Sunday 23 July 2023

Wertzone Classics: Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

Sam Vimes, Commander of the City Watch and Duke of Ankh-Morpork, is having a very bad day. His wife is in labour with their first child, and it is the thirtieth anniversary of the Glorious Revolution of the Twenty-Fifth of May. But rather than spending his day toasting fallen friends and greeting his child into the world, Vimes is instead chasing down Carcer, a notorious murderer and sociopath with a taste for killing Watchmen. The inadvertent combination of a lightning strike with the standing magical field of Unseen University transports both Vimes and Carcer back to the week of the Glorious Revolution, and Vimes has to stop Carcer and ensure that history unfolds precisely as it did before...which is a bit difficult when their arrival brings about the death of Vimes' old friend and mentor before his time.

There is nothing, or at least very little, as glorious in the world as Sir Terry Pratchett (RIP) on his best form. Released in 2002, the twenty-ninth Discworld novel holds a strong claim to be the series' very best, although it is a crowded field.

As with the other (arguable) leading candidate for that title, Small Gods, Night Watch is a book that is both funny and angry. In the earlier novel, Pratchett was furious over religious fundamentalism and how personal faith could and can be perverted into a force of oppression and evil. In Night Watch he studies paranoia and fear, how crowds and masses can be moved by propaganda and oppressed by their own rulers because they fear them. The tone is darker and bleaker than most other Discworld books by design: this isn't the cosmopolitan, successful Ankh-Morpork of the later series, but an old, rough, poor and paranoid city ruled by a lunatic despot. There's a sinister secret police force, there's torture chambers and inquisitions, and there's casual racism (as usual in the series, filtered through the lens of speciesism) that takes even old-skool, dyed-in-the-wool copper Vimes by surprise. There is still humour here, but it's grimmer and blacker than in most of his books.

One of the novel's most impressive achievements is evoking such ideas and reaching such quality in the middle of one of the series' most tightly-woven sub-series. Small Gods was a complete standalone set long before the rest of the series, but Night Watch is a key book in the "City Watch" arc, with frequent continuity references to what's been going in that storyline. However, Night Watch's fish-out-of-water setting does render that somewhat moot: you really just need to know that Vimes is a successful, reforming police commander with a pregnant wife and an ambiguously motivated boss.

The book is dealing with a lot of inspirations: the cover (Paul Kidby's first regular cover for the series following the passing of his more idiosyncratic predecessor, Josh Kirby) is a riff on Rembrandt's "Night Watch," whilst the revolution itself plays on everything from France to Russia and even Bloody Sunday (the deployment of the military to deal with a civil order issue is uncomfortably on the nose, as it means to be). Pratchett is not really interested in a 1:1 copy-past of the real events, though, and is more interested into delving into the rationales for civil disorder, for popular rebellions and mass uprisings, and if revolutions ever really change anything, other than just swapping the name on the door of the top office, and if today's heroic revolutionary leader is tomorrow's tyrannical despot.

Night Watch (*****) is still funny, but Pratchett wraps the comedy around more serious, even grimmer themes than in many of his books. The story is excellent, the characterisation - especially of Vimes, who by this novel has become maybe Pratchett's richest protagonist - among Pratchett's best and the villain is one of the most genuinely hateful in the entire series. It's also an interesting morality play on political states, the meaning of power, and how the masses can be harnessed for good and ill.

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Wertzone Classics: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The lands of Middle-earth are threatened by the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron, who only needs to find the missing One Ring to become unstoppable. Through an unlikely chain of events, the Ring has fallen into the possession of Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming hobbit of the Shire. After Bilbo retires, the Ring falls into the possession of his cousin Frodo. Finally realising the true nature of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf tells Frodo he must travel to Sauron's stronghold of Mordor and climb the volcanic Mount Doom, the only place where the Ring can be destroyed.

Reviewing The Lord of the Rings is a bit like reviewing oxygen, or Star Trek. People are probably already going to have read it, or decided not to. I can't imagine there's too many people sitting on the fence over it. Still, having just reread the whole thing, reviewing it is only polite.

The Lord of the Rings began life as a sequel to J.R.R. Tolkien's children's novel, The Hobbit, originally published in 1937. The book rapidly spiralled out of Tolkien's control and foresight, becoming longer, darker and more epic. In truth, the book became more of a sequel to Tolkien's massive myth-cycle, the then-unfinished and unpublished Silmarillion (eventually published posthumously in 1977), adopting its epic themes but using the accessible relatability of the hobbits to make the book easier to swallow for a large audience. The Lord of the Rings was eventually published in three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King) in 1954 and 1955.

The impact of The Lord of the Rings cannot be overestimated. It codified the entire category field of modern epic fantasy, and Tolkien's imitators and successors are legion, as are those consciously rejecting his influence and doing something completely different. With sales estimates running from around 150 million to almost 400 million (the confusion caused by the novel's division into one-volume, three-volume and even seven-volume editions, and vast numbers of pirate editions published globally since the book came out), The Lord of the Rings is one of the biggest-selling individual novels of all time and has spawned a multimedia empire of radio, film and TV adaptations (of wildly varying quality).

Cutting through all of this chaff, what of the novel itself? How does it hold up in 2023? The answer is very well indeed, and in some respects the novel has aged better than expected. The explosion of massive epic fantasy series with individual volumes sometimes longer than The Lord of the Rings in its entirety (achieved by Tad Williams and Brandon Sanderson, and almost so by George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss) has inverted the old criticism of the novel. Rather than overlong and ponderous, as it was felt to be by many in the 1960s and 1970s (when most SFF novels clocked in at well under 300 pages), it now feels spry and economical with its pacing. The fact Tolkien delivered a single novel that tells a massive, sweeping and complete story (even reading The Hobbit is not necessary) with almost a dozen POV characters and spanning difference races, countries and an entire war, with incredibly detailed worldbuilding (most of it created just for this book; relatively little was inherited from The Silmarillion, which took place in a different region of Middle-earth), is pretty remarkable by modern standards.

The book opens in the bucolic Shire and, despite later rewrites, this section never shakes off its origin point as The Hobbit II: Somewhere Else and Back Again, Probably. There's laughter and good cheer and a lot of light and humour. But the book switches almost on a dime when Gandalf tells Frodo of the One Ring and sinister dark-hooded Riders arrive in the Shire. The initial flight from Hobbiton to Bree, with Frodo accumulating his loyal friends and allies Samwise, Merry and Pippin, remains a masterclass of building tension. The book takes a longueur at Rivendell, but it feels earned and is important for establishing the stakes of the story and establishing the Fellowship. The remainder of the first part is Tolkien delivering one epic set-piece after another, from battling wolves on the slopes of the Misty Mountains to almost dying on the slopes of Caradhras to the transition through the Mines of Moria to the battle on Amon Hen that leads to the splitting of the Fellowship.

As Tolkien himself acknowledged many years later, The Fellowship of the Ring is very different to The Two Towers and The Return of the King. The first instalment is lighter, pacier and more focused on a small, likable band of heroes engaged in an adventure. The latter two parts split the Fellowship into smaller sub-groups and sees them allying with larger powers (the nations of Rohan and Gondor) to fight Sauron's armies on the battlefield, at Helm's Deep and the Pelennor Fields. Tolkien is superb at building tension and delivering epic speeches but seems disinclined to dwell on the horrors of warfare up-close: those used to Peter Jackson's multi-hour action sequences based on those battles may be surprised by how concisely Tolkien deals with them on the page. He is more interested in the story and what happens to his characters than filling his pages with carnage. These latter two volumes remain fascinating and enjoyable, but they are drier. The moments of humour and cheer become sparser and Tolkien's prose becomes more academic, higher and more remote.

Tolkien is also an underrated master of horror. Throughout The Lord of the Rings he adeptly deploys horror tropes to scare the bejesus out of the Fellowship and the reader. This can be seen with the Black Riders in the Shire, the barrow-wights near the Old Forest and the descent through the Black Pit of Moria, and in the later confrontations with the great spider, Shelob, and the Army of the Dead. As China Miéville once said, Tolkien also gives great monster. Between Shelob, the balrog, the cave trolls and wargs, the book is replete with excellently-designed terrors.

Ultimately our heroes achieve their goals but the novel continues for another 100 pages after that, with the hobbits returning home to find that the war has not spared the home front and they have to undertake a final quest, this time by themselves without their powerful allies. For Tolkien, the Scouring of the Shire was a vitally important part of the novel about how, after taking part in a war and experiencing trauma, you can never quite go home again. This gives The Lord of the Rings its bittersweet complexity: the war is won but the damage it wreaks on the winners - or survivors - is palpable.

The novel has its weak points. Tolkien is a skilled poet in the short form but a more awkward one at length, and the novel features several verses that go on for several pages. Whilst the novel overall packs a ton of story, character and theme into a thousand pages, it does have moments where it slows down dramatically and takes a few pages to get going again. In-depth psychological characterisation is not something that Tolkien is really interested in, along with modern ideas about when to signify POV switches. This is not to say there is no characterisation, and indeed the hobbits in particular go through impressive character growth as the book develops, but it's less obvious than in many modern novels. The greatest exception is Gollum, who is torn by competing internal forces through the book as he strives for redemption but is tempted by a return to villainy.

A more valid criticism (both modern and contemporary) is almost the complete lack of female characters: Tolkien himself had already (by this point) developed important female characters in The Silmarillion who have impressive agency and play important roles in the story (such as Lúthien, Morwen, Nienor and Melian), but in Lord of the Rings the sole female character of almost any note is Éowyn. Tolkien did write more material for Arwen, but removed most of her story to the appendices. Other female characters (Galadriel, Goldberry, Rosie Cotton) appear only fleetingly. This does add to the WWI-esque atmosphere that develops, with women as a symbol of aspiration and home, but it's probably the area where the novel has aged the most poorly.

The Lord of the Rings (*****) is a titanic presence in the field of fantasy: no other single novel is as influential in its genre, even if it's perhaps less dominant these days than it used to be. It's easy to dismiss or write it off as old-fashioned or outdated, but this would be a mistake. Tolkien delivers a huge story about fighting the forces of darkness, both the overt and the subtle, and overcoming internal trauma, in a manner that remains compelling. At its best, his prose is rich and engrossing and his descriptions impressive, although the prose does become drier as the novel proceeds and some later sections lack the flair and energy of earlier chapters. But overall The Lord of the Rings remains a towering achievement of the genre and one that is worth reading.

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

Tuesday 18 July 2023

BABYLON 5 to get long-requested Blu-Ray release

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 RangersThe 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

Wertzone Classics: Star Trek: The Original Series

Space, the final frontier. And so forth. In the mid-23rd Century, the Federation starship Enterprise explores strange new worlds under the command of Captain James T. Kirk, making discoveries both wondrous and terrifying.

Reviewing the original Star Trek is a bit like reviewing oxygen (you're not going to convince too many people about not using it), or Lord of the Rings. People are probably already going to watch it or have decided not to. I can't imagine there's too many people sitting on the fence over it. Still, having just watched the whole thing, reviewing it is only polite.

Perhaps the most succinct review of The Original Series, as it is now doomed to be called, came from Futurama back in 2002: "79 episodes, about 30 good ones." This is maybe a little harsh but also not entirely untrue. Airing from 1966 to 1969 (with an unaired pilot produced in 1964), Star Trek was a product of 1960s American assembly line television, producing a mind-boggling 29 episodes in its first season alone. Episodes were not so much carefully written as thrown together in a mad rush, with location filming being a rare luxury and decent visual effects an even rarer one. If anything, it's remarkable that the OG Star Trek holds together as well as it does, and when it works it's still excellent television.

The core of the show is the regular cast, particularly the triumvirate of William Shatner as Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock and DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy: the action hero, the logical analyst and the emotional heart. This trio works extremely well, with consistently outstanding performances from Nimoy and Kelley across the entire show (Kelley is easily the most underrated performer on the show and in the following movies, and is always a delight to watch; Nimoy's brilliance has been extolled so much over the years it's almost redundant to repeat it now). This focus on the core trio detracts somewhat from the wider cast: George Takei as Lt. Sulu, Walter Koenig as Ensign Chekov, Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura and James Doohan as Chief Engineer Scott (with frequent guest appearances by Majel Barrett as Nurse Chapel, and a rotating cast of recurring actors as crewmen, some of whom play multiple characters). The wider group gets relatively little time in the sun compared to the core three, which feels a bit weird from a modern lens but was relatively normal practice at the time.

From a performance perspective, William Shatner is a fascinating study. He is, for the first half of the show, consistently very good. Kirk is authoritative, moral and decisive, balancing the logic of Spock with the humanity of McCoy to good effect. In the latter half of the series, starting late in Season 2, it feels like he's checked out a little. The much-lampooned cliches of over-enunciation, attempts at dramatic pauses (which just feel like he's forgotten his lines midway through a speech) and occasionally wild over-acting become much more pronounced. When he has a good day, or is in a good episode with good material, he is still great, but that does become less common as the third season goes on (his worst performance is easily in Turnabout Intruder, which mercifully is also the last episode of the series).

From a writing perspective, the show is often inventive, intriguing and relatively smart, at least in the early going. Later episodes tend to emphasise action and develop tropes that are so rapidly reused they become tedious: the godlike entity who can crush the Enterprise and its crew any time they want, but first they have to use Kirk and the crew as pawns in some game, and are eventually defeated either by semantic trickery or (less commonly) some kind of technological breakthrough. The Enterprise mysteriously loses the use of its weapons, shields and transporter so often that your eyes may roll into the back of your head. Kirk talks sentient computers into self-destruction frequently enough that you wonder why an anti-Kirk firmware update isn't in circulation in the sentient evil computer club.

But the show is also remarkably adept at employing metaphor: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield's commentary on racism is so subtle it flew over the heads of some people, who wrote into the studio to complain that the near-identical aliens hating one another on the basis of skin colour alone was stupid (right in the middle of America's Civil Rights period). It also sings when it moves away from the all-powerful aliens trope to more even engagements: Balance of Terror's WWII submarine-inspired tension is superb, and Space Seed's battle of intellect and wills between Kirk and genetically-engineered warlord Khan is excellently portrayed. The battle between two Federation starships and a powerful (but not unbeatable) planet-killer in The Doomsday Machine is outstanding. The Devil in the Dark is possibly the show's best statement on how to respect and treat sentient life even if it looks and acts nothing like you are used to.

Like most shows of the period, the idea of "worldbuilding" is absent as a conscious idea, but when it strays into it, it is excellent, such as with our first visit to Vulcan in Amok Time and the Federation conference in Journey to Babel. The Klingons and Romulans are both intriguing enemies, although the portrayal of the Klingons lacks depth (maybe aside from Michael Ansara in Day of the Dove); the Romulans appear less frequently but more memorably, with both Balance of Terror and The Enterprise Incident being series highlights.

The show also gives good comedy, with both The Trouble with Tribbles and A Piece of the Action emerging as comic powerhouses (and The Naked Time having its moments). Gene Roddenberry was definitely less keen on comedy episodes, feeling they encouraged people to mock the show, but it's something Trek has been consistently pretty good at over many different shows and episodes. The show is also adept at existential horror, particularly in the early going through episodes like Where No Man Has Gone Before and Miri which make you wonder how the hell Trek got its reputation as a family show with a lot of charm: these episodes are cold, bordering on the bleak at times. That concept doesn't really emerge until the latter part of Season 1 and really sings in Season 2. It's been said so many times as to be redundant now, but Season 3 sees a marked slump in quality, with some of the worst episodes of the show and the franchise like Spock's Brain. Excellent episodes still crop up amongst the dross, like The Enterprise Incident and All Our Yesterdays, but it can be hard going.

Production value-wise, the show is obviously almost sixty years old so doesn't look fantastic. Location shooting is a bonus, hugely enhancing episodes like Shore Leave and Arena, but most episodes are forced to rely on sets (of wildly varying effectiveness) to portray exterior locations. Makeup and prosthetics are mostly underwhelming, but imaginative design can help overcome that: the Gorn looks weak, but the drama of the script helps overcome these deficiencies. Modelwork and space shots are often decent, and the 2006 remastered version of the show is excellent for updating the space shots whilst staying true to the original design intentions. In a similar vein, the show has some wince-inducing dialogue and ideas about the treatment of women and minorities compared to modern shows, but in other respects, and especially by the standards of the day, the show is remarkably progressive (and later Trek shows aren't always fantastic in this regard either).

Star Trek: The Original Series (****) is, in some respects, dated. But in many others it is remarkably watchable, with frequently great performances. It mixes horror, comedy and SF action-adventure to good effect. It set the scene and groundwork for the most successful TV SF franchise of all time. Sure, there's a fair number of episodes which are poor and don't work very well, but when the show does work - such as in City on the Edge of Forever, Balance of Terror, Amok Time, The Doomsday Machine, The Trouble with Tribbles and more - it remains excellent entertainment. The show is available right now in most territories via Paramount+ and on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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

Monday 10 July 2023

RIP Manny Coto

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.

TV Review: Corporate (Seasons 1-3)

Matt Engelbertson and Jake Levinson are junior executives working at corporate mega-behemoth Hampton DeVille. Their preference is to take things easy and enjoy their paycheques; unfortunately, their bosses Kate and John discover they can use Matt and Jake as their dogsbodies for whatever crazed money-making idea they are entertaining, to impress their bosses. HR representative Grace is decidedly unhelpful. Meanwhile, CEO Christian DeVille is trying to guide his corporation through perilous waters as he pivots from weapons manufacturing to getting in on the TV streaming wars.

Corporate is a now-complete comedy series that ran for three seasons and 26 episodes on Comedy Central from 2018 to 2020. The idea of a show mocking American work culture is not particularly new, with the likes of The Office lampooning the lives of many people working in middle-end jobs. Corporate takes a different approach by going inside the skyscraper headquarters of a particularly morally dubious corporate super-entity, and also going in for tonal bleakness. A lot.

In fact, when Matt once again opens an episode of Corporate musing on the existential soullessness of a life spent behind a computer screen tapping buttons, you might be wondering where the jokes are coming from. Isn't this just a statement of life? But the show quickly escalates its musings on humdrum boardroom meetings and corporate buzzspeak to a more insane level, mainly thanks to the characters coming to the notice of their supreme leader, Christian.

Christian is only in 18 of the episodes, but he is played by the late, fantastic Lance Reddick. Reddick often plays law enforcement or military roles, and comedy is not one of his regular fortes. But in Corporate he is allowed to absolutely cut loose and he clearly relishes every second of it. Scenes where he begs on his hands and knees for a fellow corporate boss to licence him the rights to an older sitcom to bolster his flagging new streaming service, or castigates his executives for instituting "casual Fridays" without his knowledge, meaning he unexpectedly caught site of some of his male employees' knees to his distress, are played brilliantly. Reddick manages to steal every scene of the show and sometimes even scenes he isn't even in, when you can imagine his character's reaction to whatever mayhem the rest of the team has set in motion.

The show is at its weakest when it's merely saying, "corporate culture isn't great, right?" but absolutely at its best when it takes that idea and illustrates it through extremes. An episode where the corporation tries to co-opt a radical artist protestor without interfering in his vision, leading to them confusedly funding adverts making themselves look terrible, is a great example of corporations trying to be hip and failing hard. Even better is the streaming episode, which ends with Lance Reddick making a nightmarish speech about acquiring IP and draining every bit of creativity from it and never letting it die, even if it means making spin-offs "about characters who cannot possibly sustain their own series." If there as ever a moment American television got self-aware about itself, this was it.
"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!

"This is the future of content, and CONTENT WILL NEVER DIE!"
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.

Corporate (****) is an incisive, cutting and dark comedy that rarely stumbles and, in Lance Reddick's vainglorious CEO monster, it has a comedy character for the ages. The show is available to watch on Paramount+ in most territories.

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

The Last of Us: Season 1

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.

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

Saturday 8 July 2023

Atlanta: Season 4

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.

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

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

The nation of Wakanda is in mourning after the unexpected death of its king, T'Challa, from illness. The destruction of the herb that is needed to create a new Black Panther has left Wakanda leaderless, with an interim council led by Queen Ramonda trying to hold the nation together. T'Challa's younger sister, technical genius Shuri, sets out to recreate the herb, but faces a rising threat in the form of the underwater kingdom of Talokan, lead the charismatic Namor. Conflict between the two nations appears inevitable, and Wakanda has never been more vulnerable.

2018's Black Panther was a breakout, smash success for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Excellent performances and direction overcame traditional MCU issues (a weak finale, overreliant on CGI battles) to deliver one of the strongest films in the series. The continuation of some of these storylines through Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame confirmed there was a great deal of potential in the continued adventures of T'Challa and the Wakandans.

Unfortunately, Chadwick Boseman unexpectedly passed away from cancer in late 2020. The lost of one of his generation's most promising actors was a tragedy. It also - and far more trivially, of course -  created a major problem for Marvel, as they spent weeks agonising over whether recasting the role (an idea supported by some of Boseman's family) or proceeding in a different direction. Ultimately concluding that Boseman was irreplaceable, the decision was made to mirror his passing in the film series, and make the sequel about a completely different story, more about Wakanda itself and the quest to find a new Black Panther.

It's therefore hard to undersell the conditions under which Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was written, shot and released. Boseman's shadow hangs over every second of footage and I can only imagine the sheer difficulties faced by director Ryan Coogler and his team as they tried to course-correct in the most unpleasant of circumstances.

Unfortunately, those difficulties are discernible across most of the film. The general story arc feels a little muddled, as it wanders back and forth between internal Wakandan problems, issues with its relationship with the USA (there's a subplot about tensions in the CIA which feels detached from everything else) and, slightly randomly, France, and the rising challenge posed by Namor (a grumpily on-form Tenoch Huerta Majia) and Talokan. There's also the problems faced by Ramonda (an imperiously impressive Angela Bassett) in retaining authority. The film also ill-advisedly decides to do some setup work for later projects by also introducing Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams (aka Ironheart) and furthering the machinations of Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), which feels like the movie was putting more weight on its shoulders than it could really manage.

The film's biggest challenge is elevating Letitia Wright as Shuri to the role of the main protagonist. Wright was superb in a supporting role in Black Panther and the Thanos duology, but here the writing doesn't seem to be up to the task. The film tries to mine some tension over whether Shuri is going to become the new Black Panther, which is pretty much obvious from before you even start watching, and then over whether this would be accepted by other Wakandans and so on, none of which manages to be particularly interesting.

Better-handled is the personal relationship between Shuri and Namor, which moves from respect to enmity and back again. The film's problem is that everyone knows that Namor (aka the Sub-Mariner) is one of Marvel's longest-standing heroes, so he is clearly going to do a heel turn to becoming a good character at some point. This removes some tension and jeopardy, and the attempts to reinstate it (such as a fairly brutal attack on Wakanda's capital) only makes Namor's character arc less plausible. The idea is fine but I'm not sure I really buy how it unfolds.

The movie even manages to fumble its naval battle ending, with some of the worst CGI I've ever seen in a professionally-made modern feature film. The last time I saw CG this bad in a major release was in The Mummy Returns, a film now twenty-two years old, and hints at a horrendously rushed production schedule.

Again, it's easy to forgive Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (***) for some of these problems given the huge cloud under which it was made. It has many great performances (with Angela Basset having the finest, and Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke being great in reduced roles), many of the ideas are excellent and the notion of making a film where the central character passed away before it even begins is powerful. But the writing is confused, the pacing is uneven, character motivations are not always clear and the effects are risible. The result is a film that is enjoyable, but you have to overlook a lot of issues along the way.

The film is available now via Disney+ worldwide.

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