Wednesday 25 October 2023

BBC and Disney+ confirm DOCTOR WHO airdates

The BBC and its international partner, Disney+, have confirmed the dates that will finally see Doctor Who return to the airwaves. The three 60th Anniversary special episodes will air on 25 November, 2 December and 9 December respectively. The episodes will air in the UK on BBC1 and be simultaneously released for international audiences on Disney+. The three episodes (The Star Beast, Wild Blue Yonder and The Giggle) see David Tennant playing the Fourteenth Doctor, extremely confused over why his new face resembles that of his previous, tenth incarnation.

An additional special episode will air during the festive season, possibly on Christmas Day, featuring the first full adventure for Ncuti Gatwa as the Fifteenth Doctor. Series 14 of the show (since its return in 2005; the show's 40th season overall since 1963) will start airing in early 2024. Next year's Christmas special is already in the bag and production is currently underway on Series 15, as part of returning showrunner Russell T. Davies' plan to return the show to airing annually without any multi-year breaks.

The new behind-the-scenes companion show, Doctor Who: Unleashed will launch at the same time, with each episode becoming available on BBC3, BBC iPlayer and Disney+ after each new episode airs.

The 60th Anniversary itself falls on 23 November.

Monday 23 October 2023

FALLOUT TV series gets airdate

Amazon have confirmed that their TV version of the Fallout video game series will debut on Amazon Prime Television on 12 April 2024.

The Fallout TV series will be set in Los Angeles, some time after a nuclear war that devastates Earth in the year 2077. It will not be based on any pre-existing video game, but will instead feature a new story beginning in Vault 33, where an inhabitant of the Vault finds themselves having to venture out into the post-apocalyptic world beyond. The TV show stars Ella Purnell (Arcane, Yellowjackets), Walton Goggins (Justified, The Hateful Eight), Kyle MacLachlan (Dune, Twin Peaks), Xelia Mendes-Jones (The Wheel of Time), Aaron Moten (Emancipation), Sarita Choudhury (Homeland), Zach Cherry (Severance), Johnny Pemberton (Ant-Man), Rodrigo Luzzi (Dead Ringers), Annabel O'Hagan (Law & Order: SVU), Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest), Leslie Uggams (Deadpool), Frances Turner (The Boys), Moises Arias (Hannah Montana, Ender's Game), Mike Doyle (Oz, New Amsterdam) and Dave Register (Heightened).

The show was created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest, Westworld) and will be showrun by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner (Tomb Raider, Captain Marvel).

The Fallout video game franchise began in 1997 with the titular video game, created by Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky for Interplay Studios. Interplay subsequently released Fallout 2 (1998), Fallout: Tactics (2001) and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004) before the company collapsed. The Fallout IP was subsequently bought by Bethesda, who then made and released Fallout 3 (2008), Fallout Shelter (2015), Fallout 4 (2015) and Fallout 76 (2018). They also licensed the rights to Obsidian Entertainment - one of the successor company to Interplay - to make Fallout: New Vegas (2010). The video games have also spun off a successful miniatures wargame, Wasteland Warfare, and a tabletop roleplaying game, both from Modiphius Entertainment, and two board games from Fantasy Flight Games.

Ultra-expensive video game SQUADRON 42 becomes feature-complete, moves towards release

Cloud Imperium Games have confirmed that their epic space game Squadron 42, the single-player component of their Star Citizen franchise, is now feature-complete and entering the polishing and testing phase ahead of release. The release is not imminent - the similar polishing phase on Bethesda space RPG Starfield took two years by itself - but at last light can be seen at the end of the tunnel.

Back in 2010, Wing Commander and Freelancer developer Chris Roberts decided to make the space game to end all space games: a vast, multiplayer game featuring piloting, space combat, first-person movement and combat, trading and exploration. The game, Star Citizen, entered full-time development in 2011 and by 2012 had raised a modest $2 million via Kickstarter. Cloud Imperium also allowed direct funding via its own website, which quickly dwarfed the funding from Kickstarter. The original plan had been to have a Wing Commander-esque single player campaign included within the overall Star Citizen title, but this was spun off into its own game, Squadron 42, quite early on.

As funding for Star Citizen and Squadron 42 increased, so the scope for both games increased dramatically. Fully-voiced and mocapped sequences starring major actors were added, followed by dynamic physics for everything from planetary orbits to the sheets in your pilot's bedroom. Cosmetic upgrades and even entire ships were sold at premium prices via Cloud Imperium's website, leading to accusations of being a scam. However, Star Citizen also released fully-playable game modules and steadily expanded these over time, showing there was a game being developed (albeit over an almost-unprecedentedly long period).

As of today, Star Citizen and Squadron 42 have been in full-time development for well over twelve years, raising over $616 million in funding from just under five million backers and investors, making this comfortably the most expensive video game project of all time and the most successful crowdfunding project of all time. By some metrics it might be the most expensive entertainment product ever, with twice the budget of the most expensive movie and the previous most expensive-ever video games. Several rivals and sort-of rivals to Star Citizen were announced after it but launched far earlier: Elite: Dangerous in 2014, No Man's Sky in 2016 and Starfield in 2023.

The trailer shows your player-created character (gender and appearance fully customisable, as you'd expect from a modern game) chewing the fat with Gillian Anderson, boarding a derelict space station alongside Mark Hamill, watching Gary Oldman give a rousing speech and being guided through a mission by your man-in-the-van John Rhys-Davies (resuming his collaboration with Roberts from multiple Wing Commander games and Freelancer). The game features space combat and dogfighting, exploration of vast alien structures, ground combat, stealth, boat-driving and physics puzzles. The game engine boasts of the ability to seamlessly transition from walking around on your carrier to flying your fighter to flying over the surface of a planet, landing, jumping out, fighting and taking over vehicles (contrasts with Starfield's endless array of loading screens have been made).

Given the gigantic scope of the game, bug-fixing, tech optimisation and polish will likely take a good year or two (possibly more), but it looks like Squadron 42 is finally moving towards completion. How long it will take for Star Citizen itself to follow remains to be seen.

Sunday 15 October 2023

One Piece: Season 1

Monkey D. Luffy is pursuing his dream: of one day finding the One Piece, the mightiest treasure in all the world, and declaring himself King of the Pirates. There is a slight problem with this goal: he has no ship, no crew, no reputation and very limited pirating skills. What he does have is the ability to stretch his body, thanks to the magical effects of the Gum-Gum Fruit he ill-advisedly ate as a boy. When Luffy meets skilled thief and navigator Nami, and the pirate-hunter Roronoa Zoro, who wants to become the greatest swordsman in history, he is finally able to set about achieving his ambition.

One Piece is a live action Netflix adaptation of the biggest-selling manga of all time. Eiichiro Oda's original comic series has shifted over half a billion copies, meaning it is bearing down on the Harry Potter series' position as the biggest-selling fantasy work of all time with a vengeance. The comic has accumulated over a thousand issues in its quarter-century of publication and is still not finished, although Oda has confirmed that it has entered its final story arc.

This TV show has to overcome several significant problems: the lack of good manga/anime-to-live action adaptations; the enormous amount of material to adapt; and the source material's incredibly unique tone, which makes adapting it an almost ludicrous prospect.

Fortunately, the original creator is on board to help out. Oda acted as a consultant and producer on the show, approved (and even revised) scripts, and approved casting. The same studio that made the Cowboy Bebop adaptation (which I broadly enjoyed, but had some issues with) was behind this, but listening to fan criticisms about divergences from the source material, they decided to both be more faithful to that material and have the original creator more closely involved.

The result, rather easily, is the best manga-to-live action show we've seen yet. The show matches the original's zany energy and is able to deliver its tricky tonal shifts from comedy to action to something darker to the screen successfully. Iñaki Godoy has the tough job of playing Monkey D. Luffy but nails the role, portraying Monkey's optimism and ambition but also his sense of friendship and his rare bursts of anger when confronted by evil and oppression. Emily Rudd's Nami is an excellent co-lead, an unreliable ally with her own agenda (driven by past trauma) but who does appreciate her friends and allies. Rounding out the central trio is Mackenyu as Roronoa Zoro. This is probably the most "stock anime" character in the show, the young swordsman with a taciturn attitude, a love of alcohol and the ambition to become the greatest warrior in the world, but also a strong sense of honour and fair play which is sometimes out of keeping with his cynicism. Mackenyu's deadpan live delivery and impressive action skills make him one of the most impressive members of the cast.

Two other key members of Monkey's crew also join the proceedings mid-season, with Jacob Romero Gibson playing Usopp, and Taz Skylar playing Sanji. Both are solid, although Usopp is perhaps a little let down by the writing (it's hard to sympathise with a grown-ass man constantly crying wolf about pirate attacks only to be let down by his friends when a real one takes place) and Sanji by joining the fray relatively late in the day. Hopefully both are developed better in Season 2.

The show also develops an extensive cast of additional allies, enemies and characters-of-uncertain allegiance. The season may be only eight episodes long, but they cover the same ground as the first forty-five episodes of the anime, and the first ninety-five issues of the manga. That means a fair bit of compression, but it also keeps the story moving at quite a crack, with little filler or downtime. Each episode (or two-episode sub-arc) builds on the last whilst also telling its own story, creating a somewhat old-fashioned mix of serialised subplots and stand-alone main plots. Each episode therefore needs to be structured more like a feature film than a TV episode, introducing and resolving storylines, introducing new characters and villains, establishing credible motivations and make it all entertaining.

It's certainly helped by the outrageous budget: a lot of recent genre TV has been blighted by horrible, plastic-looking CGI and rushed effects work. There's a couple of moments in One Piece that could be tightened up (including a very awkward CGI kick for Sanji in the season finale, although it's also quite funny) but overall the effects work is incredibly good, adding to the feeling of each episode being its own miniature epic of a storyline.

There are downsides to the series. The enormous number of names, magical concepts, locations and ideas being fired at the viewer can be hard to keep up with, but you don't necessarily want to tap any of the wikis or guides to the franchise for fear of spoilers. The geography could be perhaps a bit better depicted (the show has a fabulous map in its end credits, but sadly this does not appear to be available separately). Morgan Davies' portrayal of Koby is perhaps a tad too intense given the tone of the rest of the show. Several important characters very abruptly disappear from the story (like the axe-hand guy), although with our heroes travelling hundreds of miles from location to location by ship, that at least is realistic. Maybe each episode is so jammed full that it's not actually the best show for bingeing: I had to take breaks between episodes. One Piece is a veritable banquet of story: richly enjoyable, but it can also be filling..

Most of these are less than quibbles. The first season of One Piece (****½) is energetic, well-acted, impressively-written and flips between comedy, drama and pathos with assurance. The production values are outrageous, and the actors all seem to get the assignment, no matter how daft their costumes or dubious their hairstyles. I suspect the anime and manga are about to get a whole ton of new fans as well, and hopefully Netflix can find a way of delivering the already-confirmed second season in a reasonable timeframe. One Piece is available to watch globally on Netflix right now.

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Saturday 14 October 2023

Secret Invasion

More than thirty years ago, Skrull refugees on Earth reached a deal with Nick Fury and SHIELD that they would work undercover for the organisation, using their amazing shapeshifting skills, in return for SHIELD's help in locating a new homeworld for them. Unfortunately, some of the Skrulls are unhappy with the length of time it has taken Fury to deliver on his promise, and instigate a new plan: to take Earth as their new home. Fury and his old Skrull friend Talos join forces to defeat the rebels' plan, but find fighting an army of shapeshifters is incredibly hard, even with shapeshifters of their own to help.

Secret Invasion is, in almost all respects, a television series. It is six episodes long, and features sequential events that build to tell a story. If this sounds like a very dull and overly pedantic description, that's because Secret Invasion is possibly the ultimate example of Extruded Franchise Product: something that exists to make money and to keep fans ticking over until the Next Thing in the franchise appears to take their money. It does not dare to innovate, say or do anything interesting. It simply exists, without much in the way of passion or engagement.

Exactly how you make this premise the most boring entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date is a matter for conjecture. You have an outrageously good cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Olivia Coleman, Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders, Martin Freeman (in a much smaller-than-expected role), Emilia Clarke and a bunch of promising newcomers. The most notable of these is Kingsley Ben-Adir who shows some fire as main antagonist Gravik but is let down by the indifferent writing. Everyone else phones their performances in, apart from Olivia Coleman who is having more fun than everybody else on the show combined, and Don Cheadle, who gets a few great scenes as the sarcastic Skrull-disguised-as-Rhodey. Perhaps a sign that Cheadle should get more villainous roles in the future.

The show also has a remarkable air of topicality: the rebel Skrull plan is to trigger a third world war by undertaking attacks on Russian and NATO soil and getting them to blame one another. In one decidedly bonkers moment, we learn that Russian forces are moving into Ukraine (the show was written and partially filmed before the February 2022 invasion, but completed shooting and post-production afterwards). There is also a lot of commentary on how to handle refugees and deal with displaced populations. However, any potential for the show to speak to our current moment is lost by the writing resolutely steering away from such things, presumably because it just wants to be escapist entertainment (which is a bit hard when the show leans so hard into modern-feeling issues).

Still, you could still have a good show if anybody felt like they were actually invested in this idea. Much has been made of the opening title sequence, which was partially generated by artificial intelligence. I'm surprised there hasn't been more attention paid to if the script was written by artificial intelligence as well. It feels like a greatest hits of Marvel and thriller tropes thrown into a blender and the results fired at a wall to see what sticks, but with almost no passion or excitement about the ideas in play.

The show's biggest mistake is wasting Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson is a fantastic, charismatic performer, but here he is depicted as filled with self-doubt. On one level, it's great that the show allows Jackson's Fury to be human and flawed, and weighed down in the latter part of his life by everything he's done. But that would require an outstanding pedigree of writing and direction to pull off, which is not the case here. Jackson instead often comes across as bored, with flat line deliveries. He sometimes sparks into life, and the show is at its best when he and Mendelsohn are exchanging quips or he and Cheadle are engaged in dramatic face-offs. But these moments are relatively few and far between.

Secret Invasion (**) should be a home run: one of the most popular performers in the MCU in a (relatively) grounded, near-future thriller, packed with interesting and - if inadvertently - topical ideas. Instead it feels tired, bored and out of gas. There are flashes of quality, a few good performances, a couple of solid character scenes, some nice action beats, but these are separated by yawning voids of mediocrity. Easily the weakest MCU TV show to date and a strong claimant to being the weakest instalment of the MCU as a whole.

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Friday 13 October 2023

Entire (existing) run of DOCTOR WHO to be available on BBC iPlayer

The BBC have confirmed that the entire run of iconic science fiction series Doctor Who will be available on the BBC iPlayer streaming service from the start of November.

Returning showrunner Russell T. Davies has confirmed that he leveraged the deal as part of the conditions for his return to the franchise. Previously the BBC had only made the "new" run of the show - the one starting in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and subsequently carrying on through the David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker eras - available on the iPlayer whilst keeping the "old" run (from 1963 to 1989) available on legacy media or on the BritBox paid-for streaming service.

The move will see almost 800 episodes of Doctor Who available in one location for one time. Unfortunately, it will not be the complete run of the show: 97 episodes from the first six seasons (1963-69) remain missing following the BBC's junking policy of old episodes in the 1970s. Some of these missing episodes have been reconstructed for DVD and Blu-Ray with still photographs and audio recordings (the audio for all the episodes has survived), or the use of animation and the original audio tracks. It's unclear if these reconstructions will be made available as well.

It's also unclear if the episodes will include those that have been upscaled for release on Blu-Ray in the last few years, or just the standard versions. The BBC has confirmed that it will be adding subtitles, audio description and sign language to every single episode for the first time.

As well as both eras of Doctor Who, spin-off shows Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Class will also be available, along the 1996 TV movie (starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor), the various mini-episodes produced over the years, and every episode of behind-the-scenes show Doctor Who Confidential. The new service will also include some sixty new special features produced for the show's 60th Anniversary (due on 23 November), and thousands of documents and photographs, many rescanned at 8K for the first time.

So far the BBC has not confirmed if the two Doctor Who 1960s theatrical feature films - Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD - will be included.

Davies and the BBC have so far declined to confirm when three new episodes produced for the show's 60th Anniversary will air, except they will be in the month of November. David Tennant plays the Fourteenth Doctor, who has to find out why his new incarnation is identical to his Tenth. Ncuti Gatwa will take over as the Fifteenth Doctor for a Christmas Special airing in December, and then at least the next two full seasons of the show, the first to air in early 2024.

Davies has also confirmed that his plan is to produce at least nine new episodes of Doctor Who a year, with no more multi-year breaks between seasons, and there are plans for spin-off shows exploring other aspects of the setting (a new show revolving around Earth defence force UNIT is rumoured, but unconfirmed).

Thursday 5 October 2023

CYBERPUNK 2077 live-action project in the planning stages

CD Projekt Red will collaborate with production company Anonymous Content to create a live-action project set in the world of their video game, Cyberpunk 2077. It is unclear if this is a direct adaptation of the game or an adjacent project in the same world, similar to 2022 anime spin-off series Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, which was a hit for Netflix.

Anonymous Content worked on True Detective, Mr. Robot, The Revenant and Spotlight, and are known for serious, intense genre works, which would be a good fit for the Cyberpunk world.

Cyberpunk 2077 is based on the Cyberpunk role-playing game franchise created by Mike Pondsmith in the late 1980s (which had its heyday with the Cyberpunk 2020 product line, released through the 1990s). The video game, released in late 2020, sees the player taking on the role of V, a scrappy mercenary in Night City, California, who inadvertently ends up with a chip which could bring down entire global powers. To stop the chip's destruction, they install it into their cyberware, resulting in them being joined in their adventures by the apparent cyber-ghost of legendary rebel and rock star Johnny Silverhand (Keanu Reeves). The chip allows them to use more cyberware and powerful weapons than anybody else, but also will inevitably kill them, forcing them to make a hard choice on how to save Johnny, or themselves.

Despite a buggy and controversial launch, the game has undergone a redemption arc thanks to a steady bug-fixing schedule. The game has sold 25 million copies and recently launched its well-received Phantom Liberty expansion (starring Idris Elba as New United States secret agent Solomon Reed), which has sold 3 million copies in its first two weeks on sale.

Video game adaptations used to be seen as a poisoned chalice, but recent successes like The Last of Us and Arcane have seen the idea become more popular.

With this idea only just getting off the ground and Hollywood still wrapping up the issues surrounding its recent strike, it'll likely be a good few years before we see this project hit the screen. Meanwhile, CD Projekt Red have already started development on Cyberpunk 2077's sequel.