Tuesday 31 May 2022

Agents of SHIELD: Season 3

The world is changing rapidly. The release of the terrigenesis crystals has converted dozens of people across the world into super-powered Inhumans, triggering panic. SHIELD are trying to keep a lid on the crisis, but officially they no longer exist and their authority and reach has been dramatically reduced. One of their number is also missing, whilst another has defected to Hydra.

Way back in 2013, Agents of SHIELD launched as the first TV spin-off from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its first season had a mixed response, mainly due to an early run of dull, procedural episodes only enlivened by a game main cast. However, a tie-in with the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier dramatically changed the show's fortunes as it became a much more compelling, pulp action show. The second season continued being solid, but was let down a little by an over-focus on the Inhumans arc, which had been drawn out over too many episodes.

Season 3 picks up where Season 2 left off, with SHIELD trying to contain the Inhuman problem by helping "good" Inhumans and neutralising "bad" Inhumans who are using their newfound abilities to commit crimes or hurt people. Making these kind of moral judgements whilst the governments of the world only want all Inhumans destroyed or neutralised becomes an increasingly difficult situation for Phil Caulson and his agents. The moral murkiness of this storyline is a nice contrast to the more straightforward good-vs-evil stories the show started off with and having to balance murky and shadowy agendas against one another becomes a satisfying source for tension across the third season.

The first half of the season focuses on the Inhuman issue and also on Hydra trying to satisfy the reason for its creation centuries ago, namely opening a portal to another world and locating the mysterious being known as "Hive." Jemma Simmons is MIA on that same planet (having been accidentally transported there at the end of Season 2). She is rescued relatively quickly, but it takes a while before she opens up about her experiences. This leads to flashback episode 4,722 Hours, oft-cited as the best single episode of the entire series for its balancing of horror and survival elements and for Elizabeth Henstridge's outrageously great performance.

Peaking so early does hurt the rest of the season a little (if not the entire series), which never really gets close to that level of quality again. However, the season continues to serve up some interesting stories and character arcs. Like the first two seasons, it helps that the season is split in half by a mid-season break, meaning it only has to sustain two 11-episode arcs rather than one huge 22-episode one. The shift in antagonist and story in the mid-season is handled well.

Handled less well is the abrupt departure of two of the series regulars. During the production of Season 3, ABC decided to commission a spin-off series following Bobbi Morse and Lance Hunter as the protagonists, so wrote them out of Agents of SHIELD in a manner that feels highly unconvincing. Then, of course, the spin-off was dropped after an unsuccessful pilot, removing the reason for them leaving in the first place. Although neither character is missed too much, the manner of their departure and their reasons for it feels contrived in the extreme.

The second half of the season is not quite as strong as the first, although it does stretch Brett Dalton's acting range. A veritable block of wood early in Season 1 (due to the writing choices), he improved immensely in Season 2 and in Season 3 he has to effectively play two completely different characters, and handles it well. However, the pacing in the latter half of Season 3 does feel a bit off and Hive using his mental powers to turn good characters "bad," only for the rest of the team to inevitably find a way of freeing them, is the kind of plotting that feels like it's on autopilot.

Still, Agents of SHIELD's third season (****) delivers effective, entertaining action and some nice character arcs. It also has the best episode of the entire series (4,722 Hours rates ***** by itself). It is available to watch, with the rest of the series, on Disney+ worldwide.

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The Truth by Terry Pratchett

William de Worde runs a seasonal newsletter for the well-to-do of Ankh-Morpork and other cities, but due to unusual circumstances he suddenly finds himself running the Discworld's first newspaper. As he tries to get to "the Truth," he finds himself the subject of seething rage from those who are unhappy with the stories he prints, those who want him to print their stories (and nobody else's) and those are desperate for him to print stories about their humorously-shaped vegetables. But there's also a Big Story going on, and William finds his interest in the truth of that story might be hazardous to his health.

The Truth marks a couple of notable moments for the Discworld series, being both the twenty-fifth book in the series and the first published after the new millennium. This may be be more subjective, but it also feels like there's a shift in the series at this point, with the series becoming a tad more serious in its pursuit of subject matter. It still has gags and jokes, but they now feel much more focused in support of the story, whilst in some earlier novels the two did not always work in tandem.

The Truth can be described as "Discworld does journalism" in the same way that Soul Music was "Discworld does rock music" and Moving Pictures was "Discworld does the movies" (the Disc inventing movies before newspapers kind of sums up what kind of place it is). However, this is an area which Pratchett has first-hand experience, as he worked in both newspapers and as a press officer for many years. He famously noted how he saw his first dead body about three hours into his very first day working for a newspaper, "work experience" meaning something back in those days. As a result Pratchett brings considerable knowledge to bear on how printing presses work, how journalists talk to people and the widely-ranging responses people have to journalists, from showing off, lying or exhibiting extreme hostility.

These elements all work well, are interesting and can be quite funny, but The Truth also feels distressingly prescient. Pratchett presents the responses to the arrival of newspapers as hyper-exaggerated events for comedic purposes, such as the setting up of rival newspapers that just make stuff up and enraged people trying to track down journalists for revenge, or accusing journalists of lying when they simply don't like the story that's being told. What was grossly-exaggerated in 2000 fells distinctly less so in 2022. This is an area where the book has perhaps become both less funny but also much more prophetic and interesting. The book's motto of "a lie can spread around the world whilst the truth is still putting its boots on," feels even more resonant today then it did at the time.

Beyond that, The Truth works as a great mystery in its own right. It's interesting that the City Watch is investigating the same crime but since this is not a Watch novel, we don't have any insight to what they are doing. Instead we catch glimpses of their investigation through William's story, and Pratchett juggles having to keep William as his protagonist without suddenly making the Watch into idiots who can't solve the crime themselves. It's a fun balancing act which he pulls off with typical aplomb. The book is also an important piece of Terry Pratchett's worldbuilding growth of Ankh-Morpork, which over twenty-five books (and the following sixteen) has grown from being a Lankhmar knock-off to being the greatest, best-detailed fantasy metropolis in the history of the genre.

The novel is also notable as having arguably Pratchett's greatest tip of the hat to his good friend and collaborator, Neil Gaiman. Mr. Tulip and Mr. Pin feel like a homage to Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Gaiman's TV series (and later novel) Neverwhere, and it's fun to see Pratchett but his spin on those kind of charismatic but evil villains.

The Truth (****½) might be the Discworld novel that's aged the most depressingly, with its hyper-exaggeration of fake news and reporting having become surprisingly accurate. However, it's also Pratchett working at the top of his game, delivering a strong mystery with great villains and some of his most quotable dialogue. 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.

Wertzone Classics: Final Fantasy VII

Cloud Strife, mercenary for hire, is contacted by his childhood friend Tifa to help out an ecological resistance group she's part of, AVALANCHE, which is resisting the despoiling of the planet by the Shinra Company. Cloud joins up for the money, not the cause, but almost against his will he's drawn into their struggle, especially when his old superior officer turned enemy Sephiroth shows up. As a three-way battle for the fate of the planet takes shape, Cloud must overcome his own demons and devastating losses to preserve the planet.

Two years ago, Square Enix released Final Fantasy VII Remake, the first part of a series of games updating their classic 1997 roleplaying game to modern standards. The game was pretty good (some quibbles aside), but it only adapt the first part of the game. The second part still doesn't have a release date and any further parts (if needed) will be years after even that. Of course, one cunning way to get around this is to just replay the original game.

Final Fantasy VII is regarded as one of the most important video games ever made. A huge unit-shifter for the original Sony PlayStation console, it demonstrated the console's graphical capabilities (through enormously impressive CGI cutscenes) whilst retaining the depth of gameplay and customisation that the series had previously become famous for on the NES and SNES. The game's story, characters and shock plot twists became iconic, and the game arguably did more for popularising Japanese RPGs outside of Japan then any game before or since. Its anime stylings also helped the burgeoning popularity of manga and anime in other countries.

The game could also be famously obtuse: it was one of the biggest-selling video games on the original PlayStation but it was also one of the most heavily-resold, with as many players bouncing off its confusing storyline and poorly-translated characters as those who loved and embraced it. A lot of players in 1997 (and 1998, when it first hit PC) really got into FF7 because there were not too many exciting alternatives around, whilst that is definitely not true in 2022, where even its own sequels are more approachable (Final Fantasy IX, which uses the same engine, has many of FF7's strengths and fewer of its weaknesses, for example).

That said, Final Fantasy VII still has a lot to offer and as a classic of the genre, it's definitely worth a look. Whether players will stick with it is another matter.

FF7 sees you controlling a party of three characters at any one time, drawn from a wider pool that can grow to nine characters (two of whom are optional and can be missed if you're not careful). Each character has their own distinct personality and specialisations, but a key selling point of FF7 is its deep customisability: you can rename every character and you can tailor characters' growth how you want. Tifa may be presented as a melee specialist, but if you want to pour magic upgrades into her and turn her into a formidable spellcaster, there's nothing stopping you. Compared to the class systems from prior Final Fantasy games (and most other fantasy CRPGs), this is tremendously freeing. Most characters also work as solid jack-of-all-trades, with great combat and magic skills.

The game's magic system remains superb. Magic is used in the form of crystals called materia. Materia can be assigned to weapons and armour, granting the wielder access to their associated spells but also giving them bonuses. There is a colossal amount of materia which can do everything from healing to hurling fire to learning enemy skills to granting support abilities, like your character will immediately automatically counter-attack enemy strikes, or when asked to use a spell once will instead cast it four times. Towards the end of the game, the type and applicability of materia can get completely crazy, in a pleasing, almost game-breaking kind of way. The materia system remains brilliant, and fun to play around with and experiment with different character builds. As you use materia, it also levels up, unlocking new spells or new tiers of existing spells. You can also level up materia and then give it to another character to use, or sell at a huge profit.

You also have weapon and armour upgrades, acquired at a steady pace through gameplay or bought at stores. Each weapon and armour has a different amount of materia slots, and these don't always scale linearly: the best weapons in the game don't permit any materia growth, so are best held back for the final battles in the game. Some formidable weapons don't allow you to use any materia at all but have massive damage bonuses, and so on. The weapon and armour system is less extensive than the materia one, but adds a nice amount of added depth to the game.

In terms of gameplay, the game runs in three different modes. For most of the game you control a party of three (usually led by Cloud) who run around on painted backdrops. In this mode the game controls like an old adventure game like Grim Fandango, or a faster-paced Resident Evil. You can search for treasure chests, talk to other characters, go into shops or just make your way to the next destination. The hand-painted backdrops are gorgeous but, in their original format, very low-res and somewhat confusing. Various mods have remastered the painted backdrops via AI with varying degrees of success, but have improved matters.

In the second mode, you have access to the world map, a 3D representation of the entire planet which you can run your party around on either on foot or by vehicle (buggy, a plane converted into a boat, a submarine and, later, an airship). You are mostly directed to the next destination required by the story, but later in the game you can travel across the map freely to carry out side-quests, find obscure loot and fight optional enemies.

In both modes (apart from when in cities or other "safe areas") you can get into combat at absolutely any moment. You can't see enemies before they attack, and it's a bit disconcerting by modern standards to be wandering around an empty screen and suddenly combat kicks in with its very jarring (but excellent) music. Combat is semi turn-based, with timers that rise for both sides before you can act. You can speed up these timers with certain hasting spells and abilities, whilst enemies can slow them down with magic. During combat you can attack with your default weapon, use magic or use an item. Combat can be satisfyingly tactical, with you having to strike a balance between attack, using defensive magic (to put up shields to reduce physical or magical damage from heavy-hitting enemies, for example) or using items to heal the party or wake up KOed allies. Just following the story will give you plenty of combat and opportunities to improve your skills, but you can also grind areas to level up faster.

Of course, you need a good reason to do all of this, and Final Fantasy VII delivers an excellent, if unoriginal, premise. It's basically Star Wars with the evil Shinra Corporation (the Empire) despoiling the planet and ruling with a tyrannical fist, and AVALANCHE (the Rebels) are out to stop them. There is a wild card in the form of a second enemy, Sephiroth, who looks amazing and has cool hair but ends up being a bit under-cooked as an enemy compared to the numerous faces of Shinra. The good guys are an iconic if archetypal bunch, from brooding soldier Cloud to sunny-optimistic Aerith to tough guy Barrett. The characters are great, but they are severely under-developed compared to modern game protagonists, with a relative lack of dialogue and background depth apart from Cloud, Tifa and Aerith. Still, they're fun if shallow.

Where the game does falter is how it tells its story to the player. The opening, with AVALANCHE mid-operation and the player joining in media res and having to quickly get up to speed, is rightfully iconic, showcasing the game's unusual steampunk-meets-fantasy-meets-modern-day world and throwing up some good action sequences. However, it doesn't take long for players to run into the game's famously iffy translation issues. The game was translated from Japanese into English quickly and a bit too cheaply, resulting in confused dialogue and head-scratching moments that don't make much sense. This is not entirely helped by the game undergoing some changes via different editions over the years and the dialogue not keeping up (Weapon is referred to as a single enemy, for example, whilst the international version of the game expands this enemy to five different entities). You always get the general gist of what's going on, but occasionally opening the game's wiki entry to find out what is actually going on can be quite helpful. Particularly irritating are a couple of moments mid-game when the very clear objectives you've had on what to do next dry up and the game leaves you to wander the world map until bumping into the next objective, which can take a long time without consulting a walkthrough. 

The game also has little truck with a lot of UI standbys that were becoming standard at the time, let alone now. There is no autosave, so you have to manually save every chance you get (something even its near-contemporary, Baldur's Gate, did for the player). This is not helped by the fact you can only save at certain points or on the world map, not everywhere, which can occasionally put you in difficulty spikes where you can die and then have to retrace the last ten minutes or so. FF7 is not a really hard game by any standards, especially the occasionally crippling standards of some JRPGs, but it can catch you out if you don't stay on top of upgrading your weapons and materia.

The game also has a lot of systems which it doesn't really explain to you, again leaving you consult online guides. Particularly undersold is how incredibly powerful the Enemy Skill materia is (allowing you to use enemy abilities once they've been used on you), and the game doesn't tell you which enemy skills can be learned and which cannot, again encouraging the use of outside help.

These negatives, jank and dated systems will no doubt be more aggravating for newer players than for seasoned veterans. But there is a lot to enjoy with the original Final Fantasy VII (****). Its relatively fast pace, especially compared to its drawn-out remake, is refreshing and keeps the game ticking over breezily for all of its 35-40 hour length (considerably more if you grind your characters to maximum level or try to fight some of the optional bosses). The iffy translation can mostly be overcome and the three-way fight between AVALANCHE, Shinra and Sephiroth becomes quite intriguing, with numerous betrayals and unexpected alliances. Enhanced with mods, the game can also still look quite amazing, considering it's now (screams) a quarter of a century old, whilst the soundtrack remains one of the best in gaming history. The combat depth is also still remarkable, and the magic system one of the best ever seen in a CRPG.

Final Fantasy VII is available on PlayStation, Android, Xbox and Nintendo systems, as well as on PC via GoG and Steam. For this replay I used the SYW Mod, which uses AI to upscale both the FMV video and painted backgrounds in the game, and is still being updated and supported. The results can be variable, but in most cases the background art was hugely improved and made clearer, although the FMV was more hit-and-miss and could occasionally get a little smeary. Other mods are available, such as Remako which is no longer supported but gives a better finish to the FMV and backgrounds but the 3D models and combat is not as enhanced.

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

Thursday 26 May 2022

RIP Andy Fletcher

Sad news today, as it's been revealed that musician Andy Fletcher has passed away at the age of 60. Fletcher, known as "Fletch" to his friends, was best-known as a founding member of British electronic music titans Depeche Mode.

Born in Nottingham in 1961, Andy Fletcher grew up in Basildon, Essex. He met Vince Clarke in school in the late 1970s and they formed a band called No Romance in China, where Fletch played bass guitar. In 1980 they formed a new band, Composition of Sound, with their friend Martin Gore. Fletch switched to synth bass. A few months later, they recruited Dave Gahan on vocals and changed the name to Depeche Mode, having seen the name in a French magazine (it means "fast fashion").

Clarke left the band in 1981, having recorded the album Speak & Spell and the hit single "Just Can't Get Enough" with the band. Clarke went on to found Yazoo and Erasure (famously offering the smash hit song "Only You" to the band as a parting gift, which the Mode rejected). Depeche Mode recruited Alan Wilder to replace him and the band went through several years of gradual profile-building, through several albums of gradually increasing sales and relentless touring through first Europe, then Asia and the United States. The band achieved a major breakthrough with the 1986 album Black Celebration and then its 1987 follow-up, Music for the Masses, which delivered them huge success in America (as seen on the massive "101" tour and its culminating gig at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, filmed for the documentary 101).

After a hiatus, the band returned in 1990 with the giga-selling album Violator and its hit anthems "Personal Jesus" and "Enjoy the Silence." The band started spiralling out of control during the recording of the follow-up, Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993), with Gore, Fletch and Gahan all experiencing problems with depression and/or substance abuse. Alan Wilder, after weeks of being the only person to show up at sound checks and mixes, finally quit the band in frustration. The band almost split up after the following tour (sometimes described as one of the most hedonistic in music history), especially after Gahan suffered multiple drug overdoses that left him technically dead for several minutes. However, cleaning up their act, the band regrouped to deliver the albums Ultra (1997), Exciter (2001) and career-renaissance record Playing the Angel (2005). They have since released Sounds of the Universe (2009), Delta Machine (2013) and Spirit (2017), to varying degrees of critical acclaim.

Depeche Mode have sold over 100 million records and, despite a low-key response to new music since Playing the Angel, they remain an absolutely massive international draw, selling out stadiums all over the world and enjoying success in countries a lot of artists never bother travelling to. The band have never quite enjoyed the success at home that they have abroad, however: they have never had a British #1 single and British music periodicals and websites tend to overlook their contributions in assessments of major musical acts of the 1980s and 1990s. In contrast, in the United States and Europe, they are often cited as the most influential and important British band since The Beatles, and more important than any of their synth peers from the same time period. This remains fiercely debated.

Andy Fletcher's role in the band has been somewhat underrated. In the early days he played a key musical role on synthesiser, particularly bass synths, and contributed musically to the band. However, when Martin Gore took over as primary songwriter and composer, he exerted much more control over the band's musical direction. Alan Wilder was able to push back against this to exert some influence over their material (famously upgrading "Enjoy the Silence" from a ballad to the faster-paced synth-rock classic it became, and feeling he didn't get enough credit for that). Fletch, by contrast, seemed happier to sit back out of the firing line and deliver what the other bandmembers wanted musically.

However, Fletch switched to taking over many of the band's management roles, including their business affairs and organising tours. He also stepped into the role of peacemaker in the band, mediating between the strong personalities of Gahan, Gore and Wilder. It's notable that Depeche Mode's rockiest period came when Fletch suffered depression following a series of business venture failures, resulting in him being absent from the band when it almost self-destructed. In the post-Wilder era, he returned to his role as the band's heart, and in particular was instrumental in managing the egos in the band when Gahan decided to become a full songwriter and stepped up his musical contributions, something Gore sometimes felt hard to handle. Music journalists often mocked Fletch's role as "showing up to cash the cheques," especially when they spotted touring musicians performing the synth parts Fletch used to, something Fletch comfortably joined in with due to his own self-deprecating humour. In 1989 he said, "Martin's the songwriter, Alan's the good musician, Dave's the vocalist, and I bum around."

Outside of the band, Fletch spent some time managing the band CLIEИT and has extensively worked as a DJ, particularly in Europe and South America.

Andy "Fletch" Fletcher is survived by his wife Grainne and children Megan and Joe. As arguably the heart and soul of one of the greatest electronic bands in history, he will very much be missed.

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.

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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.

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