Sunday 23 July 2023
Tuesday 18 July 2023
Seminal epic space opera show Babylon 5 is to finally get a release on Blu-Ray, after many, many years of campaigning by fans. The set will be released on 5 December this year in the USA, UK and some other territories.
Babylon 5 aired for five seasons and five TV movies, airing from 1993 to 1998. An additional TV movie and a direct-to-DVD film followed in 2002 and 2007, along with a 13-episode spin-off show, Crusade, in 1999. Babylon 5 was reasonably successful on its first airing, becoming the first non-Star Trek space opera to last for more than three seasons in American television history. It won two Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation (for the episodes The Coming of Shadows and Severed Dreams, in Seasons 2 and 3 respectively), along with an Emmy for visual effects. Babylon 5 helped pioneer the use of both CGI and long-term, serialised story arcs in a television series. The series was hugely influential on its contemporaries (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and succeeding shows, including Lost, which borrowed ideas from its story arc structure.
The show had a somewhat complex technical issue which has made re-releases problematic. Babylon 5 was one of the first - if not the first - American TV shows to be protected for widescreen shooting, with the plan to release the entire show in 16:9 widescreen ratio at a later date, after its original 4:3 airing. However, due to technical issues and communications mixups, the show's then-cutting edge CGI was only produced in 4:3. For the original TV release this was not an issue, but for the DVD release in 2002, this created a technical headache, as fans and the studio wanted a widescreen release. Unable to afford the cost of recreating all the CGI and composite scenes in 16:9 from scratch, the decision was made to use the widescreen live-action footage but to crop and zoom in on the CGI shots. This created a widescreen presentation which lost detail and sometimes important CGI elements from those shots. For composite scenes, this also meant occasional but noticeable rapid zooming in and out of scenes as they alternated from pure live-action shots to CG composites.
In 2021, Babylon 5 was released in a new "remastered" format. To create the best compromise version, Warner Brothers remastered the live-action-only footage in HD and also carefully upscaled the CG shots via an algorithm. As these things go, this was not too terrible, and the improved live-action footage is impressive. However, to achieve a uniform presentation, they made the decision to crop the live-action shots back down to their original 4:3 presentation, and then keep the CG shots intact. As a compromise, this was reasonable, although frustrating for fans who wanted to see the show in HD and in widescreen.
The only alternative is to completely re-render all of the show's CG elements from scratch and in 16:9. This is likely prohibitively expensive, as Babylon 5 sometimes had 100 or more CG shots in a single episode, and also requires all of the original greenscreen footage to have been preserved perfectly.
A stopgap idea has been pursued by B5 fan Tom Smith for several years, involving taking the original shots, ship models and scene files and re-rendering them in 16:9 and in HD (or even 4K) using modern PCs. This produces a visually identical image to the original, but with a lot more detail (the original models were very exactingly built for the standards of the time) and looks very nice today. However, this is only possible where all of that material has survived, either in the WB archive or in the archives of the various animators and teams that worked on the show. Smith tracked down a lot of that material for Seasons 2 and 3, but for Season 1 only the models have survived, and for Seasons 4 and 5 it appears that very little has survived, so this is not a viable solution for the entire show.
It also appears that the "complete series" title might be something of a misnomer. Based on the 2022 re-release and some of the initial release info, it looks like the set will include all five seasons of the original show, remastered, plus the pilot movie The Gathering, which was not remastered (due to issues with the original source film). The other TV movies - In the Beginning, Thirdspace, River of Souls and Call to Arms - plus the spin-off show Crusade and the later TV/DVD movies Legend of the Rangers, The Lost Tales and soon-to-be-released animated movie The Road Home, do not appear to be included at this time. If it is confirmed that some or all of them will be included, this news will be updated.
Wednesday 12 July 2023
Monday 10 July 2023
News has sadly broken that television writer Manny Coto has passed away at the age of 62. Coto was best-known for his work on the Star Trek franchise, 24 and Dexter.
Born in Havana, Cuba in 1961, Coto studied at the American Film Institute. He began his television writing career in 1988 with an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and became a regular writer on MTV's Dead at 21. Inbetween, he and Brian Helgeland wrote a script called The Ticking Man, which became the first-ever script to sell for over $1 million. His first show as creator and showrunner was Odyssey 5 (2002-03), about a group of people who witness the destruction of Earth and time travel back to avert the disaster.
In 2003 he began working on Star Trek: Enterprise in its third season. His first episode was Similitude, an ethically complex episode about cloning. The episode was hailed by both critics and cast as one of the best episodes of the series. Coto's next several episodes were well-received, and he was quickly promoted to a producing role.
For the show's fourth and final season, Coto was effectively promoted to showrunner, taking the creative reigns of the series (although Rick Berman and Brannon Braga remained technically the executive producers in charge). The final season used a number of short-form story arcs to tell stories tying into the Star Trek mythos, particularly illuminating stories about the Mirror Universe, Klingon history and the ancestor of Data's creator. Despite a warm reception, the change was too late to reverse the show's commercial fortunes and it was cancelled.
Coto went on to write extensively for 24, penning twenty-seven episodes from 2006 to 2010, and Dexter, penning ten episodes from 2010 to 2013. He returned as a writer on 24: Live Another Day in 2014 and co-created and wrote 24: Legacy in 2017. Coto went on to become a regular writer on American Horror Story and its anthology spin-off show, American Horror Stories.
Coto was a lifelong Star Trek fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise. It is interesting that he did not return to the franchise after its return to television in 2017, and also did not work on Trek homage show The Orville, which his colleague Brannon Braga worked extensively. Coto's other interests included model trains and wine-making.
Coto passed away on Sunday 10 July from pancreatic cancer, which he'd been fighting for over a year. He is survived by his wife, mother, four children and eight nieces and nephews.
"There will be sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes and ill-advised spin-offs with side characters that cannot possibly carry their own series. We'll give the fans everything they want, and much, much more. We'll use an algorithm to churn out hundreds of scripts a day at virtually no cost. And sure, you'll complain about how it used to be better, but that anger will unite you. And you'll keep watching, hoping it will end, begging for it to end, and then you'll all die. And your children will watch it too, and so on. We're going to milk that creative IP until the UDDER RUNS DRY!The show doesn't always knock it out of the park. John doesn't have much characterisation beyond, "hey, he's weird, and every episode we'll make him weirder," and a lot of the secondary supporting cast doesn't have much to do. But the central cast (Reddick, Matt Ingbretson as Matt, Jake Weisman as Jake, Adam Lustick as John, Anne Dudek as Kate and Aparna Nancherla as Grace) all give good to great performances and, mostly, the ideas work well. The funniest episodes are genuinely hilarious, and the occasional tonal shifts into melancholy or even nihilism are effective.
"This is the future of content, and CONTENT WILL NEVER DIE!"
A fungal mass infection has overrun much of the world, killing billions and turning others into mindless, ravaging creatures. Smuggler Joel is tasked by a group known as the Fireflies with escorting 14-year-old Ellie across America to safety. The Fireflies believe that Ellie's genes hold the key to a cure for the infection.
The Last of Us was a 2013 video game from Naughty Dog, the creators of the Uncharted franchise. The game was a massive smash hit success, attracting praise for its emotional storytelling, dialogue, combat, characterisation and atmosphere. Its 2020 sequel was somewhat more divisive but still mostly well-received.
Inevitably, moves began to adapt the story as either a film or TV show. After several failed attempts, the project found a home at HBO with Chernobyl writer-producer Craig Mazin at the helm, joined by the game's original creator and writer Neil Druckmann.
The project still faced an uphill battle to succeed. TV has been awash with post-apocalyptic survival stories for well over a decade, with The Walking Dead (2010-22) being the most successful example, spawning multiple spin-offs. Other shows have had less success, with Y: The Last Man (2021) failing to gain much ground and only lasting one season. More notably, video game adaptations still had a long track record of failure in other mediums, Netflix's Arcane being the biggest exception (although that show benefitted from really only using characters and background lore, and crafting a new story).
The Last of Us once again argues that HBO has the Midas touch, emerging as easily the best live action video game adaptation to date. It helps that the series is based on a linear video game with a very linear story, divided itself into sections that can easily be lifted out and converted into episodes. It also helps that the source material itself is so strong.
The biggest success is in casting: Pedro Pascal can play "adopted grumpy gunman protector-daddy" in his sleep at this point, but still brings his A-game. Bella Ramsey doesn't hugely resemble the Ellie from the games, but has the requisite attitude, and Ramsey and Pascal have a great relationship and energy (possibly inspired by both being Game of Thrones casualties). Other actors rotate in and out of the road trip and do a great job, with Nick Offerman delivering the best guest performance of the season as Bill. More under-used is the normally-outstanding Melanie Lynskey, who isn't given much to as Kathleen (and from what we do see, it feels like her Yellowjackets character - also a well-meaning psychopath - has been airdropped in for five minutes). The likes of Merle Dandridge, John Hannah, Anna Torv, Gabriel Luna, Murray Bartlett and Rutina Wesley all provide excellent support.
The structure of the series mirrors that of the games, but also breaks away for format-busting experiments. The third episode, Long, Long Time, might be the season highlight as it follows libertarian prepper Bill's attempts to survive in the aftermath of the outbreak, and it turns from comedy to action to romance with conviction. Left Behind (based on an expansion to the game) is an excellent flashback episode focusing on Ellie's history and what led her to joining forces with the Fireflies.
Where the series falters a little is in some of the "normal" episodes, where the pacing can flag and where the show sometimes hesitates in how it deals with post-apocalyptic/zombie tropes that the likes of The Walking Dead have employed a dozen times over. A loved one is infected and needs to be killed/is allowed to make a noble sacrifice? Yup, several times. Have the tough times have made some people resort to being murders/rapists/cannibals/murderous rapist-cannibals? Oh yeah. At the merest sign of trouble, did about 30% of the population turn into authoritarian lunatics instantly? Of course. To its credit, the show does its best to make these well-trodden plotlines work, sometimes successfully, at other times less so.
This impacts on the pacing, with, once the flashback episodes are removed, seven episodes to tell its story and it still feels a little too long, which is odd given that the show runs to only about half the length of the first game. Still, the game can eat up a lot of its time in combat and stealth sequences which the show can't, at least not so easily.
But if the pacing is sometimes sluggish, there are also excellent moments of character development. It's also refreshing to see an adaptation not afraid to adapt the source material. Entire scenes from the game are faithfully recreated in the show, occasionally dialogue-perfect. Other storylines are changed to accommodate the show's greater sense of realism: fighting off the type of numbers that Ellie and Joel encounter in the game would look silly, or drag out too much. It's a judgement call in each case and, for the most part, the show makes good calls. After a bunch of recent adaptations that seemed to be terrified of their own source material (The Rings of Power comes to mind), it's good to see one more in conversation with it.
The show also makes good calls when it comes to CG. The increasingly all-invasive use of CGI in modern TV and film has become tedious, leading to fake-looking backdrops all over the place. This show certainly uses CG in places, but it is more restrained and, as a result, more convincing. Arguably, the show even fails to use CG in moments when maybe it should have (painting out the massive mountains that have inexplicably appeared around Boston might have been a good idea). The CG-animated cordyceps monsters are extremely well-realised, and used sparingly to good effect.
Excellent performances, good action and strong character arcs make the first season of The Last of Us (****) a winner. Occasionally sluggish pacing and sometimes questionable story turns that seem rooted more in video game logic than actual logic prevent the show from being an unqualified success, but these issues are minor. The Last of Us proves that adult, intelligent and interesting adaptations of video games are possible, and hopefully more will follow.
The TV show is available to watch on HBO or Max in the US and most overseas territories, and on Now TV in the UK.
Saturday 8 July 2023
Paper Boi and his friends have returned to Atlanta after the end of his European tour. Back home, they find the same old same old, leading Earn to make a momentous decision.
Atlanta's MO has always been to use surrealism and even horror to illuminate what should have been a fairly basic premise: an Atlanta rapper hits the big time and hires his more grounded cousin to become his manager. The show not so much lowballs as absolutely forgets about that premise on a fairly regular basis to tell unrelated stories about everything else under the sun. In the third season, the show even chucked out its regular cast for almost half its run to become an anthology show.
The fourth and concluding season of the show returns to Atlanta and what vaguely approximates its standard format, of following its four main characters as they consider the next stage of their lives, such musings interrupted by horrendously awkward social situations, ill-considered monetary decisions and continuously pervasive racism.
If this was any other show, it'd be easy to say this was a "back to basics" season, but Atlanta's boundless inventiveness makes that a fairly meaningless statement. In the first episode alone, Darius is targeted by a scooter-bound woman who mistakes his genuine attempts to return an unwanted air fryer to Target during a riot as looting, Al follows an insane Scavenger Hunt to attend the funeral of his idol, and Earn and Van get lost in a mall seemingly inhabited by all of their ex-partners, forcing them into increasingly cringey small talk. Later episodes feature Earn undertaking one of the most elaborate and expensive petty revenge schemes in human history, Al being sucked into the terrifying world of managing young white rappers and Van getting stuck on a filming lot by a deranged showrunner (any similarities to real-life figures, of course, coincidental).
Compared to the third season's four anthology episodes unrelated to the main premise, this episode throws up only one, creating a fictitious alternate history where a junior animator is accidentally promoted to the CEO of Disney in 1992 and sets about making "the blackest movie of all time," which turns out to be the underrated animated masterpiece A Goofy Movie. Presented as a mockumentary with talking heads (a mixture of real-life figures and fictional Disney staff) and an undetectable dividing line between comedy and pathos, the episode is both hilarious and heartbreaking. It's also remarkable to see Disney (via FX) bankrolling and then showing something so critical of Disney.
The show ends, not with a bang or some kind of major climactic event (despite teasing Earn leaving the gang for Los Angeles all season), but instead a pretty ordinary day for the team, "ordinary" doing some heavy lifting as a concept there. The gang are stuck in a posh restaurant with arty food but are distracted by the proximity of a popular chicken fast food joint, whilst Darius undergoes a self-imposed existential crisis which can only be remedied by determining the dimensions of Judge Judy's posterior. Obviously.
Atlanta's final season (*****) is a well-deserved victory lap, the creators taking everything they've done so far and assembling a final ten episodes which are as inventive, bizarre and amusing as anything they've done to date. They don't go quite as random as the third season, but still keep up the consistency to a very high level. Walking away after such a run of episodes seems both crazy but also so Atlanta. We need more shows which are as fearless and unbound as this one (only channel-mate Reservation Dogs seems to be willing to go as far at the moment), but at least we have the forty-one episodes of this show to fall back on in the future. It's been a ride.
The entire run of Atlanta is available on Hulu in the United States and Disney+ in most of the rest of the world.