novel about the City Watch, but that story runs out of steam and transforms into being a knockabout travelogue adventure. The main theme of war being bad is effectively explored, but Pratchett's deeper, more thoughtful examination of his central idea is here missing. The book is fine, but disjointed. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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

AVATAR 2 gets new title and drops first footage behind closed doors

The long, long-gestating Avatar sequel has dropped its first footage (not for public consumption yet, though). Under conditions of high secrecy, attendees at CinemaCon in Las Vegas got to see several minutes of material. It is believed some of this material will be publicly released as the film's first trailer in a couple of weeks.

The sequel - the first of four films to follow on from the 2009 original - is now entitled Avatar: The Way of Water. The film returns to the moon of Pandora and the Na'vi, but will focus on a new coastal region where original film protagonists Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have relocated and spent years living in peace, raising a new family. The film will feature extensive underwater photography and filming.

Director James Cameron has spent most of the last decade working on the sequel project, with early development starting after Avatar's hugely successful release in 2009, when it became the highest-grossing movie of all time (displacing the previous record-holder, Cameron's 1997 film Titanic). Avatar temporarily lost the crown to Avengers: Endgame in 2019 but regained it in 2021 thanks to a limited re-release.

Press and public opinion over the sequels has become divided, with Avatar routinely derided for its lack of a long-term impact on popular culture and a storyline that felt over-familiar, and many predicting the sequels would struggle to make any impact at the box office. However, others have advised betting against James Cameron, who has arguably never made a wrong move in his career and frequently achieved massive, smash-hit successes despite difficult shoots and technological limitations. The last two sequels Cameron made were Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), which are formidable precedents.

Avatar: The Way of Water has a reported budget of $250 million, meaning it will likely have to do $750 million to break even (assuming a large marketing and merchandising campaign, which seems probable). Cinemas may have to upgrade their 3D equipment to show the film in its best light, which is an unwelcome expense following on from difficult times during the pandemic. Theatre chains are wary after the 3D boom following the release of Avatar a decade ago, which was a mixed success for them, and the likely fact that the only films that will push 3D in the same way are The Way of Water's three sequels. Still, the argument has also been made that offering a genuinely new, fresh experience that pushes things forward like Avatar did in 2009 could help cinemas rebound amidst increased competition from streaming.

Avatar itself has been "remastered" and will hit cinemas on 23 September this year, with Avatar: The Way of Water to follow on 16 December. Avatar 3, 4 and 5 are scheuled to follow on 20 December 2024, 18 December 2026 and 22 December 2028.

Changes for the WALKING DEAD and DUNE TV series

The Walking Dead is gearing up to end its run, but there are changes afoot for its spin-off shows.

As noted previously, AMC is planning a number of new spin-off shows from The Walking Dead, beyond the existing Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: World Beyond. The first of the new spin-offs was planned to focus on the characters of Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) after the events of the series. This is significant as McBride and Reedus are the only Season 1 regulars still on the show in its final season, and arguably are the two most popular characters and actors on the series.

However, Melissa McBride has now withdrawn from the project due to scheduling issues. Unlike the existing shows, which film principally in Georgia in the United States, the new show will shoot in Europe for cost-saving reasons. McBride is unable to relocate to Europe for the required filming dates. As a result, the new show is being rejigged to focus on Daryl only.

Anthology series Tales of the Walking Dead is currently shooting and a further spin-off, Isles of the Dead, which will see Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) relocating to a ruined New York City, is in pre-production.

Meanwhile, HBO Max is continuing to develop Dune: The Sisterhood, a Bene Gesserit-focused spin-off from the movies directed by Denis Villeneuve. The series was due to have Villeneuve direct its first two episodes, but the proposed filming dates clash, ironically, with those for the film Dune: Part Two. Chernobyl and Breaking Bad director Johan Renck has been picked to replace him.

Sunday 24 April 2022

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Murderbot has acquired data vital to the legal case between the Preservation Alliance and the GrayCris corporation, but quickly discovers that their old friends in the Alliance are in hot water. Diverting to a GrayCris stronghold, Murderbot discovers they need to rescue their comrades and defeat the security forces of one of the most powerful corporations in known space, whilst preserving their evidence.

Exit Strategy is the fourth novella in The Murderbot Diaries series and brings the events of the first four books to a head. Our titular hero starts off already on a mission, bringing the evidence it acquired during the events of Rogue Protocol to its allies, only to find that they already being held over a barrel by GrayCris's legal and security teams. This prompts Murderbot to intervene and face seemingly insurmountable odds.

Martha Wells changes up a few things in the series in this book, which is good as some predictability was threatening to set in. Murderbot is rescuing people who know they are a rogue AI and going up against enemies who know they are a rogue AI, so their normal paranoia about protecting their true identity is less of an issue this time around (at least after they go public, they need to stay stealthy until then). This time Murderbot is also going into a situation knowing who the enemy is and what they are prepared to do to achieve their ends, rather than going in blind to a hazardous situation. This gives Murderbot some preparation time and it's fun seeing how they stake out the situation, establish fallback plans and gather resources for the operation.

There's also a nice deepening of Murderbot's characterisation. They are reuniting with the first humans who learned their true nature and accepted it, something that they still feel a bit uneasy about because it means having to learn to trust humans, who aren't the most trustworthy of people. How Murderbot squares their desire for some kind of community with their paranoia and (mostly justified) fear of being dissected has been an underlying theme since the first book, but becomes more dominant here.

The result is a satisfying story, being sharply-written, well-characterised and to the point, with little flab. It's still a short book, but Wells packs in a lot of meat here, with corporate espionage, comedic exchanges and satisfying combat all wrapped into a compact package.

Exit Strategy (****) changes up the Murderbot formula as it threatened to become predictable, and the result is another focused, fun slice of SF. It is available now in the US and on import in most other territories.

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

Saturday 23 April 2022

WHEEL OF TIME casts Aviendha for Season 2

Amazon's Wheel of Time adaptation has cast the key role of Aviendha for Season 2.

The fan-favourite character debuts in the third novel in the series, The Dragon Reborn and plays a key role in most of the rest of the series. Aviendha is a Maiden of the Spear, a member of the only female warrior society among the Aiel, who dwell in the desolate lands to the east of the main continent.

Actress Ayoola Smart is best-known for playing Audrey in Killing Eve, and has also appeared in Death in Paradise, Death in Paradise and Smother.

Season 2 of The Wheel of Time is in the last stages of shooting and is expected to debut on Amazon Prime in late 2022 or early 2023.

Blackbird Interactive reveals more information about HOMEWORLD 3

Blackbird Interactive and publishers Gearbox Software have revealed more information about Homeworld 3, their upcoming space-based real-time strategy game and infinite screenshot generator.

The companies have confirmed the contents of their Homeworld 3 Collector's Edition, which includes six model starships, a WW2-style "spotter's guide" to the ships of the game, a keychain and lithograph. Digital contents include a copy of the game, exclusive ship decals and icons, a Year One Pass and a copy of the Homeworld 3 soundtrack by the excellent Paul Ruskay. The Collector's Edition is available to preorder, for those who didn't back the Fig campaign of a couple of years ago.

Blackbird and Gearbox also confirmed that the game would revolve around the adventures of a new mothership, the Khar-Kushan. Unlike the previous two motherships, this one can "flip" from a horizontal to a vertical configuration, something that will be necessary for tight ship maneuvers in asteroid fields and around "megaliths," ancient alien structures that will form a core part of the gameplay in the new title.

Homeworld 3 is actually the fifth game in the series, following on from Homeworld (1999), stand-alone expansion Homeworld: Cataclysm (2000, retitled Emergence for a recent re-release), Homeworld 2 (2003) and prequel Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (2016). Homeworld and Homeworld 2 were re-released as the acclaimed Homeworld Remastered in 2015. The series follows the fortunes of the Kushan people after they discover their dying planet is not their original homeworld, and a wrecked starship in the desert contains technology and information that leads them to their real home, through a series of interstellar wars.

Homeworld 3 is currently slated for release this autumn, with Homeworld Mobile also due for release on iOS and Android before the end of the year. Blackbird's other big space game of the year, Hardspace: Shipbreaker, is due for release on 24 May.

All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay

Five years after the fall of Sarantium, the Jaddite world continues to argue over their inability to unite and retake the great city. However, an assassination in a coastal city of the Majriti, far to the west, sets in train a series of momentous events. At their heart is a Kindath trader and a young woman who was once abducted by corsairs. Surviving to adulthood, she has vowed vengeance on those who wronged her.

The arrival of a new Guy Gavriel Kay novel is an event to be celebrated. Every three years or so, a new Kay novel arrives. Established readers will have a sense of what to find: an erudite work of fantasy with beautiful, thoughtful prose. But the story and the historical parallels Kay delights in finding are always a surprise.

All the Seas of the Worlds can easily be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone novel, although it is also the third (and possibly concluding) book in a linked thematic trilogy, continuing from 2016's Children of Earth and Sky and 2019's A Brightness Long Ago (All the Seas of the World is set several years after A Brightness Long Ago and maybe twenty years before Children of Earth and Sky). All three books are also set in a larger world, also the setting for his classic 1995 novel The Lions of Al-Rassan, the Sarantine Mosaic duology (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) and his 2004 novel The Last Light of the Sun. Familiarity with Kay's work can enhance enjoyment of this novel, as you'll know who Folci d'Arcosi is and how he became so renowned, but the narrative is completely self-contained as it stands.

The historical analogues between the novel and real history are slighter this time (the 1535 conquest of Tunis may be one influence) and the focus is on two major protagonists. Rafel ben Natan is a Kindath corsair and merchant with a complicated family background. His friend and ally Lenia is a former slave of Asharite corsairs who is filled with anger towards her captors and a need for vengeance. However, as the novel continues, Lenia's experiences give her something more to live for than just the need for blood. Similarly, the political-religious situation with the Holy Patriarch of Rhodias angrily demanding vengeance for the fall of Sarantium slow changes to a more nuanced political situation with a politically canny substitute for that vengeance making itself known. Characterisation is Kay's greatest achievement, panting his characters as flawed but relatable colours and having them overcoming external challenges and their own doubts and insecurities in order to prosper.

All the Seas of the World is both a deeply personal novel, closely focused on two major protagonists and a number of minor ones (some recurring from A Brightness Long Ago, or precurring before Children of Earth and Sky), and also a hugely epic one. It may be the most epic novel Kay has written, spanning all the lands of the Middle Sea. Esperana - former Al-Rassan - makes its most significant showing in a Kay novel since The Lions of Al-Rassan itself, and we spend time with the King of Ferrieres, the rulers of multiple Majriti and Batiaran city-states, the exile ruler of Trakesia and even, briefly, the conqueror of Sarantium himself. Kay shows an adept facility for Game of Thrones-style realpolitik and a solid affinity for battles, but these are not the primary focus of his novels. Instead, he uses epic events to impact on the lives of ordinary people, or uses ordinary people to set in motion unexpected, epic events that reflect back on his characters.

It is not hyperbole to say that Kay has a claim to being one of our greatest living fantasy writers, if not the greatest - an opinion shared by the likes of George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson - and All the Seas of the World (*****) is one of his very strongest books. Characterisation, narrative and prose all work in near-perfect concert to deliver a formidable work of art, with a more prominent depiction of politics and warfare than some of his other works have delivered. The novel will be released on 17 May in both the UK, Canada and USA.

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

Friday 22 April 2022

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS movie gets title

The new Dungeons and Dragons live-action film has finally gotten a title. The film will be called Honor Among Thieves and will be released on 3 March, 2023.

The film stars Chris Pine, Justice Smith, Rege-Jean Page, Sophia Lillis, Michelle Rodriguez and Hugh Grant. The film is written and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. Relatively little is known about the movie, except it is set in the Forgotten Realms fantasy world and the city of Neverwinter will feature.

Two classic DUNGEONS & DRAGONS settings to return this year

Wizards of the Coast have confirmed they are resurrecting two classic Dungeons and Dragons settings from the 1980s and revamping them for the current 5th Edition of the tabletop roleplaying game.

The older and better-known of the two is Dragonlance. Originally appearing in print in 1984, Dragonlance melds the traditional fantasy adventuring of D&D with a Lord of the Rings-style epic over-plot. Set on the continent of Ansalon on the world of Krynn, the original Dragonlance campaign pitted the players against Takhisis, the multi-headed draconic goddess of evil, as she tried to conquer the world with her army of dragon-riding warriors. The campaign was adapted into the mega-bestselling Dragonlance Chronicles novel trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, which has now (along with several sequel series) sold over 30 million copies.

Despite the immense success of the original Dragonlance campaign and the ongoing success of the novel line, later editions of the campaign setting sold poorly. In 2003 it was outsourced to Margaret Weis's own company, Sovereign Press, where it enjoyed considerable renewed success as a setting for Dungeon & Dragons' 3rd Edition. In 2009 Wizards of the Coast revoked the licence, with the last tabletop material and the last novel for the setting appearing in that year. Despite various discussions, the setting languished unloved until last year, when it was confirmed that Weis and Hickman would be returning with a new Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Deceit, for publication later this year.

The new D&D material will comprise two products. The first, Shadow of the Dark Queen, is an adventure and setting book. The second, Warriors of Krynn, is a board game which will interface with the tabletop RPG experience and allow the player characters to recruit armies and fight in large battles, similar to the old Battlesystem expansion for D&D 2nd Edition. Warriors of Krynn is designed by Stephen Baker (the creator of the old Battle Masters miniatures wargame) and Rob Daviau, best-known for his work on the "Legacy" school of board games (like Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy). Both games will be set during the original War of the Lance time period.

More obscure, but potentially more interesting, is Spelljammer. Created by Jeff Grubb and originally appearing in 1989, Spelljammer introduced space travel to the D&D game. However, rather than mechanical spacecraft moving via physics, Spelljammer features elaborate craft resembling ocean-going galleons, huge pieces of coral or animals. Rather than flying through space as we know it, they traverse "wildspace," the space between planets, and the "phlogiston," the sea-like space between star systems. Spelljammer features a strong "Age of Sail" flavour, although the rules also allow for concepts like worlds with different atmospheres and different levels of gravity. A number of expansions, adventures and a series of novels were released for the setting.

Despite praise for the offbeat setting, it was discontinued at the end of 1992. Fan efforts were made to keep the setting going, and material in both the 3rd and 4th Editions of D&D referenced Spelljamming. The 5th Edition adventure Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage and the Early Access video game Baldur's Gate III both feature Spelljammers prominently, leading to speculation about the setting's return.

The setting is returning in force as well, with three books to be released simultaneously in August 2022 (available separately or in a boxed set). The Astral Adventurer's Guide is the new setting core rulebook, featuring rules on creating new characters and adventuring in the setting. Boo's Astral Menagerie is a guide to monsters and new races, featuring vampirates, sentient comets and space dragons, among many others. Wrapping things up is Light of Xaryxis, a 12-part epic adventure. The boxed set also contains a DM's screen and a fold-out map of the Rock of Bral, an asteroid located in orbit above Toril (the Forgotten Realms planet), the traditional starting place for Spelljammer adventures (though, as with the original game, you will likely be able to place the Rock of Bral wherever you like).

Tuesday 19 April 2022

Hawkeye: Season 1

Kate Bishop, a young archer and Hawkeye super-fan, unexpectedly teams up with her hero when Clint Barton finds himself embroiled in a criminal conspiracy in New York City. Clint and Kate have to investigate a mystery, defeat the bad guys, take care of a dog and make sure Clint gets home in time to have Christmas with his family.

A bit like the character of Black Widow, it feels like the Marvel Cinematic Universe has sometimes undervalued Clint "Hawkeye" Barton. Hawkeye has been hanging around, helping save the world since Thor (2011) but has played second fiddle to the space gods, guys in super-powered armour and giant green monsters. Just as the film Black Widow tried to right that wrong by giving Natasha more to do, so the Hawkeye mini-series tries to show Clint Barton some appreciation, and is fortunately much more successful.

Hawkeye is pure, knock-about fun. After the weirdness of WandaVision and Loki, this show gets back to basics. A guy with a bow and arrow solving problems in New York City, helped out by a new protege. The bad guys are criminals, there's no reshaping of the space/time continuum and there's a fair few other Marvel cameos and references to keep fans happy.

The show rests on the charisma of Hailee Steinfield as Kate Bishop and this is a good thing, because she has it in spades. Stanfield is irrepressible in her role as someone who becomes a superhero and has a huge amount of fun on it. Jeremy Renner starts off by delivering his normally effective-but-quiet performance as Barton, but is soon infected by his new partner's enthusiasm. His laconic humour kicks in and he shakes the blues of having to confront the deaths of some of his best friends to embrace his new role as a mentor.

Florence Pugh drops by as Yelena Belova, reprising her role from Black Widow, and is even better here, with a line in sparkling banter with Kate Bishop that makes you want a full buddy team-up TV show featuring the two of them. The rest of the supporting cast is also great, from Kate's ambitious mother to the members of the criminal gang known as the "Tracksuit Mafia," who are surprisingly keen on gossip and oversharing. Alaqua Cox is also very promising as Maya Lopez, who is slated for her own spin-off show, Echo. Of course, the dog is an instant big hit.

The show's tone sometimes gets a bit darker, but mostly is on the light side: it's a Christmas caper in New York City which is not as twee and annoying as it sounds. The pacing is solid, the humour mostly lands and the infectious performances of the main cast make for a fun time.

The main complaint - beyond that the show might be a bit too light and frothy for its own good - is that the determination to keep the main villain a secret until the final episode means that the villain gets very little development, and because it's unclear if their previous appearances actually happened or not (since they're a transplant from the Netflix Marvel show, whose canonical status is still a bit up in the air), it's hard to work out what's going on with them. The fact they are almost immediately defeated doesn't help with that.

Still, Hawkeye's first, and for now only, season (****) is a winner. It's fun and it doesn't outstay its welcome, at the cost of feeling maybe a little disposable at times. The show is available to watch now worldwide on Disney+.

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Loki: Season 1

Loki has escaped from the Battle of New York with the help of the Tesseract, which he recovered from a time-travelling band of Avengers. Loki's joy is short-lived when he is apprehended by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), which eliminates rogue elements that threaten the "Sacred Timeline." The variant Loki faces deletion until he proves his own usefulness, something that could make him a potential new agent for the TVA.

If the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe can be said to have one outstanding breakout character and actor, there's a strong chance most people would say it was Tom Hiddleston's Loki. Since his debut in 2011's Thor, Hiddleston's formidable acting jobs, superb comic timing, gravitas and ability to turn his performance on a dime has made him one of the most popular actors in the genre. It was fitting, after the length redemption arc he went through in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) that he was allowed to die heroically, fighting the evil Thanos, in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). But, Marvel being the canny exploiters of character popularity that they are, wasted no time in restoring Loki to the MCU via time travel in the following year's Avengers: Endgame. Loki lives!

Loki is the third TV show produced by Kevin Feige as part of the canonical Marvel Cinematic Universe (earlier TV shows, like those produced by Netflix, are in various stages of being retconned into the canon), following WandaVision and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, but it is the first planned to be a multi-season TV show rather than a mini-series (a second season is in pre-production). This allows the show more time to breathe, which is good because it has a lot going on.

Loki can be best-described as "the MCU does Doctor Who." Loki and his TVA colleagues get into various hijinks in time and space, with the TVA cleaning up damage to the timeline and restoring things so they make sense again. Loki is partnered up with Mobius, played with typical laconic charisma by Owen Wilson. Disappointingly, their partnership (played up in promo material) is not as dominant as might be expected, with Loki spending most of his time allied to Sylvie, a female variant of Loki from another timeline. Played exceptionally by Sophia Di Martino, Sylvie is a worthy foil for Loki with the two sharing a nice chemistry on-screen.

The episodic appeal of an MCU Doctor Who is briefly compelling but, aware it only has six episodes to get stuff done, the show quickly pivots into being a thorough exploration and deconstruction of Loki. "This" Loki missed the events of Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War, and as such has not gone through the redemption arc the original went through. This means that we are dealing with full-on supervillain Loki, apprehended whilst he was still in the middle of trashing New York City, and he has to undergo his own redemption arc. This risks being redundant but Marvel makes it work through sheer charisma - Hiddleston is still one of the heaviest weapons in the MCU arsenal and has possibly never been better than during this show - and also by underselling this Loki's villainy a little bit. It does feel like this Loki switches from villain to hero a bit too easily considering where he started, but given we've already seen Loki's capacity for good and also the need to get on with fresh business, the rapidity of his turn to good can be borne.

The latter half of the series gets a lot weirder and more epic, with multiple Lokis, various planets exploding or crashing into each other, more shifts in the timeline and huge revelations that should have an impact on the future of the MCU.

Negatives are minor: the tight, six-episode runtime means some ideas are under-serviced. A couple more episodes with Loki as a Time Cop could have been great, and the revelations at the end of the show risk feeling a little rushed. But the negatives are fairly minor.

Great pacing, effects and performances uplift one of the oddest and most interesting slices from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. Loki's first season (****½) is enjoyably odd. The season is available worldwide now on Disney+.

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

Sunday 17 April 2022

Two classic DOCTOR WHO companions to rejoin series for final 13th Doctor story

The BBC has confirmed that two of the most popular Doctor Who companions are to rejoin the show for the final story to feature Jodie Whittaker's Thirteenth Doctor, due to air in the autumn. Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred will reprise their roles as Tegan Jovanka and Dorothy "Ace" McShane onscreen for the first time since the 1980s.

Fielding played Tegan from 1981 to 1984, debuting in Fourth Doctor Tom Baker's final story Logopolis and remaining for almost the entire run of his successor, Peter Davison. She is the classic show's longest-running companion in terms of dates (though not episodes), marginally beating the run of Sarah Jane Smith (the late Elisabeth Sladen), who appeared several times during David Tennant's run and helmed her own spin-off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures. Tegan was an Australian air stewardess who inadvertently entered the TARDIS thinking it was a real police telephone box. She travelled with the Doctor for almost three years before quitting the TARDIS crew after the story Resurrection of the Daleks, due to disquiet over the number of fatalities that seemed to accompany the Doctor's adventures. Tegan was also part of the TARDIS crew during the 1983 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, meeting the First, Second and Third Doctors.

Janet Fielding as Tegan.

Aldred played Ace from 1987 to 1989 alongside the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. She debuted in the final story of McCoy's first season, Dragonfire, and remained on the TARDIS for the duration of his run. Ace was a teenage girl from Perivale who was inadvertently transported to an alien planet by a "time storm." Rescued by the Doctor, Ace decided to keep travelling with him. Ace was a hugely popular companion because she upended stereotypes of the time. She tackled problems head-on and had a tendency to engage the Doctor's enemies with violence and explosives, to his distress. In arguably her best story, Remembrance of the Daleks, she engaged Daleks in combat with improvised explosives, antitank missiles and even an energy-charged baseball bat. Ace was also notable as being arguably the first companion to drive stories like the Doctor could, and in the show's final season it was revealed that Ace was being manipulated by both the Doctor and alien forces for unknown reasons. The producers of the time subsequently confirmed that one idea they had was that the Doctor was testing Ace to see if she could become a Time Lord in her own right. Ace's stories also explored - albeit at a remove - issues like racism for the first time, as Ace grew up on a mixed-race housing estate and many of her friends experienced prejudice (as noted in Remembrance of the Daleks and her own final story, Survival).

Sophie Aldred as Ace.

Because Ace was the incumbent companion when the show unexpectedly ended in 1989, her fate was never confirmed on-screen. When Sylvester McCoy returned as the Seventh Doctor for the 1996 TV movie (handing over to Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor), Ace was nowhere to be seen. Both spin-off novels and comics tackled her story, some suggesting she got married, others that she became a space mercenary in the distant future, others that she continued fighting evil thanks to a time-travelling bike and in some, that her character died heroically. Ace's actual, canonical fate was not alluded to until The Sarah Jane Adventures mentioned that she was the head of a successful charity called "A Charitable Earth."

Both Fielding and Aldred have reprised their roles for audio dramas over the years, and Aldred recorded her first new screen footage as Ace in over thirty years as a promo for the new range of Doctor Who Blu-Rays a couple of years ago.

Along with Sarah Jane Smith and Jo Grant (Katy Manning, who reprised her role in The Sarah Jane Adventures), Tegan and Ace are arguably the two most popular classic Doctor Who companions, so it'll be great to see them return to the franchise.

Jodie Whittaker's swansong will also see the return of Sacha Dhawan as the Master, along with both the Daleks and Cybermen. The episode is so far unnamed, but should air around the time of the BBC Centenary in October this year. Russell T. Davies will subsequently reprise his role as Doctor Who showrunner, with his first episode expected to be the Doctor Who 60th Anniversary special in November 2023.

Saturday 16 April 2022

Total War: Rome Remastered

The Roman Republic is expanding in all directions, bringing more civilisations around the Mediterranean into its sphere of influence. A canny new family leader arises and is given the task of expanding the Republic. But will they be happy with just doing that, or will the allure of conquering Rome itself prove too strong?

You could make a good argument that late 2004 was one of the greatest periods for video game releases ever. In rapid succession, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, World of WarCraft, Half-Life 2, Counter-Strike: Source, Halo 2, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines and Knights of the Old Republic II were released to a joyful public. Also in that mix was Rome: Total War.

Rome was the third game in the Total War series that began with 2000's Shogun: Total War and then expanded with 2002's Medieval: Total War. However, it was a startling reinvention of the series, both graphically and in terms of how it played. The basic premise of the game was the same: you establish an empire through military conquest, building armies and developing your civic infrastructure to build better troops. You switch between an overhead, turn-based strategic map on which you build and move your armies, and engage in side-activities like assassination or spying, and a 3D real-time battle map in which armies clash and you control your forces directly.

Rome seriously upped the presentation though. For the first time, both the overhead map and battles were in full, glorious 3D, packed with detail. Moving around the map you can see trade caravans moving between cities, cargo ships ploughing the Mediterranean, lava spewing from active volcanoes and the land turning white as winter advances. The attention to detail was amazing in 2004 and, now rendered at much greater resolutions, still impresses today. The 3D map is now divided into tens of thousands of individual tiles, which are used to generate the map for any battle that takes place on that tile. This makes the game much more immersive; if you fight a battle next to a city, that city will be visible during the battle. If it's a coastal battle with a fleet nearby, you can see the ships in the distance as combat commences. Fight near a major landmark, like the Pyramids or Colossus of Rhodes, and that landmark will likewise appear in the distance. The strategy map and the battle map feel like a unified whole, unlike the earlier games in the series and, bafflingly, most of the later games.

Battles are the main appeal of the game and in 2004 Rome offered the amazing vista of armies that looked and felt real (barring the scale, which is often significantly smaller than in reality). Roman units can use their javelins - pila - to inflict heavy losses on an enemy unit before closing to melee combat, archers can send arrows hurtling into combat (difficulty levels determine if friendly fire is possible), and cavalry can smash into enemy flanks and send individual soldiers flying. Roman legionaries can employ the Tetsudo formation to minimise missile damage, and Greek hoplites can lower their massive spears to inflict horrendous damage on cavalry. The earlier Total War games used 2D bitmaps on 3D backgrounds to depict battles, but Rome renders everything in full 3D. It was so impressive in 2004 that it even generated a spin-off TV show (Time Commanders).

The battles are excellent and the strategic gameplay was revolutionary at the time and still strong today. The game did innovate by also being more of an actual economic/empire-building game, rather than just a pure strategy game. Cities in Rome have no limit on what can be built in them, so you are free to construct buildings to recruit new and more advanced military units; ones that help eliminate squalor and improve public hygiene; ones that improve income; and ones that entertain the masses so they forget about their daily woes. Keep the people happy and prosperous and you can build a colossal empire spanning the continent. Fail to do so and you will fail, mired down in constant rebellions and religious strife.

The city-building part of the game is excellent - there's more than a bit of Civilization in it, though you can't build cities completely from scratch - and surprisingly detailed (you can even view your peaceful cities in full 3D at any time, a feature missing from every other game in the series). More recent Total War games have gone in a very different direction by giving each city only a few "slots" for new buildings, severely limiting what you can do with them in an attempt to re-orient the focus on the battles. Understandable from one angle (rotating through up to 50 cities in the late-game to see what needs to be built does become a problem), but disappointing from another. Total War is fun when it sprawls and the period from Rome to Shogun II is when it sprawled most engagingly; later games have eliminated that sprawl (at least in terms of detailed city-building and managing numerous armies simultaneously), to the joy of some players but the disappointment of others.

Rome Remastered improves the graphical quality over the original, replacing the identikit armies of clones with a variety of faces and individual armour variations, although battlefields do tend towards happening on flat fields and cities tend to look very samey (problems resolved in Medieval II). This period of the Total War series has been criticised for a focus on sieges and those used to the modern games may take some getting used to the sheer number of engagements happening on city walls or holding gates against invaders. However, the quality of sieges has been upped by improvements to AI. Although the AI is still capable of occasionally baffling behaviour, there has been a notable upgrade since 2004 in both strategic and battlefield AI. In particular, the AI will punish the Roman factions for following orders from the Senate too vociferously, embroiling them in multiple wars on multiple fronts that can quickly sap their strength. Weaknesses from the original game have been largely negated and many improvements made in terms of the user interface (being finally able to reorganise the arrangement of units in the UI is a huge relief) as well.

The biggest weakness of Rome is arguably the same one it had in 2004: the game really hates it when you're not at war with someone and will often have smaller, weaker factions attacking you just to get some action flowing again. Sure, the franchise title is Total War, but the game's relentless insistence on being all battles, all the time and denying you much time to rest and regroup between conflicts can be wearying, not to mention bafflingly illogical.

In terms of the package, it also includes the original Rome expansion, Barbarian Invasion, and the later Alexander expansion, notable as an early digital-only expansion (it did get a physical release some time later, though). Barbarian Invasion is set in the twilight of the Roman Empire as it teeters on the edge of collapse and is significantly tougher than the base game. Alexander is a narrative-based game following the life and career of Alexander the Great (narrated by Brian Blessed) through a highly-focused campaign. The campaign is more limited than a standard Total War grand campaign, but it's still a lot of fun, and a good example of how a short, detailed Total War game can be as much fun as a sprawling, epic game lasting many tens of hours. Disappointingly, though, the Sons of Mars mini-campaign included in the original Rome is missing, replaced by a very bare-bones tutorial.

As the Total War series has gone on, it has become more divisive amongst its fanbase. More recent games have focused on hero units, special abilities and cooldowns, simplifying unit recruitment, army management and sieges. For those who've enjoyed that movement, Rome might feel too complex, sometimes too ponderous and too enamoured of micro-management. For those who prefer having much finer, more granular control of their empires and armies, Rome Remastered (****½) is a deeply rewarding, enjoyable turn-based strategy game and a very solid real-time battles game. Improved graphics, controls and UI make this one of the finest remasters in recent memory. Roll on the inevitable Medieval II remaster!

Total War: Rome Remastered is available for PC and on mobile devices now.

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

Thursday 14 April 2022

RIVERS OF LONDON tabletop roleplaying game to be released this year

Chaosium has announced that the official Rivers of London tabletop roleplaying game, based on Ben Aaronovitch's highly successful urban fantasy novel series, is coming this year.

The game was recently showcased at last week's Chaosium Con event in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The game uses the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition rules system, modified for this setting.

The Rivers of London series comprises nine novels, the first of which, Rivers of London, was released in 2011. It has been followed by Moon Over Soho (2011), Whispers Under Ground (2012), Broken Homes (2013), Foxglove Summer (2014), The Hanging Tree (2016), Lies Sleeping (2018), False Value (2020) and the recently-released Amongst Our Weapons (2022). The series also comprises a sequence of novellas and graphic novels. The series has been a hit in both the UK and United States, hitting the Sunday Times bestseller list regularly. The series was optioned for television in 2019 by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, but has not made progress since then.

Chaoisum is one of the oldest tabletop roleplaying companies in the world, founded in 1975. Their best-known game product is the Call of Cthulhu line, based on H.P. Lovecraft's mythos. They also publish RuneQuest, Pendragon and 7th Sea, among others.