Monday, 23 May 2022

More details revealed about ROGUE ONE prequel show ANDOR

Writer and showrunner Tony Gilroy has dished the dirt on his upcoming Star Wars TV show Andor. A prequel to the movie Rogue One, the TV series focuses on Rebel Alliance agent Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a ruthless operative who won't let anything stop him from helping bring down the Empire.

The show has the distinction of being the longest live-action Star Wars season to date, with twelve episodes in its first season. That compares to the six of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the seven of The Book of Boba Fett and the eight of each of The Mandalorian's seasons so far. The show is also already prepping a second season, which will apparently complete the story.

According to Gilroy - who previously wrote the first four Bourne movies and helmed the extensive rewrites and reshoots on Rogue One during its production period - the first season (which starts five years before Rogue One) is about how Andor becomes a revolutionary and joins the Rebel Alliance, whilst the second season tells the story of the events leading up to the start of Rogue One. As a result of that structure, don't expect K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to show up until Season 2.

The show will have more of an ensemble feel, with a large cast of characters as well as Andor, and a major focus on the character of Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly), the head of the Rebel Alliance. Mothma previously showed up in Return of the Jedi (when she was played by Caroline Blakiston) as utterer of the infamous line, "Many Bothans died to bring us this information." O'Reilly took over the role of the younger Mothma in a scene cut from Revenge of the Sith, but finally got to play the role onscreen in Rogue One. Apparently Mothma and Andor will not cross paths until Season 2, but their parallel journeys in Season 1 are a major part of the story.

I'm not entirely sure this is a story that needs to be told, but Diego Luna is a great actor and Gilroy is an excellent writer and director when it comes to spy stories, so it should, at the least, be intriguing. Rogue One also stands tall as the best Star Wars movie of the recent era (if not the best since Empire), so seeing an extension to it's story could be worthwhile.

Star Wars: Andor is expected to debut on Disney+ before the end of the summer.

STRANGER THINGS Season 4 to run super-sized episodes

This Friday, Netflix is dropping the first part of the fourth and penultimate season of one of their biggest shows, Stranger Things. Netflix have confirmed they will be running the season in two chunks, with their longest episodes to date.

Debuting in 2016, Stranger Things opened in 1983 and saw a young girl with mysterious powers being rescued by a bunch of kids, who have their own problems with a missing friend and mysterious corporation which might or might not be up to no good. Heavily indebted to the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, Dante and Zemeckis, the series proved a huge hit with viewers old and young. Further seasons aired in 2017 and 2019. Stranger Things has historically been one of Netflix's biggest-performing shows, with an enormous long tail, cross-generational appeal and career-boosting kudos for many of its actors. Shows like Bridgerton and Squid Game have eclipsed it recently, but it's still one of the biggest feathers in Netflix's cap.

Season 4's production has been beset for problems due to the COVID pandemic, with repeated shutdowns, quarantines and delays to shooting. This has led to a three-year gap between seasons, something that has apparently severely concerned Netflix executives (who were already unhappy with the widening waits between seasons even before the pandemic). However, it does appear that creators/showrunners the Duffer Brothers are giving viewers maximum bang for their buck. They have split the nine-episode season into two parts, with seven episodes in the first part and two in the second. The two parts will be split by a month. The runtimes of the episodes will also be significantly longer than preceding seasons, as follows:

  • Episode 1: 76 minutes
  • Episode 2: 75 minutes
  • Episode 3: 63 minutes
  • Episode 4: 77 minutes
  • Episode 5: 74 minutes
  • Episode 6: 73 minutes
  • Episode 7: 98 minutes
  • Episode 8: 85 minutes
  • Episode 9: 150 minutes

If Stranger Things was a typical network show airing 45-minute episodes, Season 4 would be 17 episodes long. Which is actually pretty good, with declining episode counts for modern shows being roundly criticised by some viewers (though applauded by others who don't want to see a comeback of the days of 22-episode network shows, where 15 of those episodes are pure filler).

Episodes 1-7 of Stranger Things will be released this Friday, 27 May. Episodes 8 and 9 will be released five weeks later, on 1 July.

A fifth and final season of Stranger Things has been commissioned.

RIP Colin Cantwell

Star Wars spacecraft designer Colin Cantwell has sadly passed away at the age of 90. Cantwell designed some of the most iconic spacecraft seen in the original Star Wars movie. Amongst others, he created the X-wing and Y-wing fighters, the TIE Fighter, the Star Destroyer, the Death Star and the Rebel Blockade Runner.

Cantwell was born in California in 1932 and became an expert in computers, filming techniques and visual effects. He assisted Douglas Trumbull in his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey for Stanley Kubrick, and then worked at NASA in the late1960s, providing technical assistance to news anchor Walter Cronkite as he covered the first Moon landing. He then worked on multimedia presentations on space travel.

Cantwell showing the Y-wing design to George Lucas, c, 1976

In 1974 he was introduced to George Lucas and began work on concept art based on his Star Wars film script. He worked alongside Ralph McQuarrie, creating designs that McQuarrie fleshed out into stunning art pieces. He also used "kitbashing" to create early 3D models of spacecraft, which Lucas could then present to potential studios and investors. Lucas has credited this work with getting studios more interested in the project.

Cantwell designed the iconic X-wing starfighter, combining elements of a dart and dragster car. He came up with the split-wing concept as a way of showing when the fighter was at rest and when it was ready for action. He also designed the Y-wing, although it was partially redesigned by model maker Joe Johnston when he realised the cockpit didn't quite work. A rejected Y-wing design became the Skyhopper, which would be used by Luke on Tatooine, but budget restrictions meant that the Skyhopper only appeared as a toy that Luke plays with. The replacement landspeeder, also designed by Cantwell, was a much more simplistic design. Cantwell also designed the Jawa Sandcrawler.

For the Imperials, Cantwell designed the Star Destroyer, merging two separate designs (a two-man fighter and large capital ship) into one. He also created the TIE Fighter, following Lucas's suggestion of an instantly-recognisable and threatening silhouette. For the Death Star, Cantwell created a highly detailed model to clearly show it was an artificial construction rather than a planet or moon. The equatorial trench came about because the construction process caused the model to "dip," making creating a perfect sphere impossible.

Cantwell also created the first prototype of the Millennium Falcon and Joe Johnston built a model of it. However, at the last minute Lucas spotted a similar-looking ship in an episode of Space: 1999 and, concerned about plagiarism accusations, asked for a complete redesign. Joe Johnston handled the redesign leading to the "eaten hamburger" design seen in the finished film. However, Cantwell's work was not in vein as his prototype, re-scaled, became the Tantive IV or "Rebel Blockade Runner," later canonised as the Corellian Corvette.

Lucas asked Cantwell to help head up Industrial Light & Magic, but Cantwell felt he had loyalties to Universal Studios and decided not to work full-time with 20th Century Fox (who financed and released Star Wars). As a result, he did not return to work on The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi.

After Star Wars, Cantwell worked with Hewlett-Packard on the development of the 9845C computer, and used such a computer to create all the graphics for the 1983 film WarGames. He was nominated for an Oscar for his work on WarGames, but was (perhaps ironically) pipped to the post by Return of the Jedi.

Cantwell passed away on 21 May 2022 in Colorado after several years of being afflicted with Alzheimer's. The creator of some of the most iconic and enduring spaceships in history, he will be missed.

Sunday, 22 May 2022

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

The Teixcalaanli Empire stands on the brink of war with an unknown alien race. Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus and her fleet stand at the edge of the conflict, tasked with defending the Empire from an enemy whose numbers, capability and disposition are all unknown. She calls in Envoy Three Seagrass to help formulate a way of talking to the enemy...who in turn calls on her friend, Lsel Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, for aid. These are the same two people recently involved in the circumstances surrounding the accession of the new Emperor, and this triggers a tidal wave of political intrigue stretching across light-years. But their mission must succeed, for the aliens pose a threat to far more than just the Empire.

A Desolation Called Peace is the second book in a loosely-connected duology, following up on A Memory Called Empire. That novel was as dramatically impressive as any space opera debut from the last couple of decades, a confidently-written novel about politics, identity and intrigue that won a Hugo Award. This book is the continuation, although the main story (about the first encounter with an unknown alien race in deep space) stands alone.

Desolation is not quite as striking a novel as Memory, maybe because it is trying to do a bit too much. The novel continues the political intrigue on the Teixcalaanli homeworld from the previous novel, albeit with some new players (most of the intriguers from the previous novel having been fired, killed, imprisoned or exiled), whilst also throwing in a widescreen, big-budget space war and an Arrival-style subplot with the protagonists trying to understand the aliens' language, which is difficult because it is rooted in concepts, ideas and fundamental biology that humans are completely unfamiliar with. Further subplots revolve around the new Emperor trying to assert their authority, the Emperor's heir learning important lessons about statecraft and Seagrass and Mahit's relationship, which was left on an awkward pause in the first book. There's also internal politicking within the Teixcalaanli fleet and a lot of business on Lsel Station as well.

It makes for a busy, breezy book with a lot going on, but the tight page count (480 pages in paperback) means a lot of these ideas are not explored in as much detail as maybe they could have been. Extending the duology to three books or making A Desolation Called Peace into a Peter F. Hamilton-class shelf-destroyer might have been a better way of expanding these stories more satisfyingly. Still, leaving readers wanting more and making novels as tight as possible is not a bad thing either.

Many of the themes from the first novel continue to be explored, such as the tension between the semi-decadent Teixcalaanli, whose overwhelming power makes them both arrogant and overconfident when faced with a potentially greater threat, and the much more pragmatic inhabitants of Lsel Station. The aliens are an added wild card here, with an interesting biology and impressive technical prowess, and a truly alien way of thinking that the author evokes well through the text. The aliens are also not over-used, deployed just enough so we get a sense of their strangeness but not so much that they lose their effectiveness.

If poetry was a theme of the first book, language is a theme here, and how language shapes ideas and ideology (and vice versa). Like some other plots, the Arrival-like storyline of talking to the aliens is a little curt, but what we do get is fascinating. There is also the way the Teixcalaanli use language themselves, and how they communicate and what methods of communication they use. This becomes a key point of the subplot involving the Emperor's heir, which initially feels detached from the main narrative but loops back in satisfyingly later on.

A Desolation Called Peace (****) is an accomplished, page-turning, idea-packed space opera which tells a lot of great stories, but the sheer number of stories it is telling in a constrained page count means that occasionally you find yourself wishing more greater elaboration of a storyline or character arc. But it also gives the novel a relentless, compelling pace. The novel 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.

Friday, 20 May 2022

BABYLON 5 reboot still in development amidst major changes at The CW

Mark Pedowitz, CEO of The CW, has confirmed that the channel's Babylon 5 reboot is currently still in development. This is despite The CW going up for sale and a whole slew of the channel's shows being cancelled.

Created by J. Michael Straczynski, Babylon 5 aired for a pilot, five seasons and four TV movies from 1993 to 1998, followed by a spin-off series, Crusade, that was cancelled after half a season in 1999. A subsequent additional TV movie aired in 2002, and another one was released direct to DVD in 2007. The show also incorporated spin-off novels and comic books. The show was noted for its pioneering use of both serialised storytelling and CGI. It had modest ratings during its original run but strong critical acclaim, winning back-to-back Hugo Awards in 1996 and 1997.

After the end of the original run, original creator-showrunner-writer J. Michael Straczynski (also noted for his work on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Real Ghostbusters, Jeremiah and Sense8, as well as his comics book work and the Clint Eastwood/Angelina Jolie film Changeling) spent some years developing a feature film featuring the original cast. However, a large number of the original cast has sadly passed away, making a Next Generation-style continuation of the show impossible.

Renewed interest in Babylon 5 was generated by a middling HD remaster which was released in early 2021 (which updated the live-action footage but not the CGI). Word of reboot of the show followed in September. Unusually, it was confirmed in February that Babylon 5 would not proceed in development for 2022, but would instead be held back until 2023, apparently so it would not be impacted by the imminent sale of The CW network.

The CW was founded in 2006 as a merger of The WB and UPN, owned by Warner Brothers and Paramount respectively. The two channels had struggled for a decent market share and joined forces to ensure more resources. The channel initially saw a reasonable hit with Supernatural and then a number of shows based on the DC Universe, starting Arrow and continuing with The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Black LightningSupergirl and Batwoman. The network also established other hit properties with The 100, Riverdale and The Vampire Diaries, among others. The network became stereotyped for having shows aimed at younger audiences with variable special effects, low budgets and a cheesy, old-fashioned feel. However, the network also became immensely profitable through a 2011 deal with Netflix worth $1 billion, which subsidised shows that aired to low ratings on their original American airing but garnered a much larger international audience.

The Netflix deal was terminated in 2019, with CW shows instead finding an outlet through direct overseas sales and American streaming via HBO Max. However, this did not in any way approach the sheer income generated by the prior Netflix deal. As a result, the network starting cancelling shows at rate of knots, culminating in a massacre in May 2022 when ten shows were cancelled, including Legends of Tomorrow. The CW is now being sold to the Nexstar Media Group.

The news that the Babylon 5 reboot is not dead is good, but it should come with caveats. It is possible and likely, once the deal is completed, that Nexstar will install their own CEO to replace Mark Pedowitz, who notes that he is a huge fan of the original show and has been trying to bring it back for many years. It is unlikely that a new CEO will be as invested in the project as him. New channel CEOs in fact usually terminate any shows in development they were not involved in and bring in their own projects to develop. There are a few exceptions, but they are rare. If Nextstar retain Pedowitz in the role, it's much more likely that the B5 reboot will happen. More news as we get it.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

New DAREDEVIL series in development at Disney+

Disney+ have put into development a new season of Daredevil, the extremely popular Marvel drama series that previously ran for three seasons at Netflix and spawned a number of spin-off and companion shows, culminating in the Defenders event mini-series. Disney+ recently gained the rights to all the Netflix series and seemingly formalised Daredevil as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe when actors Charlie Cox (Matt Murdoch/Daredevil) and Vincent D'Onofrio (Wilson Fisk/Kingpin) appeared in Spider-Man: No Way Home and the streaming series Hawkeye respectively.

Matt Corman and Chris Ord will serve as showrunners on the new project. They previously co-created Covert Affairs and have worked on several other projects as a writing team. At the moment, none of the creative team from the previous Netflix iteration of the property are involved. However, it seems inevitable that at least Cox will reprise his role as the Man Without Fear, and hopefully the rest of the cast will follow.

The new series will likely answer the niggling question of if events of the Netflix shows are canon, rather than just using the same actors to portray a similar version of the characters. Fans will be hoping that other characters make the cut, particularly Krysten Ritter's take on Jessica Jones and Jon Bernthal's intense portrayal of Frank Castle/The Punisher.

The project is only early in development. Beforehand, Disney+ will launch a number of other Marvel TV shows including Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Echo, Secret Invasion, Ironheart, Armor Wars, Agatha: House of Harkness and Wakanda, as well as a second season of Loki.

RIP Vangelis

The news has sadly broken that composer and keyboardist Vangelis has passed away at the age of 79. He is best-known for composing the soundtracks to the films Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire, as well as the Carl Sagan TV show Cosmos. He also had a successful solo career.

Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassiou was born in 1943 in Greece. He started learning to play the piano at four, inspired by his father's love of music. He began scoring work early, working on three Greek movies in the mid-1960s whilst recording with the band The Forminx. In 1967 he relocated from Athens to Paris and co-founded the group Aphrodite's Child, which enjoyed moderate success and a critical hit with the 666 album in 1972. He began a solo career and continued scoring European films, as well as nature documentaries. In 1974 he auditioned to replace Rick Wakeman in the progressive rock band Yes, but ran into visa problems. Although he never joined the band formally, he did work alongside various Yes bandmembers on later projects.

In 1975 he relocated to London and continued to release solo material at an impressive clip throughout the rest of the decade, as well as continuing to work on more documentary soundtracks. His work on Opera Sauvage (1979) was particularly praised, raising his profile considerably. In 1980, Carl Sagan's hugely influential television series Cosmos used a number of Vangelis compositions from throughout his career, including an extract from "Heaven and Hell" as its main theme.

Vangelis had his biggest career breakthrough when he was asked to compose the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire (1981). His main theme tune for the film became a huge worldwide success, hitting #1 on the US Hot 100 chart. The soundtrack album sold a million copies in the USA by itself. The following year he won an Academy Award for the soundtrack, but his fear of flying meant he did not attend the ceremony.

Vangelis was flooded with offers for work, but turned most of them down, fearing becoming typecast only as a film composer. He returned to working on documentaries and only on films which he felt intellectually stimulated him, such as the Japanese film Nankyoku Monogatari (1983). Another such film was Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), where his work hugely praised. However, a legal dispute meant that his soundtrack was not formally released until 1994.

Vangelis also composed the soundtracks to 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Alexander (2004) and El Greco (2007). In 2012 he collaborated on the score for Chariots of Fire: The Play.

He continued to produce solo albums and contribute to projects that interested him, such as a soundtrack for the 2001 NASA Odyssey mission to Mars. His most recent solo album was Juno to Jupiter, released in 2021.

A titan of electronic music and the composer of two of the greatest movie scores of all time, Vangelis will be missed.

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

First trailer for SHE-HULK released

Marvel have unveiled the first trailer for their upcoming streaming series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. The series debuts on 17 August.

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law follows lawyer Jennifer Walters, the cousin of Bruce Banner, better known as the Incredible Hulk. When Walters is injured, her cousin saves her by donating some of his blood, leading her to gaining his powers of transformation, albeit at a lesser scale. Walters has to adapt to life as She-Hulk, including unwanted fame and her newfound ability to tear metal doors off their hinges (aided by somewhat questionable CGI).

The series stars Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, who won an Emmy Award for Best Actress for playing multiple characters in the clone-based drama Orphan Black. Mark Ruffalo reprises his role as Bruce Banner/Hulk from the Marvel movies, whilst Tim Roth return as Emil Blonsky/Abomination. He previously played the character in The Incredible Hulk (2008) and briefly voiced the character in an uncredited cameo in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Five Rings (2021). Benedict Wong also returns as Wong, having played the character previously in Doctor Strange (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Five Rings (2021), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022).

Other actors announced for the project include Ginger Gonzaga as Nikki, Jameela Jamil as Titania, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Amelia, and Josh Segarra, Jon Bass, Anais Almonte, Nicholas Cirillo and David Otunga in undisclosed roles.

Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk is a popular Marvel character, having debuted in The Savage She-Hulk's first issue in 1980. She was created by Stan Lee and artist John Buscema, initially as a female version of the Hulk but with some differences, most notably retaining her personality and intelligence after her transformations. In the comics, She-Hulk has been a member of multiple organisations, including the Avengers, Defenders and SHIELD.

The season will consist of nine half-hour episodes, with a lighter and more comedic feel than some of the other Marvel projects. The show is being set up to lead into additional seasons if successful, with Kevin Feige noting that Walters' job as a lawyer for superheroes could see her showing up in other Marvel movies and series.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Lucasfilm outlines ongoing plans for STAR WARS

In a major article for Vanity Fair, the creatives at Lucasfilm have outlined their plans moving forwards for the Star Wars franchise. The franchise has had mixed fortune recently, scoring a major international hit with TV series The Mandalorian but also two box-office disappointments with Solo (2018) and The Rise of Skywalker (2019), and TV series The Book of Boba Fett which had a mixed reception.

During the article, Lucasfilm confirm the release schedule for their upcoming TV shows, with Obi-Wan Kenobi launching on 27 May and Rogue One prequel show Andor hitting screens a few weeks later, before the end of summer. The Mandalorian Season 3 will arrive late this year or early next, with Ahsoka being a confirmed 2023 release. The Acolyte, a show set during the "High Republic" era about 100 years before The Phantom Menace, is likely to appear in 2023 or 2024.

Lucasfilm are also developing a new project, which so far only has the code name "Grammar Rodeo" (a Simpsons reference). The show sounds like Star Wars: Stranger Things, with a group of four children who get swept up in events following the fall of the Empire. The show is reported to have a "Amblin coming-of-age adventure" vibe from the 1980s. Director Jon Watts, who helmed the recent Spider-Man Homecoming trilogy, is in charge alongside writer Chris Ford.

In terms of feature films, it appears that the new focus is on Taika Waititi's Star Wars movie, which is in pre-production and will be Waititi's next project once Thor: Love & Thunder launches and he gets his commitments to that out of the way. That could potentially be a 2024 release. Patty Jenkins' Rogue Squadron movie was delayed a while back due to commitments to Wonder Woman 3 and Cleopatra, but Jenkins cleared Cleopatra by transferring it to another director. Rogue Squadron will be Jenkins' next film once the third Wonder Woman movie is done, possibly for 2025.

Marvel Cinematic Universe head honcho Kevin Feige agreed to brainstorm and produce a Star Wars movie a while back, but he's so busy with the MCU that that project has been back-burnered. Likewise on hold is Rian Johnson's Star Wars trilogy. Johnson has committed to his Knives Out franchise and a Netflix deal, which puts a Star Wars return a long way off. Left unspoken is the mixed critical reception to Johnson's film The Last Jedi, which may have discouraged his return to the franchise altogether.

The Knights of the Old Republic movie, rumoured heavily a couple of years ago, and the rumoured Lando Calrissian TV show, are also left completely unmentioned.

The article addresses potential issues with the Star Wars franchise moving forwards: most of the projects reiterate on eras and things we have seen before. Only The Acolyte seems to be set in a new time period distinct from the prior settings, and even that is apparently going to eventually be setting up The Phantom Menace (I suspect a Darth Plagueis appearance). The article also suggests that the failure of Solo has been blamed on recasting Han Solo rather than its release date or franchise fatigue. This has driven the decision to use CGI to resurrect classic characters rather than recasting, which I think is the wrong conclusion to draw from that. The "deepfake" technology is getting better all the time, but it's still not at the point where classic characters can be restored to the screen convincingly. Even if it could, it feels like that's feeding into the desire to keep Star Wars permanently stuck revisiting the same time periods, characters and concepts.

The mixed reception to Star Wars projects which have tried to go in new directions seems to have resulted in a lot of conservatism in these new projects, which is a shame. The problem with the sequel trilogy wasn't that it was trying to go in new directions, but that it starting off not doing that (with the highly retro and fan-servicing The Force Awakens), then did that only semi-successfully (in The Last Jedi, half of the best Star Wars movie bolted onto half of the most pointless) and then reversed course again and made a complete pig's ear out of the situation (in The Rise of Skywalker). A Star Wars project which did go in genuinely new directions with a coherent plan in place from the start and was genuinely well-written I think would have every chance of success.

Forthcoming Star Wars Projects

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi: Disney+ streaming series, 27 May 2022
  • Andor: Disney+ streaming series, late summer 2022
  • The Mandalorian Season 3: Disney+ streaming series, late 2022/early 2023
  • Ahsoka: Disney+ streaming series, 2023
  • The Acolyte: Disney+ streaming series, 2023/2024
  • "Grammar Rodeo": Disney+ streaming series, tbc
  • Taika Waititi-directed Star Wars movie, tbc
  • Rogue Squadron: feature film, tbc
  • Kevin Feige Star Wars movie: on hold
  • Rian Johnson Star Wars trilogy: on hold

Bernard Cribbins to return to DOCTOR WHO

Bernard Cribbins is returning to Doctor Who for its 60th Anniversary celebrations. The actor was spotted filming on-location in London alongside David Tennant and Catherine Tate. Tennant and Tate are returning as the Doctor and former companion Donna Noble. Cribbins is presumably reprising his role as Wilfred Mott.

Cribbins is notable as the actor arguably with the longest attachment to the Doctor Who franchise, having debuted with the 1966 (non-canon) feature film Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD as one-off companion Tom Campbell. He returned to the series in the 2007 Christmas Special, Voyage of the Damned, playing a stall-keeper. The character was retconned as Wilfred Mott, Donna's grandfather, in the subsequent fourth series (2008), in which he made sporadic appearances. He returned in 2009 and 2010 in the two-part special The End of Time, during which he was upgraded to full companion status. Notably, the Tenth Doctor's regeneration came about after absorbing a massive radiation burst in order to save Wilfred's life.

Returning showrunner Russell T. Davies confirmed Tennant and Tate's return, teasing that their return might be part of a flashback, a dream, a parallel universe story or something else. Presumably the same applies to Wilfred. If Wilfred is again counted as a companion, he'd set a new record for the oldest companion at the age of 93.

It has also now been confirmed that Sex Education actor Ncuti Gatwa has been cast as the next Doctor and Yasmin Finney as Rose Temple-Noble, possibly Donna's daughter or adopted daughter.

It is unclear if Gatwa will be taking over immediately from Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker in her final story (due to air in the autumn) or if there will be some other storyline allowing for Tennant's return. It is also unconfirmed, despite tabloid speculation, if the other recent Doctors Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Whittaker will return (Christopher Eccleston, who left the show after a dispute with Davies and other producers, is very unlikely to return regardless). More news is expected as filming continues.

Update: Director Rachel Talalay was spotted on-set, indicating she will be directing the 60th Anniversary Special. Talalay is one of the show's most popular directors, having helmed Heaven Sent, Hell Bent and Twice Upon a Time during Steven Moffat's run. Actress Jaqueline King, who plays Wilfred's daughter (and Donna's mother) Sylvia, has also been spotted on set.

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

To the distress of Sam Vimes, he has been appointed the new Ankh-Morpork Ambassador to Uberwald, a position he feels as well-suited to as a herring to the role of architectural consultant for a non-fish-related building. At the Patrician's insistence, due to Uberwald's vital role in the international fat trade, Vimes heads off to witness the coronation of the new Low King of the dwarfs*. Of course, there is a crime and, of course, Vimes can't leave well enough alone. Meanwhile, the werewolves of Uberwald have their own crisis going on, drawing in Angua of the City Watch and her boyfriend Carrot. This leaves the Ankh-Morpork Watch under the command of Sergeant Colon...which may not be the idea situation.

The Fifth Elephant is the twenty-fourth Discworld novel and the fifth to focus on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Arguably, this is the most popular of Pratchett's sub-series due to its large cast of colourful, well-characterised characters with emotional and character arcs that unfold across multiple books, with the cynical Commander Vimes as one of Pratchett's most popular protagonists. The Fifth Elephant is also one of the more epic books in the series, adopting a multi-stranded, multi-POV approach more reminiscent of epic fantasy than most other Discworld novels.

The book divides itself into three main plot strands: Vimes as the Ambassador to Uberwald, getting entangled in political intrigue that would make George R.R. Martin at least somewhat nod in approval; Carrot, Angua and Gaspode the Wonder Dog getting into hijinks with the werewolves and non-were wolves of Uberwald; and Sergeant Colon being promoted beyond his ability and leading the City Watch into abject disaster at home. Pratchett's done multi-stranded plotting before, but rarely as accomplished as he does here, rotating between these three primary storylines and several significant subplots: Nobby forming the Disc's police union; a complicated vampire/werewolf/dwarf rivalry; Cheery Longbottom's ongoing crusade to allow dwarf women to be women; the onward march of the Igors; and the mysterious activities of Vimes' newly-appointed attache. There's a lot going on in The Fifth Elephant, maybe more than in any Discworld novel before it, and it's to Pratchett's credit that he juggles these ideas with skill and in a very disciplined 450 pages.

It's also the book that brings in one of the biggest worldbuilding changes to the series: the clacks. Discworld started off as a medieval-aping series, with Ankh-Morpork an effective carbon copy of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar. Since then, the setting has shifted down the timeline (although, fortunately, guns have not caught on). The introduction of the clacks - a continent-spanning semaphore system - starts to shift the setting more into the early 19th Century, with the Discworld steadily gaining a more steampunk, industrial feel to it which sets it apart from other fantasy settings. Pratchett handles this shift with subtle ease (to the point where you can forget the setting has advanced about 500 years in far less than a human lifetime), and it's fun to see it starting to happen here.

There's also a tremendous amount of successful worldbuilding here. We got a taste of one small corner of Uberwald in the previous novel, Carpe Jugulum, but the enormous country is covered and explored in more detail here. In particular Pratchett delves into the society and culture of his dwarfs more than in any previous book, and more than in most fantasy setting, where they're just kind of hanging around without a lot of development.

On the negative side of things, there's perhaps a few too many ideas being fired off here, with several promising plot strands and side-characters underserved due to the concise page count. This might be the Discworld novel most deserving of being longer so Pratchett could explore more ideas in more detail. I'm also not particularly convinced by the idea that even Sergeant Colon could nose-dive the City Watch into the ground within just a couple of days of being left in charge. Whilst never the brightest spark in the plug, Colon has never been the vindictive idiot he's made out to be here. It's particularly bizarre that his fall from grace happens so fast after his successful work alongside the Patrician in Jingo.

That aside, The Fifth Elephant (****½) is a triumph, with Pratchett delivering a large-scale, epic storyline spanning multiple characters and subplots and doing it extremely well, with some of the best worldbuilding in the series to date. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

*Pratchett has no truck with the cooler-looking, but ungrammatical, spelling "dwarves" in his setting.

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

Sunday, 15 May 2022

David Tennant and Catherine Tate to return to DOCTOR WHO for the 60th Anniversary

The BBC has formally confirmed that former Doctor Who regulars David Tennant and Catherine Tate are returning to Doctor Who for the 60th Anniversary in November 2023.

David Tennant played the Tenth Doctor from 2005 to 2010, becoming arguably the most popular actor to play the role since Tom Baker (who played the Fourth Doctor from 1974 to 1981). Catherine Tate played his companion Donna Noble, debuting in the 2006 Christmas Special and returning regularly in Series 4 in 2008. Her last appearance came in Tennant's swansong, the special The End of Time, in 2010. Tennant's last appearance was in the 50th Anniversary special The Day of the Doctor in 2013, where he starred alongside Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith.

Returning showrunner Russell T. Davies is penning the 60th Anniversary Special, which is also expected to mark the first full episode for Ncuti Gatwa as the Fourteenth Doctor. Davies would not be drawn on how Tennant and Tate will return, encouraging speculation that it might be a dream, a flashback or a parallel universe. It's also not entirely clear if they are returning for the 60th Anniversary Special itself, or possibly a separate special or episode airing as part of the same celebrations.

It is so far unknown if the other Doctors of the modern age - Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker - are returning for the anniversary as well.

UPDATE: Actor Yasmin Finney (Heartstoppershas also been cast for the 60th Anniversary, playing a character called Rose. Russell T. Davies often has characters called Rose in his drama, including the co-lead in Bob & Rose and, of course, Rose Tyler in his first stint in Doctor Who. It is unclear if this new character is a guest star or the new regular companion.

Wertzone Classics: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

Sybel is the latest in a line of keepers of a group of fantastic beasts dwelling on Eld Mountain. She cares nothing for the outside world until the warrior Coren brings into her care a baby boy, Tamlorn. Tamlorn is the son of the king, but Sybel cares nothing for his heritage. A dozen years later, the outside world returns to intrude on their peaceful lives, and Sybel and Tamlorn must choose their fate.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld was originally published in 1974 and has since become regarded as a classic, foundational volume of modern fantasy. It mixes elements of epic fantasy - armies readying for battle, politics - with elements of fairy tales, particularly the magical beasts who live with Sybel and the way that the magic works, with sorcerers gaining power over one another through the knowledge of names and stories.

McKillip's writing discipline is awesome to behold. In just 200 pages she packs in more story and more ideas than most entire trilogies. The writing is elegant and stylish for all of its tremendous pace, and the character development of Sybel, Tamlorn and Coren is superb. Particularly powerful is the discussion of the intersection of power and morality: just because you can do something does not mean you should. Sybel's grasping of how to wield great power responsibly, unlike some of her opponents who just don't care, is explored well.

The superb prose and excellent pacing does sometimes come at the expense of other elements. McKillip provides just enough worldbuilding to support the story and no more; some may feel this hurts immersion, but I never saw it as a problem (and even something of a relief). The characterisation of secondary figures aside from the big three is also more limited, due to a lack of page time. King Drede is presented intriguingly as a complex antagonist with mixed motivations, but we don't really get to know him in depth.

These complaints are slight. McKillip's writing is compelling, her storytelling is phenomenal and the way the book balances different elements is superb. It is unsurprising to learn that the novel won the inaugural World Fantasy Award in 1975, and has since become regarded as a classic of the genre. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (*****) 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.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

AMC picks up the rights for ALAN WAKE TV series

American cable network AMC have picked up the TV rights to the cult video game Alan Wake, created by Finnish developers Remedy Entertainment.

Originally released in 2010, Alan Wake told the story of the titular protagonist, a novelist who travels to Bright Falls, Washington for a break to try to break his writer's block. However, his wife goes missing, apparently kidnapped by a supernatural force, and Alan discovers a strange dimension known as "the Dark Place" impinging on the real world. Aided by various allies, Alan tries to defeat this force and locate his missing wife. The story continued in a standalone expansion, Alan Wake's American Nightmare (2012).

In 2019 Remedy released Control, a new game about a team investigating "Altered World Events" from their headquarters in New York City. The game and its expansions eventually confirm that they take place in the same universe as Alan Wake, and events from the game play a major role in Control's second expansion, AWE. Last year, Remedy released a remastered version of Alan Wake and formally announced that Alan Wake 2 was in development, hopefully for release in 2023.

Work on an Alan Wake TV show began in 2018, with Legion's Peter Calloway set to serve as showrunner and Remedy's Sam Lake (the writer of Alan Wake) serving as producer and consultant.

AMC's previous shows include The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Preacher.

Christopher Walken cast as Emperor Shaddam IV in DUNE: PART TWO

Christopher Walken has joined the cast of Dune: Part Two, playing the role of Emperor Shaddam IV.

Walken is a legendary American actor whose film and TV credit list of note is almost too long to comfortably quote. Among his best-known films are Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, The Dead Zone, A View to a Kill, King of New York, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Sleepy Hollow, Catch Me If You Can and Hairspray. His TV ("More Cowbell"), stage and even music video performances (particularly Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice") are also legendary.

Shaddam IV of House Corrino is the Emperor of the Known Universe, ruler of the Imperium, although he has to share his power with the Landsraad Council. The rising popularity of Duke Leto Atreides instils paranoia in Shaddam IV, leading him to plot Leto's downfall with the Harkonnens, in contravention of the law.

In the 1984 film version of Dune, Shaddam was played by José Ferrer. In the 2000 mini-series, he was played by Giancarlo Giannini.

Dune: Part Two is due to start shooting in the summer with Denise Villeneuve returning to direct. Florence Pugh was also recently cast in the role of Princess Irulan, Shaddam's daughter.

Update: It's now been confirmed that actor Austin Butler has been cast in the role of Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. Butler is best-known for appearing in Switched at Birth, The Carrie Diaries, The Shannara Chronicles and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. His next appearance will be in the biopic Elvis, playing the titular King of Rock and Roll.

STARFIELD delayed until early 2023

Bethesda Game Studios have announced they are delaying their new science fiction roleplaying game, Starfield, to the first half of 2023. They had previously committed a release date of 11 November this year.

Starfield is the latest open-world CRPG from Bethesda Game Studios, best-known for their Elder Scrolls and Fallout games. Starfield is a brand new IP, set in the early 24th Century and seeing the player working for Constellation, the last human organisation dedicated to interstellar exploration. During the game the player becomes embroiled in a central mystery, possibly related to the discovery of alien life, and has to choose which one of several factions to work with. As usual with a Bethesda RPG, there will be significant freedom in allowing players to choose where they go and what to do next.

Starfield is also the first game to use the new generation of Bethesda's Creation Engine to create larger and more impressive environments than previously, as well as featuring new mechanics. The same engine is also being used for The Elder Scrolls VI, the long-awaited sequel to Skyrim, which is now in pre-production.

Redfall, a co-op action game from fellow subsidiary Arkane Studios, has also been delayed in the same time window.

Bethesda announced the 11-11-22 release date in June 2021, and reportedly it was already considered ambitious. However, Bethesda have always been aggressive in announcing release dates, announcing both Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 just six months before release, and Skyrim around a year. The eighteen month lead-time seemed reasonable on that basis. However, Bethesda have confirmed that the technical challenges of getting the game ready in time have proven greater than expected. Aware of the controversies of other games that were not ready and then rushed out in a buggy state (such as Cyberpunk 2077), Bethesda have chosen a more cautious approach.

Starfield's precise launch date in early 2023 has not yet been confirmed. More information on the game is expected to be revealed at the Xbox Game Showcase on 12 June.

Sales of Sir Terry Pratchett's DISCWORLD series pass 100 million copies

This isn't new news - it was alluded to in 2020 - but it did slip under the radar somewhat at the time. Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld fantasy series has now sold over 100 million copies, making it one of the biggest-selling SFF series of all time.

Pratchett's Narrativia production company announced the figure back in 2020 (and suggested it had actually been achieved five years earlier). Sir Terry published 41 Discworld novels in total, beginning with The Colour of Magic in 1983 and concluding with The Shepherd's Crown in 2015, published shortly after the author's passing. The Discworld is a flat planet which is carried through space on the back of four elephants standing in turnon the back of an enormous turtle. The series started off as a parody of fantasy, but developed in a sophisticated literary series musing on a huge variety of subjects. Pratchett was highly-feted during his lifetime, sometimes compared to Charles Dickens for his way of using popular, well-written stories to make points about class, life, morality, religion, superstition and technology.

Selling 100 million copies of a single book series is a huge achievement. In science fiction and fantasy, this feat has only been accomplished previously by J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Stephen King's interconnected (but loose-knit) universe of horror and fantasy novels, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth books, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga, Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series and Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games saga. The figure catapults Pratchett past the likes of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin.

The figure puts Pratchett's lifetime sales at probably well over 110 million (Pratchett published more than 20 non-Discworld books as well, including popular collaborations with other authors, and even more non-fiction), making him one of the ten biggest-selling SFF authors of all time.

Both Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series are not far behind though, with the former estimated to have sold well over 80 million copies (and potentially more) and the latter on well over 90 million. TV adaptations of both series have helped fuel a recent boom in sales, which could also soon put them into the 100 Million Club.

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

King Verence of Lancre has welcomed travellers from across the Disc to the naming of his daughter and heir. Amongst the visitors are Mightily Oats, of the Church of Om, and dignitaries from Uberwald who like their drinks glasses to be warm and filled with blood. This sounds like a case for the Lancre witches, but young Agnes is suffering from divided attention and Granny Weatherwax has gone to ground, prompting a search by Nanny Ogg. The undead have come to Lancre, and don't seem keen to leave...

Carpe Jugulum, the twenty-third Discworld novel, returns to the Kingdom of Lancre and the adventures of the witches' coven led by Granny Weatherwax, one of the most popular sub-series within the larger series. It's a book that has a straightforward narrative, boiling down to vampires vs. witches, but also uses its straightforward story and structure to tell, in the best tradition of Pratchett, a more complex story about good, evil, morality and responsibility.

In the novel we meet "reformed" vampires. Through years of mental training against superstition and stereotypes, they've overcome many of the weaknesses of their kind. They've also trained themselves to "sip" from victims, keeping them alive for repeated use rather than killing lots of people. The vampires claim that this is progress, and they have overcome evil in pursuit of the common good, with the best results for both vampires and humans. However, it quickly becomes clear that this has just provided them with another form of control and oppression. The overt, cliche-ridden face of evil has instead been replaced by a bureaucratic, over-explained form of it, which feels even worse. The vampires beg the question, is slavery better than murder, and if so, does that still make slavery a good thing?

This leads to one of Pratchett's best encapsulations of the nature of evil and sin: people treating other people not as complex individuals worthy of respect, but as things, reducing them to statistics and not caring about their own volition; talking at people rather than with them. It's one of the Pratchett's most powerful arguments and it resonates through the novel as he explores it from different angles.

Pratchett is at his best when he is angry about something, as he was with fundamentalist religion in arguably his best novel, Small Gods (here echoed in the character of Oats, who is also a member of the Church of Om which was central in that book). His anger here is somewhat cooler, but he makes his point extremely well.

This overcomes a potential weakness of the book in terms of its basic plot and structure. "Vampires show up, take over Lancre, and get into a struggle with the witches and their allies," is extremely close to "Elves show up, take over Lancre, and get into a struggle with the witches and their allies," which we've already seen in Lords and Ladies. Although the specific plot points are different, the overall feeling of the novel is familiar. But still, if you can't tap yourself for ideas and inspiration, who else can you? And it helps that Pratchett uses a familiar structure to make an important thematic point about morality.

There's also some nice continuity moments in the book, like the first appearance of the Nac Mac Feegle in force (a solitary example appeared previously in Feet of Clay) who go on to play a major role in later books. The book is also quite amusing, with Pratchett satirising many elements of the horror genre, and the vampire genre specifically, without relying on the most obvious (and long-exhausted) gags. If there is another weakness, it's that the book dabbles with the idea of characters with split personalities, but doesn't engage with the idea as fully as perhaps it could.

Carpe Jugulum (****½) has a familiar and somewhat predictable structure, but Pratchett uses that to his advantage to relay a powerful message about the nature of good and evil, develop his characters (especially Granny Weatherwax) and trigger some good laughs along the way. The novel 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.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

RIP Patricia McKillip

News has sadly broken that the hugely influential fantasy author Patricia McKillip has passed away at the age of 74. McKillip is best-known for her novels The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974) and The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), which were two hugely important works of fantasy in the post-Tolkien, pre-mass-commercialisation of the genre period.

McKillip was born in Salem, Oregon in 1948 and was raised in the USA, UK and Germany. She attended San Jose State University and received a Master of Arts in English in 1973. She started writing whilst in college and published her first book, The Throme of the Erril of Sherill, a novella for children, in 1973.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld was published in 1974 and immediately put McKillip, then 26, on the map. The book won the 1975 World Fantasy Award and was a nominee for both the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. The book tells the story of Sybel, who lives on a mountain, alone apart from a group of mythical creatures summoned by her late father. Sybel is then given the care of a young baby who holds the future of the kingdom in her hands.

The book attracted a rapturous critical reception and sold well. In 1976 McKillip repeated the feat ith The Riddle-Master of Hed, the first in her Riddle-Master Trilogy (which continued with Heir of Sea and Flame and the Hugo-nominated Harpist in the Wind). The trilogy was declared by The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as a work of "classic stature." The trilogy tells the story of Morgon, the Prince of Hed, who is also the Riddle-Master of his world, and Raederle of An, the heir of sea and fire. The work was hugely successful.

McKillip's later work includes the Cygnet Duology, Kyreol Series and the Winter Rose Duology. She later worked exclusively in standalone novels, including Something Rich and Strange (winner of the 1995 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award), Ombria in Shadow (winner of the 2003 World Fantasy Award), and her last novel, Kingfisher (2016) and her final story collection, Dreams of Distant Shores (2016).

McKillip won a Locus Award, two World Fantasy Awards and two Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards. She was also nominated for the Nebula and Hugo.

A hugely important and influential author modern fantasy, with remarkable prose and character skills, she will be missed.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Murderbot is settling into their role providing security for their client Dr. Mensah on Preservation Station when they are asked to do something they've never done before: investigate a murder. Murderbot is more at home providing security in high-risk combat situations, rather than the finesse and subtlety that a homicide investigation requires. Still, with a potential killer or killers loose on the station and the inexperienced station security slow to find them, Murderbot takes up the case.

The sixth and (at this time of writing) most recent entry in The Murderbot Diaries returns to the novella format of the first four books, after the novel-length experiment of Network Effect. Fugitive Telemetry is set before Network Effect and sees a shift in format, with Murderbot going from security consultant to murder investigator, a task they initially seem ill-suited for but soon get to grips with. It's not a complete left-field transformation for the series - Murderbot has had to piece together mysteries and incomplete pictures before - but it's enough to freshen up the series when familiarity might be setting in.

As with the earlier books, the novella format means a tight, focused structure and an excellent pace (like the earlier books, you can easily finish this off in a single sitting). Wells writes the mystery with panache, providing enough misdirection to make it intriguing. However, she does not provide enough information for the reader to solve the mystery themselves until quite late in the day, which is a shame.

The twists and turns, brief action bursts and nice pacing make this as fiendishly readable as earlier books in the series, but arguably it's lighter on character than prior books in the series. Murderbot continues their development nicely, but there's a lack of a great foil for Murderbot like ART in prior books. Security Chief Indah has some promise, but they don't really get enough time in the sun to really fulfil the same kind of role. There's also some repetition in Murderbot, once again, having to prove its capability and volition to people keen to dismiss it as just another robot.

Fugitive Telemetry (****) is Martha Wells doing what she does best, delivering a witty, well-written slice of SF, this time more of a thriller than an action novel. The book is available now in the US and on import in most other territories. Three more Murderbot Diaries books are under contract, with the first anticipated for 2023 or 2024.

Monday, 9 May 2022

Star Trek: Picard - Season 2

Admiral Picard joins the crew of the brand-new USS Stargazer when a strange signal heralds the arrival of the new Borg Queen. A tense stand-off with Starfleet results in hostilities...and the changing of the timeline. Picard discovers the involvement of his old sparring partner Q, and embarks on a journey into the distant past to reset the timeline and find out what is going on.

The first season of Picard was highly reminiscent of the first two seasons of its label-mate Star Trek: Discovery: a highly promising start, a great cast, some solid opening episodes and lots of good ideas which were slowly compressed through the meatgrinder of confused writing, questionable attention to detail and sloppy pacing until the whole thing kind of fell over at the end in a confused mess. The most recent season of Discovery managed to just about avoid this fate and there were hopes that Picard's sophomore season might follow suit and deliver a more coherent and consistent experience.

The show certainly tries. The opening episode sees some great shots of numerous Federation starships of different types (addressing the complaint of the first season Picard finale which had a whole fleet of cloned ships) and some fun times on the brand-new Stargazer, a successor to the ship that Picard commanded before the Enterprise-D. The way the crew from Season 1 is reassembled is a little contrived, but that's been an issue with Star Trek for a long time (I remember the various stretches they had to do to get Worf involved with the TNG movies when he was also supposed to be a regular on Deep Space Nine). The show does put together its mystery for the season with some skill, resulting in a pretty strong opening episode.

However, by a few episodes in the show is starting to creak under the weight of what feels like an overload of too many ideas. Shoehorning the Borg, Guinan and Q into a Voyage Home-influenced time jump to the same time period as a Deep Space Nine episode already feels unwieldy, which is even before an ancestor of Dr. Soong shows up (so Brent Spiner can have something to do). The show also feels somewhat unkind to its own first season cast: Isa Briones and Evan Evagora are reduced to barely having cameos and the season ends with several more characters being written out.

The show does service other characters better. Santiago Cabrera has a lot more to do as Chris Rios and his storyline has a bit more emotional weight to it than others. Alison Pill and Annie Wersching also have a nice two-hander relationship going on as Jurati has to work with the Borg Queen for most of the season, and Jurati gets more development than she ever did in the first season. Seven (Jeri Ryan) and Raffi (Michelle Hurd) also get a bit more time in the sun.

For the other castmembers, it's great to see Orla Brady (a highlight of the first season) having a lot more to do this time around, but Patrick Stewart feels ill-serviced. The first season, for all its problems, gave Picard a believable reason for emotional turmoil and regret. The second season advances the idea that he is lonely and regretting the fact that he never got married or had a family, which is fine as far as it goes (although it seems to go against the Star Trek ethos of people also finding happiness and fulfilment in non-standard living arrangements), but it never really seems to find a way of marrying that to what's actually going on in the plot, some mumblings about legacy and an ancestor in 21st Century LA aside. The major retconning of his family history over what was established on TNG is also decidedly sloppy. It's also a shame he has such little material with a returning and on-fine-form John de Lancie as Q, especially given how hard their reunion was pushed in the marketing.

The season is also stretched at 10 episodes and would have been better-served as a pacier 6-episode mini-series. Although the show never dips as much into filler as the first season did, there's the definite feeling of wheel-spinning in side-stories that don't add much to the central narrative.

Against that there's some very good visual effects, some of the character arcs are decent and there's a promising story lurking around here. The second season of Star Trek: Picard (***½) is watchable and, at times, genuinely fun with a great cast, but it also overstays its welcome, doesn't seem entirely sure what story it wants to tell and sometimes over-relies on fanservice in favour of compelling storylines. The season is available now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Amazon Prime Video in most of the rest of the world.